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.

For May Day – or any day – a slightly sweet, very smooth pudding

May 1st, 2011

Lily of the Valley, Muguet for May Day!

In the village square this morning – and in front of the busy bakery – stalls selling muguet were doing a steady business.  An endearing custom, one buys a nosegay of this fragile, very short-season flower to present to someone dear to you.  This year there was a panic among the muguet growers – mostly based around Nantes in Brittany – to preserve the buds during an unusually warm and early  growing season.  Many were in blossom two weeks before May Day.  Somehow, there are enough to go around, whether local or brought in from the north.

Spring is about lightening up – for the waistline as well as for the mood of the season.  But a little something sweet after the asparagus and trout or chicken and fennel somehow feels deliciously indulgent.  Simple puddings have become my (pre-berry season sorbet) standby desserts.  Small glasses, verrines as many refer to them, are up dates of classics come-around again…. and why not?  To top off a Sunday dinner on this chilly spring evening, I whipped up a satin-smooth sabayon and layered it with prunes (or call them dried plums?) soaked in nut wine and topped with toasted walnuts.

The old standard, sabayon, does take a little practice  – attention to the details will reward you.  Set a pan over (not ON the boiling water) a saucepan of hot water as you did for Mousseline sauce – in fact the two are so similar.

Ingredients:    2 large egg yolks

4 Tablespoons of sugar

6 Tablespoons of sweet wine, such as Monbazillac or a sweet Bordeaux

nutmeg to grate before serving

8 semi-dried prunes, pitted and soaked in 1/2 cup of nut wine

oven-toasted walnuts, halves and pieces

Begin by soaking the prunes early in the day.  Make the sabayon ahead of time or – if you want it warm, 20 minutes before serving – and pour into individual glasses putting the prunes in first. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar over the heat, and as it begins to thicken, add the sweet wine a spoonful or two at a time (not all at once) and continue whisking as it thickens and small bubbles form. Grate in a little nutmeg and immediately pour it over the prunes and top with toasted walnut halves.  Don’t let it wait (it will set up and be about as supple as fresh concrete if done an hour ahead of time), but pour it while warm.  As an Italian friend counseled:  sabayon should be rich, but should never taste of cooked eggs.

This was adapted from  Alice B. Toklas’ Hot Sabayon Sauce, page 176 in my old battered copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Anchor books 1960.  What was I saying about “old standards”…?

May Day delights - from dawn to sundown

Fresh trout, fresh silky sauce

April 30th, 2011

Sauce mousseline..an elegant touch for everyday veg or fish

The weekly fish vendor has got my number….always asking where this or that sea creature is from, which doesn’t seem to be a common line of questioning. The first time I queried the provenance of a glossy little trout, he looked puzzled and said :  “…farmed, Madame”.   So on Thursday, before I could ask as I again selected fresh trout he piped up:  “…truite Périgordine!”  as his usual stern  glare broke out into a grin.   Next week, I expect he will ask how I like to prepare it, a natural question often part of the banter of market day interchange.  And this is my current (before the grilling season begins) favorite:

Poached Trout Mousseline is about as flexible a quick meal as one can produce.  Why mousseline, which is also the French word for flannel?  So smooth, so comforting, and so easily whipped up.

For each diner, one small trout can be cooked with spring onions, garlic and fennel…or with carrots and new potatoes…or…whatever catches your eye in the spring market stalls.  This option goes together in a blink – well, on the table in about 30 minutes:

Ingredients:   1 small trout

1 to 2 T. oil or butter (or half and half)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 spring onion, trimmed and sliced in rings

1/3 cup Noilly Prat white vermouth

bay leaf, sprigs of tarragon, minced chives, etc.

1 cup fish bouillon (or a court bouillon cube dissolved)

3 new carrots, stemmed and peeled, sliced diagonally

4 new potatoes, peeled and quartered

for the sauce:  2 egg yolks + 1 tsp  cold water

Juice of 1/2 a lemon, salt & white pepper

2 T. cold butter, cut into bits

Set the carrots and potatoes on to cook in hot water to cover, cook at a simmer for about 15 minutes or ’til tender.  In a large enamel fry pan (I have a favorite one, used only for fish), heat the oil or butter (or a bit of both) and sauté the garlic and onion slices, add sea salt & white pepper & herbs, then splash in the vermouth to let cook for about 5 minutes.  Push this to the side of the pan and add/heat the bouillon, place the fish in this, poach on one side for 5 minutes, turn and cover to poach for another 5 minutes.

For the sauce:   heat water in a medium-sized saucepan and set a pyrex or similar dish over – not touching (or you will wind up with scrambled eggs) – to whisk the egg yolks, adding the lemon juice; as you whisk in the bits of butter, it will thicken quickly.  Double the recipe if you wish, and save some sauce to nap some cold potatoes for the next day’s lunch.  The Mousseline’s zippy flavor resembles a savory lemon curd, a great touch for this season’s asparagus spears or steamed new turnips. Try it with salmon or chicken suprèmes poached with herbs in white wine.  Divine.

Salmon steaks take to Mousseline, too

Pomegranate molasses

December 4th, 2010

Begin with a bowlful of juicy arils

A marvelous seasoning – a magic ingredient – hasn’t turned up on the vagabond’s usual shopping circuit, so I set out to make pomegranate molasses chez nous. But why get into the loop of juicing and simmering this ruby fruit: why bother?  Is this just one of those esoteric culinary trends that come around in cycles?  Everyone has their motives when ingredients are involved, and for this cook in the Périgord, it relates to duck – lots of duck and all other feathered fowl so plentiful in our region.  Not only for duck, but the sweet tang of pomegranate molasses lends a complex dimension to many rich meats, a “secret ingredient” in the lamb and poultry tagines of the Middle East.  When I opened Crazy Water Pickled Lemons*, Diana Henry’s delicious romp across the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean, to “Breast of Duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce”, my pursuit of pomegranate molasses began in earnest.  The recipe only asked for two tablespoons, so why not stir it up at home?  Concocting my own pomegranate molasses was not difficult – it simply takes a little time, a “Saturday afternoon with no rush” sort of project.  Winter sunlight slanted through the kitchen door windows as I whacked, peeled back the rind to pop out the arils (shiny red seeds) and juiced two mid-season pomegranates.  Our bio-grocery displays Valencia fruit from Spain’s east coast (possibly from the region of Elche), and once cut in half to top a salad, I noted the density of seeds in these pale-skinned pomegranates.

Dense with arils, the membrane releases easily

First, the seeds needed some encouragement to release from the skins, so I whacked them with a small rolling pin before scoring each fruit in quarters.

A few taps to loosen the arils

Then over a large bowl, I held the rinds and peeled them back to release the glistening arils.  A little juice was released, while the seeds were plump and easily separated from their veil of membranes.  Caution: cover yourself, as this juice stains cloth….in fact it is used as a dye for Turkish carpet wool.

Pull away any clinging bitter membrane

Curious about how much would be needed, I let the seeds accumulate to fill a two cup pyrex measure.  That was from one and a half pomegranates.  After tapping and peeling, juicing the “jewel of winter” is the second step in the process.  My blender has a juicing column attachment, so I filled the filtered column with rosy seeds and pulsed the juice out in short order.  It needs to be scooped and scraped once or twice to allow top layer seeds to fall closer to the central blades.

Pour the juice out through a small sieve into a saucepan, turn the heat on low and let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to reduce by half.  Watch carefully that it doesn’t burn.  Have a sterile jar and lid ready, or a small lidded cup to keep your pomegranate molasses ready for use.

Depending on variety and country, it can be a pearly pink or ruby red

And what about the other half a pomegranate, bursting with scarlet arils?  Ah, they are preserved in good gin – just a small jar full – to top a festive New Year’s sorbet or….perhaps to enhance a duckling as we welcome 2011.

* Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry, published in 2002  by Mitchell Beazley, takes a fresh look at multitudes of traditional dishes across Turkey, Spain, North Africa, Greece and southern Italy.

Next up: a little beignet for the holidays

Nuts, the classic holiday touch

November 25th, 2010

Walnuts - in every region of France, a handful of favorite varieties

Not only is the approaching holiday season whispering a list of get-ready and must-be-done details in my ear,  there are menu traditions to be stirred into the upcoming days.  One tradition dictates poultry, another asks for at least one green or golden side veg, while the topper remains:  a rich nutty-fruity dessert.  For all courses, nuts really come into their own during the holidays – beyond the classic bowl of nuts with a casse-noisette after the feast, relaxing by the fireside (is this too too yesterday?) with a bit of brandy.  From the vagabond’s perspective in southwestern France, where nut groves march across undulating Périgord hills, the presence of energy-rich walnuts goes from soup to dessert.  Along the way, there are a few regional tricks I could pull out of the recipe box (or folio) to enhance both the fête…. and the leftovers.  What? already thinking about les restes?

Shelled and briefly toasted nuts, ready for... action

Nuts in the market are ready for shelling, and pink Lautrec garlic is still sweet (once the green germ sprout is poked out), so I reached for the mortar and pestle to combine the two in an aïllade.  Since anything aillé suggests the presence of garlic, you can imagine related condiments reach toward aïoli in Provençal fish stews and Gascon aillada to season snails. A related mix in the Périgord is persillade, a crushed blend of parsley and garlic for topping potatoes and grilled meats. I knew that chopped walnuts and garlic form the hefty flavor base of aillade and began to search for proportions. The more sources I found, the more variations appeared – but most agreed that the Toulouse version is the best known. When I began mashing 3 chopped garlic cloves in my small mortar, it was clear that however my intentions were to keep it “authentic”, I needed a larger mortar.  So, oop-la into the blender for this Aïllade Toulousaine:

22 g/3  plump cloves of peeled garlic, chopped + pinch of sea salt

75 g/3 oz.  dry*, skinned walnuts, very lightly toasted, chopped

150 ml/5 oz. oil, half walnut oil, half light olive oil

3 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves  (reserve 1 T. for serving)

100 ml/1/3 cup + 2 T. crème fraïche (optional)

Put the walnuts & garlic into the blender in layers, pulsing half of it before adding the rest. Stop and scrape down sides twice, add 2 T. parsley and when it is all of a mealy texture, add the oil beginning with a thin drizzle with the motor running. Depending on your preference, you can blitz it until is becomes almost creamy (or add 1/3 cup + 2 T. of crème fraïche) or stop with the coarser texture. Turn it out into a bowl and blend in the last T. of parsley.  Cover the bowl and let it mellow for a few hours before serving as a dip for celery and other crudités, or with cold cuts, sliced game or …turkey.

The southwest classic with sautéed potatoes

Actually, our favorite market-break café stop suggests another course

Tartelettes aux noix, a hint of desserts to come

To all my fellow vagabond gourmands, wherever you are perched:             Happy Thanksgiving !

Nut notes: The best season for this and many other condiments and sauces using crushed nuts and garlic is August into September, when the new walnuts are considered “wet”. New crop garlic is juicier as well, so both are much easier to mash in a mortar for a finer consistency. Obviously, it is also the best time for making pesto with fresh basil and new almonds or pine nuts.

Cèpes for supper

November 13th, 2010

Get out the old Griswold skillet, turn on the heat...

Irresistible, whether you call them cèpes, porcini (Italian), herkku tatti (Finnish) or boletus edulis, mushrooms from Sunday morning’s market rounds found their way to our table within twenty-four hours.  Our nice “mess”  – to revive an old morel hunting term – of mushrooms was actually enough for two meals, very fresh with relatively little trimming to be done.  We had quickly transferred them from plastic into a paper sack, kept them cool and made sure there were enough garlic cloves and parsley for the prep.  The juicy pink garlic peeled easily and parsley was plucked from the garden; with a little butter and some good olive oil at hand, supper was soon underway.

Lautrec pink garlic to chop, bacon chunks ready

As the resident Mushroom Master began trimming, I checked my Go-To site for mushroom questions:  www.leslieland.com.  This garden whiz has excellent columns and notes by mushroom expert Bill Bakaitis.  My concerns were to make sure that these were safe (raising a few questions even though they were bought from a mushroom vendor) and whether there were any warnings about drinking wine with the champignons. Not to worry:  it was clear that our boletus edulis all had smooth stems, with no shaggy or rough texture of a similar but inedible variety. There were also no warning notes on any danger in having a glass of wine with these mushrooms.  Once cleaned, the cèpes cooked in the hot, heavy skillet with chopped garlic and bacon in bubbling butter for about 20 minutes.  I loaded a basket with toasted baguette slices, we plated the cèpes and sat down to a magnificent country meal – straight from the market!

A quick drizzling of good olive oil puts a shine on the cèpes

Wine Notes: Many would choose a dry but fruity white – a Sancere comes to mind – to sip with cèpes.  The vagabond reaches for a country red, such as a three to five year old Côtes de Duras with a little tannic edge to accent the mushrooms’ woodsy richness.

What does it cost? At a reasonable 24Euros the kilo, or about 12 Euros a pound for the freshest quality mushrooms (older and spotted ones priced lower), I am curious about comparable prices in your markets….send us a comment on prices in your region.

Oh, Mayo !

August 13th, 2010

Where would we be without mayo, the saving sauce of this quick-fix and fresh season?  Not from a jar, but we’re whipping up a bowlful most mornings to be ready for lunch.  For cold chicken, strips of poached fish, and devilishly good with hard boiled eggs, a dollop of mayonnaise is the vagabond’s answer to enhancing almost anything savory.  Mash a clove or two of garlic for the aïoli version to acccompany Salade Niçoise while green beans  steam and are soon ready to plate.  Stir in a little horseradish for cold pork, a little moutarde de Dijon for sliced tomatoes, minced fresh basil to go with whatever is plucked straight from the garden:  mayonnaise’ versatile simplicity easily dresses up leftovers or a bowl of just-steamed new amandine potatoes.

Hold tight to the bowl and whisk, whisk.....

To keep up with the summer’s bounty, mayonnaise can deviate from the classic formula of 1 egg yolk, 1/2 cup oil + 1/2 cup best olive oil + 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard + a pinch of salt.  But to begin with, it is a simple emulsion of whisked egg, oil and additional seasonings, so put an egg yolk ( or 2 ) with the Dijon mustard (Not the sweetened or cheaper stuff – your taste buds will say  merci!) and whisk (by hand – this isn’t enough to use the blender) as it thickens, then add sea salt, and drip by drip whisk in the oil, finishing with the best of your olive oils.  Frankly, using All olive oil has its adherents – but you must use the freshest of Quality oils.  If the vagabond lived on the Ligurian coast of Italy where the lightest, grassy and loveliest oils (note a bias here) are produced, I would. The best balance on a regular basis comes from a blend of grape seed oil or other mild oils and good olive oil.  Our trials have come up very green and bitter with ordinary olive oils (resembling something like crank-case oil?).  A finishing touch of lemon juice – tasting for salt & lemon juice is critical here.  If you have fresh tarragon, mince it and blend in to accompany fresh fish or chicken, or add a scoop of horseradish to perk up cold pork or thinly sliced duck magret or roast beef.  Chop black olives into your mayo to bring the provençal touch to seared or grilled fish.  Sauce Andalouse adds chopped tomatoes and, well, you get the idea – stir it up as you please!

Just mention melons….

July 31st, 2010

A pinch of lime juice plays up melon's flavor

A slice of this morning’s melon, wrapped in paper-thin slices of country ham -  or as we often do in the southwest, sliced duck ham, with a squeeze from a juicy lime – what could be simpler as a starter or as lunch on a sweltering, hot day?  In fact, you can hold the ham and give me just the lime juice to enhance this sweet curcurbit. Some will wrap their sliced Charentais in prosciutto, others give it a twist of black pepper, sea salt or nutmeg to accent the melon’s flavor.  Right now, when market vendors heap the round, netted spheres of Charente melon or smoother, ridged local cantaloupe in pyramids, it is easy to get used to a slice or three for lunch every day.

Chilled, this fruit of the vine is a cool antidote to the heat waves that can sap our energy.  Desert people knew that….the Egyptians have been eating melon since 2400 B.C.  Moors hybridized wild melons that couldn’t be eaten raw to produce a sweet melon.  During their centuries of rule in  Sicily and Spain, melons became a part of the extensive Arabian agricultural legacy.  Popes in both Rome and Avignon dined on melons, and encouraged local production.  The curious gardener, Thomas Jefferson, planted and savored melon from his garden in Monticello.  So, this curcurbit, in the same family as cucumbers and squash, has taken hold in warm climates around the world.  Across the south of France, from the Atlantic coast’s Charente Maritîme through the Lot and Quercy, to Carpentras and the melon fields of Provence, the melon season is ON.  Which is best? You might want to do a tasting tour to judge for yourself, for local melon appears on menus as a starter as well as dessert.  To finish a summer dinner on a light note, just drizzle a little Pineau de Charente or sweet Monbazillac wine into a small, fruit-filled melon half for a little bit of heaven.

So cool, local, and in season

The first rhubarb – at last !

April 14th, 2010

Pear blossoms, an April pleasure

The gnarly old pear tree – said to be one hundred years old – is a reassuring sign that April is on track.  This year it is laden with blossoms, which will drift onto the flower bed below before summer’s warmer days bring a cover of greenery.  The variety is a hard winter pear to be picked and ripened in the shade during autumn months. But my attention now turns to the ground, to the potager calling to be spaded and prepared for tomato and pepper plants.  These and lettuce sets are already available at the weekly market, so I am running behind.  In April’s chilly mornings and warm afternoons everything shoots and sprouts at once.

New rhubarb and oranges sanguine...

For weeks, I watched the pink rhubarb stems like a hawk, noting more bundles of leaves ready to unfurl and shoot out from the rich soil near our potager compost heap. It had been a cold winter – just the trigger rhubarb needs for energetic production.  One more day of growth in the clump was all it needed before enough could be pulled to cook, enough for a dish or two of rhubarb sauce, whip, or fool.  So, a dish of  rhubarb sauce lightened with a dash of orange zest is in the picture for our first spring supper outdoors.  Having trimmed and cleaned the slim stalks, I chopped them up to measure almost 2 cups.  A cup of water sweetened with a tablespoon of honey and slivers of orange peel – all heated in a saucepan, ready to simmer the rhubarb, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes – was all it took.  Since oranges sanguine (blood oranges) are still available, I squeezed the juice from a quarter of an orange to give color to the sauce.  This is just enough for 2, but if drained and folded into whipped cream (and a sprinkling of shaved, toasted almonds) it could stretch to serve 4.  With almond cookies, of course.  Longer spring evenings invite a walk ’round the garden after supper – to discover more signs of spring.

Earliest wild orchids - in poor, rocky places

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