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!

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

May markets reflect a delayed, chilly season

May 30th, 2013

“What if we had an entire week of sunny days?”  My neighbor grumbled today as we selected new potatoes from a market stall….”everything is late this year!”   By now, the first crisp, green asparagus have come and gone, followed by delicate white ones, and new carrots are bright with their tops still on.  But the veg family that evolves most rapidly, with new developments each week – worth following every step of the way – is  garlic!

bulging with garlic juice

bulging with garlic juice

The pencil thin sprouts in late April could easily be mistaken for young green onions, before their gradual bulbing as the days pass to yield stiff, elongated stems and bulging heads this week.  It is a more nuanced and juicy seasoner than the dried heads with their bitter inner sprouts,  still left from 2012′s harvest.  A few ways to use this mild and juicy stage of the ancient seasoner run from simply peeling off the outer layer and mincing the buds (soon to become cloves) and mashing them with a pinch of sea salt and lemon juice as a base for vinaigrettes, to smear on or inside fish before it is sautéed or baked, and to enhance the earliest steamed broad beans.  How easy is that?  And there will be more on fresh garlic as the season progresses!

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….

 

Quail eggs, a delicate touch of spring….

February 28th, 2013

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When a basket of tiny speckled quail eggs is set before me, I first marvel at their random spots and freckles – then wonder:  what can we do with these little gems?  This season of frequent omelettes and meatless meals is ready for a bit of variety, so bring on the quail eggs!  Their delicacy and subtle flavor is to be taken into account, too….not for omelettes, but to be appreciated as a garnish for salads and soups.  This morning at the Thursday market, I spoke with Jacqueline, the vender of eggs and poultry.  When I suggested topping a hearty salad of warm potatoes or a velouté of pumpkin soup with them, she added:  “Oh, and I’ve had them on top of a tartiflette!”  Well, why not? I mused.  But considering that tartiflette, a classic and filling specialty of eastern France, is a favorite of hikers and loggers in the  mountains, I’m wondering how quail eggs are enjoyed in other regions.  In Provence, the vagabond has seen them on appetizer platters paired with cherry tomatoes and anchovies.  And in other regions…?

And let’s welcome springtime!

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Happy New Year…Bonne Année à tous!

January 7th, 2013

Whether you are in a sunny clime or skiing in the mountains, the vagabond wishes all a hearty, happy and healthy New Year.   May your days be bright, with moments to savor and memories in the making.  Yesterday, on a long walk along the steely-surfaced gloss of the Dordogne river, I was musing on what the confusing, challenging year 2012 brought in terms of good.  Hopefully the positive forces will prevail in the new year.  Wishing you all the very best!

Santé!

Out and about in Paris region markets

November 25th, 2012

Sunday morning’s market in Antony, on the RER metro line just south of Paris, is a hubub of a hundred vendors selling everything from foods to flowers, tablecloths to corsets and sewing items, and a good range of cooking tools….a one-stop shopping op!  Changes noted in the passing (can it be twenty?!) years since the vagabond first rambled through this busy market include the new, swooping rooftops and enclosed sides to shield all from winds.  It took four years to construct the enclosure with scooped roofs, designed by Nantes’ architects ARS/Rocheteau & Saillard.  Other changes include more ethnic food vendors, giving shoppers a broad choice of flavors for their Sunday repas.  Amidst a great array of greens, the vagabond noted chard and bok choy for a quick stir-fry, radishes, onions and salads of all sorts, and of course, cheese from all over the map.

Greens for all…

Think about a starter of girolles, mushrooms with herbs, a squeeze of lemon, a touch of butter…and succulent pork to roast or braise, as well as beans to shell while waiting for autumn’s morning fog to lift.

Inspired to roast a shoulder of milk-fed pork with apples and onions – and de-glaze the pan with a splash of Calvados?

Onions galore caught my eye along with herbs wrapped and ready for a stew.

Scallions and onions to add color to a braise

And then, think about dessert while chatting with the amiable vendors of Lebanese pastries.  Oooo, so tempting….pistachio-honey cakes, as well as variations on the almond theme.

This calls for a palate-cleansing bunch of sweet-tart grapes…. from Italy or southern France.

Then it’s time to trot home with my sister-in-law to stir up a rich, autumn Sunday lunch and catch up on family news.


Food vendors inside, tabletop textiles and clothing outside.. one-stop shopping in Antony!

Getting there:  Antony lies on the RER line south of Paris, a short walk to the city center down Rue du Marché. Market days are Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings, from 7:30 to 13:30.  An early round of the stalls is suggested on Sunday to avoid heavy stroller traffic.

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….                          

A wake-up call for color in winter salads

February 14th, 2012

Coming out of hibernation….

In the middle of a snowy day – our week of slick and thick wet snow now turning to slush – the vagabond weighs the options for a bright Valentine’s day lunch.  Maybe you have the same instincts if  your February is one of icy winds, snow flurries or driving sleet…oh, I remember those Midwest winters so well.  Checking out the seasonal side of color, what is on hand in my pantry or available in the local shops now?

The first dish out of the fridge holds a glowing red pomegranate half, then a Portuguese orange, a sweet clementine and a local shallot.   A protein component could be jambonneau – my favorite form of ham – or cold salmon, shrimp, slivers of last night’s wine-poached turkey, chicken or even julienne strips of firmMontbéliard sausage.  For this mix-up of textures, my only cheese suggestion would be snowy white cubes of Greek fetaWhat about the basic salad itself, the diagonally sliced Belgian endive, sucrine lettuce or romaine?  If you have a penchant for slaw-style salads, shave some firm red cabbage and shred a chiffonade of garnet leaves of Italian trevise for an edgy wake-up call to any jaded winter taste buds.  Color-wise, this tips the palette towards the deep jewel reds.  Another obvious winter-red option would be some juliènne slices of cooked beet root, especially good with endives and feta.  Last night’s florets of steamed cauliflower are naturals in this salad combo, as well as steamed paper-thin slices of turnip.  Depending of course on how many are lunching chez toi on this wintry day, toss your choice of the above elements – whatever strikes your fancy and is available – with a citrus-based dressing to pull the flavors together.  For a more French attitude, a salade composée (and the dressing will give it Attitude), rather than tossing the chosen ingredients, spread the lettuces and arrange the protein and vegetables on each plate, topped with the glowing pomegranate seeds.  Drizzle a little dressing over all, and diners (or The diner) can ladle out  more from a pitcher at the table.

Now, a basic vinaigrette (moutarde de préfèrence) will dress your salade – with a few suggested twists depending on ingredients on hand. The following will cover 2 or 3 salads, is best made an hour or more in advance; it works well for marinating cooked vegetables, shrimp or salmon chunks.

Whisk in a small bowl:  1 T. Dijon mustard (Maille is available in most regions) with 2 Tablespoons lemon juice  + 1 teaspoon sea salt (hold the grated black pepper for the table, to be grated individually)

gradually whisk in:            3 or 4 Tablespoons best olive oil

Variations:  If using beets & oranges, add 1 T. orange juice+ 1t. orange zest, plus a grating of nutmeg + more grated black pepper. Trimmed and thinly sliced shallots add dimension to this version.

If using Trevise lettuce, whisk 1 or 2 t. sugar or light honey into the dressing.

Add a teaspoon or two of toasted cumin (does wonders for beets) OR fennel seeds to the endive salad.

Dry toast (2 to 4 minutes in a hot skillet) freshly shelled walnut halves or natural (skins on) almonds for texture and a nutritional boost to any of the above ….Enjoy!

Up Next:  Piggy hams it up, and a hungry reader’s notes on A Homemade Life.

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