Nuts, the classic holiday touch

November 25th, 2010

Walnuts - in every region of France, a handful of favorite varieties

Not only is the approaching holiday season whispering a list of get-ready and must-be-done details in my ear,  there are menu traditions to be stirred into the upcoming days.  One tradition dictates poultry, another asks for at least one green or golden side veg, while the topper remains:  a rich nutty-fruity dessert.  For all courses, nuts really come into their own during the holidays – beyond the classic bowl of nuts with a casse-noisette after the feast, relaxing by the fireside (is this too too yesterday?) with a bit of brandy.  From the vagabond’s perspective in southwestern France, where nut groves march across undulating Périgord hills, the presence of energy-rich walnuts goes from soup to dessert.  Along the way, there are a few regional tricks I could pull out of the recipe box (or folio) to enhance both the fête…. and the leftovers.  What? already thinking about les restes?

Shelled and briefly toasted nuts, ready for... action

Nuts in the market are ready for shelling, and pink Lautrec garlic is still sweet (once the green germ sprout is poked out), so I reached for the mortar and pestle to combine the two in an aïllade.  Since anything aillé suggests the presence of garlic, you can imagine related condiments reach toward aïoli in Provençal fish stews and Gascon aillada to season snails. A related mix in the Périgord is persillade, a crushed blend of parsley and garlic for topping potatoes and grilled meats. I knew that chopped walnuts and garlic form the hefty flavor base of aillade and began to search for proportions. The more sources I found, the more variations appeared – but most agreed that the Toulouse version is the best known. When I began mashing 3 chopped garlic cloves in my small mortar, it was clear that however my intentions were to keep it “authentic”, I needed a larger mortar.  So, oop-la into the blender for this Aïllade Toulousaine:

22 g/3  plump cloves of peeled garlic, chopped + pinch of sea salt

75 g/3 oz.  dry*, skinned walnuts, very lightly toasted, chopped

150 ml/5 oz. oil, half walnut oil, half light olive oil

3 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves  (reserve 1 T. for serving)

100 ml/1/3 cup + 2 T. crème fraïche (optional)

Put the walnuts & garlic into the blender in layers, pulsing half of it before adding the rest. Stop and scrape down sides twice, add 2 T. parsley and when it is all of a mealy texture, add the oil beginning with a thin drizzle with the motor running. Depending on your preference, you can blitz it until is becomes almost creamy (or add 1/3 cup + 2 T. of crème fraïche) or stop with the coarser texture. Turn it out into a bowl and blend in the last T. of parsley.  Cover the bowl and let it mellow for a few hours before serving as a dip for celery and other crudités, or with cold cuts, sliced game or …turkey.

The southwest classic with sautéed potatoes

Actually, our favorite market-break café stop suggests another course

Tartelettes aux noix, a hint of desserts to come

To all my fellow vagabond gourmands, wherever you are perched:             Happy Thanksgiving !

Nut notes: The best season for this and many other condiments and sauces using crushed nuts and garlic is August into September, when the new walnuts are considered “wet”. New crop garlic is juicier as well, so both are much easier to mash in a mortar for a finer consistency. Obviously, it is also the best time for making pesto with fresh basil and new almonds or pine nuts.

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:  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.

Salad days, extended….

November 6th, 2010

Belgian endive & pomegranate seeds, crunchy & sweet

Usher in late autumn with a salad bowl full of crisp endive, Belgian or curly, slightly bitter endive greens.  But that isn’t enough, in fact it just gets us started on a quick weekday lunch.  Chop up the endive, mix up a mustardy vinaigrette and toss in a spoonful of pomegranate seeds to rest while you set the table, slice up a crusty loaf of pain de campagne and call folks to lunch.

Let the dressing rest 10 minutes as flavors mingle

The dressing or – vinaigrette à la Michel, as it is known around here – is a 1, 2, 3 operation:  1) measure 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard into a small bowl with a pinch of sea salt 2) whisk in 2 Tablespoons of sherry/Xeres vinegar, and whisk into the emulsion a drizzle of 3 Tablespoons olive oil…then the vagabond stirs in the rosy pomegranate seeds. Other additions can be chopped fresh chives, finely minced parsley, freshly shelled almonds or walnuts.  Just before serving, stir the dressing over and into the bowl of greens (add young spinach leaves, too!). The last touch is a cupful of cubed blue cheese, such as a tomme d’Auvergne from the market or roquefort (not too old and crumbly) if you want to splurge. Just don’t forget to add the pomegranate seeds – and add a little of their juice to the dressing… salad couldn’t be simpler.

Without intending it, you have a red, white & bleu salad

Road trips to dream about…

November 4th, 2010

Dream drives was my working title for National Geographic Society’s latest book, the fifth illustrated tome in their 500 series. The vagabond has been commissioned to write destinations for them all, and it is true:  Drives of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips packs in far-flung dream circuits for motoring in all corners of the globe.  Recently released, this comprehensive book covers a dizzying selection of dream trips in eight chapters.  Some cover the world’s back roads and popular local circuits, while others illustrate well known highways.  Australia’s Great Ocean Road, a twelve hour loop tour, is one of the “Ultimate Road Trip” features – a longer text found in each chapter.  Mountain lovers will be thrilled with diverse destinations, from Alaska’s Yukon Golden Circle to a Madrid Mountain Drive.

The vagabond's favorite trail through the Barolo & Barbaresco vineyards

A map illustrates every destination, as sea and shore, river and canyon, village byways, and urban excursions themes all fuel the reader’s wanderlust. The Driving Through History chapter includes a stunning range of trips, from a pre-Columbian trail in Mexico to Puglia’s olive groves on the heel  of Italy’s boot.  Although most trips are for four wheels, some could be adapted to two (or even to a dune buggy in Peru!).  And at last, ramble from Kentucky’s Boubon Trail and on through the Langhe valley’s vineyards in the Piedmont as the Gourmet Road Trips chapter wraps up this tantalyzing collection of road trip adventures.  Don’t miss the vagabond’s favorite 10 European Food Drives, as well as the U.S.  10 Wayside Bounty drives to enjoy regional specialties in season, from blueberries in Rhode Island, pumpkins and chocolate in Pennsylvania to late winter citrus harvest in Arizona’s roadside stalls.  It all leaves the reader hungry for more luscious images and succinct, spirited text…maybe the next in the series will be 600 journeys!

Gifting idea for active or armchair travelers on you list: order through the National Geographic Society site, or at your local independent book store.