A book for the beach bag

August 19th, 2010

A vicarious tour of Majorca....

Whether you stretch out on a dock, a deck or a beach in a secluded cove, pull a good book about faraway places out of your beach bag.  The vagabond’s choice is a small tome packed with details about a Mediterranean cuisine that doesn’t get much attention:  Majorca. Life-long resident, Tomas Graves surveys this culture and its food traditions, introducing its prime ingredients and those who use them.  Pa am oli, the humble Catalan country bread rubbed with garlic and tomato ties his narrative together and links past and present.  In-depth descriptions of bread making and the island’s fine olive oil traditions vie with forays into Andalusian cured ham/jamon, relatively recent arrivals on Majorcan plates.  But don’t let me spoil the story, or get ahead of myself before thoroughly rereading:  Bread & Oil, Majorcan culture’s last stand, published by Grub Street UK in 1998 & 2006.

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.

Oh, Mayo !

August 13th, 2010

Where would we be without mayo, the saving sauce of this quick-fix and fresh season?  Not from a jar, but we’re whipping up a bowlful most mornings to be ready for lunch.  For cold chicken, strips of poached fish, and devilishly good with hard boiled eggs, a dollop of mayonnaise is the vagabond’s answer to enhancing almost anything savory.  Mash a clove or two of garlic for the aïoli version to acccompany Salade Niçoise while green beans  steam and are soon ready to plate.  Stir in a little horseradish for cold pork, a little moutarde de Dijon for sliced tomatoes, minced fresh basil to go with whatever is plucked straight from the garden:  mayonnaise’ versatile simplicity easily dresses up leftovers or a bowl of just-steamed new amandine potatoes.

Hold tight to the bowl and whisk, whisk.....

To keep up with the summer’s bounty, mayonnaise can deviate from the classic formula of 1 egg yolk, 1/2 cup oil + 1/2 cup best olive oil + 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard + a pinch of salt.  But to begin with, it is a simple emulsion of whisked egg, oil and additional seasonings, so put an egg yolk ( or 2 ) with the Dijon mustard (Not the sweetened or cheaper stuff – your taste buds will say  merci!) and whisk (by hand – this isn’t enough to use the blender) as it thickens, then add sea salt, and drip by drip whisk in the oil, finishing with the best of your olive oils.  Frankly, using All olive oil has its adherents – but you must use the freshest of Quality oils.  If the vagabond lived on the Ligurian coast of Italy where the lightest, grassy and loveliest oils (note a bias here) are produced, I would. The best balance on a regular basis comes from a blend of grape seed oil or other mild oils and good olive oil.  Our trials have come up very green and bitter with ordinary olive oils (resembling something like crank-case oil?).  A finishing touch of lemon juice – tasting for salt & lemon juice is critical here.  If you have fresh tarragon, mince it and blend in to accompany fresh fish or chicken, or add a scoop of horseradish to perk up cold pork or thinly sliced duck magret or roast beef.  Chop black olives into your mayo to bring the provençal touch to seared or grilled fish.  Sauce Andalouse adds chopped tomatoes and, well, you get the idea – stir it up as you please!

The plum season opens….

August 7th, 2010

Tart plums, like oversize pop-it pearls unstrung

Tangy-tart, small green plums appeared in local markets this week, the first of this large and versatile family to hit the crates.  And I mean local plums.  As stone fruit goes, the French southwest is a wonderland.  Apricots have already come in from hillsides of the Tarn.  A pallet of firm nectarines sighted last week set the vagabond to thinking about fruity upside-down cakes.  And peaches, well….temptation get thee behind me, but I’ve even dreamed about stirring up white peach Bellinis for friends this weekend. But plums come first, I was reminded when the vendor beamed at me and said…”these are our first plums this season, picked from my trees last night”!

Our terroir is as much about fruit trees as grape vines, the sloping lands ripple with fruit orchards south of Bergerac.  Approaching Agen, long known as as the “Prune capital of Europe”, the region’s intensive fruit production becomes evident and prune warehouses, even prune museums are scattered across the hilly area. The prune variety (just to confuse things, plum is prune in French), prune d’Ente will be harvested later this month, dried and sold in markets and packed to send around the world. This morning I am more interested in plums for a tart, today.

Fresh green plums turn golden when baked

Plum Frangipane Tarte - with a soupçon of whiskey

Make the crust first:   1/2 cup + 2 T. butter (140 g)

1/4 cup sugar (50 g) + 1/4 tsp. cardamom

1 farm-fresh egg (about 60g.)

1  2/3 cups plain flour (200 g.)

Cream the butter & sugar, blend in the egg, then stir in the flour gradually to blend it all well. Form into a ball, wrap in cling film or foil & chill for 30 min. Heat the oven to  400°f/200°c. and place baking rack in middle of the oven, with a cookie sheet to heat – while cutting plums and mixing filling:

3 cups green plums, halved, pitted

2 medium eggs

1/3 cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar (85 g)

1/2 cup + 1 Tablespoon ground almonds (50 g)

2/3 cup (scant) thick cream ( 142 ml)

2 Tablespoons melted butter

1/3 cup flaked almonds + 1/4 tsp. ginger

The plums may begin to color when exposed to air, so sprinkle with juice of 1/2 lemon. Whisk the eggs, sugar, almonds and blend in the cream, stirring well.  Roll out the pastry (use a pastry cloth or flour the work surface) and folding it over the rolling pin, transfer to a 10″ pie tin or baking dish, prick the pastry with a fork.  Put the plums onto the pastry base, pour the almond-cream mixture over all, and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, testing with a stainless knife blade at 25 minutes; the cookie sheet under the tarte should conduct heat to avoid a gummy bottom crust.  If the crust edges brown too fast, place a ring of aluminum foil over all to avoid a scorched crust.  Remove the tarte to a rack to cool & sprinkle with:  2 Tablespoons whiskey or Eau de vie de prune/plum brandy.

The finishing soupçon

Serve cool or chilled – with a sip or two of plum brandy.  This serves 8. Whatever remains is so good with coffee on Sunday morning. Later in the season, soften and stone 200 grams of prunes in place of the fresh plums to make a lovely autumn tarte.