18 August 2017

Gratin de courgettes, tomates, et fromage

I keep giving summer squashes, both classic zucchinis and the little lemon squash, to our neighbors, but we are still feeling slightly overwhelmed. Yesterday when I offered a neighbor some, she said she take them gladly because they are so delicious. The word she used to described the courgettes was fondantes — "meltingly tender and good" might convey the idea. The dictionary also gives the word "luscious" as an equivalent.

Anyway, the one I cooked the other day was like that. It was only one zucchini, but it had grown large. I cut it up anyway, sliced it thinly, and salted the slices that I had put into a colander to let them release some water. I laid the slices out in a 32 cm (12 inch) diameter baking dish and they were about 4 deep. This is an idea based on a recipe I found on this French cooking site.

Then I sliced up a good number of smallish tomatoes from the garden and arranged them in a layer over the zuke slices. You could add a layer of cooked meat — sliced chicken or turkey, bacon, ham, for example, over the zucchini slices before putting the tomatoes on. I made a custard of milk, cream, and eggs seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano, and thyme. I poured the liquid mixture over the tomatoes and zukes. It was just enough to cover the zucchini slices, leaving the tomato slices visible.

After the gratin — that's the French term — cooked in the oven at 180ºC / 350ºF for 30 or 40 minutes, I turned off the oven and let it sit there for another hour or so, hoping that the zucchini slices would be cooked through. I was glad to see that the tomatoes kept their shape and didn't just turn into sauce. (I didn't decide to take photos until after the first cooking.)

Finally, I spread a layer of grated cheese over the whole dish, drizzled some olive oil over it, and put the dish back in the oven at low temperature, say 150ºF (300ºF) just to let the cheese melt. You could make a case for putting the dish under the broiler to brown the cheese, but I didn't do that. I wanted it luscious, not crispy. Maybe crispy is how I'll prepare the leftovers that we'll have for lunch today. The courgette slices are cooked, by the way, but not over-cooked, so they have a nice texture.

17 August 2017


The annual winterization process has begun. Summer — real summer, with hot weather and sunny skies — ended a month or so ago. Summer was early this year. Late July and this first half of August have been autumn-like. We're still hoping for a warm and sunny September, but we have to be prepared.

So yesterday we got our annual delivery of firewood. This is the third or fourth time we've ordered wood from a man in the village of Vallières-les-Grandes, which is about 30 minutes from here, near Amboise and Chaumont-sur-Loire. We are so glad to have found him, because he's professional, prompt, and reliable. The prices are reasonable. Bertie  happened to be out from when the wood was dumped on the driveway and, being a cat, he was curious about it.

The delivery was four stères of oak logs cut to fit our small wood-burning stove. That's four cubic meters, which is how wood is measured here. It's the equivalent of just more than a cord, and cut and delivered it cost us 264 euros, or about $300 U.S. It will get us through the winter as a supplement to our oil-fired central heating system. We recently had 1,500 liters (400 U.S. gallons) of fuel oil delivered too, so we are ready for winter. Fuel oil is much more expensive than firewood, but our wood-burner won't heat the whole house.

The truck carrying the wood, a flat-bed dump truck, just barely fit through our front gate, and the driver had to be careful not to run into the edge of our second-floor terrace, which overhangs the driveway. The driver yesterday made it look easy. Now all we have to do is stack the wood on the north side of the house, under the terrace overhang where it will be protected from rain. We'll start working on it this morning.

16 August 2017

I don't know beans about beans...

...I guess. I don't know where the beans I buy are grown. I don't know how old they are. All I know is that I like to eat them.

Maybe I should just buy them in cans (or tins, if that's what you say). Those can be good. I've tried different brands and found some that I like better than others.

Some of the best black-eyed peas I've found here were in cans imported from Portugal. I can't find them any more. But as I've said, I cook dried black-eyed peas (which are not peas but beans) with great success. For example...  And these, more recently. I think black-eyed peas are the tastiest of beans.

I also like these haricots beurre that I get here, also imported from Portugal. Problem is, the last time I cooked some the skins were tough.

I think in America, these would be called "pink beans" because "butter beans" are something entirely different. Even in America, "butter beans" means one thing in certain regions and something different in other regions. I think butter beans might be something else entirely in Great Britain.

Packages of dried beans in France do have sell-by or use-by dates on them. These white lingot beans say they are good until 06 12 2018. That means 06 December 2018, because we Americans write dates in a different order from Europeans... mais passons.

According to an expert, Steve at Rancho Gordo beans in California, dried beans are good for about two years. Then their quality starts to decline.

15 August 2017

A question about beans

Do you like to cook dried beans? And eat them? I do, and I always have. I grew up eating them at home, cooked by my mother. Pinto beans, black-eyed peas, navy beans, great northerns, big white lima beans... among others. When I was in college, I lived on baked beans and frankfurters for a couple of years, because there wasn't much else in the cafeteria that tempted me. Now, in France, Walt and I eat a lot of beans — in cassoulet, for example, with duck, or with sausages.

The problem is that the beans don't always cook up as tender as I want them to be. The skins stay tough. CHM has the same problem in Paris. We've decided it must be the tap water in France. CHM actually brought some red kidney beans from the U.S. this summer. He had cooked some of them over there, and they were perfectly tender. He cooked the same beans in Paris tap water, and they came out with tough skins. The water in France as here in the Loire Valley is very calcaire. In English, that means it's "hard" water.

Some cookbook authors and friends suggest putting a pinch or two of baking soda (bicarbonate alimentaire) into the water you soak or cook beans in. I don't do that, and some of the beans I cook — black-eyed peas, for example — turn out very tender. Others don't. Some say to put some vinegar in the soaking or cooking water. There is wide agreement that the beans should not be salted until the very end of the cooking, because salt toughens the skins.

Yesterday, I did an experiment — I cooked a pound of white lingot beans (a.k.a. cannellini) in what I'd call distilled water. It's sold as eau déminéralisée at the supermarket here in Saint-Aignan. I didn't even bother soaking them first. I just cooked them for about 3 hours. I think the result is very good. Maybe that's the answer. Have you ever cooked dried beans in mineral water? Would that give the same result? That will be my next experiment.

14 August 2017

“Pulled” turkey barbecue

This summer I've been missing North Carolina barbecue. That's called "pulled pork" elsewhere. I didn't have any in the freezer, and for months I haven't seen pork shoulder roasts, which I like to make pulled pork with, in the supermarkets.

So what's the solution? Turkey leg and thigh sections. Cuisses de dinde in French. They are always available here in France, and they're not expensive. I bought four of them at the supermarket — about 3 kilos (nearly 7 lbs.) in all — for less than 11 euros. As I do with pork shoulder, I cooked the turkey in the slow cooker for about 10 hours on low temperature. I don't brown them first, but they look pretty good when they come out of the cooker, don't you think?

Before cooking it, I season the meat just lightly with some cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, and a splash of vinegar, along with some thyme and bay leaves. After long slow cooking, take the meat out of the cooker and put in in a pan or on platters to let it cool down. Then it's easy to pull off the skin, pull the meat off the bones, and get rid of the cartilage, veins, and most of the fat. You can cook pork, turkey, or even lamb (lamb barbecue is a Kentucky specialty) this way. Boil down the cooking liquid to reduce and thicken it, and then season it to make a good sauce.

You can chop or shred the meat and season it before you heat it again for serving, or leave it in big chunks. I like it seasoned with hot pepper vinegar, but you might enjoy some other kind of barbecue sauce — with tomato paste or ketchup, sugar or molasses, and spices, for example. Serve it on a bun as a barbecue sandwich if you want. That's what we did, with fried potatoes and some collard greens.

You know what? You really can't tell the difference between pork and turkey cooked this way. You have to think turkey is less fatty and better for you. Googling around on the web, I see several eastern North Carolina restaurants that are now serving pulled turkey barbecue. Good for them. After all, N.C. is one of the top three turkey-producing U.S. states, raising and marketing nearly 30 million of them annually.