Monday, September 24, 2007

Late Summer Bouquets

We quietly slipped into autumn this past week. The light is beginning to change to something softer, more diffused – as if the sun’s rheostat has been turned down a notch. Just one of the signs that another summer has come to an end.

Then there is the change happening in the marché. The melons are no longer worth even buying. The price is right but cut them open and they reveal a pale and rather tasteless meat that has a texture more like an over-ripe apple...nope, I'm afraid their time has come and gone this season.

The last of the tomatoes are piled into big tubs. Looking bruised and a bit like the step-children of the garden’s bounty, the price is right and the quality is great for making fresh tomato sauce (or even a batch of enchilada sauce!) to stash away in the freezer. That taste of summer will be particularly delicious when the days are short and cold!

Even though the basil is looking pretty seedy these days, I tend to make the most of it with a few batches of pesto for the freezer as well. We’re definitely moving out of the lovely lush and green days of summer when the basil leaves were fat and round and their fragrance perfumed the entire Petit Marché.

As a part of the long good-bye to this lovely summer, I was inspired to grab a bouquet of herbs and a few year-round characters...

...having been inspired by another type of bouquet: a bouquet of channels (that’s what they call the package of cable channels available here). Just as I was getting ready to change internet/cable servers due to all too frequent crashes and interruptions of service and being knocked offline at any given moment and not being able to retrieve email, not to mention the thousands (not kidding) of spam messages that come into my old email address due to any kind of spam filter for this server being an additional expense...just as I was revving up my French motor to pick up the telephone and order service from a new company, the old guys up and add Cuisine TV to my bouquet.

I’ve been told by many of my friends and instructors that I need to be listening to French radio or watch French television as much as possible to keep my ear tuned up. As I joined everyone else in La Rentrée, I decided it was as good a time as any to take those suggestions to heart and limit my viewing and listening of English language and take the leap into more full-time French.

I have had difficulty watching French television. Other than the news, I do not really enjoy dubbed German police dramas or stale American sit-coms (what an export that is!) I am happy to stick with a good French film and see it all the way through to its dramatic end but was not finding them easily in the midst of my “bouquet”. Enter stage right, Cuisine TV. Hallelujah! Not only something to which I can relate, but a vocabulary that I’m happy to develop further in French! Yippppeeee! This is something I can have on in the background while I do other things around chez La Fourchette.

And it was just such a moment that inspired me to run out to the marché before it closed the other morning and gather up a bouquet of summer greens for this sauce.

I didn’t catch the particular amounts but you can use your intuition as I did and do it to match your own tastes.

It proved itself to be a lovely alternative to the pesto that goes so well with roasted salmon. I was delightfully surprised by the bright (yes, I would call it "bright") flavor that results from the blend of minty herbs, mustard and cornichons once they all introduce themselves and begin dancing together in the bowl.

And what’s more, it’s a lovely way to squeeze just a little more summer out of these transitional days.

Bon Appétit!

Fresh Herb Sauce for Roasted Salmon

Handful of flat-leafed parsley
Handful of mint leaves
Handful of basil leaves
1 clove of garlic, smashed and minced
1 anchovie, minced
1 teaspoon capers, minced
1 small cornichon, minced
1 teaspoon good quality Dijon mustard (or more to taste)
Balsamic vinegar
Good quality olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Give a fine chop to the parsley, mint and basil leaves and set aside in a small bowl. Mince garlic clove (or your taste), capers and anchovie together and add to the chopped herbs. Add the mustard, a slosh of vinegar and mix. Add a slosh of olive oil. Mix again. Taste for seasonings. Serve in a dollop over roasted salmon and enjoy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Journées de Patrimoine

Alas, not a whole lotta cookin’ has been going on chez La Fourchette...a stir-fry here and there, another Tarte Tatin (or two! I’m really into that right now! The neighbors are going to start getting little plates of Tarte Tatin any day now!)

The weather is warm enough to still be sitting out in the courtyard with my morning coffee and my daily fix of the New York Times online followed by a little reading aloud of an article or two from Le Monde or the French Reuters. (That would be with the dictionary close at hand for those of you who like to give me more language credit than I possess.)

This past weekend, though, was a festive one. T’was the annual Journées de Patrimoine or basically, a weekend of activities centered around the cultural heritage of Aix en Provence and its surrounding villages. Since I do not yet have a car figured out, I was happy that there was plenty to do “en ville” (in town). Museums were opened, concerts were played, there was dancing in the streets and a fair of any and all associations available in Aix that lined Cours Mirabeau for all of us to consider our options of activities for “la rentrée”. "La rentrée" is serious business here...literally! It is about getting back to business (and school) after a month of summer vacation (the standard amount of time that French workers get for summer break.) It seems to be a time of reflection and re-grouping similar to the new year in which one might make resolutions for taking up a new hobby and getting one's act together. From AA to Zen meditation, there was something for everyone at tables set up along both sides of the main drag through town. Me, I was taken by the photo association...and the dance lessons...tango or swing...not sure which, but it sounds like fun, non?

For the most part, I simply enjoyed wandering around town to see what was going on behind some of the garden walls...or to imagine what may be going on...or in some of the big "hotels particuliers" where one can step back into history and view magnificent trompe l'oeil (trick of the eye)...or take in a concert of Vivaldi, Bach and Gilles played under the grand arches of Aix's Cathedrale St. Saveur. Come to think of it, no wonder there was not much cooking going on! Too much to see and do outside of the kitchen this week!

Today’s offering is an invitation for a bit of a wander with me through the streets of Aix on the way to an afternoon concert and a peek at the things that caught my attention.

Put on a pair of comfy walking shoes...or simply grab a cup of tea and get your scroll finger toned up for a little tour.

On the way to Parc Jourdan with Bodhi, I was captured by the light on the wall of the music conservatory in the Mazarine fact, if you look straight down the street you'll see College Mignet, the Junior High/High School level school in this neighborhood. Cezanne when to school here. So did his buddy, Emile Zola. And so does my young friend, Daniel!

I always wonder what is behind doors...or windows...or garden walls...and if those walls could talk...oh my...imagine the stories locked in those stones...I do!

Trompe l'oeil, or "trick of the eye" are little treasures found all over town. Here's an example on the wall outside one of the cinema houses:

But there was no time to was on to Parc Jourdan with an impatient puppy!

On the way back from the park, although the number of vendors along Cours Mirabeau was nothing new to see, there were some dancers and traditionally dressed folks that happily for me, got caught in my shutter.

Perhaps it was the focus on the cultural heritage, but I noticed a heightened sensitivity to all the things that I pass by and through each and every day.

As I strolled along the little streets behind Cours Mirabeau, I was impressed by how much work has been done on Place Albertas! Months of scaffolding and cleaning and refurbishing is beginning to show nicely.

On the way up to the concert at the cathedral, the sign through the arch of the clock tower at the Place Hotel de Ville looked brighter and came out from hiding to partake in the festivities of the weekend.

L’ Hôtel de Châteaurenard was opened for the weekend's events. The paintings in trompe l'oeil were done by Jean Daret in 1654. The scenes represent a mix of themes both classic and dreamlike.

Astronomy is represented here:

And here, Logic along with Mercury:

Along the way, there was a stop into the garden of a little gallery just on this side of the cathedral. A lovely, shady place that I dip into as often as I can just to breathe in the cool green of this sweet quiet space.

Across from the cathedral, a few doppelgangers from times past were hanging around the Political Sciences building looking for trouble...or maybe just a larger audience before they began their performance!

Once at the cathedral, I was delighted to discover the magnificent doors had been uncovered and their exquisite detail was available for viewing. But I was not alone in my interest and or delight, so most of my photos have crowds of tour groups in them. The solution: get a little abstract! A piece of the door and a few of its guardians!

And once inside, the concert was wonderful! Imagine...if these walls could talk!

If it seems like this is a little love letter to Aix, well...I'm okay with that...I guess we've got that kind of thing going on. It may well be the first of many.

I'll get back into the kitchen next week...the seasons are changing the market is squeezing out the last of the tomatoes and peaches and melons. Check in next week to see what's next on those market tables!


Monday, September 10, 2007

Flirtatious Sisters and Plans Gone Awry

This is not your mother’s apple pie! No Mon-sieureeee! It’s not even your aunt’s apple pie...that is unless your aunt happened to be named “Tatin” and was a part of the sister act that brought us this lovely little gem: La Tarte Tatin.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the word on the street is that these sisters had a little inn gig going in the north of France. Forgetfulness due to a little flirting with one of the guests is said to be the cause of the serendipitous result of an upside down apple pie. (The same thing happened to my sister once...the culinary results being less successful...but that’s another story.) The fruits of their plans gone awry brought us something that has certainly held up under the test of time. This is how I want my “apple-a-day” from this day forward!

The local apples are beginning to show up in the marché and one of the vendors was touting an “apple celebration” of sorts at their orchard. The reminder on the announcement "bring your cameras" caught my eye and I taped the directions and telephone number into my agenda and reserved the day. I was looking forward to being in the countryside in Provence.


...with its lavender sky at dawn and dusk that opens into an umbrella of deep blue through the day...

...and the light that the artists chased still washes the landscape in golden and peach-toned hues...

...and the charm of old architecture around every corner continues to capture my imagination ...and the fragrance as I pass the boulangeries along my daily routes satisfies without even tasting a morsel of what is being pulled from the ovens...and the cheese...ahhhhh...the cheese...have you heard?! We have over 400 types here?!



And then...there are days when everything seems to grind to a halt and there is a hiccup that makes all of those other charming qualities and experiences blur for a moment until I find my ground again. So it was on Saturday...the day of the apple celebration.

As a bit of background, my little French life has a very small carbon footprint. Translation: I have no car. Public transportation being what it is in this corner of the world, a car is not really necessary. In fact, it’s better not to have one in Aix as parking is at a premium and very expensive. So, for right car.

I can – and do - walk to everything I need: outdoor markets, supermarket, cinema, restaurants, parks, cafés, museums, galleries, train station, post name it, I can probably walk to it...and have. For destinations outside of town, there is frequent and reliable bus service (airport, TGV station, shopping or exploring Marseille) and when I want to do a bit of exploring in a more independent fashion in some of the outer realms, I rent a car from an agency that I’ve been using since I arrived. Well within walking distance from me, they had excellent customer service. (Notable given that customer service is not a concept that has really caught fire here in France.)

They were always a pleasure to work with and they always had a car when I needed one. In fact, there was the time when I needed a car for a pick-up at customs in Marseille at the last minute and it was the first and only time a car had not been available. The person running the desk at the time solved the problem by renting me her own car for the afternoon! Such a lovely gesture. This was a real measure of the overall customer service that I experienced with this agency time after time. They had earned a very loyal customer in me not to mention the occasional bundle of flowers or bag of madeleines from the marché as an occasional token of appreciation. Needless to say, we had a good thing going on.

Fast forward to Saturday. Sometime between the last time I rented a car (which had become less frequent with school) and now, the agency had been sold. The new staff was a bit abrupt and definitely not personable at first but I thought I’d give them another chance after an awkward start a couple of months ago.

I called to reserve a car for Saturday. A small car was confirmed for the afternoon and we discussed that I would only take it for a few hours and have it back before closing time. She confirmed her understanding and said she would see me Saturday...Yippppeeee! I was really looking forward to this apple orchard discovery and had planned this week’s blog post around it as well.

I arrived at the rental car agency a bit earlier than the time I had indicated and was greeted with “there has been a little change in plans.” Hmmmmmm...that didn't sound good. She had rented the car. In mild shock, I said “But I had a reservation.”

“No, no,” she informed me, “we don’t take reservations over the phone...that was not a reservation. You have to come in a give us a credit card to make a reservation.” I told her I must have been operating under the old rules of the other agency having rented regularly from them and she just sniffed and began dialing the phone.

While I mentally regrouped and tried to construct my next ideas in French to continue to express my shock and awe not to mention dismay, she put the phone down and looked up at me but down her nose (how do they do that?!?) and said that they had another car available at another location and they could bring it down to Aix (40 minutes away) and oh, by the way, it was a VAN...oh...and it would be over 60 euros...Would I be taking that offer?

Errrrrrrr...that would be NO!

I was terribly exasperated and disappointed and frustrated and couldn’t bring myself to get in her face in rapid fire French as I have seen people do when they are not satisfied with “customer service” in a business..and so I simply walked out...and missed the apple happening as it was far enough away to not be able to get to it easily via trains, bicycles or automobiles.

It is at times like this that the sweet little life that I’ve grown here has moments of implosion. Then somehow, the sky doesn’t look as blue, all I can smell is dog messes in the streets...and car exhaust...and the people on the street seem unfriendly...and the ville closes in on me...and as small as it seems when I can’t get out when I want to, the walk back to the apartment from the agency seemed endless in the heat of the afternoon. Zut! All of my plans dashed in an instant. While not having a car may be helping the planet, that small carbon footprint can leave some pretty heavy tracks and make my creative spirit look like road kill.

But the blog must go on...and so I turned apples into Tarte Tatin and brought my spirit back to life...along with my resolve to never use Rent-A-Car in Aix again!

Bon Appétit!


p.s. And to all of those naysayers who thought I was crazy to bring my cast iron skillet in my check-on luggage...hah! You should taste this little tart! What say you now?!? (Okay, it did seem a bit nutty at the time, I’ll give you that...but worth every inch of effort as I dragged it home!)

Try serving this with a dollop of crème fraiche...or ice cream...or all by itself! Two of my favorite gourmets thought it was “scrumptious”! Try it! You’ll see...

Tarte Tatin

6-8 apples (Jonathan, Braeburn, Granny Smith are just some examples to try)

12 Tablespoons butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces

1 cup sugar

For the pastry, use one sheet of pâte feuilletée (puff pastry) from your local freezer case. To prepare it for the tart, roll it out into a 12-inch circle.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Core, peel and quarter the apples.

Melt the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Remove from heat and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the butter.

Tightly pack the apples, core-side down first, around the inside edge of the skillet. They should be nestled tightly against each other. Return the pan to the stove and cook over high heat until the butter and sugar carmelize to a rich brown ~ about 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and carefully turn the apples over to the uncooked side with a fork. Return to the heat and cook an additional 5-8 minutes.

Remove from heat. Drape the pastry over the apples, tucking the overhang down between the apples and the inside edge of the skillet.

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the pastry is golden. Remove and allow to cool for 15 minutes.

Loosen the edges of the pastry with a knife. Invert onto a platter quickly and carefully. Rearrange any apples that may have fallen out. Serve warm.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Ticket to Ride

A happy consequence of relocating to Provence is that there are visitors! And I’ve recently had the thought that a reasonable ticket of admission to these parts for those coming from the US, (especially California!) may just be a package of Corn Tortillas!

It all started with an unfortunate lapse of memory as I dragged my bags into the airport after a visit to Minnesota this summer. I had stashed a bag of corn tortillas in my sister’s refrigerator to bring back and ultimately left them behind.

A few weeks later, I received a message from her BFF that she would be traveling to France and be staying in Aix for a few days and would I have time to connect? Alas, her time in Aix overlapped with my sail in the Greek Islands so it looked like it would be a missed connection. As an afterthought, I fired a message back to her with a request that she bring a bag of corn tortillas with her and I would make arrangements for them to be picked up so that they would be waiting in my refrigerator upon my return. She was more than happy to oblige...and even better: my return to Aix caught them on their last evening in town so we managed to make the tortilla drop in person...and have a little party in the courtyard! Although a bit battered from traveling (as we all are when we make that trans-Atlantic trip), the sweet corn flavor with that hint of a lime under-note was just the little taste of home I had been craving.

Yes, this is the 21st century and yes, there is that little thing called "globalization" going on that make corn tortillas actually available here...but not the ones I'm used to...they’re just not quite right...too "corny" somehow...and too much like crêpes. What’s more, a package of six will cost over 4 euros!! Aie! (French for “ouch”! I simply cannot bring myself to pay such an outrageous price for corn tortillas in these parts.)

So, with my authentic stash there have been chicken tacos, bean burritos, and when the pieces got too small at the end of the bag, there were makeshift tostadas. With one more pack in the freezer for when the next pangs hit, I'm a very happy girl. Yipppeeeeee! (And "mille fois merci" to DT for making the door to door delivery!)

The summer days bring out the haricots rouges in the marché. Mottled red and white, known as cranberry beans in the US, on this side of the Atlantic, they cook up into a lovely pot of Mexican beans...”comfort food” for a California Girl.

With a scoop of my cherished stash of chili powder from New Mexico that was given to me by another California Girl (in fact, JS, when you are next in Santa Fe, I’ll trade you a bag of chili powder for some herbs de provence!) this pot of beans was intended to be set up for an arranged marriage with those corn tortillas. (I’m happy to report: the marriage worked!)

If you are coming this way and happen to be from California, tuck a bag of tortillas in your suitcase for me! (And if you happen to be coming from San about stopping by El Indio on your way to the airport for a bag of fresh corn tortillas! Now that’s the ticket!)

Not exactly a fit for the Provençal theme here, but my pot of Mexican-style beans remind me of my life near the border at the edge of the Pacific...and sometimes nothing else will hit the spot!

Bon Appétit!

Mexican-Style Beans

Olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 (or more to taste) cloves of garlic, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 lbs. fresh cranberry beans, shelled and rinsed
1 (or more to taste) T. chili powder
1 quart chicken stock, preferably homemade
salt and pepper to taste

Cook onion and carrot in olive oil until softened. Add garlic and cook to soften - do not let it brown or burn. Add chili powder to "toast" and meld the flavors. Add the beans and chicken stock.

Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and let simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Check for seasonings to add salt and pepper to taste. (Depending on the consistency you prefer, add water during simmer as needed.)

Serve with corn or flour tortillas (if you can get them!)

(Soometimes I add a bit of chopped ham to this as well.)

Serves 4 to 6

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