31 July 2016

Green beans and red beans

Yesterday Walt picked our first haricots verts of the season. We had some tomatoes that I bought at the market — ours are still ripening on the vines — so I decided to make one of our favorites: green beans à l'italienne. It's a recipe from one of my favorite French cookbooks, Monique Maine's Cuisine pour toute l'année, published nearly 50 years ago.

Because there weren't as many green beans as I would normally cook for the dish, I decided to add some already-cooked red beans to the mix, along with the standard onion, shallot, and garlic. The beans and tomatoes cooked on low heat for nearly an hour in a mixture of olive oil, water, and rosé wine. As you can see, the tomatoes cooked but the pieces held together.

To round out the meal, we made brochettes de poulet et de merguez — that's chunks of marinated chicken breast and pieces of spicy North African beef-and-lamb sausages on skewers. Walt cooked the meat on the barbecue grill as the beans cooked on the stove indoors. Our spell of dry, warm weather continues.

30 July 2016

Hedge trimming: new-fangled ways

If you've read my blog or Walt's for a while, you might remember that trimming the long, wide, tall "cherry laurel" hedge that encloses our yard here, outside Saint-Aignan, was one of our biggest annual task for several years. Walt would spend weeks working on it in September and October, until his back and neck started aching from the effort. He finally had to give it up. At one point he had to wear a neck brace.

Well, look at this solution. Our neighbors across the road recently lost their 45-year-old gardener to cancer. Their hedges (not laurel) began growing out of control. They found a new crew to come in and prune them back using a kind of mower mounted on the back of a tractor. It was all done in the blink of an eye and just required minimal clipping by hand to even the hedge out. Pretty nifty.

29 July 2016

Hens and chicks

I like it when the little hens-and-chicks plants around the yard start blooming. The flowers are highly photogenic. I've heard people here refer to them as petits artichauts, but they're not artichokes at all.

Back in June, the plants started looking like the ones below. Some seems to start reaching for the sky, and then a few weeks later the flowers appear. The photos are from June 23.

The first photo above and the two below are different views of the same cluster of flowers. I took all of them on July 21. So the flowering has gone on for a month.

The news just reported that the grain harvest in France is the worst in four decades. That's because of all the rain we had between January and mid-June. Now it's extemely dry here. The weather is fickle, that's for sure.

28 July 2016

Le soufflé au fromage de Mme Pépin

A couple of days ago I harvested a big bunch of chard leaves out in the garden and decided to make Madame Pépin's cheese soufflé with them. Her son Jacques, the famous Franco-American cook and TV personality, gives the recipe and an anecdote about it in his book The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.

Jacques Pépin writes that when his mother got married at age 17, she didn't know how to cook more than a few very simple dishes. "Yet, she was willing and fearless," he continues. "My father liked cheese souffle', so my mother graciously obliged. She had never made a soufflé before, but a friend told her that it consisted of white sauce (béchamel), grated cheese, and eggs — a cinch!"

Jeannette Pépin proceeded to make a béchamel sauce (butter, flour, and milk) and then mixed in some grated Swiss cheese. She added eggs one by one, stirring everything together. She poured the mixture into a gratin dish and baked it in the oven. Voilà !

"No one had told her that the eggs should be separated, with the yolks added to the base sauce and the whites whipped to a firm consistency and then gently folded into the mixture." Pépin concludes: "Ignorance is bliss, and in this case, it was indeed; the soufflé rose to a golden height and became a family favorite." And it's a recipe or method that I keep coming back to, in the kitchen and on this blog.

And there you have it. Make a béchamel sauce using 6 tablespoons (90 grams) of butter and 6 tablespoons (60 grams) of flour. Let it cook for a few seconds, stirring it well, and then pour in 2 cups (480 milliliters) of whole milk all at once. Cook it until the sauce is thickened and then let it cool down for 10 minutes before adding 2½ cups (about 180 grams) of grated cheese (Comté, Cheddar, Gruyère, or Cantal, for example) and 5 large or 6 medium eggs, beaten.

Stir everything together well and pour the egg mixture into a buttered (or oiled, or non-stick) baking pan and cook it for 30 to 40 minutes in the oven at 400ºF (200ºC). It will rise and top will turn golden brown. Eat it while it's hot and before it falls.So where's the chard? Before starting to make the soufflé, chop and cook fresh chard leaves in butter or with bacon until it's done, and then stir it warm or cold into the soufflé mixture before you pour it into the baking dish. Instant chard soufflé with cheese. No muss, no fuss.

Use spinach if you don't have chard, or some other cooked vegetable (grated zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), fresh or frozen. In my case, I added smoked pork belly lardons along with the chard, which I had cooked with some diced shallots. My photos don't match up perfectly with the text, but I think you get the idea. Here's a link to the recipe for a slightly smaller version of the soufflé, using spinach.

27 July 2016

The back door and our plans for it

Two major events occurred yesterday. We took advantage of fine weather to tackle a project that had been on our minds for months. We cleaned out the utility room. Doesn't that sound like fun? No, I know it doesn't, but we are feeling a certain sense of accomplishment.

The utility room — home to the boiler, freezer, a shower stall where we bathe the dog and big houseplants, the laundry sink, a washer/dryer set, two indoor clotheslines, and a lot of storage shelves and cabinets — is also where the back door out to the garden is located. Callie loves to hang out down there by the back door in the summertime. She can hear what is going on upstairs and still be free to run outside when she pleases. It's usually cooler down there.

In other words, more than a little bit of dog hair and sand accumulates down there, along with a lot of other stuff (walking shoes, coats, dog towels, cleaning products, spider webs, and on and on). The best way to clean the room is to haul everything out, including rugs and various pieces of furniture. To do that, we need a day when we're pretty sure it won't rain. Yesterday was that day. Two vacuum cleaners and some cleaning rags got a real workout.

The second big thing that happened is that Walt ordered our new greenhouse. It was on sale for 20% off the regular price. Our landscape contractor, the one who trims the big long hedge and all the trees that need it every few years, is putting together a two-man crew to put the thing together, install a base for it to sit on, and set it up in September. It will be attached to the back of the house, and it will cover the back doorway. Exit from the utility room will then be through the greenhouse.

I'm not sure what will happen to the little greenhouse tent we bought and set up last spring. It saved our necks where the garden was concerned, because we had steady rain for nearly a month at the beginning of the growing season. Our seedlings stayed in the tent until nearly the middle of June. The new greenhouse will serve the same purpose, among others, and will be four or five times larger than the tent. The awning or marquise over the back door will have to come down.

The last two photos here show you the view looking out the back door. Nice weather has revived some of our roses. The trees are really green still, despite the recent spell of dry weather. The lavender is in full bloom and full of butterflies and bees all day long. You can kind of glimpse the vegetable garden farther out in the yard.

26 July 2016

Summer has settled in

It's summer. It's a pleasure to be able to say that. I wasn't sure we were going to have a summer this year. However, July has been beautiful. Two weeks ago we had a few days that were uncomfortably hot, but this week is perfect — dry, sunny, and warm. Almost hot but not quite.

I took these photos last Friday on my morning walk. You can see that the Renaudière vineyard is now in its "carpet of green" phase. Workers have been out trimming the leggy top canes off the vines. There are a lot of grapes now, despite the excessively wet, chilly weather of May and June.

I love going out in the morning when skies look like the ones in these photos. So does Callie the collie. The ground and grass are dry, so she doesn't come back a muddy mess. Neither do I. Even if the weather turns wet and chilly again soon, we will have enjoyed this nice spell.

I've been walking the same paths and trails around and through the vineyard for 14 summers now. It's hard to believe. It doesn't get boring. It keeps me fit (as fit as I can be at 67 years old). It gives me thinking time. I feel like I lived in California forever — nearly 18 years — but soon I'll have been here that long too.

Sometimes I think about living somewhere else — in a big town or a city, for example, or in a house that doesn't have so many stairs to climb — but then I realize how much I would miss walking out the back door into space as beautiful as this vineyard. It's beautiful in every season.

Notice that there are no utility poles or overhead wires anywhere in sight. There are few or no cars. There are few other people out walking, especially early in the morning. Callie and I have the place to ourselves, except during times when workers are out pruning the vines. Callie knows all those people, and she enjoys seeing them as much as they enjoy seeing and talking to her. This is her 10th summer at La Renaudière.

25 July 2016

Kale (Red Russian) in seven photos

An early garden success, coming after the snow peas, is greens. Walt planted chard, which we've already harvested and which we will harvest again today. I planted two varieties of kale this year.
The prettiest by far, for right now, is the Red Russian kale to the left. We started harvesting that on Saturday. The dinosaur or black tuscan kale that I planted has, as predicted by some of you here, been more susceptible to insect damage.
Each kale leaf needs to have its tough central rib removed. You can do it with a knife, or with scissors. Or you can just grab the stem in one hand and strip the tender greens right off by pulling the leaf though the other hand by pulling. (Is that clear?).
To the left is about half of the kale I harvested. I washed the leaves twice before I de-ribbed them, and once again afterward. You don't want any sand, grit, snails, or slugs in with the cooked greens. Then I cut the leaves into fairly large pieces, all of about the same size, to prepare them for cooking.
I read on one web site that it was a good idea to blanch the leaves in boiling water for five minutes before seasoning and sautéeing them. French recipes often call for blanching vegetables before seasoning and cooking them. I blanched them in two batches like the one to the right.
Blanching (par-boiling) gave the leaves a nice deep green color. They're only slightly cooked when they come out of the hot water. Drain them in a colander to remove any excess moisture before continuing.
Finally, I sautéed three or four shallots (small onions and/or some garlic would be good too) in olive oil and seasoned them with salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and hot red pepper flakes. Then I added the greens to the pan and sautéed them for about 10 minutes, adding a splash of white wine when they started drying out. They were still slightly crunchy in texture, and sweet and tasty.

24 July 2016

Provisoirement immobilisée...

So I got the Citroën out of the front driveway that Monday morning and parked it out back by the pond. That was a good thing to have done, since it turned out Dominique the mechanic couldn't look at it for a week. Every day, I went out in the morning and tried to start the engine. Nothing doing. It would crank and crank and crank but never catch. The car was out of commission for a full week.

Not having the Citroën meant that CHM and I couldn't go driving around nearly as much as I had planned while he was here from Paris. I wanted to drive the two hours over to Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, a famous wine village. I've enjoyed the wines from there for years but I've never seen the place. Past that, toward Angers, is the town called Beaufort-en-Vallée, which is twinned with the town of Beaufort in North Carolina, near where I was born and grew up. We had to scrub that trip.

Photos today: our 2016 vegetable garden

It just didn't seem safe to drive the 15½-year-old Peugeot over such long distances in such hot weather (temps in the mid-90s). If we had trouble with it, there'd be no way to call Walt on the phone and ask him to come rescue us. So CHM and I had to make do with shorter trips to places we'd seen many times before: Montrichard for lunch at La Villa, Romorantin for some shopping at the Centre Leclerc and the SuperU market. Instead of touring around much, we mostly stayed home and I cooked lunches.

When last Sunday came, I gave up on ever getting the Citroën started and called my insurance company's roadside assistance line. I asked them to come tow the car over to Dominique's garage, which, by the way, is now open on Mondays. He changed his schedule, and I hadn't been there in such a long time that I was unaware of the new hours.

The man with the tow truck showed up at 9:00 on the dot last Monday morning. I like the way these guys operate. They drive up in a big flat bed truck and haul the car up on it using an electric winch and a tow hook attached to the front of the car. The truck bed tips down to touch the ground, forming a ramp, and then the car ends up secure and out of the way on the flat bed, not riding on its back wheels behind the truck. I followed the driver over to Dominique's place of business.

He said they would hook the Citroën up to a computer and get a list of status numbers from the various components of the engine, including error codes. I say computer, and I think that must be what it is, but Dominique called it « la valise ». I just looked it up, and it seems to be a brand name for tablet computers running software for automobile engine diagnostics. I told Dominique I'd come back in 24 hours and see what the verdict was. I trust him to do the necessary work at a reasonable price.

On Tuesday morning, I drove over there again (it's less than 5 miles from the house). When I walked in, Dominique shook my hand with a look on his face that said "bad news". The bad news was not about the car, however, but about the man who sold it to me. He's a local dealer for a major French car company — not Peugeot or Citroën. "It was the filtre à gasoil (the diesel-fuel filter) that was clogged," Dominique said. "My esteemed colleague who sold you the car didn't bother to check whether it had been replaced according to the service schedule or not."

The fuel filter is supposed to be changed every 60K kilometers, and the Citroën has about 88K kilometers (about 50K miles) on the odometer now. It had 83K on it when I bought it 18 months ago. Dominique said the date stamped on the fuel filter was 2007, so it was an original part. He thought the dealer who sold the car should have checked it. Anyway, it was no big deal to change, and the car runs fine now. It cost me 100 euros.

I had already had trouble with the car once before, and it was also because of the man who sold it to me. The battery died a few months ago. Dominique loaned me his jumper cables so that I could start the Citroën by jumping it using the Peugeot's battery. He said it would cost me a lot less if I got it started and drove it over to his garage rather than having him send somebody here to put in a new battery. It turned out that the dealer had put an old, worn-out, and under-powered battery in the car when I bought it. I should have had it all checked out by Dominique at the time, but I didn't. My bad.

The good news is that the car is running great right now. We were able to drive it up to Blois to put CHM on his train back to Paris on Wednesday. Now I've parked it in the garage, and as soon as I can I'll take it back over to Dominique's for a full check-up. I don't want any more bad surprises. By the way, included in this post are a few pictures of the current state of our 2016 vegetable garden.

23 July 2016

Is the Citroën a lemon?

I want to thank CHM for the lunch at the Relais d'Artémis that I've described over the last few days. We go there every time he comes to the Loire Valley, and the place seems to be especially on top of things right now. The menu I described, which includes an amuse-bouche (an hors-d'œuvre), a starter course, a main course, a cheese plate, a dessert, and what's called a mignardise (a second small dessert with coffee), is priced at 41 euros/person this summer. I think the meal for the three of us, with two bottles of wine, cost CHM about 200 euros.

And then the car let us down. We left the restaurant at about 4:00 p.m. The Citroën was parked out front, head-in, with the hood facing a brick wall that was blazing hot. The outside temperature was about 85ºF (29ºC) and the car's on-board thermometer read 41ºC — that's slightly more than 105ºF — when we got in.

Walt was at the wheel, but the car didn't want to start. The battery was fine; it's almost brand new. The engine turned over but wouldn't catch. Walt kept trying. We didn't know what we were going to do on a Sunday afternoon, stuck in Bracieux, 25 miles from home. I picked up the phone to call the insurance company emergency service, not knowing of course how long it might take for somebody to get there and help us. Walt said: don't call yet. Let's keep trying.

CHM suggested putting the car's hood up to let the engine cool off, the way English people seem to do in such situations. I did that. Then I asked Walt to let me get into the driver's seat and give it a try. I had no luck at first, but after two or three failed attempts at starting the motor, it suddenly caught. We decided to keep it running and head for home. If we broke down somewhere along the way, at least we would be closer to Saint-Aignan. I was especially worried about CHM, who is after all 91 years old. We had a cell phone with us.

I wonder if putting the hood up really helped get the car started. Maybe... and it certainly didn't hurt.

Well, we made it. We pulled into the driveway and breathed a sigh of relief. We turned the motor off. Had it all been a false alarm? We came into the house to cool down and relax for the evening. The next morning, I went out to check on the car, and I realized that I had blocked in the old Peugeot by parking the Citroën where I had. I could have pushed the Citroën out of the way, but then it would have been so far away from the front gate that it would be hard for a tow-truck driver to get it back out.

 At the Relais d'Artémis, the mignardise of the day was a cream puff, served with a cup of espresso coffee.

I figured I might as well try to start the motor again. After a few attempts, I was successful. I backed the car out and parked it out behind the hedge, by the pond, in a place where visitors to the hamlet often park. I noticed at that point that a message was being displayed on the car's computer screen saying Défaillance Système Anti-Pollution — Emissions System Failure. I still thought the failure might be temperature-related. Or that maybe a filter of some kind was clogged. I hoped it wasn't worse than that.

My mechanic's garage has never been open on Mondays — his work-week has always been Tuesday through Saturday — so I didn't do anything that morning except move the car. I would deal with it the next day. I drove over to the garage Tuesday morning in the Peugeot. I told the owner, Dominique, what had happened. He said he was short-handed and couldn't really take the car in right then. He was all backed up for the day and the following day. And then Thursday was a holiday — July 14, Bastille Day — and he was taking a long weekend, opening back up only on Monday. "The Peugeot is running fine, isn't it?" he asked me. It was. I told him I'd be back in a week, either driving the Citroën or following the tow truck....

22 July 2016

Le Relais d'Artémis: Lunch (3)

Finally, here were our desserts at the Relais d'Artémis, near Chambord. The menu also featured a cheese course made up of local goat cheeses, including a smoked fromage de chèvre that was especially good.

An assortment of goat cheeses from the Loire Valley, with lightly dressed lettuce leaves

Le nougat glacé du pâtissier au miel et noix de pécan, coulis de fruits rouges
(The pastry chef's frozen nougat with honey and pecans, and a coulis of red berries)

Déclinaison autour de la fraise de Maslives et son sorbet liqueur de Chambord
(Variations on a strawberry theme with Chambord liqueur sorbet)

Here is the menu, showing just the dishes we ordered:

Menu Diane
Le Relais d'Artémis, Bracieux/Chambord

~ Tartare de saumon fumé maison et Saint-Jacques aux citrons confits ~
~ Terrine de foie gras de canard maison ~
~ Pavé de sandre rôti au jus de vin de Loire ~
~ Cœur de ris de veau rôti et ses petits légumes glacés ~
~ Côte de veau aux morilles (suggestion du chef) ~
Plateau de fromages
~ Déclinaison autour de la fraise de Maslives et son sorbet liqueur de Chambord ~
~ Le nougat glacé du pâtissier au miel et noix de pécan, coulis de fruits rouges ~

21 July 2016

Le Relais d'Artémis: Lunch (2)

I'm running late this morning. I just spent an hour on the phone with a friend in California. So I'll be brief. Here are some more photos of our lunch on Sunday, July 10, at the Relais d'Artémis restaurant near Chambord.

As a first course, CHM and I both had foie gras — the liver of a fattened duck, cooked in a terrine. Délicieux, vraiment, spread on toasted French pain de campagne.

My main course was the daily special (not on the menu). It was a very nice grilled veal chop (côte de veau aux morilles), tender and juicy, with morel mushrooms, potatoes, peas, and carrots.

CHM ordered veal sweetbreadsris de veau — as his main course. Like many French people, he really enjoys things like sweetbreads, liver, and kidneys. So do I. Thanks to CHM for this photo...

To wash it all down, we ordered a bottle of Touraine Chenonceaux red wine from the Domaine du Chapitre, a winery just five miles up the road from Saint-Aignan in the village of Saint-Romain-sur-Cher.

More about the rest of the meal and the car adventure tomorrow...

20 July 2016

Le Relais d'Artémis: lunch (1)

On Sunday July 10, coming back from Paris, CHM, Walt, and I had lunch at the restaurant called Le Relais d'Artémis, near the Château de Chambord and the towns of Bracieux and Blois. Here's the first part of a quick report. Today I'm focusing on Walt's lunch that day. He went the fish route.

The first course was a mound of flaked salmon tartare surrounded by a circle of thin-sliced raw scallops.

The main course was a grilled pike-perch, or sandre, which is a local fresh-water fish.

 Here are CHM and Walt leaving the restaurant. We were about to have a car adventure, but didn't yet know it. The weather was unnaturally hot that day. More tomorrow...