17 January 2019

Winter greenery

We haven't yet had a flake of snow this winter. It's been coldish on some recent days, but we've had very few days with frosty mornings — yesterday was the rare exception. However, this morning it's 6ºC (at least 10ºF) warmer than it was yesterday morning at the same time.

The other day (Tuesday, Jan. 15), when I took these pictures of the vegetable garden, it was downright warm outside, considering we're in mid-January. It felt more like early April. Today, I thought I'd do a report on how my winter greens are growing.

First, let me say that the collard greens were a disaster again this year. Maybe I planted them too late (end of September). They were immediately attacked by pests that ate all the leaves. So no pictures of those — I wonder if I'll ever be able to harvest beautiful collard plants like the ones I harvested in February 2015.  Today I'll focus on the kale instead.

By mid-October, the kale plants — called lacinato, dinosaur, or black Tuscan kale — had already grown pretty tall. Look at this post from back then. Pests, probably snails and slugs mostly, chewed all the leaves off the collard seedlings, but the kale was too tough for them. I had hoped for some cold weather to kill caterpillars and make the gastropods go into hibernation, but no luck with that.

The Swiss chard, also attacked by pests, hasn't fared very well either. But I'm optimistic that the plants will bounce back and grow tall and bushy as the days get longer. A year or two ago, I had some really beautiful chard plants in March and April.

One other green plant, while not one you can eat but you can enjoy cooking with, is bay laurel. I dug up a volunteer plant last summer and planted it in a pot. I meant to get it planted in the ground by November, but rainy weather prevented me from doing it. It's doing fine in its pot, which I set out on the tarps in the garden plot to help keep the tarps from blowing away. If we have a really hard freeze, I can always bring it into the greenhouse.

16 January 2019

Éclairs et flans : pourquoi ces noms ?

Why is un éclair called that in French? The primary meaning of the word éclair is "lightning bolt" or "flash of lightning" as during a thunderstorm. What does that have to do with a tube-shaped piece of cream-puff pastry filled with chocolate- or coffee-flavored pastry cream?

There are two theories about the origin of the name. One is that the pastries called éclairs are so delicious that people eat them really fast — in a flash. Lightning fast. Another is that éclairs, invented by the chef Antonin Carême of Valençay and Napoléon fame, were such a hit with the French that they electrified the country like a bolt of lightning. (Carême also invented the cream-puff concoction called profiteroles.) See this web page in French for more information about éclairs, flans, and other pastries.

And what is a flan and why is it called that? Technically, a flan is a metal disk that is destined to have a design pressed on it. In pâtisserie, a flan is a kind of cream pie. It's a pastry shell filled with custard (eggs, milk, sugar, and flour or cornstarch) and then baked. It's the shape of the tart that is reminiscent of the metal flan. The term seems to come from old German, where a flado or flaon was a kind of pancake. The flan came to France from England, however, where it is called a custard tart. It crossed the Channel in about 1600, during the reign of Henri IV of France, some say.

15 January 2019

Nos deux galettes des rois en 2019

Yesterday I went down to the village bakery to get some pastries we could have as desserts this week. I picked out two éclairs, one iced with chocolate cream and one with coffee cream. I'll have to take photos of them. I also picked out two parts de flan — wedges of custard pie. Then I noticed that there were several different galettes des rois on display at the other end of the bakery counter. The least expensive was a galette à la frangipane (to serve four people) and cost nine euros. What the heck, I thought, I'll spend the money and we'll see how good it is.

It's been years since we've bought a galette des rois, the traditional "kings' cake" that people in France eat on January 6, which is the Catholic holiday called the Epiphany. According to legend, that's the day the three kings or "wise men" arrived in Bethelehem from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child. Along the North Carolina coast, people used to celebrate Christmas on January 6, I've been told — they called it "old Christmas." Anyway, we haven't bought a galette in years because Walt makes them. From scratch, including the puff pastry and the almond cream called frangipane that he fills them with. Here's the one he made this year.

The cake Walt made was obviously much fresher than the baker's galette des rois when we ate it. It had a "cleaner" taste, I thought. Maybe the baker's cake had been refrigerated since January 6. It wasn't bad though, once I heated it up on the low setting in the microwave oven for a minute or two to soften the butter in the pastry and the frangipane a little bit. It obviously cost three or four times as much as the cost of the ingredients used to make the home-made galette.

14 January 2019

Choux de Bruxelles glacés soja et miel

I was poking around in SuperU when I spotted the Brussels sprouts. There was a big bin full of them and they were about the prettiest sprouts I'd ever seen. I had to buy some (at 2.60 euros per kilogram, or about $1.50/lb.). I figured they'd be good with the capon I was planning to cook the next day.

But how would I cook and season them, since I was glazing the capon with honey, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sriracha? I vaguely remembered that I had once seen recipes on the web for Asian-flavored, stir-fried Brussels sprouts, so I did some googling.

What I came up with was two recipes for roasted Brussels sprouts tossed in a soy-honey marinade. And it turned out to be pretty much the same marinade/basting sauce I was using on the capon. Here's one recipe: Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts. And here's the other one: Crispy Asian Brussels Sprouts. There's the result on the right.

Since I had the capon in the oven for more than three hours the next morning, I really couldn't roast the sprouts in there at the same time. So I decided to steam them first. Then, when the capon came out of the oven to rest before being carved up, I could turn up the oven temperature and then roast the already cooked sprouts in there. It wouldn't take long. I didn't need to trim the sprouts at all before steaming them. Then I just cut the steamed sprouts in half and arranged them cut-side-down on a baking sheet.

Finally, I could toss the hot steamed and roasted sprouts in as much of the honey-soy sauce as I wanted. And they were good. They were slightly browned, but not burned or even really crispy. They had good flavor, a nice texture, and a sweet-and-salty (sucré-salé) glaze, just as the capon did. And I could spoon on more sauce at the table if that seemed like a good idea.

13 January 2019

Un chapon laqué

I cooked a capon yesterday, and I decided to do it laqué — glazed with a syrup made using honey and soy sauce, with other flavor ingredients. Here's what it looked like. I based it on this recipe, but I didn't make the thickened gravy. We just had the jus from the roasting pan and the remaining marinade as sauces at the table.

I cooked the capon (a neutered, fattened chicken) on a rack over a pan of water in a slow oven for 3 or even 3½ hours, basting it every 30 minutes or so with some more of the glazing syrup. I started it at 160ºC (about 325ºF) and gradually turned the heat down as the bird browned.

The history blurb on the internet about the company that raises and markets these capons said that on a trip to the U.S. in the 1960s the founder realized that Americans ate turkey year-round, not just during the end-of-year holidays. He wanted to introduce that custom to France, and later he diversified his production.

Yesterday, when the bird — especially the drumsticks — started getting pretty dark brown, I not only reduced the heat but I covered the capon loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil. I kept basting it, and replenishing the water in the bottom of the roasting pan. The capon drippings, water, and glazing syrup turned into a nice sauce.

Yesterday's meal was pretty simple. We had only two side dishes: a piece of the duck liver, cranberry, and pecan stuffing that I had made for our Christmas dinner and put in the freezer, and some glazed Brussels sprouts. More about those tomorrow.

I bought the capon, a 6½ lb. bird, right after Christmas when it was on sale at about $3.00/lb. (€5.90/kg) — about half the price of the guinea fowl capon we cooked for Christmas. This capon stayed in the freezer for a couple of weeks, and I thawed it for 48 hours in the refrigerator before roasting it.

12 January 2019

The main portal of the Benet church

This is a series of photos of the front of the Église Sainte-Eulalie in the village of Benet in the Vendée département in France. It's just outside the town of Niort.

In putting the photos together, I've gone from the longest view to the closest, focusing on the incomplete statue on the right side of the church's main portal.

This Romanesque-style part of the church dates back to the 11th century, according to the Monumentum web site's page describing it.

The Monumentum site also shows a series of much older photos of the church.


Today I'm going to be cooking a glazed (or "lacquered") capon in the oven. It's a fattened chicken that weighs about 6½ lbs. (nearly 3 kg). The glaze/basting sauce will be made with honey, soy sauce, ginger, hot red pepper, vinegar, and sesame oil. With it we're going to have oven-roasted Brussels sprouts tossed in the same sauce.

11 January 2019

L'Église Sainte-Eulalie à Benet en Vendée

On the Tuesday after we arrived in the Vendée, we took a drive into the Marais poitevin, a long-settled and formerly marshy area with many canals and many villages with old churches. This one is in the village of Benet (pop. 4,000), which is now a a suburb of the small city of Niort (pop. 60,000) just 10 or 11 kilometers to the east.

The church in Benet was built in the 12th century. It was a Romanesque church but it seems that much of the building collapsed in the 13th century. The only part of the 12th century building remaining is the fronton (façade), including the main portal and the detail you see in these photos.

The rest of the church as it stands today was built in the 14th century and is Gothic in style. For real connoisseurs, it's much less interesting than the older fronton. In the image above, that's a dragon that the headless human figure is standing on. Back in October,  when we were staying in a gîte rural about 15 miles west of Benet, I posted a couple of photos I took around and in the church, but I never posted these.

I imagine that all these nonetheless impressive features and sculptures inside the Benet church  are much less ancient than the building itself. Still...

Meanwhile, back here in Saint-Aignan, we've had a couple of fairly sunny days —especially the mornings — this week.  However, the weather forecast for today says we should expect rain and even snow, or "a wintry mix" as we call such precipitation in the U.S.

It's supposed to rain all weekend, actually, or at least be cloudy with showers. Ah, winter in northern France! We just have to deal with it. Some expats I've known just decamp back to their country of origin at this time of year. That would be just too much trouble, expense, and dislocation for us. We just have to entertain ourselves as best we can indoors (plus take damp or frosty walks with the dog).

10 January 2019

The church at Auzay (Vendée)

We had been in our Vendée gîte for four days in late October, and the day before we had made the long drive to the Île de Noirmoutier and back — four hours round-trip. We were tired. So on this Thursday afternoon, October 25, we decided to drive just the short distance over to the neighboring village of Auzay and take a nice, relaxing walk with the dog.

We parked the Citroën in front of the village church, L'Église Notre-Dame-de-la Nativité. I don't really know much about it, and information on the web is scarce. On the left in the photo is the monument to people from Auzay (pop. 500 or so) who died in World War I and World War II. The village and countryside can be descibed as "bucolic."

Here are three photos of the church in Auzay. It looks like it has recently been cleaned up. Sandblasted, probably. The stone is very white. This is a Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century and has been modified and enlarged over the centuries.

At this point I'm winding down my series on our trip to the French Atlantic coast between Brittany and Bordeaux. As I've said before, it's comforting to look at all these photos of blue skies and bright sun. The news here yesterday morning was running a report about Paris specifically, and the northern part of France in general, lamenting how skies have been overcast and the weather foggy and gloomy for a couple of weeks now. They said that Paris has had an average of one minute of sunshine per day since the beginning of the month. People are getting fatigued and depressed. The payback for enduring these short, dark days will come as we move toward May and June, with many long hours and days of sunshine and daylight.

09 January 2019

Burritos, home-made

A burrito is not so much a traditional Mexican food as it is a regional dish of northern Mexican and a fairly recent invention. The tortilla used to make a burrito is made with wheat flour, not corn meal or masa harina, and it's a big 10-inch tortilla. Burritos are also a specialty of San Francisco's Latino community and the city's Mission neighborhood. There, the burrito fillings are meat, whole cooked beans (not refried beans), rice, lettuce, bell peppers, diced fresh tomatoes, and cheese.

We lived in San Francisco for about 15 years, and we enjoyed burritos weekly. There was an excellent taqueria called La Corneta in the neighborhood where we lived from 1995 until 2003, and it was where we went for burritos. The photos in this post show the ingredients we used to make home-made burritos this week. The finished product is on the right, served with dollops of crème fraîche.

Here in France, we can buy such tortillas at the supermarket, and they're called wraps, pronounced [vrahp]. We bought a package of them at Intermarché a few days ago, and they were Mission brand but made in the Netherlands, according to the packaging. Other brands are available too.

I had cooked a big batch of black-eyed peas and I thought they'd be good in Mexican-style concoctions like enchiladas (made with smaller corn tortillas) and burritos. We made both over the course of the week. We also bought some bœuf à bourguignon (beef stew meat) and ground up 1½ lbs. of it to use in our burritos.

I had made a spicy enchilada sauce using tomato sauce, pureed potimarron (winter squash) pulp, some black-eyed pea broth, and of course spices including cumin and hot chili peppers — in this case, smoked chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I brought these back from a trip to the U.S., but yesterday I learned that they are available on amazon.fr as well (several different brands). (Leftover chipotles and adobo sauce can be frozen in small containers for future use.) The enchilada sauce with some chipotles and adobo added made good seasoning for the beef.

The Mission-brand flour tortillas are tender and flexible, so it's easy to fill them with all the flavor ingredients and make burrito wraps with them. We also wrapped the wraps in aluminum foil so that we could heat up the burritos in the oven before serving them, mostly to melt the cheese we put inside them.

08 January 2019

Noirmoutier's oceanside

The sun will come up here in Saint-Aignan at twenty minutes to nine this morning. Whether we see it or not is another question. Yesterday was a dark day. Today may well be the same, but the weather is changing. There was a breeze when I took Tasha out for a pee at five o'clock. The morning is not really cold, and we may get some rain today. (Actually, at 6:30 it is already raining.)

I'm still enjoying the beach photos I took on the Île de Noirmoutier in late October on a sunny, warm day. They remind me of my home region, the coast of North Carolina. I've been comparing the Noirmoutier photos to photos I've taken on the beaches in N.C. over the years.

One thing that surprises me about the beaches along the French Atlantic coast is all the seaweed that washes up. And I know where it comes from, or think I do. The Gulf Stream brings it here from the Sargasso Sea, which lies not far southeast of N.C., and a long way southwest of France. If I'm right... A strong southeast wind can bring that kind of seaweed to the N.C. beaches.

According to Google Maps, my home town in North Carolina is almost 4,000 miles southwest of the Île de Noirmoutier, as the seaweed floats, and a little bit farther from Saint-Aignan. The beach we were on at Noirmoutier is called the Plage Saint-Jean. You can't see the Cape Lookout light from there.

We had finally got to the ocean side of the island, but the sea that I saw on that day in October really didn't look like the ocean. I think it looked more like the Gulf of Mexico, which I've seen a few times — except maybe for that seaweed. The water was calm and flat, with no real surf. I wonder if it's always like that. In this last photo, I realized when I enlarged it on my computer screen that people were actually sunbathing on the beach that day.

07 January 2019

Les pommiers et le gui

Apple trees (pommiers) here in the Loire Valley are tortured by mistletoe (gui), which is a parasite. Le gui sends "roots" called suckers (suçoirs) down into the wood of apple tree branches and slowly sucks the sap and life out of its host. It's known to live on poplar, willow, locust, almond, linden, and certain pine trees as well. I'm talking about European mistletoe; there is also a variety of mistletoe that occurs only in North America. (Here's a link to a series of posts about mistletoe that I've done over the years, with photos of course.)

Here's what the big apple tree in our back yard looks like these days. It appears to be pretty old (but we don't know how old because we've only lived here for 16 years) and it is definitely in a weakened state. It's full of gui. It has lost several big branches over the past five years, and it is really lopsided and starting to lean. We figure we'll have to have it taken out before too much longer — or just wait for it to fall over. The trunk is badly split, and mushrooms grow around its base. That's a bad sign.

And here's a smaller apple tree out by our back gate, in front of the garden shed. It's also full of gui. From what I've read, one way to remove the gui is to "dig" it out by cutting the green part of the mistletoe plant off at the base and then scraping the surface of the wood it's been living on to try to remove all the suçoirs. The danger is that the scraping leaves a wound that can be attacked by other parasites and pests, or simply by humidity, rotting the wood and further stressing the tree.

This is a tree that has finally been killed by, I assume, a combination of gui and the weather. It grows on the far side of the pond that's outside our back gate. Monsieur Denis the elder, who owns or at least used to own most of the vineyards around our property, once old me that this was the tree that produced the very best pommes out of all the dozens of pommiers growing in and around the hamlet. He's handed the grape-growing business business off to his son and DIL now, and he has such debilitating mobility issues that we never see him out in the vineyard any more.

And finally, here's another solution to the gui problem: radical pruning. Our neighbor who lives most of the year in the Paris area just had a man over to prune the four or five apple trees that grow on her land. She told me in September, when she spent a few weeks in her house in the hamlet, that she was disappointed to see so few apples on the trees in 2018. I assume some professional told her that this is a way to try to bring the the trees and apples back. I hope it works.
I'll be curious to see how these trees fare in the spring. Maybe our trees need the same pruning. The strange thing is that we have two fairly large apple trees in our yard that have no gui growing in them at all. So I think certain varieties of apple are more susceptible than others. Another pommier, just outside our fence, is so full of gui that it can't possibly remain standing much longer. Our pear tree died last winter, but there was no gui in it. And our neighbors across the street lost two big pommiers last winter too.

06 January 2019

L'art de la desserte

I seem to have been doing a series of posts lately about being creative with leftovers. In French, that's called l'art d'accommoder les restes. The 1967 Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia even devotes an article to it (under restes). « L'art d'accommoder les restes passe, le plus souvent, pour le summum de la science culinaire. » — "The art of making good use of leftovers often passes for the highest form of culinary skill."

The author of the article points out that cooks certainly need to be careful that the reason why they have a lot of leftovers is not just that they aren't managing their kitchen properly, or that the people they are serving just don't like the way the food was prepared. If the cook intentionally cooks more food than can be consumed in one sitting, what is left over is not called restes but « la desserte ». I'm going to claim that I'm that kind of cook. Besides, nowadays we have freezers...

Anyway, when I cooked black-eyed peas for our January 1 lunch, I decided to cook a whole kilo bag of dried peas. That makes for enough cooked black-eyes pour un régiment, as they say in France, or "enough to feed Coxey's army," as my mother used to say. You'll have to look that up.

On the right are two pieces of duck confit that I bought at the supermarket.

My original idea was to eat the black-eyed peas not only with the "side meat" (smoked pork belly) that cooked with them and a couple of saucisses de Toulouse, but also with a couple of slow-cooked duck legs, or cuisses de canard confites. On the actual day, that seemed like overdoing it, so I saved the duck idea for later. Later was yesterday.

So first I browned the duck legs in a baking pan in a hot oven, alongside the dish of beans that needed re-heating. When the beans were hot and the duck legs were lightly browned, I put the meat on top of the beans, along with some of the fat they had released, and browned everything for a little bit longer (as you see above). Voilà ! Un cassoulet de haricots cornille... Black-eyed pea cassoulet. I had made a salad of escarole and beets as an accompaniment.

Earlier in the week, I had used some of the black-eyed peas as part of a filling, with some smoked meat, rice, and hot sauce, for a batch of Mexican-style enchiladas that Walt wrapped up and we baked. Of course, I still have some of the rice and bean filling left over. Tex-Mex-style burritos are on the menu for the coming week.