November 30th, 2013

An English friend asked me to enlighten her about the feast of Thanksgiving. This national day of Gratitude  remembers the Pilgrim Fathers’ first harvest feast.  As families and friends gather round a festive table laden with traditional dishes, we pause to give thanks.  And yet there is latitude in its interpretation….every family has its own variation on the roast bird – a turkey is often basted for hours, or I recall a pheasant or wild duck if hunting was good.  Variations on stuffings and side dishes tell more about the region and family preferences, south to north and east to west.  Will you have oysters in your stuffing?  If you live on a coast,  quite likely…or is it corn bread with a hint of sage, as is often served in the middle west.  In fact corn usually shows up in many ways:  in corn bread, as a side dish simply slathered in butter, in a bubbly casserole of scalloped corn or possibly in the southwest in tamales. Or as succotash.  What a strange word, you say?  Oh, succotash!

Tradition decrees that a mix of corn and shelled beans (but not with bear fat as in the Pilgrim’s first feast !) is served alongside the roast fowl, since this combination – and the word itself, msickquatash, meaning boiled corn – was of Narragansett indian origins. Beyond these basics, succotash may include chopped onions, red or green bell peppers in chunks or strips, all mixed with glistening butter or lard.  When times were tough, it was a simple but nourishing one-dish meal. And served up in the best set of dishes, succotash takes pride of place on the Thanksgiving table.

In this rich season, recollections of flavors tumble through the vagabond’s memory, olfactory memories of aromas (and samples) in the family kitchen. This is just the beginning of a stream of culinary recollections…with illustrations…to follow.


Quail eggs, a delicate touch of spring….

February 28th, 2013


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!


Fresh trout, fresh silky sauce

April 30th, 2011

Sauce elegant touch for everyday veg or fish

The weekly fish vendor has got my number….always asking where this or that sea creature is from, which doesn’t seem to be a common line of questioning. The first time I queried the provenance of a glossy little trout, he looked puzzled and said :  “…farmed, Madame”.   So on Thursday, before I could ask as I again selected fresh trout he piped up:  “…truite Périgordine!”  as his usual stern  glare broke out into a grin.   Next week, I expect he will ask how I like to prepare it, a natural question often part of the banter of market day interchange.  And this is my current (before the grilling season begins) favorite:

Poached Trout Mousseline is about as flexible a quick meal as one can produce.  Why mousseline, which is also the French word for flannel?  So smooth, so comforting, and so easily whipped up.

For each diner, one small trout can be cooked with spring onions, garlic and fennel…or with carrots and new potatoes…or…whatever catches your eye in the spring market stalls.  This option goes together in a blink – well, on the table in about 30 minutes:

Ingredients:   1 small trout

1 to 2 T. oil or butter (or half and half)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1 spring onion, trimmed and sliced in rings

1/3 cup Noilly Prat white vermouth

bay leaf, sprigs of tarragon, minced chives, etc.

1 cup fish bouillon (or a court bouillon cube dissolved)

3 new carrots, stemmed and peeled, sliced diagonally

4 new potatoes, peeled and quartered

for the sauce:  2 egg yolks + 1 tsp  cold water

Juice of 1/2 a lemon, salt & white pepper

2 T. cold butter, cut into bits

Set the carrots and potatoes on to cook in hot water to cover, cook at a simmer for about 15 minutes or ’til tender.  In a large enamel fry pan (I have a favorite one, used only for fish), heat the oil or butter (or a bit of both) and sauté the garlic and onion slices, add sea salt & white pepper & herbs, then splash in the vermouth to let cook for about 5 minutes.  Push this to the side of the pan and add/heat the bouillon, place the fish in this, poach on one side for 5 minutes, turn and cover to poach for another 5 minutes.

For the sauce:   heat water in a medium-sized saucepan and set a pyrex or similar dish over – not touching (or you will wind up with scrambled eggs) – to whisk the egg yolks, adding the lemon juice; as you whisk in the bits of butter, it will thicken quickly.  Double the recipe if you wish, and save some sauce to nap some cold potatoes for the next day’s lunch.  The Mousseline’s zippy flavor resembles a savory lemon curd, a great touch for this season’s asparagus spears or steamed new turnips. Try it with salmon or chicken suprèmes poached with herbs in white wine.  Divine.

Salmon steaks take to Mousseline, too

Lighting candles, whipping up croquettes

December 8th, 2010

Festival of Lights

While this uniformly gray December day draws toward dusk, the vagabond lights an Advent candle and begins to stir up a batch of croquettes.  My many friends of the Jewish faith are probably doing the same in observance of their last night of Hanukkah.  It is almost sundown on the eighth night of Hanukkah, and within half an hour, the last Menorah candle will be lighted in Jewish homes around the world.  A puffy or crispy fried food is always on the menu, with Latkes, crunchy galettes of shredded potatoes, the most common.  Interpretations of “fried” have expanded to include all sorts of savory fritters, croquettes and beignets to commemorate Hebrew history when the Macabees’ miraculous eight days of oil was supplied from a small flask that would normally last just one day.  In Portuguese Jewish homes, salt cod croquetas might be served, while on Italian Hanukkah tables a diamond shaped sweet Frittelle di Hanukkah will be studded with raisins and anise seeds.  My fascination with food traditions of many faiths led me to stir up a variation on croquettes, but rather than deep fried, I found that a moist vegetable croquette was better lightly browned in oil (to qualify on a Hanukkah menu), then baked to finish. This variation on sweet potatoes might suit your Holiday of Lights as a side dish – or even as a nibble with apéros.

Crispy sweet potato croquettes

This recipe for Croquettes de patate douce was tested with baked rather than boiled sweet potatoes, and the baked potato needed a tablespoon or two of boiling water to be mashed, as they dried slightly while baking. They can be made several hours ahead, then finish the baking & crisping before serving. But it is a very moist interior – the baking step is necessary. Shaped with two tablespoons they make an oval, relatively uniform shape and will serve four as a vegetable or beside the starter, while lots of small round ones will be enough to serve eight with cocktails.

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, rinsed and cut up (300ml/1 1/3 cup mashed)

100 g/3/4 cup + 1Tablespoons plain flour; 1/4 tsp salt, white pepper , nutmeg

50 g/1/2 cup +2 Tablespoons ground almonds

50 g/1/2 cup + 3 Tablespoons freshly grated parmesan or grana pradano cheese

1 egg

flaked almonds, toasted as a finishing garnish + sea salt

oil for frying

Cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes in boiling water, drain and mash them or put into a food processor.  Stir in the egg and mix well, then the flour, seasonings, ground almonds & cheese. Mix all together (if you like the odd chunk of sweet potato , don’t blend it too smooth). Set the oven at 180°c/350°f; line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Heat the oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or deep fry pan. Have a plate lined with absorbent paper towels for the fried croquettes, with a skimmer or slotted spoon ready. Using 2 tablespoons, shape the croquettes and plunge them (no more than 5 or 6 at a time) into the hot oil, turning with a spoon or tongs as each side browns – which will be quickly; they burn easily. Turn gently til all are browned and ready to bake.  Transfer the hot croquettes to the baking sheet and bake for ten to twenty minutes (depending on size), shift them into a basket for appetizers or onto a platter with your main dish….lovely with duck or brisket of beef.

Versatile croquettes - with duck breast and seared peppers

Whether your candles are lit for Hanukkah, for Advent or for the Winter Solstice, the vagabond wishes you warm and wonderful holidays!

Pomegranate molasses

December 4th, 2010

Begin with a bowlful of juicy arils

A marvelous seasoning – a magic ingredient – hasn’t turned up on the vagabond’s usual shopping circuit, so I set out to make pomegranate molasses chez nous. But why get into the loop of juicing and simmering this ruby fruit: why bother?  Is this just one of those esoteric culinary trends that come around in cycles?  Everyone has their motives when ingredients are involved, and for this cook in the Périgord, it relates to duck – lots of duck and all other feathered fowl so plentiful in our region.  Not only for duck, but the sweet tang of pomegranate molasses lends a complex dimension to many rich meats, a “secret ingredient” in the lamb and poultry tagines of the Middle East.  When I opened Crazy Water Pickled Lemons*, Diana Henry’s delicious romp across the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean, to “Breast of Duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce”, my pursuit of pomegranate molasses began in earnest.  The recipe only asked for two tablespoons, so why not stir it up at home?  Concocting my own pomegranate molasses was not difficult – it simply takes a little time, a “Saturday afternoon with no rush” sort of project.  Winter sunlight slanted through the kitchen door windows as I whacked, peeled back the rind to pop out the arils (shiny red seeds) and juiced two mid-season pomegranates.  Our bio-grocery displays Valencia fruit from Spain’s east coast (possibly from the region of Elche), and once cut in half to top a salad, I noted the density of seeds in these pale-skinned pomegranates.

Dense with arils, the membrane releases easily

First, the seeds needed some encouragement to release from the skins, so I whacked them with a small rolling pin before scoring each fruit in quarters.

A few taps to loosen the arils

Then over a large bowl, I held the rinds and peeled them back to release the glistening arils.  A little juice was released, while the seeds were plump and easily separated from their veil of membranes.  Caution: cover yourself, as this juice stains cloth….in fact it is used as a dye for Turkish carpet wool.

Pull away any clinging bitter membrane

Curious about how much would be needed, I let the seeds accumulate to fill a two cup pyrex measure.  That was from one and a half pomegranates.  After tapping and peeling, juicing the “jewel of winter” is the second step in the process.  My blender has a juicing column attachment, so I filled the filtered column with rosy seeds and pulsed the juice out in short order.  It needs to be scooped and scraped once or twice to allow top layer seeds to fall closer to the central blades.

Pour the juice out through a small sieve into a saucepan, turn the heat on low and let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to reduce by half.  Watch carefully that it doesn’t burn.  Have a sterile jar and lid ready, or a small lidded cup to keep your pomegranate molasses ready for use.

Depending on variety and country, it can be a pearly pink or ruby red

And what about the other half a pomegranate, bursting with scarlet arils?  Ah, they are preserved in good gin – just a small jar full – to top a festive New Year’s sorbet or….perhaps to enhance a duckling as we welcome 2011.

* Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry, published in 2002  by Mitchell Beazley, takes a fresh look at multitudes of traditional dishes across Turkey, Spain, North Africa, Greece and southern Italy.

Next up: a little beignet for the holidays

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.

Last call for dill pollen

September 24th, 2010

Dill's last re-seeded crop is up

Fresher morning air, cooler evenings with dusk falling so quickly that  twilight time, entre chien et loup, now  drives us inside by eight o’clock:  autumn is definitely here.  While September’s gloriously sunny days are warm, it is the chilly nights that slow down the herb patch.  Other than a burst of chive spears poking through and promising shoots in the sorrel clump, the basil is tired, the coriander umbrels droop with new seeds.  But the stalwart of the patch is dill that re-seeded in a corner of the potager. The flavor of dill’s fringey leaves seems fuller now that long weeks of heat are past. Last spring I was inspired by a grilled scallop finished with lime juice and dill…(?), and planted more in June.  It was in Minneapolis that I watched a young chef at the Guthrie Theatre restaurant’s oyster bar produce this revelation:  plating a grill-blackened scallop (still raw inside), he dressed it with lime juice and something yellow with the complex fragrance of dill.  What could this yellow dust be?  His whispered response to my question was: dill pollen.  The amount to use is a matter of supply and taste; a seasoning for two is about all of the golden dusting available in any one day.  Wondering where I could get more – thinking ahead to an entrée for four or six, I found both fennel and dill pollen to order from  Prices reflect the products’ delicacy, dill pollen going for $9.75 per half ounce. Their wild fennel pollen runs $10.50 per ounce. A scattering on delicate fish or seafood (or even on new potatoes, beet salad, salmon soup…) so accents the flavors, your taste buds will thank you.  Somehow, a pinch of dill keeps summer on our plates… just a little longer.

Last hours of summer's glory

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.

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.

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

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