A west country escapade

July 31st, 2009

The lure of the coast, in this case on the Atlantic sea, is too strong for the vagabond to resist.  Just a few days away will recharge the flagging batteries with ideas – and samples of melons, brioche, Charente and Deux Sèvres (why is it sometimes called ‘deux chèvres’?) specialties from perch to cheesecake, with a few tastings of west country wines along the way.  Yes, those abundant vines produce more variety than “just cognac” (who knew?).  The freshly churned, sweet Charente butter,  shellfish straight from the Bay of Aiguillon, and Poitou’s stuffed vegetables are on the list to sample.  Not to mention more on mussels/moules, markets, and Romanesque chapels (about 600 in the Poitou alone! this calls for a return trip), and special off-beat details will be in next week’s report. The vagabond is on the move.

So fruity…

July 25th, 2009

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Try a buckle, a betty, a crumble or a cobbler, a slump, a grunt, or why not a fool?  With so much fruit rolling in, anything goes.  A classic plum or apricot clafoutis is a popular, adaptable dessert alternative, but for cool and fruity, my vote goes to the fool.  Why? I’ts easy and can be made hours in advance.  How? Whip the fruit with cream, mascarpone, fromage frais – even add a whipped egg white or two…et voila, dessert!  If you have a crowd coming, make two batches using different fruits of complimentary colors to layer or marbelize the fool. Have fun concocting it, and set the fool aside to chill for 6 to 8 hours.

Originally a custard-based English pudding, a fool is derived from the French word for mash or press,  fouler. Gooseberry and Elder flower fools were common in the 16th and 17th centuries, and gooseberry remains an English favorite today. The fruit can be this season’s strawberries or last summer’s frozen blackberries:  just use mashed fruit, or cooked and sieved fruit such as rhubarb or plums.  But whatever you choose, make sure it has both a characteristic flavor and color.  The trick is in the tasting: adjust the sugar content to your fruit’s acidity, so taste as you mix it up.  A basic recipe is simply to fold 1 cup of thick whipping cream (beaten in a chilled bowl with cold beaters), with 1 tsp of vanilla or almond extract + 1 T. sugar, folded into 1 cup of puréed or mashed fruit, sweetened to your taste. Red or golden plums are at their peak now, so try them in this mix. Fold gently so that white streaks of cream remain visible, pour or spoon the fool into individual glasses/cups or into a glass serving bowl, and top with shaved, toasted almonds. An alternative, almost-cheesecake version uses 1 beaten egg white folded into 1 cup of fromage blanc or moscarpone (add a grating of nutmeg or dash of sweet amaretto liquour if you are so inclined) instead of the cream. Then chill, both you and the fool.

A golden plum fool garnished with poached plums and grated nutmeg is pictured above.

Tomato Fiesta!

July 20th, 2009

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‘Tis the season, the plump red tomatoes of Marmande are in the spotlight:  on July 24 and 25th the bastide town overflows with Tomato Fiesta festivities.  One of the most important French fruit growing regions surrounds Marmande in northern Gascony, south east of Bordeaux. Until the nineteenth century’s Phylloxera epidemic wiped out French grape vines, lands sloping down to the Garonne River were a patchwork of vineyards. It took over fifty years of recovery to plant the same hills in fruit and vegetables, primarily strawberries, tomatoes and fruit trees, taking advantage of a fruit-favorable micro-climate. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that wine making was revived and the Côtes de Marmande wines were again produced. The perfectly round tomato called the Marmande, developed in this region, is only one variety to be found in the town’s animated Saturday morning market. And this is indeed the season to sniff out other varieties, their heady aromas filling the air. The rosy-pink Coeur de Boeuf (pictured above) is a local favorite, but Romas and San Marinos for super sauces appear on vendors’ stalls as well.

The Tomato Fiesta gets underway  Friday the 24th of July with a late afternoon market and chef Fabrice Biasolo’s cooking workshops. A recipe contest will also be judged (deadline for all recipe-blogger entries is the 23rd!), and tomatoes are featured on Marmande menus all weekend.  At 7:00 on Friday evening, a fanfare parade led by the Confréries Chevalier de la Pomme d’Amour* opens the festivites.  Saturday morning, things get rolling early and an expanded weekly market teases shoppers with tomato tastings. Another chef’s atelier/workshop led by an Italian and a Spanish chef fills the morning; contests, games and music hold sway all day.  And after the choosing, the tasting, the cooking, you will still say:  Some French tomato!

*Brotherhood of the Love Apple

Note:  For details on the tomato recipe contest, see: www. marie-marmande.fr or www.concours.tomatoaquitaine.fr and for other tomato events in France, see index.htmltomodori.com. September’s tomato harvest is celebrated in the Loire valley near Montlouis: visit www.chateaulabourdaisiere.com for more on this major autumn fête.

Quatorze Juillet drama at Monbazillac

July 14th, 2009

Claps of thunder punctuated my dreams last night as a particularly noisy storm raged along the Dordogne Valley.  Had I peeked through the shutters, I would have seen astounding flashes of lightning…one of which struck a wine chai or cellar at Monbazillac. Roof, beams and wine barrels were burned, as were five homes in the area.  Nature’s own “sound and light” spectacle preceded tonight’s 14 of July fireworks in Bergerac, and casts a pall on the holiday mood for many winemakers.  At the same time in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, a powerful hailstorm whipped through vineyards – just as grapes need only quiet breezes as they ripen. The vagabond will visit Monbazillac and Montravel vineyards this week – stay tuned.

Chop until you drop

July 11th, 2009

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Welcome to gazpacho season:  any able hands are encouraged to apply for chopping detail. These weeks of light, late al fresco suppers beg for a cold soup every night.  So, to oblige, the vagabond has riffled through a deep file of summer soups, beginning with gazpacho – white gazpacho; red will follow in August.  The Spaniards have so many types of crunchy-cold soups, each region following the same basic theme.  From chop-and-toss-everything together in Extramadura to the Moorish (and very more-ish!) finesse of Malaga’s almond-garlic blend, Spanish soups offer delicious alternatives. Right now, early July, is the perfect time to incorporate juicy cloves of new garlic, blanched almonds and tart-sweet white grapes into chilled bowls of Ajo Blanco Malagueño. And let the chopping volunteers relax this time around.

Begin as you would make a Greek Tzatziki salad or pesto, using a mortar and pestle to mash together 2 peeled & minced garlic cloves/18 to 20 g. with 1  to 2 tsp. fine seasalt. While you are doing this, let 3 slices of trimmed day old bread/70 g. soak (just to cover) in cold water.  Use white country bread rather than whole wheat – otherwise the soup will not be white (I tried it once and the result was a soup resembling whole wheat pancake batter). Chop up 1+ 1/8 c/100g. blanched almonds (new crop if possible)  and blend/grind them in with the garlic until well mixed. Put this into a blender, squeeze/drain the bread and add by chunks to the mix (retain the liquid), whizz and gradually pour in 3 T. sherry vinegar, then 4 T. best (Spanish) olive oil and blend all, adding the liquid from the soaked bread and 3 + 1/2 c. ice water. Taste for seasoning, add more salt, freshly ground white pepper +a little more vinegar or oil as you wish. Strain all this through a sieve, pressing for maximum liquid, into a bowl; chill overnight. Wash a bunch of green grapes, seed and peel enough for 6 to 8 each serving. Chill. Make croutons: in a cast iron skillet, stir together 2 T. olive oil + 1 clove garlic, crushed – then add 2 cups bread cubes and stir/toast them until browned and edges are crisp. Dust with smoky Spanish paprika and cool. Chill straight-up vodka glasses to serve 8 as an amuse-gueule, or in low-ball glasses for 6 as a soup starter.  Garnish with the grapes, and serve more croutons and grapes in bowls on the table.

The vagabond welcomes comments:  which format for recipes is easiest to use – in-text or with a list of ingredients?  This soup was inspired by Penelope Casas’ recipes in The Foods & Wines of Spain, published by Knopf, NY in 1982. Next month’s soup:  Bulgarian cuke soup. Next week’s focus: get ready for Marmande’s Tomato Fiesta.

4th of July Crackers

July 1st, 2009

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Even as the temperature mounts, 33° celsius and rising, prepare for the convivial crowd around your July 4th grill with a batch of crackers. Not fireworks, no firecrackers yet, just a tray of zippy biscuits – as munchable with cold beer as with a glass of fruity sangria.  As I made these, variations on the theme were reeling round my culinary imagination.  For openers, make the Almond Sesame version, then try your own riff using other flours, seeds and spices.  Made in the cool hours of a summer morning, this type of cracker/biscuit can be sealed away in a tight tin for a week – if there are any left.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients, then cut in tiny chunks of cold butter with a pastry blender as for a pastry crust; stir in the yogurt and form a soft dough. Let the dough chill for 15 minutes, then take a quarter from the fridge to shape each batch. For crisper crackers, roll thinner (a bit trickier to manage) or cut back the baking powder by 1 tsp. Tasty gâteaux savoreux, rolled 1/4 inch thick and cut into diamonds, are perfect partners for dips.  This recipe makes about 60 to 70 crackers.

1/2 cup/85 g. ground almonds+ 2 tsp. Hungarian paprika (hot)

1 c./120 g. wheat flour (organic if possible) + 1/2 c/60 g. fine cornmeal

2 tsp. brown sugar + 1/2 tsp. fine salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda mixed with 2 tsp. baking powder

2 T. white sesame seeds, dry toasted + 1 T. black sesame seeds, dry toasted

1/2 cup/1 stick/115 g. cold butter chopped into bits

2/3 c/150 ml whole milk Greek style yogurt

extra sprinkling of flour for rolling out the crackers

Coat your fingers with flour, then work the dough into a ball in the bowl. When it pulls together, turn it out onto the flour-dusted work  surface (a cold slab of marble for shaping pastry works very well in warm weather). Work the dough gently, kneading as for bread dough for just a few minutes. Put it into a smaller, clean bowl, cut the ball of dough into 4 and cover. Chill for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°f/177°c. Remove one quarter of the dough at a time to shape each into a rectangle 10″ long and 3 to 4 ” wide, less than 1/4 ” thick. Cut into three parts lengthwise. With a long spatula, slide a strip at a time onto the baking sheet, prick with tines of a fork, brush with a beaten egg, and cut diagonally to form diamonds – or rectangles. Sprinkle with sea salt mixed with ground black pepper. Use a finger’s width spacing between them.  Bake on the top and lowest racks of the oven for 20 minutes if rolled thin; baking time is closer to 25 minutes for 1/4″ – until golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes, then shift to a rack.  Store in metal tins lined with baking paper.  These festive bites were inspired by Ruth Cousineau’s recipe in June 2009 Gourmet magazine, using cornmeal and green peppercorns.