Monday, December 31, 2007

Gifts to Feed a Craving Soul

It was an innocent-enough proposition, written while in full-craving mode, that set the stage for something altogether unexpected. (Always the most fun, isn’t it?!)

This craving had a name: Corn Tortillas.

Not the cardboard-tasting, over-4-euro-costing, limp-disc-looking things sold here under the same name, but the California kind. The ones with just the right texture and a bit of chew...packed with the flavor of lime and salt, the sweetness of corn singing through. The kind of craving that cannot be touched here in my little French world.

Falling under the category of “be careful what you ask for” my wishes were soon to be fulfilled.

The first to arrive were from my sister’s BFF. Although a bit jet-lagged and showing the kind of rugged edges that I show after a transatlantic flight and dragging around a foreign country for a few days (that would be the tortillas, not my sister’s BFF), they had not lost that sweet corny California essence.

I consumed the first of two bags almost in secret! Wrapped around spicy beans that had been cooked for several hours...or embracing salty roasted chicken and a tangy coleslaw - a dollop of crème fraiche to cool and top it off...or softening themselves with the steam from creamy scrambled eggs that filled their bellies...or, as the chips of them collected at the end of the bag, in the bottom of a bowl with the last of those beans as a modified tostada topped with lettuce and tomatoes and crème fraiche.

I'm telling you my friends, I was in tortilla heaven! Not wanting to go through my precious stash all at once, I put the other bag carefully in the freezer, already enjoying the idea of another set of meals at some later date. (I warned you early on that I was one of those souls who thinks about dinner while eating lunch!)

A few weeks later, I received an email from a friend in San Francisco saying someone was coming to town with something for me. My portable telephone rang a week or so later and a stranger said she had a package for me. We made plans to meet one evening on Cours Mirabeau and it was as much of a pleasure to meet these two travelers as it was to receive their parcel...yes, you guessed it: two big packages of fresh corn tortillas! A double whammy, this one, as the woman and her friend were unique and interesting and adventurous...who else would carry corn tortillas to someone she didn’t know from someone she didn’t know?! (This was the friend of a hairdresser in San Francisco...who does the hair of a friend who lived here when I first arrived...are you following this?! A story in itself, but we’ll stick to the tortillas.) I felt as though the Mexican tortilla gods were smiling down on me! Those immediately went into the freezer for the future as I considered how to share this unexpected bounty.

Some weeks later, a friend from San Diego arrived. With coordinates clarified, he found his way to my door...with a big bag of corn tortillas!

Is this not truly remarkable!? Not only that people are showing up in Aix with corn tortillas but that they are reading La Fourchette...and apparently taking notes! Thank you!

With such a stash, I decided to try my hand at enchiladas. I’m a taco-maker, bean-burrito-wrapper and guacamole-whipper-upper but enchiladas...errr...not so much. I never had the need to make them when I could go to any number of great Mexican restaurants in my other life for some of the best. In fact, in my younger days I was greeted by the cooks in the back of the Mexican restaurant that I lived over with a melodic, “La Muchachaaaaa!”(I always took that to be an affectionate moniker, by the way...I was young.) because I ate there several times a week. My favorites: the enchiladas.

Christmas in Provence may have its foie gras with champagne all the way to the 13 desserts with vin cuit, but with friends around the corner, I enjoyed a menu that went from guacamole and chips... enchiladas and refried beans (with a cooling slaw-type salad)...

topped off with a soft and soothing winter squash custard and a slice from a lovely marmalade cake sent from London by mutual friends.

While the others had a local vin, I kept it real with...

(A gift, sort of, from a local merchant who recently saw his aptly named California Market go out of business... so it was me or the poubelle*...and I took them. *trash)

So to D.T. and Z. (and messengers!) and M.L. - all of you who made those lovely corn tortillas appear: Thank you from a craving Californian in Provence! You were a part of Christmas dinner here as the story was shared...and savored!

As for the dreams that followed...we're not talkin' sugar plum fairies!

May your 2008 be filled with light and good things to well as strength and grace for the challenges.

Bon appétit!

p.s. A big thank you to one of my "peeps" for clarifying the information offered about the Four Mendicants in the 13 Desserts: “...the name of the order in English is NOT the Augustines, but the Augustinians.” This from an Augustinian, himself. In addition, “...the Carmelite Order is for men as well as women, so it would be correct to say, the Carmelites, just as the Augustinians, Dominicans or Franciscans.”

See what happens when you miss catechism...or practice Buddhism...or simply fail to run spell check?! Thanks again for the correction!

There are plenty more tortillas to share, so I’ll keep tweaking my enchilada recipe until it is ready for La Fourchette. (The necessary tweaks are about sauce to enchilada proportions.) In the meantime, here is the delicious custard recipe that was made by the intrepid cook who presented meals to Richard Olney! (It was delicious!)

Winter Squash Custard
(From Jane Brody’s Good Food Gourmet)

Preparation tip: any kind of winter squash – acorn, butternut, Hubbard, or pumpkin – can be used.

3/4-cup puréed winter squash
1/2-teaspoon cinnamon
1/4-teaspoon ground ginger
1/8-teaspoon nutmeg
Generous pinch ground cloves
1 1/4 cups skim or low-fat milk
1/3-cup mild-flavored honey
2 egg whites and 1 egg, beaten

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the squash, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.
3. Gradually whisk in the milk, honey, and beaten egg whites and whole egg, blending the ingredients well. Pour the mixture into a 1- or 1 1/2- quart ovenproof baking dish or soufflé dish. Place the dish in a roasting pan, and pour boiling water into the pan so that the water reaches halfway up the sides of the dish.
4. Place the custard in the hot oven, and bake the custard for 1 to 1 1/4 hours of until the custard has set and a knife inserted halfway between its center and side comes out clean. Serve the custard warm or chilled.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dates In December

Let’s just say it’s a good thing I am able to resist the temptation to spill the beans ahead of time, because this post was supposed to be about a date with a certain French president (who shall remain nameless to protect all parties involved) and me at Euro Disney...but that pesky little dial tone problem continues and he kept getting dumped into my voice mailbox with no response (like everyone else who has tried to call me in the last couple of months. Thanks “Ahl-leese"*!)

Alas, he finally gave up, thinking I was avoiding his calls. That certain model/singer (in fact, a couple of her songs are favorites of mine...I know all the French...and could have sung them quietly in one of those ears of his...had it been me...but it wasn’t...but I digress)...she was second...hmmm...perhaps she was even third on the list of possible dates...but really, dear was supposed to be me.

So no pics of me and the French prez in the spinning tasses et soucoupes**, or whipping around the Matterhorn with our arms extended over our heads, mouths wide open in a shared joyous scream...nope. And I would not have brought my mother, brazen hussy that I am! (Well, actually that decision would have been made so I could get a word in edgewise...but I digress...) I’m fairly confident that he could have avoided the swarms of international reporters had it been me, too...sigh...oh well. If it’s not to be me, then I give my blessings to her...and you’ll just have to hear about the dates that are a part of the 13 desserts, traditional here in Provence, instead of...that other date.

The custom of the 13 desserts that follow the Gros Supper (Big Meal) after midnight mass on Christmas Eve dates (no pun intended here) back to the Middle Ages. It’s a long evening spent with family, a roaring fire going in the corner and tales being told around the table...some traditional, some on one another. Lots of good food and laughter (and wine) make the evening a feast that surpasses the American Thanksgiving in the food category.

It was Marie Gasquet of St. Rèmy de Provence, who wrote extensively on the subject in 1870 saying that one must have 13 desserts, 12 of which incorporate the products of the home, the country, the garden and the 13th would be the dates, symbolizing the Christ coming to the orient.

The table is set with three tablecloths, one on top of another, representing the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atop these covers will be placed three candles and decorations of holly and/or corn stalks sown before the middle of December and the wheat grass that was planted back on Ste. Barbe’s Day. (There will be absolutely no mistletoe, though, as it brings unhappiness in these parts!) There is a dinner that precedes this array of goodies but for now we are skipping dinner and going straight to dessert. (Don’t tell me you haven’t wanted to do that every now and then!)

The 13 desserts are said to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. They consist (mostly) of products of nature and represent, once again, the agricultural ties – and resulting bounty – of this region. The middle of winter is the chance to savor what was gathered in the autumn and then stored or dried or made into jams or jellies.

There are always 13 desserts but the exact items vary by local or familial tradition. In the old tradition, the food would be set out on Christmas Eve and remain on the table for three days until December 27.

All 13 desserts must be served at the same time and the guests must taste each one of them. (And finish what they take!)

If you'd like to count along with me, those 13 desserts include:

(1) The fougasse, or olive oil bread, which is made rich with olive oil, a touch of orange water (hinting back to its cousin, the brioche) and a bit of brown sugar, must be broken by hand and never cut or you will certainly see ruin in the new year. I have a sense that each family has a favorite recipe and style for this lovely stuff and there are many artisanal varieties from which to choose as well.

(2-3) The white nougat of sugar, eggs and hazel nuts, pinions or pistachios symbolizes “good”. Since “good” always has its shadow side, black nougat, made with honey and almonds represents its counterpart, symbolizing impurity and the forces of evil.

(4-7) Les Quatre Mediants, or “four beggars", represent the four mendicant monastic orders: Raisins (The Dominicans), Walnuts or hazelnuts (The Augustines), Dried Figs (The Franciscans), and Almonds (The Carmelite nuns).

(8) Any assortment of fresh fruit might be found on the table such as pears, apples, grapes or winter melons as well as (9) a quince paste and/or candied or crystallized citrus fruit.

(10-11) Oranges and tangerines are definitely aplenty at this time of year in Provence and brighten up the winter table.

(12) For sweets, count on cookies such as navettes, (specialties of Marseille) or biscotti-like cookies from Aix, the almond-paste candies with sugar icing called calissons (another specialty of Aix), cumin or fennel seed cookies, fried dough cookies and oreillettes which are ear-shaped cookies. (Sometimes the oreillettes and navettes are saved for Candlemas, a holiday that will follow in the new year, but they have been known to be included in the cookie selection for the 13 desserts as well.)

There will often be a Pain d’Epice - a very reasonable and tasty version of a fruitcake (I love this stuff!) or perhaps a squash tart.

(13) This brings us to that previously mentioned date, representing the food of the region where Jesus lived and died....clearly not Euro Disney!

It’s all washed down with a sweet vin cuit or cooked wine, another specialty of Provence that makes an appearance at this time of year. This is not the mulled wine that is sold to warm the hearts and hands of holiday shoppers at the Christmas markets. This is a special wine that also has variations depending on who is stirring the proverbial pot. (It would seem that every culture has its “grog”!)

The party ends (by the way, that dinner we skipped to get to dessert: 7 courses, my friends! These desserts follow 7 courses!) with a Bûche de Noël (Yule log) being carried around the table by a pair made up of the youngest and oldest guests in the group. Representing the santons, they circle the table 3 times with a large chunk of log (preferably cut from a fruit tree) finally putting the log directly into the fireplace, where it catches fire and burns slowly. At the first sign of it actually catching fire, wine is thrown onto the flame to ensure a good vintage the following year...or salt for protection from sorcery. (I guess it depends on what the year has been like.) With the disappearance of the grand fireplaces that heated homes back in the day, this tradition has been replaced with a Yule log of a different type – a rolled cake filled with butter cream frosting. The array available at the local patisseries is something to see...and taste...resulting in not much bûche de noel baking happening in my little French kitchen, bien sûr!

And there you have it: the 13 Desserts in Provence. (And if you've gotten this far, this is one of those for credit posts at La Fourchette U!)

Christmas dinner will be of quite a different sort chez La Fourchette! You’ll have to stop in next week to see what a girl from the south of California does to bring a bit of her own traditions to her life in the south of France. But in the spirit forging new traditions - and in keeping with our theme - I will leave you with a bit of dessert.

Thanks to the New York Times’ cooking “Minimalist”, Mark Bittmann, and his charming cooking videos in the New York Times online, I was seduced into making chocolate truffles...and you can, too! (What ever happened to Steven Colbert's campaign?!) Mark (yes, we are on a first-name basis, thank you...I'll not be sitting by my not-ringing-telephone waiting for Nic, for goodness sakes...but I digress) made it look so easy. And it was. And I even found a way to give them my own southwest twist. They were tucked into little packages of goodies for friends and will probably be the stand-in for dates at my holiday dessert table...much like Carla Bruni was for me...but I digress...

Wishing you a joyous and delicious holiday wherever you are and in whatever manner you celebrate.

Bon Appétit!


* Alice, my telecommunications carrier that is not living up to its job description.
** cups and saucers

Chocolate Truffles (With a Southwest Twist)
(Adapted from Mark Bittman in the New York Times)

In the same fashion that I like the combination of sweet and salty simultaneously, I am a big fan of sweet and hot. The heat from the chili powder here may not be noticed immediately but the warmth will be there to accompany the hint of sweet and then soften any of the bitter edges of the dark chocolate. It's subtlety will depend on your proportions. I think it adds a kind of depth to the chocolate that takes it one step beyond being dusted with itself.

7/8 cup heavy cream

8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed.

New Mexico Chili Powder

Cocoa Powder

1. Heat cream in a pot until it steams. Put chocolate in a bowl, pour hot cream on top, and stir until chocolate is melted and incorporated into cream.

2. Chill until solid all the way through, 1 to 2 hours. Using a spoon, scoop out spoonfuls according to the size you want your final truffle to be. (I made them with scoops of about 1 1/2 teaspoons) and quickly roll it into a ball. Repeat, lining truffles on a plate or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

3. If truffles become too soft to handle, place them in refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes. Roll them in blend of cocoa powder and chili powder mixed in about a 2:1 ratio. More if you with it here. I know I will! With this ratio, you will still feel the heat as a pleasant surprise. (Or you can use confectioners’ sugar, or a mixture of sugar and ground cinnamon, or keep it simple with just cocoa.)

Serve immediately or store, wrapped in plastic, in refrigerator for up to four days.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups ganache, or 24 truffles.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Licking the Windows with Père Noël*

Contrary to what my extraverted mother always tried to tell her introverted daughter...apparently men do come knocking at my door without my putting myself out into the world!

On an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon, I was sitting at home reading cookbooks when the sonnerie (doorbell) startled me back into the moment. "Who is it?**" I my firm "I'm-not-expecting-anyone-so-don't-expect-to-be-invited-in" tone of voice.

The reply took my quite by surprise: "Père Noël."

There was a moment of silence while I gathered my wits about me and buzzed him in. (You gotta let Santa in when he's ringing your doorbell!)

I opened the door to just what I would have expected: a right jolly old elf...well, a bit more than an elf, to tell you the truth. A good head taller than I, with that unmistakable white beard and rosy red cheeks (not sure if that was due to the cold or the fine wines we have in these parts!) he extended a red-mittened hand for an introductory greeting, sensitive to my American sensibilities and my occasional hesitation to exchange kisses upon the first meeting.

He had received my letter...he knew it was me because I still confuse the masculine and feminine aspects of this new language sometimes...and had decided to show up to make sure he had understood it correctly. I was quick to confirm, "Yup! That's it...that's all I'm asking for this year: Peace on Earth."

He stood there a moment and then took my hand. "Let's see if we can't find something to add to that list, shall we?" And with a wink, we were out the door and into the winter wonderland that is Aix en Provence at holiday time.

"Surely we can come up with a few things that you'd like to find under your tree on Christmas morning," he prodded.

Pourquoi pas? It couldn't hurt to take him up on his invitation and add to my list. I had a feeling that a bit of my life was about to unfold "out of my little kitchen in the south of France" So I started...tentatively.

"Actually, I guess I could use a new know, to keep track of the 'places to go, people to meet' kinds of things."

He pulled out a little leather black book with a red ribbon page marker and began a list. "Okay...and then...?" he nudged.

"Well, honestly, I've recently kicked the coffee habit...again...and could use a bit of inspiration to make that tea even tastier in the morning," I offered.

"If it's inspiration you need, it's inspiration you'll get!" he quipped as he made an additional note on his list.

"And how about a little something to brighten up the winter-weary courtyard?" I was starting to get the hang of this exercise.

"You see, I just knew we could come up with something!" He was clearly quite pleased with himself.

"And how about a little something for the house...?"

"...and the kitchen, to be sure!"

"Noted...aaaaand noted."

"Oh! And there is that lip gloss...oh! and hand creme at L'Occitane that I like so much!" I was beginning to feel a bit giddy.

"Annnnnd?" he said with his head cocked to one side.

I hesitated.

"Oh, c'mon...let's have some fun!" he said. And with that he grabbed my hand and took off. When we came to a stop and the flurry of passing images stopped spinning, I think he offered me a challenge: "Let's take this to the next level, shall we?!"

Could he be suggesting Aix?! On second thought, I could be talked into this.

"Something in black?" he suggested coyly.

I was beginning to think that he might be one of those guys that really pays attention! "Yes! That works!" I said, warming up to the direction we were taking.

"How about something in fur?" he teased.

"No! No fur! Puh-leeeze! Do I look like the 'fur-type'?!" I leaned into him playfully as we walked past the windows. This was starting to be fun.

"Ooooh...but how about a Little Black Dress?" I cooed. (Oh dear...had I actually just flirted with Père Noël?!) That dress on the left had caught my eye.

"A little black dress?! Do you want to try that again?!" he said with a smile in his voice.

Rats! Caught "multi-black dressed" by The Man! "Errrr...make that 'another' Little Black Dress." (What?!? Was this guy checking closets between checking to see who's naughty and nice?!)

"Hmmmmm...what about this?" he pointed as we passed a window, adding, "and it's 'faux fur' at that!"

"Welll..." I started. "'s lovely...and I'm sure it would look really nice...on someone else." (I always thought this was the most polite way to wiggle out of one of my mother's suggestions back when she was my stylist. I think it's always a good idea to be polite to your stylist!) "But check out these black jeans!" (Distraction...another good idea to remember in these awkward situations.)

I saw him scratching something off of his list (and I'm hoping it wasn't the black jeans!) and we continued on.

"Fur or no fur, I'll bet this California Girl could use something warm!" and he extended an arm out over a rather nice selection of choices.

"Oh my! Could she ever!" (He must know that I'm still adjusting to temperatures like "zero"....pffft! Like that's even a temperature!?)

"Shoes!" I blurted out. "I could use some shoes!" and I made a beeline to a window...that offered just my color!

As we passed one of the many jewelry stores in Aix, he asked if I needed a watch.

"No," I replied and I gently turned him around to face the opposite direction. "But I know where they keep the Armani in this part of town!"

We both laughed and I noticed that nothing went into that little black book. Guess I'm not getting Armani this year...make that again this year. (Rats!)

"Well, if you don't want a watch, how about some sort of shiny bauble?" and he turned to face a window full of the stuff.

"Not really me, is it?" I asked myself outloud. "But...around the that's another story altogether! This has my name all over it!" And I took him by the hand to show him exactly what I meant.

He smiled and scribbled something into his little book. (Yipppeeeee!)

We continued at a strolling speed from this point until I stopped in front of another window.

He pulled out that little black book, but stopped with his pen posed above the page. With a puzzled look and tone he mused aloud, "This isn't really you, is it?!"

"No, no...not at all...but check this out. Once you see the reflection of the old buildings in this window...can you not see it after that?!" We stood for a few moments admiring this phenomenon and shared a special appreciation wordlessly.

"Hey, I've got an idea!" I said, breaking the spell. As we arrived at the next window, I leaned in and whispered, ""What about a little someone that would fill out that outfit in the see? The one with the black sport coat and gray scarf? What do you think?"

He smiled and pulled out that little book...something was noted...but I sure hope he saw the right one...there's a child's outfit in the front! Another reminder to be careful what you ask for. (Fingers crossed that language was not a barrier here.)

"And something for my newly developed sweet tooth! I know just the thing...errr...things!"

"Oh! Look at this! I could really use some sort of basket or bag rig on the back of my bicycle!"

(My bicycle is my "other" means of transportation since I've been here...the "other" means being "au pied" or "on foot", of course.) He rolled his eyes, but it went on the list.

I was feeling a twinge of concern that he was beginning to drift (and just as I was getting into it) so I quickly shifted gears thanks to the window we were approaching.

"How about a little something to go under that...errr...those little black dresses?"

Bingo! That little black book got whipped out and I'm pretty confident that I can count on some stockings to stuff!

"And how about a splash of this?! But..." I added, tugging at his beard to make sure he was writing this down, " number is 19."

"Well...heh, heh, heh...," he started... (which I took to be French for "ho, ho, ho"...) "...then shall I put a bit of bubbly on the list, too?"

"Ooooh! Santa Baby, now you're talkin'! Errrrr....I mean...Père Noël...what a lovely idea...oh, how I do love champagne! Yes, yes, yes...put that on the list, too! Puh-leeeze!"

The last item to go on the list was added as we passed by this window.

"I've been searching for this one song by Miles Davis that I heard in a café in San Francisco years ago...perhaps you could sort that out for me?"

He made a note and tucked that little black book into his sleeve.

Arm in arm we returned chez La Fourchette. We stopped at the entry and I asked one final question: "What about that 'Peace on Earth' thing?" realizing that I'd gotten a bit carried away with the initial invitation.

Under that entry, after he planted a whiskery kiss on each cheek, he winked and said, "I'm working on it."

And with a universal sign that transcends any language, he was off.

Bon Appétit!

* The expression for "window shopping" in French is "lèche vitrine", which literally means to "lick the windows".

** As I always clarify to my sister or English speaking friends as I relate events to them: "This was all in French." But, of course!

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