A roast goose or bonbons on St. Martin’s Day

November 11th, 2007

As usual, the light of Armistice Day or Veteran’s Day is pale, grey.  A little mist in the air is typical, as I recall previous Veteran’s Days at other latitudes.  The trumpets and drums of Mouleydier’s musical fanfare play the brisk, concluding bars of the national anthem, the Marseilles.   Ceremonies at the village memorial for the fallen in twentieth century wars have come to a close.  Allons enfants, time for Sunday lunch. The November chill stirs appetites, and in homes throughout France relatives will gather round the table, together, having again paid respects to those absent.  The village remembers well, and the ceremonies always bring a lump to my throat, thinking about the sinistre, the day the village was burned in June 1944.   When I return home to scan the valley from my kitchen door, the fields called the champs des martyrs for those who died there, are quiet in the day’s dim light.  One does not forget.

But it is also a day to honor St.Martin, the patron saint of France, who shared his cloak with a freezing beggar in the fourth century. And this day is marked in many corners of Europe with more festive traditions. In northern Europe, a plump goose is roasted for dinner after a parade and bonfire.  Children in Flanders, western Belgium go ’round to neighbor’s doors with paper lanterns, singing special songs. The reward is something sweet and they return home with enough bonbons to last until St. Nicolas (December sixth). This seems to be a tradition in parts of Holland and Austria as well, with processions and songs. For Sao Martinho in Portugal, the day is marked with magustos - gatherings at the fireside to roast chestnuts and drink new wine.  An earlier custom in parts of Europe, in the days when the eleventh of November marked the end of the agricultural and financial year, involved the preparation of a roast goose feast before the six weeks of fasting prior to Noël. Fowl and any cattle that would not be taken through the winter were ready for slaughter, to be salted or preserved.  As times change and traditions evolve further beyond the rural calendar, such observances have been forgotten in most regions. But if you are with friends in Bruges on St. Maarten and hear the doorbell ring at twilight, be sure to have the candy dish filled to overflowing.

Jésuites, the three-cornered hat of the pastry kingdom

November 7th, 2007

My first encounter with a Jésuite left me with a sugar-dusted nose. A tray of the long, triangular pastries in the window of an Île de France bakery-café lured me inside, and a few minutes later I emerged with a floral-printed pack of pastries. Michel and I took a table on the sidewalk, ordered coffee and peered into the box: “How do we eat these?” was my husband’s first query.  The Jésuites cantilevered over the rim of a plate; the server brought spoons, but I was wondering if a steak knife and long-tined fork would be better weapons for approaching this iced, sugar-topped puff-pastry.  The American way, go ahead - use your fingers, would avoid having pastry corners shooting across the table, so that was my last resort:  pick it up, bite off one of the corners.  Flakes of puff pastry drifted across the table, the buttery-crisp corner melted in my mouth and traces of sugar stuck to the nose above my triumphant smile.  I took a good look at the pastry for future reference, wondering who first decided that eighteenth century Jesuit hats would provide a template for an almond-cream filled pastry.

Having conquered question number one - eating it - I moved on to question number two: how can I reproduce the frangipane filling and triangular pastry?  For the Jésuite is a classic pastry-baker’s item, rarely made at home.  You can begin with puff pastry, pâte feuilletée, which can be bought ready to roll.  Or chill a slab of marble, mix flour and chilled butter, (layer dough with butter chips) and fold the sticky pastry several times to ensure flakiness.  My first effort at this type of puff pastry was on a hot August morning, not the ideal timing and overall, a discouraging experience.  But I recently bought a pre-rolled pastry that was a decent substitute, enough for making four Jésuites.

To form the Jésuites, cut the circle (about enough to make a 10″ pie crust) of pastry down the center, then across the center making four equal quarters. Slice each quarter in half and separate. Prepare the frangipane: Cream 50 grams/1/4 cup of soft unsalted butter, add 50 grams/1/4 cup of sugar and 50 grams of ground/powdered almonds, whisking this into a frothy mixture. Beat in 1 egg, 1 teaspoon of almond essence, (add 2 more yolks at this point if you want a richer filling), and 2 tablespoons of rum or brandy. This can be made in advance and chilled. With a small pastry brush (I use a Hungarian feather brush from Williams Sonoma), moisten the edges of 2 triangles, spread with the frangipane, place one triangle on top of the other and seal the edges by pressing gently. Repeat this with the remaining triangles. The fingerprints will disappear as the puff pastry expands in the oven. Heat the oven to 205°c/400°f. Very lightly oil a baking sheet (use almond oil if you have it) and place the 4 pastries with 2″ spacing.  At this point, you can brush with milk and sprinkle flaked almonds on them, or go a step farther with a light meringue of: 1 egg white mixed with 25 grams icing sugar then topped with the flaked almonds (or crushed praline!).  Bake the Jésuites for about 8 minutes, then lower the heat to 160°c/324°f for another 8 to 10 minutes.  Take the golden Jésuites out of the oven and dust with icing sugar.  Some French bakers even add a fine top layer of white frosting - gilding the lily, perhaps.
Next question: Frangipane who?

Mousse Two: Noir et Praliné

November 5th, 2007

Dark and edgy, chocolat noir has a grip on me. Maybe my crush on bitter chocolate started with Marabou, the superb Swedish chocolate that I savored on ferries going from Finland to Sweden years ago. (A Finnish friend just sent the bad news that Marabou dark is no longer available - what a loss for chocolate lovers!) But to cook with bitter chocolate, a balance must be struck between bitter and sweet. This rendition of a dark mousse does just that, with an added crunch of praline. Having tried adding spirits for depth, I found that rum was too strong, so I dash a little cognac or armagnac into the equation. Gently fold in whipping cream, which adds richness but not the volume of whisked whites that lifted mousse I to a lighter texture. And whether almonds or toasted hazelnuts are used for the praline, in the spirit of autumn, don’t forget the nuts.

The praline: In a non-stick frying pan, toast 1/2 cup coarsely slivered (not finely flaked) blanched almonds. Add a scant 1/2 cup powdered/icing sugar, stirring in from the edges as it caramelizes over low heat. Line a pie tin with aluminum foil, and when the almonds are coated with caramel (10 to 15 minutes or less), quickly transfer them into the tin. Cool, cover with foil and break into pieces by hitting it with a mallet. Set aside 1/3 cup of crushed praline for the mousse, which should serve 4 or 5.

The mousse: Melt in a pan set over simmering water (not ON - or it will scorch and spoil the flavor), 100 grams dark chocolate, such as Lindt Excellence, 70% cacao (1 bar/ package) which has been broken/beaten into pieces (to melt faster). Add 2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks and stir, then add 50 grams of praline-filled milk chocolate, such as Côte d’Or (1/2 package) or Gianduja, broken up, and 1 to 2 spoons of Cognac or strong coffee. Lift the pan off the heat. Separate 3 eggs, and stir the yolks into the chocolate one by one; then stir in the powdered praline, add a twist or two of grated nutmeg. Whip 1/2 cup of thick cream, 1 tablespoon confectioner’s/icing sugar and fold this carefully into the cooled chocolate mixture. The amount of cream can be doubled, and a bit more sugar (sweeten to taste) added. When blended, pour the mousse into a glass bowl or individual cups, sprinkling all with crushed praline.

What to do with the extra egg whites? If you are not in a mood to make meringue, whip up a simple prune mousse. Cook 2 cups of semi-dried prunes in water to cover (with a tea bag to soften the skins); cool them, remove pits, then purée in a blender, add 1/4 cup sugar and a twist of nutmeg (and minced orange zest, or a splash of Cointreau if you have time) to the prunes. Whisk the (3) egg whites (add a pinch of fine salt and a tablespoon of sugar) to form stiff peaks, fold them into the prunes in three stages to hold the volume, pour into an attractive bowl and top with crunchy praline. Ready for dinner: Mousse aux pruneaux - a bonus autumnal treat - can be made a day in advance, to serve six.  Hold the remaining crushed praline in reserve - maybe to sprinkle on Jésuites…..

Five journeys, among five hundred

November 4th, 2007

Journeys of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips is National Geographic’s recently published lush and colorful temptation to travelers. Even sitting in a cozy armchair, one can almost smell the aromas of ripe melons emanating from a market photo which introduces the ‘In Gourmet Heaven’ section. True to their high standards, the National Geographic books team has orchestrated words and images evoking places, people, flavors and discoveries. Organized in sections, such as Across Water, By Road, In Search of Culture, this round-the-world whirl takes the reader to distant mountains and market places with the flip of a page. It was a pleasure write five of the destinations for this comprehensive travel book, and the VagabondGourmand is busily preparing more chapters for another in the series, to be published in 2008. Add Journeys of a Lifetime to your Christmas list - for giving, or drop a hint to Santa.

The New York Times listed Journeys of a Lifetime  on it “best sellers” list for three weeks in January 2008.

News! Chocolate Events News!

October 19th, 2007

In between one mousse and another, a quick word on current and upcoming chocolate events: In Perugia, Italy,  Eurochocolate is this week, 13th to 21st October.  In addition to tastings and demonstrations, sit in on a round table discussing “The Sustainable Economy of Cocoa Producing Countries”. If not 2007, put Perugia on the Tasty Travels plan for October 2008.  Check www.eurochocolate.com/en/perugia for details.

Over 100 chocolatiers and 400 exhibits fill the Salon du Chocolat, the 19th & 20th of October  in Paris - events on the menu include chocolate-hued fashion shows.  In New York, Chocolate Week is the 4th to 11th of November, 2007.

Mousse One & Mousse Two

October 10th, 2007

Well, we have survived a long, drawn-out kitchen renovation which took two months instead of the projected two weeks. I became a bit more resourceful - without the old oven and before the new one was in operation - digging out recipes for stove-top solutions to dessert. Chocolate-loving friends always inspire me to expand my chocolate cake, torte and pie repertoire, but recently when they were expected for dinner, it had to be a different solution to the “what’s the choko-dessert?” question. The best answer was a classic chocolate pudding - okay, mousse au chocolat. Having tried some that were thick and bitter, some saucy-soupy and too sweet, I stretched for a new approach. Many mousse recipes involve making a sugary meringue with the whites, others suggest leaf gelatine to assure form. Michel Roux’s elegant rendition candies orange zest, and folds in sweetened cream instead of egg whites. Julia Child added strong coffee to the melting chocolate, while Prue Leith suggested Grand Marnier and a pinch of ginger. Just when I thought all possibilites had been weighed, I flipped open “The Cook and the Gardener”, Amanda Hesser’s delicious chronicle of her year cooking at La Varenne. Hesser suggests infusing bay leaves in warm cream, a first step for a chocolate ganache…..this could lend a subtly nutty twist to the mousse on my mind. So now, after my culinary oracles have been duly consulted, I offer an option or two that stand up to your own interpretations:

Mousse I, an herbal flight of fancy : 3/4 cup of heavy cream + 2 fresh bay leaves; heat the cream to scald it, take off the heat and add 2 bay leaves broken in half - let this steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Melt 6 oz./80 grams dark chocolate in a pan over (not ON) simmering water, stirring in 1 tablespoon strong coffee, then stir in 2 tablespoons of butter (chopped into bits), stirring all this as it becomes glossy. Separate 3 eggs, and whisk in the 3 egg yolks one by one. Pour the warm cream through a sieve into the yolk & chocolate mixture, whisking to blend it all. In a deep bowl, with electric beaters, beat the 3 egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar or salt, whisking to foamy peaks, then add gradually 1/3 cup sugar and beat to form stiffer peaks. Gently fold this in 4 parts into the chocolate mixture. Another 1/2 cup of whipped thick cream could be added at this point, but it is optional lily-gilding. When smoothly blended, pour the mousse into a glass bowl and chill for 4 to 12 hours. Sprinkle with a sifting of powdered Italian or Dutch cocoa before serving to 6. This can be chilled in 6 individual cups or glasses. Serve with almond tuiles to scoop up the mousse. Tuiles recipe to follow…. and a darker Mousse II. To bring out the elusive tones of bay leaf, a tipple of sweet Saussignac or Jurançon wine elicits the subtle herbal nuances.

Why Bay?

Whether you call it sweet bay, bay laurel, or simply bay leaf, the glossy green leaves carry more potential for flavor than I ever imagined. The sweet bay’s history alone is fascinating: in Greek legend, Apollo made the tree a sacred plant, assigning the leaves a symbol of honor. Thus the heros, athletes, warriors, emperors and achievers were crowned with a laurel wreath. Bacca-laureate means laurel berries in Latin. A long list of medicinal attributes include the bay leaf’s anti-inflammatory effects, it is a local antiseptic, an anti-fungal, it aids digestion and stimulates the appetite. Bay contains parthenolides, which are used to treat migraine headaches; and bay has been found effective in treating some types of rheumatism. The tangy, slightly nutty aroma that bay leaf imparts to milk or cream made it the medieval cook’s economical substitute for almonds in puddings - when times were tight. New England’s resourceful settlers used bay berries to scent candles and freshen the air. When a glossy green bay leaf is snapped in half, the natural oils are released into the sauce or soup, so do use fresh leaves, not dried brown ones. With so many health-giving qualities, sweet bay plays a more frequent role in our soups, sauces - and even in puddings, taking a cue from those clever medieval cooks.

Lingering in Liguria

August 18th, 2007

Summer’s lush colors on the Italian Riviera are worth a detour, worth an extra day to literally smell the roses. Returning to France after a week in Tuscany, our last stop was Sanremo, famed for bicycle races and as a winter residence for royalty of the belle époque. This casino town is the heart of the Riviera dei Fiori, the flowering coast, a blooming stretch of Mediterranean shores that explode with color - even in the driest, hottest season of a hot and dry year. Brilliant magenta bougainvilla cascades down rocky slopes, barely stopping for spiny cactus, as trumpets of morning glories clamber through oleander bushes dense with blossoms. On this stage of such intense colors, I assumed we could explore intense flavors: I was not wrong. Before heading for the market, set in and around a central market hall in Sanremo’s old quarter, we rambled along the narrow streets as shops were opening and menus were being posted. Overhead, laundry strung between windows reflected morning light, geraniums nodded from windowsills, life was going on as usual. Stalls of clothing, bedding, hats and tools lined our way to the market hall, but once I stepped inside the hall and took a breath, I knew that Liguria’s best could be found here.

The shopper in me went into overdrive: taking home a bouquet of fresh basil didn’t make sense, but bottled pesto and unusual pastas did. If Livorno’s central market hall is a fish-shopper’s paradise, Sanremo’s market is the place to fill a basket with soft and fragrant olive oil, snappy pesto and all sorts of tid-bits to taste at home. At one point, I paused and glanced up, taking in the sunlight streaming into the hall. Set against the wall, high above the rustle and bustle of vegetable and pasta sellers, was a small madonna figure - her halo illuminated with electric candles, in blessing.

At noon, the cathedral’s bells announced pranzo, pause for lunch. Earlier, I had noticed an interesting menu posted at “Ristorante le Quattro Stagioni“, the Four Seasons Restaurant, so we made our way back through crowded streets to sample a local red wine and study their lunch menu. Tiny ravioli filled with borage in an herb sauce, a typical Ligurian marriage of herbs, fresh greens and pasta, were delicious, tender, perfect. We sipped a soft red wine with lunch, the local Rossese di Dolceaqua recommended by the restaurant’s owner, Gaetano Monaco. Wines served at the restaurant are supplied by per Bacco, his new wine bar next door. When I raved about the ravioli, he called the chefs, Luca Diano and Larissa Loapa, to tell us more about their summer menu. And as we left, I noted a sign by the per Bacco door announcing musicians lined up for summer evenings. Live music, good wine, more summer flavors to explore - more reasons to linger in Liguria.

Details: In Sanremo, Ristorante le Quattro Stagioni del vino/ per Bacco, Via Corradi 83/89. tel: 0184.573262. Reservations advised for dinner. Closed on Sunday. Light meals served in the wine bar, per Bacco.

Another Sanremo wine bar, a very contemporary neighborhood watering hole is: VinoPanino&Co, Corso Mombello 56/58. Their selection of wines, by the glass or bottle is outstanding, whether you explore Italian wines or switch to French or Chilean. Do sample any of a long list of paninos (small open-faced sandwiches) before tackling a plate of smoked swordfish carpaccio.

A summer ramble in Italian markets

August 16th, 2007

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To view the complete photo gallery
market stroll, click here.

Pisa again, beyond the tower

August 10th, 2007

   What is it about river towns that draws me back? I reflected, inspired by the soft-toned facades of medieval buildings lining gentle bends of the river Arno.  Again, I crossed Pisa’s old bridges, marveling at column-edged Renaissance windows while the matter-of-fact daily life of buses and bicycles whizzed past me.  The same magnetic sensation had been at work earlier this summer in the Spanish town of Girona.  There I explored river-side medieval ateliers, shops and studios now restored and still in use by printmakers, sculptors and book-binders. In a glance through their doors and windows, one looks straight out to the river Onyar that flows through the Catalonian town, just as the Arno snakes through Pisa.  I felt a curious sensation of déjà vu.

So, unable to resist the tug to the Arno, we returned again this summer en route to a family gathering near Siena.  A pause, just a couple of days, in this historic university town gave me a deeper appreciation of the treasures of western Tuscany, its flavors and traces of Pisa’s rich past.  As I reported last year, the vegetable market is set in adjoining piazzas right in the center of town.  Basically the same vendors were still there, patiently tending red and green tomatoes, heaps of zucchini blossoms and plump plums.  I was reassured and took more photos, but this time around, I also found fruit and vegetables closer to the leaning tower of Pisa.  What? Fruit on the Campo dei Miracoli?  Well, these garlands of fruit date to about 1602.  Cucumbers on the vine, carved by Giambologna were cast in bronze, along with apples and plums - all to celebrate the Tuscan earth’s abundance.

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Vegetation Motifs of Centuries Past
Click here to see full photo gallery

I delighted in discoveries of the Duomo’s magnificent carvings, on and around its enormous doors. The Duomo, the majestic church itself, was built early in the eleventh century. Giambologna’s doors replace earlier west portals which were destroyed by fire. In the last light of a summer evening, few tourists remained. An air of calm settled over the marble-faced buildings, placed neatly on the Campo dei Miracoli’s (Field of Miracles) verdant platter of manicured grass. We took advantage of the special summer hours, giving visitors access to the Baptistry and Duomo until twilight. This photo session of vegetation and grape vines inspired a good appetite.  We soon found our way toward the Piazza dei Cavallieri - only about ten minutes walk from the Duomo and leaning tower - for dinner at the Osteria dei Cavalieri on via San Frediano.  I knew we were taking a chance without reservations, but the waiter graciously brought us glasses of sparkling wine to sip for a few minutes until a table was free.  The informal atmosphere, prompt service and well balanced Tuscan cuisine keeps this osteria at the top of guide books’ listings.  I understood why as I dug into a plate of gnocchi with flakes of delicate fish: as it melts in your mouth, it lasts in your memory.

Inspired by delicious fish and our proximity to the sea, the following day we hopped on a train to Livorno - less than an hour’s ride through pines and farmland from Pisa.   We took a city bus from Livorno’s station and found our way to the central market hall, which was surrounded by canopied stalls stretching beyond it in all directions.  Heaps of  melons and tomatoes, dangling housewares and platters of aromatic ham -ready to slice - lined each street.  We stepped inside the hall, its center filled with vendors of fish and shellfish, flanked by stalls of bread, pasta and cheese.  But I was determined to see the old harbor, where fishermen sell their catch directly to shoppers.  By the time we found Livorno’s extensive marina, the sun was overhead and most fishing boats were being hosed down; the fishermen were on their way home.  Near the Fortezza Vecchia’s (old fort) slanting brick walls, I spotted a striped canopy over marble slabs, where a few fishermen still sold fish.  Change a few details, I thought, and change a few centuries, but the scene would be the same, and Livorno’s famous fish soup would be simmered for family suppers - whatever the century.

In Pisa: Osteria dei Cavalieri, via San Frediano 16. Tel: 050 580858. Limited seating, reservations suggested. Closed during August; closed Saturday noon and Sunday.

Skorthalia and summer nights

July 27th, 2007

When it heats up outside, I hesitate to do much cooking inside. Flames and smoke of grilling outdoors don’t hold much appeal, either. So, I revert to lessons learned in Greece: cook ahead, and keep it simple. Even the most lethargic appetite seems to respond to fresh flavors of basic Greek classics. This year the alarming heat wave across Greece and southern Europe has been major news. But in the cool of the morning, one can make the evening’s meal - and sit under an arbor or pergola somewhere at the end of the day with a glass of retsina or raki. Early in the day, prepare a simple sauce - Skorthalia/ Skordalia - of mashed potatoes, garlic and ground almonds to accent a main dish of sautéed fish with fennel or grilled chicken. In its simplicity, Skorthalia in fact recalls ancient Mediterranean traditions combining ground almonds and garlic. Persia’s legendary, sophisticated cuisine used ground almonds with garlic in sauces similar to Turkish tarator. Today, it seems there is a revival of interest in these combinations that the ancients set before their family and guests. Skorthalia is a actually more of a rich side dish rather than a sauce, though it is usually listed with sauces. In some regions, bread soaked in water is incorporated into the mixture as a thickener instead of almonds - but then it loses the delicate almond flavor. Using new potatoes and fresh garlic, a bit of lemon juice and olive oil, this can be a staple on summer’s al fresco tables. I sometimes thin the mixture a bit with the pan juices from sautéed fish with fennel, and although recipes say: “serve chilled”, I have been known to set a bowl of warm Skorthalia on the supper table and watch it quickly disappear. Combine ingredients using a mortar and pestle, then whisk in the mashed potatoes with a fork, stirring it until all ingredients are smooth, well blended. And add more garlic for a snappier, more authentic version:

2 large cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped then mashed with 1 tsp. sea salt

2 tablespoons ground almonds, 1 tsp.freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 to 1 +1/2 cups warm mashed potatoes (about 4 potatoes)

1 egg yolk (optional)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

Blend in the order given, stirring the egg into warm potatoes until completely blended (this gives a pleasant color). Using a 2 or 4 cup pyrex measuring cup takes the guesswork out of proportions; this is easily doubled to serve 6. Continue stirring while adding the oil in a thin stream, then blend in the vinegar last. Let cool, cover and chill during the day. Serve with fish, grilled vegetables, or spread a dab of Skorthalia on a slice of toasted baguette and top with a small shrimp or plump mussel as an appetizer. Variations abound.

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