Sunday, July 29, 2007

Gifts from Above

Just a quick note, actually, to keep the pace going as I prepare to leave town for a sail around the Greek Islands! Yes, lucky girl that I am, a friend in the Peace Corps in Ukraine with a spirit for adventure (as if a Peace Corps assignment isn’t adventure enough) has organized a "little something" that was too good to pass, I’m off until the middle of August.

As we enjoy the first days of August from our various regions of the world, I wanted to share a little "slice" of Provence and the bounty of summer.

This particular "bounty" is a gift from the apricot tree that grows on the other side of the wall in my courtyard and has "gifted" me with a regular shower of fruit in these last weeks. Some have ended up in Bodhi’s belly while others made it into this lovely tart. I’m not sure who had the most pleasure from the surprise harvest, but it’s been a good season for all!

There have been several warm summer nights on this little courtyard with friends visiting from the US recently...and a few “locals” coming inside for a little “look-see” in an attempt to escape a bit of the heat.

From the shadow of Sainte Victoire, I will be off for a couple of weeks with plenty to share upon my return. In the meantime, this is a lovely taste of summer sunshine...the drizzle of lavender honey (and there are a couple of Minnesotans who have a bit of this on hand) adds an extra little “curtsy” to Provence.

Bon Appétit!

Apricot Tart with Lavender Honey
(Adapted from Patricia Wells’ At Home in Provence)

The Pastry:
8 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus additional for preparing tart pan
1/2 cup sugar
A pinch of fine sea salt
1/8 t. pure almond extract
1/8 t. pure vanilla extract
2 T. finely ground blanched almonds
1 1/4 cups plus 1 T. flour

The filling:
5 T. heavy cream
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 t. pure almond extract
1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
1 T, flour
2 T. finely ground blanched almonds

4 T. finely ground blanched almonds
1 1/2 lbs. fresh apricots, pitted and halved (do not peel)
Lavender honey for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F

2. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (23cm) fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, salt, almond and vanilla extracts and almonds. Stir with a wooden spoon to blend. Gradually add enough flour to form a soft cookie-like dough. Place the dough in the center of the buttered pan. Using the tips of your fingers, evenly press the pastry along the bottom and up the sides of the pan. The pastry will be quite thin. (You do not need to weight or prick the shell.)

4. Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake until the dough is slightly puffy and turns a very pale brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Do not turn off the oven.

5. Meanwhile make the filling: In a medium-size bowl, combine the cream, egg, almond and vanilla extracts and whisk to blend. Stir in the sugar, flour, and ground almonds.

6. Sprinkle 2 T. of the ground almonds on top of the pre-baked pastry shell. (They will prevent the crust from becoming soggy.)

7. Arrange the apricots in a single layer in the pastry shell. Starting just inside the edge of the pan, neatly overlap the halved apricots, cut side up, at an angle. Arrange in two or three concentric circles, working toward the center. Fill in the center with the remaining apricots. Pour the filling evenly over the pastry. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 T. of ground almonds.

8. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the center of the oven and bake until the filling is firm and the pastry is a deep golden brown, 50 to 60 minutes. The apricots will shrivel slightly. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool. Drizzle with lavender honey just before serving.

Serves 8.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Champagne Toasts

After an early train from Aix to Paris-Charles de Gaulle to catch a flight to Minneapolis through Detroit, I may have been a bit jet-lagged when, at some point during the 2 hour ride from the airport to my sister’s home north of "The Cities", my senses roused enough to ask her if it was rain that I was hearing and seeing hitting the windshield. “No,” she gently responded, “it’s bugs!"

Welcome to Minnesota where the road opens wide to wind through pastures and corn fields, the summer skies change with grace and beauty,

the state bird is the mosquito...and mayonnaise is as popular here as it was in the faculty lunchroom during my days as a teacher! (Yeah...just for the mayo, had I not moved to the south of France, I think this would be my kind of place!) In fact, it wasn’t until my sister moved from California to Minnesota that either of us learned that the "hot dish" appearing at every social gathering was not referring to a young female wearing something petite (and on the tight side) but rather something often including cream of mushroom soup!

My sister has lived a bit of the Prairie Home Companion existence
since marrying a lovely fellow many years ago and relocating, with their dog,
to several oak-wooded acres that roll down to the river’s edge in a town of 800...make that 803.

Ah yes, Minnesota...Lake Wobegon Country, "...where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."(News from Lake Wobegon/Prairie Home Companion)

After two-semesters of French studies, I was ever-so-ready to sit in the soft light of their lovely cedar-scented "three-season room" and rest, read, sleep, watch a little telly in English and witness the day’s light cross the park-like setting until dropping behind the river’s other shore at an hour that sounds more like my "bedtime" than "sunset".

We made the rounds to the local shopping malls to take advantage of sales, products not available here, a few tortilla "wrap" sandwiches that are not so ubiquitous in these parts, a "girly" day of pedicures...and happily, all in American dollars. What a relief!

As to the actual birthday celebration, it was a small family fête that took place on the deck...full river view while the sun made its last rays shine upon us as we toasted the Birthday Girl with champagne (a birthday gift bottle from my "notable birthday" the spring before arriving in France) and nibbled on none other than a dressed-up mayonnaise dish to whet the appetite as we waited for a roasted salmon dinner to hit the plates.

Although we talk every day, (yes my friends, we are keeping Telesoldes in Europe and NobelCom in the US in business!) every once in a while, sisters need that face-to-face catching up to say the things that don’t get said over the phone in the 7 hour time difference, to be recharged with a hug, or laugh, or to share that unique sense of humor that develops because of (and is made all the more precious by) a shared history. She’s a special one, this sister. Simply the best!

I always feel so warmly welcomed into their home (what says "I love you" more than the fact that there is always a large can of salted mixed nuts waiting for me!) This time, though, she and my brother-in-law graciously made room in their hearts – and on their carpets - for Bodhi, who found the entire experience quite to his liking. What’s not to like when you have free run of several acres, a big dog to follow around and provoke...errr, "play with" and your are encouraged to dig like a hedgehog by your aunt and uncle and not get reprimanded! Puppy Paradise!

After celebrating the big day, taking in a movie, making the shopping rounds, feasting on American television fare such as the Today Show, Food TV and something with Paula Abdul (!?), helping me pack up boxes of books to ship to France, and soaking up just being together, we parted as we always do at the airport in a mist of tears and unspoken wishes that the physical distance was not so great between us...but as hearts and souls go, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt closer...elle est quelque chose de special! (She is something special!) I love her as a sister, a friend, an artist and a "rock"...for it was her ever-present support and encouragement that helped me to breathe through the tough parts of this cultural transition.

Happy Birthday! And thank you!

A sommelier in California gave me the recipe for Parmesan Toasts, touting the pairing of the salty creamy blend of parmesan and mayo with the bubbly sweetness of Champagne...and you know, he was onto something!

As to the "hot dish", here is a little something from the kitchen of one of my sister's lovely Minnesota girlfriends (a bit like the YaYa Sisterhood, they are) back in the ‘hood. Known for her fabulous cooking and entertaining in high style, Carol's Tuscan Strata brings the "hot dish" to a new level.

Bon Appétit!

Parmesan Toasts

Parmigiano-Reggiano (preferably aged 3 years)
Best Foods Mayo (only brand that won't break up)
Chopped Green Onions
Black Pepper
Finely chopped garlic
sour dough, pumpernickel or rye toasts

Mix equal parts of grated parmigiano and Best Foods mayo in a mixing bowl.
Add finely chopped green onions, black pepper and garlic (to taste).
Prepare toast in smaller sizes or shaped with a cookie cutter. (The little cocktail loaves of pumpernickel or rye work well in a hurry.)
Put mixture in a piping bag or plastic baggie and squeeze onto toasts (or spoon onto each slice.)
Broil until nicely browned.

Serve immediately, while hot.

Individual Tuscan Stratas

2 cups diced Lunds and Byerly's Artisan Vienna bread, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces mild Italian sausage
1 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons Lunds and Byerly's Tuscan Seasoning
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups baby bella mushrooms, coarsely chopped (4 ounces)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/3 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained
4 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups half and half
2 drops hot pepper sauce
2 cups shredded Trugole cheese
1 cup shredded Asiago cheese


Place diced bread in large mixing bowl.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Saute sausage, onions, seasoning, salt and pepper until sausage is no longer pink (8-10 minutes). Transfer sausage mixture to bowl with bread cubes. In same skillet melt butter; sauté mushrooms until all liquid evaporates. Stir in garlic and sun-dried tomatoes; cook 1-2 minutes longer. Transfer mushroom mixture to bowl with bread and sausage.

In another mixing bowl whisk eggs and half and half. Stir in hot pepper sauce and cheeses. Pour egg mixture into bowl with bread-sausage mixture; mix thoroughly.

Spray (6-cup) jumbo muffin tin with cooking spray. Ladle egg mixture into jumbo muffin cups. Refrigerate, covered, overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove stratas from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking. Bake uncovered until knife inserted in center comes out clean (30-40 minutes). Remove from oven and allow to sit 10 minutes before removing from muffin tins.

Amount: 6 servings

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