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.

 

Chervil: quickly savor this delicate herb

June 30th, 2013
chervil's delicate flavor warms the palate...

Chervil’s delicate flavor warms the palate…

Is there enough time – even with longer days – to savor all that this grab-it-while-in-season offers?  Of the fresh herbs that are in abundance now, the vagabond’s attention has turned to feathery green fronds of chervil.  One good thing about our long, cool springtime has been an extended flourishing of chervil: normally, it has bolted and gone to seed as hot weather arrives.  But what is so special about this ancient plant?  Anthriscus cerefolium, known to us as “sweet cicely” or chervil, was long a symbol of new life and sincerity.  Myrrhis, its ancient name, reflects the similarity of its essential oils to the scent of myrrh.  It was long thought to aid digestion (as many herbs do) as well as sharpening the wit and making the old feel younger.  Chervil warms the palate, and in a decoction it can soothe tired eyes.  Not only does the plant itself cringe and bolt in the heat, but the leaves themselves lose flavor when heated, so are best chopped and stirred into sauces or soups just before serving.

Now is the time to season new potatoes with chervil butter or mince the delicate fronds to fold  into an omelette.  A classic Béarnaise sauce has a distinctive hint of anise with its essential teaspoon of finely chopped chervil stirred in before serving – and a velvety Ravigote sauce for fish is improved with chervil.  In fact, why not tuck chervil into trout before poaching them breifly in white wine?  Mix it with soft cheeses to spread on toast for lunch or snip chervil into dips for crudités with an apéro.  Whenever I toss a salad of pasta or greens, adding chervil is a delicate touch of this evolving green season.

July:  more savory herbs to follow….the best of Basil, and Rosemary

A heritage of fine wines

September 21st, 2010

September's glorious grapes

Château de Tiregand, a seventeenth century vineyard and château rising above the town of Creysse on the north bank of the Dordogne river, swings open its château doors just once a year. The vagabond joined the crowds swarming around historic sites during the weekend, the Days of our Heritage/Journees du Patrimoine, to venture inside.  Since the Count de la Panouse bought the property in 1827, members of the Panouse and (through marriage) the Saint Exupéry family have added or subtracted from the extensive quarters (over fifty bedrooms at last count), to suit their taste and the times. No longer inhabited by the family, only parts of the vast interior are in good repair.  We stood in the shade, listening to the intriguing story, from the first structure on the site built by Edward Tyrgan (a natural son of England’s King Edward III in the 13th century) to the state of this Monument Historique today.

South facing rooms with a view of the Dordogne valley

Washed in September sunlight, the formal château entry stands apart from wings running perpendicular to the long, south side shown above.

A grand formal entry, seldom used today

Once inside, a dark circular stairway dominates the space, and lures visitors up – until the guide motions:  non, s’il vous plait!

Jours de Patrimoine visitors...tempted by stairways

As our guide, Francois-Xavier de Saint-Exupéry, told the story of his family and their vineyards, it was clear that they shared set-backs of blight and weather with the region’s many vintners.  The phylloxéra infestation of the late nineteenth century, and a devastating early spring frost in the nineteen-fifties hit all of the Pécharmant vineyards equally hard.  Vine stock, replanted and thriving for decades after the blight, was frozen just at the time when the spring pruning was on the 1956 calendar. Now the vineyards occupy forty-three hectares of the four hundred sixty hectares of the Tiregand domaine.  Red wines in the Pécharmant appelation are their primary focus, with 54% merlot vines, cabernet sauvignon 23%, cabernet franc 18%, and just 5% malbec to blend into these well-balanced wines.  For their Bergerac dry white wines, they have 1.2 hectares planted in white grapes. During the upcoming vendange, seven hectares will be harvested manually, while the remainder will be mechanically harvested before being spread on tables for sorting by hand. Only one of the reds, Cuvée Grand Millésime will spend twelve to eighteen months in French oak barrels.  Tiregand’s red wines are best after about four years, so their Gold medal (at the Maçon wine awards) 2007 Grand Millésime is ready now.  In the Pécharmant tradition of well-structured red wines, this lightly tannic cuvée is a good value at less than ten euros a bottle.  Consider the terroir, the vintners’ persistent efforts to make each millésime better – and add the element of heritage for these wines, of the place, of the people – when tasting in Tiregand’s spacious chais and tasting room.

As a civet de lapin simmers on the back burner, I lift my glass to the Saint-Exupéry family in thanks for opening the château and grounds to us all, for taking a weekend every year to welcome both locals and visitors from afar.  Santé!

The Tiregand chais and tasting room is open year round

All across France, historic sites and certain private properties are open to the public during mid-September every year.  It is worth planning travel to a region of interest to visit, listen and taste during Les Journees du Patrimoine.

Lavender Fields Forever

July 3rd, 2010

Bienvenue  juillet…the vagabond welcomes July with open arms! This week, my market basket is laden with stone fruit for preserves, green almonds and bundles of herbs.  On the way to markets across southern France I note lavender in bud, ready to bloom and scent the air.  But nowhere is lavender as much a part of the July scene as in the Vaucluse and high country of Haute Provence.  My memories drift back to Saturday markets in Apt, a hub of trade and activity on the river Coulon.  Artisans, farmers, plantsmen and vendors selling all manner of household goods – some with olive and lemon prints to dance across your table, others with olive wood salad tossers – line the narrow streets of this Luberon town.  We always begin at the open market at the edge of the old town, where sausage, honey and cheese vendors mingle with flower stalls bursting with the region’s trademark colors:  golden sunflowers, brilliant zinnias and graceful wands of lavender.  This week may be a little too early for the surrounding lavender fields to be in full bloom, but wait a week to take in miles of the purple haze.

Gather lavender early, just as blossoms form

Lavender lore credits the Romans for bringing both their bathing rituals and the cleansing, antiseptic lavender plants to Apta Julia when this trading crossroads center was founded.  Originally a military camp, the town grew to assume importance as an administrative center on the Domitian Way from Rome to Narbonne. The climate was right for lavender, cultivated for its medicinal and antiseptic values, and the plant took hold.  Soldiers carried it to cleanse wounds and found the scent relieved stress.  I sometimes wonder what a citizen of ancient Apta Julia would say now when gazing across expanses of lavender fields between Apt, the high country of Sault, and east towards Forcalquier – before surveying the seemingly endless fields of the Valensole plâteau.  If the lavender fields now seem to stretch to the horizon, the reason today is in part commercial:  this region of Provence leads the world in lavender production.

Within this genus, Lavendula augustifolius, there are thirty-nine species. Spikes with flower tips wave above the round, bushy plant – and easily cross-pollinate, so many variations exist.  Blue, lilac, violet or white lavender all draw bees, and lavender honey is one of the region’s specialties.  To discover lavender country, the market at Sault - on Wednesdays since 1515 – is not only overflowing with Provençal vegetables, but vendors offer honeys and soaps, pastries and essential oils, all with a hint of lavender. Take a moment to ramble around Sault’s old streets and admire the vistas from its promontory overlooking the valley.  Be tempted by nougat, both black and white (both a part of the Christmas Eve Treize Desserts tradition) of local almonds and lavender honey.

A fleeting moment in the lavender fields

Pick lavender just before blossoms are completely open to maximize the natural oils.  Tuck a few into your pillow case, a bag of sweaters sealed away for winter, and in closets to repel moths and refresh the air. Using lavender in cooking takes restraint – one too many blossoms can impart a bitter taste:  remember, it is an antiseptic.  A little caution is due for the relaxing, de-stressing effect of lavender under your pillow:  it slows the nervous system to some extent, a natural for inducing sleep.  Its essential oils are effective in aromatherapy and in beauty products as well as the classic, refreshing lavender eau de toilette.  If you travel across Provence in late July and through August, you may see the lavender harvesters at work, machines rolling through fields gathering the blossoms destined for distilleries to extract lavender’s essential oils.  In Sault’s August Lavender Festival, watch a lavender-cutting competition, all a blur of scythes in action.  But for a few sprigs to infuse in a refreshing sorbet, a simple panna cotta or a custard with summer berries, now is the time to snip lavender.

For more on Provençal lavender, visit: www.avignon-et-provence.com tap Tourism, then scroll to Practical Information to tap:  Markets.  In www.saultenprovence.com/gb you will find details on lavender-related events, and at www.provencebeyond.com , a variety of travel information.

Juicy onion marmalade – and other condimentary notes

June 26th, 2010

Ready for a zesty marmalade?

Juicy onions, valencia oranges, and plump, clean lemons are the basics for a tangy marmalade to accompany summer fare.  In this season of condiments to enjoy with sandwiches or chicken wraps, or to accent grilled fish or pork, a savory marmalade offers a new set of textures.  Add it to the regular line-up of relish, picalilli and salsas, even lime pickles, or mybe….garum?  This is not in the regular line-up, of course, but the fermented salty fish mash called garum was a staple condiment on ancient Roman tables.  The Latin source of condiment, condire, means to season, spice, preserve or pickle.  Old French and Middle English references to these savory sides have been traced back to the early fifteenth century:  clearly, condiments have complimented the food on our plates for some time.

When the new, sweet onions rolled into the market, I initially thought about just chopping them up to accent spicy merguez sausages.  Then it seemed better to cook some with a dash of lemon to keep for another meal.  One gesture leads to another:  the plot thickened as I poured more than a dash of local Bergerac sauvignon into the mix.  Each batch of marmalade has its own twist: to accent the lemon, add a little Greek Seasoning (from Penzey’s spices – more on this resource in July), to bring out the sweet onion notes, add nutmeg, and to make the orange element sing, grate a little ginger into the mix. Be sure to use new crop onions, not winter’s left-overs that are beginning to sprout.  Stir it up in the cool hours of the morning and if there is more than today’s meals call for, ladle it into hot, sterile jars for another season – and do save one for a friend who shares your fascination with condiments.  Step one, blanching the peel is quick and essential to avoid a bitter aftertaste.


Add the blanched strips of zest to the pot last

Ingredients: 2 lemons, peel shaved off with a vegetable peeler.  Remove      white pith and slice lemons very thinly, slice peel into slivers;                 reserve  2 Tablespoons juice.

2 large navel oranges, shaved as above, pith removed, sliced thinly & peel sliced into thin sliver/strips.

2 white, sweet onions (500g/2 cups) trimmed and sliced lengthwise

4 to 5  fresh bay leaves

83  g./ 1/2 cup sugar

625 ml /2  1/2 cups white wine, such as Sauvignon blanc/Semillon

1T. fresh thyme, chopped fine

2 T. butter (unsalted), cut into pieces

sea salt & freshly ground white pepper

Stir it up: Boil 2 cups water in a large saucepan, add the lemon & orange peels and simmer for 3 minutes to blanch.  Lift out the peels, empty the pan and pour in the wine, sugar, sliced onion, bay, 2 tsp. sea salt, the sliced citrus and last, the peels.  Stir and simmer this to dissolve the sugar, then reduce heat and let cook over a low-moderate heat, uncovered for about an hour (it could even take a little longer on a low simmer), until all liquid is cooked away; the onions become transparent.  Add the thyme, the butter and cook another 15 minutes, stirring so the marmalade doesn’t scorch at the bottom of the pan; adjust seasonings and add the lemon juice. To taste for seasoning, let your spoonful cool to room temperature. Remove the limp bay leaves.  Yield:   3  1/2  cups.


A savoury touch of marmalade compliments cheese

Serve at room temperature with grilled meat or fish…and try it with a wedge of  Cantal or other mountain cheeses.  Credit for the basic proportions in this recipe go to Mathew Card on www.culinate.com, an inspiring and informative site.

A Posset Revival

May 9th, 2010

Flipping through the luscious pages of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, I paused at a seductive page of grilled figs with a lemon possetPosset?  Tell me more.  But when I looked into the description, did it help knowing it was like a syllabub?  It seems that today’s chilled creamy dessert posset descended directly from a warm milk drink dating back to the 15th century. In fact, for centuries this was a cure or comforting relief for colds:  milk warmed, curdled with acidic wine or ale and sometimes spiced with cinnamon, mace or nutmeg.  The old French word, posce, is a probable root for possot, poschet and posset, which in its comforting sense has evolved into the idiomatic meaning of posset – to pamper or make someone comfortable. That is the good side of posset.  On the dark side, consider that Lady MacBeth poisoned possets for the guards outside Duncan’s rooms in Act II, scene ii of MacBeth.  I wonder what spices Shakespeare fancied in his possets.

Gariguettes & lemon posset for Sunday lunch

In 18th century England, (I was looking for something savory in all this…) a posset was stirred into a meat sauce as thickening, much as one might use a béchamel sauce today. Eggs were added for nourishment and a richer blend, as this was a noble drink not often made by commoners. But primarily, this is a sweet story:  a posset of cream and whiskey, a Bridal Cog survives as a traditional bridal toast on the Orkney Islands.  Now, to whip up my own version of this English classic, and since figs are not yet in season, I turn to sweet strawberries.  What better foil for a tangy rich posset?  To be ready in a jiffy – then chilled for a few hours – try…

Lemon Posset with May’s first Gariguettes

For 2, heat  200 ml/ 3/4 cup thick cream and 70 g/ 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan, let simmer for 3 minutes. When it comes to a rolling boil remove pan from the heat and stir in the juice of 1/2 lemon, whisk for a few minutes as it begins to thicken. Pour into small cups or glasses, top with curly lemon zest (from the same lemon) and chill for 4 hours or overnight. Serve with the season’s berries, red blue or black.  A crunchy cardamom-flecked almond shortbread is good with this.  So easy, so reviving after a long winter!

Next up this month: more on spices, planting nasturtiums for salad, and flower fairs.  In June: a note on syllabubs, a winery visit and open season for flea markets.

A spring stroll though Castillonès bastide market

April 29th, 2010

When Alphonse de Poitiers granted the land to build a new bastide town in the 13th century, he chose the site well.  Like most bastides, Castillonès sprawls along a ridge of high ground, in this case straddling two historic regions.  It lies on the southern hem of the Périgord, while being woven into the heart of the ancient Agenais.  For many of us, Agen equals fruit (proclaimed as the prune capital of Europe), while the Périgord is famed for walnuts and poultry.  So on a market visit, be ready for produce and poultry in abundance.  The vagabond is drawn to this hilly region by the expansive panoramas around nearly every turn, a case of the journey being as stunning as the market goodies are delicious.


Click on distant chapel to view photo gallery of  Castillonès market.

This département, the Lot-et-Garonne, rests between Gascony to the south and the Périgord to the north, quietly going about its business which is largely agricultural. As a region slightly off the beaten path, the Agenais is worth a detour:  for Romanesque chapels rising above slopes sponged with white plum blossoms in April and nodding sunflowers through July,  it is a revelation.  And off season, the markets are among the region’s most authentic, least gentrified or tourist-trammeled in the entire Aquitaine.  From mid-May to late September expect crowds, which could be said of any part of the French southwest – unless, like the locals, you grab your basket and shop very early when everything is dew-fresh.

Like Monflanquin and Villefranche-du-Périgord, the town’s focus is on an arcaded market square, where weekly markets and monthly fairs have come and gone for centuries. What was the vagabond looking for on an April morning in Castillonès Tuesday market?  Asparagus, bien sûr, and bedding plants for potagers (vegetable gardens), to be choosen from flats of lettuce, tomato, peppers and squash (lots of vigorous courgettes). We always hunt for honey, and here I not only did we score with local tilleul/linden flower honey, but with a light-on- acidity honey vinegar.  I was delighted to find white cherry tomato plants and other unusual varieties sold by a young couple specializing in biologique/organic plants.  In fact on this visit, I noticed more biologique products lining Castillonès Grande Rue, the lively market street leading off the central square.  Cheese vendors offer a gamut of specialties from firm to crumbly Auvergne Salers and Cantal tommes to local chèvre as well as excellent fromages Corse. Two vendors tempted me with samples of Italian cheese, as well as olives, tortellini and pastries.  With such enticing products, and a lazy day ambiance of having coffee (and a flaky, rum-cream filled pastry) in the shade of  Castillonès arcades, I vowed to return…when stalls groan under loads of melons, tomatoes and freshly picked plums.

Note:  Watch for more on bastide markets in June, for a supper stop in a night market or two…quite a different interpretation of “market”. We will sample the ambiance of  just a few of the 300 bastides scattered across southern and southwestern France.

Add snap to April salads with Sariette d’hiver

April 21st, 2010

Winter savory, ready for a spring trim

This week, suddenly sariette’s tender shoots are ready to be clipped,  strung up in the attic to dry – and while I’m snipping, the peppery fresh taste will also perk up a bean salad for lunch today. Associations with beans – fresh fève or dried cocos- are so strong that in German, it is referred to as the bean herb: Bohnenkraut.  Whether you call it winter savory, sariette des montagnes, savourée, or poivre d’âne, this ancient potherb goes by many names. Greeks dedicated the spicy leaves to Dionysos, dubbing it Herbe à  Satyre for what they considered to be  savory’s aphrodesiac effects. Egyptians used it in medicine for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and Romans carried savory with them as they settled into far flung lands* and islands  of Europe. Clearly, it was a highly appreciated aromatique.

Poked into a bottle, the herb flavors vinegar

Running through a list of savory’s virtues, I found not only the peppery flavor (giving a bite to Italian salami), its antibacterial effects valued by beekeepers (the chemical thymol in savory used against the varoa mite), and best known is the natural antiflatulence effect of savory cooked with beans and cabbage (as we were saying…Bohnenkraut).  Used before peppercorns were shipped into Europe, as well as during war times when spices were scarce, savory replaces pepper as a seasoning for those with a pepper intolerance.  In Quebec, savory is whisked into mashed potatoes to spark up the purée.  So, if sprigs of this simple herb do everything from aiding digestion to providing more anti-oxidants than many fresh vegetables, why – I wondered – is sariette not more commonly used?  For iron, calcium, manganese, and magnesium, a little savory in salads or snipped into a pot of butter for seasoning vegetables does us all kinds of good. Minced with other herbs, it seasons discs of fresh chèvre – a favorite, I discovered, in markets around Banon where poivre d’âne grows wild in the rugged Provence uplands. Closer to home, take a handful of tender new savory shoots to fill a sterile bottle, fill it with white wine vinegar and cap tightly – then let the sun accent the infusion by putting it on a windowsill for a month. Don’t wait until late in the summer to collect savory, for by then the leaves turn to stiff little spears (not a gum-friendly seasoning at that point)….April is savory harvest time!

The vagabond’s  last note on this ancient herb is a quote from Jean Giono’s  novel set in Provence, where he evoked the power of sariette’s aroma in Le Serpent d’étoiles. Children were bedded down for the night on layers of herbs…”and the weight of their movements released fragrances of savory and lemon balm.”

.”et, sous le poids de leurs gestes, jaillisaient des odeurs de sariette et de citronnelle.”

*A point for gardeners:  Satureja montana grows in zones 6 to 10, and is winter hardy with some protection against long periods below 0°c/32°f.  It becomes a low woody bush and needs pruning both before and after delicate white blossoms appear in May.  The annual, summer savory, has pink blossoms and is easily grown from seed.  For more on the savories, see:  www.herbalcuisine.com/savory.html

Winter comfort food: simple puddings past and present

January 15th, 2010

January’s brief, snowy white landscape has melted with winter rains, and I spotted a few snowdrops poking through along the walk to lift my spirits.  In these chilly days, the simplest puddings are so comforting, whether made of simmered semolina, cubed day-old bread or poached apples.

Slow-cooking rice smells so good!

But rice rises to the top of my puddings list, especially as north winds whistle around the sloped corners of our Périgordine roof. This moment calls for the tried and true, so I pull out old recipes tucked between tattered edges of my grandmother’s Newell, Iowa church guild cookbook.  I delve into pre-Beeton English recipes, in short:  making rice pudding stirs the historian’s curiosity. It seems that Romans with upset stomachs were given a gruelly rice pudding made with goat’s milk to asuage their discomfort. Rice is easily digestible, a standby for restoring strength to invalids through the centuries.  Cooked in almond milk with a little honey, rice pudding was a noble dish – flavored with saffron – in the Middle Ages. It is likely that both rice and saffron, along with cinnamon were brought back home by returning legions of pilgrims and crusaders. It took on importance as a Lenten dish, in fact it is something of a miracle: a handful of round rice and a liter of milk, cooked slowly, will feed a crowd.

Before launching into actual recipes we might use today, consider an earlier approach, that of John Evelyn, a cook* in Restoration era England. I have adapted the English version to current usage. This follows a description of preparing the intestine casings, as the puddings are stuffed into ‘gutts’, like sausages, and boiled:

“To make rice puddings:  Pick  half pound of rice clean, boil it in 3 quarts of milk till it is tender. Strain it through a colander, stir in ‘a penny’ of grated bread, a pound and half of beef suet shredded very fine. Beat well 16 eggs and 4 egg whites; 2 Nuttmegs, grated, beat a half pint of cream, add a little Rose water and  a pound of sugar, a little musk and Ambergreece. Fill the prepared gutts – but not too full. This quantity will make about 3 dozen double puddings:  boil them quickly.”

His high carbohydrate combination of rice, bread, suet and sugar suited the times when walking many miles and wood chopping were the norm in a day’s work – and finding 20 eggs was evidently no problem.  Every era, every country has set down its own preferred pudding recipes, to the point that one might devote an entire book to the subject. Middle Eastern rice puddings are delicately scented with rose water, Macedonian Lapa is a rice pudding covered with black poppy seeds, while in Hungary Teiberizs is often dusted with cocoa powder and/or cinnamon. Cinnamon is sprinkled through a lacy cloth over Portuguese Arroz doce, a rice pudding seasoned with lemon zest and almonds – never with vanilla, while French Riz au lait à la vanille calls for a vanilla bean steeped in the milk. In Normandy, the traditional Teurgoule is baked for hours in a shallow earthen dish to let a cinnamon-flecked crust form. The same approach to an English slow-baked rice pudding lets a crust form after pouring the hot milk and rice into a buttered baking dish – often made on Mondays while the household wash day claimed the cook’s attention, my English friend recalled.

Then there are the questions of raisins and whether to enrich the pudding with a couple of egg yolks. Some Scandinavians have adapted both, tossing a handful of port-soaked raisins into a Danish bowl of Risengrod, but not into the cold version with whipped cream, Ris à l’amande. You might say every cook has his or her own twist on tradition.  But they all say: start with round rice.  For the long-baked creamiest of puddings, short grained thirsty pudding rice takes its time to soak up all the liquid. Whether your liquid is whole milk, part cream or almond milk, use inexpensive round rice (not Arborio, better suited for savory risottos) – the best out of the 40,000 varieties of rice available in the world. Now, how do you make this picture of simplicity?  One recipe says:

Soak 4 Tablespoons of round rice in water (1 part rice to 8 parts liquid) for 20 minutes. Drain it; preheat the oven to 325°f. Heat 3 cups of whole milk with a split vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan, add 3 Tablespoons light brown sugar or light honey and a pinch of salt along with the soaked and drained rice. Butter a round or oval baking dish. Pour the hot milk/rice mixture into the dish and bake  for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Leave it uncovered if you want a crust to form.  After the first hour, stir in 1/2 cup golden or sweet Smyrna raisins (if you wish), and this is the time to add 2 egg yolks if you wish for color and nourishment. Then scatter flakes of cold butter and 1/4 cup of flaked almonds across the top; sprinkle grated nutmeg and cinnamon over all. Bake another hour or two; the pudding will continue to firm up after baking. Remove from the oven, let cool and serve at room temperature with a dollop of raspberry jam or cherries in a light syrup. Not only comforting, but economically in tune with tight budgets!

A few gift books for 2010 inspiration

*One of  Restoration England’s Renaissance men, John Evelyn was a landscape architect, city planner, author and scholar. Prospect Books, London published John Evelyn, Cook , The Manuscript receipt book of John Evelyn, in 1997. This jewel of a book arrived one day recently, a surprise gift from an English friend.

Note: For more on rice, see   www.foodsubs.com/Rice.html

Garlic, a southern icon

August 25th, 2009

DSC_0004

Isolate the key flavors, the products of southern France, and the list looks something like this:  olives, olive oil, lemons, tomatoes, bell peppers and pimento, almonds and pistachios, anchovies, and of course, garlic.  Scan all countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea to find only slight variations on this lineup.  So, which kind of garlic do southern cooks choose and use most? Once dried, braided and strung up, the pink garlic of Lautrec keeps longer, while the white – almost sweet - allium sativum of Beaumont de Lomagne in Gascony is the juicy choice during summer and early autumn.  By the first of November, bitter, green sprouts appear inside this variety, indicating it is ready for planting in the next round, to be harvested early the following July.  In the same rhythm, for about a thousand years garlic has been cultivated in southern Europe – but jump back 6,000 years to trace cultivated garlic in Egypt and India. This powerful allium, noted in Sanskrit medical treatises from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D., was devoted to use as an antifungal, antiseptic and cleansing agent.  The upper classes never ate garlic, as was true of Brahmins, the clergy and upper classes around the Mediterranean for centuries:  it was a peasant ingredient relegated to cucina di povera.

How things have changed since the 1940′s, when garlic was embraced as a flavorful element by popular opinion, gradually making inroads into haute cuisine.  Fast forward to the second half of the twentieth century, when gastronomic sights were set on southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and into the twenty-first as “fresh and healthful” became each cook’s mantra. Meanwhile, the “peasant cooking” of Europe that included garlic and other hefty ingredients has come into the spotlight. It is hard to imagine an Andalusian gazpacho, a Greek skordalia, or even Polish dill pickles without  garlic to enhance the punch of flavors….and don’t ignore this season’s vibrant blend of garlic, basil and nuts: pesto.  To crush or to cook is your choice.  When garlic is cooked, the hot sensation and odors of allicin disappear, and the edge of raw garlic mellows. With this in mind, Sicilian cooks rarely or never use garlic raw, but prefer the deeper flavors of the cooked buds.  But what about haleine (bad breath)?  Avoiding garlic breath doesn’t seem to be a concern when everyone else is eating garlic – as the vagabond has noted in Gascony and the Languedoc.  More refined tastes and sensitive noses may beg to differ, as the situation varies.  Planning to meet with your lawyer after lunch?  He has probably just had garlic-infused sausages and pasta tossed with pungent pesto on his plate.

All these comments aside, how can you best keep the savory garlic on hand for a quick tzadziki salad or to rub onto a lamb chop? Preserving buds in olive oil is good for a week – at most. After that, unwelcome bacterial growth is a distinct possibility. For longer term use, I like to pop garlic cloves into a small jar of sherry vinegar to keep in the fridge, and seldom buy more than two heads at a time.  In eastern Europe, young bulbs and shoots are pickled as a condiment. Baking whole heads of garlic with a roast chicken is reserved for a special event, and each person has a small spoon to scoop out the sweet soft – very mellow – garlic. Whether you crush or cook garlic, you’ll be doing yourself a favor – it boosts the immune system, acts as a stimulant to digestion, and enhances flavors of whatever it is mixed with, especially the other other sun-drenched icons of Mediterranean cuisine.

Note: There are over 300 varieties of garlic, so if you are interested in planting your own, refer to www.2sistersgarlic.com/varieties.htm for details.

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