28 September 2016

Pumpkins called courges musquées

Years ago, when Walt and I decided to leave San Francisco and move to the country, one of our criteria was to find a place where we could have a good vegetable garden. When we saw this house outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, we knew we had found it. This is our 13th year of gardening and, despite some rainy cool summers, the garden has always been successful.

Above is a green pumpkin that is growing out there right now. It's about 18 inches (45 cm) across. It's a courge musquée « Muscade » and should eventually turn pale orange. Our seed packet doesn't say so, but the Muscade is also called the Courge musquée de Provence. It's a variety of Cucurbita moschata.

The one above, growing just a few feet from the green one, has already changed color. It's also a Muscade, but it's ripe. The seed packet says the Muscade squashes weigh in at between 4 and 8 kilograms (10 to 20 lbs.) Muscade is the French word for nutmeg (noix muscade) so the flavor is like that. It's good in sweet cakes and pies and also in savory soups and purées.

Finally, here's a view of the garden at the end of September. There are still tomatoes ripening on the vine, and we don't even know how many squashes (including a number of Sucrines du Berry, similar to butternuts) are hiding under all those big leaves. We are also growing Swiss chard and two kinds of kale this year.

27 September 2016

Still growing

It's late in September but the weather has been staying very pleasant — chilly mornings, warm afternoons. Almost no rain, which suits the vegetable garden just fine.

The dinosaur (Tuscan) kale plants look healthy. It's probably time to go out and cut some more leaves for cooking.

Winter squashes, including pumpkins and French « sucrine du Berry » squashes, are ripening well in these conditions.

All the grapes are still hanging on the vines out in the Renaudière vineyard — harvesting still hasn't started.
The red-wine grapes are as pretty as I've ever seen them.

26 September 2016

« Un verre » dans les recettes françaises

Often French recipes call for « un verre » of some liquid like water, wine, or oil. A verre is a glass, as in drinking glass. After 40 years of of cooking in France, I've never in my life understood what quantity of  liquid that meant. At one time I convinced myself it meant approximately "one cup" or one standard U.S. cup, which is eight fluid ounces. I now think that was wrong.

I've also seen French recipes that call for, say, « une tasse à thé » of rice or of some liquid. It seems to me that a teacup would more closely approximate the American 8-oz. cup. As CHM wrote in a comment my blog post yesterday, the verre in French recipes is probably based on the size of the little glasses that Dijon mustard is sold in at the supermarket. Everybody in France had a collection of them at home. Some recipes actually call for « un verre à moutarde » of a given liquid.

 Different French verres each holding 150 milliliters — a mystery for the ages

Another theory I've read on French internet forums is that the verre is the size of the little water glasses that used to be on the tables in all the school cafeterias in France. That can be called « un verre de cantine ». Walt and I have a set of those glasses, made by the Duralex company, that we bought when we first got to Saint-Aignan years ago.

So this morning I set out to actually measure such glasses. People on the internet forum at the link above started by saying the verre might be 200 milliliters (ml). That would be very close to the 8 oz. U.S. cup. Then more people responded and a consensus developed around the idea that the volume of liquid represented by « un verre » is probably 125 ml, which is about ½ cup, or 4 fl. oz., in American terms.

 Un verre à moutarde, a handy little measuring cup, and un verre de cantine

Somebody pointed out that that's the size of the standard yogurt container in France, and there are many recipes for cakes made with yogurt that use the yogurt "pot" as the measuring implement — 1 pot of yogurt, 2 pots of sugar, 3 pots of flour, etc. Somebody else pointed out that a bottle of wine contains 750 ml and supposedly you can get 6 verres or servings out of it. Do the math: 750 divided by 6 = 125!

When I measured my mustard glass, however, it came to 150 ml, not 125. So I'm now convinced that « un verre » is 150 ml, which is 5 fluid ounces in American terms. By definition, that's 5/8s of a cup. (By the way, do you know that the British fluid ounce and the American fluid ounce are not identical? In British terms, 150 ml = 5¼ fl. oz. Just to complicate things...) Both my « verres à moutarde » and my « verres de cantine » hold exactly that amount.

Un autre verre à eau, the same measuring glass as above, and a standard verre à vin from a French supermarket

So that's my theory and I'm sticking to it. From now on, when I see the measure « un verre » in a French recipe, I'm going to measure out 150 ml, whether in an American measuring cup that's graduated in millilliters or in a mustard glass or school cafteteria glass. My photos here illustrate this.

25 September 2016

Making a pumpkin cake

Sometimes I do some baking — cakes, cookies, or breads, mostly — but Walt is the expert when it comes to pie doughs and tarts. Anyway, we are trying to use up things we have in the freezer to make room for things we plan to put into the freezer over the next month or two. Pumpkin, for example.

There was a cup of frozen pumpkin pulp in the upstairs freezer that I had my eye on. I thought I'd make a pumpkin cake. Instead of using our standard recipe (which is good) I decided to look for a new one — a batter using yogurt rather than oil or butter — on the internet. I found a good one which is funny because it's a translation of an American recipe. The woman who posted it on her blog translated it but she didn't convert the measures from American to metric. She must have sets of American measuring cups and measuring spoons. Here it is.

Gâteau au yaourt et au potiron

¾ de tasse de sucre brun
2 œufs
1 tasse de purée de potiron
3 c. à soupe d’huile
½ tasse de yaourt nature
1¾ tasses de farine
1 sachet de levure
1 c. à café de cannelle
½ c. à café de muscade moulue
½ c. à café de bicarbonate de soude
½ c. à café de sel

Préchauffer le four à 180°C.

Mélanger les oeufs et le sucre jusqu’à ce que le mélange blanchisse. Ajouter la purée de potiron,
l’huile, et le yaourt. Mélanger. Le mélange doit être homogène.

Dans un autre saladier, mélanger la farine, les épices (cannelle & muscade), le bicarbonate de
soude, et le sel.

Verser les ingrédients secs sur les ingrédients liquides et mélanger doucement jusqu’à ce que le
mélange soit homogène. Ne pas trop mélanger.

Verser dans un moule à gâteau beurré et fariné (si le moule n’est pas en silicone). Enfourner 50
minutes. Vérifier la cuisson à l’aide de la pointe d’un couteau. Si elle est sèche, le gâteau est cuit.
Sinon prolonger la cuisson d’une dizaine de minutes et vérifier à nouveau. Laisser le gâteau
refroidir 15 minutes avant de démouler sur un joli plat.

Some details: a c. à soupe is a tablespoon and a c. à café is a teaspoon — the c. stands for cuillère (spoon). If you're not American, you need to know that a standard U.S. cup is 8 fluid ounces and a U.S. pint is 16 fl. oz. (not 20 as in England.) If you want the recipe in English, let me know in a comment. By the way, I made the cake with farine semi-complète, which is probably the equivalent of 50% all-purpose flour and 50% whole-wheat flour. It occurs to me that it might be the French version of what we call bread flour. The glaze on the cake is cream cheese, confectioner's sugar, and a tablespoon of Triple Sec for flavor.

24 September 2016

Updates, but slowly

I got up at 6 this morning and turned on the computer I use to write this blog. The computer informed me that it had updates to install. An hour and 15 minutes later, it at last finished working on the updates.

I don't know either, says Callie.

Now the our internet connection is running at a snail's pace. Did the slow internet make the Windows updates take forever? Or did the updates cause the internet slowdown? I don't know. I'll try again tomorrow.

23 September 2016

Hier soir

C'était le premier coucher de soleil de l'automne.
Summer ended at about 2:30 yesterday afternoon here in France.

22 September 2016

Tajine d'agneau aux pruneaux et aux pois chiches

This is a recipe I've probably made before, because I like lamb and I like prunes. They go well together, especially with the right spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice coriander seed, fenugreek, cumin, carraway seed, curry, and cayenne pepper. You can make the same kind of dish with chicken.

A mixture of all those spices I listed above is what is called Ras el Hanout in Morocco. The word tajine [tah-ZHEEN] itself is the name of a cooking utensil and also the food that's cooked in it. You don't need the utensil, just a metal pot or a baking dish that's big enough. The tajine is a kind of stew with meat, fruit, vegetables, and spices in it. This is an example. (It would be really good made with lamb shanks.)

Tajine of lamb with prunes and chickpeas

2 lbs. lean lamb stew meat
2 onions
3 garlic cloves
2 Tbsp. Ras el Hanout spice mix
1 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
2 dozen prunes
2 cups white wine
1 cup cooked chickpeas (from a can)
olive oil
salt and pepper
Cut the lamb into cubes (or buy it already cut up). Finely dice the onions and the garlic. Soak the prunes in the white wine to plump them.

Sauté the diced onion and garlic in olive oil. Add the Moroccan spice mixture (make your own using the spices listed above if you can't buy it ready-made) and let it cook for a minute or two.

Put the lamb stew meat into the pan and sauté everything on moderately high heat until the meat starts to brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add a cup or so of water, cover the pan, and let the stew simmer either on top of the stove or in the oven for at least two hours. Keep adding just enough water as needed to prevent it from drying out.

When the meat is fairly tender, add the soaked prunes and the wine they soaked in and cook for another 30 minutes. Then add the chickpeas and let everything come back to temperature before serving the tajine with couscous grain or rice.

21 September 2016

Ratatouille pizza

Toppings: ratatouille and sliced ham...
...with mozzarella, parmesan, and black olives.

20 September 2016

Grapes and grass

Still waiting for the grape harvest, les vendanges, to begin. No sign of any activity at this point.

Walt posted a picture of raisins on the vine a little like this one (below) yesterday, but closer-up. He didn't know I had taken a similar shot.

Below, you can see how dry the grass is around the vineyard. It grew up high in June, when we had a lot of rain, and then it completely dried out as July, August, and the first half of September turned so dry.

The weather is still fairly dry, despite the inch of rain we've had over the past 3 or 4 days. The ground is so parched that it's just soaking up every drop it can get, like a sponge. We have company coming for lunch today, so we're pretty busy. I hope it will be warm enough for us to sit out on the terrace at least for our apéritifs, even if we have to eat indoors.

19 September 2016


This different season we seem to have entered into inspired me to go out and take some black and white photos in the vineyard yesterday morning. At 7:45 a.m. there wasn't really enough light to take pictures without a flash, but I tried it anyway.

The weather is as gray as these images. Callie, however, seems to be happier on our walks than she was when it was so hot a couple of weeks ago. She finds plenty of things to sniff at out there.

The grapes are still hanging around out there. No sign yet of harvesters or tractors or crews of workers. 

I don't think it's supposed to rain much tomorrow and maybe the sun will decide to put in an appearance.

18 September 2016

A slow process

I finished one batch of small tomatoes in the dehydrator a couple of days ago. Three and a half trays of tomatoes gave me just two small jars of dried tomatoes.

When I took the small tomatoes out, I immediately started cutting and trimming another batch of tomatoes — larger ones, this time. I decided to set the temperature in the dehydrator at its highest level — 70ºC, which is about 160ºF.

I was glad the big tomato pieces fit as well as they did. I only put them on three trays, the lowest, the middle one, and the top tray, leaving the other two empty to ensure good air flow.

Dehydrating is a very slow process. You don't really have to watch it, so I guess it doesn't matter too much. But I do wonder how much electricity the machine is using. I've let it run for 30 hours straight, but the tomatoes are still not sufficiently dry. I'm letting it run for a few more hours this morning. We'll see.

17 September 2016


It's actually ratatouille. I've written about the word and the dish before. The word seems to be derived from two terms that merged — ratatiner, which means "to shrivel up, to get wrinkled", and touiller, which means "to stir, to mix". The Grand Robert unabridged French dictionary says that ratatouille, in current, everyday language, means: Plat d'origine niçoise, mélange de courgettes, de tomates, d'aubergines, etc. cuites ensemble à l'huile. It's pronounced [rah-tah-TOO-yuh] with the stress on TOO and a very slight final yuh sound.

Right now, we have the tomatoes, the eggplant (aubergines), the zucchini (courgettes), and the bell peppers (poivrons) — that's for sure. We have onions, garlic, and olive oil, and we have herbs (thyme, oregano, etc.). Walt used all that to make a big batch of ratatouille yesterday, some for eating this weekend and some for storing in the freezer for later.

I remember the first time I ever heard of ratatouille, and tasted it. I was in Marseille. It was the spring of 1970, when I was a 21-year-old student in nearby Aix-en-Provence. I don't know why I went to Marseille, and I think I was by myself — again, I don't know why. Maybe I was meeting somebody who was coming in by train, and then taking the visitor back to Aix. Anyway, I had lunch in a sidewalk café, and feeling adventurous, I ordered ratatouille, which I had never heard of before. It was delicious, and it seemed very exotic compared to the North Carolina cooking I had grown up on.

There are many styles of ratatouille. Some call for cooking the onions, garlic, bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes separately in olive oil and then layering them in a big pot to let them finish getting ratatinés but not doing much touillage (see Julia Child...). Other styles go to the opposite extreme of stirring the vegetables vigorously as they cook down and shrivel up, and then crushing the who mixture with a potato masher to make the ratatouille into a more or less homogeneous mass. Below is a recipe we use (Monique Maine's), for ingredients and proportions as much as method.

Walt took the middle road, doing a good bit of touillage but not cooking the ratatouille so long that all the vegetables started to melt into the cooking liquid. He said he likes to have some chunks of vegetable left when the ratatouille finishes cooking. You can always cook the chunky mixture down to make it smoother and more homogeneous later if you decide you want that, but you can't put the vegetables back together again once they've disintegrated. In fact, some versions of ratatouille are not stirred at all — they are vegetables baked in a dish in the oven.

Did I mention that I've never been able to find mention of ratatouille in the exhaustive Larousse Gastronomique food encyclopedia?  Ratatouille is not your classic Parisian gastronomical delicacy. It's more rustic. It's from Nice, and Nice wasn't even part of France until about 150 years ago. Maybe ratatouille is in some other edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, but I can't find it in the one I have. Mine's in French, not English, and was published in 1967.

16 September 2016

Gratin d'aubergines et de tomates au poulet

Now that the weather has turned autumnal, with high temperatures around 20ºC (high 60s to low 70s), we can again use the oven (and not just the dehydrator) with impunity. Well, in fact, we haven't had enough hot weather to worry about the oven or stove heating up the house, because we keep all the doors and windows open when it's warm or even hot outside.

So I decided to use up some eggplants (a great harvest this year) and tomatoes (ditto) by making an eggplant-chicken parmesan for lunch. The first step was to lay slices of eggplant on baking sheets, brush them with olive oil, and cook them in a hot oven until they started to brown. Then I layered half the cooked eggplant slices in the bottom of an oiled gratin dish.

While the eggplant slices are cooking, cut a couple of chicken breasts into long strips and sauté them in olive oil with herbs including thyme and oregano, and with a little garlic. Dice up a juicy tomato and cook it with the chicken to add some moisture to the mixture.

Put a layer of chicken strips over the eggplant in the bottom of the baking dish and then start laying down tomatoes over all of it.

Cover the tomatoes with slices of mozzarella and some grated parmesan cheese. Then start again laying down layers of cooked eggplant, cooked chicken, and raw tomato slices...

...so that it starts looking like this. Don't forget the salt and pepper — season each layer a little as you go.

Finish with another layer of raw tomato slices and some more mozzarella...

Sprinkling on another good handful of grated parmesan cheese. Drizzle the whole thing with a little more olive oil.

Bake the gratin in a medium-high oven until it starts to brown on top, about 20 minutes. Put a lid on the dish and turn the heat down so that it becomes a kind of confit — for about half an hour at 150ºC / 300ºF.

Let it cool for 15 minutes before you take it to the table and cut into it. Happy eating.

15 September 2016

Le déshydrateur

C'est l'appareil qui fait la déshydratation. I decided it was time to try one, and I found one on Amazon.fr for about 45 euros ($50). I'm not sure how much we will use it, but I'm sure we'll at least use it during tomato season each year. I also have a huge crate of walnuts in the garage that I'll try to crack open and dehydrate this winter.

Loaded up and ready to go

Yesterday I prepared enough tomatoes to fill three dehydrator trays. I used mostly small Juliet tomatoes, which are like mini-Romas. All I had to do was to cut each tomato in half and cut out the core. That took a while, but it's a kind of work I don't mind doing.

I had three full trays and one partial tray of tomatoes like this for our trial run.

I had some room left over inside the machine, so I sliced up a couple of zucchinis and an eggplant, just to see how well they would dehydrate. I turned the dehydrator on at about 11 a.m. and let it run for 10 hours at a temperature of 60ºC / 140ºF.

Here's how the tomatoes looked this morning after 10 hours of drying and 10 hours of resting overnight.

Because it's a new machine and because we want to watch the progress of the vegetables we're drying this first time, I turned the machine off at bedtime and just let it sit there, all loaded up, overnight. This morning, I can see that one tray of tomatoes is much dryer than the other two. The thinner slices of eggplant and zucchini are pretty much ready, but some thicker slices will take more time.

These thin slices of eggplant and zucchini are almost ready to take out and pack for storage.

The book that came with the dehydrator says to remove the vegetables that look sufficiently dried out as you go, leaving the others in the machine for a longer time. You want the vegetables to be completely dried out but not crispy. I haven't yet decided how I'll pack the tomatoes for storage when they're done. The easiest thing to do would be to freeze them, but I might put them up in jars the way I did the oven-dried tomatoes I made a few days ago.

Here's how it looked when I inspected the dehydrator this morning and turned it back on.

The dehydrator itself gets good customer reviews on Amazon.fr. The main criticism is that the plastic trays seem pretty fragile, so you have to handle them carefully. Noted.... The dehydrator can be set to run at different temperatures, from 35º to 70ºC (95º to 160ºF). It doesn't have an on/off timer, but I can use a lamp timer to add that option.

14 September 2016

Sweating it out

The grapes and I are still waiting. On the news I hear that southern England experienced its hottest September day yesterday since 1911. The temperature topped out at 34ºC, which is about 93 or 94 in ºF. At our house near Saint-Aignan, it didn't get quite that hot, but it did hit 90. Humidity was low.

Not all the wine grapes grown around here are destined to become red wine, of course.

The local white wine varietals, mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, but also some Chardonnay, look ripe now too.

Dry leaves and fat grapes out in the Renaudière vineyard

Walt keeps bringing in buckets of ripe tomatoes every morning. I'll be drying more of them today, but not in the oven. I took commenter Tim's advice and bought a dehydrator. It was delivered yesterday, and we'll find out this afternoon and evening how well it works. More about that tomorrow...

13 September 2016

Change of season?

Today may well be the last summer-like day of 2016 here in Saint-Aignan. The temperature is supposed to hit 90ºF, and maybe 95, according to the weather sites we keep track of. Looking at historical averages, we would expect a temperature in the low 70s on this date. We can't complain. We have had a fantastic season, with only a few days that were unbearably hot. Mostly it's been pleasant since mid-June — dry and sunny.

We are expecting rain starting tomorrow and much cooler weather here at La Renaudière, in the vineyards outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. It doesn't show in my photo above, but the grass is parched and brown all around. The grapevines, hedges, and trees stay green because they have deep roots. That's our house, surrounded by tall trees, in the middle of the picture (with a neighbor's to the right) and the river valley as a backdrop.

I'm looking forward to the change in the weather and the advent of a new season. The vegetable garden, except for the kale and the winter squash plants, is winding down now. Walt made six liters of tomato sauce yesterday, and he pulled out the three rows of green bean plants that have been so productive and threw them on the compost pile. I harvested and cooked kale. Signs of change... but still no sign that the grape harvest has begun.

12 September 2016

Something simple

I've been blogging a lot recently about preparing tomatoes for long-term storage, and this morning we have about 6 liters of tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove. But sometimes when nature and hard work give you bumper crops of tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplants, you just want to eat them fresh.

Besides tomato salads and caviar de courgettes (zucchini "caviar" as a dip), what about a kind of salsa fresca as a pasta sauce? Roughy chopped tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant, just barely cooked with onion, herbs, and maybe a splash of white or rosé wine, to have with penne pasta...

This morning my project is to go cut some lacinato kale leaves and get them washed and trimmed for lunch. We'll have the kale blanched and then sautéed with garlic and spices, alongside a helping of pulled pork that I made a week or two ago and put in the freezer. The temperature this afternoon is supposed to approach 90ºF (30+ in ºC).