31 August 2016

Salade de tomates, mozzarella, et basilic

At least once every summer, and usually many more times, we make tomato salad with mozzarella cheese and basil leaves. Here's one from 2009. I know, it's old hat. Ringard. Démodé. Roll your eyes if you want too. But when the tomatoes and basil are fresh from the garden.... well, it's all about the ingredients, isn't it?

I was reading a web page about making the insalata caprese or tomates-mozza a few minutes ago. The writer said that no vinegar of any kind has any business in such a salad. Piffle. A few drops of balsamic or good wine vinegar contrasts with the blandness of the mozzarella cheese. Use it sparingly, and of course use the best olive oil you can get.

In the photo above, you can see that we had two bowls of mozzarella — two different kinds. One is bufala and the other is vache. We wanted to taste the difference between the cheese made from water buffalo milk and cow's milk. There wasn't a big difference in taste but the textures were distinctive. Inconclusive.

Walt had picked some more tomatoes earlier in the day, so some of the ones in the salad had been on the vine two hours before we ate them, and others 24 hours earlier. We used a mix of yellow and red varieties, as you can see in the photos. Sorry I neglected to take a picture of the finished salad, avec feuilles de basilic. Next time...

30 August 2016

Enfin tomate vint

First we were picking and eating these:

Then last week we started harvesting these:

And cooking things like this on the grill:

And now, the real payoff:

I had to go to Intermarché and buy some mozzarella cheese yesterday. I know it's nothing original or really unusual, but salads of fresh garden tomatoes with basil, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil just smack of summer. Even though the tomatoes waited until the final days of August to start ripening, the weather is supposed to stay warm and dry for another week or two — so we are in business

29 August 2016


Still taking it easy. The pain in my shoulder seems diminished. Greatly diminished. And now that the extreme heat is over — yesterday's high was only about 80ºF — it's much easier to relax. I'm still trying to limit my typing and mousing.

Here's the view out a downstairs window. The nice thing about the vineyard is that it stays emerald green even when most of the grass is parched to a golden brown by the hot sun. The ground is "superficially dry"  — meaning it absorbed a lot of water over the first half of the year, even though it seems powdery dry right now. There's a lot of water under the surface that the grapevines, with their deep roots, can tap into.

28 August 2016

Meteorological relativity

The heat wave is supposed to break today. When I opened up the house this morning at 6:15, the air coming in felt almost chilly. Then I looked at the thermometer. It read 19.9ºC. That is not chilly — au contraire. A day at that temperature, in the upper 60s in ºF, would be a warm May or September day most years. In winter, we keep our heat at 18.5ºC, and that is comfortably warm.

Yesterday, when I talked to my California friend who lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains not far from Sacaramento, she told me that the afternoon temperatures there had dropped considerably and the weather had become very pleasant.

What are your high temperatures right now, I asked her. Oh, only in the high 80s and low 90s, she told me. That's 31 to 33ºC. I guess everything is relative. When I told her that we were having similar temperatures and we were finding it unbearable, she asked me if there are high levels of humidity accompanying our heat.

No, I told her, we're just not at all used to such high temperatures. Out there, she typically lives through weeks and weeks of afternoon temperatures in the 100s — 38 to 40ºC — every summer. California is a place of weather extremes — geographically. In summer, it's often chilly, cloudy, and windy on the coast, but hot and desert-like an hour's drive inland.

But it looks like an inland-California landscape here in the Loire Valley right now. That is, it's parched and brown. In winter it will be lush and green, as in northern California, from October through June. Brown summers and green winters — compared to the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., it's a world turned upside-down.

I'll be happy when the mornings and afternoons turn cooler again, and we start getting a little bit of rain. I wouldn't have said anything in that vein a couple of months ago, toward the end of our springtime deluge. Still, I like a climate where the weather in one season makes you long for the next season's weather, which will be radically different.

27 August 2016

Pretty sunrise

I was sitting here in the living room talking on the phone with a friend in California early this morning, and out the window I noticed beautiful skies to the northeast. The sun was rising. I went out on the front deck and snapped a picture or two without putting the phone down.

Early morning here is a good time for me to call friends in California, with the 9-hour time difference. If I call at 6 a.m. here, it's 9 p.m. on the West Coast... the day before. Sometimes it gets confusing if I mention I did such-and-so "yesterday," because for the person in California that would mean Thursday, and not Friday, if it's Saturday here.

26 August 2016

Kale with chickpeas

I know I'm kind of repeating myself, but this is what I have to blog about right now — greens. I've posted similar recipes before. By the way, the pain in my shoulder is less severe now, thanks to paracetamol (called Tylenol in the U.S.) and ibuprofen, and maybe the antiviral medication too. I'm optimistic.

Yesterday morning, after my walk with the dog and while the temperature was relatively cool, I went out to the garden and cut enough kale leaves to fill a big laundry basket. It took me all of ten minutes. I'm so happy I discovered Red Russian Kale — the kale leaves are much like very tender collard greens.

I washed them, which was easy, because since it hasn't rained in... forever, the leaves were clean — hardly any dirt or sand, and no insects, snails, slugs, or caterpillars. I wash them with the shower attachment in the bathtub, which we never use for any thing but watering houseplants or washing greens, and then again in the kitchen once they are prepared for cooking.

Then I removed the thick red rib that runs down the middle of the Red Russian Kale leaves. You can see it in the photos above and to the left. It's pretty easy. The green part of the leaf is delicate enough that all you have to do is grab the bottom of the rib and pull the leaves through the thumb and index finger on your other hand. Discard the ribs.

Then I roughly chopped and weighed the de-ribbed leaves — I had 500 grams (just over a pound) of them. I sliced some shallots (onion would do) and garlic and started sauteeing them in olive oil in a big pot. I added about a tablespoon of cumin, the same amount of sweet paprika, along with a teaspoon each of black pepper, salt, and hot red pepper. Vary the seasoning to your taste.

The next step is to toss the greens into the pot and let them start to wilt and cook down. Add a little bit of water and/or white wine, as well as a cup or less of tomato sauce, and keep the greens just slightly wet as they cook.

At the end of the cooking time, the amount of which depends on how young and tender your raw greens were — taste them to see if they are tender to your taste — toss in a small can of cooked chickpeas (about half a pound) and a handful of toasted breadcrumbs. A splash of vinegar is also a good thing to add.

The breadcrumbs will absorb any cooking liquid left in the pot. Add a little more water if you think the mixture is too dry. This kind of dish would be just as good with red kidney beans, white beans, black-eyed peas, black beans, or pinto beans... for example.

You can also make such a dish using spinach or chard, which will require less cooking time, or with collard greens, which will need longer cooking. The tomato sauce and white wine will add sweetness, and the spices will perk everything up. The greens will be delicious, and beans are always good for you — as are greens.

Somebody who doesn't usually like greens might enjoy this spicy version. It can be served as a main course or as a side dish.

25 August 2016

Shingles, also called “zona”

Yes, I've developed shingles. I don't know why, and all my reading (for example) has not explained to me how or why you get it. It seems to appear spontaneously in certain individuals, and more than 1 in 3 people develop it, usually as they get older (60 and over). You have to have had chicken pox earlier in life to be at risk.

My shoulder is really hurting this morning, so I will be brief. I think our current heat wave is affecting me more than it would if I didn't have this severe shoulder and neck pain. I'm moving about as fast as the creature in the photo above — a big red slug, longer and fatter than my index finger, and one of many that we see around the edges of the vineyard year-round.

24 August 2016

More symptoms

I was more optimistic yesterday that I am today about my sore neck and shoulder. I went this morning to put some more of that ibuprofen gel on the hurting area and I noticed that I have three red patches, one of them swollen into a welt, on my chest and shoulder. They don't itch.

I'm wondering if I could have been bitten by an insect that would cause the pain and stiffness in my shoulder and neck. Either that, or I'm allergic to the gel I've been applying. My shoulder feels kind of numb. I guess it's time to go try to see a doctor, or at least a pharmacist.

The temperature here hit 90 and above (32 to 34 ºC) yesterday. That was also the temperature up in the loft. It's supposed to be even hotter today. Thankfully, the temperature this morning is down in the upper 60s. And during the afternoon it's a dry heat — no humidity. We don't have air-conditioning because we so seldom would need it.

23 August 2016

Three vineyard landscapes

I'm better this morning. We had lunch with friends yesterday, and they gave me a tube of ibuprofen cream that I can rub on my neck and shoulder to relieve the pain. I'm going to try to quit complaining.

Still, I will minimize the mouse-work by posting some photos that I had already prepared (cropped, contrasted, sharpened) for posting.

Our high temperature today is supposed to be 34ºC. For reference, 35º = 95ºF.

As always, you can click or tap on the images to display them at a larger size. I took these on my walk Sunday morning.

You can see how dry and tall the grasses and other plants are out in the vineyard.

Highs tomorrow and Thursday are predicted to exceed 35ºC. Watering the garden will be the order of the day. Maybe the tomatoes will finally get over their reluctance to ripen.

22 August 2016

Tomates, aubergines, papillons

Some things I saw and photographed on my walk with the dog yesterday morning. I'll just post the pictures.

I think I'm injuring myself by processing photos and writing blog posts. It seems to be a repetitive stress injury, and it's in my right arm and shoulder, up into my neck. I had trouble sleeping because of it last night, and this morning I've realized what the cause of the pain is. Maybe I need to take a few days off.

21 August 2016

Véraison et vendange en vert

Last Wednesday, I was surprised to see that many of the grapes out in the vineyard had suddenly started to show signs of ripening. I shouldn't have been surprised, I guess — it is getting to be late August. But everything to do with fruit and vegetables has been so late this year, after all the bad weather we had in May and June.

This stage in the development of the grapes is called "veraison", I read, and it's a French word (véraison) that is also used in English. It's the point at which the grapes stop growing and start ripening. It's easy to see the veraison when you look at rows of red wine grapes.

One other development has caught my eye too. Some of the vignerons (grape growers/winemakers) have been doing what is called vendange en vert or vendanges vertes up and down their rows of vines. The "green harvesting" is a thinning out or éclaircissage of the overabundant grapes.

If there are too many grapes per plant, the wine made from them might be thin and acidic because the vine will be stressed. Culling the superfluous bunches is a way to make the remaining ones healthier and sweeter. There is a danger, however; the grapes left on the ground can rot and spread disease in the vineyard.

I've been known to go out and gather some of the healthy-looking culled grape bunches and make grape jelly with them. I obviously waited too long to pick up the ones in the two photos above. By the way, our afternoon temperatures are supposed to go back up into the 90s in ºF (mid-30s in ºC) this coming week.

20 August 2016

The “getting creative with green beans” series

Walt picked three more pounds of green beans — haricots verts — yesterday. He's been bringing in several pounds a week since the end of July, so we are eating a lot of beans and freezing a lot more. See other recent green beans posts here.

The idea I found in my googling around the web this time was to make what the recipe called « une omelette aux haricots verts ». It's not really an omelet in my book, but a frittata. That's an Italian-style egg concoction that could be called « une omelette plate » — a flat, not folded omelet — or a Spanish-style tortilla made with green beans rather than potatoes. You can serve and eat the frittata hot, warm, or cold, as you prefer.

Usually, making a frittata is easier than making a French-style omelette. The flat omelet doesn't need to be cooked baveuse, or "runny," like a folded omelette. It's less delicate but just as delicious, because it's full of good vegetables and, optionally, meat. The trick in the case of this green-bean frittata is to get it cooked all the way through. It's so big that flipping it over is a challenge.

What you do is cook about a pound (I used 500 grams) of green beans so that they are as crunchy or tender as you like them. I cooked them in a steamer for 15 or 20 minutes, making them tender but not mushy. Then you beat together six eggs in a big bowl with salt, pepper, herbs (chives in this case), and a good handful of grated cheese (Swiss, Cheddar, or Parmesan). I added some diced ham. Put the cooked green beans in the bowl with the eggs and mix everything together delicately. Pour the mixture into a hot non-stick skillet with some oil or butter and let it cook on low heat until the bottom is firm and the frittata will slide around in the pan when you shake it.

Then you have two options. You can set the pan under the broiler in the oven to cook the top, or you can turn it over and finish cooking it on top of the stove. To do so, slide it out of the pan onto a big plate, the cooked bottom side still facing down. Turn the skillet over to cover the top of frittata, and using mitts or potholders to keep from burning your hands, turn the whole thing upside down so that the frittata is cooked-side up in the pan. Put it back on the heat for a few minutes to finish the cooking. As you can see, one side is browned, and the other side is just barely cooked.

19 August 2016

Shades of brown

We ended up getting some rain yesterday. It fell for about an hour in the morning, but there wasn't enough of it to make much difference. Our environment is basically brown these days. We might have a slightly damp weekend, but more sunny and hot weather is promised for next week.

The dog has always been brown, of course, even though she's called a red border collie. Callie is 9½ years old now. Above, she was watching Walt work in the vegetable garden, hoping, probably, for a chance to play ball for a few minutes.

A few minutes earlier, out on our walk around the vineyard, I had noticed a lot of brown, fuzzy, spiky end-of-summer plants in the bright sunlight. I took these photos on Wednesday, the day before our weather pattern changed.

18 August 2016

Clouds, flowers, and a Saint-Aignan brick

They told us it would rain overnight but I don't think a single drop fell. The weather has changed, however. It's more humid, and it's supposed to be slightly cooler — even though at 20ºC this is the warmest morning we've had this summer.

Clouds moved in late in the day yesterday and evidently held the heat close to the ground. Twenty degrees C is 68ºF. I hope it does rain. The grass is completely parched.

I took my camera out with me yesterday morning and took a lot of close-up pictures. Today I have to process those and post some. But I also need to go to the supermarket, and then I'm making stuffed zucchini boats for lunch.

We inspected our tomatoes and peppers yesterday morning and there are tons of them. Some are even starting to ripen. Pictures to come...

17 August 2016

Thorny edges

It's been so hot the past couple of days that my walks with the dog around the edges of the vineyard have been abbreviated and slow-paced. Callie doesn't really like the hot weather. Of course, given her thick fur coat, that's easy to understand.

Slow walks give me a chance to look closely at what's growing on the edges of the woods that form the boundary of the vineyard. There are a lot of blackberry brambles, for example. Some of the blackberry canes are thick and long, with impressive thorns as above.

The picture above might give you the idea that there are a lot of berries out there, but there aren't as many as I'd like. Only one or two summers over our 14 seasons here in Saint-Aignan have been hot enough to allow significant quantities of blackberries to ripen. Or maybe it's just that the birds and other animals eat them as soon as they do.

Sometimes I take a clipper with me on one of my walks and cut back the thorny brambles to make a path for Callie and me at the edge of the woods. Then we can enjoy walking through shaded areas. Once we're in the woods, there are very few brambles to worry about, and it's much cooler for both of us.