Thursday, October 05, 2006

Changing Horses

"Don't change horses in the middle of the stream," is a cautionary proverb that warns of the danger of change...well, at least in mid-stream. Since moving to another country, my tolerance level for change has increased dramatically. Granted, this increased tolerance may well have its roots in survival, but it has made me a bit more bold and willing to take a few more risks. Recently, I have changed horses twice mid-stream. The results: well..."You win some, you lose some."

On rue de la Saporta we have Horse Number 1: This appears to be a successful change and I’m off and running! Changing study programs from a twice weekly, small-group model in a small, privately run enterprise to a full time university program has been one of my better decisions with regard to getting on board with my French. With a sharp new pencil in hand and fresh pages in the notebook, I took an enormous step to begin a two semester program of French study at the Institute pour l’Etudes Françaises pour Etudiants Etrangers (Institute for the Study of French for Foreign Students...which happens to be on rue de la Saporta). I am now very happily tucked into 22 hours of coursework per week (and all of the accompanying homework)and I couldn’t be more content! The level I tested into is very validating for my previous study efforts and to settle into another chapter of scholastic endeavor makes my "student soul" feel right at home. (There is a reason I have two rounds of graduate work followed by advanced training in my field of study under my belt. I simply really dig going to school!)

Needless to say, the setting is beautiful. Imagine passing through ancient courtyards and up and down staircases polished by centuries of footsteps each day. The "hotel particulier" in which the institute is located is just across from the main cathedral of Aix.

(In fact, this morning during class, the bells of the cathedral began to toll. The slow and mournful reverberations in deep tones entered our classroom in waves of sound followed, finally, by silence. A little less than an hour later, the ringing took on a rapid pace and sounded quite insistent...calling for attention as if to heed a message. The disruption was so profound that the professor had to stop his lesson to explain that when there is a funeral, the bells toll mournfully as the body is taken into the cathedral. He went on to explain that in the Catholic tradition it is believed that the soul rises during the service and when the body is taken out of the cathedral, the bells ring in a celebratory mode to signify the ascension. A little language...a little all adds up to a little more bang for my euro than I had anticipated!)

It would seem that Horse Number 1 has taken off at a gallop and I am finding my way into the rhythm of this new ride.

So even though the week’s schedule of classes did not leave much time for noodling around in the kitchen, I did manage to pop out a lovely savory strudel for some friends visiting from London. Another set of friends (who had called to extend wishes to "break a pencil" as I set off to my first day of school) joined us for aperitifs one evening on the candlelit courtyard.

(By the way, I am really into this concept of "aperitifs"! To have people in for just drinks and appetizers is so civilized! It affords me a way to entertain in my new small space in a very manageable fashion, while still giving me an opportunity to pull some pretty tasty stuff out of the kitchen to feed my friends. And what’s not to like about any and all opportunities for cracking open a bottle of champagne! Yes, this ritual of aperitifs really works for me.)

This particular gathering was the eve of my new study event definitely worth celebrating! And so we did. The savory lamb strudel (remember the souri d’agneau? Save those leftovers!) was delicious. Warm and buttery bites of a flaky puff pastry hugging a mélange of complementary was enjoyed right down to the last flake. But alas, in my haste to pull things together for the evening, and due to the lack of lovely light on these shorter early fall days, I did not take any photos.

This would be the place in the stream where Horse Number 2 canters in. Ehhhh...not so successful, this change.

A bit of a back story: I have grown quite fond of the rolls of pâte feuilletée that are available here for tarts and such. I have made this recipe many times with these lovely flaky pre-rolled wonders and am not likely to start producing my own puff pastry anytime soon. My clever idea to whip out another strudel with the additional filling would just fit into an afternoon between classes. There would be plenty of light for photos for La Fourchette as well as plenty of strudel to share with my immediate neighbors. It only required a quick stop at the supermarché for the "strudel wrapper". Easy, huh? As sometimes happens at the supermarché, there are “slim pickin’s” of certain items on delivery days. Such was the case with my favorite rolled tart dough, so I chose to hop on the horse that said "whole wheat" just below the familiar "pâte feuilletée" I have come to love. The whole wheat version was the only thing available. Now, in a manner I might compare to the amnesia experienced by any mother who gives birth more than once, I seem to have conveniently forgotten all of my previous attempts to work with whole wheat anything. Other than pouring milk on breakfast flakes (which I seem to remember doing successfully), I just can’t remember ever pulling anything of whole wheat out of the oven that looked or tasted all that satisfying.

And I have plenty of evidence to support this conclusion. Coming from a family that valued hand-made gifts for birthdays and holidays, I tried countless times to turn out little loaves of whole wheat bread for my father to accompany the gifts of his favorite spicy sausages and mustard. (The fact that the the word "countless" used here is all too true, one might wonder exactly why I would keep trying...and this is where, “To know me is to love me.” would come in as I can be a bit...okay, incredibly stubborn.) And just as many times as I tried my hand at whole wheat “bricks”, (had the old California missions been built with these things, there would be no need for restoration even a century later...maybe just a coat of paint now and then) my father received my failed efforts with a generous smile and the loving response of appreciation for such a thoughtful gift. This was definitely an act of grace, because he sure as hell couldn’t eat those little bombs of whole wheat! I finally (and thankfully, for him!) gave up.

Who'da thunk that a packaged roll of puff pastry would have yielded similar results to my little "bread bricks" of years gone by?! But when I pulled that lovely aromatic strudel number two out of the oven and cut into it, I did not discover the flaky perfection that had wrapped itself around the delicious mélange of lamb and cheese and mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes and olives a few nights, not at all.

This time, the very well-baked exterior opened into a thin crust that cracked on the outside and didn't flake at all. In fact, the bottom layer had a not-quite-done doughy texture that just didn’t measure up to anything that has come before from similar efforts with this dish. And, as luck would have it, this was the model next in line for the "close up". This was to be the "star" of the photos that would go public or there would be no post this week. It only seems fair to let you in on the whole wheat "horse change" part of this story so that you are not dissuaded from trying what is actually a very tasty recipe and one that will please loved ones and guests alike. Try as I might to dress her up for the photo session with fresh herbs and lovely light, the evidence is right there in living color. (Ahhh, but that filling is really delicious!)

As for changing horses mid-stream...there will be others to come along, I’m sure. But let’s hope that I can recognize any horse coming along that has whole wheat on his breath.

This recipe makes two strudels, plenty for a lively group in for aperitifs for the evening. Pop open a bottle of champagne (a Blanc Noir - 100% Pinot, as suggested by Jean-Marc Espinasse) or try one of the other suggestions from this author of French-Wine-A-Day.
(Listed from very spicy to less spicy)
Grès de Montpellier

Bon courage with this recipe – it’s worth the risk!

Bon Appetit!

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

2 puff pastry sheets (US) or 2 pâte à tarte feuilletée (France)

For filling:
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes not packed in oil (about 2 ounces)
1/2 pound mushrooms
3/4 cup black brine-cured olives, pitted
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground lamb (or equivalent of leftover roasted or braised lamb)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta (about 8 ounces)
1/2 cup grated mozzarella (about 3 ounces)

About 5 tablespoons olive oil

Make filling:

In a small bowl pour boiling water over tomatoes and soak 5 minutes. Thinly slice mushrooms. Give the pitted olives a rough chop. Drain tomatoes well and thinly slice.

In a large heavy skillet heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté mushrooms with salt and pepper to taste, stirring, until liquid they give off has evaporated. With a slotted spoon transfer mushrooms to a large bowl. If using ground lamb, Add to skillet and cook, stirring and breaking up any lumps, until no longer pink. Transfer lamb with slotted spoon to bowl with mushrooms and discard fat. If using leftover roasted lamb, shred or give it a course chop and add to the mushrooms. Stir tomatoes, olives, rosemary, basil, and red pepper flakes into lamb mixture and cool 10 minutes. Stir in feta, mozzarella, and salt and pepper to taste. (Watch the salt as the brine-cured olives can be salty!)

Preheat oven to 425°F and lightly grease a large shallow baking pan.

Roll out one sheet of puff pastry or pâte feuilletée (gently stretched into a rectangle) and spread half of filling in a 3-inch-wide strip, mounding it, 4 inches above the near long side, leaving a 2-inch border at each end. Lift bottom 4 inches of pastry over filling, folding in ends, and tightly roll up strudel. Carefully transfer strudel, seam side down, to baking pan and lightly brush with oil. Make another strudel with remaining ingredients in same manner.

Bake strudels in middle of oven 20-25 minutes, or until golden. Cool strudels to warm in pan on a rack.

Cut into 1-inch slices with a serrated knife and serve slices warm.

Serves 6 to 8


Jann said...

You are one busy person! Enjoy the new studies......should be an easy ride for you! Loved the blog, thanks!

la fourchette said...

jann, Yes, the pace of my little French life has certainly been "kicked up a notch". Thanks for the encouraging words - and your weekly visits! Both are appreciated.


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