31 October 2016

Happy Hallowe'en

At one stage when I was cutting up that big green and orange pumpkin I showed yesterday, here's what I found staring back at me. Does it look like a cat to you? Or a demon of some kind?

It didn't scare me though, and I ended up making the soup I also described yesterday. It's like a soupe that I had many years ago in a little restaurant out in the country somewhere in France. I added poached, shredded chicken to enrich it, and fresh basil leaves on top for flavor and a color contrast.

It's pieces of pumpkin, potato, onion, garlic and a stalk celery cooked in chicken broth with milk. I put in pinches of spices like allspice, fenugreek, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and black pepper. It was good.

Here's a link to the recipe.

30 October 2016

Potiron = pumpkin

Here's what I'm cooking today. It's a pumpkin — un potiron — from our 2016 vegetable garden. Well, we are both cooking it, because I'll make soup and Walt says he want to make a pumpkin pie.

For decades I've kept hold of a memory of being somewhere out in the country in France, back in the days when I lived in Paris (1970s-'80s), and going to a restaurant in a village where a soupe au potiron, au lait, et aux oignons was served. It is a vivid memory, but I of course have no recipe. I'm going to try to recreate the soup from memory today. I poached a chicken yesterday, and I'll put broth and shredded chicken into the soup too. Photos later, maybe.

Meanwhile, we are having winter-type weather. That means a lot of fog and what is called grisaille in French. When the sun burns off the grayness late in the day, the colors are magnificent. It's not raining, and that's surprising because most years the chilly rains begin in late October and last into November or even December. Oh, and the two men who are glazing the greenhouse didn't manage to finish the job yesterday. We're disappointed, but they say they can come back on Tuesday and try to finish it then.

29 October 2016

Lunch from a can and wine from a bottle

Or maybe that would be a "tin" to you. Actually, we always called such containers "tin cans" where I come from, even though they are not made out of tin. Same with the "tin roof" — no tin. But never mind. With all the home-improvement work going on chez nous, life has been slightly disrupted, and we decided to open a can for lunch the other day.

It's cassoulet, which is white beans cooked with meats like duck, sausages, pork, and/or mutton. Cassoulet is a food from southwestern France, especially the area from Toulouse through Castelnaudary to Carcassonne. The beans are cooked slowly for a long time. The meats are very tender. This particular can of cassoulet comes from a company in the town of Castelnaudary (which means « château neuf du roi » in the local language). The town claims that it invented cassoulet centuries ago, and that its version is the absolute best.

The name cassoulet comes from the name of the dish that the beans are cooked in, la cassole — you might recognize the word "casserole" in that. This was a big can of cassoulet, advertised as serving three people and weighing more than 3 lbs. We both thought it was delicious. I took some collard greens out of the freezer to have with the beans and meats. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are restaurants serving this brand of cassoulet to diners right out of the can, but without telling them.

The beans were creamy and mostly unbroken. The sauce was velvety. The duck (wings) were very good, and the sausages (saucisses de Toulouse) were not bad. Walt and I have good memories of going to a nice restaurant in Castelnaudary and eating a fine cassoulet there back in 1989, when we were on vacation and taking a road trip around southern France, so cassoulet has sentimental value for us.

Another treat we enjoyed this week was a bottle of Touraine Primeur wine from a producer up in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher, about 5 miles north of Saint-Aignan. We buy wine there all the time, and I've visited the winery that made the Primeur, which is like our local Beaujolais Nouveau. La Renne is a small river that runs through Saint-Romain, by the way.
This Primeur is made with 2016 grapes and is a Sauvignon Blanc, which is the most common Touraine white wine. It had some sweetness and softness. We tasted citrus notes. It made an especially good apéritif wine — that's the glass you drink before you sit down to eat lunch or dinner. It stimulates the appetite and puts you in the mood for good food. Elle n'est pas belle, la vie ?

28 October 2016

Terminus, Châtillon-sur-Indre : tout le monde descend...

Here are just a few photos I have left over from my recent posts about the town of Châtillon-sur-Indre. The first one is a close-up of a sculpture on the town's main square, with the old fortified castle tower in the background and the bleu-blanc-rouge French flag flying over it.

In front of the town hall (la mairie) we saw the more contemporary artwork below. The tourist office is in the same building, but it was closed — fermeture annuelle — when we were there.

Châtillon-sur-Indre is on the western edge of the historical province of Berry. The next department over is Touraine. We live on the far eastern edge of Touraine, but Saint-Aignan used to be considered part of Le Berry. In fact, the name of the town used to be Saint-Aignan-en-Berry, before it was renamed as Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. I liked the name of the second-hand store pictured below.

This week I managed to locate and download a PDF file of the Larousse Gastronomique food and cooking encyclopedia (1,000 pages, in French). Here's what it says about the Berry region's cooking (my formatting):
BERRY La cuisine berrichonne est influencée par l'élevage du porc, des volailles et surtout du mouton, comme le prouvent ses apprêts de viande les plus typiques : gigot braisé à la sept-heures, pot-au-feu berriaud (associant jarret de veau, boeuf et épaule de mouton), veau à la berrichonne (cuit dans une sauce au vin rouge parfois enrichie d'oeufs mollets), poulet en barbouille. La gastronomie de cette ancienne province française se caractérise par la simplicité savoureuse et parfois rustique de ses préparations à cuisson lente.
Reading this made me realize how authentic that « incontournable souris d'agneau » was at the Auberge de la Tour in Châtillon. The « souris » or "mouse" of the lamb is the shank end of the hind leg. It's called the "mouse" because of it's plump shape, according to what I've read. And it was definitely an example of  "slow cooking" (cuisson lente). It's the kind of country cooking I like. Translation:
The cooking of the Berry province is influenced by the local pork, poultry, and especially sheep farms, as is proved by its most famous dishes: seven-hour braised lamb (or mutton), pot roast featuring veal shank, beef, and lamb shoulder, Berry-style veal cooked in a red wine sauce that is sometimes enriched with coddled eggs, chicken in a red wine sauce thickened with the blood of the bird. The cuisine of this old French province is simple, savory, and sometimes rustic, with many slow-cooked dishes.

27 October 2016

Logis renaissance à vendre

How would you like to own a centuries-old house in Châtillon-sur-Indre? In the process of searching for information about the town, I came across this one listed for sale.

It's advertised at the surprisingly low price of 120,000 euros. Even after you paid the agency and notarial fees to close the deal, that would come to a lot less than $150,000 U.S. Of course, the house needs work. Here's a link to the realtor's ad, which says the building is a logis renaissance with seven rooms (2,500 square feet) on about a quarter of an acre of land.

26 October 2016

Lunch in Châtillon-sur-Indre — part 2

To wash down the food I showed yesterday, and the rest of the meal at the Auberge de la Tour, we ordered a bottle of wine from the AOC village of Reuilly, which is about 40 miles (75 km) east of Châtillon and straddles the Indre and Cher départements. It's a Pinot Noir red from 2015. Reuilly wines are meant to be enjoyed young (but old people like me can enjoy them too...hahaha).

Reuilly (pop. 2,000 — the locals are called les Reuillois) is surrounded by vineyards that cover about 500 acres of rolling countryside. Walt and I have been there — 10 years ago might have been the last time. It's an hour's drive southeast of Saint-Aignan, and there is no shortage of more local wines. The Reuilly vineyards produce Sauvignon Blanc (made into white wines), Pinot Noir (for reds and rosés), and Pinot Gris (rosés) as their three grape varieties.

As for our main courses, the Auberge de la Tour's specialty is what they call « L'incontournable souris d'agneau confite aux aromates » — the "inescapable" lamb shank slow-cooked with aromatics. (Don't miss it!)  That's what Walt and our friend Jean both had for lunch. The meat was just about falling off the bone.

I ordered what is called a « pavé de veau grillé et sa sauce à la moutarde » — a thick grilled veal steak served with a Dijon mustard sauce. To tell you the truth, the meat was a little tougher than I expected. The sauce was delicious with both the meat and the mashed potatoes. If we go back to the Auberge, though, I'll have the "inevitable" lamb next time. Nick ordered the local Berry poule noire, which is a black-feathered stewing hen, cooked two ways. I didn't get a photo. He didn't rave about the dish, which I think was the drumstick of a stewed laying hen plus the liver, gizzard, etc., fried.

The dessert that three of us chose is called a Paris-Brest and is a cream puff pastry round filled with a hazelnut- or almond-flavored whipped cream (here's a link to the Wikipedia page in English). It looked enormous on the plate when it was brought out, but it turned out to be light and airy. We enjoyed it. Jean had what is called a café gourmand as her dessert. It's a little cup of expresso served with two or three small pieces of cake, cookies, and/or tartlets. She seemed to enjoy it. The rest of us had an espresso to finish off the meal before we went out for a stroll around the old town.

By the way, the menu we chose (three courses, not four or five) was priced at 27 € (about $30 U.S.) and we ended up paying 40 € per person with a pre-lunch apéritif, the Reuilly wine (26 €), the coffees, and a small tip. We didn't have a cheese course.

25 October 2016

Notre déjeuner à Châtillon-sur-Indre

Our reason for going to Châtillon was to have lunch with friends. We were also exchanging garden produce. Our friends gave us a bagful of garden-grown cayenne peppers, and we gave them some little red tomatoes and a French butternut-type squash called « une sucrine du Berry » from our vegetable garden.

Anyway, here's where we had lunch. It's a restaurant called L'Auberge de la Tour which gets a lot of good write-ups on TripAdvisor. The photo above is actually one that I took several years ago, in wintertime, when we were driving through Châtillon on our way to points south.

The first course at lunch was what is called « une mise en bouche » — a little appetizer to "get your mouth going." In this case it was a little bowl of pumpkin and foie gras pureed into a warm soup. It was good, and the dishes it was served in were unusual.

Our real first courses, the ones we ordered, came next. Mine was a plate featuring foie gras with a layer of beet jelly and another of chopped cooked chicken breast. There was some salad, some toast, and a little savory « profiterole » — a cream puff filled with whipped, foie-gras-flavored whipped cream. Nick had the same « entrée ».

Walt ordered what was called « un tartare de bœuf » but which turned out to be more like a kind of carpaccio. That's raw, seasoned beef served in thin slices with some lettuce leaves, an herby green sauce, and a little rolled crêpe filled with cheese-flavored whipped cream.

Finally, our friend Jean chose a first course called « crémeux de fenouil et écrevisses marinées au citron vert ». That's a fennel-flavored cream served with crayfish tails marinated in lime juice. She said it was very good, if I remember correctly. More tomorrow...

24 October 2016

So many “châteaux”

First photo: not a château, but our little house just outside Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. As I mentioned the other day, we are having a serre adossée set up over our back door. A serre is a greenhouse, and adossée means it leans on or backs up to a house, a building, or a cliff or hillside. In other words, it's a "lean-to" greenhouse. We could have spent a good sum of money to have a new back door installed, but we decided to invest in this greenhouse instead.

So far the aluminum frame is built. It sits on a metal base that is solidly anchored to the ground on concrete footings, and it will be screwed into the exterior wall of the house. It will have a gravel floor. We'll start seedlings it in in the spring before we set them out in the vegetable garden, and we'll keep certain plants in the greenhouse over the winter to protect them from freezing temperatures. The glass will be put in next weekend.

But back to châteaux. The English-language dictionary I just looked at gives that as the plural, not "chateaus." It says a "château" is (1) a castle or fortress; (2) a stately residence imitating a distinctively French castle; or (3) a country estate, especially a fine one, in France or elsewhere...

Where else but in France could you walk right by a château and not even see it? That's what we did in Châtillon-sur-Indre last Wednesday after having lunch in a restaurant there. The photo above shows the back side of the château, which was built in the 13th century. The photo below is a bird's-eye view of Châtillon-sur-Indre, the château, and the 12th century fortified tower (castle keep) in the middle of the town.

We were on the place [plahss] or "square" in the middle of the photo, behind the château and focusing our attention on the old tower (which originally was nearly twice as tall as it is now). The town of Châtillon-sur-Indre is located in the Indre département in central France, covering part of the territory of the historical province called Le Berry. According to this web site, there are 298 châteaux, 17 châteaux-forts (medieval castles) and 46 manoirs (manor houses) in the département de l'Indre, which covers about 2,600 square miles — half the size of the tiny U.S. state of Connecticut. I wonder how many years it would take to find and photograph all those buildings?

23 October 2016

La Tour de César à Châtillon-sur-Indre

The Michelin Green Guide for the Berry and Limousin regions says of Châtillon-sur-Indre: Au centre de la ville, la masse imposante de ce donjon (12e siècle), cerclé d'un deuxième enceinte de la même époque, cache désormais un château d'eau. Du sommet, panorama sur la ville et la vallée de l'Indre.

In other words, the imposing 12th-century hulk called the Tower of Caesar, encircled by a second wall built in the same period, now serves to house a water tower. From the top, there are panoramic views of the town and the Indre river valley. I'd like to go back there and climb up to the top of the tower, and also see what the Friday morning market is like. Maybe in November.

One thing that was surprising is that the school just below the old tower was open and we could hear children's voices inside when we walked by.

Apparently, there is also a château in Châtillon (the word derives from château) but we didn't see it. Next time... We did notice a number of ornate buildings, treasures from another era, all around the town.

P.S. Our new lean-to greenhouse, attached to the back of the house, was built yesterday. The aluminum structure is in place, and the concrete footings will dry and set up this week. Then the glass panels can be installed next weekend.

22 October 2016

The streets of Châtillon-sur-Indre

You almost have to add the « sur-Indre » to the name Châtillon. It means that the town is located on the Indre river. There's another Châtillon even closer to Saint-Aignan called Châtillon-sur-Cher — not to mention Châtillon-sur-Loire, Châtillon-sur-Seine, Châtillon-sur-Saône, Châtillon-sur-Oise, Châtillon-sur-Meuse, and so on. French Wikipedia lists more than 35 towns that have the word Châtillon in their name.

Yesterday our plumbing and heating contractor was here doing work. I asked him if he had lived in Saint-Aignan for a long time. « Toute ma vie... » was his answer. I told him about our recent visit to Châtillon-sur-Indre, and how surprised we were that the place felt so abandoned. He told me that there are a lot of personnes âgées down there and in that whole département, which is very rural. It seems the hospital and a retirement home in Châtillon specialize in caring for Alzheimer's patients.

That was interesting, because the 87-year-old man I mentioned earlier, who rode up on a bicycle and talked to us about how all the young people had moved away and so many businesses had closed down, might need that kind of care. After talking to him, we and our friends continued our walk around the town. About 30 minutes after our first encounter, we ran into the same man, who obviously didn't remember us at all. He told us the whole story a second time, in almost exactly the same words. I know it was the same man because I recognized the shoes he was wearing — they looked like bedroom slippers.

In French, to say that the streets were deserted, you can say: «  Il n'avait pas un chat. » We couldn't really say that about Châtillon-sur-Indre. We saw about as many cats as people as we walked around.

21 October 2016

Dried cayenne peppers, etc.

On Wednesday, friends — and not the same ones who gave us the figs — brought us a big bag of beautiful cayenne peppers from their garden. To preserve them, I got out the food dehydrator that I bought a few weeks ago. The result is beautiful, don't you think? The long hot peppers are perfectly desiccated, almost weightless, and dark red. You can hear the seeds rattling inside them when you shake them.

We many decide to turn these into crushed red pepper flakes, but not today. This morning we have a plumbing and heating contractor coming in to begin work in our bathroom, putting up a towel warmer to replace the old radiator, changing out the old faucets on our bidet, and, finally, plumbing in a new shower stall.

I'll get back to Châtillon-sur-Indre tomorrow.

20 October 2016

Rooftops in Châtillon-sur-Indre... but not much else

Yesterday we drove 30 minutes down to the town of Châtillon-sur-Indre to have lunch with friends at a restaurant called L'Augerge de la Tour. More about that later... After lunch we took a walk around the town. The streets were basically empty on a Wednesday afternoon. It was picturesque in a ghost-town kind of way.

Châtillon-sur-Indre, like many places in rural France, has lost a lot of its population over the last few decades. From 3,600 in the 1970s, the number of people who live there is now is down to about 2,700 — a 25% drop. The town has existed since at least the year 850.

Many storefronts are empty. Shutters on houses are closed up tight. It's all slightly run-down. While we were walking, an 87-year-old man rode up on a bicycle (he told us his age) and asked us if we had come as tourists to see Châtillon. We said yes, and he told us we would pretty much have the town to ourselves. "All the young people have moved away," he said. "There's not much left." Disappearing France...

19 October 2016

Encore des figues

Our friends' fig tree just won't quit. Day before yesterday we received an impromptu delivery of another 3 lbs. — 1.4 kilos — of ripe green figs. It was a nice surprise.

This time I thought about making fig newton cookies — or as somebody on the web called them, "fig chewtons." I washed, de-stemmed, and cut up all the figs into quarters.

Here you can see that they might be called green figs — figues vertes ou figues blanches en français — they are pink inside. And ripe.

I figured if I cut them up and cooked them down to make a compote, I could freeze the compote in small containers and take some out whenever I wanted to make some cookies or enjoy some compote de figues avec du fromage de chèvre, du roquefort, ou du foie gras.

Here's the compote after two or three hours of cooking. I'm not sure if it's done yet, and I'm wondering if I should puree it. Maybe I'll puree a mall batch and see what that's like. I cooked the figs with sugar, honey, lemon juice, port wine, and pinches of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

18 October 2016

Magret de canard aux navets

I just searched my blog from top to bottom and back again to see if I could find a recipe with photos of the classic French dish called « canard aux navets ». I could not. I can't believe I've been blogging for 11 years and I've never posted about Duck with Turnips — especially since I love glazed turnips.

Usually duck with turnips is made with a whole roasted duck and the standard purple, white-fleshed turnip. What inspired me to make the dish yesterday was two things — we had a couple of very large duck breasts, or magrets de canard, in the freezer, and at the supermarket on Saturday I found some pretty little yellow turnips. One piece of magret was easily enough for the two of us. The yellow turnips were a little smaller than a tennis ball.

All I did to cook the duck breast was to sear it in a hot frying pan, cooking it skin-side down first to render the fat under the skin, which I had scored with a sharp knife to keep the breast from curling. Then I set it in a warm oven to wait while I glazed the turnips, which were first steamed in a steamer pot along with some pearl onions. I sauteed the partially cooked turnips and onions in the duck fat and then added some teriyaki sauce as a glaze. I could have used honey or sugar, but I had made up a batch of teriyaki sauce a few days earlier and decided it would be good in duck with turnips. I laid the duck breast back in the pan, surrounded by the vegetables, covered the pan, and let everything finish cooking that way. Duck breast is served rosé, as we say in France, meaning it is medium-rare. It tastes more like beefsteak than like poultry.

Yellow turnips are not the same thing as rutabagas, but from the little bit of reading I've done there's a lot of confusion about that in the U.S. Rutabagas are also yellow, and they resemble giant turnips, but they are not of the same species as turnips. The navet jaune « boule d'or » is a variety of turnip and its scientific name is Brassica rapa. The rutabaga — known in the U.K. as "swede" because it supposedly came from Scandinavia — is a turnip-cabbage hybrid (Brassica napobrassica), and is called « un rutabaga » in French as in the U.S. It is also sometimes called « le chou-navet ». What I had was not at all rutabaga, but real yellow turnips.

17 October 2016

Fall colors and activities

I don't think all the grapes are in yet. Well, there are always some white ones that say on the vines much later than others. They are used in making late-harvest vin doux or vin demi-sec — sweet apéritif or dessert wines. I think there are some red-wine grapes still out there too.

Last week, the two Domaine de la Renaudie guys were harvesting right outside our hedge. Below, the one driving the vendangeuse is emptying its bins of grapes into the trailer for transport down to the winery. We'll see if they come back to harvest some more grapes today.

Grape leaves and others are just starting to take on their fall colors. Below is a blackberry leaf. Soon the vineyard will be yellow, orange, and red instead of bright green.

Yesterday for lunch we had teriyaki-glazed turkey wings with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Today, lunch will braised duck breast with yellow turnips. Canard aux navets is a classic French dish.

16 October 2016

Vingt-cinq figues... confites

Generous friends with a prolific fig tree gave us about three pounds of these green figs a few days ago. They're Americans who live just a few miles upriver from us. Walt made a tart using the few figs we got from our little tree, plus some of these. I set about candying the green figs to preserve them for the winter. They're really good with cheeses like goat and Roquefort, and especially with foie gras.

The way to confire or "candy" the figs is to cook them in a sugar syrup. Put them one layer deep in a wide, shallow pan. Cover them with sugar as on the left. Set them on a burner at medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes and let the sugar melt. Add just a few drops of water if you need to as the figs get hot and start to release some juice.

Then set the pan aside and let it cool. Leave it in a cool place for 24 hours — I set it outside on the terrace, well covered. Then the next day, put the figs back on the heat and let them come to the boil. Simmer them again for 10 minutes, let them cool, and leave them in a cool place for another 24 hours. When you re-heat them, they plump up noticeably from absorbing the sugar syrup. Don't throw the syrup away — it's figgy and delicious.

On the third day, plump the figs up again by putting them back on the heat to simmer for 10 more minutes. Let them cool for a while. Then arrange them on a sheet pan on a silicone pad or parchment paper. Set the pan in the freezer. On the fourth day, take them out of the freezer and transfer them to a plastic container or bags. You'll see that they don't freeze hard because of their sugar content, but they won't really stick together and you can keep them for a few months in the freezer. Take a few out every week or so and enjoy.

15 October 2016

Poulet à la créole

I got an unexpected prize from the vegetable garden a few days ago — four very nice bell peppers that were two-toned. Green, and partly red. What came to mind was Shrimp Creole, a New Orleans dish. The last time I made that was more than 10 years ago. You can make it as spicy as you like, adding cayenne pepper or bottled hot sauce to taste.
I didn't have any shrimp in the freezer, but I did have chicken breasts. So it would be chicken creole, or Poulet à la créole. The first step is to make the creole sauce. It's onion, bell peppers, and celery (the "Louisiana trinity" of flavor ingredients) cooked in oil, with chopped tomato and sliced or chopped garlic added. The first step is to brown the chicken breasts in vegetable or olive oil, and then take them out of the pan when they are pretty much done and set them aside. Cook the vegetables in the same pan.
When the sauce is just about done to your liking, with the peppers cooked as much or as little as you like, add the chicken back in and cover the pan for a few minutes to make sure the chicken is cooked through. One final ingredient we had was some fresh basil growing in pots that Walt brought inside when the weather turned cold outside. You can see I just tossed in a handful of whole leaves and let them collapse into the creole sauce.
When all was said and done, and we were at the table enjoying our lunch, Walt said:  "So what's the difference between this and Poulet basquaise?" Good question. I made that Basque specialty just a couple of weeks ago. It's basically the same thing, but spiced with piments d'Espelette from SW France.

Here's a recipe for Chicken Creole using tomatoes out of a can, just in case you don't have any fresh garden tomatoes.