Thursday, August 31, 2006

Two Years Ago Today...And Pesto!

So here it is. Inspired to put my penchant for planning future meals before finishing the one in front of me into words and pictures, I've landed in a blog. The aim is to offer a peek into my life in the South of France in a palatable, if not downright tasty, format.

Upon arriving, most…okay, okay…all of my first messages back to friends and family were constellated around my daily trips to the open air markets and my happy sensory immersion into the French appreciation for all things 'food'. So the food and market-themed stories about the early days after my arrival, and the sometimes hilarious results of trying to communicate in very broken French, began to be served up. And just as one might sprinkle a garnish of parsley around the edge of a plate before serving, these stories were "sprinkled" here and there with a few details of some of the other aspects of my new life. I was starting to see a pattern develop...and so was everyone else. Fortunately, I could not see the eye-rolling going on through cyberspace but I did get comments like, "Well, at least we know you're eating well!" This would come as no surprise to anyone who really knows me.

The name that emerged reflects the spirit of being carried away - in this case, from my friends, my family, my country, in fact, my life as I had known it - by a love affair...with, of all things, a place.

In fact, it was two years ago today, one day in advance of "La Rentrée", that the adventure began. My plane swooped in over the mattelassé quilt of the Mediterranean Sea hugging the rocky coast of Marseille. Though not a straight path, I found my way into the center of Aix en Provence, fork in hand. As true adventures tend to go, I had no idea how it would unfold. (Honestly, this continues to be true.) But as it began to take shape day-by-day, I held onto the intention that I had packed into my carry-on luggage for the journey: to somehow blend my writing and photography into a cohesive project. Perhaps that intention has found a little spot it can call its own in something referred to as a 'blog'.

Who knows what the strongest promptings were to get this started. Perhaps it was the discovery of duck confit or souri d'agneau - things that I just thought had to be shared for the betterment of life as we currently know it! Maybe it was the suggestion that I offer a tart-themed seminar (‘Queen of Tarts’ that I am, guests must partake of at least one tart if they come anywhere near chez moi). Perhaps it was the profound awakening of a love of cheese (a necessary 'love', it would seem, if one is to live here with any degree of commitment). Then again, perhaps it was simply that cooking may have been the sanest way to ground myself in the process of finding my way. There was plenty of ‘culture shock’ to be experienced as I put one foot in front of the other in another country...another culture...another language and without the familiar network of family and friends easily accessible.

And so the saga began...and continues.

Since this is an introduction of sorts, I offer a bit of orientation for our journey together: Living between two outdoor markets seems quite perfect for a serious "foodie". The "grand marché" takes over the two large parking lots near the Palais de Justice three days a week, while the "petit marché" exists every day of the year – Christmas and New Year’s included. I am inspired just walking through this little market – and it quickly became a part of my morning routine - like brushing my teeth. Because I’ve been here long enough that the vendors know I’m staying and not just passing through, I am greeted warmly and given ‘petits cadeaux’ (little gifts) extra lettuce here, no charge for herbs, two big handfuls of mussels to go with the piece of fish that will be dinner, and sometimes a petite madeleine "for the road". Always, there is the chance to practice my French. My Anglophone embouchure must find its way around new words and sounds, just as my feet had to find a new balance on ancient cobblestones coming as they were from the sandy shores of the Pacific. (I am pleased to report signs of progress: I can now ask for ‘pitted olives’ in French without missing a beat and manage cobblestones in heels at quite a clip on my way to meet a friend for dinner! Progress is measure by the little things, I tell you!)

To walk through the market in summer is to be seduced by a warm perfume blended of striped cavaillon melons, tangy strawberries and sticky purple cherries. This blend is punctuated by the piquant aroma of basil and olives, with base-notes provided by an array of fragrant cheeses displayed in two stalls, strategically placed at opposite ends of the marché like parentheses around a phrase. Add to this concoction the lighter notes of lettuce. Who knew that lettuce actually smelled so...well...‘lettuce-y’?! When lined up, one little green head after another, red-leafed rosette piled upon red-leafed rosette, a fragrance is emitted that keeps me coming back.

Inspired by a wander through the marché, with a tap and a twist of the mortar and pestle, it's pesto! To me, the magic of summer is in pesto! And this summer I have become the veritable ‘princess of pesto’. With a basil bouquet from the morning's market, sea salt, garlic and olive oil at hand, I head for the mortar and pestle on a regular basis. I take great pleasure in seeing the various ingredients sacrifice their uniqueness to the greater good that is to be: the creamy, fragrant paste born from this “alchemical process”. Of course a Tart Queen must incorporate all favorites into a tart, but batches of my summer ‘elixir’ have found their way into supporting roles in pasta dishes, as a spread alternative to tapenade atop slices of fresh baguette for aperitifs, mixed into a bowl of steaming garlicky white beans, a hearty garden vegetable soup or steamed mussels, drizzled over roasted potatoes, and yes, on occasion, by the spoonful over the sink when no one is looking.

Pesto freezes beautifully. Bring it out in the middle of winter and it offers up a reminder of summer past. (Note: I slip a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the top of the pesto in its container, making sure all the air bubbles are released, before putting the lid on and popping it in the freezer. Contact with the air darkens the lovely bright green to a brownish top layer that can certainly be mixed in to brighten it up before serving. But the plastic layer reduces the darkening caused by this oxidation process.)

There is a bit of a twist to this pesto in the form of ground almonds. Partnering with parmesan cheese, the combination makes this more of an Italian style ‘pesto’ as opposed to it’s Provençal cousin over the border, "pistou", a sauce of only garlic, basil and olive oil – no nuts, no cheese. (Or so I've heard...this distinction is still a bit unclear to me, but I'm following the prompt of one Monsieur Q., who upon being offered some of my "pistou", kindly gave me a lengthy explanation of the difference between what I had made - "pesto", to his way of thinking - and what is actually "pistou"...the research continues on this point. I will keep you posted.)

The almonds, used in place of pine nuts here, provide a softer, rounder flavor that I have come to like very much. This "tweak" was inspired by my favorite Italian deli down the rue. Alas, my budget could not keep up with my hankering for their delicious pesto, so I took my inspiration from them directly to the kitchen and - voilá’! Although I prefer the creamy blend as it is transformed by the grinding action of a mortar and pestle, it works in a food processor as well.

(A humble curtsy to Patricia Wells, and her Patricia Wells At Home in Provence cookbook. I’ve added some twists, but her Pistou recipe was the jumping off point for me while still living on the edge of the Pacific.)

PESTO (Adapted from Patricia Wells At Home in Provence)

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced or crushed (This is the only time I use a garlic crush as with mortar and pestle it quickly transforms into the pasty consistency needed to get started.)
Sea salt 1-2 teaspoons to taste (The courser grind here creates more friction in the grinding action.)
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoon ground almonds
2 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup + extra virgin olive oil (start with 1/2 cup and add by tablespoons to desired consistency)

1. In a mortar, place the garlic and a first toss of salt and mash with the pestle to form a paste. Add the basil (tearing the larger leaves into smaller pieces as you add them to the mortar) little by little, pounding and turning the pestle with a grinding motion, adding the remaining salt in stages, to form a paste. Add the ground almonds and grind to blend into the basil/garlic paste. Add the parmesan, one tablespoon at a time, incorporating it into the paste as well before adding the oil. Add the oil slowly in a fine but steady stream, blending all of the ingredients with the pestle until the paste has become homogenous. Taste to check seasonings. This must be stirred again before serving.

If you prefer a food processor:

Place minced garlic, salt and basil in the bowl of a food processor and process to form a paste. Add the oil in a steady stream in a second round of processing. Taste for seasonings. This must be stirred again before serving.

2. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Serve immediately. If you have any left (!) store, covered and refrigerated for 1 day, or frozen up to 6 months. Bring to room temperature again before serving.

Makes about 1 cup of sauce

And what to do with that batch of pesto? Eat it by the spoonful over the kitchen sink(?!)…or…perhaps sacrifice some of it for this savory tart that is simple to put together when a purchased puff pastry is on hand.

RED ONION, GOAT CHEESE AND BASIL TART (adapted from Bon Appétit)

2 medium-size red onions, peeled with stem ends trimmed only slightly
3 tablespoons olive oil

1 roll or sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17 1/4-ounce package), thawed

8 ounces soft fresh goat cheese
1/4 cup pesto (see above)
1/4 cup crème fraiche
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 large egg, beaten to blend
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Peel onions, trimming stem ends only slightly. Cut each onion into 12 wedges, leaving each wedge connected at the stem end. Arrange wedges in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet and give them a light drizzle of olive oil. Bake until bottoms of onions are golden and onions are very tender, about 15 - 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to rack; cool. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and let stand at room temperature.)

Place pastry in tart pan, trim finish sides in pan. Pierce bottom of pastry several times with fork. Bake in 400ºF oven until pastry is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF.

Stir cheese, pesto, crème fraiche and 2 tablespoons basil in medium bowl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix in remaining beaten egg. Spread cheese mixture evenly over bottom of crust. Fan wedges, golden brown side up, over cheese mixture.

Bake tart until crust is brown and cheese appears set, about 35 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool.

Sprinkle tart with 1 tablespoon basil chiffonade. Serve warm.

Serves 6-8

Bon Appétit!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Long, Hot Simmer...I Mean 'Summer'

"La Rentrée" officially begins 1 September. A two year anniversay for me, the date celebrates my move to France. On that joyous occasion I will be returning to my kitchen, a more ordered life, and the business of playing with my food. Please join me to see what unfolds in (and out) of my little kitchen in the south of France. In the meantime, the most important thing 'cooking' is this blog design...which is still in its early stages. I'm new to the process so there are still "kinks" to be discovered and worked out. There will be new additions to these pre-launch posts as I learn the ropes. Check back often to see the changes and gather some tasty ideas.

For instance, here is the result of my wander through the marché today...after all, a girl's gotta eat! Sometimes combinations just call to me from their places on the tables. And so it was with this trio. The complex creamy/'edgy' taste of the chevre marries perfectly with the earthy figs. Each softens and rounds out the edges of the other. The honey...well, let's just say it's the little touch of sweetness found in every good marriage.

The Trifecta of the Summer Market
(Chevre, Figs and Lavender Honey)

4 ounces fresh goat cheese
4-6 fresh figs
2 ounces lavender honey (Just enough for a drizzle...the amount will depend on how heavy handed a 'drizzler' you are.)

Serve 'ensemble' for people to 'make-their-own' or serve quartered figs with a spread of chevre and a drizzle of honey. Of course, this was an exceptional 'biologique' (organic) lavender honey, bien sûr! And although I might suggest it as a lovely appetizer, I had it for lunch: Generous swipes of chevre across a slice of 6 cereal organic bread, topped with quartered figs then drizzled with honey had me saying 'miam miam' mid-day on a late summer day.

Whether for lunch or as an appetizer for your next gathering among friends, bon appetit!


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