31 October 2019

Un couscous au veau (1) : les ingrédients

I know that couscous is available in most American supermarkets. I know that because my mother used to buy boxes of it in the supermarkets in the little town of Morehead City, N.C. She would cook it according to the directions on the package and eat it with melted butter as a breakfast cereal. Actually, it's a form of pasta, made with durum wheat semolina (semoule de blé dur). Think cream of wheat but not boiled, just steamed so that the grains of semolina remain separate.

In North Africa, the Middle East, and France, couscous is much more than just the couscous "grain" or semoule. The Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia says that couscous is « le plat national tant de l'Algérie que du Maroc et de la Tunisie. » It's not about breakfast cereal. So what is it about? Couscous as a dish is a stew — a mix of peeled vegetables cooked in a broth (chicken or vegetable) flavored tomatoes and with ras el hanout, which is a powered spice blend.
Here are some of the vegetables that go into the stew. I think you can identify them. They include what we might call summer vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, and green beans, as well as winter vegetables like turnips, rutabagas, carrots, celery root, and leeks, along with onions and shallots as well as chickpeas (garbanzo beans).

The spicy stew of tomatoes and vegetables make a sort of sauce that is served with the couscous "grain". Putting meat in the stew is optional, because it can also be served separately as a first course (spit-roasted lamb called méchoui is a standard, but chicken and other meats are often included). The hot-pepper paste called harissa is a standard accompaniment. Serve a pile of steamed couscous on a plate, put some vegetables and meat and broth over the grain. Then fill a small ladle with broth and stir in some harissa paste before dribbling it over the couscous and vegetables to spice it all up.
For this couscous, I decided to cook some veal that often goes into acreamy white stew called blanquette de veau, flavored with onions, carrots, white wine, and mushrooms. Veal is a mild-tasting meat, like chicken or turkey, that won't clash with couscous broth and vegetables, I thought, when I saw that Intermarché was having special on veal at 8.50€/kg. This is stew meat that needs long (two hours or more), slow cooking before it becomes tender and succulent. (In the past, I've also cooked this kind of veal in tomato sauce with olives.)

First, sauté the veal (or chicken) in olive oil to brown it. Pour 1.5 liters of chicken broth over it and let it simmer for 90 minutes (less time for chicken). Taste it for tenderness. Add in some bay leaves, black peppercorns, and allspice berries or cloves. And add in two tablespoons of ras el hanout spice powder (powdered cumin, turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, coriander seed, cardamom, pepper, caraway seeds, paprika, fennel seeds, and fenugreek are some of the spices in the spice mixture).

[More tomorrow...]

30 October 2019

Two sunrise photos

Sunrise on the eastern end of Bogue Banks, NC, USA — October 19, 2019 — Photo by Sue N.

Sunrise at La Renaudière, near Saint-Aignan, Loire Valley, France — October 27, 2019 — Photo by Ken B.

I'm busy this morning working on my first big cooking project since I got back from North Carolina. I'm making a big pot of the stew that is served with the North African pasta/cereal called couscous. We're having chilly, damp weather, and the hot, spicy broth, the vegetables (carrots, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, turnips, rutabagas, celery, bell peppers, okra, green beans, and chickpeas) and the stewed meats will be good comfort food. As a twist on a classic dish, I'm cooking the couscous broth with veal rather than lamb this time. Heavy rains are predicted over the coming weekend. More later...

29 October 2019

Dans le TGV Atlantique

To get to Paris-CDG airport (which we used to call by the name of a nearby town, Roissy [rwah-'see], but which Americans seem to just call CDG), I normally take the high-speed train called the TGV Atlantique. It's direct from the airport to the city of Tours, 40 miles or so west of Saint-Aignan.

Walt drives me over to Tours, and comes to pick me up there when I return from my trip. TGV stands for train à grande vitesse. Here's what the interior of a car looks like. On October 9, I sat in first class, and there were very few other passengers in the car with me.

To go from Roissy to Tours (the TGV station for Tours is called Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, which is the name of a suburb of the city that is famous as a big rail yard), the train goes south around Paris on the east side of the city — the airport is northeast of Paris — then west along the south side of the city, all at low speed because the route takes it through the suburbs.

As it leaves the southwestern suburbs of Paris, it picks up speed and rolls across the landscape toward Tours at nearly 200 mph. The TGV trip from the airport takes less than two hours. Driving from Saint-Aignan to Roissy can take three or four hours, depending on traffic.

The TGV route takes passengers through the area known as La Beauce, which is France's bread basket. It's a flat region given over to wheat fields, and dotted with towns and villages. A friend of ours who lives outside Urbana, Illinois, on the North American prairie, took the TGV from Paris to Tours a few years ago and said she was surprised to see that this part of France looked so much like the Illinois prairie.

There are a lot of éoliennes in the Beauce — they're called windmills or wind turbines in English. In French they are also called aérogénérateurs, because they turn wind energy into electricity. I count 18 of them in the photo above.

To pass the time while on the train, I enjoy taking photos of the countryside (you can click on or "unpinch" the images to enlarge them). There are a few picturesque villages along the TGV Atlantique route (the train continues on to Bordeaux, which is on the coast). I've tried to figure out what village the one above might be, but without success. It's not far north of Vouvray (famous for white wines), which is more or less a suburb of the city of Tours. Any ideas?

28 October 2019

Bluebirds of North America

In yesterday's comments, several of us were writing about mammals and birds that live in North America but not in France (or Europe). Here's another one — the bluebird. There are three varieties of bluebirds in North America: the eastern, the western, and the mountain. I assume the ones in this slideshow (11 images, running time one minute) are western bluebirds, because my friend Sue took the photos near her house in the Sierra Foothills in California. Sue gave me the photos in June 2018, on her last visit to Saint-Aignan, and she gave me permission to publish them on the blog.

Bluebirds are members of the thrush family and the Sialia genus. The blackbird and the American robin are thrushes too. Blackbirds are merles in France, and the French name for the American bluebird is merlebleu. Wikipedia says that by the 1970s bluebird populations in the eastern U.S. had declined drastically, because of competition for food and nesting sites from two introduced birds, the house sparrow and the starling. Over the past 10 to 15 years, however, bluebird populations have started rising again.

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You might have noticed that I am now posting an hour or so later than I had been posting for the past couple of years. I'm trying to put myself on a new sleep schedule, so I don't get up at 4:45 or 5:00 every morning and go to bed so early in the evening. The end of heure d'été ("summer time" — in France we set the clocks back an hour over the weekend) — and my efforts to conquer jet lag have helped. I'm still not feeling any effects from jet lag, and I've slept for nine hours every night (four of them) since I got back to Saint-Aignan from North Carolina last Thursday.

27 October 2019

The North American redbird, or "northern cardinal"

A good friend of Walt's and mine is a woman named Sue who lives in the Sierra Foothills in California. She flew to North Carolina to spend a week there with me in mid-October. We had a busy week trying to see as much as we could of Carteret County, N.C. One of the things that we saw, and that Sue was able to photograph, was this bird called the cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Thanks to Sue for permission to post some of her photos.

Wikipedia reminds me that the "common cardinal" is also known colloquially as the redbird. It lives in eastern North America from Maine to Minnesota, and down to Texas and Florida — as well as in eastern Canada and in Mexico. People used to keep redbirds as pets, but that practice was outlawed in 1918 under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

This redbird is also known as the "northern cardinal" because of its North American range. An adult cardinal weighs about 45 grams (1½ oz.) on average. Its body length is about 22 cm (8 to 9 in.) and its wingspan is 25 to 30 cm (10 to 12 cm). The male redbird is crimson red in color, with a black mask around the eyes and down along the throat. The female is mostly mostly grayish-brown with a slight reddish tint on the wings, the crest, and the tail feathers. The cardinal is a territorial songbird

Wikipedia says that the male cardinal "sings in a loud, clear whistle from the top of a tree or another high location to defend his territory. He will chase off other males entering his territory. He may mistake his image on various reflective surfaces as an invading male, and will fight his reflection relentlessly." The redbird's diet consists of seeds, grains, and fruits (90%) as well as insects and snails. The cardinal is the "state bird" of North Carolina and six other U.S. states.

26 October 2019

Autumn landscapes at La Renaudière

I slept for nine hours again last night. To bed at 9:00 p.m. and up at 6:00 a.m. So what's happening with jet lag? I don't seem to be suffering any lag this time. Who knows why? But the jet lag can surprise you for a few days, so I'll just wait and see. Conventional wisdom is that you need one day for each hour of décalage (time difference) you've experienced before you can completely recover. That would be six hours — and six days — in my case.

I took two cameras with me to North Carolina for my recent trip. One is my newest camera, a Panasonic Lumix ZS40/TZ-60 that is four years old, and the other was one of my favorite older cameras, a Lumix ZS8/TZ18 that's 7 years old. The newer camera seemed to have died toward the end of my trip. That was disappointing.

However, I took these photos yesterday morning with the TZ60 (the two model numbers reflect different numbering schemes for European [TZ...] and North American [ZS...] models of the same camera). As you can see, the newer camera is working just fine. It turned out to be the battery charger for the TZ60 that had died. It was a USB charger. I had an AC charger here in Saint-Aignan, and using it I was able to re-charge the batteries fairly quickly. I'm happy not to have to buy a new camera.

The first two images above show examples of our "fall colors" here in the Loire Valley. The grape leaves are yellow, orange, or red in late October. These last three images show some different images of happenings around our hamlet outside Saint-Aignan. For example, below is a photo of a tree at the edge of the vineyard that suddenly and without warning fell earlier this month. There was no wind the day it crashed to the ground. Nobody has yet done anything about cutting it up and removing it. (It is near our house but not on our land.)

Also, here's what the area outside our back gate, by the pond, looks like these days. A work crew has set up camp back there, with the permission of the mayor, our neighbor, while they are doing some work down the hill along the river road. I'm not too happy about it, but the land doesn't belong to us. The worst thing about all this will be the wide, deep ruts in the soft ground left behind when the crew decamps. They will make mowing the grass out there pretty difficult.

Finally, can you tell what this is? I took the photo while standing at our back gate, looking toward the house. Where's the house? (Here's a link to Walt's post about this situation.)

25 October 2019

Contrasts and transitions

I woke up at six o'clock this morning after sleeping for nine hours. Before going to bed last night, I had been awake for 33 hours straight, traveling. During those 33 hours, I drove a car for 3½ hours, flew on a plane for about 8 hours, and rode on a train and then in a car in France for 3 hours. That means I spent a lot of hours just waiting, after 4 hours packing and preparing to start the trip. I spent many hours waiting in airports (about 8) and of course about 7 hours awake, unpacking and talking with Walt about what each of us had been doing for the past two weeks, after I got back to Saint-Aignan. I just rested as much as I could, but I waited until my regular bedtime before surrendering to sleep so that I might shake off the jet lag as quickly as possible.

All that, and it was a good trip. The weather was beautiful for my drive in North Carolina. I managed not to get lost, and I was interested to see how fast N.C. is changing and modernizing these days. My  flight from RDU to CDG was smooth much of the time, with only a little bit of bumping and bouncing (rough air) at certain points. We landed a few minutes early at Paris-CDG airport, at 7:15 a.m., and my suitcase was one of the first ones to come down the chute and land on the conveyor belt at baggage claim. I went and had croissants and hot tea for breakfast before catching my train to Tours at 11:20. Above you see the view I had from my table at the café where I had breakfast. Below is a photo I took from the TGV when we were about to arrive in Tours — it's a pretty Touraine village north of Vouvray. The contrasts between the old and rural, in the Loire Valley, and the new and modern, around Paris, are striking.

I had spent my last full day in North Carolina at Bayview cemetery in Morehead City in the morning, seeing my grandparents' graves one more (and maybe last) time. At noon, my sister and I drove over to the beach to meet up with our cousins Sandy and Andy, who had driven there from their house 90 minutes south, near Wilmington. Together, we took a walk on a nature trail at Fort Macon State Park and sharied news as well as memories of other times. Actually, it seems like I spent much of my time in N.C. sharing news and memories with my sister and several cousins that I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. It was amazing how complementary our memories were. Some of us remembered certain details that others had forgotten or never been aware of, and others remembered different details and events. We were piecing our family history together, and enjoying doing it.

Above is a typical Carteret County, N.C. landscape. Or "waterscape". It's an expanse of salt marsh that lies behind Bogue Banks near Beaufort Inlet. As I've said before, Carteret County consists of much more water than land, and the land there is basically at sea level. Tropical hurricanes have caused major flooding in the area three times since 2016. Many parts of the county are still recovering from wind and water damage. But the place retains its natural beauty.

After climbing over the dunes on a boardwalk at the state park, we took pictures of the beach and the ocean not far from the condominium I had rented for a week's stay during this trip. I'm really glad I decided to go to N.C. one more time. The trip gave me an opportunity not only to share stories and memories with family members but also to show the place to our friend Sue from California. She experienced all the kinds of October weather people there live with, from calm, sunny days that feel like summertime, to windy, wet days that feel like autumn. Not to mention seeing the salt marshes, beaches, ocean surf, and the extensive waters of the sounds and estuaries of the N.C. coast.

24 October 2019

Fishing villages

My last outdoor event here in North Carolina was an hour sitting on a dock on the shores of Bogue Sound in the fishing village called Salter Path. The people — the Salter Pathers — who went to live and fish there when the whaling industry began to decline in the late 19th century, were squatters. Only in 1979 did they get the legal right to hold title to their land. Those who have remained on the island still make their living on the water.

23 October 2019

I'll be flying

Like this creature, I'll be flying today. Well, not exactly in the same way. My arms won't be tired when I arrive,
but the rest of me will be exhausted. Leaving home to go home...

22 October 2019

Six seabirds skulking — or more

Why were so many birds on the little sand bar called Sand Dollar Island? It's probably because they knew that a boat carrying people carrying food was going to arrive at low tide.

These birds were not as aggressive in their quest for food as some I've seen. They didn't thy to steal our sandwiches. But they kept an eye on us in case we decided to throw some crumbs their way.

Some birds turned their backs to us, pretending not to be interested or curious. But they kept turning their heads so that that one eye could spy on us. We weren't fooled.

This one was running in circles around some people who were sitting on a towel on the sand and eating their picnic lunch. The bird didn't appreciate my intrusive photo-taking as he ran by.

These birds were our companions on Tuesday, October 15, when we went out to look for sand dollars in knee-deep water near Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. I found just one, and it broke in my hand right after I picked it up.

My sister found one live sand dollar, showed it to our friend Sue, and put it back in the water. Sue herself found two sun-bleached, expired white sand dollars that she could take back to California with her. We left the birds on the shoal.

21 October 2019

Preparedness through up-lifting

Tides are rising. Storms are more frequent and more violent. Here's something people are doing along the Carolina coast to prepare for the next hurricane and storm surge.

New Bern, North Carolina's first capital city, is built on very low-lying land at the confluence of two rivers, the Neuse (pronounced [noose]) and the Trent. The Neuse is tidal at New Bern.

This is meant to be a very uplifting post. Even huge houses like this one are being jacked up so that pilings or new, higher foundations can be fitted under them. The people living them will be safer when the river water comes flowing into their neighborhoods.

20 October 2019

Tryon Palace, North Carolina's colonial governor's residence

On Friday Sue and I visited the historic estate called Tryon Palace in New Bern, North Carolina. The house was built in the late 1700s — colonial times — as a residence for North Carolina's royal governor, William Tryon, who "reigned" from 1765 until 1771.

When it was built, Tryon Palace was approximately in the center of the part of North Carolina that had been settled by European colonists. In other words, it was close to the Atlantic coast and about halfway from the colony's borders with South Carolina and Virginia.

The building on the left dates back to the 1770s and housed the palace's kitchens.

Governor Tryon was immensely unpopular in North Carolina. He was seen as an extravagant English lord who taxed the poor to finance the building of his opulent residence. As it turned out, he lived in his "palace" for only a little more than a year before he moved north in 1771 to become governor of the colony of New York.

New Bern was the capital of the new State of North Carolina from the beginning of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 until 1792, when the capital was moved 100 miles northwest to Raleigh, the current N.C. capital. In 1798, Tryon Palace fell victim to a fire that started in its basement — the palace burned to the ground.

These last two photos show some the grand old houses in the Tryon palace neighborhood.

Only in the 1930s, when efforts were mounted to preserve colonial-era New Bern, was there talk of rebuilding Tryon Palace in the original style. The late 18th century plans for the building were re-discovered. Work to rebuild the palace began in 1945, and only in 1959 were the first visitors allowed inside.

19 October 2019

Le dernier lever de soleil

When I got up at 7:00 this morning, here's what I saw off the balcony of the condo where I've been staying for a week now.

The remnants of a tropical storm (named Nestor, it's a wind- and rainstorm) are supposed to blow through Carteret County, N.C. tonight and into tomorrow morning.

I'll be packing my bags, carrying them down to my rented car, cleaning and straightening up the condo, and moving out tomorrow morning — in the rain, forecasts say. Morehead City and Carteret County are under the HEAVIEST RAIN label on the map above.

There is talk of heavy rain (6 inches or so — 150 mm), gusty wind, and the possibility of severe thunderstorms and the stray tornado. I hope this kind of storm doesn't come through on the day I'm scheduled to drive up to RDU airport and then fly out — headed for Paris.

18 October 2019

La digue (?) ou la jetée ?

I've never known how to translate the word "pier" into French. At least one person I knew well called it une digue (a dike). I've also seen the term une jetée (a jetty). Neither one of those words seems to me to translate "pier" (as in fishing pier).

Be that as it may, yesterday Sue and I walked out on the fishing pier called Oceanana on Atlantic Beach, N.C.  It was a windy and almost chilly morning. A lot of people were fishing.

We were happy to see this little boy hook and pull up a sea trout, with the help of his father.

Above is a shot looking down the beach, basically toward the west. The big building in the photo is the Doubletree hotel, which is closed because of damage it suffered in recent hurricanes.

Finally, here's a video showing what the surf looked like yesterday morning. Today the ocean is back to being very calm — almost glassy. What they call a "slick ca'm" around here.

17 October 2019

La tempête

Yesterday we caught the tail end of a nor'easter. That's a storm that develops over the Gulf Steam, unsually off the North Carolina coast, and moves rapidly up the coast toward Washington DC, New York City, and Boston, with high winds and antediluvian rains. Thee effects here in N.C. were minor, but it rained steadily from before 7:00 a.m. until about 3:00 p.m. The wind was very gusty.

Sue and I took a drive in the morning and early afternoon, going out to the end of the county, about 40 miles from Morehead City, into an area called Down East. It's a land of narrow winding roads, small unincorporated communities (hamlets), pine forests, and extensive salt marshes. It was interesting and fun, and it gives you an idea of how remote this area is. When we got back the to the condominium on the beach where we are staying, the rain stopped and we went out and took some pictures. The clouds were beautiful. That's Sue in the first photo.

16 October 2019

Morehead City street art

It's pouring rain this morning! And blowing a gale. Maybe it won't last. Today is the day we picked for taking a walking tour of the old town of Beaufort, N.C. Here are three photos of some street art painted on the sidewalks along the Morehead City waterfront.

Above is an obviously blue crab wearing sunglasses. I don't know what those red, puffy "sleeves" on the claws are supposed to be. Below is what I think to be a creature called a nautilus. According to Wikipedia: Nautilidae, both extant and extinct, are characterized by involute or more or less convolute shells that are generally smooth, with compressed or depressed whorl sections, straight to sinuous sutures, and a tubular, generally central siphuncle. Having survived relatively unchanged for millions of years, nautiluses represent the only living members of the subclass nautiloidea, and are often considered "living fossils".

Yesterday, we took the little ferry from the Morehead City waterfront out across Beaufort Inlet and to a place advertised as being Sand Dollar island. The weather cooperated, but we were surprised when the boat dropped us off on the "island" — it was just a sand bar, devoid of vegetation or any other distinguishing feature. We discovered that we could wade out into the water for a couple of hundred yards to the west and north in our search for sand dollars. Pictures later...

I found sun-bleached-white one, but it broke in half in my hand when I picked it up. My sister Joanna found one live sand dollar, showed it to Sue, who had never seen one before, and then put it back in the water. Sue found two collectible sand dollars, one large and one small. We were on the sand bar and wading in knee-deep, crystal-clear water for two hours with about 25 other day-trippers, and we had a good time. Sue also collected a good quantity of pretty seashells. We didn't see any nautiluses, horseshoe crabs, or blue crabs, but we saw a lot of hermit crabs walking around with their borrowed seashells on their backs.