31 July 2018

Roasted zucchini and chickpea dip

We are still trying to use up all the zucchini our garden has been giving us this summer. It's a perennial problem, isn't it? Yesterday I gave four not-too-enormous courgettes to our neighbors M and B. We've given some to two other neighbors as well. Yesterday Walt made pizzas with chunks of grilled turkey breast, bell peppers, tomato sauce, and... wait for it... grilled zucchini. It was delicious.

Yesterday morning, I took two gigantic zucchinis, cut them in half lengthwise, and roasted them on a tray a fairly hot oven, cut side down, for nearly an hour. I also roasted four fat garlic cloves in the oven with them. The zucchini skins got slightly charred, and the flesh browned a little, giving everything good flavor. These could have been cooked on the barbecue grill, but I did them in the oven.

When the zukes and cooled enough so that I could handle them, I scooped out most of the big seeds, which I thought would be too tough to puree. Then I scooped out all the zuke flesh and set it in a strainer to drain away some of its liquid. I ended up with two cups of flesh and about a cup of liquid, which I'll use in some other dish.

The zucchini skins were too tough to use. (The tender skins of smaller zukes could probably be good just pureed with the flesh.)

At that point, Walt came in from working in the garden and asked me what I was making. Zucchini dip, I told him. Will it be like hummus? Ooh, I said, putting some chickpeas in it is a great idea. We had a small can of chickpeas in the pantry.

I blitzed the zucchini flesh in tall glass pitcher using a stick blender, adding a big handful of fresh mint and fresh parsley leaves to the mix. Then I pureed the drained chickpeas the same way. I stirred the two purees together — or three, really, because the oven-roasted garlic cloves (peeled) went in as well — in a bowl and seasoned the mixture with salt, pepper, cayenne, cumin, and other spices.

We'll eat the dip with tortilla chips, crackers, or bread. Or we'll find other ways to enjoy it. The mix of chickpea and zucchini puree has good flavor and a nice thick texture. We might stir in some olive oil at some point, or add more spices, depending on what we're having the dip with.

30 July 2018

More wild carrots, and a garden party

Here are a few more wild carrot photos. Meanwhile, yesterday we were invited to a party by our part-time, summertime neighbors who live nine or ten months out of the year up in Blois. It didn't seem appropriate to take my camera with me...

B, now 88, and M., three or four years younger, were to become our first friends in the Saint-Aignan area. When we arrived here and started getting moved into our house in June 2003, they drove down from Blois, where they live most of the year, to begin their summer stay in the country. M had heard about us, and she came over immediately, rang the bell, and invited us to their house for a glass of wine and a get-to-know-you session that first evening. That's the kind of people they are. M is especially energetic and outgoing.
Over the past 15 years, M and B have always included us in the Bastille Day, wedding anniversary, birthday, and other parties they throw. Sometimes, as on their 50th wedding anniversary wingding 10 or 12 years ago, there have been more than 100 people in attendance. Yesterday, there were probably 30 or 35 people there — just the family and us. M and B have seven children, by the way, countless grandchildren, and now a good number of great-grandchildren.

Yesterday's gathering may well have marked the end of an era.
M told us that she is turning the keys to their summer house over to their eldest daughter, who also lives in Blois. M said she can't take care of it any more, and B is soon going to have to stop driving (Blois is 25 miles north of here). To mark the occasion (and M's birthday), they also invited another old friend of ours, G, a woman who is also 88 years old and who seems to be fading fast. It was good to spend an afternoon with her, and I drove her home (the other side of the village) when she was ready to go. I think the crowd and commotion confused and exhausted her.

It's amazing to have lived here long enough to see all this happen, and to have been "adopted" by such people. The afternoon party was outdoor drinks, nibbles, a full lunch of salads and cold sliced meats, plus wine and desserts. Six of M's and B's sons and daughters were present, with their spouses. There were many, many small children there, running in every direction. It was so nice to be included. The whole afternoon reminded me of a 2008 film I discovered recently and have watched several times. It's called L'Heure d'été ("Summer Hours") and is about the sudden, unexpected death of a widow who is the matriarch of a large, prominent family like our neighbors' clan. What will the baby-boomer children decide do with the family house and its contents? It's sort of a new version of les anciens et les modernes — old ways of life fading, new ways of life being adopted. Some of the widow's sons and daughters don't even live in France, and don't intend to return. I can't do it justice, but it's a very poignant story and a film I'll watch many times, I'm sure. Some of my favorite actors are in it. France, like everywhere else, is really changing radically these days. Maybe that's always been the way of the world, but people move around more now than they used to. Borders have fallen... at least to some extent.

29 July 2018

Flowers, flowers, and more flowers

I've been sitting here for two hours this morning processing photos of flowers. Cropping them, mainly, and resizing them for posting on the blog. I have 10 photos of what we call Queen Anne's Lace flowers that I want to show, so I'll post five today and five tomorrow.

There are a lot of Queen Anne's Lace plants out in the vineyard every year — this is our 16th summer here — but I truly believe that this year's bloom is the most amazing I've seen. So many vineyard rows look like this one.

The umbrella-shaped flower heads look like this. I'm sure you've seen them before, but you might not have seen so many of them at one time. The plant is actually a wild carrot.

Wikipedia says: "Daucus carota, whose common names include wild carrot, bird's nest, bishop's lace, and Queen Anne's lace (North America), is a white, flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, native to temperate regions of Europe and southwest Asia, and naturalized to North America and Australia."

The mature flowers are white, but when you look closely you see a lot of pink ones too. I think the pink cast is a feature of the flowers when they're young.

Only in North America is the wild carrot known as Queen Anne's Lace. It's not clear whether the queen it's named after was 18th century Anne, Queen of Great Britain, or her great grandmother, the 16th and 17th century Anne of Denmark.

If I understand correctly, the little spiny things you see in this last photo are the fruits of the wild carrot plant.

28 July 2018

A portrait

Natasha at 17 months

27 July 2018

Salad and sun

We have definitely developed a Greek theme in our kitchen this summer. We made dolmas. Then we made moussaka. Yesterday — jamais deux sans trois — it was a Greek-style salad. Some of the ingredients that make it Greek are: olive oil, oregano, lemon juice, black olives, and feta cheese. With tomatoes, lettuce, chives, cucumber, and roasted red peppers.

The day before yesterday, I snapped this photo of Walt and Tasha heading out into the vineyard for their morning walk. There aren't many mornings out of the year when Walt or I can go out in shorts and a t-shirt for the morning walk, but we have had more than our share of them this summer.

This is an example of our sunrises this summer. Today will be another warm, sunny day. The moonset was fantastic this morning, but I wasn't able to get a decent photo of it because it was just too dark outside for my cameras. I tried.

Today's lunch will be zucchini, bacon, and corn fritters made with buckwheat flour. Oh, the temperature when I got up at 5:00 was above 22ºC. Maybe today would be a good day to go for a ride in the Peugeot with the AC on full blast.

26 July 2018

Zucchini, pasta, and shrimp in a cream sauce

The temperature is 21ºC this morning. Balmy. There's no breeze at all. I have all the windows open now and a moth just flew by my face. No screens or AC here. I think it's supposed to get even hotter this afternoon than it did yesterday. Oh, and I took the Peugeot to the mechanic's yesterday to get the air-conditioning serviced. I hope it will again work the way it's supposed to. We're expecting at least another 10 days of hot weather...

I mentioned the other day that I was going to make a dish of zucchini and shrimp with pasta in a cream sauce. And I did.

It's pretty simple. First, cook some pasta (250 grams) according to package directions. Reserve at least some of the cooking water.

Cut a big zucchini into pieces of whatever shape you want. Cook them in olive oil or butter or a combination, with three or four chopped garlic cloves. Put them into your serving dish and set them aside.

Take the zucchini out of the pan and quickly sauté a dozen or more shelled and deveined shrimp. Take them out of the pan and put them in the serving dish with the zucchini.

Spoon a good cup of cream (thick crème fraîche is what we get here) into the pan and bring it to a boil. Add the cooked pasta and salt and pepper to taste. Also add grated cheese to taste. Parmesan, for example, or, in my case, a good handful of hard, dry, finely grated goat cheese.

If the sauce seems too thick, use some of the pasta cooking water to thin it down. Put the zucchini and shrimp in the sauce with the pasta. Stir and let the dish come back up to a simmer before serving. Eat and enjoy.

25 July 2018

A healthy garden and fair skies

The temperature this morning, when I got up at 5:00, was slightly above 20ºC. That's really high by Saint-Aignan standards. And temperatures like that explain the healthy state of our vegetable garden. Also, credit where credit is due, so does Walt's good work planting and watering...

The big leafy greens in the foreground are Swiss chard — « des blettes » in French.

A few minutes ago, it dawned on me that I hadn't yet shown a picture of the vegetable that has been the basis for nearly all our menus over the past week.

And not only do we have zucchinis, we also have winter squashes like this potimarron (a little orange pumpkin) growing out there.

Next up are these. They are starting to turn red now.

I forget whether Walt set out 25 or 30 tomato plants. You can guess what we'll be doing in August and September.

This was the scene that greeted me yesterday when I went out for the morning walk with Tasha. Forecasts call for a little bit of rain over the weekend but then another week of fine, even hot, weather. Here in the country outside Saint-Aignan, it hasn't been oppressively hot so far.
C'est un temps très agréable.

24 July 2018

Beignets de courgette

You probably know what beignets are — they make them, famously, in New Orleans. Another word for them is fritters. And if you're not American, you probably know what courgettes are. They're zucchinis in the U.S. — green summer squash. We're getting so many of them from our three plants that Walt has started taking the bigger ones right to the compost heap. We are cooking zukes every day now. And by the way, the temperature is supposed to hit 90ºF this afternoon.

Yesterday we made fritters. Notice also that we had corn on the cob — for the third time this summer. These ears came from the Grand Frais market up near Blois, and they were grown in Portugal. In the gratin dish, those are green beans from the garden in a tomato sauce (dried tomatoes and tomato paste from last year's garden) with melted mozzarella cheese on top.

There's not much original about zucchini fritters. However, we made these with chickpea flour (also known as "gram flour") instead of wheat flour, so they are gluten-free. We also put fresh herbs — basil and thyme from the garden and greenhouse — in them. Soon, I want to use corn meal to make fritters. We also have some buckwheat pancake batter that I want to turn into fritters by adding grated zucchini to it.

I think we'll probably be making more zucchini fritters over the next week or two. Today, though, I'm going to make something like this — zucchini in a cream sauce with pasta, but with shrimp rather than chicken. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

23 July 2018

Time to make hamburger buns

You might not know it, but hamburgers are all the rage out here in the Loire Valley countryside these days. All the restaurants seem to feature them prominently on their menus now. They're not much like American hamburgers, because they are very thick and cooked very rare. People often eat them with a knife and fork instead of picking them up with their bare hands. Meanwhile, the supermarkets have many shelves devoted to hamburger buns in their bread departments.

If you remember, I made a loaf of sandwich bread last week that I thought had an especially good taste and texture. We eat it mostly as toast with either cream cheese (fromage à tartiner) or butter and confiture at breakfast time. Since we no longer have bread brought to our front gate several times a week by an employee of the village bakery making the rounds, we have started making our own bread more often. We also buy several baguettes at a time in bakeries or at the supermarket, and then cut them up and keep them in the freezer until we're ready to eat them with our lunch nearly every day.

I have the same opinion of the hamburger buns from the supermarket that I have of supermarket sandwich bread. I just don't really like it or the buns. So I'm going to make another batch of the bread dough that I made last week, shape it into buns, and bake those to keep in the freezer. I'm hoping to be able to reproduce the recipe and get a result that will be just as good. Another option for hamburgers is to buy what is called un pain ordinaire — a fairly soft bread that has the shape of a super-sized baguette — and cut it into hamburger-size sections. You can also make sort of square hamburger patties that will fit a section of pain. But for now, I want to make my own hamburger buns. I've actually done it before, but not with this dough that includes some polenta and has such a nice texture.

Another summertime food we've made this year is Greek-style dolmas, also called feuilles de vignes farcies. That's blanched grapevine leaves wrapped around a rice stuffing containing olive oil, mint, raisins, and, this time, chopped almonds. It's flavored with a good amount of lemon juice and zest. We have 10 or so grape plants in our back yard, and we enjoy picking, blanching, and eating the grape leaves. Here's a post about dolmas from five years ago, and here's a 2010 post with a recipe for the filling.

22 July 2018

Spring cleaning, postponed

Yesterday we finally got around to doing some important spring cleaning, at least two months late. Circumstances made it impossible for us to get started on it earlier. We had to get the garden plot prepared and planted in May. We had a house guest for two weeks in June. And I've been feeling lousy for more than a month now. Old age, I guess. Allergies. Skin cancer. I'm just starting to feel better.

When we moved here 15 years ago, we didn't know what to expect of this house. We had only owned one house before, and it was a completely different kind of place. It was built of wood, and was situated on the side of a steep hill in San Francisco. The house was on four different levels. We didn't have, for example, a utility room. From the ground-level garage, we and plumbers had easy access to pipes and fittings that needed maintaining. Importantly, we were on sewer mains that took away gray water from our sinks and showers, and sewage from our toilets.

This house in a hamlet near Saint-Aignan is built completely differently. It's all in brick and concrete block for one thing. It's called a pavillon sur sous-sol in French, but the sous-sol (basement) is at ground level, not below. The sous-sol is made up of four rooms: There's a garage that would possibly be big enough for two small cars. There's an entry hall, which almost feels like wasted space because nobody ever spends any time in it. There's a small, unheated pantry or cellier for storing food and wine — it has a dirt floor. And there's and a big utility room that houses the boiler that heats water for the radiators upstairs that provide central heating, and our washer, dryer, laundry sink, and a shower that we use mostly as a place to rinse off the dog's paws when we come in from our walks in the vineyard. The utility room serves as what people in the northern parts of the U.S. might call a "mud room". In there we also have two freezers that we've acquired, three big storage cabinets that we put in ourselves, and also some sets of shelves for miscellaneous storage. Except for the entry hall, it's all "unfinished" space.

When you have so much unfinished space downstairs that is a kind of basement without being one at all, you know what happens. It fills up with stuff. We only put one car in the garage, so the rest of the space in there holds extra furniture that we just can't bring ourselves to get rid of, along with outdoor furniture, a big storage unit for kitchen things we hardly ever use but don't want to give up, a couple of unused bicycles, recycle bins to outgoing bottles and other recyclables... and on and on. You know what I'm talking about. The photos here are "after" shots of the utility room, and "during" shots of the garage where we hauled all the "stuff" from the utility room for storage while we worked.

And then there are the drains! The house has a whole sewer system built into the concrete slab that it is built on. There are three "manhole covers" called regards in French, which give us access to the concrete conduits that take waste water from, for example, the kitchen sink and dishwasher down to entry-hall level and then under the floor out to the utility room, still under the floor, and finally outdoors, underground. The pipe built into the slab runs approximately horizontally, so it is easy for us to get it stopped up.

So every year we have to open the regards in the utility room and clean then and the concrete conduit out. It fills up with gunk. We have hard water, so calcium deposits combined with grease and vegetable matter combine to cause trouble. Yesterday was our day to clean out the "sewers" — note that water from the toilet has a separate pipe that takes it directly outside to the sewer mains, so that smelly stuff is not part of our problem.

When we came to live here. we had no idea how all this worked. We've learned. We have a power washer we can use to clean the under-floor conduits. It's a stinky, nasty job, but it works. As with most unpleasant tasks, the work gets postponed until it absolutely has to be done. Yesterday was that day. First we had to clean out the utility room. Stuff collects in there. We have rugs on the floor, and those have to come out because we don't want to get them wet in the power-washing process. The rugs themselves get pretty disgusting because the room is, after all, partly mud room. We feel proud of ourselves that this year we actually got the job done before it became a crisis. Everything is flowing. In addition, back in 2003 we were told by the real estate agent that the house had a septic system that would need to be cleaned out every ten years or so. It even says so in our deed to the house.

That was at best erroneous and, at worst, a flat-out lie. In reality, all our gray water ran (slowly) through a very long (150 feet or so) underground pipe to our back gate and then opened up onto a path running down a hill toward the north. The gray water just seeped into the ground, in other words. And the water and waste from the toilet went into a sealed concrete tank that was underground just outside the back door. It had to be pumped out every two or three months, and that got expensive. We did that for three years, and then in 2006 the town had sewer mains put in and we were required to hook our system up to them, at our expense. It was worth it.

These last two photos show the unheated cellier (the downstairs pantry). The third one up is the garage with its red ceiling and junk-covered floor, waiting for us to put the Citroën back in.

21 July 2018

Gratin d'aubergines à la polenta

This could be called moussaka but it's not traditional. Instead of making a thick sauce béchamel (flour, butter, milk) as a topping and adding cheese as well as egg to it to make it set up to a firm consistency as it cooks, I just made a batch of polenta with melted cheese in it. That was the topping for an eggplant gratin made with tomato/meat sauce. Those are slices of pre-cooked potatoes on the bottom. They're optional.

The tomato sauce is made with ground beef and flavored with oregano, onion, garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon, and powdered fennel seeds. I used about 500 grams of beef and two cups of home-made tomato sauce thickened with a few tablespoons of tomato paste (also home-made but that's not crucial). After browning the meat, I poured on the sauce and let everything cook together so that the result was not too watery but, instead, pretty thick.

The most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the recipe is preparing the eggplant (three large aubergines) before putting it in the gratin dish with the sauce. Most recipes call for slicing the aubergines, salting them, letting them drain for an hour or so, and then frying them lightly in olive oil. That's not what I do. I think the salting is unnecessary. I slice the eggplant, put the slices on silicone pads or parchment paper (papier de cuisson) on cookie sheets, brush them with a little olive oil on both sides, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and bake them in a hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes until they are tender and browned. This time, I had three batches of eggplant slices to cook that way, so it took a while. But it's a lot less messy than frying.

The polenta came from the supermarket. I just made it according to package directions and then added about 100 grams of grated Gruyère ("Swiss") cheese to it, along with salt and pepper. Then I spread it over the top of the layered eggplant and sauce and scattered another 50 grams or so of grated cheese over the top of the polenta. It baked in the oven for about 40 minutes, just to brown slightly. I like this revisited « moussaka ». I posted the original recipe in 2015.

20 July 2018

Une tarte aux courgettes, et un orage impressionnant

Last night around 8:30 we had a very strong thunderstorm, with a lot of lightning and thunder. It had been hot in the afternoon, and the storms were moving up into central France from Spain and the Pyrenees. We happened to be out and had to run home in the rain at 9:00. We'd had apéritifs at a neighbor's house with two women who are my age and have lived here for 40 years or more. We heard a lot of good history about the hamlet over the years, and some good gossip about current and past residents. It was fun.

Today I'll post about a zucchini pie I made a couple of days ago. We are harvesting one or two (or more) zucchinis (courgettes) from our vegetable garden every day. We've made a zucchini lasagne. We've blanched and frozen zucchini rondelles for later. We've been making zucchini stir-fries and what they call poêlées (skillet dishes) in French, with various other vegetables and sauces. Then in our database I found this recipe for a tarte croustillante aux courgettes.

The tarte can be made with North African feuilles de brick, or with phyllo dough, or with a standard pâte brisée pie crust. In other words, you don't have to make dough — just buy it. With feuilles de brick, you first brush a pie plate with a little bit of olive oil. Then you layer in five feuilles one at a time, brushing some olive oil on each one. You bake that in the oven for about 10 minutes to crisp the crust up. You could do the same with layers of phyllo. Or pre-bake a standard pie crust so that it's fairly crispy.

Then you slow-cook some sliced or diced onion at low temperature until the onions are browned and caramelized. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to the onions to make them brown without burning them. A splash of white wine at the beginning of the cooking time can tenderize the onions quickly, but you have to let it all evaporate before you stop the cooking. Add some thyme and a bay leaf, along with salt and pepper. You want all the ingredients for this tart to be dry when they go into the pie shell so that it stays crispy.

I admit I took the whole morning to do all this cooking. Most of it was just waiting, so I could do other things as all the ingredients cooked on low in a skillet. After browning the onions and setting them aside, I browned some slices of steamed potato in the same pan. And finally, I browned a sliced zucchini, a big one, also in the same pan at low temperature, in two batches. I already had a couple of leftover sausages that had been poached and then finished on the barbecue grill a couple of days earlier. So all the ingredients for the tart were cooked and slightly caramelized.

Finally, you layer all the ingredients in the pre-baked pie shell, starting with the onions. On top of the onions I put a layer of zuke slices and then a layer of potato slices. I sprinkled on some grated cheese (but not too much). Then I put in a layer of sausage slices, another layer of zucchini slices, and, finally, a little more grated cheese. The tart then goes into the oven at 400ºF (200ºC) for 15 minutes or so until the cheese melts. Serve it hot or at room temperature.

19 July 2018

Ruines gallo-romanes à Thésée

Thésée is a village on the right bank (north of) the Cher river about five miles from our house and Saint-Aignan. It has a hotel, a restaurant, a pharmacy, a butcher shop, and a bread bakery. The train station no longer provides regular rail service but the autoroute on-ramp is very close by for anybody with a car. That's about it, besides the ruins. The population of Thésée is approximately 1,200.

We have a fond memory of Thésée because when we arrived here to live in early June 2003, our house was basically uninhabitable. It needed a thorough cleaning, and we needed to order appliances including a kitchen stove, a refrigerator, a micowave, a coffee-maker, a telephone, and a washing machine before moving in. So we rented a little gîte to stay in for the first week we were here, while we worked to our own house ready. The gîte was in Thésée. It was a comfortable little place and the people who rented it out were very accommodating and welcomed us and our dog. The price for a week's stay was less than $250.

The ruins in these photos, on the west side of Thésée, date back to Gallo-Roman times. That means the period when Gaulish culture was being "romanized" after the invasion by the Roman Empire and its subsequent rule over all Gaul. This was centuries before the Franks invaded from what is now Germany and turned Gaul into France. The Romans held sway in what is now northern France from the first century B.C. until about the 5th century A.D., when their empire went into decline.

Cities (or towns then, probably) like Tours, west of us, and Bourges, to the east, existed before the Romans arrived, and they became important Gallo-Roman centers nearly two thousand years ago. A major road was built to link Tours and Bourges, and Thésée was a stopping off point for traffic along that road. The Gallo-Roman name of the village was Tasciaca. Apparently, it was easy to ford the Cher river at this spot.

The ruins at Tasciaca are thought to be what's left of a ceramics manufacturing facility that dates back to the second century A.D. The walls of the buildings are nearly 25 feet (7 meters) tall in some sections, and they are remarkably intact. The Gallo-Roman site that includes Thésée extends to the left bank (south of) the Cher river and the village of Pouillé. It includes less well-preserved ruins — only the foundations are visible — of a Roman temple or sanctuary on the opposite side of the river from the ruins in my photos here.

Thésée is also a wine village. As I've said, the potter/ceramicist Claude Gaget in the village of La Borne, 60 or 70 miles east, told me when I met him in June that he drives to Thésée on a regular basis to restock his wine cellar. I've identified a vigneron in Thésée who makes Chardonnay wine, my favorite white, but I have yet to make contact with him and arrange to go there when he's actually at home. I want buy a few bottles so I can see and taste what  the wine is like. One of the first wine co-ops to produce and promote top-quality Touraine wines was — and still is — the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oisly et Thésée cave cooperative (located in the nearby village of Oisly). I used to buy their wines in a shop in our neighborhood in San Francisco back in the 1990s.