30 November 2010

Un froid de canard

That's what they say in French: "duck cold" (maybe that should be "ducking cold"). According to the dictionary, the underlying meaning has to do with ducks flying south when the weather turns frigid. The temperature this morning is –5ºC. That's the lowest yet, and is the equivalent of about +23ºF. This is officially a "hard freeze" — one in which plants suffer damage. Mine have all been brought in.

A homeless man was found frozen to death at the door of a shopping center in the Paris suburbs. A woman was found dead in Marseille yesterday morning in similar circumstances. There are associations that organize night-time patrols to locate homeless people who are sleeping outside and in danger of dying from exposure.

Our back yard: un froid de canard

In the house the temperature was 12ºC, or 54ºF, when I got up at about 6:45. That's chilly. We don't keep the heat on overnight. I went down and turned it on and now the place is warming up. Yesterday afternoon and evening, we had a hot fire in the wood-burner, and that's enough to maintain a comfortable temperature through the whole house.

Looking out over the vineyard yesterday morning

I wonder if the bread-delivery lady will try to make it up the hill this morning. Sometimes in winter, when the roads might be icy, her husband makes the rounds with her, at the wheel of the little white bakery van. We do need bread but I could always make some if she doesn't show up. Our hill is steep and the roadway might be slick.

No matter the cold, I have to walk Callie this morning. I just have to be careful on the dirt road, with its ruts and puddles. They will all be frozen solid, of course, and I don't want to slip and fall down, or hurt my ankle again. Callie enjoys running and playing in the snow. I don't know how her little feet can stand the cold.

Yesterday afternoon the sun came out for a while,
but the temperature started dropping.

As for me, I have a wool cap, thick gloves, a fleece jacket, over that a flannel-lined windbreaker with a hood, long underwear, and waterproof hiking boots with heavy, ridged soles. Bundled up in all that, I probably won't get hurt even if I do fall down. I'll just bounce off the rock-hard ground.

It's useless taking my camera out with me because I can't operate it with gloves on.

Predictions are for continued cold and more snow. A front is moving up from Spain, over the Pyrenees, and will bring a snowstorm to areas south of us today — especially the Auvergne region, which is mountainous. By tomorrow, the snow is supposed to arrive at our doorstep. The question is whether it will stay east of Saint-Aignan. It's kind of moving that way. We'll be right on the edge, as we often are.

This picture from 29 November 2007 shows what we
had come to consider "normal" weather for this time of year.

We haven't had any more power cuts, so the central heat and water heater are working just fine (je touche du bois). The house gets chilly, but that's our doing. The roof is covered with snow again, and with the current cold snap it's likely to stay that way for a while.

The first light of dawn is appearing in the sky at 7:45 and it's nearly time for me to venture out. It'll take me a few minutes to get dressed.

* * *

I'm back. I don't know why the cold has settled so specifically on the Orléans region, just north of us, but according to MétéoFrance it has. The low in Orléans and Chartres this morning was –13ºC (+9ºF), which is a lot colder than in Tours and here in Saint-Aignan.

The view out a skylight window yesterday
after the sun had melted much of the snow
that was covering it.

Of course depending on where you live in the U.S. (or elsewhere), 23ºF might not seem very cold. Walt grew up in Albany, New York, where it gets much colder than that in wintertime, and I lived for several years in central Illinois in the Midwest, where it's not only a lot colder than it ever is in Saint-Aignan, and windy too.

I had only one close call while out walking. I stepped on an icy patch on the road and my feet went sliding forward while my head and torso stayed behind. I caught myself and found a steady footing before I actually fell though. Then I headed home. Enough is enough.

29 November 2010

The 4th day: a Sunday surprise

At 10 a.m. yesterday, I decided to go to the supermarket to get a few things. I was making a blanquette de dinde, and I wanted some fresh mushrooms. I also needed white wine, since most of what I had left downstairs needed to go into the blanquette sauce.

I'm glad I went when I did. It wasn't snowing, even though we had seen a flurry or two by then. According to MétéoFrance's forecast the day before, we were well outside the snow area, which was south of us (Dordogne, Limousin, Auvergne). Our day was supposed to be gray and cold, but dry.

Blanquette de dinde
turkey in a cream sauce with mushrooms, onions, and carrots

SuperU was no more of a zoo than usual. People were gathered in groups, socializing and blocking the aisles. Carts were left everywhere, in the most inconvenient places. I found everything on my list (and more), including garlic, clémentine oranges, and some lardons de volaille — a new product for me. Plus a nice hunk of Gruyère cheese for a good price — I almost never buy Gruyère (from Switzerland) because the similar Comté cheese from France is so good and usually less expensive.

Anyway, back to the story. When I got home at 11:00 and started working on the blanquette again — the turkey was simmering on the stove in white wine with leek tops, carrots, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and allspice berries — Walt came into the kitchen and said: "You got back just in time. We're having a snowstorm." I looked out the window and saw big fluffy flakes falling. Heavily. But it wasn't yet sticking, and it looked like the kind of snow that wouldn't fall for long.

Looking out the kitchen window
at about 11:30 in the morning

...and a couple of hours later28 November 2010

By 2:00, though, it was clear we were having a significant snow event. The white stuff was piling up on the ground, the tops of hedges, tree limbs all around, and even the road. At about 3:30, a snow plow came and cleared the road, but that didn't last long. After a few minutes, it was completely covered over again.

Looking out the north window in the afternoon

Walt took Callie out for a walk at about 4:30. When he came back, he said it looked to him like we had about 6" (that's 15 cm) of snow on the ground. Callie loved it. He said he threw snowballs for her to catch, and when she failed to catch one she would look all around for it. It wasn't to be found, of course. When he got home, Walt said it was still snowing pretty hard.

Another view out the north window

About 5:30 I looked at my blog and left a comment on the day's post. I finished what I was doing at about a quarter to six, and that's when the power went out. It was predictable, I guess, because it had flickered off and back on four or five times over the previous couple of hours. Still, it was nightfall, and it was awfully dark without the lights.

The boiler that heats our steam radiators requires electricity to run. Luckily, Walt had a good fire going in the wood-burning stove. I carefully made my way downstairs from the loft space. Walt was already lighting candles. I had a pot of turkey broth boiling on the stove in the kitchen, just reducing. There was some cooked rice left over from lunch. I put the rice in the broth and we had a bowl of soup to fortify ourselves.

Walt and Callie coming back from their morning walk 
29 November 2010

Of course our thoughts were going back to last March 1 — whenever the electricity flickers off, they do. Back then, after a powerful windstorm, we were without electricity — no lights, computers, TVs, central heat, or hot water — for 4½ days. The freezers were closed tight but slowly thawing out. Don't let that happen again, I kept thinking yesterday.

By 7:30 I decided there was nothing else to do but get in bed and pull the covers up to my ears. That's what I did. But first I went around and tried to remember what lights might have been on when the power failed so that I could attempt to switch them off. We unplugged the DSL modem, the refrigerator, and the freezer so that they wouldn't be damaged if there was a power surge when the current did come back.

Views of the back yard
28 November 2010

It was 9:40 p.m. when I was awakened by the sound of the cordless phone base chirping. My clock radio display was flashing. I got up and turned off all the lights that were still on despite my best attempt to turn everything off. I plugged in the freezer and the fridge, and then I went back to bed. I heard the phone chirp three or four more times before 10 o'clock, which meant the power was still flickering on and off. I crossed my fingers about the fate of the fridge and freezer compressors and succeeded in going back to sleep.

I got up at 4:30 this morning. All is normal. The radiators are warm. So am I. Now, at 6:30, I'm waiting for daylight to see how pretty it will be outside. I hope we see the sun this morning.

The morning news says that the area around Orléans — 100 km or 60 miles north of Saint-Aignan — got about a foot of snow (30 cm). And that this is the earliest significant snowfall in this part of France in about 30 years. It's supposed to get colder and colder every day this week — and with more « épisodes neigeux » — snow events — as the week wears on.

28 November 2010

Our 3rd cold day, and a Gratin de macaronis

It was cold again yesterday, and we had snow flurries all day, on and off, but with no accumulation. Today it's not quite so cold but there is a thick layer of cloud hanging low in the sky and, just for good measure, ground fog. Gloomy is the only word for it.

On such a cold day as yesterday, my thoughts turned to food, of course. And after two days of lamb for lunch, I wanted something different. And comforting.

I found a French recipe for Gratin de macaronis. That's called Macaroni and Cheese in America, but this one is a little different. It has lardons (ham or bacon cubes), eggs, and cream in it, in addition to, well, macaroni and cheese. It's also seasoned with nutmeg as well as with salt and pepper.

The ingredients for French-style macaroni and cheese

Here's the recipe. Use more or less cream and cheese according to how rich you want the gratin to be and how much macaroni you are cooking. Use whatever cheese you like: Swiss, cheddar, parmesan, etc. I also stirred in some fresh chopped parsley, because I had some from the garden.

Gratin de macaronis

¼ lb. bacon or ham, cooked and crumbled or diced
1 Tbsp. butter
1 lb. macaroni, cooked
1¼ cups cream or half and half
2 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
a grate or pinch of nutmeg
½ lb. cheese (or more), grated

Preheat the oven to 375º.

Cook the bacon or ham in a skillet and set aside.

Cook the macaroni in boiling water until it's just done, but not overcooked, and drain it. Put the butter in a big bowl and add the hot macaroni, stirring it around so that butter melts and coats the noodles. Let it cool slightly.

In another bowl, mix together the cream and eggs. Add salt and pepper to taste and just a little bit of nutmeg (a hint of nutmeg flavor is always good with melted cheese).

Dice or crumble the cooked ham or bacon and stir it into the warm macaroni. Pour in the egg and cream mixture and add the grated cheese, saving some cheese to spread on the top if you want. Stir it all together well.

Pour all into a baking dish. Add grated cheese over the top or not. Cook it in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes
or until golden brown.

Macaronis au gratin

This macaroni and cheese casserole really is a full meal, with a green salad on the side. It contains eggs, cheese, meat, and macaroni. That's pretty rich and still balanced. As you can see from the photos, I spread buttered bread crumbs over ours because we always have a lot of bread crumbs in the freezer, and I like the crunch.

P.S. I just looked out the window (10 a.m.) and it is snowing again.

P.P.S. At 12:30 p.m. we have about two inches of snow and it's still falling heavily.

27 November 2010

The cold snap, day 2

Yesterday was a stay-in-the-house day. I walked the dog in the morning. Oh, and we went to the vet's office with Bertie. Then Walt walked Callie in the afternoon. Otherwise, we just stayed in and tried to stay warm. No gardening work got done.

Sun on the curtains in the living room yesterday morning

One side benefit of the cold weather that roared in on Thursday was morning sunshine on Friday. I don't know how long it had been since sun streamed in through the big French doors in our living/dining room. It was almost exhilarating. It certainly lifted my spirits.

At 11:00 we had an appointment at the vet's with Bertie the Black Cat. Walt put a leash on him, just to be safe, and we put him in the car. He didn't seem to mind riding in the car — he's better at it than Callie the Collie is. She hates the car and lies flat on the back seat, trembling, whenever we take her anywhere. Bertie jumped up on the platform behind the back seat and enjoyed the view. He looked out the side windows and meowed excitedly.

The sun shining into the little seating area in our living room

When we got to the vet's, there were no customers or animals in the waiting area. That was nice. We were nervous about how Bertie would behave, and we don't have a carrier for him. After a few minutes, people came in with two big dogs. Bertie stayed in Walt's lap and didn't freak out. Then the vet, a young man who lives just a mile or two down the road from us, called us in.

Here's what the Velux windows upstairs
looked like yesterday morning.

I told him some of the things that have happened since Bertie moved into our neighborhood. All normal, the vet said — cats have to work out their territorial claims, and things will finally settle down. I told him that one neighbor had been upset about having another cat in the neighborhood. Tant pis, he said. We live in a rural area. Bertie is neutered and vaccinated. The neighbors will just have to get used to it!

When I mentioned that Bertie had been accused of scratching another of our neighbors — a woman the vet knows, of course, since this is a small town — his reaction was, basically: that will teach her to mess with a cat that she doesn't know very well. She probably won't try to pet Bertie again. He said he'd talk to her about the incident when he sees her again.

Icy view out an upstairs window

It was all very positive for us. Bertie needs de-worming, and we now have the medicine for that. Callie will get de-wormed this week too. Bertie's shots are up to date now. The vet's conclusion about Bertie: Il est cool. That means "cool, calm, and collected." Bertie was well behaved in the office, even when he got his shot. He interacted with the vet the way he interacts with us: nicely.

The ride home was not quite as uneventful as the ride over to the vet's office (about 3 miles from the house). Bertie, who hadn't been able to go out all morning because we were afraid he might not come home in time for the appointment, dropped a big present for us on the back seat of the car. Yuck. We should have foreseen that, but hadn't. There was no real damage done.

26 November 2010

Suddenly it's winter

It snowed yesterday in Saint-Aignan, as weather forecasters had predicted. We skeptics didn't believe them. And the snow even stuck to the ground, or at least the grass and hedges and trees. The ground itself is still too warm from all the mild weather we've been having. This was a very early snowfall for the region.

Our hamlet after the season's first light snow

It was amazing to see the sun this morning. Shining in the living room windows, it illuminated the walls and furniture in ways we hadn't seen in what feels like months. It's cold outside — below freezing. But if the sun stays out, all the snow will be gone by this afternoon, I bet.

Sunrise near Saint-Aignan, 26 November 2010

Our Thanksgiving dinner was a success but we don't have any photos to show. I've said it before: when you are hosting a group of people for a big meal, there just isn't time to take photos as well. The steamed lamb I made was good — everybody seemed to enjoy it. It cooked for at least three hours, and then stayed warm over very low heat in the steamer pot for another two or three hours.

View of the vineyard in snow from our back gate

Sorry I don't have pictures. I'm glad, however, that we do have leftovers for today's lunch. Here's a link to a recipe — Paula Wolfert's.

25 November 2010

Giving thanks for — and with — lamb

Moroccan-style steamed lamb. Steamed? Sounds odd, doesn't it? But evidently it's a good way to cook lamb that doesn't require an oven or a wood fire. I've only ever eaten it once before, and it was delicous — succulent, falling off the bone, juicy, and tender.

Steamed lamb is what we're having for our Thanksgiving dinner. Since Thanksgiving is not a holiday in France, there's no tradition of roasting a big turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. In fact, turkeys are hard to find until we get much closer to Christmas. You'd have to special-order one to get one for today.

A couscoussier would be the perfect pot
for cooking this steamed lamb dish.

Here's how I'm doing the lamb. I'll have to let you know later if it comes out as good as I hope.

Buy a 2.5 kg (5- to 6-lb.) leg of lamb. Trim off all the exterior fat and any chunks of fat you find between layers of lamb muscle. Trim off the silver skin too, if you have the patience and a sharp-enough knife. Then take a hacksaw and cut the lamb leg into two pieces, near the knee. It probably won't fit whole into your steamer, so you have to cut it. You could butterfly it if you wanted to.

Un beurre composé : saffran, sel, poivre noir, et cumin

Make a compound butter of black pepper, salt, cumin, and saffron. In other words, take softened butter and mash it with those spices until you have a good paste. Cut big slits in the lamb meat and press the flavored butter into them.

The larger piece of lamb, ready to go into the steamer

Make a bed of parsley, stems and all, in the bottom of your steamer basket. Put in three or four unpeeled garlic cloves. Put water in the bottom of the pot, of course, and then set the lamb pieces on the bed of parsley in the basket. Put a few more unpeeled cloves of garlic on top of each piece and put the steamer pot on high heat until it starts to boil.

If you don't have a couscoussier, you have to make do.

Make sure the lid of the steamer fits really tightly. Weigh it down if you need to. When it boils, turn the heat down to medium low and wait for a few hours. Make sure it doesn't go dry. I'll let you know how many hours it takes to cook when I post again.

* * *

By the way, it's snowing. Here's a picture I took 5 minutes ago.

Thanksgiving Day 2010 at La Renaudière

It's obviously not sticking. Not yet, anyway.

24 November 2010

The garden this time

The weather refuses to improve. Now it's turned cold. Yesterday was a little brighter than the preceding days and weeks, but that's because a mass of cold drier air moved in from the north. Tomorrow's forecast: a mixture of rain and snow in the afternoon — with significant amounts of precipitation. And then it's supposed to turn even colder.

Between the wet weather and my sprained ankle, I've been able to do very little to get the vegetable garden prepared for the winter and the next planting season. Weeds are taking over the garden plots, because we haven't been able to cover them with autumn leaves this month.

In 2010, it definitely looks wintry out there.

A couple of years ago, it looked like spring in late November.

Look at the two pictures above, one from yesterday afternoon and the other from the same date in another recent November. You'll see the difference. Right now the garden looks pitiful. In other years, I've been able to run the tiller through the plots and get them stirred up and de-weeded, ready to cover for the winter season.

Next spring I'll have to start over again, almost from scratch (an apt term for what will have to be done). The heavy clay soil we have up here on the heights above the Cher River Valley is impossible to work with when it's wet. Let's hope for some dry weather in March.

Working in the soil is worth it, though, when you consider the fresh produce we get from the vegetable garden. Look at these pictures of a pasta sauce we made a few days ago, with bell peppers, pattypan squash, tomatoes, and bay leaves from the garden, plus some carrots and onions.

Produce from the 2010 garden in a vegetable pasta sauce

We are having friends over tomorrow for a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner— if they can get here through the sleet, rain, and snow. We're planning to cook a Moroccan-themed meal around a nice leg of lamb. Thanksgiving is not a holiday in France, of course.

23 November 2010

Poaching pods and a frisée salad

Generous friends are one of the pleasures of life. We have many, I think. This week, two friends brought us a beautiful salade frisée that they grew in their garden near Saint-Aignan. Organic of course, and perfectly fresh. The classic French salad called frisée aux lardons or salade lyonnaise is made with frisée greens.

What is salade frisée? It's a variety of chicory, and I remember buying it in supermarkets in the U.S. by that name years ago. It might also be called curly endive — as in Belgian endive, which is another variety of chicory. Both chicorée frisée and endives are slightly bitter greens and need to be dressed the right way to be really good.

Salade frisée tossed in garlic vinaigrette,
with goose-skin cracklings

The right way to dress them is with a good vinaigrette. That's a teaspoon each of Dijon mustard and wine vinegar, ample salt and pepper, and about three tablespoons of good oil, olive or otherwise. Because frisée is not a shrinking violet, another ingredient that goes well with it, in the vinaigrette, is garlic, whether pressed or finely chopped.

And because chicorée frisée can also be a fairly tough salad green, it benefits from being dressed ahead of time, 10 to 20 minutes before you serve it. The vinegar and salt in the dressing "cook" the salad greens and tenderize them. Make the vinaigrette in the bottom of the salad bowl, toss in the washed greens, and toss them well. Frisée, escarole, and dandelion greens like to be treated this way.

This is called a salade lyonnaise because its often served in
the bistrots of France's gastronomical capital city, Lyon.

Some French people use the verb fatiguer to mean "toss" when it comes to salad. On fatigue la salade — that's the same idea as "cooking" it in vinegar. The greens wilt slightly and are better to eat. Anyway, toss the salad and let it sit for a few minutes before adding other ingredients.

The other ingredients in a salade lyonnaise are smoked-pork lardons (cooked bacon or ham will work fine) and a poached egg. There are as many optional ingredients as there are cooks. Many will say that toasted croutons are essential. Some add toasted walnuts, spring onions, or sun-dried tomatoes. Instead of bacon or lardons, you can make the salad with cracklings made from sauteed pork rind or, better, duck or goose skin.

To go with our salade frisée, I remembered that I had some pieces of goose skin in the freezer. I kept them the last time we roasted a goose, with the intention of making cracklings out of them one day. That day came yesterday. Just cut the skin into strips and sautee them in duck or goose fat until they're crispy.

When you break the yolk of the poached egg,
it blends with the garlicky salad dressing.

As I said, toss the greens in the dressing and let them "cook" for a few minutes. Just before you plan to serve the salad, add in the lardons, bacon, or cracklings — and the croutons if you want them — and toss the salad again. You especially don't want the dressing to be all soaked up by the bread. I won't be if you toss the greens first. Or if you just have bread alongside rather than in the salad.

And that poached egg? Well, other friends (S & S of Days on the Claise) came back from a trip to Australia last year bearing gifts. They brought us four egg-poaching "pods" (PoachPods is the brand name). We've used them a time or two, but not often enough. Yesterday was a new occasion to test them out.

When you read about poaching pods, which are little silicone cups that will float on simmering water, the instructions say to oil the pod, put in a raw egg, and cover the pot so that the egg is cooked, basically, by steam. Water never touches the egg. Sometimes, however, it's not easy to get the cooked egg out of the pod, even if you've oiled it well.

Poaching eggs in submerged pods

We decided to try a different method. We submerged the pods in simmering water and then dropped the eggs into the water they contained. Break the eggs into a cup or glass first so that it's easier to pour them into the liquid without breaking the yolk. You can add a tablespoonful of vinegar to the poaching liquid to make the egg white hold together better. The pod also serves the purpose of keeping the whites together in the hot water.

In our experiment, once the eggs looked cooked, we lifted the pods out with a slotted spoon and set them in a colander. When we turned them over, the water drained off and the egg fell right out of the pod, with no broken yolks. Some white did stick to the pods, but it was easy to scoop out with a spoon. No need to throw it away.

Set the poached egg on top of a portion of the tossed lyonnaise salad on each plate. When you cut into the egg, the liquid yolk runs down and blends with the garlicky vinaigrette dressing. It's good. Bacon and eggs in a salad. You could do the same thing with soft-boiled eggs if you don't want to do the poaching part.

22 November 2010

Saint-Aignan daily photo

It's a cold gloomy day. But not in this picture, which I took exactly a week ago. (Click to enlarge it.)

A November afternoon

As Walt mentioned in his Newsiness feature, Bertie was really sick all day yesterday. I'm trying not to think the worst. Today he's better. He ate his breakfast, and then we let him out. I hope he's safe out there.

21 November 2010

Bringing things in

When we lived in San Francisco, we never had to worry much about bringing plants indoors in the wintertime. There, the temperature never, or nearly never, went down to freezing, and even light frost was almost unheard of. This will be our 8th winter in Saint-Aignan, and I'm still getting used to the difference.

Here in Saint-Aignan, we don't have many hard freezes, but it really depends on the year. Rosemary and thyme do fine outdoors all winter. Cabbages survive the winter months in people's gardens. The lawn stays green, as does the hedge. In fact, this November has been mild so far, but pretty wet. This morning, for example, the temperature is in the high 40s F (9ºC) and it's drizzling.

But you never know. One year back in the 1980s, we're told, the big bay laurel hedge around our property froze all the way to the ground. The dead branches had to be cut off. Then the hedge slowly grew back from the roots, which had survived. It took years. I would hate to see that happen again.

Our big planter boxes of geraniums were outdoors until a couple of days ago. Last week we moved them under the roof of the balcony, out of the rain, to let them dry out some. That way, they're not so heavy. And then we moved them to our little glassed-in porch downstairs. We had the sliding glass doors installed across the front porch 5 or 6 years ago. Before that, it was completely open to the cold air.

Now we have a good place to keep potted plants that we set out in spring and bring back inside in autumn. Jade, kalenchoe, other succulents, geraniums, and so on all overwinter behind glass doors, where the temperature never falls much below 5ºC, or 40ºF.

When the plants come in, you really feel like you are pulling the covers up around your ears for the winter. The hours of daylight diminish daily, and it will be that way for another month now. I really hope the geraniums will continue to flower on the front porch. Those red blossoms are a reminder of brighter seasons.

20 November 2010

P.S. re: quenelles

The next time I make quenelles, I think I'll make half a recipe. That is, cut the panade recipe in half and cut the amount of turkey or chicken in half. Halve all the ingredients (see yesterday's post.) My recipe ended up making at least three dozen (maybe more) dumplings, and that's too much unless you are feeding a big crowd.

Cooking zucchini with onions and
turkey quenelles for a gratin

Yesterday I poached some more quenelles and served them au gratin — with melted cheese — on a bed of grated zucchini/courgettes and sliced onion, which were cooked in a frying pan on top of the stove before being put in the gratin dish. I also put in about half a cup of cream with the vegetables.

The quenelles on a bed of creamy zucchini

Then you can place the dumplings on top and sprinkle on some grated cheddar or Swiss cheese. Put the dish in a hot oven and let cook until the cream is bubbling and the cheese is melted and golden brown. Delicious.

Sprinkle grated cheese over the top and brown it in the oven.

Cutting the ingredients in half also means everthing will fit in the bowl of a normal food processor, so there'd be no need to use a Kitchenaid stand mixer. Everything would be easier, especially if you start with ground meat you've bought at the supermarket.

19 November 2010

The dumplings called quenelles

The quenelles we made yesterday were excellent. Quenelles [kuh-NEHL] are flour or potato dumplings made with a dough containing meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, or cheese. They are a quintessentially French concoction, and that's why I had put them on my list of out-of-the-ordinary things I wanted to make in the kitchen (along with Pommes dauphine, Alouettes sans-tête, and Tourte lorraine). As I've said, it's important to have wintertime projects and activities that you enjoy.

The last time (could it have been the only time?) I ever ate quenelles was at a restaurant in Paris in 2008. I blogged about that meal. What I had was one large quenelle (link to picture) made with the flesh of a river fish called a brochet — pike — in a sauce béchamel and gratinée au four. The quenelles I made yesterday were smaller and made with turkey. Preparing them was a long process — a weekend project, maybe, unless you are retired like me — but the result was not disappointing. They were delicious — delicate and light. Here's how you do it.

Une panade — flour, water, butter, and salt

To make quenelles, first you make a panade. That's what the Larousse Gastronomique says to do. Julia Child and other recipe writers say to make a pâte à choux — a batch of cream puff dough, a.k.a. choux pastry. That's the same thing plus eggs. In other words, the panade has no eggs in it. It's water, butter, salt, and flour. Nothing more.

The word panade [pah-NAHD] might make you think of pain — not English "pain" but "bread" in French — so you might think it would be made with breadcrumbs. The Larousse specifies flour in one recipe, however, and breadcrumbs or mashed potatoes in two others. The Robert dictionary thinks a panade is something entirely different: a bread soup. It gets confusing.

Quenelles just starting to poach in turkey broth

The panade will be the base for the quenelles — dumplings poached in water or broth. The other ingredient is some finely ground poultry, veal, fish, or vegetables. Cheese quenelles would be good — maybe with goat cheese. The dictionary says the word quenelle comes from an Alsatian word, Knödel, meaning "a lump of dough." You can see the word "noodle" in there.

The American Heritage dictionary says the origin of the English word "dumpling" is unknown. The root word "dump" in there doesn't do much for the dumpling's culinary reputation, I think. So let's call these quenelles, not dumplings. They are a little bit like Italian gnocchi, but with meat or fish in the mixture.

Here's how you make a panade using flour, which is probably the easiest recipe — no need for breadcrumbs or cooked potatoes. Get these ingredients together:
300 ml of water (1¼ U.S. cups, or 10 fl. oz)
50 g of butter (half a stick, or 4 Tbsp.)
150 g of flour (1 U.S. cup, or 8 fl. oz.)
1 tsp. salt
Put the water in a saucepan to boil. Drop in the butter. When the butter is melted and the water is boiling, dump in the flour and salt. Stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon over low heat until you have a neat lump of pastry that pulls away from the sides of the saucepan. It takes only about 5 minutes to make. What takes longer is waiting for the panade to cool down. Put it in the refrigerator for at least two hours, or overnight.

Make a purée of raw ground turkey or chicken, with
eggs and butter, in the food processor.

If you are in the U.S., you can probably buy ground turkey or chicken at the supermarket. We can't, here in Saint-Aignan, so we buy meat and grind it ourselves. In this case, I bought what they call blanquette de dinde. That's turkey wings — only the first joint, the meatiest one. It's white meat. You could use chicken or turkey breast, bien sûr.

Because I buy turkey wings, first I have to de-bone them, of course. That's not so much trouble, really, using a very sharp knife, and for the difference in price it's worth my trouble. You cut the meat off the bones and then cut away the skin and any tendons and as much other connective tissue as you can. All the trimmings, including the bones, go into the stock pot to make the poaching liquid. You need a little more than a pound of boneless turkey meat — let's say about 1¼ lbs.

The quenelle dough is a purée of turkey,
eggs, butter,
panade, and cream.

Run the turkey meat through a meat grinder using the finest blade. Run it through twice. Then put the ground turkey in the food processor with about a half a stick of slightly softened butter and four eggs. You might be able to skip the meat grinder step and just grind up chunks of meat in the food processor — give it a try. Let the food processor run until the mixture is very smooth.

Here's a recap of the quenelle ingredients:
550 g of turkey or chicken white meat, pureed
4 eggs
50 g of butter
500 g of panade (recipe above)
2 or 3 Tbsp. of heavy cream (crème fraîche)
salt, pepper, nutmeg, and herbs
The ground meat will end up pureed after it turns in the food processor for three or four minutes. The old-fashioned way to puree the meat is to use a mortar and pestle.

The quenelles start floating higher in the poaching liquid as they cook.

Then add the panade, which should be completely cold after sitting in the refrigerator overnight or at least for a couple of hours. It should be about the same amount as the meat by weight — the amount the panade recipe above makes, just over a pound. Cut it up into small pieces and let the food processor mix it in. If the bowl of the food processor is too small (mine was), transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix in the panade into the meat in that. Also add several tablespoons of crème fraîche or heavy cream — enough to get the consistency you want.

The mixture should be pretty stiff, but it might seem sticky. That's okay. When it's well mixed, put it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours so that it has time to firm up completely. If you want, you can mix in a half cup of chopped parsley (my choice) or some other herb. Don't forget to add salt (a tablespoon for this quantity) and pepper (a teaspoon). A good pinch (or grating) of nutmeg adds good flavor. Use other spices as you like.

Here's Walt making the quenelles
using two big spoons dipped in hot water.

Making the quenelles themselves turned out to be easy. Just take two big soup spoons (or smallish serving spoons) and put them in a bowl of hot water for a couple of minutes. Take one out and scoop up a spoonful of the dumpling mixture. Take the second spoon and scoop the contents of the first spoon out with it. You should already have a football-shaped (rugby-ball-shaped) quenelle already. Repeat the process as many times as necessary. It's easier than it might sound.

Quenelles de volaille, after poaching in broth or water...

Drop the quenelles into simmering water or broth and let them cook for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on how big they are. The ones we made were slightly bigger than a large hen's egg and we let them simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Turn them over a few times during the cooking so that they get done evenly. With four eggs in them, they will hold together well.

Serve the quenelles de volaille — poultry dumplings — with a sauce. We made a creamy curried pumpkin sauce to go with ours. The dumplings are slightly bland, so you want a rich accompaniment. Tomato sauce would be excellent. Or a béchamel or cheese sauce. Or just olive oil or melted butter with garlic, for example. If you make smaller quenelles, you can have them floating in soup. You can't really go wrong. Try them on a bed of steamed or sauteed spinach, topped with grated cheese and browned lightly in a hot oven.

...and served with a curried pumpkin sauce —
turkey and pumpkin with a French difference

Quenelles are a little bit like meatballs and a little bit like dumplings. Julia Child calls them "this delicate triumph of French cooking." They have a very nice, light texture, and a good clean taste. They will puff up a little and start to float in the poaching liquid as they cook. My recipe will make at least 20, or maybe 30, quenelles of the size we made, and that could easily serve four or even six as a main course.