08 December 2016

The Peugeot passed

We passed the test! It's a big relief, and it means that the 16-year-old Peugeot 206 is good for at least another two years. I took it to the inspection station — le centre de contrôle technique —  yesterday morning and got the good news. Inspection stations in France do only that — they inspect. They don't do repairs. You have to go to a mechanic for those. That means there is no conflict of interest.

When the man who checked the car out was giving me the paperwork, he commented on how low the Peugeot's kilométrage is. The odometer reads about 127,250 kilometers, but that's not the true figure, because the instrument cluster had to be changed out a few years ago. I gave the man the real "mileage" — it's more like 181,300 km, which is about 112,500 miles — and he said even that wasn't much on a car with a good diesel engine like the Peugeot's.

Fact is, we've put only about three thousand miles on the car since its last inspection, two years ago. By the way, more than 8.3 million Peugeot 206 cars have rolled off the assembly lines in France and other countries over the years. No other Peugeot model has ever been produced in such numbers, and more Peugeot 206 cars have been sold than any other French car model in history, surpassing the legendary Renault 4 — I had one of those 30 years ago. However, if you live in the U.S. you might never have heard of the Peugeot 206 or the Renault 4 before, because neither has ever been sold there.

07 December 2016

Oui... mais du Berry

Yes, they looked like clams or some other mollusk, but those were lentils in my photos yesterday. I had bought and was cooking a 500 gram bag of lentilles vertes du Berry. They are produced by the Association Lentilles Vertes du Berry in Saint-Georges-sur-Arnon, just outside the town of Chârost, near Issoudun, in the old Berry province.

Lentils are easy to prepare because you don't need to soak them before cooking them, and they take only 20 to 30 minutes to cook.

I made what is called une brunoise — aromatic vegetables cut into tiny dice — to cook with the beans. It was onions, garlic, and carrots.

I "sweated" the brunoise in a little bit of duck fat before adding the lentils to the pot and tossing them with the fat and vegetables. Then I added water and a little bit of stock.

I also had some meats left from the choucroute garnie that I cooked a few days ago, so I diced those up and put them in the pot with the lentils and vegetables. They included some smoked ham hock, part of a smoked saucisse de Montbéliard, and most of a saucisse de Francfort. In France lentils are often cooked and served with the salt-cured pork called petit salé, but smoked pork is also good with them.

That made a nice lunch, with a green salad and some good bread and wine. I can't remember eating very many lentils in the U.S. Maybe they are more popular here in France. And in India and other parts of Asia, they are made into what is called dal and eaten with flatbreads or rice.

06 December 2016

Close up

Can you tell what these are?

Maybe this slightly longer view will help.

C'est tout pour aujourd'hui.

05 December 2016


The temperature is well above freezing this morning, for the first time in several days. It's at least 10ºF "warmer" than it has been on recent mornings. It's still winter though, according to meteorologists. And it's been very foggy. I went for a drive in the Peugeot yesterday morning, over to Luçay-le-Mâle and Valençay, where visibility was severely limited.

Winter greens

Winter wisteria

Winter vines

So far in late November and now December, we've had quite a bit of frost but no snow. On many mornings, the kale and chard plants out in the garden have drooped drastically, affected by the cold. But they bounce back. I think the wisteria leaves will fall pretty soon. And the grapevines are now bare, with pruning well under way.

04 December 2016

Cherchez l'erreur...

I made a big batch of choucroute garnie a few days ago. I know, it's a lot of meat. We eat it over a period of days, and some of it can go into the freezer when we're tired of eating it. The sauerkraut itself is delicious and très digeste. The only other thing you eat alongside the choucroute garnie is some steamed potatoes.

I've posted about cooking choucroute many times over the past 10 years. Here's a link to some of those posts. The meats here, clockwise from the top, are jarret de porc fumé (smoked ham hock), saucisse de Strasbourg, poitrine de porc fumée (smoked pork belly), saucisson à l'ail (garlic sausage), saucisse de Montbéliard, and saucisse de Francfort.

Yesterday morning I spent some time reading a little book called La Cuisine Alsacienne that I received as a gift a few years ago (thanks, Martine). Now I have a whole list of Alsatian dishes that I want to try my hand at: kougelhopf salé, kougelhopf sucré, tarte flambée, tarte à l'oignon, pommes de terre fumées, coq au riesling, spätzle, galettes aux asperges...

03 December 2016

The tajine of lamb and pumpkin recipe

Tajine of Lamb and Honey-Glazed Pumpkin

1½ lbs. lamb shoulder or leg meat, cut into cubes
1½ lbs. pumpkin, cut into cubes or thick slices
2 or 3 medium onions
1 or 2 cloves garlic
½ cup raisins
3 or 4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. ras el hanout spice mix (or more to taste)
2 or 3 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. honey
1 small can chickpeas
salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley...)

Preheat the oven to 160ºC (325ºF). Cut the lamb into 1-inch cubes. Peel and slice the onions and garlic. Cut the pumpkin into thick slices and peel them. Optionally, cut the slices into 1-in cubes.

Put the lamb cubes into a bowl and season them with the ras el hanout spices and salt. In a frying pan, sauté the lamb cubes in olive oil until they are well browned. Take them out of the pan and set them aside. Sauté the onion, garlic, and raisins in the same pan, adding more olive oil as needed.

Combine the browned lamb cubes and sautéed onion mixture together in an oven-proof dish with a lid. Pour in enough water to barely cover the lamb and onions. Put the dish in the oven, covered, and let it cook for an hour. Add more water as needed during the cooking process.

In a clean frying pan, melt the butter. Brown the pumpkin cubes or slices on medium-high heat, turning them carefully to brown them on all sides, as possible. Spoon the honey over the pumpkin and give it a few minutes on the heat to thicken and caramelize.

Put the glazed pumpkin on top of the lamb mixture in the baking dish and put the cover back on. Add the chickpeas. Let everything cook for another 15 or 20 minutes on low heat.

Serve with chopped fresh herbs and either rice, millet, or couscous grain.

02 December 2016

How to make — and cook with — the tajine spice blend

I found a post on Epicurious this morning that explains how you can make your own version of the North African spice blend called ras el hanout. Here's a link. The ingredients are all standard spices you can find nearly anywhere: cumin, ground ginger, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, ground allspice, and ground cloves. You can customize the list and the blend as you see fit.

For the lamb and pumpkin tajine I made recently, the first step was to "marinate" the chunks of lamb in the spices. (By the way, I noticed a jar of ras el hanout among the spices at our local SuperU store the other day.) Use the spices as a dry rub on the meat before you brown it in olive oil in a hot frying pan or wok.

Then take the meat out of the pan, set it aside, and sauté some sliced onions and garlic in the same pan, along with a handful of raisins, in a little more oil as needed. When the onions have softened, put the meat back into the pan (or transfer everything to a tajine or other oven-proof dish). Add a cup or two of water or broth — just enough to barely cover the meat — and put the dish in a slow oven (160ºC or 325ºF) for an hour.

All that's left to do, after the pumpkin is glazed and the meat is cooked, is to put the pumpkin on top of the meat, put the lid back on, and let it all cook slowly for 15 or 20 more minutes. Stir it only gently so that you don't mush up the pumpkin too much.

This kind of recipe is infinitely adaptable. Use chunks of chicken or turkey or even veal instead of lamb. Soak some prunes or dried apricots in water while the meat is cooking and put them in the tajine in the place of the glazed pumpkin. (Turkey, duck, or veal will work very well with prunes.) Vary the spice blend. Add as much cayenne or other hot pepper as you like. Serve the tajine with couscous grain, rice, or millet.

This was the third in an uninterrupted series on the lamb and pumpkin tajine.

01 December 2016

Potiron caramélisé

The lamb and pumpkin tajine I've been writing about calls for caramelized cubes of pumpkin. In other words, it's a sweet-and-savory dish. The lamb is cooked with Moroccan spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and cayenne pepper, and with onions.

For the caramelized pumpkin (or other winter squash like butternut), you cut the pumpkin in half or quarters, remove the pulp and seeds from the center, and then cut thick slices that you can peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. You can cut the thick slices into cubes, the way I did, or you can caramelize the thick slices themselves, whole.

Melt plenty of butter in a non-stick frying pan. Put the chunks or slices in the pan and let them brown on one side. It takes a few minutes. Then carefully turn all the pieces of pumpkin over, or toss them around in the pan, to try to get them brown on another side. It can be a fairly delicate operation once the pumpkin starts to cook and soften.

When the browning is done, pour a couple of tablespoons of honey into the pan and stir everything around gently. The honey will start to thicken. Put a lid on the pan for a few minutes until the pumpkin pieces are tender. Set them aside until you're ready to combine them with the braised meat you're using — lamb, turkey, or chicken, for example.

Definitely cook the meat with onions and spices. Adding tajine spices to the pan of caramelized pumpkin cubes or slices is optional. Actually, the meat is optional too. The little Tajines (Hachette 2005) cookbook I have includes a recipe for a vegetarian pumpkin tajine cooked with sauteed onions, raisins, spices, butter, and honey. The caramelized pumpkin could also make a good dessert, with pound cake or rice pudding, for example.

30 November 2016

Un tajine : ustensile et plat

I've mentioned that last weekend I made what is called un tajine, using lamb and pumpkin. It occurred to me that you might not know what a tajine is. Here's one. It's pronounced [tah-ZHEEN], with the same -zh- sound as in our words measure, treasure, and pleasure.

The tajine is the name given to both the cooking dish (l'ustensile) and the food (the "dish" or le plat) that's cooked in it. Tajines are a specialty of  northwestern Africa (Morocco and Algeria). It seems they were an important part of the cooking of the original Berber people who inhabited the area before the arrival of the Arabs more than a thousand years ago.

You don't absolutely need a special cooking vessel to make a tajine, which is a highly spiced sauté or stew of meat and vegetables or meat and fruit. Highly spiced doesn't mean the tajine preparation is hot like some Mexican or East Asian dishes can be. The tajine spices include non-fiery cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, fenugrec, curry, caraway, and turmeric, plus a small quantity of hot red pepper like cayenne. The tajine "utensil" is a nice way to serve it, however.

I don't always use the tajine dish when I cook a tajine. I did use it for the lamb and pumpkin tajine the other day, because the recipe I found called for braising the lamb for an hour or more in a slow oven. A few years ago, I bought a tajine and was told that I could cook in it on a burner on top of the stove. I did so, but the pan cracked after after a time or two. As you see, the conical lid has a small vent hole or "chimney" in it so that some steam can escape, though most of it condenses on the sides and drips back down into the base, keeping the meat and vegetables moist. It works great in the oven.

For the lamb with pumpkin, I first browned chunks of lamb and a lot of sliced onions with spices in a metal pan on the stovetop, and then I transferred all that to the tajine, added some liquid, put on the lid, and put the whole thing in the oven at a fairly low temperature. The meat ended up very tender, and it was flavorful with all the spices and onions in the cooking liquid. The pumpkin went in later...

29 November 2016

Cold mornings, short days

Today is a big test for the new greenhouse. The outside temperature is just below freezing. A few minutes ago, I checked the thermometer inside the greenhouse and it read something in the low 30s in ºF — barely above 0ºC. I hope none of the plants we've put in there is too sensitive to the cold.

Yesterday morning it wasn't so cold, but the temperature outside didn't get above about 45ºF (7ºC) during the day. Inside the greenhouse in the afternoon, with the sun shining brightly, it was a pleasant 60ºF (15ºC). It was sunny when I went out to walk with the dog at about 4:45, so I took my camera with me and shot this series of photos pulling away from the house and the lean-to greenhouse.

Earlier, Walt gone and spread out the leaves we raked up a week or more ago and hauled out to the vegetable garden. The layer of leaves will keep weeds and grasses from taking over the garden plot during the winter, and make it easier to till in the spring. I'll till the leaves into the soil at that point. Those are apple trees that still have a few golden leaves on them.

I took the last photo from outside the back fence. The vineyard is right behind me. You can see the three big conifers that stand in our yard. The sun was going down quickly — it rises at about 8:20 a.m. and sets at 5:05 p.m. right now. That makes for short days, but at least the sun will be shining some this week.

28 November 2016

Cockles etc.

The shellfish that I got Saturday morning when I went to the market in Saint-Aignan turned out to be cockles. We've cooked them several times over the past couple of years, and we enjoy them. At 12 euros per kilo, they are much less expensive than clams (praires 24€/kg, palourdes 20€/kg).

I've done posts over the years about making spaghetti or linguine with what is called "white clam sauce" — here, for example. It's called "white" because it's not made with tomato sauce, but with olive oil, white wine, and garlic or onions (or both).

Cockles are reputedly full of sand, so letting them disgorge in salted water for at least an hour, if not two or three, is important, as I described a couple of days ago. You need to put in 35 grams of salt for each liter of water to mimic seawater.

Meanwhile, yesterday for lunch I made a Moroccan tajine of lamb and pumpkin, using the rest of the lamb I roasted for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and about a quarter of an orange pumpkin from our 2016 vegetable garden. It was a success and would be good made with chicken or turkey too. More later...

27 November 2016

Fast and furious in the Peugeot

I went out for a long but fast drive in the old Peugeot yesterday morning. It's time for the car, a 206 which will be 16 years old in December, to be taken in for its biannual contrôle technique, or vehicle inspection test. It now has about 120,000 miles on it, but it has a diesel engine that should last for many more years and kilometers. In December 2012 the car failed the required emissions test, so I had to take it in for a second inspection after pouring an additive to the fuel tank and driving it around hard and fast for a week or so, following my trusted mechanic's advice. On the second try it passed the test.

The view from our kitchen window yesterday morning

Yesterday morning, conditions weren't ideal for a drive in the country, but I felt like I had to go out anyway. The car has a five-speed manual transmission, so driving it hard means running it fast in low gears so that the engine revs at 3,000 to 4,000 RPMs for a while. We normally just tootle around town with the Peugeot these days, and that does cause carbon to build up in the engine, I guess. It needs to be driven like a teenager might drive it — fast and furious.

My 40-mile loop around eastern Touraine

So out I went at about 9:00 a.m. I turned on the fog lights and tried to drive on roads where there wouldn't be many other cars. That took me into central Mareuil, through woods and fields on narrow lanes over to the pretty village of Céré-la-Ronde, and up a wider, hilly road to Montrichard (where I did some shopping). Then I continued on to Pontlevoy, down to Thésée, and finally to the market in Saint-Aignan. That's about 35 miles of zooming and careening. At times, the visibility was severely limited by patches of thick fog. I wanted to take more photos but it was just too foggy.

Arriving at Saint-Aignan on a gray morning, with the château looming

I carefully obeyed the speed limits so that I wouldn't get a ticket. Two years ago in December, the car passed inspection, including the pollution part, with flying colors. I think that was because I put the engine-cleaning additive in the fuel tank and then Walt and I drove it over to Burgundy (Chablis, Noyers, Montbard) for a three-day excursion. That seemed to work. I'm hoping a few more spins around the local countryside will do the trick this year. The inspection is scheduled for December 7, and the contrôle technique is a very rigorous set of tests here in France. The old Peugeot 206 is running great right now, I'm glad to say.

26 November 2016

Palourdes, clams, ou coques

Walt said yesterday that he felt like eating some spaghetti with clam sauce, after two days of meals based on lamb, beans, and potatoes. So I'll be going to the market in Saint-Aignan in a few minutes, while he takes Callie for her morning walk. There's a seafood vendor at the market who comes to town every Saturday from the Marennes-Oléron area on the Atlantic coast, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. It's a four-hour drive.

The last time we had spaghetti with clam sauce, we made it with a kilogram of what were called « palourdes japonaises » that I got from the fish section of our local SuperU grocery store. When I bought them, I wondered to myself if they could possibly be imported. The little net bag they were packaged in was well labeled, however, and set me straight.

It turns out that these Pacific Ocean clams are "farmed" in France, along the country's southwest Atlantic coast. Palourdes are in the same family as the North American clam, but they are smaller. There are native French palourdes, and there are palourdes in all the world's oceans, if I understand correctly. The "Japanese" shellfish turned out to be what are known as Manila clams in the U.S. We used to enjoy eating them in California, where they were often cooked the way mussels are cooked in France — à la marinière, with garlic, white wine, and herbs.

The clams from SuperU were of the species Ruditapes philippinarum. That second term was a good clue that they were the same Manila clams we had on the U.S. west coast. I grew up eating clams, mostly as chowder, on the coast of North Carolina, where we would go clamming on sandbars in the sounds in summertime, using rakes, shovels, or just our hands and feet to dig the clams out of the sand. The French-raised Manila clams are labeled as having been "fished" out of the sand and water the same way — Pêch. à pied, the label says ("fished on foot"), in the Golfe de Gascogne.

I don't know what kind of clams I'll find at the market in Saint-Aignan. They could be palourdes like the Manila clams, which were introduced into French waters in the 1970s, according to the Larousse Gastronomique. Or they could be another variety known simply as « clams » [klahmss], which are the North American ones. Those were introduced into French waters about a century ago. There's another clam-like mollusk called the « praire » (the venus clam) in France. And finally, there are cockles or « coques », which we like a lot, and also a local Atlantic clam that's called the « lavagnon » on the SW French coast.

Whatever the variety, it's a good idea to give clams time to disgorge themselves of sand before you cook and eat them. What you do is make up a batch of cold salt water (unless you can get actual seawater), add in a tablespoon or two of corn meal (polenta) or semolina (cream of wheat), and let the clams soak in the water for a few hours. They will feed on the corn meal and expel any sand that remains in their digestive tract. Then they won't be gritty when you eat them.

25 November 2016

Gigot - flageolets

In France, more often than not, you will be served little pale-green flageolet beans with lamb. I don't know where that tradition came from. A gigot is a leg of lamb, and the Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia says: Le gigot rôti, piqué d'ail et accompagné de flageolets, est le plat traditionnel des fêtes familiales et des repas fins. The Grand Robert dictionary says that the flageolet bean is « très estimé » — "highly prized."

What are flageolet beans anyway? The LG says they are small, green or white beans that are grown in Brittany and in the north of France. They are harvested slightly immature, in August and September, and you can find them dried, canned, or frozen in the supermarkets. I remember reading somewhere that flageolets, also called chevriers, are closely related to the French haricot vert green bean, or maybe even the same plant.

The LG also says that in the Touraine region, where we live, dishes prepared « à la tourangelle » are large cuts of mutton or lamb that are roasted, served with their natural juices, and accompanied by « une garniture de haricots verts et de flageolets liés à la béchamel claire ou au velouté. » You often see flageolet beans and green beans cooked and served together.

By the way, a flageolet is also a little flute. I think the name for the beans is an allusion to the fact that they make you toot after you eat them. We had our flageolets and some Tuscan kale as the garniture (vegetables) that we ate alongside our rolled-and-tied, boneless leg of lamb yesterday.

24 November 2016

Giving thanks

That sounds very religious and solemn, but for me what it means is more like "thank my lucky stars!" I am so thankful that I've been able to live this life in France for the past 13 years. I'm grateful for the good food, for the productive garden, and for the home improvements that we have been able to organize and complete since we came to live here — this year, the greenhouse and the new shower.

Meanwhile, we'll have our own special Thanksgiving today. I got a beautiful lamb roast from the butcher counter at SuperU for our dinner. It's a gigot d'agneau désossé, roulé, et ficelé — a de-boned leg of lamb rolled and tied to make a roast for the oven. Walt and I started eating lamb on Thanksgiving 20 or more years ago, because it made sense compared to having roast turkey in both November and December.
So it's our French version of a Thanksgiving meal, because roast leg of lamb with the little green beans called flageolets verts is the classic French Sunday or holiday dinner.
And then something from the garden: Tuscan (dinosaur) kale. Greens (braised in white wine with duck fat), beans (with duck fat and garlic), and a lamb roast for Thanksgiving in the Loire Valley.
And something else from the garden: a pumpkin to be made into pumpkin pie by the pastry-chef-in-residence.
To start the meal, something sort of exotic which is a French specialty and a holiday treat: foie gras de canard. It's the liver of a fattened duck, cooked in duck fat, and eaten with toasted French bread delivered by our porteuse de pain, to whom we say Merci !
And with candied figs, cooked with port wine, sugar, and star anise. The figs were a gift from friends, to whom we again say thanks.

It's always a strange feeling to celebrate a holiday that the culture you live in doesn't know much about, much less observe. You get it in your head that everybody has the day off, a lot of business are closed, people are celebrating at home. And then you realize it's just a normal weekday for everybody but you.

23 November 2016

Verre dépoli

Glass that is frosted is said to be "depolished" in French. The smooth surface of the glass has been "roughed up" so that the glass is no longer clear. The Robert dictionary gives this meaning of the espression « verre dépoli » — « verre qui laisse passer la lumière, mais non les images. Le verre dépoli peut encore être qualifié de " translucide " mais plus de " transparent ". »

For our new shower, we decided to have the glass shower enclosure panel that faces the door into the room made of verre dépoli. That way, the shower is less "in your face" when you look into the bathroom through the doorway. One reason for that is that we don't generally keep any interior doors closed in our house.

Here's what the shower looks like from inside the bathroom. As far as the color of the tile goes, well... it changes all the time. It's a little like my Citroën C4 automobile, if you remember my photos of that. I bought it nearly two years ago, and we had a discussion on the blog about what color it really was. Mauve? Taupe? Gray? It's all of those.

Sorry if the photos here are blurry. It's probably not too smart to be trying to take photos before dawn and without using a flash, for fear of getting blinding reflections in the tile and glass.

22 November 2016

Three weeks and counting

It's now been more than three weeks since we started our bathroom remodeling project. It's not a complete makeover, but we are getting a new radiator and a new tiled shower stall. For three weeks, our guest bedroom has looked like this — full of bathroom stuff. We are eager to get it cleaned up again.

The project has been plagued by a series of surprises and errors. First we ended up ordering the wrong color tile because of a typo in an e-mail. We re-ordered and suffered a delay. Then we found out that the tile we originally wanted was not really the color we had in mind. Meanwhile the new towel-drier radiator doesn't seem to working right and may have to be replaced.

Yesterday, the glass shower enclosure panels arrived, and we discovered they weren't the ones we had ordered. The supplier said if we wanted to send them back and re-order, we'd have to wait until the end of January to get the other ones. No way. But it's okay, don't you think? Above is just a preliminary photo. The bathroom clean-up work will begin in a couple of hours, and we'll be able to move things back in.