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!


A wake-up call for color in winter salads

February 14th, 2012

Coming out of hibernation….

In the middle of a snowy day – our week of slick and thick wet snow now turning to slush – the vagabond weighs the options for a bright Valentine’s day lunch.  Maybe you have the same instincts if  your February is one of icy winds, snow flurries or driving sleet…oh, I remember those Midwest winters so well.  Checking out the seasonal side of color, what is on hand in my pantry or available in the local shops now?

The first dish out of the fridge holds a glowing red pomegranate half, then a Portuguese orange, a sweet clementine and a local shallot.   A protein component could be jambonneau – my favorite form of ham – or cold salmon, shrimp, slivers of last night’s wine-poached turkey, chicken or even julienne strips of firmMontbéliard sausage.  For this mix-up of textures, my only cheese suggestion would be snowy white cubes of Greek fetaWhat about the basic salad itself, the diagonally sliced Belgian endive, sucrine lettuce or romaine?  If you have a penchant for slaw-style salads, shave some firm red cabbage and shred a chiffonade of garnet leaves of Italian trevise for an edgy wake-up call to any jaded winter taste buds.  Color-wise, this tips the palette towards the deep jewel reds.  Another obvious winter-red option would be some juliènne slices of cooked beet root, especially good with endives and feta.  Last night’s florets of steamed cauliflower are naturals in this salad combo, as well as steamed paper-thin slices of turnip.  Depending of course on how many are lunching chez toi on this wintry day, toss your choice of the above elements – whatever strikes your fancy and is available – with a citrus-based dressing to pull the flavors together.  For a more French attitude, a salade composée (and the dressing will give it Attitude), rather than tossing the chosen ingredients, spread the lettuces and arrange the protein and vegetables on each plate, topped with the glowing pomegranate seeds.  Drizzle a little dressing over all, and diners (or The diner) can ladle out  more from a pitcher at the table.

Now, a basic vinaigrette (moutarde de préfèrence) will dress your salade – with a few suggested twists depending on ingredients on hand. The following will cover 2 or 3 salads, is best made an hour or more in advance; it works well for marinating cooked vegetables, shrimp or salmon chunks.

Whisk in a small bowl:  1 T. Dijon mustard (Maille is available in most regions) with 2 Tablespoons lemon juice  + 1 teaspoon sea salt (hold the grated black pepper for the table, to be grated individually)

gradually whisk in:            3 or 4 Tablespoons best olive oil

Variations:  If using beets & oranges, add 1 T. orange juice+ 1t. orange zest, plus a grating of nutmeg + more grated black pepper. Trimmed and thinly sliced shallots add dimension to this version.

If using Trevise lettuce, whisk 1 or 2 t. sugar or light honey into the dressing.

Add a teaspoon or two of toasted cumin (does wonders for beets) OR fennel seeds to the endive salad.

Dry toast (2 to 4 minutes in a hot skillet) freshly shelled walnut halves or natural (skins on) almonds for texture and a nutritional boost to any of the above ….Enjoy!

Up Next:  Piggy hams it up, and a hungry reader’s notes on A Homemade Life.

Fresh trout, fresh silky sauce

April 30th, 2011

Sauce mousseline..an 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

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.

Heads up, pickle fans !

October 6th, 2010

Beets, onion slices and spices...

If you *love* pickles and happen to be in New York this month, devote a day to all manner of brined veg: The International Pickle Festival brings connoisseurs of condiments together on a busy intersection in the Lower East Side. Before I get to the pickle recipe, here are the details: Sunday, October 17th is the day to circle, from 11 to 4:30 (don’t dilly-dally, or it will all be over), between Orchard and Ludlow – extending onto Broome Street, follow your nose. Besides garlic infused Polish dill pickles, you’ll sample pickles from Asia (kimchi salsa anyone?) to savory French and Italian brined specialties. Chopped, sliced, in chunks or pickles on a stick – this is the place to explore the realm of pickles, a culinary subculture unto itself. Bring a bag, buy a few bottles to spice up chilly autumn week ends. Not just for fun, but (as you will learn there) pickles are good for you – after all, it seems that Cleopatra believed in pickles as one of her beauty secrets. Artisans such as Brooklyn Brine bring their best, and watch for Wong’s Thunder Pickles. This, the 10th annual Pickle Day, is sponsored by the New York Food Museum (visit their Pickle Wing sometime), Umani Food, and New York City Greenmarkets. Bring the kids for a day of tastings, music, demonstrations and book signings on the Lower East Side – a culinary crossroads of the world (of pickles).

For more, check: www.lowereastsideny.com

Recipe #1, an old favorite:  Beet Pickles

Pickling is about conserving flavor in times of plenty, when we all know less plentiful times lie just around the corner. That goes for color as well, so begin with ruby red beets.  Boil the beets until just tender*, peel and quarter them and pack in hot jars. You will need:

1 quart beets, cooked peeled and quartered or cut in slices (no not overcook or use pre-cooked beets: result will be flabby pickles)

3/4 cup light brown sugar + 1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup cider vinegar + 1/2 cup spring water

1 tsp. toasted  cumin seeds + 12 cloves + cinnamon stick + 6 whole allspice (optional)

Bring the liquids, sugar and spices to a boil, pour over the beets in hot jars and seal with sterilized lids. Great with a winter lunch of cold roast pork or poached fish – and a must with pork sausages.

Recipe #2: Mixed vegetable pickles – two ways

Cauliflorets, onions and peppers...

There are more ways to pickle a cucumber (or most any vegetable) than I imagined:  raw in a brine, raw in hot jars with hot vinegar, cooked for a few minutes in vinegar or soaked in vodka. To pickle in brine, I checked Michael Ruhlman’s essential guide, Ratio, for advice. This is the classic tried and true crock method, soaking (all parts submerged) vegetables in a brine of 2  1/2 cups/20 oz. spring water with 2 tablespoons/1 oz. coarse salt. Dissolve the salt in the water in a non-reactive pan over high heat, stir it, turn off the heat and let it cool. This basic brine, poured over a jar or crock of sliced carrots, onions, peppers, wax beans, cucumbers (and dill heads) or a mix of whatever is heaped in the market, will produce crisp and tangy pickles in a week or two. Use compatible herbs, such as tarragon or dill and garlic if you wish.  Be sure to put a plate (with a stone or brick) to weigh it down and cover the top with cling-film. Then they are ready for the table or to be bottled.

For a recent batch of cooked cauliflower pickles, a basic ratio of 2 cups sugar to 1 quart vinegar got me started on a series of pickle-packing sessions. First, while the cauliflower and onions refresh in an ice bath for 2 hours, get out the pans, bottles, tongs and heat the vinegar mixture. This works well for a mix of golden peppers, carrots, and red onions – whatever you have in quantity. Heat water in a large soup pot and when boiling, submerge jars – wait to scald the lids until just before sealing the jars. You will need tongs, a long-handled ladle and a large soup spoon, and a cloth placed on the countertop next to the stove or cook-top.

1 quart/900 ml. white wine vinegar

2 cups/225 g.  sugar

1/4 cup/43 g. coarse (Kosher) salt

2  T. whole mustard seeds

1 T. whole celery seed + 1 tsp. ground turmeric

Heat the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, then add the following vegetables (cut them up smaller for smaller jars, chunky for larger jars):

1 large head cauliflower, broken into small florets (refreshed in an ice bath for 2 hours)

1 large yellow bell pepper, trimmed & cut in strips

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced in vertical strips

3 medium carrots/270 g. peeled and sliced into thick coins

slivers of hot chili pepper, 1 or 2 for each pot (if desired)

Drain the iced vegetables well and plunge them into the bubbling vinegar mixture, lower heat to a simmer to cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to minimum as you scoop the pickled veg into sterile jars.  Wipe the rims of each jar before putting a hot cap on, twist tightly and set on the kitchen towel to cool; place another towel over all jars as they cool overnight. This makes about 5 pints or 6 large jam jars. When cool, store in a dark, chilly place.  If concerned about keeping the pickles for many months, after capping, plunge them back into the pot of hot water to process for about 10 minutes.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe on CDkitchen.

Variation by color: Keep the carrot coins separate, pickle the cauliflower mix first, then cook the carrots & 1 more red onion for 6 minutes in the remaining vinegar bath before bottling (add a few allspice berries or cloves to each jar).

Note: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman (published in 2009 by Scribner) is an essential resource when puzzled about a process or basic proportion of ingredients.  Good for advice on anything from cream puffs to, well….pickles.

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

Lavender Fields Forever

July 3rd, 2010

Bienvenue  juillet…the vagabond welcomes July with open arms! This week, my market basket is laden with stone fruit for preserves, green almonds and bundles of herbs.  On the way to markets across southern France I note lavender in bud, ready to bloom and scent the air.  But nowhere is lavender as much a part of the July scene as in the Vaucluse and high country of Haute Provence.  My memories drift back to Saturday markets in Apt, a hub of trade and activity on the river Coulon.  Artisans, farmers, plantsmen and vendors selling all manner of household goods – some with olive and lemon prints to dance across your table, others with olive wood salad tossers – line the narrow streets of this Luberon town.  We always begin at the open market at the edge of the old town, where sausage, honey and cheese vendors mingle with flower stalls bursting with the region’s trademark colors:  golden sunflowers, brilliant zinnias and graceful wands of lavender.  This week may be a little too early for the surrounding lavender fields to be in full bloom, but wait a week to take in miles of the purple haze.

Gather lavender early, just as blossoms form

Lavender lore credits the Romans for bringing both their bathing rituals and the cleansing, antiseptic lavender plants to Apta Julia when this trading crossroads center was founded.  Originally a military camp, the town grew to assume importance as an administrative center on the Domitian Way from Rome to Narbonne. The climate was right for lavender, cultivated for its medicinal and antiseptic values, and the plant took hold.  Soldiers carried it to cleanse wounds and found the scent relieved stress.  I sometimes wonder what a citizen of ancient Apta Julia would say now when gazing across expanses of lavender fields between Apt, the high country of Sault, and east towards Forcalquier – before surveying the seemingly endless fields of the Valensole plâteau.  If the lavender fields now seem to stretch to the horizon, the reason today is in part commercial:  this region of Provence leads the world in lavender production.

Within this genus, Lavendula augustifolius, there are thirty-nine species. Spikes with flower tips wave above the round, bushy plant – and easily cross-pollinate, so many variations exist.  Blue, lilac, violet or white lavender all draw bees, and lavender honey is one of the region’s specialties.  To discover lavender country, the market at Sault - on Wednesdays since 1515 – is not only overflowing with Provençal vegetables, but vendors offer honeys and soaps, pastries and essential oils, all with a hint of lavender. Take a moment to ramble around Sault’s old streets and admire the vistas from its promontory overlooking the valley.  Be tempted by nougat, both black and white (both a part of the Christmas Eve Treize Desserts tradition) of local almonds and lavender honey.

A fleeting moment in the lavender fields

Pick lavender just before blossoms are completely open to maximize the natural oils.  Tuck a few into your pillow case, a bag of sweaters sealed away for winter, and in closets to repel moths and refresh the air. Using lavender in cooking takes restraint – one too many blossoms can impart a bitter taste:  remember, it is an antiseptic.  A little caution is due for the relaxing, de-stressing effect of lavender under your pillow:  it slows the nervous system to some extent, a natural for inducing sleep.  Its essential oils are effective in aromatherapy and in beauty products as well as the classic, refreshing lavender eau de toilette.  If you travel across Provence in late July and through August, you may see the lavender harvesters at work, machines rolling through fields gathering the blossoms destined for distilleries to extract lavender’s essential oils.  In Sault’s August Lavender Festival, watch a lavender-cutting competition, all a blur of scythes in action.  But for a few sprigs to infuse in a refreshing sorbet, a simple panna cotta or a custard with summer berries, now is the time to snip lavender.

For more on Provençal lavender, visit: www.avignon-et-provence.com tap Tourism, then scroll to Practical Information to tap:  Markets.  In www.saultenprovence.com/gb you will find details on lavender-related events, and at www.provencebeyond.com , a variety of travel information.

A spring stroll though Castillonès bastide market

April 29th, 2010

When Alphonse de Poitiers granted the land to build a new bastide town in the 13th century, he chose the site well.  Like most bastides, Castillonès sprawls along a ridge of high ground, in this case straddling two historic regions.  It lies on the southern hem of the Périgord, while being woven into the heart of the ancient Agenais.  For many of us, Agen equals fruit (proclaimed as the prune capital of Europe), while the Périgord is famed for walnuts and poultry.  So on a market visit, be ready for produce and poultry in abundance.  The vagabond is drawn to this hilly region by the expansive panoramas around nearly every turn, a case of the journey being as stunning as the market goodies are delicious.

Click on distant chapel to view photo gallery of  Castillonès market.

This département, the Lot-et-Garonne, rests between Gascony to the south and the Périgord to the north, quietly going about its business which is largely agricultural. As a region slightly off the beaten path, the Agenais is worth a detour:  for Romanesque chapels rising above slopes sponged with white plum blossoms in April and nodding sunflowers through July,  it is a revelation.  And off season, the markets are among the region’s most authentic, least gentrified or tourist-trammeled in the entire Aquitaine.  From mid-May to late September expect crowds, which could be said of any part of the French southwest – unless, like the locals, you grab your basket and shop very early when everything is dew-fresh.

Like Monflanquin and Villefranche-du-Périgord, the town’s focus is on an arcaded market square, where weekly markets and monthly fairs have come and gone for centuries. What was the vagabond looking for on an April morning in Castillonès Tuesday market?  Asparagus, bien sûr, and bedding plants for potagers (vegetable gardens), to be choosen from flats of lettuce, tomato, peppers and squash (lots of vigorous courgettes). We always hunt for honey, and here I not only did we score with local tilleul/linden flower honey, but with a light-on- acidity honey vinegar.  I was delighted to find white cherry tomato plants and other unusual varieties sold by a young couple specializing in biologique/organic plants.  In fact on this visit, I noticed more biologique products lining Castillonès Grande Rue, the lively market street leading off the central square.  Cheese vendors offer a gamut of specialties from firm to crumbly Auvergne Salers and Cantal tommes to local chèvre as well as excellent fromages Corse. Two vendors tempted me with samples of Italian cheese, as well as olives, tortellini and pastries.  With such enticing products, and a lazy day ambiance of having coffee (and a flaky, rum-cream filled pastry) in the shade of  Castillonès arcades, I vowed to return…when stalls groan under loads of melons, tomatoes and freshly picked plums.

Note:  Watch for more on bastide markets in June, for a supper stop in a night market or two…quite a different interpretation of “market”. We will sample the ambiance of  just a few of the 300 bastides scattered across southern and southwestern France.

Soup for a chilly night

January 22nd, 2010

Roots, herbs...all go into the stock pot

Making Soup,  a few words on step 1:  Stock

Turnips with lilac shoulders, a stalk of crisp celery or two, a duck or guinea fowl carcass, maybe a ham bone, and don’t forget the carrots to give a winter soup color…with  sage, thyme and bay leaves. All of these flavor-giving basics are at hand when I reach for the soup stock kettle. Market day will provide more ingredients: leeks, a handful of parsley that the maraîcher always tucks into my sack, and yellow onions whose inner skins will be added for color.  I’ll use the inner, trimmed green leek tops minced up – save the most of the whites for the final soup, onions  will be quartered and stuck with cloves and carrots scrubbed but not peeled. Following Patricia Wells’ sound advice that vegetables cut in small pieces give the stock more of their flavor, I’ll chop them up, run cold water into the soup pot to cover all ingredients, turn on the heat to medium and begin the day’s simmering. The herbs tucked inside the carcass won’t float to the top with eventual foam, making skimming easier. Actually, any fresh veg you have on hand, from cores of cauliflower to broccoli stems will add flavor and nutrients, so use it all up. Lift the lid after ten minutes, begin to skim off any foam rising, then add 1 tablespoon sea salt and 1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar (to draw calcium from the bones into the stock) and turn heat to low.  After about four hours – or longer if you wish – strain the soup into glass jars and let the stock cool. Pull pieces of duck or pork off the bones for a spaghetti sauce or soup later. With a good layer of duck fat on top, the stock will keep about a week – if you don’t use it in a risotto first!  More about soup next week: pastinas, tiny noodles…and almond dumplings.

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