Quail eggs, a delicate touch of spring….

February 28th, 2013

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When a basket of tiny speckled quail eggs is set before me, I first marvel at their random spots and freckles – then wonder:  what can we do with these little gems?  This season of frequent omelettes and meatless meals is ready for a bit of variety, so bring on the quail eggs!  Their delicacy and subtle flavor is to be taken into account, too….not for omelettes, but to be appreciated as a garnish for salads and soups.  This morning at the Thursday market, I spoke with Jacqueline, the vender of eggs and poultry.  When I suggested topping a hearty salad of warm potatoes or a velouté of pumpkin soup with them, she added:  “Oh, and I’ve had them on top of a tartiflette!”  Well, why not? I mused.  But considering that tartiflette, a classic and filling specialty of eastern France, is a favorite of hikers and loggers in the  mountains, I’m wondering how quail eggs are enjoyed in other regions.  In Provence, the vagabond has seen them on appetizer platters paired with cherry tomatoes and anchovies.  And in other regions…?

And let’s welcome springtime!

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Third Thursday – it’s all about Reds

November 19th, 2010

Primeurs are ready to sip with roasted chestnuts

Nouveau!  Signs scrawled on bistro black boards and in grocery windows across southern France proclaim their arrival:  the new, fruity wines are here! November’s third Thursday, the official release date for barrels, bottles and boxes of Beaujolais nouveau is cause for celebration – not only of a fresh batch of Beaujolais, but of many other regional reds.  Several of these primeurs were displayed in a cart in our village grocery this week; the vagabond couldn’t resist one of her favorite appellations, a primeur from Gaillac in the Tarn.  The grape for these young wines is the thin skinned, low tannin Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, the same used in Beaujolais wines, which lends itself to carbonic maceration for reds ready to sip in less than three months.  So, why not celebrate the first red wines of 2010 with a touch of red on our plates as well as in the glasses?

A perk of this process: the aroma of roasted peppers

It all began at noon, when I roasted red peppers and eggplant in the oven to make a sauce for supper.  There are still local peppers and aubergines in the market stalls to inspire me, to suggest a special touch to a simply sautéed turkey steak with onions. This recipe* is one of those country traditions that doesn’t get very specific in quantities, so it is a little different every time I whip it up. The aromas of roasting peppers brings back flavor memories of Catalonian lunches beginning with Escalivada - a starter of roasted pepper strips and slabs of grilled eggplant. Although my original thoughts were to dilute the sauce with stock for colorful cups of soup, all that changed when  I tasted it:  don’t change anything, even the spices.  Be sure the veg are very fresh for this smooth  Red Sauce:

2 1/2 large or 3 medium sized clean red peppers/poivron (not piments)

1 medium to large eggplant/aubergine, washed and dried

2 cloves peeled and chopped garlic

4 anchovy fillets, oil or salt-packed – rinsed and dried, chopped

1 T. capers, drained

4 to 5 T. olive oil

Line a cake-roll (with edges) pan with aluminum foil to catch juices. Place the whole veg so that no sides touch.  Roast the peppers and aubergine in a hot oven, 230°c (fan)/450°f.  for about 20 minutes; turn them halfway through to allow all sides to blister or scorch a little. Remove with tongs onto a soup plate (they will give off more juices) and slip it into a paper bag, pinch closed and set aside to cool. Reserve any collected juices to add flavor to a soup later.  Meanwhile, chop the garlic and anchovies. Take the plate of veg out of the sack and slip off/ separate from skins and seeds, chop up the flesh (the eggplant need not be seeded, just skinned) coarsely. Put this in a blender with the garlic and anchovies, whizz it all together to make a thick sauce, stir down the sides with a spatula, then whizz and drizzle the olive oil in a thin stream. Taste for seasoning – it may want a drop of tabasco but no salt,  pour into a serving bowl; or keep in a jar in the fridge, where it improves within a few hours.  Serve as a color note on or beside poultry, fish or pork – hot or cold.  Finish your meal on a traditional note with roasted chestnuts to best  savor the last drops of primeur.  Packed in sterile jars, tied with a ribbon, this sauce makes a colorful holiday gift for someone who prefers savories to sweets…

Red sauce - when you are hungry for color

*Recipe for roasted pepper sauce adapted from the magazine, Country Living (UK) August 2007.

Next up: Nuts – walnuts, chestnuts and pricey pignola

Cèpes for supper

November 13th, 2010

Get out the old Griswold skillet, turn on the heat...

Irresistible, whether you call them cèpes, porcini (Italian), herkku tatti (Finnish) or boletus edulis, mushrooms from Sunday morning’s market rounds found their way to our table within twenty-four hours.  Our nice “mess”  – to revive an old morel hunting term – of mushrooms was actually enough for two meals, very fresh with relatively little trimming to be done.  We had quickly transferred them from plastic into a paper sack, kept them cool and made sure there were enough garlic cloves and parsley for the prep.  The juicy pink garlic peeled easily and parsley was plucked from the garden; with a little butter and some good olive oil at hand, supper was soon underway.

Lautrec pink garlic to chop, bacon chunks ready

As the resident Mushroom Master began trimming, I checked my Go-To site for mushroom questions:  www.leslieland.com.  This garden whiz has excellent columns and notes by mushroom expert Bill Bakaitis.  My concerns were to make sure that these were safe (raising a few questions even though they were bought from a mushroom vendor) and whether there were any warnings about drinking wine with the champignons. Not to worry:  it was clear that our boletus edulis all had smooth stems, with no shaggy or rough texture of a similar but inedible variety. There were also no warning notes on any danger in having a glass of wine with these mushrooms.  Once cleaned, the cèpes cooked in the hot, heavy skillet with chopped garlic and bacon in bubbling butter for about 20 minutes.  I loaded a basket with toasted baguette slices, we plated the cèpes and sat down to a magnificent country meal – straight from the market!

A quick drizzling of good olive oil puts a shine on the cèpes

Wine Notes: Many would choose a dry but fruity white – a Sancere comes to mind – to sip with cèpes.  The vagabond reaches for a country red, such as a three to five year old Côtes de Duras with a little tannic edge to accent the mushrooms’ woodsy richness.

What does it cost? At a reasonable 24Euros the kilo, or about 12 Euros a pound for the freshest quality mushrooms (older and spotted ones priced lower), I am curious about comparable prices in your markets….send us a comment on prices in your region.

Velouté…smooth, cool white eggplant soup

August 16th, 2010

Longer white eggplant, more delicate than its purple sisters

A short recipe from an old stack of Elle à Table (#59) magazines  caught my eye some months ago and it was added to my “watch-for” list.  So, when I spotted white aubergines on a market stall last week, I nabbed the last two left in the basket.  We swung by the health food shop/Bio marché to pick up a jar of purée d’amandes/almond cream. The simplicity of this soup, its “seize the moment” ingredients and unusual combination spoke to the vagabond’s imagination. Make it a day or two in advance to let the velouté d’aubergines blanches mellow and thoroughly chill.  A sprinkling of curry powder or smoky Spanish paprika and lightly toasted shaved almonds is all it needs as garnish. Serve in little sherry glasses as a rich amuse-gueule for 6 or in cups or glasses to begin a summer supper.

Cool & thick - late summer soup

Recipe for Velouté of white eggplant with almonds (serves 4)

2 perfect white eggplants, peeled, trimmed and cubed

1 garlic clove, peeled & crushed

2 heaping Tablespoons whole-milk Greek yogurt

4 Tablespoons almond cream/purée d’amandes (stirred to completely combine oils and thick almond cream)

a twist of white pepper & fine sea salt

toasted shaved almonds & Spanish paprika & fleur de sel as garnish

Lucky shopper:  if you find 4 white eggplants in the market, double the recipe to serve 8 !

Very quickly cube the eggplant, as it is fragile and tends to brown within ten minutes of contact with the air. In a saucepan, heat 5 cl water/2 cups to a boil, add the cubed eggplant, simmer then reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, cover and cook for 20 minutes until cubes become transparent.  Blend in the pan with a wand mixer, or transfer to a blender after adding the yogurt and almond cream to blend the smooth mixture.  If it is too thick, stir in more yogurt. Season to taste with sea salt & freshly ground white pepper.  Pour into cups or glasses and chill for at least 2 hours.  Serve sprinkled with paprika & almonds & fleur de sel to bring out nuances of flavor.  Any leftover soup – even just a half cup – serves as a base for a tasty dip:   stir in yogurt or crème fraïche, perfect for dipping cucumbers or sesame grissini….with a glass of full-bodied white Saumur wine from the Loire valley.

Just mention melons….

July 31st, 2010

A pinch of lime juice plays up melon's flavor

A slice of this morning’s melon, wrapped in paper-thin slices of country ham -  or as we often do in the southwest, sliced duck ham, with a squeeze from a juicy lime – what could be simpler as a starter or as lunch on a sweltering, hot day?  In fact, you can hold the ham and give me just the lime juice to enhance this sweet curcurbit. Some will wrap their sliced Charentais in prosciutto, others give it a twist of black pepper, sea salt or nutmeg to accent the melon’s flavor.  Right now, when market vendors heap the round, netted spheres of Charente melon or smoother, ridged local cantaloupe in pyramids, it is easy to get used to a slice or three for lunch every day.

Chilled, this fruit of the vine is a cool antidote to the heat waves that can sap our energy.  Desert people knew that….the Egyptians have been eating melon since 2400 B.C.  Moors hybridized wild melons that couldn’t be eaten raw to produce a sweet melon.  During their centuries of rule in  Sicily and Spain, melons became a part of the extensive Arabian agricultural legacy.  Popes in both Rome and Avignon dined on melons, and encouraged local production.  The curious gardener, Thomas Jefferson, planted and savored melon from his garden in Monticello.  So, this curcurbit, in the same family as cucumbers and squash, has taken hold in warm climates around the world.  Across the south of France, from the Atlantic coast’s Charente Maritîme through the Lot and Quercy, to Carpentras and the melon fields of Provence, the melon season is ON.  Which is best? You might want to do a tasting tour to judge for yourself, for local melon appears on menus as a starter as well as dessert.  To finish a summer dinner on a light note, just drizzle a little Pineau de Charente or sweet Monbazillac wine into a small, fruit-filled melon half for a little bit of heaven.

So cool, local, and in season

Wines, vines and Italian tastings

February 25th, 2010

When a first sip is infatuating, I yearn to learn more. Such was the case with Primitivo, encountered over a plate of savory orecchiette at Pasta e Basta in Paris’ 13th.  First the dense – almost inky – robe, deep fruit aromas, then the wine’s structure persisted through the meal. The impact of this wine, so different from French wines, carried a complexity that intrigued me.  Where can this wine be found in context, I asked Armando, the chef at Pasta e Basta? “From Bari south to Lecce, and all along the Salentino, a rocky strip of southern Italy”, he responded.  So, serious travel is involved, and some time-juggling, but as  Italy continues its magnetic tug, why not plan on exploring this wine at the source: the heel of Italy’s boot.  Apulia, or Puglia, is the home of many ancient vine varieties planted along the the Salento peninsula in the sixth century B.C. – long before Roman legions marched past the trulli, clusters of white dry-stone huts.

The vagabond has found a guide for this wine and culinary adventure:  a bi-lingual ace photographer and host of a well known Lecce cooking and wine school, The Awaiting Table.  Silvestro Silvestori’s New Wine School and Cuisine classes have been covered by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. Their harvest season wine course this year runs from October 10 to 16, and includes visits to vineyards, a cooking class or two, and much discussion with local artisans – in addition to comprehensive wine lectures and tastings. Without further fanfare, I refer all and any wine tasting enthusiasts to www.awaitingtable.com

For more on Puglia, its cuisine and traditions, read Anne Bianchi’s superb, thorough Italian Festival Food, Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Regional Country Food Fairs, published in 1999 by Macmillan, USA.

Pairing a season with Corbières

November 16th, 2009
Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Grapes are everywhere in the Corbières – not only rippling up and down hillsides, but carved into the culture, the consciousness of the Midi, the windy and dry Languedoc – Roussillon.  Across much of this land along the French Mediterranean coast and inland from Narbonne, the soil is  so poor that a hillside can resemble a rocky riverbed.  Grapevines and olive trees are  tolerant of these stark conditions, in fact the Roussillon wines and oils hold a true concentration of terroir.  When a friend asked what terroir was all about, I summed it up:  the land, soil, site/exposure to sun, proximity to seas or rivers, even altitude.  On a recent sundown walk  between rows of old, twisted grape vines we had a clear picture of this tortuous terroir.  The grape varieties, cépages for Corbières are sun loving grenache (a major component for spicy notes and color), syrah or shiraz (to add acidity and tannins, and for depth), late-harvested carignan (for rich, earthy tones – used more in Fitou wines) and on the lowest slopes to thrive in morning fog, mourvedre vines (condense the dark berry notes in Corbières, enhances structure as the wine matures).  We admired the hillsides – each cépage turns a different tone of bronze in autumn – and between the rows I noticed footprints of wild boar.  The sanglier, though tasty in a pâté or ragout, have become many a vigneron’s headache as they root out new vines and trample through the vineyards. No wonder hunters are welcome in these hills!

So this is Corbières season:  game is hung to cure for civets de lièvre et de sanglier (long marinated and slowly simmered stews of hare and wild boar), and mushroom sacks bulge as hunters return from their foraging. All of the ingredients that perfectly match the full-bodied wines of Corbières come to the table in these chilly, appetite-generating weeks of late autumn. A savory list of pork pâtés and duck terrines, grilled herbed lamb or pork ribs call for wines that are,  in a word, robust.

Two reds for an autumn fête

Two reds for an autumn fête

After recent tastings in the Roussillon, the vagabond is impressed by wines made by  two women in the Boutenac area west of Narbonne. The sprawling Corbières region covers so many microclimates and styles of wine-making, I found it most reasonable to narrow a little wine shopping down to one area. First, the supple reds and glowing rosés made by Marie-Hélène Bacave near St. André de Roquelongue are examples of  how an independent winemaker pursues her own wine style. For two years since her husband passed away, she has been determined to continue making wine of high quality.  Taking us into her chais, where the wine rested in three huge stainless vats, her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm about the mourvedre grape:  “…many of my colleagues don’t want to be bothered with this variety, as it can be fussy with weather and a bit difficult to bring to vendange…it not only adds backbone as the wine matures, but makes the Corbières blend sing of blackberry and dark fruit”.  Her aromatic, deep garnet Cru Corbières Boutnac 2005 Crépuscule sings of her persistence in creating a stylish, supple red at  Château St-Jean de la Gineste. On a lighter note, we sampled her lovely Rosée de la St. Jean, a blend that stars the mourvedre grape for color and fruity aromas. This will be the pour for a poached chicken or lightly seasoned rabbit on our Thanksgiving table.

 A glowing rosé from the Corbières

A glowing rosé from the Corbières

In the same area near Montseret, midway between the Abbey of Fontfroide and Lagrasse, we found Jacqueline Bories at Château Ollieux Romanis, another dedicated independent vigneronne. More widely distributed across southern France, her Ollieux Romanis Cuvée Florence 2000 is a melody of ripe fruit, supple tannins and long finish, a perfect wine with an autumn daube, a roast pheasant, or canard aux olives – and keep a lichette in your glass to enjoy with a firm brebis cheese from the Pyrénées.

Tell us about your favorite Corbières, and food matches that  you enjoy!

Watch for the vagabond’s mid-month Food&Wine matchmaking series…and more on wines for the holidays/les fêtes de fin d’année coming up.