30 June 2016

Summer so far

Today is the last day of June. These are photos of yesterday's sunset here in the Saint-Aignan area.

While we enjoy a nice sunny day from time to time, there are no truly convincing signs of summer so far.

We are hoping that July will be kinder to us than May and June have been.

The news on Télématin is reporting that rather than summertime foods like sausages cooked on the grill, or ice cream, people in the northern half of France are buying and eating more cheese of the kind you serve hot and melted in dishes like raclette or tartiflette, more soups, and more wintertime comfort foods like sauerkraut with boiled potatoes and boiled smoked meats and sausages. That's kind of what we've been doing: red beans and smoked bacon cooked in red wine, for example.

28 June 2016

Red beans cooked in red wine

Haricots rouges au vin rouge is a classic French culinary combination. Sometimes I see it called haricots rouges à la bourguignonne — Beans Burgundy — or haricots rouges au lard — Beans with Bacon. I don't know about you, but I love beans of all kinds, be they fresh, dried, or canned.

The ingredients include onions, herbs, bacon, butter, and red wine. I made mine with carrots and with red kidney beans out of a can. It's quick and easy that way. The longest task involved is peeling and chopping the onions and carrots. I didn't actually put in any bacon — I didn't have any on hand — but I did have some bacon fat left over from cooking bacon a few days earlier.

The liquid — about half red wine and half water — is thickened slightly with a flour roux. Here's a recipe (my translation and adaptation):

Haricots rouges au vin rouge, façon bourguignonne

1 large can of red kidney beans, drained
1 large onion
2 good-sized carrots
3 or 4 slices of bacon (or 2 Tbsp. bacon fat)
1 cup red wine
1 to 2 cups water
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
herbs, salt, and pepper

Peel and dice the onion and carrots. Sauté them lightly with chopped bacon (or bacon fat). If you're using dried herbs (oregano, thyme, etc.) add them at this point. Add the red wine and the beans, and then pour in just enough water (or liquid from the can of beans) to cover everything. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let the beans and vegetables cook together for 15 or 20 minutes, until the carrots are tender. Drain the beans and reserve the cooking liquid.

Make a roux by cooking flour in melted butter for two or three minutes. Pour in 2 cups (half a liter) or so of the cooking liquid and simmer until the sauce has thickened slightly, adding water or wine as needed. Put the beans back into the pot and let them briefly come to the boil before serving. Add chopped fresh herbs if you have them.

27 June 2016

Venerable plants

I'm somebody who keeps plants growing for years and years. Maybe a lot of us are. I've shown photos here of my little South African elephant bush plant (Portulacaria afra). It traveled with me from the arid Southern California desert to rainy, chilly San Francisco in about 1998, and lived there for several years. When Walt and I left SF in 2003, we took the plant back to CHM, who had a house in the desert down there and who had given the plant to me in the first place. Then he brought a few little cuttings from it to Saint-Aignan in 2004, and I've kept it going here ever since.

I have other plants that I've kept going for 33 years now. They originally belonged to my grandmother, who died in 1977. A cousin of mine kept the plants (small Sansevierias) for a few years, and then brought me some of them when Walt and lived in Washington DC in about 1983. They made their way to California in the late 1980s, and then to France thanks to CHM and to my mother, in 2004 and 2005. They are still doing just fine. All these plants bring good memories to mind when I look at them.

Another plant I've kept going for a while now is a Sedum kamtschaticum, known as Russian stonecrop. It's in a pot on the terrace now, but hasn't always been in that location.

In 1997, I was "on sabbatical" from Apple. I had a 10-week summer holiday with full pay (lucky me). Walt and I spent a couple of weeks in Paris, of course. I returned to California when that trip was over, and then I flew back to the East Coast for a visit with family in North Carolina and for a road trip.

I had lived in Illinois for years in the 1970s, and my mother had never been out there to see the place. So we drove out — it's about a thousand miles from the N.C. coast to Champaign-Urbana, not far south of Chicago. Along the way, in southern Illinois, we got rooms in a motel that had a lot of this sedum plant growing around all the buildings. We discreetly pinched off a few branches and took them back to North Carolina with us.

Ma had them growing in her back yard for years, but then she sold her house in 2005. That year, I made the trip back there from Saint-Aignan to help her get the house ready for sale. She said she didn't know what she was going to do with the sedum plants — did I want some? So I took cuttings and brought them back to France, not knowing if they would survive. I planted them outdoors and they spent years growing in the ground. I transplanted the sedum two or three times, trying to find the best place for it. Eventually, I planted it in a pot. Next summer it will be 20 years old.

26 June 2016

Salade gives way to couscous

A few days ago I wrote about summer salads. Then our hot weather cooled down and eating vegetables hot rather than cold became a happy prospect. My idea was a North African vegetable soup served with the tiny pasta called couscous. I've blogged about it many times of the years.

There are two or three indispensable ingredients in couscous besides the couscous "grain" itself. One is tomatoes. Another is chickpeas. And carrots... turnips... zucchini... onions. Not to mention the hot pepper paste called harissa. We had all those. We also had raisins to add to the couscous, and that's a nice flavor touch, making the couscous both sweet and spicy hot.


My couscous broth (the soup) this time was unconventional in several ways. Other things that are good in couscous are eggplant and green bell peppers. It dawned on me that those also go into the southern France dish called ratatouille, which also includes tomatoes, onions, and olive oil. I had some ratatouille in the freezer, and I used it as the base for my couscous broth.

I also added a few okra pods to the mix. Some fresh snow peas from the garden. A couple of leftover steamed new potatoes. It's free-form, really. We had a couple of chicken breasts, cut into chunks, spiced up, and put on skewers for grilling. And we had some spicy sausages called chorizettes that also went to cook on the grill.

The ingredients that turned the ratatouille into a soup were about a pint of chicken broth, the liquid from a can of tomatoes, and a couple of tablespoons of the North African spice blend called ras el hanout. The mixture varies, but the one I used included spices like curry, coriander seed, cumin, carraway, and cayenne. I added some more hot red pepper in the form of harissa.

When you eat couscous, you put a pile of the "grain" (a form of pasta, really) onto your plate and then you spoon some broth and some big chunks of vegetables over it. You put a squeeze of the spicy harissa paste into a ladle, scoop out a little more soup broth, mix it well, and then dribble or just pour it over all. You can make it as spicy as you like. And the spiciness is what turns a soup that might be good in the cold of winter into something that's also really good when the weather outside is hot.

25 June 2016

(Too many) grape flowers

For this Saturday, I give you grape flowers. Probably too many of them, which is the coward's way out. I haven't taken the time to choose the best photos or even to put them in order. But never worry — I'm only posting five of them. You can click or tap on them to see them at a larger size.

I feel like I ought to have something to say about the British decision to leave the EU, but I'm at a loss. I just saw a report on a Sky News program featuring a woman declaring: "We don't want all these foreigners here. We are British, and we just want British people in our country." It's all very unsettling, especially for people like us who have, well... settled... in a country other than the one we were born in.

24 June 2016

Our salad days

I mean that literally, not idiomatically. I don't know, maybe these are actually our metaphorical "salad days" too. But it's the time of year when we especially enjoy making big salads for our main meal of the day. The warm weather encourages it.

It's very early to expect any of the produce to come from our vegetable garden. I had to buy tomatoes, artichoke hearts, lettuce, and potatoes for this salad. The dressing was a garlicky vinaigrette made with  white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and sunflower oil, with Dijon mustard and some fresh chives.

And a salad here in France doesn't include just raw ingredients. The artichoke hearts are cooked. The potatoes are steamed in a steamer. And I added some smoked pork lardons to the salad too — that's a form of what we in the U.S. call bacon.

I also did something I've never done before: I made "hard-boiled" eggs in the steamer. I was cooking the potatoes that way anyway, and it was just an idea. One more time, I looked it up on the internet and there were several "recipes" for cooking whole eggs in a steamer. One was from Elise's Simply Recipes site, which I refer to regularly.

I steamed the eggs you see in my photo for 11 minutes, and then immediately plunged them into cold water to stop the cooking. I like the result — the eggs are hard-cooked, but there is still some moelleux (softness) in the yolks. They're not dry, in other words.

The garden is not yet producing vegetables, but there is fruit. These raspberries came from plants that Walt put in and has been tending to for a few years now.

23 June 2016

Cat days

I was afraid yesterday might turn out to be the beginning of a spell of what are called "dog days." Instead, the weather was very pleasant — just verging on hot, but not really. This is the kind of weather when Bertie the black cat likes to come spend his afternoons on the shady east-facing terrace.

About 11 a.m., however, the phone rang. I don't answer it often — too many marketing calls — but this time the number was obviously local. Since we are waiting for calls from a plumber and a gardener, I picked it up. It was our neighbor across the street. "Bertie is in my house. Can you come get him? I'm afraid to try to pick him up."

The tone of the neighbor's voice was friendly and she apologized for bothering me. I went right over and got him. She has cats, and Bertie used to fight with them, but not any more. One time, the neighbor tried to intervene, and Bertie scratched her. So she's careful around him. I brought the cat home and he spent the rest of the day with us on the terrace. Bertie is ten years old now, and he's lived here with us for six of those years.

22 June 2016

Status report

Let's review. Here at La Renaudière, outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, we've so far had 14 days in June on which the high temperature stayed below 70ºF (21ºC). We've also had three inches of rain — and while more than half of that fell in one afternoon (on June 10), we've had rain on nine other days since June 1.

June 2016 skies

So far, the temperature has risen above 75ºF only four times in June, and the high temperature for the month has been about 78º (25.5ºC) — on just one day. Low temperatures have stayed in the 50s in ºF, with only four mornings when the temperature didn't drop below 60ºF (15.5ºC).

Grass seeds

The weather has been so wet that on Monday, our 86-year-old neighbor spent a couple of hours on his riding mower cutting his grass — in the rain! It wasn't raining hard, but the tall grass was really wet. The neighbor was desperate to get it under control again. He has about an acre of grass to deal with.

June showers bring June flowers

This weather has been reminding me what it was like to live in chilly, foggy, windy San Francisco in summertime. You'd turn on the morning show on television and see reports about heat waves and thunderstorms and dry spells all around the country. You'd look outdoors and see wind-driven fog and mist, with a temperature in the mid-50s F. We didn't have or need air-conditioning there. In fact, the heat would come on about 350 mornings a year.

Anyway, now here comes Saint-Aignan summer — if the weather reports are right — but it's "a day late and a dollar short." It might last three days or it might last three months.

Today's high is supposed to be close to 85ºF — that's about 30ºC.

With all the moisture in the ground, the whole place is going to be a steam bath. Accuweather says it will actually feel like 35ºC — that's 95ºF — when you factor in the humidity.

I'll take it. I can't wait. I'll be able to wear just shorts, a tee shirt, and sandals for the first time in a quite a while.

It will be hard to sleep tonight, I"m sure — no air-conditioning. Tant pis !

Maybe the garden, including my little kale plants, will finally experience a growth spurt. Yesterday was an almost completely sunless day. The plants won't know how to act with they finally do see old Sol again

Meanwhile, Walt says he's going to have to mow our half-acre of grass today. Wish him luck. We don't have a riding mower.

21 June 2016

Bhinda per eedu — finishing the gombos

You have an idea. You wonder if anybody else has had the same idea. You search the internet. Well, one more time, there's your idea in five or six different versions, with some history, a detailed description, and a recipe.

It's the story of the 21st century. And it's a good one. Anyway, we had some Indian-spiced okra left over and decided to eat it yesterday. My idea was to put it into an omelet, or a frittata, or even a quick egg soufflé. (The gombos in my title is what okra is called in French.)

It turns out that the "frittata" called Bninda per eedu is a classic egg and okra dish in parts of India. The woman from Mumbai who posted a recipe, and who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, says it was a childhood favorite and that her mother cooked it at least once a week "by popular demand." I'll be sure to save a link to her web site.

I diced up the left over okra pods, onions, and garlic. I chopped a fresh tomato and added it when I put everything in a frying pan. I also added a little bit of roasted chicken breast meat that was cut into small pieces.

Then I beat up four eggs just slightly with a fork and poured them into the hot pan. When the bottom of the frittata was set, I put the pan in the oven under the broiler to cook the top. You don't want to overcook it. We ate it with French-fried potatoes and thought it was delicious.

20 June 2016

Spicy pan-roasted okra with onions and garlic

You might remember that I bought a couple of kilograms of okra at the Grand Frais market in Vineuil, outside Blois, a few weeks ago. I blanched them and froze them on trays so that I can easily take out and cook as many as I want, when I want. Yesterday, I wanted.

In my web surfing and reading, I found several recipes for okra and onions cooked with spices including cumin, turmeric, and coriander, along with hot red pepper and lemon juice. I adapted that by adding garlic to the mix and using Chardonnay wine vinegar instead of citrus. The Maille vinegar has an expecially bright taste that I really like. Another white wine or a cider vinegar would also be good in this. Or lime juice, for example.

After the onions and garlic are sautéed in oil and starting to brown, the frozen okra pods go into the pan. Don't thaw them first; let the heat of the pan do it.

Then add the spices and let the okra cook with them for about 10 minutes. At that point add the vinegar (or lime or lemon juice) and either a teaspoon or so of sugar or some sweet wine like hon mirin (a rice wine) or even a sweet French wine like Monbazillac, Muscat, or Vouvray. I always favor sweet wine over sugar in my cooking. Let the okra simmer and steam partially covered for another four or five minutes, or until tender.

Then it's ready. You might notice that I added some little potatoes to the mix, mainly because I had them already cooked and in the fridge. They're nice little yellow-fleshed boiling potatoes grown in the Saint-Malo area of Brittany — French Yukon Golds, you might call them. I got a bag of them at the supermarket.

To go with the okra, Walt grilled a duck breast that I had rubbed with a mixture of spices like the spice blend I used in the okra, but with some smoked paprika and ground cloves added. You score the duck skin with a sharp knife before marinating and then grilling it, letting the spices penetrate into the meat and preventing the breast filet from curling as it cooks.

Here's a recipe for the okra and onions. You can use either fresh or frozen okra for this one, and I think cooking broad flat Roma green beans this way would be really good too.

Spicy pan-roasted okra with onions and garlic

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
400 g frozen okra pods (just shy of a pound)
½ tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. hot red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 or 2 tsp. sweet white wine

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté for three or four minutes. Add the frozen or fresh okra pods to the pan with the spices. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring to blend all the flavors. Finally, add the vinegar and wine. Loosely cover the pan to steam the okra for a minute or two, and then remove the cover and let the liquid reduce slightly.

Cooked this way, the okra didn't have any of the dreaded "silkiness" (aka "slimy texture") that people often associate with the vegetable. I think the vinegar and wine added at the end dissolve the okra juice. The potatoes turned out to be a good addition, but this okra would be really good served with rice — meatless if you prefer.

19 June 2016

Un lépidoptère

Some recent days have been very buggy. I guess all the moisture allows insects to live and reproduce, and as soon as there's a ray of sunshine, they get hyperactive. At this time of year, when the sun does shine, it feels hot. It rained for only about an hour yesterday, early in the evening.

Butterflies are the prettiest insects, and the most inoffensive. You don't need to wear bug spray even if you see a lot of them flitting around in the vineyard. I just read that there are about five thousand species of lépidoptères in France.

18 June 2016

Grape flower stalk

If I understand correctly, these are grape flower buds on their stalk. The flowers are getting ready to open. They're tiny. Everything sure is green.

We actually had a sunny afternoon a couple of days ago, and I was able to take the camera out and document the state of our natural environment. This is just one of many photos I took. The sun is out again this morning.

17 June 2016

Thrives in rain

I guess that's what you could say about our big artichoke plant. We started with five, but three plants died off over the years. Of the two that are left, one is small and the other is huge. This year, it has more artichokes on it than ever before — maybe a dozen.

I guess this is due to humid conditions and limited sunshine. After all, artichokes grow really well in Brittany and on the northern California coast. Neither place is known for bright sunny weather, even (or especially) in late spring and summer.

We just might have to cut and cook a few of these artichokes this weekend. Maybe they will be good to eat; maybe not. They evidently have enjoyed the recent growing conditions.

Another crop that is producing well is the snow peas, called pois mange-tout or pois gourmands in French. We'll be having some more more for lunch today, in a stir-fry. The photo below is not great, but it will give you an idea. There are purple pea pods and green peas pods on the trellis.

Finally, here's the state of the vegetable garden on June 16. Actually, it looks to be lagging the 2015 garden on about the same date. And I wrote then that the garden was behind its normal schedule. (You can see the artichoke plant in the background on the right.)

This morning I got up and made a pot of coffee. Walt came downstairs half an hour later. I heard him say: "What, no water?" Effectivement. No running water. Who knows why the flow has stopped or when it will be restored. History will record 2016 as the year of the waters around here, I'm sure.

16 June 2016

Greens and cheese for the season

You know, the air-conditioning in the Peugeot — climate control, really, because it is a climatisation automatique unit on which all you have to do is set the temperature you want and it does everything else — doesn't seem to be working right. It doesn't really blow cool, dry air right now. The car is 15 years old... I ought to take it to a shop and have the clim' recharged, but why bother?

Not really summertime fare, but then...

Yesterday morning the boiler fired itself up and heated up the radiators all through the house. On June 15! And with the thermostat set for about 65ºF (18.5ºC)! This reminds me of San Francisco weather. Why spend 100 € on the car's AC when what you really need is just a little heat. Well, some dry air might be a good thing, because it just won't stop raining outside.

Steaming cauliflower leaves

It's not steady rain, but it rains for a while pretty much every day. We have collected 70 mm, nearly 3 inches, or water in the rain gauge since June 1, and that doesn't count what fell last night. Remember how much rain we were afflicted with in May? It rained a flood — literally.

Florets, but not many

So I'm cooking wintertime comfort foods for our lunches. Like gratin de chou-fleur — cauliflower au gratin, we might call it in good English. Here's a recipe. I cooked this a few days ago and we enjoyed it for a couple of meals.

And here's what I learned: if you buy a head of cauliflower the way it did, completely wrapped in a thick layer of pretty green leaves with fat white ribs, don't throw those out. The leaves and their ribs are really good in the gratin along with the flower head. It's another way to eat your greens, and you know I advocate that as an important part of a healthy diet.

The leaf ribs steamed and cut into pieces

Actually, the cauliflower I bought turned out to have a fairly small flower head. Once I had broken or cut all the leaves off of it, there wasn't much left. That's what motivated me to cook and eat the leaves too. I steamed them in the steamer first, and then I steamed the florets the way I usually do. I figured I could taste the leaves after they had steamed and then decide what to do with them.

Ready for the oven — leaves, ribs and all

What I did with them was to cut the leafy green parts off the ribs. I cut the ribs up into pieces and added them in with the steamed florets. Then I chopped the green parts finely and mixed those into the cheese sauce before I poured it over the florets and ribs and baked it all in the oven. I think you can see from the photos what I'm talking about. I made the cheese sauce using some Cantal cheese and some white cheddar that Walt brought back from his recent trip to New York state. It was all good.