Sunday, August 31, 2008

A fox in the hen house

Un loup dans la bergerie, literally a wolf in the sheepfold, is the French equivalent of a fox in the hen house. This is a wine we discovered on one of our wine buying excursions. I love the label! (I apologize for the quality of the photo... not one of my best) And the wine is wonderful, too, bien sûr. I did a google search of the wine and found lots of sights where it is reviewed and sold. It is a very inexpensive treasure. I love that about French wines. This one cost about 6 euros a bottle, around $9 US. It comes from Domaine Hortus in the region on Pic St. Loup in Languedoc, about an hour's drive from Arles. Seth and Craig, I sure would love to be able to buy this in Durham... I hope to get a bottle in my suitcase to bring home. Of course, that will require another drive to buy some as we have already finished the bottles we bought that day. The things I have to do!
In today's paper, there were pictures of the grape harvests that have already begun. The word around here is that there will be less grapes due to the heavy rains in May and a problem with mold, but better quality- moins de quantité, plus de qualité. And this is a very good thing I was told. The weather here right now is ideal for harvesting grapes- les vendanges. Cool at night, with Chardonnay grapes being picked from midnight until 8 am. The rosé merlot is reported as excellent quality this year. C'est vachement bien! Those grapes are also being picked at night and pressed immediately. The paper also listed local vineyards that are searching for pickers. Véronique, who comes to help clean, said she did this for 11 years and that is was grueling work. It all seems romantic to some of us... magical even. I tend to forget all the worry and hard work that goes into producing just one bottle of my precious rosé, rouge or blanc.
Today is the last day of the Roman history celebrations going on in Arles. We've seen parades of gladiators, legionnaires, ladies and children in togas. A film festival was held this week at night at the Antique Theatre, with the films being shown on a huge peplum screen. Astérix et Obélix and Alexander the Great were two of the choices. A Roman camp has been set up near the Arles Antique Museum and we are heading over there this afternoon. There have been gladiator fights in the arena (no deaths, bloodshed or sacrificing of Christians, I promise-- an American Baptist might be the first choice, I fear). At Café Voltaire, we got a good laugh out of the owner dressed in a toga serving Roman goodies one evening. Not bad legs, actually!
Since I arrived in June, there has been some kind of festival going on every week, celebrating music, photography, or history. Instead of chili or barbeque cook offs, they have aïoli contests. Arles also had outdoor music all summer in different squares around town. At Place Voltaire, two weeks ago there was an American musician, Tomko, playing saxophone and singing. He was accompanied by a man on the keyboard. He was really good and I must confess that it was good to be able to sing along to Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Don Withers songs. I talked to Tomko afterwards and found out he is from San Francisco. His French is flawless, however, so I suspect he lives here and is married to a French woman.
Other random facts from the past few days...
Ladies and gentlemen who keep up with fashion-- gray is the in color for fall. The windows here are done in gray, black and hues of royal and navy blue. Christian Lacroix also had some bright orange pieces in his window.
Speaking of Lacroix, he is on the cover of this week's L'Express magazine. It is all about Arles and his roots here. He names the most influential people in his life and our friend Wally is there! Needless to say, she was thrilled when I ran into her on Rue 4 Septembre. She had several copies of the magazine in her hands.
The American election is a hot topic and I really must read and keep up with it because the French certainly are. They are very interested in politics and the percentage of French who vote in the elections put us to complete shame. They hold the elections on Sundays, which probably helps, too. I am afraid that Chef Érick's 11 year old son will know more about the election than a lot of my fellow countrymen. I am constantly asked what I think of Obama and McCain. Obama is the hands down favorite here.
I went to market yesterday with the express mission of finding a soccer jersey of the OM- Olympiques de Marseille- team. My son Grant turned 16 years old on August 25 and I thought this would be a unique gift for him. I sincerely doubt that anyone in Durham owns one! Their colors are Carolina blue and white. There are some serious fans around here. Sadly, a group of fans from Marseille were involved in a bus accident on their way to Le Havre, in northern France, for a game last week. The driver lost control of the bus around Paris and two passengers were killed and several others injured. The boyfriend of Véronique's daughter was on the bus. He wasn't injured, thank goodness.
We had a wonderful cooking class this week for four American women. It was so much fun, from start to finish. We prepared Haricots verts en persaillade, Tian de tomates et courgettes, Poulet Apicius, Riz au gingembre and Tartelettes aux noisettes et chocolat. A real feast. The women had told us that they didn't like fish- pas de poisson. Chef Érick didn't say anything, just kind of raised his eyebrows. He is thoroughly convinced that a person's intelligence is linked to how much fish they ate as a child. The women let me know when they asked to have the cooking class that they are fans of wine and hoped that Érick would choose some good ones for them. I assured them he would, he always does. However, no alcohol is consumed during the meal preparation. Just wouldn't be a good idea when sharp knives are involved! I told them that the sign that the lesson is about finished is when Érick puts on music and brings out the lovely little Napoleon III glasses. As he put on the music and pulled out a bottle of chilled Picpoul de Pinet, he also pulled out a squid from the refrigerator. One woman, Sharon, turned a little pale. He showed us how to pull out the spine (it looked like a plastic feather) and then said that sometimes a whole fish is found inside the squid. Sure enough, as if he had planted it there, there was a little sardine-like fish inside. He removed the little suction cups from the tentacles and cut it up. The pieces went into a very hot frying pan with olive oil. After they had cooked for just a few minutes, he threw in some of the parsley and garlic we had prepared for the green beans. Voilà- instant appetizer. Calamar. I have learned to taste anything and we had to convince Sharon to do the same. She stabbed a little piece with her toothpick. With her friends took photos so they would have proof of the occasion. She put it in her mouth, with her eyes closed, she bit down and a big smile spread across her face as she realized just how delicious it was. We ate every single bite, of course and enjoyed the Picpoul. We then moved to the dining room and started with our green beans and a Cabanis rosé. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, getting to know each other, Sharon and I translating for the others and for Érick. She has taken a few French classes and listened to CDs. Her French is really good, too! I am so lucky to meet such wonderful people and share the stories of their lives. These four women have been one of the highlights of my summer. People who love to travel and eat good food are, for the most part, very happy people who know how to enjoy the here and now.
I will leave you with a recipe and go have some lunch before heading out to the Roman encampment!
Tomorrow's big project is cleaning out the three refrigerators while it is quiet around here. Chef Érick will be at his sons' school in the morning for their first day ceremonies, so Véro and I have decided that will be an excellent time to clean. Quand le chat n'est pas là, les souris dansent. When the cat's away, the mice will play.

Riz au Gingembre- Ginger Rice
(We use red Camargue rice which has a kind of nutty taste)

300 g. rice 1 ½ c. (uncooked)
300 g. chick peas (cooked)
15 g. grated ginger (1 Tbsp)
2 shallots, minced
olive oil
pinch of salt

Cook your rice.
In a heavy bottomed casserole, sweat your shallots in olive oil. Add in the grated ginger and stir over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the rice and chick peas. Stir and warm up together for 10 minutes over a medium flame. Salt and serve.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Put The South In Your Mouth

Our "gang"-- left to right- back row: Gilbert, Didier
middle: Marie-Christine, Wally, Érick
front: Monique, Dorette, Gilles

Dorette left on Monday to head back to the Tar Heel State and Saturday night we invited the usual suspects (pictured above) to celebrate her stay in Arles. I went to market twice this morning, once with Chef Érick and once with her. As always, it was a very interesting experience. The young man who sells eggs (people's names really aren't all that important here) was teasing an older lady. He noticed the new dress she was wearing and asked her if her husband likes it. She giggled and made some womanly remark such as "This old thing?" He went on to comment on the fact that it buttons down the front, easier to get off that way. She giggled again and then he asked something about what she was wearing underneath. I couldn't help but laugh along with her as she teased him right back by saying that what was underneath was too hot to touch! All of this was done in a very friendly way with no overtones of sexual harassment. I really think we had more fun before we all got caught up in worrying about things like that all the time. I know my buddies Tim and Dick would agree. My first year of teaching, barely 22 years of age, they took great pleasure in making me blush whenever possible!
As we moved on through the market in search of all the things on our list, we made it finally to the butcher stand where we could find the pork ribs we needed. The lady in line ahead of us ordered les oreilles de cochon or pig ears. Oh my gosh! You should have seen these things. The biggest pig ears I have ever seen (and I spent a lot of time on my grandmother's farm) were found and they were still attached by a piece of the pig's head. I commented on them to the woman buying them who was standing next to me. She replied that they also have wonderful half heads of pig also, just right for making fromage de tête, head cheese. Buying pig's ears is just one more thing on the Saturday list for her. Her husband was the one carrying all the packages! Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me. I should know never to leave the house without it.
Anyway, back to dinner. We have realized that the friends we have made here truly think Americans are barbarians when it comes to food. Think about it. Our most famous export is McDonald's... no wonder they think we have no idea how to prepare real food. Dorette's menu was met with a bit of skepticism at first. We printed the menu and the recipes for everyone along with a map of North Carolina. Gilles took this very seriously, keeping his at the table with him, following the program.
Chef Érick has been to the US at Christmas time and has had eggnog. He requested that for our apératif, before dinner drink. I did laugh at him because I would never think of drinking it at any time other than Christmas. He was quite serious, though, and came back from the store with a bottle of Jack Daniels for those who wanted to give their eggnog a little kick. Let me tell you, this went over very well. I usually buy my holiday eggnog from Mapleview Farm and hadn't made it myself in a long time. I was quite proud of the result and have been asked to make it again in December!
Along with the eggnog, we served hushpuppies. We tried our best but couldn't get our hands on real cornmeal. We did find corn flour so we used that instead. Dorette made a remoulade sauce for dipping. I explained the origin of the word as best I could and I loved everyone's pronunciation of hushpuppy! Most of these were consumed with the eggnog in the kitchen at the stainless steel table. Gifts for Dorette were brought out by everyone. A book on French cooking from Gilles, along with great red wine and champagne (which we didn't get around to drinking-- it is still in the frigo, Gilles!), a watercolor drawing of the Camargue, a little ceramic pink flamingo and a black bull. Dorette was in tears, of course. It was very touching.
After everyone sat down at the table, Dorette and I served shrimp and grits. Well, once again, we had to improvise. Shrimp and polenta. We discovered that crevettes (shrimp) are Monique's favorite food. This dish, too, was met with great praise. At this point, everyone was beginning to think that maybe we aren't such barbarians after all.
The next course was fried green tomatoes with a corn relish. Dorette had her heart set on making these although Érick explained that the chances of us finding green tomatoes were slim to none. The French just would not think of picking a tomato, or any other vegetable or fruit as far as that goes, before it is ripe and ready to eat. He surprised us, however, by calling a distant cousin who sells produce at the Saturday market and asking her to bring some green tomatoes. She asked if we were making confiture de tomates (tomato jam). We just shook our heads and said it was for an American recipe. She seemed satisfied with that explanation. These were a little bit stranger for our guests and, to tell the truth, by this time everyone was getting full from all the hushpuppies consumed earlier!
We next served pork ribs dry grilled on the gas stove top. I really need to find one of those things-- a cast iron flat pan. Dorette had prepared a spicy vinegar sauce to go with the ribs. Chef Érick makes his own red wine vinegar. And I think that true NC BBQ needs a vinegar sauce... none of the tomato stuff. Gilles' red wine went very well with the ribs.
Last, but not least, I attempted banana pudding à la française. I made pastry cream with the recipe given to Érick by Guy LeBlanc, a master pastry chef here in Arles. Then I made a butter/sugar/rum sauce for the bananas and, for the first time in my life, set a dish on fire on purpose! That was fun, to tell you the truth. The alcohol burned off but left the rum taste. I didn't have vanilla wafers, but Dorette found some little spongy cookies at the grocery store and I used those. Right before serving the pudding, I made meringue to top it off.
It was a wonderful evening spent with people we have come to know and love here in Arles. We are very lucky indeed!
Dorette managed to get her bags packed (she borrowed an extra suitcase from Érick) with all of the goodies she had bought for friends and family. She did leave behind some clothes since she knows she will return next summer, if not sooner. She took back olive oil, many little jars of pistou vert et rouge, seeds for the garden and saucissons, dried sausages, for her son. We miss you, Dorette!

Here are some of our recipes. Enjoy!


4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 pint whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. vanilla sugar

Beat the egg yolks until they lighten in color. Gradually add the sugars and continue to beat until it is completely dissolved. Add the milk, and cream and stir to combine.
Chill and serve. If you wish, add the bourbon.

Hushpuppies with country ham (lardon) and remoulade sauce
(from the culinary institute of new orleans)

In North Carolina or NC for short, we have used this recipe as jumping off place for many variations on a theme. shrimp and pickled okra. pimento cheese. jalapeno and pecan. and any of these combined as well.

But oh là là for our French dinner we’ve our sights set on finding okra at the Saturday market in Arles. Can we find it this close to Africa, the birthplace of okra? Wish us bonne chance.

makes 2 dozen

1 cup corn meal (we may use rice flour)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
dash of red pepper
handful of fried lardons
handful of fried okra (or substitute)
1/2 cup green onions (tops, chopped)

mix corn meal, flour, baking powder, sugar and salt together well. combine egg, milk, pepper, onion tops and onion, add to flour mixture and stir well. heat oil to 375 degrees. drop batter by spoonfuls into deep-fryer and cook until golden brown. drain on paper towels.

remoulade sauce

this is excellent on most anything.

1/2 cup each mayonnaise and creole mustard (in the US we use zataran's or whole grain country style dijon)
1/4 cup green pepper, diced fine
1/2 lemon, squeezed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon paprika

blend ingredients and set aside till ready to serve, if under an hour, if longer please refrigerate.

Shrimp and grits
--Dorette's note: There is nothing like this for a Southern treat and since we’re in Southern France, well, à table, y’all. This version is similar to that served at the Crossroads Restaurant in the Carolina Inn, where my oldest son, also named Érick, trained for three years.

‘grits’ (polenta)
1 cup grits
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup extra sharp cheddar (white)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste

cook grits according to instructions on package. as grits are finishing, whisk in butter, cheddar, parmesan cheese, cayenne, paprika and tabasco.

shrimp stuff

3 tablespoons each olive oil and butter
2 cup sliced leeks
½ cup chopped shallots
3 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon chipotles
1-1/2 pound 20-30 count shrimp
salt and black pepper
½ cup vegetable stock, or as needed
½ cup cream, or as needed
1 cup chopped roma tomatoes
fresh chopped parsley for garnish
heat large skillet until hot, add olive oil and butter. as oil begins to smoke, add the leeks and shallots. sauté till translucent. toss in shrimp to cover bottom of pan. before stirring, season with salt and pepper (brown shrimp but things will go very fast from now on, so be careful to have everything ready once you add the shrimp!) stir until shrimp just begin to turn pink all over (let pan return to original hot temperature). stir in minced garlic and chipotles (no burning the garlic!). deglaze with veg stock and let wine reduce, stir for 30 seconds or so until everything is well coated and incorporated. assuming that you are ready to serve, toss in chopped romas for about 20 seconds. If these hold too long before serving they will begin to turn soggy and lose their appeal. serve over hot grits. garnish with chopped parsley.

Bon appétit, y'all!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It finally happened...

I finally missed a meal. Several, actually. Can you believe it? I came down with a stomach flu this past Saturday evening and didn't eat a meal until Monday at lunch. I spent most of that time in bed, feeling really lousy. The coffee smells drifting up to my room on Sunday morning did not tempt me the way they usually do. That is generally my alarm clock. So, I just decided it would be best if I stayed in bed for the remainder of the day. The French have a saying-- Je ne suis pas dans mon assiette. Literally, I am not in my plate. That means that they are not quite feeling right and not up to eating the way they usually do. I have never actually heard a French person utter those words, so I asked Chef Érick and he says the expression does indeed exist. I like it because it just seems to sum up an upset stomach. You just don't feel like eating. Quelle horreur. How awful.
Before I came down with the tummy ache, we made dinner for a lovely family of six from Utah. The husband and wife had been here before, a few summers ago, and had participated in a cooking course. They made reservations for two nights in our rooms for themselves, their two daughters and two granddaughters. We served them a wonderful dinner of mussels, grilled shrimp and tuna, rice made with broth from the shrimp heads (you can even fry those little devils and make wonderful appetizers!, by the way), caramelized zucchini, the Tian de légumes d'été pictured above, a selection of three cheeses and tarts for dessert. We served wines from Jean-Paul Cabanis' vineyard in Vauvert, a white and a rosé. I loved the fact that the two granddaughters were taking pictures of their food! I am not alone, after all.
My quest for the perfect brioche recipe has come to an end, I believe. Today's were the best so far. I found the recipe on the back of a little package of dry yeast we bought for my experiments. The French couple here at breakfast this morning ate them and that is the true test. It has been fun trying new recipes and using up most of the orange oil flavoring we bought at Florame. This is a wonderful place in St. Rémy de Provence that makes essential oils. I will share the recipe soon, I promise.
While not feeling quite myself, I got too close to the pan of very hot olive oil where I was working with the zucchini and eggplant for the tian. I burned the little finger of my right hand quite badly. I discovered that lavender oil is a great remedy for burns. Actually, I will do most anything to get out of washing dishes, I guess.
This past week has also been a bit different/difficult for me because my colleagues have gone back to school. The 2008-09 school year at Durham Academy gets underway today. La Rentrée is the French expression for the first day of school. I knew that faculty meetings began last week and it felt strange knowing that all my friends were there all together without me. For as long as I can remember, since Miss McBee's first grade class in 1964, August has meant the beginning of a new school year. New pencils and notebooks and a new pair of shoes. In honor of the beginning of the new school year, Wednesday, market day in Arles, the day of their first meetings, I made a lunch that would be great for a school day. At DA, we do not have a cafeteria, therefore we all brown bag. While walking around the market, I saw the biggest tomato I have ever seen in my life. We bought one because I made such a production out of it. Pictures were taken, of course, bien sûr. It was called la Russe, the Russian. I decided to take one of the leftover baguettes from breakfast and make a sandwich. I sliced the baguette in half lengthwise, sliced the tomato, placed it on the baguette, and added goat cheese, chèvre, on top of the tomato. To season it, I used herbes de provence, sea salt and olive oil. That was the best tomato sandwich I have ever eaten. Since I am from the South, I have eaten my fair share of tomato sandwiches in the middle of summer! I did have a glass of rosé to go with it. After all, I had promised several of my colleagues I would do that just for them as they prepared for the new school year. They would expect nothing less from The Sabbatical Chef.

Le Tian Provençal - Mixed Summer Vegetables Provençal

Tian is the name for the red clay baking dish of Provence, now primarily made in Spain. These dishes are now being exported to the States. They are wonderful for baking and roasting in the oven. Be sure there’s enough liquid in the dish to prevent drying in the oven, and when you remove the dish you can place it directly on the table. It is handsome, and holds its heat.

Preparation time : one hour ; Cooking time : 30 minutes

Ingredients :

2 fat eggplant
3 zucchini
4 tomatoes
1 bell pepper (color of choice)
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup of olive oil
Grated cheese (in France, often it’s often gruyère, emmental or parmesian)

This recipe has two stages, some of the vegetables are pre-cooked, fried in olive oil, and others are put into the tian fresh.

Cut the eggplant in rounds and salt liberally, set aside to sweat for an hour. Cut the zucchini in rounds, the tomatoes likewise, set aside. Mince the onions, and chop the bell pepper in small pieces, set aside.

Take out a large frying pan and put in your olive oil. Fry lightly the minced onions and bell peppers, simply melting them down, reducing them, to a smooth caramelized mixture. Remove with a slotted spoon and layer on the bottom of your oven-proof casserole dish. Now fry the zucchini rounds, a minute per side, in your oil. Put aside.

When your eggplant rounds are nicely sweated and rinsed of their excess salt, tap them dry and then fry them a minute each side as well, set aside.

Crush and chop your garlic, and now put the entire tian together. Place the onion and pepper mixture on the bottom, then start layering your eggplant rounds (just one layer thick), and then the raw tomato rounds, and a bit of the chopped garlic, crumbled thyme, a little salt, and then a layer of zucchini rounds. Start again till the tian is full and you’ve used all your vegetables. Sprinkle the top with the cheese and place in the oven for 30 minutes at 375F/180C.

Bon appétit!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Breakfasts of Champions?

Today, Friday, August 15, is a day off for the French. It is L'Assomption, the day that the Virgin Mary ascended into heaven. Since I am a reformed Baptist, not a Catholic, I did not know why today is a holiday and the shops are not open. I admit, I googled it. What on earth did we do before we could just google something? Go around acting dumb all the time? Look it up in an encyclopedia, if we just happened to have all 24 volumes handy? Ask our parents who were dumber that rocks themselves or so we believed? Anyway, it is great for the French today because they now get a long weekend. We could have rented 100 rooms here at the B&B instead of the five we have that have been booked for weeks by those who actually plan ahead. There will be music this evening in a little place or square with several cafés in the section of Arles known as La Roquette. I look forward to a fun time with friends after the guests all arrive. Three rooms down and two to go.
Breakfast is my topic of the day. This morning, I barely had time for a couple of pieces of baguette left over from dinner with salted butter (this is a treat, though), homemade apricot jam and hot café au lait. I had crêpes to make and cantaloupe to cut. Dorette was pitching in, as usual, washing dishes. Chef Érick said he had been up since 5:00 am and had been to the bakery for bread and pastries and then he headed out the door to get oranges for the freshly squeezed juice we serve each morning. There is a great little épicerie or small grocery store just right around the corner where we get oranges each morning and anything else we need during the course of the day. It is an amazing store run by a young couple.
When Érick returned, he brought Gilles with him. Gilles is the owner of the used book shop on Rue 4 Septembre. He always make me laugh. Gilles sat down at the stainless steel table in the kitchen and opened La Provence, the daily newspaper. Dorette offered him a cup of coffee. He told me that he had looked at my blog. He was quite shocked at the amount of entries I have made and the length of them. Perhaps the fact that I am much quieter in French than I am in English made him think I don't have much to say. Ha! Gilles speaks and reads English and told me that he planned to read the blog when he has more time.
The French are very polite, by nature. That's a fact and maybe Gilles is just being polite. Any language that has two ways of saying you is spoken by polite people. I think that you could get away with a lot here if you just address someone the proper way! Vous is reserved for someone you do not know well, especially anyone you address as Mr. or Mrs. Tu, the more informal you, is for your friends. But to further complicate matters, vous is also plural. The French equivalent of y'all, I guess.
Anyway, back to breakfast. Dorette ate the some of the dish we call tian de légumes d'été. A tian is an earthenware baking dish. For this recipe, it is filled with summer vegetables- eggplant, zuchinni and tomatoes. We made it last night in a cooking class we did for two young Japanese women. Dorette saw the leftovers and decided that she wanted some for breakfast. She was busy at work on her novel last night and didn't come down for dinner. Chef Érick ate two pieces of toasted baguette with really smelly cheese melted on them. Not a pleasant odor for me first thing in the morning... Gilles decided he would have a leftover tarte aux prunes Reine Claude, the dessert tarts we made for dinner last night, pictured above. Reine Claude are wonderful yellow plums that are in season right now. The tartes also have a pastry cream in them. After Gilles ate his tarte and finished his coffee, he was out the door, on his way to open his shop for a little while.
Earlier in the week, Chef Érick surprised Dorette and me by stirring up gâteau au riz (or what I've always called rice pudding) for us one morning. Oh my gosh. He made it with rice that is called dessert rice. He cooked the rice in a little bit of water for a few minutes, absorbing the water, then added milk and set it back on the stove. To this, he added raisins and vanilla sugar. After the rice was cooked and the milk absorbed, he put sugar on the top and got out the torch. He burned the top of it the way you would crème brulée. We really showed great restraint and only ate half of it, saving half for the next day. Dorette made a treat, also. For dinner one night, she made a cake out of semolina sweetened with honey and ground almonds on top. We ate that for breakfast the two mornings.
Anyway, after Gilles left, the rest of us got to work, too. Dorette went back to the dishes (what will I do when she leaves??) and then upstairs to her computer. Érick got busy stripping the sheets from the four rooms that emptied after breakfast and mopping floors. I set about hanging laundry to dry and then to cleaning bathrooms and making beds. All four rooms were ready by 1:00 pm, just in time for lunch! A very productive morning!

Fresh Fruit Tart with Hazlenut Sablée Crust and Crème Anglaise

This is a tart recipe that goes splendidly with all berries. Note that the tart dough can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge for a day or two, or even put in the tart molds and frozen till needed.

Ingredients :

For the crust : (makes enough for a dozen little tarts or a large single tart)
2 cups flour
1 cup toasted and ground hazelnuts
1/4 lb plus 3 Tbsp sweet butter
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 tablespoon of water (only if necessary)

For the crème:

one cup of whole milk
one tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tsp sugar
2 egg yolks

Your fruit of choice, washed and sliced, or if berries, simply washed and drained. Add the juice of a few freshly squeezed grapes, if necessary. For the plums, we cut them in half, removed the pit, covered them with about 1/4 cup of sugar and cooked them for about 10 minutes. If you cook the fruit, you need to let it cool before putting it on top of the crème.

For the crust : in a large mixing bowl put in the flour and toasted, ground nuts, the sugar, the salt, and the butter cut in small pieces. With your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until you get to a sandy texture that, if you squeeze a hand-full, will hold together. Into this mixture, break your whole egg and work in the egg with your hands lightly, then, as needed, add a tablespoon of water, work the dough quickly together and pat it into a ball, wrap it in plastic and put it into your refrigerator to chill.

Prepare the crème: heat the milk in a double boiler. Place cornstarch in a separate bowl and whisk in the egg yolks. When milk is hot, but not boiling, remove from heat and whisk in the cornstarch mixture quickly. Then quickly whisk in sugar and vanilla. Return to heat, just enough to warm all ingredients. Cool in the refrigerator until ready to use.

At a minimum of one hour later, remove the dough from the fridge and put it onto a work surface. (At this point you can preheat your oven to 350F/160C). Sprinkle some flour on the work surface and start to knead your dough. Press it down and fold it over, press it and fold it, for about 2-5 minutes. You want it to start to hold together and no longer crumble too easily apart. It is great to make tartlets with this dough as it is not easy to cut once cool after cooking. It crumbles easily.

When making tartlets, take a small amount of dough and place it in the tart pans and then snip off the extra dough around the edges.

To pre-cook the crust : poke the crust with a fork multiple times, place into your pre-heated oven and bake until it just begins to take some color, about 5-10 minutes.

Finish by taking the cooled crusts, gently turn them upside down to remove them from their pans and fill them with the cooled crème. Place your fruit on top of the crème and put them in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gâteau au chocolat

It has been a good week. We've had dinner and drinks with friends around town several times. And no matter where, no matter when, the conversation invariably turns to food. While having drinks with Wally, an Arles native who is a French teacher in Portugal (she was written up on page 2 of the newspaper La Provence this week because of her longstanding friendship with Christian Lacroix and her great knowledge of the town and the photos on exhibit), she told us all about what is and is not eaten in Portugal. Over drinks with Didier, Monique and a few others, everyone went around the table talking about what their best dishes are. It seems that Monique has about four, her spaghetti bolognaise being her best, according to her husband. Didier, whose mom is Italian, claims to make pretty good sauce but not as good as Monique. They've been together 31 years and I am beginning to understand why! Dorette, through me, her faithful translator, talked about her cooking school and novel. Everyone knows about Chef Érick's stages de cuisine and Monique asked him when he is going to publish his cookbook. He has researched and collected over 1,000 Provençal recipes. When it came to me, I just admitted to being his assistant. That seemed to satisfy everyone. I dodged a bullet there. If pressed, I would have to say my macaroni and cheese. My boys love it. It was my grandmother's recipe.
While having a drink at Marie Christine's café after spending an hour or so at the Saturday market, Dorette and I had to show her what was in all of our bags. We tried to explain that there is no market that comes close to comparing to Arles in our part of the world. I think there is a great deal of sympathy for us. The French are grateful to the New World, though, for tomatoes, which originated in North America.
This week, I feel as if all I have thought about is my next meal. When we are eating lunch, we are already discussing the options for dinner! Saturday is the traditional day to have seafood for lunch since the fishing boats arrive in on Friday night with their catch. Yesterday's lunch was large mussels, with small bits of tomato and green pepper in the shells. We added lemon juice and a drop of vinegar and swallowed them down. Then we had grilled shrimp. We have a small cast iron stove top grill here and we use it to dry grill vegetables and meat. Today for lunch, we had grilled turkey kebabs from the local Arab butcher shop. Every cut of meat we get from there is delicious. Their sausages or saucisses are so delicious. Érick also made a very simple salad of chopped tomatoes, round zucchini and green peppers with lemon juice and olive oil. There is never a drop of the juice left from that because it gets soaked up with the bread leftover from breakfast. I do honestly believe that simplicity and fresh ingredients are the keys to good food. Have you ever had fresh tomatoes with olive oil, sea salt and fresh basil? If not, buy the freshest tomatoes you can find and some basil and give it a try.
I am happy to report that I have now made four attempts at brioche, the last three using a warm milk and honey bread recipe from Dorette. I have modified the recipe a bit, adding more milk, honey and eggs than the recipe calls for. I may be about ready to publish it. One more experiment tomorrow.
Tonight we have a cooking lesson with an English couple staying with us for a week. The menu will include les moules marinières, fish wrapped in fig leaves, green beans in parsley and chocolate hazelnut tarts. It's been a while since we've had a lesson and I really look forward to it. It is very rewarding to watch people create dishes that they never thought possible, using fresh ingredients and simple techniques. Then, while we eat, we hear their stories. How many children they have, what they do in "real life," why they have come to Arles and Provence, etc.
Dorette's chocolate cake was a big hit at Gilles' house earlier in the week. I will leave you with the recipe now so that I can get back to the kitchen to prepare for the lesson! There are times when you might look at something sweet and wonder if it is worth the calories. Trust me, this is so worth every single bite.

Dorette's Espresso Flourless Cake

each cake serves 12

For the cake:

10 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3/4 c. (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup chocolate, hazelnut or coffee liqueur
5 eggs
1 c. sugar

For the ganache that may be added after the cake is baked- either on top of the cake or on the side:

1/4 c. heavy cream
8 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 Tbsp excellent cognac

Warm the cream, melt the chocolate into it and add the cognac.

For the crème anglaise that you may use as a garnish (Dorette simply whipped up some heavy cream with a bit of vanilla sugar added):

2 c. half and half
1 vanilla bean
1/2 c. sugar, caramelized
1/4 c. granulated sugar
4 egg yolks

Make crème anglaise:

1. Place the half and half and the vanilla bean together in a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
2. Separate the egg yolks, placing in a separate bowl with the 1/4 c. sugar. Make sure the bowl is large enough to accommmodate all of the half and half. Whisk very well, until blended.
3. Little by little, using a ladle, whisk in the hot half and half, whisking constantly.
4. Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the pan ans immer again over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the crème will curdle. Once it has thickened, turn off the heat, but leave the crème in the pan.

1/2 c. sugar caramelized

5. Place the 1/2 c. sugar to be caramelized in a medium sized heavy skillet. First and most important is that hot sugar burns as badly as hot oil and since it is so sticky, it continues to burn while it is stuck on you-- so be careful. Use gloves or mitts to handle the pan. Do not even think about tasting the hot sugar with a finger! Turn up the heat to medium high and prepare to watch the sugar until it's finished. This will take approximately 5 minutes. The first signs of the sugar caramelizing will be the edges of the sugar melting into a light brown liquid. Do not stir the sugar at this point. Just wait. In another minute or so you will notice the middle of the sugar is beginning to melt as well. I use the general rule that when half the sugar in the pan is melted, then it is okay to stir. You can use a wooden spoon or one of the new fancy heat-proof rubber scrapers. Stir gently until all the sugar is melted and you can now pour it slowly into the still warm crème anglaise. If making ahead of time, transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to serve dessert.

Make the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with a cut circle of parchment paper. Put aside.
2. Melt chocolate and butter in a microwavable bowl for 1 minute 20 seconds. Remove from microwave and whisk until butter and chocolate are incorporated well.
3. Whisk in the cocoa and liquor.
4. Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer, until the mixture has tripled in volume. Fold in the chocolate mixture.
5. Pour and scrape batter into pan, spreading out to the edges.
6. Bake for 40 minutes in the oven until the top forms a crust and the interior tests, for the most part, clean with a few moist crumbs.
7. Cool cake on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. Then, if necessary, scrunch the crust down to form an even layer, release the cake from the springform pan and invert on the rack. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely.

Add the crème, ganache and strawberries or raspberries, if you wish. But this cake is good by itself or with the whipped cream!

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Pink Flamingos and Sunday Picnics

Last Saturday night, as part of Dorette's research for her novel, we headed to the Camargue, a regional park and bird refuge, to have dinner at the restaurant of Chef Érick's cousin, Néné, and his wife, Hélène. Oh, the sacrifices I must make. Dorette wanted to ask some questions about the Camargue and they were the perfect candidates. The restaurant is right on the edge of the Camargue, therefore the view is spectacular. We ate as the flamingos were feeding and we watched the sunset change the color of the sky and water from blue to pink to beige before dark fell. The expression for dusk in French is entre chien et loup. To be between a dog and a wolf.
The only choice you have to make at Le Mazet du Vaccarès is which wine you would like to have with dinner. They are open only Thursday-Sunday evenings and the menu is at the chef's pleasure. We had drinks- apéritifs - in the kitchen with Néné (nickname for Réné) and Hélène and little appetizers of toast and tapenade. Dorette and I had kir, a wonderful drink made with white wine and crème de cassis, a liqueur made with black currants.
After moving to our window table, the waiter brought out a large tureen of cold seafood gazpacho. Delicious and refreshing on a hot evening. The main course was grilled fish - daurade- served with the head on and deboned at the table by the waiter. Again, delicious. It was served with roasted potatoes. We had chosen a Picpoul de Pinet white wine. Dessert was a chilled vanilla cream concoction. This may sound strange, but it was almost the consistency of a thick milkshake. Then it was time for a digéstif, an after dinner drink. The waiter brought a thimbleful of a very strong drink of a light green color. I am not really sure what it was made of or what it tasted like, to tell the truth. I took one sip and decided I had had enough. After dinner coffee was served and Hélène had a chance to come sit with Érick so that they could catch up on family gossip. After taking a few minutes to look at all the cool bullfighting memorabilia on the walls of the restaurant, we headed back to Arles around 11 pm.
Watching pink flamingos feed in the wild is wonderful dinner entertainment. They are so graceful and seem so calm. I have seen them fly, but all they really seem to do is walk around in the water and feed all day. They eat the small shrimp and brine found in the Camargue and that is what gives them their pink color. Most of them migrate to Africa during the winter, but a few stay put. There have been sightings of an orange one, a lost Brazilian flamingo, here in the Camargue. I feel kind of like that orange flamingo. I could never pass as a French woman, but I have found a home away from home in a foreign land. Do Brazilian flamingos speak with a "charming accent," I wonder?
Sunday is my favorite day of the week. I was born on a Sunday while my dad and grandfather were fishing on Lake James. My mom had had false labor pains and my grandfather convinced my dad that I was not coming, so they headed off to the lake, or so the story goes.
In France, there are really no stores open, so no shopping or running errands. Bakeries are open in the morning so that you can get your daily supply of baguettes, croissants or a decadent dessert to have with lunch. Cafés and restaurants are open, too, of course, for eating, people watching or meeting friends for a drink.
Sundays here begin like any other day, breakfast for the guests, clean up afterwards, cleaning rooms, if necessary. This past Sunday, however, was a slow day here at the B&B. No guests were checking in or out. We decided to go for a drive. We went to the Côte Bleue, the Blue Coast as it is called because of the color of the water. We ended up first in the town of La Couronne, famous for its ruins of the oldest known village in France. We then drove to the beach, got out and walked for a ways along the sand and then on the rocks to just look at the water. We passed by a few couples sunbathing and several families setting up their picnic lunch. This involved taking out a table, a large umbrella for shade, enough chairs for everyone, a tablecloth, plates, glasses, silverware and napkins. It was fascinating to watch people making what seemed to be quite a production out of eating lunch at the beach, covered in sand and dressed in swimsuits. I commented on this to Érick only to be told that his umbrella had broken last summer and he hadn't replaced it yet. My surprise at the spectacle of such a civilized picnic was received much the same way as my surprise at most of the life here in France is received. C'est comme ça, Teresa. That's the way it is.
We then got back in the car and headed to Sausset Les Pins, a small port town, for lunch. The service was not great, the mussels were good, but the sauce was not, the french fries were overcooked, but the view was worth it. Watching a couple get their boat ready to take out for the afternoon and just watching people walk by was a treat for me. We spent a couple of hours there and then decided to head back to Arles for the evening, once again already thinking ahead to what we would have for dinner.
I've often wondered if the French take their scenery for granted. Every town and village seems to have the ruins of a castle and a medieval (or older) church. I have asked several of my French friends if they even notice their surroundings. They all answer oui and then proceed to give a short (or sometimes long) history lesson about the local ruins. My surprise at it puzzles them, however. I then have to remind them that the United States is still a very young country. One of the walls in the dining room here at the house is older than the English language...
Dorette asked Hélène if she still appreciates the beauty of the Camargue. Her answer was just the one I had hoped for. She said that waking up every morning and looking out at the water is a marvel. What birds are there feeding? Ducks? What species of duck? And every sunset is just as wonderous. Different because of weather conditions and the time of year, but always a thrill. There is such comfort in knowing that she doesn't take her view of the Camargue for granted!
Before I enjoy my afternoon siesta, I will leave you with a great picnic recipe. I am assisting Dorette later this afternoon as she makes a flour-less chocolate cake for dinner. We have been invited to have dinner at Gilles' house this evening and we want to take dessert. I promise to try to remember to take pictures before it is devoured!

Érick's Rice Salad

400 grams (2 cups) rice, cooked and drained
2 cans of tuna
1 cup chick peas or garbanzo beans
1 jar (about a cup) of green olives, pitted
1 Tbsp capers (or more to taste)
a bit of chopped green and/or red pepper
the juice of 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp Dijon-style mustard
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar

Mix together the cooked rice, tuna, chick peas, capers and pepper. In a separate bowl, blend your sauce of lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Pour over the rice mixture and sprinkle in a bit of salt.

Bon appétit!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Brioche Attempt #1

I have no idea why I have become obsessed with making my own brioche. Within a 5 minute walking distance from this house on rue Portagnel in Arles, there are at least 3 bakeries. Actually, the idea began in March after returning from Arles with my group of 8th grade students from Durham Academy. Carlton Rollins and I ate orange brioche here for breakfast and fell in love with them. She asked for a recipe and I began searching my cookbooks and the internet for one that looked like what we wanted. I came up empty handed. When I arrived here, Chef Érick found a prepackaged mix at the supermarché and I tried that. You add your own butter (beaucoup de beurre) and milk. I added the sweet orange flavoring. It was okay, but not what I was looking for and truthfully, I don't think it qualified as attempt #1 since it came from a package. That feels like cheating somehow. Dorette went on line and found a recipe that seemed more to my liking. So, yesterday I went off to the Monoprix down the street (I love never having to get in a car and drive anywhere) to buy more butter and milk. After dinner, I got down to business and made the dough. It rose beautifully after an hour in the stainless steel bowl. I shaped the brioche and put them in the refrigerator overnight. This morning I got up in time to let them warm to room temperature and rise for the second time. I then brushed them with egg yolk and sprinkled them with the sugar that I had added orange oil to for a little extra orange flavor. I wasn't able to find the coarse white sugar that the bakery down the street uses so I just used organic sugar. I put them in the oven and anxiously waited. We only had two guests, an Italian couple, for breakfast this morning, so I thought I would experiment on them. The woman ate half of one and her husband didn't eat anything except a crêpe and yogurt. Oh well. Dorette and I poured a cup of coffee and sat down to seriously critique my brioche #1. Very nice to look at- golden brown. Not in a traditional brioche shape. I didn't want to use the traditional pan. The sprinkled sugar on top was a nice touch. I was looking for a little sweeter taste, however. The recipe only calls for a teaspoon of sugar to be mixed in with the warm milk and yeast. Attempt #2 will get more sugar and perhaps a bit more butter and another egg to make it richer. We are not counting calories here! I decided to put some of Érick's homemade apricot jam on my second one. Afterall, this is serious research. That sweetened the taste and was a very nice addition. The original recipe calls for a cup of dried apricots, but I decided not to put them in. Érick, who walked around in circles in the kitchen while I was making them and occasionally looked over my shoulder (giving up his kitchen to Dorette and me once in a while perhaps makes him a bit nervous?), tried one, too. He has a gluten allergy, but well, once again, sacrifices must be made in the search for the perfect orange brioche, n'est-ce pas? His only comment was "Oui, c'est une brioche." Yes, it's a brioche. He put a little salted butter on his and ate it all. And he did comment that we have enough for l'Armée russe. I should've known the Russian Army comment from my birthday dinner would come back to haunt me! Maybe I'll take some to Didier, Monique and Gilles. I don't know if my ego is up for that yet or not, though.
Before I offer up the recipe, just a few side comments. It has been wonderful sharing new wine finds with Craig and Seth at the Wine Authorities. We went to Pic St. Loup a couple of days ago to taste wine and bring some back to the house. This is Chef Érick's favorite wine region and a spectacularly beautiful place. The cliffs reminded me a bit of Pilot Mountain in North Carolina but on a much grander scale.
Last night, we had a bottle of white, La Gravette 2006 Vieilles Vignes Coteaux du Languedoc and sampled another white, Bergerie de l'Hortus Classique 2007 Vin du Pays du Val de Montferrand, with our dinner. Both excellent- pronounced très agréable à boire- very pleasant to drink- by the chef. We had a salad of chopped tomatoes, zucchini, green pepper and onions with a lemon-olive oil dressing, tomatoes that Dorette had prepared using fresh mint and basil, couscous and sausage. The appetizer was something totally new to me- les pistes. As best I could tell, they are baby squid or calamari, quite expensive at the market, 20 euros a kilo (1 kg=2.2 lbs, 1 euro = $1.60). Chef Érick fried them in olive oil and added fresh basil. They popped in the pan as they were cooking, reminding me of Mexican jumping beans! Quite a sight. They were simply delicious. We ate every one of them, while listening to a 33rpm record of silly songs by Boby Lapointe. The songs are all plays on words and are very funny. I am sure that I didn't catch half of it. The French are very fond of this kind of humor. Another great find from Didier and Monique's shop.

Back to brioche! I dedicate this to Carlton and promise to make them for her when I return.

1 tsp sugar (or honey)
2 packages yeast (or 5 tsp)
4 eggs
1/2 c. warm milk (110 F)
4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 c + 2 Tbsp butter
1 egg yolk, beaten (for glaze)
orange flavoring (optional)
1 c. dried apricots (optional)- snip and add to dough during the second rising

Stir sugar into warm milk and sprinkle in yeast. Wait 5 minutes. Sift flour and salt together. Melt butter and cool slightly. Lightly beat butter and eggs into yeast mixture. Add orange flavoring. Add 2 cups flour and then slowly add more until a dough forms and you can knead in enough to make a smooth dough. Cover and let rise 60 minutes in a warm place. Grease small or large brioche pans. Take 3/4 of the dough and shape into balls. Use the remaining 1/4 to make small ones to place on top of the larger ones. Place in baking pans. Brush brioche with egg yolk and sprinkle with sugar. Let rise another 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 425 F. Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Bon appétit!