Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quel gros canard!

The last couple of weeks of my sabbatical were busy ones. (I am home now and writing this from the comfort of my kitchen table-- more about that soon!) I was counting the days until I would see my family again but racing against the clock to fit in as much as I could before leaving Provence and France. Chef Érick knew he still had a lot to teach me about cooking and one day came home with the biggest duck I have ever seen. Admittedly, I do not have a lot of experience with ducks other than watching Daffy Duck on Looney Tunes most Saturday mornings of my young life and eating quite a bit of it in June while in southwest France with the Arles 6. Professor Rich and I went to a farm where duck and geese are force fed- gavage- while near Sarlat in June. He, as a biology professor and turkey specialist, was curious and I was his chauffeur and translator. I had also vowed to myself upon receiving the sabbatical and arriving in France that I would not pass up an adventure during my six month stay. We did not witness the actual process, but we did listen to the owner explain how the ducks and geese are cared for and fed, all very ethically, of course, according to him. I am no one to judge and let's just say that visiting the farm has not kept me from eating duck or pâté de fois gras. The birds are fed a mixture of ground corn and oil through a tube for a period of about 15 days until their liver is the proper size, ideally around 750 grams. We were told that the birds basically will do this to themselves before migrating-- well, they don't force the food down their own throats obviously, but they will eat enough to sustain themselves during the long flight. After they are slaughtered, all parts are used and consumed. The French are not wasteful. Listening to the monsieur talk about the process reminded me of watching my grandmother on her farm. No part of an animal was ever wasted. That is why I am still curious about those pig ears that I saw in the market one day...
So, the day came when I arrived in the kitchen to find M. Canard on the steel work table in the kitchen in Arles. I declined Chef Érick's offer to chop off his head. He did so and then went to work with a sharp knife. The first thing was to remove the liver. We got out the scale so that we could weigh the "parts" as we removed them. The liver weighed one kilo or 2.2 pounds. We put that aside and went too work on the breasts. By this time I had lost all sense of trepidation and was ready with my knife, too. We carved out the breasts and they weighed 500 grams (about one pound) each. Érick salted them and put them aside. He cures them with salt. I chopped off the feet and we set aside the legs. (I would love to have them right now for the cassoulet I plan to make soon...) We saved every part of this duck. The neck and feet were to be used for stock. As I said, nothing goes to waste.
I brought home two breasts and some of the liver. My suitcase did indeed make it through customs with truffles and duck! Sorry, Rich, no drama at the airport! I do appreciate the fact that you and Pat were ready to come rescue me should I be detained at customs for "illegal substances," but I made it through. One suitcase arrived at RDU held together with tape. I think it must have been opened and the agent didn't want to even bother to try to zip it back up. The other one, the one with the truffles and duck, didn't seem to have been opened, thank goodness. Chef Érick has become quite adept at packing foodstuffs for the journey to the U.S. He packaged Dorette's saucisson (all 7 of them!) this summer. He has made numerous trips to the States for cooking demonstrations and has made it through customs each and every time. Vacuum-sealing is essential!
I am including a recipe for cassoulet that my mom found in a recent edition of Guideposts. She read the article about it and knew it would interest me. The woman called it the French version of pork and beans. Gross understatement if ever there was one. I did eat cassoulet while visiting the city of Carcassonne the week before I left. We ate in a café, supposedly the oldest one within the walled city. This dish of "pork and beans" was just right on a chilly, rainy day, with a glass of local red wine and freshly baked bread. A nice dinner for a cold January day. It is well worth the time it takes to prepare! Rosie and her husband ate it in a French restaurant in Brooklyn and then worked for quite a long time to find the right recipe. As she says in the article ..."even though it does take time and patience to prepare cassoulet, I discovered that the dish isn't as complicated as I first thought. I think of it as the best pork and beans you've ever tasted-- rich and garlicky and herbaceous, with a crust that crackles when you dig your fork in. It's not health food- that's for sure. It's country food. Soul food, even. French-style."
I love that! We Americans are not the food Barbarians the French think us to be! At least not those of us who would spend practically an entire day on one of their best-loved dishes for winter! Now, where can I find those confit duck legs here in Durham??

(thanks to Rosie Schaap and Guideposts January 2009)

4 cups of Tarbais or other small white beans, such as great Northern
4 fresh ham hocks, about 1 lb. each
3 large onions, peeled and quartered
6 sprigs thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. duck fat (can be ordered from D'Artagnan, dartagnan.com)
4 links unseasoned fresh pork sausage, cut into 2-in. pieces
1 large head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
4 whole confit duck legs (can be ordered from D'Artagnan)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Topping: (optional, in my opinion; the cassoulet in Carcassonne did not have it)
1 cup bread crumbs (made from dried out bread)
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, minced
1 garlic clove, minced

Rinse beans thoroughly, pick through and discard stones, set aside.
Place ham hocks in a large pot. Add 2 onions, thyme, and salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from heat, allow to cool 15 minutes then drain ham hocks, discarding onion and thyme. Cut meat from each hock into 2 pieces, fat and skin, and set meat aside.
Empty water from large pot. Add beans and enough water to cover by 1/2 inch (about 8 cups) and season with salt. Bring to a simmer then reduce to low and cook until bean are tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt, if necessary, then set beans aside to cool. Reserve cooking liquid.
Heat duck fat in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausages and cook, turning to brown on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Place garlic, remaining onion and 1/2 cup water in a blender and purée until smooth. Add garlic paste to sausages and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, turning sausages occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about half the beans to a heavy, wide-mouthed, 6-quart pot, about 4 inches high. Assemble cassoulet in layers: Place meat from ham hocks on top of beans and cover with sausages and garlic paste. Divide duck into 8 pieces by separating drumsticks from thighs. Arrange duck on sausages then spoon in remaining beans. Season with nutmeg and add just enough reserved bean cooking liquid to cover beans (about 3 cups). Reserve remaining liquid. Bake cassoulet uncovered until it comes to a simmer and crust begins to form, about 1 hour. If cassoulet appears dry, break top layer by gently pushing it down with the back of a spoon, allowing a new layer of beans to rise to the surface. Add just enough bean liquid to moisten the beans.
Remove cassoulet from oven. Allow to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare topping: Mix bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and a good pinch of salt.
Remove cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature for at least 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F. Bake for 1 hour. When cassoulet begins to simmer, break crust and add enough warm water to just cover the beans (about 1 cup). Reduce heat to 250F, add bread-crumb topping and bake, breaking crust and adding water as needed, for 3 hours. Remove cassoulet from oven and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes. Serve cassoulet from the pot, breaking the crust at the table. Serves 8.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Black Diamonds

Yesterday I fell in love with a man, his dog and a mountain. After last Friday's truffle market in Carpentras, Chef Érick and I were invited to have lunch with René, pictured above, and Françoise, his wife, at their home in Isle sur la Sorgue in the Vaucluse. René called on Tuesday of this week to confirm that we were coming. He asked me if I am afraid of walking in the mountains. He did not know he was talking to a mountain girl. And then he told me not to wear my high heels. Since I do not own any, that would be easy enough. He also reminded me that we needed to get there early. So, I dressed warmly, lacing up my tennis shoes, and we set out around 10:00 am. Isle sur la Sorgue is about an hour's drive from Arles. We drove through fog for about 30 minutes and after it lifted, we could see Mont Ventoux in the distance, covered with snow.
When we arrived in the town well-known for its antique shops, Érick pulled off to the side of the road to phone René because he was unsure of how to find his house. René gave him directions and said he would come find us on his bicycle if we got lost. We set out again and, sure enough, at the turn to his neighborhood, there sat René on his vélo. We followed him home. We were greeted by the barking of Sonny, his white lab. Françoise had prepared a feast for us. We ate shrimp, paté de fois gras and smoked salmon on toast and radishes as appetizers. Then Françoise made omelets with truffles for the next course. René brought out a bottle of red Côtes du Ventoux wine and uncorked it. The omelets were followed by endives baked with ham and cheese with truffles sprinkled inside. Lunch conversation consisted of René telling me about his teaching days at the nearby high school and Érick instructing Françoise on the proper way to prepare truffles. He told her that truffles should not be cooked. They should be added to a dish after it has been cooked. Heating them causes them to lose their flavor. Françoise seemed very grateful for the advice. We had cheese, a little dish of ice cream and coffee before setting out on our adventure. Françoise elected not to go (probably because she had so many dishes to wash...) and she lent me her boots. René loaded Sonny into the truck and off we went.
I really had no idea what to expect. I did have a vague recollection of oak trees and roots after reading Peter Mayle's books. We parked by the side of the road and found a little path up the mountain where René owns property and where he does his hunting. I followed behind René and Sonny, keeping a bit of distance between us so as not to distract her. I learned to walk in the grass or on the moss, not on the dirt path. Lesson #1: leave no tracks for others to see. Lesson #2: whisper so that your voice doesn't carry. Others are probably around, hunting for truffles, too, poaching most likely. It is still a bit early in the truffle-hunting season and I had been warned not to expect too much. So, it was a pleasant surprise when Sonny started digging about 10 minutes into our walk. As soon as she begins to dig, René hurries over and scoots her out of the way. She has no interest in eating the truffle, however. I had read about hunting with pigs, but pigs like to eat the truffles. We did see lots of places where wild boar, sangliers, had beat us to the treasure. Once René finds the diamant noir, or black diamond as they are known in France, he rewards Sonny with several dog treats from the little bag he keeps in his pocket. He tells her what a great dog she is and pets her. It is obvious that he loves her dearly and she is fiercely loyal to him. She decided that she kind of liked me, but I think it was because I was wearing Françoise's boots, to be truthful.
René then checks out his treasure, smelling it and carefully rubbing some of the dirt away in order to see if it is a good one. He can tell immediately if it is too wet or too dry. If so, it will not fetch much at the market. There are stories of fake smell being added to the truffles, lead pellets being inserted into them to make them weigh more, poachers who steal from the property owners, and so on. This seems to be a business based on trust, however, and René is a man of his word. He taught high school for about 30 years and loved it. He has hunted truffles for over 40 years. He took great pleasure in showing me how he goes about it. I am deeply grateful to him for the lesson.
We spent about two hours following Sonny's nose and a little path up the mountain. René remembers where he has had success in the past and guides the dog towards those places. She, however, is guided by her nose and her knowledge that a treat awaits her should she find a truffle. We came out of the woods with 11 truffles of various sizes. René even let me dig one up. He carries a small screwdriver in his pocket for this purpose. He places his truffles in a small white plastic sack. His jacket has lots of pockets to hold all the tools of his trade.
At first glance, I thought his René's mountain resembled the Appalachian Mountains, my home. However, once we started climbing up the path, I realized there was not very much resemblance at all. Snail shells are scattered everywhere. A wall made of stones winds up the mountain, built from the flat rocks that are found everywhere. Small stones huts, bories, are hidden away, built long ago by shepherds as shelters while they tended their flocks of sheep. I ventured into one of them, admittedly not very far as it was very dark and I am not too fond of spiders, even French ones. The oak trees are not large ones, as I had expected. They are small and different from any I have ever seen.
All in all, it was one of the best days of my life. René is a master storyteller and continued to tell me stories after we returned to his house. He pulled out his scales, a basic set, nothing fancy or digital for the truffle hunters here in the Vaucluse, and weighed the week's findings, coming to almost a kilo or 2.2 pounds. He gave me two small ones. I just ate one of them grated on top of fresh pasta. To really get a taste of a fresh truffle, take a small piece of bread, dip it in olive oil, grate the truffle on top and sprinkle it with coarse sea salt. Heavenly. In one week's time, I have become addicted to truffles. I just had dinner and am already thinking about tomorrow's lunch. I plan to make an omelet from the fresh eggs we just bought, add some cheese while it is cooking and then grate my last truffle on top. I only have nine days to savor as much of Provence as possible, after all!

Here is the dish we made last week, after the market in Carpentras. This recipe is courtesy of Madeleine Vedel.
Bon appétit!

Fresh Pasta with Walnut Sauce and Truffles (or Mushrooms)

Pâtes Fraîches aux Champignons Sauvage avec un Sauce aux Noix –
Fresh Wild Mushroom Pasta with Walnut Sauce

This is rightly a recipe for the fall, but it can be made all year round with a stash of dried mushrooms. The walnut sauce is a classic preparation that dates back to the time of the Etruscans. Walnuts are particularly present in the Cévennes, the hills of the Gard in Languedoc, just an hour or so from Arles. Fresh pasta is really quite easy to make. Anyone who’s made bread a few times, can easily start making pasta. From start to finish, this recipe can be on the table in an hour after a bit of practice.

Ingredients for the Pasta :

If served as a main course, one egg per person, if served as a side dish, then one egg per 2 people.

One cup (100-150g) flour to one whole egg.
Pinch of salt
Dried mushrooms ground to a powder – 1/4 cup to 4 cups of flour (30g to 450g) if you are not using truffles

For the Sauce :

300 grams of walnuts (this is about 2 cups chopped walnuts)
2 garlic cloves (good sized)
1/2 cup of olive oil (120ml)– not too bitter, extra-virgin cold pressed.
Salt to taste
A few fresh mint leaves (optional, or another herb you like…)
Grated cheese – we like a young sheep tome, or pecorino. A mild parmesan is fine, too.

For the pasta:

On a smooth work surface, such as a large counter space or marble slab, pile your flour in a well, in the middle of the well put your mushroom powder and your pinch of salt and your eggs. With your hands, gradually incorporate as much flour as the eggs are thirsty. If there is a bit of flour left over, you can add a tablespoon or so of water, as needed. You need to work the dough for at least 10 minutes, kneading it and stretching it, till it is smooth to the touch. Put aside covered to rest for 30 minutes.

Either with a pasta machine or by hand, continue rolling and folding the pasta dough. With the machine I pass a portion of the dough through, fold it in three and pass it again, always on the largest setting. I continue this at least 7 times, if not more, till the dough is very smooth and elastic and does not seem brittle and cracks stop appearing. When the dough is ready, then you can either roll out by hand, turning the dough in every direction, gradually increasing its elasticity and thinning it out, the pros use a bit of gravity letting the dough hang off the counter as then roll. Or, alternatively, use the pasta machine and gradually reduce the size of the setting to the desired thickness.

When the dough is the thickness you desire, cut it as you please, in large long noodles, in triangles, in thinner spaghetti lengths… to your preference. Lay the prepared pasta on floured cloths, - you can layer these - and let dry till you are ready to put them into the salted boiling water.

For the sauce :

In a mortar and pestle, grind your garlic cloves and walnuts to a fine paste, add the olive oil as you work to make it easier to form the paste, if you are adding the mint leaves, do so now, and salt to taste.

When your pasta is done, save some of the pasta water to add to the walnut sauce to lengthen it and thicken it. Toss the pasta with the walnut sauce, grate the cheese on top, and serve. If you are using truffles, grate them on top of the pasta, sauce and cheese.

Have fresh bread ready in order to wipe your plate clean so that you do not waste one bit of the sauce or truffles!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How do I bring it all home?

This photo is of the port of Cassis, a little town on the coast. We went there this week for lunch. I had seafood pasta, Erick had monkfish. We drank a nice half bottle of Cassis white wine and watched the water. It was a chilly, sunny day. I did indeed take pictures of my food, but they are not nearly as beautiful as this one. The cliff in the background, Cap Canaille, is the highest one in France, about 400 meters or 1200 feet. I filled my pocket with smooth stones from the beach.
Earlier in the day we went to Aubagne, the birthplace of writer Marcel Pagnol (if you've never seen "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle" you should rent them just for the scenery, although the autobiographical story of his childhood is wonderful, too). The town is famous for its santons or crèche figures. The folks of Provence put together amazing manger scenes for Christmas. They include figurines representing people from their villages- the baker, the fishermen, the shepherd, the school teacher, etc. Lots of animals are also added. We saw the crèche at the Abbaye de Frigolet that even included a monk manning the distillery (they make a wonderful apératif liqueur) and imbibing of his own product! His nose is red and his glass is held high in a salute! What a great sense of humor those monks must have.
After Aubagne, we drove to the nearby small port town of Cassis, pictured above.
My lament about bringing "it" all home in the title of today's post does not only apply to packing my two suitcases, although I have no idea how I will manage that task next week. It is mostly my desire to bring home all of the special parts of Provence. I bought a beautifully decorated tin full of herbes de provence at the Arles Christmas market. I wish that I could fill it up with the sights, smells and sounds of Provence. I'd add sea salt, garlic, olive oil and sun-ripened tomatoes to the herbes, the basics of Provençal cuisine. Claudine's goat cheese, the one that is about 10 days old, would have to find a spot. I'd toss in some lavender and sunflowers, as well as the little white flowers that are now growing by the roadside and among the now sleeping vines. The ones that smell like honey. I'd add the smell of the hot August sun as it beats down on the fields of hay growing between Arles and Tarascon. The December sunset with its band of bright orange that fades to almost red before it meets the horizon would have to be a part of my collection, as would the night sky reflected in the Rhône river in the exact spot where Vincent painted it during his time here. The ever present humming of the cicadas in summer as they cling unseen to trees would be my favorite sound. A bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and a white from Cassis would go in. I'd add Virgil's café in the Place du Forum on a hot summer evening with the regular crowd discussing what to have for dinner as a kir, pastis, pression, or sirop de pêche is sipped after work. With that in the box, I'd be able to sit quietly, listening to the conversations around me and watching people pass by. I could see the women in their high-heeled sandals and sundresses, tourists with cameras slung around their necks, and the statue of Fréderic Mistral in the distance. The box is magic, of course, so all of these things will fit nicely in there. I could place it on my kitchen counter when I return in less than two weeks and take the lid off every now and then just to reassure myself that I was really here and Provence was my life for six months.
As I write at this very minute, I am listening to Blake Shelton sing "Home." "I feel just like I'm living someone else's life...." "Another winter day has come and gone away in even Paris and Rome, and I want to go home, let me go home..." (Michael Bublé does a nice job with the song, too!) So, oui, even as I already miss what has become my home-away-from-home, I feel the strong pull of my real home in Durham, my family and my friends.
I still have more adventures, though. René, the truffle hunter, called this morning and asked me if I am afraid to walk around in the mountains. I tried not to shout NON, pas du tout! into the phone. And I had to laugh when he told me not to wear my (non-existent) high heels. We also have a trip to Carcassonne, a walled city to the west of Arles, planned for next week. Érick's son, Jonas, turns 7 this weekend so we will celebrate. How do you put candles in Nutella filled crêpes, his favorite treat, I wonder?

My recipe below is one we made for lunch yesterday. So simple and so good.
Bon appétit!

Spinach and Seafood (Les Épinards et les Fruits de mer)

Take a large bunch of fresh spinach and wash it really well. Remove the larger stems and tear it into smaller pieces. Fry it in olive oil, a handful at a time. This only takes about 3-4 minutes in a hot pan. It is a good idea to cover the pan after adding the spinach so that the steam will help with the cooking. Turn it once with tongs. Remove to a baking dish. After the spinach is cooked, use the pan to heat your favorite seafood. We put in some mussels, tellines (small shellfish found at the edge of the water buried in the sand),and palourdes (I do not know if they are available in NC-- Note:  I now know that these are clams in English!). You could use shrimp. After adding the seafood, we stirred in a bit more olive oil. Salt isn't necessary here because the seafood is already quite salty. A nice fresh baguette and a white or rosé wine completes the feast.

The same seafood would be wonderful on top of freshly cooked pasta, bien sûr.