Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There Will Be Blood

There is something about the first frost that brings out the caveman - one might even say the vampire - in me. I want to wear fur and suck the meat off lamb bones, and on comes my annual craving for boudin noir, otherwise known as blood sausage. You know you've been in France for nearly a decade when the idea of eating congealed blood sounds not only normal, but positively delightful.

As a woman recently pregnant, my body craved iron in silly amounts. I could have eaten a skyscraper. It's a shame this sort of thing is not on the French pregnancy diet - forbidden along with charcuterie and liver... It's true that boudin noir is not the sort of thing I'd buy at any old supermarket - ideally, you want a butcher who prepares his own. I bought mine from a mustached man with a little truck in the Apt market. I serve my boudin with sliced apples - this time, some golden delicious we picked up from a farmstand by the side of the road. I tossed the apples with olive oil, sprinkled whole lot with sea salt and added a cinnamon stick and a star anise to ground the dish with cozy autumn spices. Boudin is already cooked through when you buy it, but 20 minutes or so in a hot oven gives it time to blister, even burst. I'm an adventurous eater, but the idea of boiled (or cold) boudin makes me think about moving back to New Jersey. (No, not really.)
By this point in the post, I know there is at least one reader (perhaps many) thinking...but, that looks like large labrador shit on a plate. True enough. But once you get past the aesthetics, you have one of richest savory tastes I can imagine. Good boudin has a velveteen consistency that marries perfectly with the slight tartness of the roasted apples.
A good boudin is not the only thing in danger of bursting in France this week. Strikes and protests against the raising of the retirement age have left students injured and 1/3 of gas stations empty. The French do love their manifs. It is admirable to have such a politically engaged public, but I suspect that the unions find the power surge of parades more useful than the search for actual solutions.

As usual, the French government has backed itself into a PR corner. I heard a govt. rep on the radio describe the issue in exasperated tones as a “problème technique” – sure, it’s technical if your job is to sit in Paris and juggle a bunch of number that no longer add up. But this is also a “problème social” – there are real people ensuring the stability of the system, and they deserve to be consulted. Pensions are a social contract – yes, there needs to be change, but the government must also find a way to communicate that that doesn’t leave people feeling screwed with their pants on. (The banner in the photo says "Reimburse the Vaseline". Which means exactly what you think it does.) Add to that the fact (strangely absent from the press) that under the new law everyone has to work longer – except parliamentarians. And they wonder why the man on the street is out for blood…

Boudin Noir with Apples and Autumn Spices

Boudin noir for 4 (you’ll need about 5-6 inches of sausage per person)
4 golden delicious apples
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
Sea salt
1 tbsp olive oil
A glass of white wine

Heat the oven to 400F.

Core and slice the apples, skin on. (½ inch slices).Toss apples with the olive oil. In a large ovenproof platter with low sides, arrange the boudin (cut into individual portions) and the apples. Sprinkle with sea salt and nestle in the cinnamon sticks and star anise. Cook for 20 minutes or until the boudin starts to sizzle and the apples have begun to brown.

Add a glass of white wine to the bottom of the pan. Cook five minutes longer. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 as a main course. If you want to double the comfort food factor, serve with mashed potatoes. Although the dish is prepared with white wine, I serve it with a medium bodied red. If you’d like to do this as an appetizer: carefully slice the boudin into coins (1 inch thick) and prepare with apples as above. I might serve this with port – ideally, in front of a roaring fire.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fig Fest 2010

It's that time of year again.

Every September, I throw myself a little fig festival. A fig par-tay. Figapalooza, if you will. One of the many newfound pleasures of living in Provence is that fig season seems to go on and on. I made my first fig tart over a month ago, and my favorite fruit is still very much at the market. Figs are a coy fruit. Figs hide out a bit. Their exterior is sober, matte – a dignified, often dusky, royal purple. But crack one open, and you have a plupy, fleshy kaleidoscope of seeds. A ripe fig should give slightly when you squeeze.
Figs make an excellent transition from summer to autumn cusine. This is particularly useful this time of year in Provence, where you’ll be eating in the garden one day, turning on the heat the next.
Fresh figs are at home both al fresco, in a rocket salad with golden delicious apples, pine nuts and picnic cheeses,and inside, try these spicy chocolate pots with a side of figs to ease the first chill.

The other day, thanks to my babysitter (source of all knowledge), I discovered that the village has a public fig tree. I pass it every morning on the way back from the boulangerie. Like camembert for school lunches (see this terrific video) and paid maternity leave – that’s my kind of public service.

We will be deepening our village social life this weekend – inviting our neighbors over for tea. Another fig tart is definitely on the books. Between you and me: I have an ulterior motive. I’m trying to sweet talk (or feed) Mr. C into taking me mushroom hunting with him…
Fig and Almond tart

I’ve been in search of the perfect frangipane (almond cream) for most of the time that I’ve lived in France. I started with Eric Kayser's recipe (too greasy, too sweet for my taste), and the trial and error went on from there. The solution came from a colleague of G.’s. This is the almond cream she uses to stuff her galette des rois. It’s easy to make, sweet but not overwhelming, and the rum gives it the right to vote. I’m sure this tart would work nicely with pears as well…

1 good quality pre-made pastry crust

100 grams of salted butter, if you can find it with sea salt crystals – so much the better
100 grams of granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp dark rum
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
150-180 grams of ground (powdered) almonds
2 teaspoons of powdered sugar
6 or 7 ripe fresh figs – sliced (about 1/3 inch)
Small handful of pine nuts

Heat the oven to 375°F

Whip the butter until soft and airy. Add the sugar and cream the two together until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, whisk to combine.

Break the third egg into a cup, stir lightly. Pour ½ of the 3rd egg into the batter. Put the cup with the remaining ½ egg to one side. Add the rum, vanilla and almond extract to the batter, whisk to combine. Then add enough ground almonds so that the batter will hold its shape when mounded on the pastry – it should be just thick enough so that it doesn’t ooze all over the place like a B-movie blob.

Place the crust in a pan (preferably a metal tart pan with a removable bottom – metal helps the crust cook through). Leave the extra crust to hand over the edges. Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. Top with the almond cream. Slice the figs on top. Scatter the pine nuts. Fold the extra crust over the top of the tart, to form a little border. Brush the top of the folded over crust with the remaining ½ egg.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden and cooked through.

Serves 8

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Take Back the Kitchen

I'm reconquering my kitchen. Clearing the counters and throwing out the rice cakes. Pitching the leftovers and Wildberry fruit roll ups. After my mother's five week visit to our new home in Provence – I’m in need of a scorched earth campaign: leave nothing behind that the enemy can use. Not her instant Vietnamese soup, not her Skippy chunky peanut butter. Following in her Napoleonic wake, I had no choice but to burn it all, exorcise it with the ritualistic pleasure that some girls get from burning pictures of old boyfriends.

Let me be clear. I hate hate hate throwing away food. It makes me feel like a spoiled brat. And yet every time my mother leaves France, she saddles me with a huge bag of leftover, canned, partially hydrogenated horrors that neither I nor my family want to eat. Food is one of the central pleasures of my life in France, and particularly at a time when I am doing my best to lose the last of the baby weight – I simply cannot tolerate (excuse my French) putting shit in my mouth.

When I lived in Paris, I could discreetly deposit the bag outside our building in the evening, and it would be gone by morning. Here in the village, there no spot to discreetly do anything. I can't imagine what my neighbors would say if they saw me throwing away a shopping bag full of instant Raspberry Cool iced tea and processed chorizo pizza. Would anyone here even know what to do with instant Raspberry Cool iced tea? For now, the bag is sitting in the vaulted stone cellar, awaiting further study.

Since I moved to France, my mother has been on a campaign to bring the familiar into my otherwise foreign life. She began with the silver (which I cherish and adore), then she brought over a chipped flower pot in the shape of a tudor mansion from our old den (ok, some sentimental value). But soon we moved on to the apricot Jell-O and Crystal Light. It’s all part of my mother’s Stuff is Love theory: If you transfer enough objects from your old home to your new home, you never left.

Until we were under the same roof for an extended period, I didn’t realize how oppressive this was. I felt violated. The kitchen is my territory, and by filling it with things my family would never eat, she was ignoring my wishes, my independence – simply turning my house into a version of hers. One morning, G. slinked off, bewildered, for an espresso at a friend’s: “I opened the refrigerator door," he said, “the fridge was full, and there wasn’t a single thing in it that I wanted to eat.”

It’s not that my mother takes no pleasure in my cooking. She did cartwheels over the beefsteak tomatoes and fine buffalo mozzarella we often ate for lunch in the garden. She happily tasted the tomme de Brebis at my newfound cheesemonger. She watched with amusement as I squeezed the figs and sniffed the melons. But I – her only child - am so far away, and now I’ve kidnapped not only myself, but her grandson as well. What good is his American passport if he doesn’t eat peanut butter?

I love my mother very much. I like her even more. One of the reasons why this happens is that we are so close she often fails to see us as two separate people (with two separate refrigerators). She’ll read this, and we will probably talk about it. Maybe it will make her more aware of how I was feeling – of taking care to treat me like an adult in my own house. And I hope it will make me a better guest in her home – rather than my classic reversion to a child who comes and goes as she pleases and leaves her underwear on the bedroom floor. That’s the difference between my mother and Napoleon. Napoleon never made up with anyone.

Things are slowly getting back on culinary track here. I have some butternut squash for roasting (my mother’s recipe – though tossed with olive oil instead of Pam), and our babysitter just loaded me up with a huge sack of tomatoes from her neighbor’s garden. I think I’ll make some last-of-the-season sauce for the freezer.

Before my parents left, I made a farewell dinner – a variation of my lentils with sausage from our local butcher. Lentils are one of my favorite French comfort foods – warm and welcoming – like the big hug I often forgot to give my parents this month. Now that everyone is gone, I can hear the creaking of the house again. Last night, I gave Augustin some leftover lentils for dinner. Yes, he was eating leftovers, but they were my leftovers. And somehow that makes all the difference.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back to School Bundt Cake

I'm a back to school girl. A white knee sock and patent leather shoe lover of the first day of anything. Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Although I'm not a particularly religious person, I've always liked the idea of celebrating the New Year in September, when the leaves are crisp and the air is sharp with possibility. For me, fall has always been the season of new beginnings. If I still had a pink plastic lunch box, I'd fill it with the tiny mirabelle plums from Mr. C's garden, which he keeps bringing over by the basketfull. I've had to start using the punchbowl for fruit. Mirabelle season, like the New Year feeling, is a short window of opportunity - a time when everything feels shiny and golden and new again. I know, I know. Gag me with a spoon. But I get like this every year...

New Year is also a time of closure, when things come full circle. This time last year, I had a manuscript on one hip, and a month old baby on the other - making last minute changes to one, marveling at the tiny uncanny perfection of the other. Now Augustin is ready to run wild, and Lunch in Paris is running full steam ahead. In addition to the American and Australian editions, the book will soon be published in Germany, Holland, Poland, The Czech Republic, Brazil, Taiwan, and even Korea. Like any over-enthusiastic student, my head is full of new projects, new stories, and of course, new recipes. I'm finding echos between past and present even in the kitchen. When we moved to Provence, I vowed to decipher (or weedle) the recipe for Madame N's homemade apple cake out of the local boulangerie. Turns out, my Grandma Elsie (her recipe for Spaghetti Sauce with pork ribs is the proudest family heirloom in Lunch in Paris), made a very similiar cake.In fact, my Aunt Joyce made one just last night. (Skype is a modern day miracle that any bibical prophet would be proud to call his own.)

So this year, my future found a way to catch up with my past, in the form of a moist, dense, comforting apple bundt cake. Life is like that. We are often chasing our tails, looking for stuff that was there all along. And finding a little piece of home in a brand new spot.

Wishing you a wonderful beginning to whatever you might be starting today.

Grandma Elsie's Apple Cake

5 or 6 apples, peeled and cut into slices (due to Mr. C's generousity, I might have to try it with plums)
2 tsp cinnamon
5 tbsp sugar

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp table salt

2 cups sugar
1 cup cooking oil (canola or vegatable)
1/4 cup orange juice with pulp, fresh squeezed is even better
4 large eggs
(It's not in Grandma's recipe, but I might add the zest of half an orange...)
2 1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350F.

Peel and slice the apples. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and 5 tablespoons of sugar. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, orange juice, oil and vanilla. Lightly stir flour mixture into the wet ingredients. Pour 1/2 of the batter into greased, 10" tube pan. Arrangle 1/2 of the apple mixture over it. Pour in the rest of the batter and arrange the remaining apples on top.

Bake for approximately 1h and 30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Let rest in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before removing from the pan to cool completely.

Freezes well.

Serves 8 to 10

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Old Wives Tales

Five generations of my Russian peasant ancestors are rolling over in their graves. Long did they toil, sweat, struggle, to escape the shtetl. To make it to the New World, to live the American dream of streets paved with gold and Hebrew National salami. A chicken in every pot and a dryer in every mudroom. And now their progeny reduced (voluntarily, no less) to hanging her clothes out on the line in the garden. Oy.

G., of course, thinks it’s perfectly normal to hang our undies out under the stars. It smells good. It saves electricity. Yes. But. I’m American. God help me, I love a good tumble dryer.

Not only does the sun not fluff your towels, it comes with folklore as well. The other night, G. hesitated on his way out with an armful of laundry. "I feel like there’s something about not hanging your white sheets out in the full moon." he said.


This was how I felt the first time I burned my finger in our apartment in Paris. G. sliced open a raw potato and put it on my hand. The starch, he said, would soothe the skin. I swear, sometimes it’s like being married to a Trappist monk.

PS – The potato actually works. As for the sheets in the moonlight, I’ve since heard various theories, all having to do with UV rays and bleach. Anyone. Anyone?

PSS - My mother arrived this week. I left the sheets up on the line, just to see her reaction. (What's the point if you can't have a little fun at the expense of the city folk. Especially since, until about three weeks ago, I was city folk...)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Hello All - Slowly getting my Provencal act together! We found a lovely babysitter for Augustin, so now I have a few hours each morning to work (and share). I know everyone is expecting house photos - and I'm on it - just found the charger for my camera after a (desperate) two week ransacking of the boxes...

I could say I've been cooking - but that would be a slight distortion - it's more like arts and crafts: combining, stacking, slicing and dicing a few essential summer ingredients: tomatoes, tomatoes, melon, jambon cru (raw ham), peaches, plums, figs, tomatoes. And did I mention the tomatoes? I haven't turned on the stove in weeks.
The Provencal tomato is a thing of wonder - small as a marble, large as a human heart, red like a valentine, yellow like a sunflower, orange like an overripe apricot, bright green like a brand new leaf, even purplely olive, like seaweed seen through moving water. The names are equal to the colors: Ananas (Pineapple), Noire de Russie (Black Russian), Brin de Muguet (Lily of the Valley).There's no messing with perfection (ok, a little messing, just for fun) - a few crystals of coarse sea salt, a drizzle of local olive oil and a sprig or two of purple (yes, royal purple, my favorite childhood color) basil. I did do some impromptu matchmaking...Baby tomatoes with smoked mozeralla, red onion, fennel and balsamic vinegar. A giant yellow tomato (That's him. Her? Him, I think. It's a very muscular tomato) with a local sheep's milk cheese (feta would do nicely) and green basil. Last night I got a little fancy and layered slices of beefsteak tomato with artichoke puree and slivers of parmesan. I love to think of the utterly pretentious name this would be given in a trendy Parisian bistro...millefeuille de tomate Provencale, tapanade d'artichaut frais et coppa de Parmesan d'Italie (AOC) sur son lit de salade sauce apricot. The "sauce apricot" was an happy accident. While making the dressing for the green salad, I mistook a bottle of peach/apricot syrup for the olive oil. Since it was already at the bottom the bowl, I decided to try my luck. Mixed with dijon mustard and some olive oil, it was very nice - much sweeter than a French vinagrette, more like an American-style honey dijon. I decided to add it to my pretentious Parisian bistro dish because (believe it or not) they love imitating American food. Anyone who has been in Paris this past year or two will note the rise of "le Tchizzburger" (that's bistro for "cheeseburger").
Friends who sold all their worldly goods to go on an extended trip around the world stopped in for lunch (yes, even people freshly moved to Provence can experience travel envy) - and I discovered that my vegetable peeler makes very nice parmesan curly whirlies for yet another tomato salad. Excuse the close up. Tomato porn. Yes, must move on.
The days are hot and sunny - lunchtime is a search for shade. The evenings are cool and often breezy - ideal for long dinners in the garden (G. managed to snap this photo of both tomato salad and the view from our upper terrace.) I too am being eaten - the misquitos have been feasting on my ankles. My dad used to say it's because I was "sweet meat"...

Hope you too are enjoying the sweet days of summer!
P.S. I'm thinking of another tomato experiment - "tomato tatin" - which amounts to an upside down tomato tart. We'll see if I get up the courage to actually turn on the oven to slow roast the tomatoes...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Not So Little Lamb

"Today we sacrificed a lamb in honor of my firstborn son." I always hoped I would have a reason to write a sentence so thoroughly biblical. Except is wasn't today, or even yesterday - it was two and a half weeks ago, and this is literally the first chance I've had to sit down at the computer. My new life in Provence is getting the better of me. We left our childcare in Paris, so my days are spent between Augustin and his new blow up kiddie pool (love at first splash), sorting cartons and preparing meals with veggie baskets kindly brought over by the neighbors. (I swear, the photo below is not a mise en scene - it was just that pretty when Mr. C brought it over.) Back to the not-so-little lamb. No sooner had we stacked the cartons in our new house in Cereste then we were off to visit G.'s godparents in Brittany. When Augustin was born, G. asked them to host the traditional mechoui (a whole lamb roasted on a spit over an open fire). There was one when G. was born - and for every subsequent child in the family. Rumor has it, there exists an alarming photo of my late father-in-law, munching - Neanderthal style - on a leftover leg of lamb.

G.'s godfather, A., has been a cooking mentor to me. His recipes read like poems - not much more than a list of ingredients with a flourish of interpretation. I try to stick close to him in the kitchen - it's the only way. Precious bits of advice drop like pebbles that I sort and collect over time. A. and his wife live in a stone farmhouse that has been in her family for several generations.They've turned the old barns into a gallery. There are two resident tortoises, who eat very well.A. keeps a pair of binoculars handy, to show his grandchildren the foxes that sometimes sprint across the neighboring fields. When we arrived, the fire was already going in the old boulangerie attached to the main house. On it was a paella - a surprisingly ubiquitous dish in France.The rice was bubbling away in a saffron sauce, and A. added the raw shrimp as we arrived, which started to pink up immediately in preparation for the hungry crowd. Our aperitif, always champagne when my mother-in-law is around, was served on an old wheelbarrow. The day of the mechoui, G. was waiting eagerly at the door (with a surprising number of other people), for the Super U to open so he could fetch the lamb. For my first mechoui, several years back, A. bought the lamb from a local producer. He killed and prepared it himself - but restrictions were getting tighter on this sort of thing, he said. So he decided to order.

Prepping the lamb was quite the surgical adventure.
A. had been up since 6am roasting peppers, peeling tomatos and slicing onions for the stuffing. He asked me to fetch thyme from the garden and bay leaves from the tree at the front of the lawn - never quite sure if his favorite city girl will come back with the right thing...

I love this last photo - I think it looks like a Dutch still-life.

To keep everyone going until the main event, the mechoui always begins with brochettes of grilled lamb's liver - marinated briefly with a slick of olive oil, spicy red harissa pepper, salt and a good earthy dose of cumin. When A. butchered the lamb himself, he would save la voilette, the delicate, lace-like membrane of fat around the organs, to wrap the hunks of liver - and give it a bit of sizzle on the grill. Unfortunately, the supermarket butcher chose to throw this part away...
There's me in my shades, preparing brochettes - who knew liver could be so glam... Augustin, at 11 months, LOVED the liver, which is proof enough, I think, of his French nationality.

Meanwhile, the lamb was hoisted - not by me - into the flames. A.'s spit is a homemade affair, rigged with rusting bicycle gears.

The smoke in the boulangerie stung my eyes, but I made it in there a few times to baste. After several hours, I got the honor of the first piece of crackling. Take your diamonds, boys – just give me the skin. The finished lamb could bring out the carnivore in anyone - I had to resist the urge to pick my entire meal off the spit with my bare hands.

There were other traditions to attend to. There is a photo of 3 generations of G.'s family in front of the yellow cherry tree in the back pasture. We took a picture with Augustin to complete the album.

We ate our evening meal of merguez and baguette sandwiches with considerable relish -considering what we'd devoured at lunch. Our friend Anne had driven halfway across France with two cases of melons in her backseat, perfectly ripe and impossibly orange.I can't say this mechoui went as late as the one I remembered, with songs and wine, wine and songs, stretching into the night. The kids, the rare Brittany heat wave, and the good Bordeaux wore us out. We slept like little lambs - and woke up (if you can believe it) hungry.