Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tour de Farm

Raquel and I made the rounds today to a few San Diego area farms for a project we are working on.  We started the day with a pot each of Yerba Mate tea at one of the farms~


Here are a few of my favorite pics from today.  Hope you enjoy the brief tour~


trimming the persimmon trees before they bud~


Dozens of Rhode Island Reds, a few roosters and handful of guinea fowl, all together; for the feathered set, it was definitely the place to be~


We will be touring and photographing regularly; look for future Tour de Farm posts here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sauce Blanche

Among the essential elements of classic French cooking, I would make the argument that sauces are one of the most loved and yet also most feared.  Loved for great taste, refinement, because they are just so positively French,  because when they are great, they really are spectacular.  Feared by many for being overly caloric, too rich, or just too complicated or mysterious to make.

But let’s get back to the loves; I promise you would put your calorie counting aside and smile from ear to ear if seated at your French table and presented with this plate, your server saucing it for you from a tiny silver pitcher~


{R’s plate at Lameloise; I don’t even remember what this was, I just remember it was amazing to see and to taste!}

I find that restaurants in the U.S. tend to overdo sauces, and plates are positively swimming in sauce, much in the way that pasta here is often covered in sauce, whereas in Italy it arrives lightly sauced, so you can see and appreciate the pasta.  The idea of the sauce is to set off the food, heighten it, make it better, not mask it.  Just a little bit of sauce is all you need~


{my plate at Lameloise, halibut with asparagus and saffron and a mysterious yet delicious sauce}

You can be guaranteed that if you dine at one of the ten three-star restaurants in Paris (there are less than thirty in all of France, including Lameloise in Burgundy) your plates will include some super-amazing sauces.  But what about at home?  No need to get too fancy, but you can make some great sauces that will give your meals a little something extra.  I like to make the slightly “sweet and sour” sauce for duck à l’orange, but put it over chicken~


{Sauce boats are best in pairs, one for each end of the table; ideally like this with an attached tray for spills}

Ever wonder who came up with all these sauces, and why they are so tied to French cooking?  You can thank Marie-Antonin Carême (b.1784-d.1833).  One of fourteen children, he was given up by his parents at the height of the French Revolution, when he was just eight years old, as his father thought that his son was the only one in the family with a chance of advancing socially.  He became a kitchen boy in a fine Parisian restaurant in exchange for room and board, and he proved to be a quick learner.  At thirteen, he apprenticed to a baker near the Palais Royal, and later created grand confections which were displayed in the window-front of the store.

Carême became the food darling of Paris, both for the courts of Europe and high society, the original celebrity chef!  He is credited with styling the French Chef’s Hat, the Toque.  When Napoleon financed the purchase of the Chateau Valençay for the homme d’etat Talleyrand, Talleyrand brought Carême with him, with the challenge to create a year’s worth of recipes with no repetition and using only seasonal ingredients.  Which, of course, Carême did with great success.  He is credited with inventing more than 100 sauces before his death at age 48~


So, getting back to today…you will find sauces are a component of all French cookbooks.  One of my favorite sauces comes from what I call my “old” French cookbook, simply titled “Sauce Blanche.”  It is really very easy to make, contains no cream and so it is easy on the stomach and low calorie.  It uses chicken stock to give it flavor, and can be used on chicken or fish or vegetables like asparagus or cauliflower, and so is versatile. 

You will need a few ingredients:

Half a stick of butter (60 grams)
1/2 cup flour less a heaping tablespoon (40 grams)
1 and 2/3 cup (1/2 litre) good quality chicken stock
1 egg yolk
generous pinch of salt
juice of half a lemon


Start by melting the butter over low heat; then add the flour all at once and stir.  This is what is called a roux (say “roo”)~


Mix it vigorously, still over medium heat, try to flatten out the lumps; keep mixing a little more, the butter will absorb all the flour~


Add the stock, cold or room temperature.  While you can use canned stock, your sauce will taste infinitely better (and have way less sodium) with home made.  The best time to make stock is after you roast a chicken: after your meal, take the carcass, put it in a small pot and cover with water; add five or so carrots and a little celery and a few shallots or onion and some herbs (HdP or thyme and bay, etc) and a little salt.  Cook on medium for about 40 minutes, and strain, ziploc and freeze~


So, when you add the stock it looks like this. Pas de panique!  Get out a whisk and keep mixing for a few minutes over medium heat~


Then it will look like this; if it is still lumpy, just strain it and keep going~


The sauce should not be too hot at this point.  Take the pan off the heat and plop the egg yolk in and whisk it in quickly then return to heat.  The egg yolk and the flour will thicken the sauce over moderate heat; DO NOT let it boil as this will “turn” the sauce.  Add in a generous pinch of sea salt, like this~


I find I don’t really need to cook this sauce, maybe for five minutes; usually I let it sit on the side of the stove while I finish the rest of the food.  If you use reasonably good stock, it will taste much better than just say, water and flour.  Finally, add in the lemon juice.  The nice thing about this sauce is that you can use it as a base for other sauces: add capers instead of lemon juice, or add mustard.  Heat at the last minute and boat it~


{these boats are $7 each at Sur la Table; I use them a lot!}

We had filet of sole, asparagus and rice last night; this sauce is great with fish and also with rice~


You can dress the food with just a little sauce if you like and serve the rest on the side~


This morning I rose very early and made a fat apple pie before I got to the day’s work.  My family has happily noted that the quality of their meals has greatly improved since I quit my job. 


I guess so! They wanted the pie for breakfast, but I am making them wait until tonight!

Let me know how it goes when you try the Sauce Blanche.  It will literally take you ten minutes to make.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bonne Memoire du Cassoulet

There are some foods that you eat that you never forget, that if you taste them, bring you back to a certain context.  Eating that food again just transports you.

I was reminded of this last weekend when my sister was in town.  Two of my nephews devoured box after box of local strawberries.  My niece? Not one.  Sis says when her daughter was very young and had a hospital stay, the doctors noted they had given her strawberry flavored medication. “How could you!” my sister cried.  Since then, any whiff of strawberry is most unpleasant to little Lauren.

Cassoulet for me means Provence (the restaurant) on MacDougal Street in the Village, NYC.  After a long run, the restaurant changed hands and has sadly closed since then.  At the time, my BFF lived upstairs, and as regulars we were always greeted instantly, warmly and graciously.  There was a beautiful garden room in back, and a marvelous and bustling bar in front, with an enormous damme-Jeanne or demi-John at one end, one of the large green glass wine jars; it was perpetually full of the house-made orange wine, and after dinner favored patrons were offered a small digestif.  At some point I was inspired to find my own damme-Jeanne in France and actually made a large batch of my own orange wine, which I taste-tested against that of the restaurant.  I should make that in Beaune one day.

The food at Provence was amazing, and inspired.  It was at Provence that I first ordered a terrine of cuisse de grenouille, which was a specialty that night, in the company of a large and distinguished party.  Frankly, in my pre-French-speaking days, I had no idea what I had ordered, until the waiter asked me, “how are the frogs legs?”  “Delicious,” I said, without missing a beat.  I could have sworn it was chicken.  Many nights my BFF Andrea and I stopped for a light appetizer or just a glass, to chat about the day, our apartments were so small and did not afford such a comfortable atmosphere. On cold nights, nothing would beat an individual portion of cassoulet, served in its own small cassoule or glazed clay pot.  On a future trip to France, one of my first purchases was a large cassoule.  I have been making my own cassoulet since then, and testing and tasting across France.

And so, Cassoulet is indeed near and dear to my heart, by way of NYC not France.  I have eaten my share of it in France, but prefer to make it myself, and always harbor memories of Provence NYC.  It is a disappointment to call it “French Bean Stew” as many do….it is a meal in itself and there are thousands of ways to make it but I find it always satisfying to make and to serve.  My family happens to love it too!

I decided to make it recently after I found these marvelous white beans at San Diego’s premier Chino Farm.  Aren’t they beautiful beans~


You will find endless variations of Cassoulet across France and Provence and the Languedoc, each varying from town to town and by region. The number of steps to most of these recipes are positively dizzying!  I can not source the same pork cuts as in France, and using the pork cuts and pork rind from the Chinese market was a huge project which was not justified by the end result.  So here we have to improvise. I have simplified the recipe, but it is still delicious…and so, here is my U.S. cassoulet recipe~

Set a cup of white beans in water overnight the day before. Of note, the French say these should be local and no more than one year old.

Take six of the thickest bacon slices you can find, cut in to 1/2” pieces and boil them lightly to degrease and remove the white chum that results from the boil.  Rinse, drain and set aside. Very Julia Child, as she likes to make pork this way.

In a pot, set an onion studded with a dozen or so cloves (I do this too for chicken soup); add the par-boiled bacon pieces, several bay leaves, a healthy amount of fresh thyme and a few tablespoons of herbs de Provence (see pic above) and let me know if you want some HdP I will send you a tube from Beaune~


Add in five medium sized  crushed garlic cloves and the top of the white part and most of the greens of six leeks; sliced into small rounds; these are from my garden and so pretty small~


Add the pre-soaked beans; I added a few tablespoons of homemade tomato sauce (or a whole tomato; try to avoid a half can of diced tomatoes!)  to that mixture and let simmer for 2-3 hours.  You are making a sort of a stock, but with beans.  You can add other aromatics like a few carrots if you like.  Don’t cook it too hard or else the beans will fall apart.

Meanwhile, prepare your meats.  I use several duck legs, brown them in oil first and set them in the pot; the French use duck and pork and sausage for this dish; sometimes I have added in chicken but the duck really holds together nicely after a long cook~


Remove the duck legs and brown a few sausages; these are Bristol Farms Garlicy, Toulouse-style sausages, but use whatever you can find that is good~


Pour your mixture of beans and herbs and leeks on top of the meats, removing the whole onion that was studded with cloves and the bay leaves~


spread out the beans and stuff….


bake at 375 for 2-3 hours with a foil cover…the meat is tender, falling off the bone.  You can sprinkle with bread crumbs at this point and put under the grill.  I cooked it again without the foil on top for another 45 minutes with bread crumbs.  Whatever, it’s all delicious~

I wonder if this looks as good as it tastes…..but I assure you it does! My family ate it all on Saturday night!


bon appetit!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Winter Provençal

My younger sister is in town with her kids as is my niece from DC, so of course we had to have a big family meal tonight.  The main event for any dinner for my family is dessert.  It seems the Sugar Gene has been passed down, as my sister’s little kids who were visiting asked Auntie Andrea if we can have an “Un-Birthday” tonight; that is, our favorite birthday cakes even though no one is having a birthday this week. Why not?  Grampy got his fave, devils food with buttercream and coconut; Grammy also got her request, Kahlua-imbibed raspberry filled white cake with pink seven minute frosting; I love a pink camellia from the garden on top of that cake~


I added what I call coconut foo-foos to that tray, mini white cakes with Paula Dean filling and seven minute frosting topped with shredded coconut; wildly popular tonight~ 


Before we got to the dessert of course, we had dinner.  I made rosemary potatoes, which are always a hit; dice up a few Russets….they will shrink when you cook them so coarse is ok~


I like finer pieces, but they can be up to an inch~


On a silpat or foil, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with Herbs de Provence and fresh or dried rosemary; a single layer is best~


Bake at 400 degrees, this will take more than an hour, until crispy; you can turn them a little, but try not to mush them, best to be intact; salt at the middle of cooking and again at the end of cooking; my family ate every bit tonight~


The chickens were generously stuffed with thyme and trussed; roasted French-style to perfection~


Green asparagus from the market today was our side dish~


I made a cassoulet yesterday; this deserves its own post, and it doesn’t really photograph well, but trust me it was delicious and seasonal and all-eaten tonight~IMG_5136

Though I cooked everything in my own kitchen, we ate at my sister’s house nearby, which I don’t like as much as I have to pack all of this food up in the car, and it doesn’t afford me the luxury of setting a nice table.  But that was ok in the end as we had a great meal, together, as a family.  Wishing everyone a wonderful weekend~

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Little French Warmth

I don’t know about your corner of the world, but it seems like everyone I talk to is having a little wintry weather today.  I just finished walking Honey & Biscuit in the rain, and as I sit down with a pot of Kusmi tea, thought you might enjoy a few more photos of my friend Rachel’s home and especially her massive limestone fireplace with blazing fire~


I have yet to meet a French House that doesn’t come with many beautiful stories of its history and development.  Rachel and her house, known in the village as La Saboterie, are full of stories, including the salon fireplace.  If you look carefully at the firebox, you will see it looks to be split perfectly down the middle, can this be?  Why yes, it is: 


It seems that when the Clog Maker-owner of the house passed and his two daughters inherited the complex of buildings, the daughters could not agree how to share the central house, and so they split it down the middle.  Precisely down the middle, with a wall dividing the salon and its fireplace perfectly in half.  The large limestone mantel was removed and cast off into the garden, to be excavated many decades later, by chance, by Rachel.  In its place, the sisters installed two smaller mantels, one for each half of the house. I am sure it was odd to have the fireplace right next to the wall in each side of the house, but that was the way the real estate was carved up….and of course the fire was more for heat and less for aesthetics.

Rachel was able to locate the remaining original stones in the garden, and had her masons reconstruct the mantel.  I can’t imagine wanting to dismantle this beauty, but it was done.  Thankfully, Rachel put the pieces back together for a beautiful result.  Here she is happily in her salon in front of the fireplace; you can now imagine it’s wonderful size~


Here is Rachel and her son Sebastian, sitting in a pair of wing chairs which belonged to her Grandmother and made their way to France from Canada~

IMG_0553We took a lot of photos at Christmas this year in her home; here is the stairway with beautiful thick stone walls and a large basket of walnuts gathered from their walks in the forest; more photos of Rachel’s home later~


Wishing you a toasty evening wherever you may be~

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate Covered Valentine

Sometimes Valentine’s Day is fun to celebrate with a romantic dinner for two, sometimes it’s just fun to share the love with a large crowd.  Such was the case this past Sunday, when Raquel and I decided to offer a few Valentine-inspired treats to our shoppers at the Rancho Santa Fe farmers market.  This heart was a gift at Christmas from my friend L on a bottle of wine, and I tied it to my basket for the day as inspiration~


We brought four dozen pink and red long stemmed roses which were given to the ladies, from one of my rolling carts~


Along with a few beautiful blackberries from Pudwill Farms, we had white chocolate bark, which was simply melted Ghiradelli white chocolate chips poured on a silpat and topped with peppermint sprinkles~


The real hit of the day, especially with the kids, was an array of strawberries and cherries dipped in chocolate~


As a truly seasonal fruit that can not be forced, these cherries come from Chile, and I have been surprised to see them all over in every grocery store here lately.  The chocolate is a bar of Valrhona 71% from Trader Joes.  Break the bar into pieces and melt in a double boiler (put your bowl over a simmering pan of water) and holding by the fruit by the stems, dip the fruits in the melted chocolate (no cream or anything else added) and let the excess drip off; I put them on a Silpat sheet while the chocolate hardens and for easy removal.


Fresh cherry and dark chocolate is a magical combination, and need I mention, this makes a decadent little bite to feed by hand to your Sweetie?  A large tray of chocolate covered cherries can be made for about $8 even now with imported fruits.  For a dinner I’d place one on each plate with a rose petal, just like this~


Lots of love to all today & this week!