31 December 2018

Salade de scarole au poulet

Here's a good way to finish up your roasted holiday bird. In my title, I use the word poulet (chicken), but in fact the leftover bird we had was breast meat from a chapon de pintadeau (Guinea-fowl capon). You could cook chicken especially for this salad if you don't have any left over. For example, pan-roasted boneless, skinless breasts or thighs...

Scarole (escarole in English) is a sturdy and tasty salad green that is good served with garlicky vinaigrette and with beets, lardons fumés (chunks of smoked pork), or walnuts. Or all of the above. Those are salad ingredients that complement and tone down the slight bitterness of the escarole leaves.

Another addition can be chicken, or turkey, or Guinea fowl. I put poultry, cooked beets, toasted walnuts, and toasted croutons in my salad on Saturday, but no pork. It was a full meal in one dish. It's a good idea to dress the escarole leaves a few minutes in advance so that the vinegar in the dressing will begin to tenderize them.

The important thing about this kind of salade composée is to mix the greens with the vinaigrette before adding the other ingredients. If you don't dress the greens first, the danger is that the croutons, the chicken, and the walnuts will soak up all the vinaigrette and turn soggy, leaving little or no dressing left for the greens.

Vinaigrette is made by mixing together a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, two teaspoons of vinegar (red wine, white wine, cider... your choice), salt and pepper, and three or four teaspoons of good oil (olive, canola, sunflower, or a combination... also your choice). And in this case a clove or two of garlic, chopped or pressed. Toss the escarole in the dressing, then add the other ingredients and toss again. Enjoy.

30 December 2018

Noirmoutier : "strawberries" and a parasol pine, but no picnic spot

As we walked back to the car from the Plage du Vieil, along the rue du Petit Vieil toward the Plage de la Madeleine — it was only about 500 yards — I noticed a tree that I don't think I'd ever seen before. I thought the fruits were lychees, but it turns out, I've learned thanks to Susan, to be an arbousier, or strawberry tree. It's native to the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastal areas of Europe and the British Isles.

Let me say again how far north Noirmoutier and Saint-Aignan are. Both are located at 47º of latitude north of the equator, which puts them farther north than Quebec City or Duluth (Minnesota). That's almost as far north as the tip top of the state of Maine (north of the town of Caribou, for example). Thank the warm ocean current called the Gulf Stream for the island's mild climate. And France's climate overall.

People were out walking on the beaches or cycling on the streets. This was on October 24. We were walking along the narrow street, which is lined with white-washed walls. I noticed the pin parasol (stone pine, umbrella pine, parasol pine are names for it in English) pictured here. It's a Mediterranean plant, but seems to be thriving in the Noirmoutier climate. It's the pine that give us pignons de pin (pine nuts) for the Provençal cookies called pignons and for pesto.

Here's a Google Maps aerial view of the street and beaches we had walked along. I think I can actually see the umbrella pine on this image. It's just past the Chat Perché restaurant and on the opposite side of the street. We were still looking for a place to have our noontime picnic, but we weren't having a lot of luck so far. It was lunchtime.

29 December 2018

Noirmoutier : marais salants et « fleur de sel »

One of the biggest industries on the Île de Noirmoutier — along with tourism, fishing, and farming — is the production of sea salt and the specialty product called fleur de sel. In a good year, the saltworks on the island produce as much as three thousand tons of what has been called "white gold" — but it all depends on the weather in any given year. "Salt" is sel in French.

Canals and evaporation ponds called marais salants cover about a third of the island. A hundred or so "salt harvesters" work them nowadays — there's a cooperative. The whole infrastructure is man-made and has been developed over the course of the centuries.

Seawater flows in through canals, is contained in shallow ponds with impermeable clay bottoms, and evaporates in the dry, sunny, breezy summer weather. The salt crystallizes, and harvesters (sauniers in French) use wooden "skimmers" (raclettes, like squeegees) to rake it up and collect it. Read more about it here and here.

The fleur de sel is the finest grade of sea salt, and is harvested off the surface of the ponds. None of the salt is processed or refined. It's just collected and set out on tables in the sun to dry, so it is 100% natural. The industry has had its ups and downs over the past century, but is on the upswing today. The salt is artisanal and natural — a luxury product.

You can buy little bags of the sea salt and fleur de sel from the sauniers out in the marshes or in shops all over the island. It's very good sprinkled on boiled or steamed Noirmoutier potatoes, called bonnottes, which are grown in the island's sandy soil.

There's an interesting Carnets de Julie segment about the saltworks on Noirmoutier here. And there's another one about saltworks on the nearby Île de Ré here.

28 December 2018

Quelques maisons à Noirmoutier

A majority of the houses I saw on the island of Noirmoutier had sky-blue shutters, gates, and other trim. I think that's a feature you see all along France's west — Atlantic — coast. When some people around Saint-Aignan started painting their shutters blue a few years ago, one of our neighbors told me, with regret in her voice, that that blue color used to be seen only in coastal areas.

Nearly all the houses are white-washed — chaulées, as chaux is the word for whitewash. The clean white exteriors and sky-blue shutters give the whole island a neat, well-maintained look. The Michelin guide describes the town of Noirmoutier-en-l'Île as the island's « blanche capitale ». These are photos I took in the peaceful hamlet, or neighborhood, called Le Vieil. Several scenes in the 1972 Claude Sautet movie César et Rosalie, one of my favorites, were filmed here.

Here's a house with shutters and the front gate painted in a deeper shade of blue. It was almost shocking to me when I saw it, because it was an exception that really stood out. "That color doesn't look right," I thought to myself. If all the shutters on these houses are closed up tight, it's because two-thirds of the island's housing stock is made up of résidences secondaires.

And here's another exception — il n'y a pas de règle sans exception. A Noirmoutier tourist site I just read describes Le Vieil in these terms: "Everywhere are small white houses with blue shutters facing the south to expose their gardens to the sun and fill the air with the scents of their seasonal flowers. Take advantage of the calm village... to enjoy a peaceful walk through its narrow streets lined with charming fishermen’s houses."

27 December 2018

Les plages de la Madeleine et du Vieil à Noirmoutier

These are photos that I took on the northeast shore of the Île de Noirmoutier, in the town of Noirmoutier-en-l'Île. This is the bay side of the island, looking out over the Baie de Bourgneuf — Bourgneuf is a town on the mainland. I was surprised at how rocky this coast is.

When Atlantic storms approach the coast, or when flood tides occur, well... you can see why there are such tall and solid seawalls to keep the water, as it were, at bay. I would like to go back to Noirmoutier one day to see what it looks like at high tide.

We found a place to park the car just south of the marker on the map above for the Plage de la Madeleine (plage means beach). There is a strand of sand but it was the rocks that impressed me. We walked east along the beach over to the road where the restaurant known as Le Chat Perché is located. Then we walked along the road over to the Plage du Vieil (vieil is a form of the word vieux, meaning "old.")

I mentioned the smell of the seaweed in an earlier post. It smelled really good to me — the air "smells like low tide" is what we would say on the North Carolina coast. On the right in the photo above, you can see three boys walking on the rocks, which are covered in seaweed. I bet it was pretty slippery.

Our Shetland sheepdog Natasha had never been to the beach before. She was obviously really excited by the experience. But she stayed close to us and pretty much ignored the other people who were out on the beach and rocks. The weather here in Saint-Aignan has turned cold — it's below freezing this morning — and it's nice to remember warm sunny days like the one you see in these photos. Here's a link to a map of all the Noirmoutier beaches.

26 December 2018

Un pintadeau, et une farce aux foies de canard

The bird we cooked and ate this Christmas was what is commonly known as a chapon de pintade — a Guinea-fowl capon. You probably know what a capon is. It's a male bird, usually a chicken, that has been fattened to produce tasty, tender meat. The capon has also been surgically castrated, but let's not think about that. As far as I know, capons are not force-fed (gavé).

People call these capons chapons de pintade, so I guess pintade is the generic term for this species of poultry, but it is also the name for a Guinea hen, the female of the family. This kind of capon should, I think, be called a chapon de « pintadeau », which is the Guinea cock. Oh well. The fact is, the pintade and pintadeau, African in origin, are a delicious volaille (fowl) that has been appreciated in Europe since Roman times. This one weighed 2.6 kg, or 5¾ lbs.

We bought the Guinea-fowl capon from our local poultry vendor (volailler), who sells them and all sorts of prepared poultry and poultry products (including rabbits) at the Saturday market in Saint-Aignan and at the Friday market in Montrichard. The processing facility is located in Pouillé, a village just 5 miles from our house. We've been buying poultry from these people (named Clément) for 15 years now.
I noticed at Saturday's market that, according to a sign on the wall of the vendor's market stall, the poultry they sell comes from an abattoir in the village of Ouchamps, just 15 miles north of here, near Blois, and are birds raised on nearby farms. I've driven up there to buy local volailles, but I didn't know that our market vendor bought from the same place. We slow-cooked the pintadeau on the rotisserie (tourne-broche) in our oven, after "stuffing" it with bay leaves, garlic cloves, allspice berries, black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, and coarse salt.

I also made "dressing," which is what I call stuffing that you don't cook inside the bird but in a separate pan. For the dressing, I had sausage meat, duck liver plus the liver of the pintadeau, cubes of my home-made pain de mie, shallot, onion, garlic celery (céleri-branches), pecans from North Carolina, and dried cranberries "rehydrated" in Armagnac. I might have forgotten an ingredient or two... Tasha was attracted by the aroma of the cooked sausage and liver, as you can see below.

We had steamed and then lightly sauteed Brussels sprouts and a purée of potimarron (winter squash) from the 2018 vegetable garden as side dishes with our chapon de pintade, and of course the dressing. We opened a bottle of 2015 Régnié red, which we bought on our quick trip to Beaujolais last March, to wash it all down with.

25 December 2018

Naughty or nice...

...have a Merry Christmas either way. If you've been nice all year,
maybe this would be a good day for being naughty. And vice-versa.

This Père Noël, who I photographed in Saint-Aignan nearly 10 years ago, looks like even he wouldn't mind either way.
I hope he will be generous with you in 2018. Ho ho ho.

24 December 2018

La pêche à pied à Noirmoutier

One thing today — Christmas Eve — and last October 24 have in common is how uncommonly warm the weather is. Our low temperature here in the Saint-Aignan area (Val de Loire) is, at 12ºC, a lot warmer than our normal high temperature for the day would be. In other words, it's 54ºF right now, and we would expect it to be nearly 20ºF colder. It's almost weird.

When we were out on the Île de Noirmoutier, two months ago today, it was the same story. As you'll see in some of the photos I'm going to be posting now, it was almost as warm as a day in May or even June then — in late October. We had driven two hours from the gîte we had rented for the week, and there was dense fog along the way as we passed by the big towns of La Roche-sur-Yon and Challans. When we arrived at the coast and drove over the big high-rise bridge onto the island, the fog lifted and skies turned sunny and blue. La pêche à pied, by the way, means "fishing on foot" — gathering shellfish.

Noirmoutier was one of the places, along with La Rochelle and Niort, that we really wanted to see in the Vendée area. Neither of us had ever been there before. The coastal island has a surface area of about 20 square miles (48 km²) and a year-round population of about 10,000. It's nearly 12 miles from bottom to top, and on the island there are 15,000 housing units (logements in French) but two-thirds of them (10K) are vacation or summer places (résidences secondaires). Noirmoutier is closer to Brittany than to Bordeaux, but it feels southern somehow. It must be really crowded and congested in summertime.

Here's a map of the island. We drove up as far north as we could, looking for a place to eat the picnic lunch we had packed for our noontime meal. We finally found one, but not before we had stopped to take a walk on the beach with Tasha the Sheltie puppy. A lot of people were out taking advantage of the beautiful weather and very low tide. The seaweed smelled like fresh oysters. As someone who grew up on the low, marshy, sandy North Carolina coast, Noirmoutier smelled like home to me — just as San Francisco did three decades ago the first time I took a walk on the wharves along the bay there.

23 December 2018

Soupe de légumes gratinée

I nearly forgot to finish my potée / potée soup series. Here's the last meal we had of the potée vegetables and meats transformed into soupe.

It had never occurred to me, I believe, to put bread and cheese on a soup like this one. Even though, for years one of my favorite soupes has been the classic bistrot or café specialty called soupe à l'oignon gratinée. I've posted many times about French Onion Soup on this blog — almost every winter going back as far as 2006 and as recently six or seven months ago. Why had I never thought of treating vegetable soup the same way?

Walt thinks this was his suggestion, and that wouldn't surprise me. The soupe I had made with veal, pork, winter vegetables and potée broth might be a good candidate for an onion-soup-style gratinée. What you do is heat up the soupe and pour it into oven-proof soup bowls. Float two or three thick slices of slightly dry (or toasted) French baguette on each bowl of soup, and then put on top of the bread a couple of handfuls of grated "Swiss" cheese like Comté, Emmental, Beaufort, Abondance, or Gruyère.

Set the cheese-covered bowls of soupe chaude in a hot, hot oven — remember, the soupe itself is already hot — and wait a few minutes for the cheese to melt and the golden gratin to form. Take burning-hot bowls out of the oven very carefully and serve them steaming hot at the table. Eat the soup-softened bread, melted cheese, diced vegetables and meat, and the clear potée broth with a large soup spoon. Don't burn your mouth!

22 December 2018

Deux portes, un pont, et de vieilles pierres

This is what is called a "condemned" door in France — une porte condamnée. I guess we'd say "walled off" or "bricked in" — or blocked off. Of course these are stones, not bricks or blocks. I wonder why it was "condemned"...

I took these photos was back in October, when we were staying in a gîte rural in the Vendée département, out on the Atlantic coast of western France. We had decided to spend the afternoon in the "town" or commune where the gîte was located, and which is called Auchay. Here are some more photos of les vieilles pierres (the old stones) of walls and buildings in the area.

All of France is divided up into communes — which I guess I'd call "townships" — but Auchay is a new one that was formed and named only two years ago. It resulted from the merging of two old communes or villages named Auzay and Chaix. Our gîte was located in a hameau or hamlet called Brillac, which used to be part of Chaix but now is in Auchay.

Usually a commune has a village or town at its center. In the commune where we live, near Saint-Aignan, the built-up area, where the church and mairie (village hall) stand, is called le bourg — the "burg." A village by definition has a church in it. A hamlet, by definition, does not. But in Auchay, there are two churches, one in old Auzay and one in old Chaix. I don't know how unusual that is. (There are two churches in Montrichard, after all.)

We took a walk with the dog around the old village of Auzay one afternoon. Archeological digs have shown that the place has been occupied since prehistoric times. It's on the right bank of the Vendée river, and we were staying on the left bank. The bridge across the Vendée river linking Auzay and Chaix is a Gustave Eiffel structure, but it's certainly not very grand — not like Eiffel's Tower in Paris.

So the bridge is not made of stone. It is not wide enough to allow two cars coming from opposite directions to pass each other, but a lot of people don't want it replaced by a new bridge because of its historical significance. As you can see, the river itself is not very wide.

21 December 2018

From potée to soupe

The second time we ate some of the potée, 2 days later (see yesterday's post), I decided to transform it into something that didn't much resemble a one-pot boiled dinner. I also decided we didn't need to eat the two sausages (Toulouse and à l'ail) that had cooked along with the vegetables, veal roast, and chunk of pork breast. So I put the sausages in the freezer for later, and I started cutting up some of the vegetables into bite-sized chunks. I sauteed those vegetables in some olive oil, and I heated the meats up in the oven. Then I made gravy — une sauce blanche or veloutée — using flour, butter, some of the potée broth, and cream. It was a different kind of lunch. I still had boiled vegetables, including turnips, leeks, parsnips, carrots, celery, and kale, in the fridge.

The third time we ate potée (again 2 days later), I decided to make soup. I had a lot of highly flavored broth left — maybe 2 liters. — and quite a lot of meat and vegetables. Making all that into soup is a time-consuming process, because everything needs to be finely diced.

Being a retired person who doesn't have any obligations outside of the house helps. And I have nearly infinite patience when it comes to working in the kitchen to prepare good food.  It also helps that I don't like to see anything go to waste. And I really believe in planning and preparing the food you plan to eat over the coming days. If you're not prepared or haven't planned, you end up eating... well, just whatever. At least I would.

P.S. Today is Walt's birthday, so we'll be making the traditional steak au poivre for our dinner at noontime.

So here's the soup. Diced potée vegetables, veal, and pork, to which I added some corn and peas (Walt's idea) for color and flavor. And potée broth plus what remained of the gravy/white sauce from a couple of days early, which enriched and thickened the broth just slightly.

We had one more potée meal ahead of us, because there was too much soup to eat at one sitting... More to come.

20 December 2018

Une potée à ma façon

The other day, in writing about oven-roasted magret de canard, I mentioned turnips. They're a classic accompaniment for roast duck. Just look at some of these French recipes for canard aux navets. For our lunch a few days earlier, I had boiled and then sautéed some turnips — both yellow and white — for a dish called a potée, and some of them were still in the frigo.

A potée is a boiled dinner. Every French region has its own style, with different meats and vegetables according to what the local specialties are. Sausages, different cuts of fresh, smoked, or salt-cured pork, and even beef or poultry can go into the pot, with winter vegetables including turnips, parsnips, cabbage, carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, celery... and even beans.

I put kale from the garden in our potée. I just went out and pulled two dozen pretty leaves off the Tuscan "dinosaur" kale plants growing in the garden and cooked them in the broth with the other vegetables and with the meats you see below. This is my favorite kind of wintertime cooking. I learned about making potées from a woman who ran a charcuterie (pork butcher's shop) in Paris, when I lived there back in the early 1980s. The charcutière liked to explain to her customers how the different cuts of pork she sold should be cooked. It was always good advice.

As usual, again this time I made far too much food for the two of us — too many vegetables and too much meat. Veal shoulder roasts were on sale for a good price, and even though it's unconventional, I decided to include one in the potée. I also put in a smoked garlic sausage (saucisson à l'ail fumé) and a big chunk of lean pork "belly" (poitrine de porc), which was sold already cooked and just needed reheating in the broth (photo above).

Here's how we ate the potée the day I cooked it, with some butter on the veggies and Dijon mustard with the meats. We had a lot of meat left over, including most of the long plain pork sausage (saucisse de Toulouse) you see in the first photo above. I put what was left of both the sausages in the freezer to re-cook during the holidays (we always make a cassoulet on New Year's Day...). I didn't have a firm plan for the bounty of cooked vegetables, but I knew that they wouldn't go to waste. That's how I ended up having those turnips to serve with the pan-roasted duck breast and white beans. To be continued...

19 December 2018

My morning view

This is what I'm looking at these days as I sit in the living room in the early morning hours — as I'm working on my laptop, putting together a blog post. It's dark outside.

On the right is a closer view of the tree. Today, several things are on the schedule. We're taking the Citroën in for it's biannual inspection. Then we're going to the supermarket to do some holiday shopping. Not only do we have to think about foods for our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, but Walt's birthday is on Friday, so we need to get foods for a birthday dinner as well. This ranks as a busy day in our Saint-Aignan lives.

18 December 2018

Magret de canard aux mogettes (et aux navets)

This is a duck breast filet (un magret de canard) that I roasted in a pan in a hot oven. In other seasons, Walt would cook this morsel on the barbecue grill. Whether you plan to roast it in the oven or on the grill, the first thing to do is to score the duck breast's skin and fat using a sharp knife.

The term magret is related to the French word maigre, meaning lean or meager, because the duck breast is less fatty than other parts of the duck. Still, the magret is the breast of a duck that has been fattened to produce foie gras, which is a holiday treat in France.
First I heated up a heavy pan in a very hot oven, and then I put the magret in the pan skin-side down so that the skin would be seared. I slid the pan back into the hot oven. At high heat, the magret cooked in about 10 minutes. Then I took it out of the oven, put the meat on a platter, and covered it with aluminum foil and a kitchen towel to let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. That way, it continued cooking, but slowly. Magret de canard is good cooked rare or medium-rare.
Letting the meat rest once it comes out of the oven allows residual heat to spread from the outside toward the inside of the roast, so it will be evenly cooked through and the outside won't be burned.

To accompany the magret, I heated up some big white beans called mogettes, which are grown in the coastal Vendée area where we spent a week back in October. The beans were put up in a jar and we bought them at the supermarket here in Saint-Aignan. Beans, water, and some salt — that's all there was in the jar.
Beans, white or green, are a classic accompaniment for duck. I also had a few already-cooked Italian flat green beans in the fridge, so I cut those up and added them to the mix. And I had some left-over sauteed turnips in the fridge too. Turnips are another classic side dish to have with duck, so I added those. As you can see, the duck was cooked fairly rare — medium-rare, anyway — and was very juicy. Searing the skin, which covers a generous layer of fat, produces a lot of melted graisse de canard, which is perfect for seasoning beans and other vegetables (including potatoes). Besides duck fat, all I needed to add was a grinding of black pepper.