Go with the grape on rue Mouffetard

September 25th, 2009

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Rue Mouffetard on Thursday – even in light showers – is a bustling jumble of fruit vendors, fish stalls moved out on the sloping street, and oh, what cheeses!  This shopping street is legendary, nothing new to Paris shoppers, but for some of us from “the provinces”, rue Mouffetard has it all. And the story this week begins with grapes, voluptuous bunches of French Chasselas de Moissac and Italian Italia grapes. The vagabond hopped off the bus just a few steps from this market in the 5th arrondissement, drawn to a vendor’s stall literally draped with grapes. In addition to chasselas, translucent and pearly pale green to gold, the larger and less-sweet-more-racy- italias begged to be plated for an autumn banquet. Perhaps a cheese or two would be good companions, I thought, and peered into the shop windows of Androuet Fromagerie, the classic Parisian Cheese Shop founded by Pierre Androuet. His Guide du Fromage (published by Stock in 1971) has been this cheese-lover’s bible for fifteen years.  So it began well, an uphill market ramble  on rue Mouffetard.

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About midway up the street, between butcher shops and racks of Indian scarves, I had a hankering for a warming cup of cappucino, answered immediately by a stop at a cozy Sicilian café. As I pondered the choice between a hot chocolate and a capucino, I was informed that this café is more than a coffee stop, it is a phenomenon. Beyond espressos, crèpes or Sicilian pastas and salads for lunch, to live jazz on Saturday nights, the crèpe master exclaimed: the Sweet Lounge is five cafés in one! After my last drop of cappucino, I took note of this espresso stop/crèpes extraordinaire/pasta lunch/bar/jazz-corner/international crowd’s watering hole…. for future reference. Continuing along the street between shoppers’ caddies and strollers, I resisted the urge to choose an ice cream at Berthillon and chocolates from Jeff de Bruges or sweet delights from Octave. Past sizzling, crisp-skinned chickens on rotisseries, wine shops and pâté boutiques, past a host of aromas and temptations, the vagabond resolves to return for more flavors on rue Mouffetard in upcoming seasons.

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Limousin markets…on the apple trail

September 11th, 2009

Vagabond gourmand
Click on an apple to enter photo gallery

When it’s apple season in the Limousin, a new range of reds appears on market-day palettes.  And on a recent weekend jaunt into la France profunde south of Limoges, apples of all tints and tones were just one discovery. We drove uphill from Bergerac, north through Périgord vert and truffle country around Sorges, then into Thiviers, the “foie gras capital” of the southwest (as signs proclaimed), before cruising past a sign of welcome into the Haute Vienne département. Still green country, but open rolling pastures dotted with lazy herds of russet cattle distinguish the Limousin landscape. Sheep snooze in shady meadow hedgerows. Solid fieldstone houses with shiny slate roofs replace the gentle curves of Périgord tiled rooftops and apple orchards replace the Dordogne’s walnut groves. Our first stop, the Friday market in Chalus, was winding down as noon approached but fruit vendors, chèvre cheese makers, and a vendor of plant sets for the next round in local potagers (vegetable gardens) seemed most popular.  Chalus’ medieval tower rises at the edge of this small town, a place that (with mixed interpretations) is said to mark the demise of Richard the Lionhearted – felled by an arrow shot from that tower. As I walked the old lanes around the tower, did I hear echoes of clanging armor and battle cries across the open fields?  No, but with an active imagination that wouldn’t be difficult.  The vagabond was eager to continue along the apple trail, and to note signs announcing Le pays de la châtaigne, chestnut country.  Now the plot thickens. Beef, veal, and lamb abound, apple trees are plentiful, and I begin to imagine an ample chestnut harvest. The verdant Limousin appears to be a pays de cocagne, a land of plenty!

apple basics

Apple & onion basics: nutmeg & white pepper

Back on the hill, foggy, damp autumn mornings call for applesauce with toasted brioche, then about lunchtime the beet salad is perked up with green granny smith apples – but the apples won’t stop with lunchtime: magret de canard is best (personal opinion) with caramelized reinette apples and slices of sweet Cévennes onion.  Is there no stopping this versatile fruit?  Nope.  As quick as you can say pomme, there are slices for snacks and, given a handful of minutes, a simple French apple & almond cake is whipped up.  Asked what to do with an apple (but don’t ask William Tell!), the simplest solutions seem best.  Memories of my Danish grandmother making Aebblekaka (not a cake, but layers of applesauce and buttery breadcrumbs) roll in when aromas of applesauce fill our kitchen.

While my search for her recipe continues, I will just  serve up a variation on Magret de canard aux pommes, which adapts to larger numbers very nicely.  This is for two:  Take one breast of fattened duck, trimmed and the fat layer scored with a sharp knife, and sear it on the fat side in a hot cast iron skillet for a few minutes to render fat and slightly brown it. Remove this to a warm plate, pour off all but 1/4 cup of fat, and add 1 peeled sharp-flavored apple sliced lengthwise. Let this brown in the pan, sprinkle with a little brown sugar and sea salt, turning gently to let all sides caramelize. Add a spoonful of duck fat when needed; push this to one side and add 1 trimmed and finely sliced sweet onion (such as a Vidalia), stir it around and as it turns transparent add freshly ground white pepper, grated nutmeg, minced ginger root and another spoonful of brown sugar. Stir, let it melt down and add 2 tablespoons of dry vermouth (or red wine to moisten and add color) to avoid scorching. When golden and transparent, shift this to a warm, covered dish and return the magret to the hot skillet, to sear the lean side. After 5 minutes, add the onion-apple mixture to the pan heaped on the magret and cook until it is done to your liking: very pink for just a few more minutes, or another 8 – 10 minutes cooked through.  Serve on warmed plates, thinly sliced on the diagonal, garnished with the apples and onions. A side of brown rice or steamed brussel sprouts would be good with the magret, and for sipping? A youngish red wine, a 2004 Prémières Côtes de Bordeaux would be good company – at the very end of a foggy fall day.

Up soon:  More on markets, Grandmother’s applecake, and a simple apple charlotte; making fresh cheese is taking awhile….

Foraging for fragile figs

September 7th, 2009

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With Labor Day comes a “back to school” mood, and with that mood memories of many years spent preparing the art room for a new round of  classes.  Days short on time meant bag lunches of fruit, a sandwich and…Fig Newtons.  Is it any wonder that an association still remains?  This month, daily walks to a splendid white fig tree – the Adriatic variety, if my sources are correct – bring back a few hazy memories of figgy brown-bag treats.  The green, sheeny globes of figs are bulging now, inviting me to gather a few every evening as they slowly ripen.  Since the large tree grows next to a railroad overpass, we have access only to the tree tops.  I use an umbrella handle to loop over branches, pulling them closer to twist off a few ripe fruit. Figs don’t ripen after being picked, and can only be kept for a day or two in a cool pantry. So, with twenty-four perfect figs on hand, it’s time to preserve them for winter feasts.

Select firm, ripe fruit with no marks or splits, rinse gently and let them dry. Prepare a simple medium syrup in one soup pot, dissolving 3 cups of sugar in 6 cups of water and letting it simmer while preparing the 24 figs. If you like, add a stick of cinnamon or a few star anise to the syrup. Wash a lemon and cut into thin slices, to be added to each jar. In another pot half filled with boiling water, blanch the figs for 2 minutes. Scoop them out with a skimmer and immerse in the hot syrup, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes.  Sterilize 3 (or 4*) pint jars & lids in a boiling water bath. With tongs, remove the jars; carefully ladle figs into each jar, slip in a lemon slice and top up with the hot syrup, leaving 1/4 ” air space.  Wipe rims clean and place lids on, twist to seal. Place in a boiling water bath (use the one in which jars were sterilized), cover and process for 45 minutes. Depending on the size of the fruit, you may need another* jar. Any remaining syrup is ready for poaching pears or nectarines.  Let the jars cool away from drafts, let rest for a day, then label and store in a cool, dark place for a month. Then they’ll be ready to serve with a cheese platter, as a sweet garnish for duckling or pork – or as a gift for a fig-loving friend.

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Scents-wise: Gathering the fruit or stirring up a jam, the fig’s sensual aromas are so intense – “this should be bottled”, I mused.  A California couple has done just that, with Mediterranean Fig scents and soaps in the Pacifica line.  Visit www.pacificaperfume.com and don’t miss the Mediterranean Fig body butter with almond oil!

September in the Périgord means duck soup

September 2nd, 2009

Or should I say, rooster soup?  While September winds rustle in the maple trees, a pot of soup simmers away on the back burner.  Rich aromas of leeks, carrots and herbs in chicken soup fill the house.  After Sunday’s delicious dinner of braised coquelets, the obvious follow-up is to fill a kettle with vegetables, the trimmed wings and necks  (no feet this time) and gizzards of the little roosters. One advantage of living in southwestern France is an abundant supply of poultry – all sorts of feathered fowl.  So, when a friend thins out the number of young roosters in her chicken coop, the meaty little birds are on the menu.  They are bought with necks intact, so these and the wing tips are loped off for Monday’s rich broth.  With fond memories of Julia Child’s inimitable “Making Chicken Bouillon”  TV episode, I pull the gizzard, heart and liver out to reserve as well. The hands-on approach becomes second nature when fresh fowl is so much a part of the culinary landscape.  Actually, the coquelet can be prepared as you would squab or quail or small game birds: they need to be wrapped in strips of smoked bacon to retain flavor, stuffed with garlic and herbs, then roasted or braised in red wine. In this Bergerac region, there’s no shortage of red wine.

It does take time, making soup, and in France, “…time bows at the altar of gastronomy” as Roger Cohen observed in Monday’s  International Herald Tribune (August 31, page 7, Views). In an article titled, Advantage France, he cleverly recounts the ceremonial trimming of canettes (female ducklings) in a French market, and ladles out astute philosophy while noting innate cultural differences.  Being more involved with our food sources, and the less appealing tasks of preparation is, well, part of the process.  It is, as Cohen points out, connected to time, place and terroir.  And often this can’t be specifically translated, but ….it can be tasted.

September’s bites :  White figs,  Limousin markets, making fresh chèvre, and notes on the almond harvest.