Grateful!

November 30th, 2013

An English friend asked me to enlighten her about the feast of Thanksgiving. This national day of Gratitude  remembers the Pilgrim Fathers’ first harvest feast.  As families and friends gather round a festive table laden with traditional dishes, we pause to give thanks.  And yet there is latitude in its interpretation….every family has its own variation on the roast bird – a turkey is often basted for hours, or I recall a pheasant or wild duck if hunting was good.  Variations on stuffings and side dishes tell more about the region and family preferences, south to north and east to west.  Will you have oysters in your stuffing?  If you live on a coast,  quite likely…or is it corn bread with a hint of sage, as is often served in the middle west.  In fact corn usually shows up in many ways:  in corn bread, as a side dish simply slathered in butter, in a bubbly casserole of scalloped corn or possibly in the southwest in tamales. Or as succotash.  What a strange word, you say?  Oh, succotash!

Tradition decrees that a mix of corn and shelled beans (but not with bear fat as in the Pilgrim’s first feast !) is served alongside the roast fowl, since this combination – and the word itself, msickquatash, meaning boiled corn – was of Narragansett indian origins. Beyond these basics, succotash may include chopped onions, red or green bell peppers in chunks or strips, all mixed with glistening butter or lard.  When times were tough, it was a simple but nourishing one-dish meal. And served up in the best set of dishes, succotash takes pride of place on the Thanksgiving table.

In this rich season, recollections of flavors tumble through the vagabond’s memory, olfactory memories of aromas (and samples) in the family kitchen. This is just the beginning of a stream of culinary recollections…with illustrations…to follow.

 

For heat-loving Basil, ’tis the season!

July 31st, 2013

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With a long “canicule” heat wave hanging over us, the moment for basil is clearly here.  The glossy green leaves of occimum basilicum are at their pungent best on long summer days – ready to pinch off and scatter over any plate of tomatoes at hand.  The ancient Greeks called this member of the mint family basilikon phuton:  a royal or magnificent herb.  Sweet basil, the large leafed bushy herb is happiest -  its essential oils are most active – in well drained soil, whether in the ground or a large pot in the sun.  But basil’s distinctive fragrance diminishes and lower leaves begin to yellow if it is parched, so a daily dose of water at the base and a little mulch keeps it happily producing more leaves for salads and sauces.  Pinch off  flower buds to use as a seasoning in sauces or as decoration (they are edible!) – to keep the leaves coming.  The basil variety on my window sill, a peppery genovese, has small leaves and a very compact,  round form.

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Of the 150 basils available  around the globe, we are tempted by cinnamon or lemon basil, and the purple or dark opal basils that lend their unique tint to vinegars.  In spite of its strong character, basil loses flavor if cooked very long; it is best added in the last five or ten minutes to a sauce or soup as a terminal addition. To boost flavors in a marinade or lend a dressing more punch, tear – don’t chop – basil to avoid blackened edges.  This Mediterannean herb marries flavors with thyme, marjoram, oregano and rocket as companions,  but any combo with dill or tarragon is best avoided.  It has surprised me in recent years to find experiments with drying basil to be a waste of time (if dried it loses oils and essential flavor), so use it fresh….now and ’til the first chilly winds of autumn blow, basil has its time in the sun!

Spring…..at last!

March 31st, 2013

With March slipping past, days growing lighter and longer…and primroses sprinkled across the Dordogne’s river banks, it might be safe to say that spring has come to southwest France.  More signs of the long-awaited season found in the market on Thursday morning included the first asparagus and new garlic, the shoots thinned from rows cultivated for the summer harvest.  Hungry for a touch of green on this Easter Sunday, the vagabond wondered:  why not try a non-traditional pairing with tender green asparagus?  Usually the partners are  hollandaise sauce, or a light lemony vinaigrette, but for a heftier treat:  chop up a couple of garlic shoots, mix with salt and chopped parsley and lemon as for a gremolata. With this ready ahead of time, it is a meal-in-minutes.

So, heat up the skillet, melt a little butter and pop in the asparagus, pushing them around as they brown a bit and squeeze a lemons to hear it sizzle…and take a whiff of spring!

Photos and more market notes up next….

 

Refreshing season…more white!

April 25th, 2012

Rain and more rain, an unusual April in the Périgord, has slowed the blooming seaon down a little, but the mid-season beauties are nodding in the borders – glossy as a Dutch master’s freshly painted canvas.  In the potager, herbs have responded with a flush of buds on the chives and healthy spears of tarragon.  These so easily add green goodness to the simplest omelettes and tossed pasta suppers.  Keep it simple, when cooking for one, is the vagabond’s theme.

Fix it quick: a chervil omelette

So, since the vagabond knows that You know how to make an omelette….is a recipe necessary?  Or should I say:  Just whisk 3 eggs with a tablespoon of water in a deep bowl , heat a pat of butter or duck fat in a small skillet, turn up the heat and pour in the eggs – pulling quickly in from the sizzling sides with a wooden spatula until it begins to set around the edges.  Sprinkle with chopped chervil or other herbs + some shavings of parmesan or cubed goat cheese, a sprinkling of pink sea salt- then fold one side over and let it set on moderate heat for about 2 or 3 minutes (if you like the middle set). Turn out onto a hot plate and serve with a salad of mixed greens or mâche – seems so obvious, tastes so fresh!

Then, before a walk in the rain, sip a steaming cup of coffee – another obvious but simple pleasure….                          

Nashi – now!

September 18th, 2011

Crisp, juicy, and so good for you...

The fruity season continues, and with trees groaning with loads of peaches, figs and nashi, my friends are sharing the bounty. One morning, a sack of figs appears at my front door, the next I am surprised by a platter of golden fruit:  apples, non?   Non!  These hybrid wonders are sometimes called Asian pears or Asian apples, but more often known simply as nashi.   Their crisp wedges are the perfect foil for softer textures of figs or peaches in a fruit salad, and a small slice wrapped in a sliver of country ham makes a tasty morsel at apéro time before dinner.  Actually, I like them best chopped into my morning bowl of yogurt with a drizzling of chestnut honey.  Great way to start the day!  But beyond tasty – these little beauties are packed with vitamins C and K, antioxidants, potassium and natural fibre.  Nashi are used in treatment for colitis, arthritis, gout and gallbladder disorders.  So, roll with the season and enjoy them now, as this Asian pear is a fruit that doesn’t like to be cooked nor does it take well to freezing – a clear case of  “fresh is best”.

Flickers of Spring….and a pinch of cardamom

February 9th, 2011

A drift of sweet scent wafts through the window as I lift a pot of deep blue and punchy pink hyacinths from the window sill and close the shutters every night. Fragrance, color, what healing powers the senses convey.  I turn to spices as the soup, sauce or chops are cooking, digging in the spice drawer for brilliant turmeric, tiny cumin seeds, ginger and crushed cardamom.  Cumin seeds send a smoky hint of the east  as they toast in the old Griswold skillet before I add sliced onions and then sear the turkey or sausages for supper. Just a dash of Nouilly Prat white vermouth deglazes the pan, a knife-tip of ginger and a pinch of sea salt are sprinkled in before the lid goes on and flame is turned down.  Using cardamom in savory dishes has become a habit as I stretch from accenting apple cakes or poached pears with this member of the ginger family.  Beyond its presence in Scandinavian sweets and pastries, where I first encountered it, cardamom is a great team player.  Indian and eastern Mediterranean cooks have known this for eons!

Black, crushed or green in the pod?

What is cardamom, anyway?  Happy growing in rain forests and tropical climates, the seeds of the pod of Ellettaria cardamonum are prized from India to Sri Lanka, and east to Malaysia.  It is a member of the ginger family (as noted), with long flat and pointed leaves.  The cardamom tree grows to ten feet/three meters high, and bears white flowers with a blue or lilac stripe in the center.  Cardamom appeared in Europe about 1200 A.D. – possibly another import brought with the courageous crusaders on their return from the middle east.  Its attributes are not only fragrance and flavor, but as a digestive aid and as a breath freshener.  Many cooks prefer to buy the green pods and to seed them as needed, certainly keeping flavor longer -  do avoid the finely ground caradamom found in supermarkets, which loses flavor once uncapped.  The pods mixed in with coffee grounds add an eastern Mediterranean tone to a French press or drip coffee.  This cardamom fan uses it so often,  I find the long glass tubes of crushed Guatemalan cardamom sold in Scandinavia keep the parfum longer when tightly re-corked and kept in a cool place.

It is a spice with character; a pinch is enough.  What was I saying about this team player:   skillet-toasting cardamom with cumin seeds before adding onions perks up a weeknight meal.  It adds an intriguing note to carrots cooked with garlic and sliced fennel.  Include cardamom in a “rub” for pork or duck, or even in a marinade for fish to add a new dimension to supper for a valentine….

Out and about in Helsinki’s markets

September 5th, 2010

Shopping fun for all ages

When it comes to markets, late summer in Helsinki is always a delight, a revelation.  Last week the vagabond relished revisiting favorite open markets and two of Helsinki’s three market halls.  Days were still warm, breezes kept the air fresh in the broad, central Kauppatori market, bursting with colors of the season.  Sunflowers by the bucketful, just-picked blueberries and chantarelle mushrooms tempted shoppers toting birch baskets and large canvas satchels. All this with a back drop of yachts, ferries and cruise ships moored in this sea-side city’s many marinas.  Look around, for if you have no basket or bag, there are plenty to choose from in vendor’s stalls.

Brooms, baskets and brushes....

The orange tents of the harbor market draw crowds of both local and visiting shoppers, but the vagabond’s favorite hall is Hakaniemihalli in the Kallio district. Hop on a tram #6 at the central train station or take the Metro, which brings you to the center of the open marketplace.

New potatoes, ripe tomatoes and heaps of dill

Every morning until about 13:00/1 o’clock, vendors tend their open or sheltered stalls loaded with everything from potatoes to pastries. In fact, a pulla (a round or cinnamon swirl bun) and coffee is a treat at one of the temporary coffee stalls on a sunny day. But a pause outside is just one option, as there are six places for coffee or lunch inside the brick hall.

A light lunch of shrimp sandwich loaf?

Since 1914, Hakaniemihalli has drawn shoppers from beyond this working class neighborhood to shops on two floors. Thirty-eight food vendors on the first floor range from fresh meats, cheeses, fish and spices to organic vegetables and specialty coffees and teas.  One little niche in this hall is a detour near the east door, harboring only bread and pastry stalls – the perfect place to orient oneself to Finnish breads, both traditional variations on rye and today’s trends to herb, oil and seed-flavored breads.

Round rye, oval wheat loaves - buy bread by the chunk

If you can only choose one pastry, early September is the time for anything dripping with delectable blueberries.

Too large? Small tarts are an option if you are in a rush

Upstairs, twenty-eight shops offer wooden tools, second hand books, table-top collectibles, fabrics and yarns.

Yarns for sox, knitwear to go

Merimekko’s space tempts shoppers with shirts, hats, pillows – both classic and current styles.

Classic Finnish design, fresh prints

What else can we add to our shopping bag…some fungus from the forest?  Finnish kantarelli/chantarelle mushrooms are not as abundant this year after an unusually hot summer, so some vendors bring in mushrooms from other countries such as Estonia.  To be assured of  “local” mushrooms, look for the tag:  Suomalainen to be sure.  For the simplest pleasures on a summer evening, fresh chantarelles sautéed in Finnish butter on a slab of salmon from the Finnish Gulf – well, from the vagabond’s point of view from a balcony overlooking a harbor – life on Nordic shores doesn’t get much better than this.

Kantarelli, a universal favorite

Chef’s Suggestions:  Note in the September 11/12 Weekend Financial Times, page 4, Hans Välimäki (chef at Chez Dominique, with 2 Michelin stars) agrees with the vagabond that the Hakaniemi Market is “Helsinki’s best food market”.

For more on markets and market halls in Helsinki, see: www.visithelsinki.fi

What’s on the menu for Quatorze Juillet?

July 14th, 2010

14th of July, a special breakfast

This is what the vagabond has been asking, taking a running survey of what  French culinary tradition calls for to fête Bastille Day.  What ?  Not anything special? One friend says, ….”nope, it’s turkey or capon for Noël, lamb for Easter and veal for Pentecost, but eat whatever you like for the 14th of July!” On this theme of menu independence, a French friend reflects that he remembers no particular foods associated with their national holiday. It seems that independence rules, as does the season’s ripe, fragrant melon and a good stack of steaks or chops for the grill.  Not satisfied to wait ’til dinner for something appropriately seasonal and French, we start the day with a handful of raspberries with yogurt and still-warm croissants.  Pour the coffee, I’m ready for a day in the garden – and much later, a glass of bubbly with apéros before watching fireworks over the Dordogne….after dark.

Next up: A basket-lover’s fair….and more on melon.

Market on the Bay, San Francisco style

June 12th, 2010

A familiar, favorite ferry boat ride recently delivered the vagabond to the Saturday market at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza.  As the Larkspur ferry from Marin hummed across the brilliant, fogless bay, I reviewed past trips on this boat.  Its course always heads straight toward the clock tower in the foreground of  ‘Frisco’s impressive city skyline.  Every week, 25,000 shoppers converge on this space on the port to buy dewy fresh seasonal vegetables and an increasing variety of artisanal products.  Saturday, from 8:00 to 2:00 the produce vendors by the port and on the Embarcadero Street side are on hand – whatever the weather. Tuesday and Thursday, from 10 to 2:00 they are set up in front of the Ferry building.  And inside?  Well, whether you are after mushrooms, looking for cheese, bread and wine (the triumvirate in good supply) or sniffing around for fine chocolate and Italian gelato, the indoor shops have it all.  Since  my visit to this gastronome’s wonderland a year ago, what changes might be found?

Changes begin with more emphasis on "Farm Fresh"

The long Ferry building, designed as an efficient transit terminal in 1898, stood empty for over fifty years before interest in both reviving the neighborhood and restoring the building brought it back to life early in the twenty-first century.  Fresh, quality foods are featured inside and out. Inside, the Hog Island Oyster Bar offers a tasting – at $1.50 per oyster – and the Cowgirl Creamery is still going strong with its dizzying selection of local and imported cheeses.  Their stall in the portside  marketplace is a satellite of the huge central position inside.

Chèvre from Sonoma, Gouda or Cheddar...?

The diversity of shops is still boggling, though I found some empty, papered spaces where merchants had closed their doors.  At Boulette’s Larder, we had hoped to have breakfast, but found that was only possible from 8:00 to 10:30, Monday through Friday.  Next round, I will plan to come early to sample their Canelé de Bordeaux – only a dozen are made each day.  But a taste of Anna’s Daughter’s Rye Bread would draw me back as well after a sample and conversation with a Danish woman as she cheerfully passed around a plate of crisped rye.  This, too, is on the Boulette’s Larder menu.  At the other end of the building is the Asian restaurant, The Slanted Door, where people begin their wait for a table before noon.  In between these two very different eateries, all sorts of libations – from tea to fruity wines – tempt Saturday shoppers.

Wine? Tuscan olive oil? More temptations...

My shoulder bag was heavier after this foray, so we hopped on a bus up Market Street toward Union Square.  The brilliant light of a June day flooded the cafés lining the square, where relaxation was the theme song  (no steel drums, no guitars this time around). But the vagabond was thinking of coffee, real coffee in an uncharted, non-hyped neighborhood café.  Voilà:  Caffè Amici, off the beaten path, with Italian pastries and dense, fragrant espresso from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria roasters was a short walk from the busy square.

Market Street's mix of styles

We strolled along Market Street toward the landmark clock tower, to wait for the afternoon ferry.  After a cooling pause at Ciao Bella Gelato, there was time for a last stop at the Book Passage. Not one but three books leaped off the shelf into my bag…. if I were a San Francisco resident this would be a weekly ritual.  And IF we had another week, on Thursday June 17th at 10:00, the vagabond would be there for a book signing of his vividly honest Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain.  But the ferry was at port and we boarded with the afternoon crowd.  Lingering at the back of the boat, I watched the clock tower slipping away and projected the next trip to Ferry Market, wondering if  Happy Girl Kitchens will still be there with their pickles and jams, marvels in a bottle. I hope that the Hodo Soy Beanery with healthful soy products will continue to find a good clientele at the Ferry Market.  And the sprout-seller, and the young, enthusiastic almonds vendor – will you all be there next year?  I do hope so!

A skyline worth a thousand words

Details to be found at:  www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com and www.cuesa.org, as well as www.bouletteslarder.com. For coffee in the Financial District, tiny Caffè Amici is at the corner of Montgomery and Bush.

Versailles market, overflowing with tasty treasures!

December 12th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market
Click on lamp post to view Versailles market gallery

Versailles in winter is truly overflowing with treasures, royal and otherwise.  It’s just a ten minute ride on the Transilienne train from Paris Montparnasse (lowest level) station. A bus from Versailles “Chantiers” station takes you to Notre Dame market, its square framed by a halle on each corner.  On a recent Friday, we were plunged into a hubub of activity:  vendors of cheese, fruit and flowers, salt and sausages fill the marketplace center, an intersection traversed by buses and bicycles dodging shoppers.  From clementines to fancy terrines, there are more upscale victuals to the square foot than any market I have ever seen. The vagabond was astonished by the cheeses alone, stall after richly appointed stall of fromages from across France and beyond.  Hankering for a wedge of gorgonzola , mimolette or spiced gouda, herbed chèvre from Provence, or curls of parmigiano-reggiano? This is your hunting ground.  Inside the halls, fish from all waters, glistening eyes a sign they are fresh today, are spread in a seemingly endless array. Sole, rouget or barbet/red mullet, rosy rascasse/red scorpion fish, and even slabs of dried morue/cod appeal to a variety of shoppers. With over thirty permanent stalls inside the halls open daily, and seventy vendors outside on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Versailles draws Ile-de-France shoppers to the best selection west of Paris.

And when it is time for a short break, step up to a plate of oysters and a glass of Muscadet – the only on-the-spot eating option I noted in Versailles halls. In the mood for something salty? Greek olives, capers, all sorts of pickled veg are ready to be scooped up. Almond-studded cornes de gazelle, among many honey-glazed Middle Eastern sweets tempted the vagabond during this market romp. Of course the market answers gift-shoppers’ quandries, too:  a little oval salt cellar with a wooden scoop, colorful packets of sugar-dusted fruit paste tied with a ribbon, even a chocolate Santa Claus will win up in someone’s stocking.

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market Try just a slice, or buy an entire terrine for a “festive first”
All of these market aromas and visual delights can trigger appetites, so shoppers need not look beyond the halls’ periphery – take a few steps and you are sitting in the sun with a coffee or a tall Belgian beer. We joined the locals at a corner café bar, the Franco-Belge on rue du Baillage for hearty traditional fare. When the vagabond tucked into a mound of choux-farci, she thought it would easily serve four…an hour later, the waiter removed the empty plate. Markets do stimulate appetites!  After lunch, a stroll through eighteenth century ruelles of the Bailliage antique dealers’ quarter led past fifty shops filled with everything from arm chair frames (which Louis ?…. don’t ask) to lamps, statuettes and paintings. In fact, this first visit to Versailles was an appetizer, with a follow-up planned for April…to find signs of spring in the Potager du Roi.

Getting to Versailles: Trains to Versailles Rive Droit station run regularly from Gare St.Lazare and take about 30 minutes (closest to center). From Gare Montparnasse, it takes about 10 minutes, but is a 20 minute walk from Gare Versailles Chantier on the outskirts.  Or take the RER from St.Michel metro stop or Quai d’Orsay stop, about a 40 minute ride to V. Rive Gauche stop.

Inside tips: Tempted to linger for more than one day, especially when the Versailles center for Baroque music has a full concert schedule? Watch the concert listings on www.versailles-tourisme.com . Even on a slim budget, Versailles for a weekend is a treat:  Hôtel Cheval Rouge faces the market place, and has 38 reasonably priced rooms (less than 90 Euros for a double room) – simple, and recently renovated.  Located near the Rive Droit station for trains from Paris, it is five minutes’ walk to the château and gardens. Visit: www.chevalrouge.fr.st for map and information in English.  Or, rent a car in Versailles for a few days and venture another 10 kilometers on the route to Dreux to stay in a dreamy B&B, www.clos-saint-nicolas.com.  For 90 Euros a double room is yours, with breakfast in the conservatory….and do visit the Grand Marnier distillery in the village of Neauphle-le-Château. The 1810 mansion has just three guest rooms, so reserve in advance for a remarkable base to explore the historic region.

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