Monday, January 28, 2008


I spent the better part of a day (and night!) doing a little heavy construction on the site in the hopes that future tweaks will be a bit easier. Some of the changes are evident. Some are more subtle. I welcome your feedback as I move through the process.

The term O.P.M. was something I had heard several years ago, referring to the preference of using it whenever possible: Other People’s Money. And may I just add here for the sake irony, that my bank in France is...

That’s right...Société Générale. Heard of it?! ‘Nuff said.

O.P.M. took on an entirely new meaning last night as I listened to a friend (who had lived in Aix before returning to the City By The Bay) describe her Provencal-themed menu planned for a group of friends later in the month. A bit of a gift, as I recall her saying, for some kindness extended to her at an earlier time. As she announced one course after another, I found that my bowl of black beans atop a precious corn tortilla topped with a couple of poached eggs was just not quite hitting the spot during my break from the construction project.

Given the work for those aforementioned site changes as well as a few projects on my desk that have been promoted from “pending” to “urgent,” I've decided today to use O.P.M. or Other People’s Menus.

This menu sounds like something for which I should be hopping a plane to San Francisco!

Inspired by Patricia Wells' The Provence Cookbook and At Home in Provence, the menu includes:

Hazelnut, Gruyère and Rosemary Biscuits (Biscuits au Fromage, Romarin et Noisettes)

Sautéed Almond-Stuffed Dates (Dates Fourrées aux Amandes)

Salad of Wild Mushrooms, Parmesan and Arugula ( Chanterelles, Pieds-de-Moutons et Roquette au Parmesan)

Leek, Potato and Truffle Soup (Potage Parmentier aux Truffes)

(I believe there is a Lamb tagine that shows up about here.)

Cheese tray

Pear Clafouti

The wine will be French, of course. I’m quite certain that the company will be charming. And the dinner...well, I just wish I could be there!

I'm still trying to figure out how to pull this menu off in my tiny, tiny apartment for a few friends, but in the meantime, I comforted myself with a bit of clafouti, taking my lead from this menu's dessert.

Sometimes spelled clafoutis, it’s not-quite-a-pancake, not-quite-a-custard, not-quite-a-flan and comes from the Occitan verb that translates “to fill up.” It's a country-French dessert, traditionally made with cherries (with the pits if you’re a purist!) There are as many versions of clafouti as there are fruits, I suppose. This one, from Mark Bittman of the New York Times (and I’ve already hinted at my cooking crush on him), is a great way to use a bountiful winter crop and reflect a little of the "clementine" light and color from the south of France while you’re at it!

Staying with last week’s citrus theme, clemetines are plentiful in the marché right now. These were from Corsica and untreated, at that! A bit of zest was a lovely addition.

Bring a taste of the sunshine of Provence into your winter and give this a try...unless you are one of the lucky ones invited to SdZ’s dinner in San Francisco. Then I suggest you be getting ready for that little extravaganza instead. (Chop! Chop! Don’t be late! You don’t want to miss a single bite!)

Bon appétit!

Clementine Clafoutis

Time: About 1 hour

Butter as needed
1/2 cup flour, more for dusting pan
3 eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Pinch salt
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
5 to 15 clementines, peeled and sectioned, about 3 cups
Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a gratin dish, about 9-by-5-by-2 inches, or a 10-inch round deep pie plate or porcelain dish, by smearing it with butter, just a teaspoon or so. Dust it with flour, rotating pan so flour sticks to all the butter; invert dish to get rid of excess.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs until frothy.

Add granulated sugar and salt and whisk until combined.

Add cream and milk and whisk until smooth.

Add 1/2 cup flour and stir just to combine.

Layer clementine sections in dish; they should come just about to the top. Pour batter over fruit to as close to top of dish as you dare; you may have a little leftover batter, depending on size of your dish. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until clafoutis is nicely browned on top and a knife inserted into it comes out clean.

Sift some powdered sugar over it and serve warm or at room temperature.

Clafoutis does not keep; serve within a couple of hours of making it.

Makes at least 6 servings.

Monday, January 21, 2008

'Twas Brillig

That’s the only word I could think of...really!

As I walked through the second sun-drenched day that followed rainstorms and temps that required mittens, I decided that “brillig” was just this kind of day. A day that takes a step past brilliant and needs new words...or twists on the old words of my childhood. And that particular word suddenly fit for me.

This day shimmered. 'Twas brillig!

Fountains wrapped themselves in dappled light...and wore it well...

...bare trees in the plazas stretched toward the light like a yoga class in a silent choreography of sun salutes...

...the good folk of the town gathered at the sunniest cafes, shielded with sunglasses against the unfamiliar brilliance of this welcomed guest. In the sea of black coats, a few brave souls even peeled layers back to show a little skin for the first time in months... glasses paired up and danced in the light on their outdoor tables...

...and some found themselves in solo performances...

...baskets and boxes of produce in the market were all the more enticing splashed with sunshine...

...hints of the gentle days ahead were apparent in Cezanne’s garden...

...shutters, closed against the wind and cold for the better part of the season...

...were thrown open, as if to say, "Bring it on!"...

Having spent the better part of the second such day at the park with Bodhi, I became aware of how thoughtfully many of the benches are placed to make the most of a shot at natural heating in the middle of winter. These same benches are well shaded as temperatures rise. (My goodness, the people who live with seasons are clever ones!)

What better way to celebrate the sun on a rare and lovely mid-winter day than to use this year’s harvest of the two Meyer lemons (from my own little lemon tree) in a soufflé!

I had been inspired by a lemon soufflé (soufflé-cake, actually) at a dinner party I had attended the other evening. A light mouthful at first bite, the richness made itself known as I continued. Almost the consistency and taste of a lovely cheesecake at the start, as I dug (errrrr...I mean “daintily dipped my spoon”) into the bottom of the little pot, there was something closer to a pudding waiting for me there. (Honestly, I think I even saw that pudding smiling at me to welcome my arrival!) The consistency of a lovely lemon curd, it certainly wakes up the whole affair.

All of the guests made the well-deserved "oohs and aaahs" in response to the first...and then the second mouthful...and then we hit that pudding and sauce at the bottom.

We had been talking about food for the better part of the wonderful meal but this...this called for our full attention and the only subject on everyone's lips was sitting in the little pots in front of each one of us.

We savored.

We praised.

We asked for the recipe.

We envisioned the next soufflé as we were scraping the last of the sauce from our little pots. Yup! It was that good. (Note to self: Do not apply for that position of "stealth photographer" for anonymous food writer...never gonna happen...the portable phone was not subtle.)

My inspiration for a lemon soufflé had become a "soufflé-off"!

In the first corner we have: a lemon soufflé-cake that was chosen as the wedding cake by my friends N & W when they were married, back in the day. I had my work cut out for me. It was a keeper!

In the second corner we have: a recipe I had recently seen as I ate lunch and practiced my French by listening to the afternoon news. Another chef, Christian Plumail of l'Univers de Christian Plumail in Nice, was strutting his stuff in a 5 minute “filler” between new casts. I bit. (Actually, he had me in the introduction and a close up of those little soufflé cups! I'm easy.) As luck would have it, his recipe calls for two lemons and I had...well, exactly two lemons!

This lovely little soufflé holds its own in this playful competition! Bravo, Chef! Lighter than the pudding style of the dinner party, but full of the sunshine-y zip of zesty lemon. It also has a thicker sauce at the bottom of its pot - not quite the same "curd" quality, but a nice contrast to the airy first bite.

Each makes a lovely presentation...each will win you sincere compliments at the end of your meal...and each will squeeze just a little more sunshine into a winter day.

Bon appétit!

p.s. I am sooo going to Chef Plumail's digs in Nice! I may only be able to afford the soufflé...but I'm going...and you'll be the first to know when I do!

p.p.s. A "thank you" to Nathalie for sharing her "soufflé-cake" recipe.

Soufflé au Citron (gently adapted from Chef Christian Plumail)

2 lemons, organic and non-treated
3 eggs
1/4 cup of granulated sugar
A few tablespoons of powdered sugar (this is for the final dusting)
A pinch of fine sea salt
A bit of extra butter and granulated sugar for the lining preparation of the ramequins.

Preheat the oven to 350°F

1) Butter lightly and and give a dusting of granulated sugar to the inside of 4 ramequins 8 cm in diameter, taking care not to leave any fingerprints on the surface. Turn over and tap each ramequin to eliminate any surplus sugar. (A note: if you store the ramequins a few minutes in the refrigerator before buttering them, the butter will solidify more easily on the cold walls.)

2) Take the zest of 2 lemons, then chop finely. (Or use one of those lovely zesting tools that does it all for you!)

3) Set aside the juice one of the lemons.

4) Separate the yolks from the whites of 3 eggs. Vigorously whip the 3 yolks with 3/8 cup granulated sugar until the it becomes light in color and in texture. Incorporate the lemon zest.

5) Whip the 3 egg whites (with a pinch of fine sea salt added). Finish whipping the whites with the remaining 1/8 cup of sugar and gradually incorporate the lemon juice.

6) Add a bit of the whipped egg whites to the whipped yolk mixture then slowly add the whipped yolks to the whites, gently (very gently!) adding it and incorporating it with a spatula, until the whipped yolks are entirely blended into the whites.

7) Fill the prepared ramequins carefully, taking care not to allow the mixture to run on the edges. Smooth the surface delicately to perfect their presentation. Place the ramequins on a baking sheet and slip it into the preheated oven at about middle height.

8) Bake the soufflés for 7 minutes at 350°F. (Do not open the door of the oven during the cooking time!)

9)Dust each of the soufflés with powdered sugar and serve warm.

Serves 4

Nathalie's Lemon "Soufflé Cake" (Adapted from George Funke's 1976 version)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Choose a 1 1/2 quart casserole (or 6 to 8 custard cups) and another larger baking pan. Put the casserole or custard cups in the larger pan and add water to come well up the sides. Remove the casserole/custard cups, cover the larger pan and heat the water in it, either on teh stove top or in the oven.

Butter the interior of the casserole or custard cups. (Or put dabs or butter in the baking dishes and set in a warm place so the butter melts while you prepare the following batter.)

2 large lemons Grate the rind, squeeze the juice, and set aside.

3 large eggs, separated Yolks in one medium-size bowl, whites in another.

1 cup milk

1 cup granulated sugar Set aside 1/4 cup.

2 tablespoons flour)-- Stir flour and salt into remaining sugar
Pinch salt )--

2 tablespoons butter Cut into several fingertip size pieces

In their medium size bowl, beat the egg yolks with a fork or small whisk. Stir the mild into the egg yolks. Next stir in the sugar-flour mixture, followed by the lemon rind and juice. Blend well. Add the morsels of butter.

In the other medium bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, gradually adding the 1/4 cup sugar reserved above. Gently fold the egg whites into the sugar-lemon mixture.

Pour the mixture into the buttered casserole or custard cups. Place in the pan of hot water and bake 20-25 minutes for a casserole, 15 minutes for custard cups. Be Accurate (!) as to baking time, so the bottom remains a thick liquid that serves as a sauce for the soufflé-cake. Serve promptly.

Makes 6 to 8 servings (May also be served at room temperature or cold.)

Option: substitute the grated rind and juice of 1 orange for the lemons. (1 orange is about 6 tablespoons of juice.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Could You Repeat That, Please?!

Living in another language has its humbling moments, leading to some unintended entertainment, or just plain confusion, for those on the receiving end. A few examples...

...I once asked a shopkeeper if it was okay to bring Bodhi in with me even though he was a little “salty”. One little extra syllable and it's not about being “dirty” anymore...

...I told a friend that I had an appointment to have my “horses cut”...which really would have been more of a veterinary procedure., I can still get them confused. It’s a subtle difference for a new learner...

...asking for my black sweater at the pressing (cleaners) caused all sorts of unexpected confusion and giggles. They had understood me to have asked for my
black chicken! Another subtle one, dear readers, but the “ou” sound as in "pool" and the “u” sound as in “eewww” made all the difference in deteremining what would go into the plastic bag that I would be taking home from there!

...I told someone I hardly knew that I loved him. We had been talking about a
film or something and I was trying to practice using a pronoun to say I liked it...a lot...not him...I had just slipped on my pronouns. ooops...

...during a routine check-up, I told a doctor that being "...a woman from the Middle Ages...blah, blah, blah...," personally appreciating my ability to make this reference about my new phase of life without choking. The Middle Ages are referred to often in these parts...but for their place in history...this is not how one would refer to the middle years of a life. He got a big laugh out of this...big. So big, that after he regained his composure, he assured me that it was something he would never forget. Neither will I... the early days, someone who did not laugh at me but probably thought he should have started up his vehicle to head straight for the nearest psychiatric hospital once I was onboard, was the bus driver who let me back on the bus to search for my lost “baguette”. I was looking under all the seats for the ring (bague) that had dropped off of my finger, but had added a little "-ette" to the end of the word in my request. A ring might be tough to find, worthy of a search under each seat. A baguette, on the other hand...not so much. He just watched silently, with a very puzzled look on his face, as I made my meticulous search...

...recently in a discussion about the current worldwide economic situation, (yes,
amazingly, I actually walk right into political and philosophical conversations without hesitation!) I made a comment about “‘Les Bourses’ have also taken a bit of a hit.” Well, let’s just say that the Paris stock market is never, never, referred to in the plural sense because the plural refers to an anatomical set of sacks that have nothing to do with the money bags for which La Bourse is named. Once again, after composure had been regained, I think we switched to talking about the weather.

I could go on...but...I won’t.

Romance language indeed! I haven't gotten to that part...yet. But I continue to stick with it and my confidence is improving daily. Well...most days.

As sometimes happens, those French-gears just weren't shifting for me one day last week. It was the first day of the semi-annual sales and the streets were teeming with lovely-looking people. I donned my black jeans to blend in a bit more but not compromise my décontractée style (relaxed, casual), wrapped a scarf around my neck, put on my older-than-I-can-remember cashmere jacket and headed out to run errands.

As I crossed the street, I passed two gentlemen conversing. Although I could not hear what was being exchanged, I had the sense that the younger was asking the older for directions. A few moments later I heard, “Excusez-moi, Madame!” and ignored it. (As I usually do if I hear a male voice trying to get my attention. I’ve been around the block!) But the phrase was repeated with a bit more insistence and I did turn around to see the younger of the two men a meter behind me. Given my earlier assumption, I imagined he did not get the directions he was looking for. It happens. So I stopped.

A very nicely dressed young man stood in front of me. Clean-shaven, wearing all black, topped by a very nice black overcoat, a pair of black contemporary glasses sitting on his refined nose, this business look was further enhanced by a brief case. I detected a lisp as he began with the standard politesse of “Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Madame, mais...” (Excuse me for bothering you, Madame, but..) followed by the very predictable question - if someone is about to ask for directions - “...are you ‘Aixoise’?”. Confirming my familiarity with this fine ville with a quick, “Oui,” I prepared myself for a question that would require me to keep my “go straight” from my “go right” (another subtle me on this).

What happened next was baffling. He had clearly gotten to the end of his question and I had clearly not gotten anything other than something about doing something (faire). I asked him, politely, to repeat himself. So he did. And again, I missed all but something about doing something.

I get a bit rattled when I miss the important stuff like this right off the bat. My brain goes into freeze-mode like an overworked computer and I have to scramble to free up some memory to be able to continue. I was in mid-scramble when this very polite young man turned the volume up a notch and continued very clearly and slowly, “Sex! Voulez-vous faire...” (and frankly I should have caught the “voulez-vous” part from my popular music repertoire of the 70’s!)...followed by...something I didn't get...and then another something about food or...who knows??! I was now in meltdown mode. I had put what I could of this message together, and it was clear that someone was wanting sex for food...or wanting food for sex...I never was quite sure who was intended to get what.

All I knew at this point was that “No!” is universally understood. I said it firmly as I turned on my black heel and headed away from this scene. Perhaps not sounding firm enough, as he called after me loudly, in now lisp-less French, “But I need to eat!”

I heard someone laugh.

I had taken off like I meant it, but I was heading in the opposite direction from my start and was now in front of a boulangerie. I stepped in with a calm “Bonjour,” not forgetting my own politesse as I entered the establishment to regroup, calm my accelerated breathing and move through this minor trauma. A few warm and fragrant moments later, honoring the code of politesse by offering a softly spoken, "Au revoir," I walked out the door.

A certain young man was now talking to another passerby so I quickly walked to the other side of the street. So quickly, in fact, that I got a bit tripped up by the large black bag that completed my stylish-but-casual ensemble for the day. (Note to self: if you’re going to carry such a large bag, you should have the comportment to manage it under any circumstance. It seems all kinds of uncool to trip over your own bag in front of some stranger who has just propositioned you.)

It was my lovely conversation partner who clued me in to the reality of what was probably a male prostitute...on my street, dear readers. My own little rue, so beautifully situated between the two outdoor markets in one direction and two lovely fountains in the other.

My. Little. Rue!

I’m telling you, I would expect something like this around that rough and tumble Rotonde where all the taxis and busses congregate. Or even somewhere around the peripherique - the "edgy" part of town – literally! But on my little rue?! Quel horreur!

And what’s more, all this happened just when I thought I was having what my sister calls a “cute day”! I was now tossed into uncertainty as to whether it was my “cuteness” that brought this event about or if I had been approached because I appeared in a Woman-From-the-Middle-Ages-Looking-For-Mister-Goodbar kind of desperate...or perhaps I appeared to be hungry?! (Depending on who was to be receiving that food he had mentioned.)

Under cloudy skies that threatened rain, with a cold wind blowing from the east again, I returned from my errands to comfort myself with apples à la Ruth apples.

Alrighty then.

I would comfort myself with soup. A warm, rich potato, leek and watercress soup, with just a drop of cream to round it all out.

It turned out to be lovely and thick. Just the remedy I needed to warm my belly, settle my soul and put me squarely back in touch with reality:
I was having a "cute day"!

Bon appétit,

A few other faces from Aix...having a different kind of "cute day"...

Leek, Potato and Watercress Soup

SERVES 6 – 8

Apparently, this is a favorite of legendary cookbook editor Judith Jones. Originally adapted from Julia Child's recipe in the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I, it got another little tweak from me.

3 russet potatoes, peeled and sliced or diced
5 leeks, trimmed, cleaned, then thinly sliced, including
the tender green part
8 cups of chicken stock, preferably homemade
4–6 tbsp. whipping cream
1 – 1 1/2 cup of watercress leaves
sea salt and pepper to taste
a few sprigs of watercress for garnish

1. Put potatoes, leeks and 8 cups of chicken stock in a large saucepan over medium heat and simmer, partially covered, until vegetables are tender, 40–50 minutes. Add the watercress and allow to wilt and incorporate into the liquid a bit.

2. Transfer to a food processor to blend or use a hand-held blender. Salt and pepper to taste.

3. Off heat, just before serving, stir in the cream by spoonfuls. Pour soup into a tureen or soup bowls and decorate with the reserved sprigs of watercress. Add a little freshly ground white pepper, if you like.

Monday, January 07, 2008

In The Midst of Winter...*

Even the south of France has its winter look.

What’s more, the new year blew in on a wind from the east that whipped through the Alps to slip into something cooool on its way here. As it slammed into town, howling through the little rues, it joined forces with a loosely organized rainstorm that made for several days of wind and sog.

Night after night throughout the quartier (neighborhood), old shutters not firmly fastened could be heard banging and rattling against their ancient stone walls, trees were bent low over puddled inner courtyards and the cats of Provence cried out in the dark. Quite a tumultuous welcome for this brand new baby year.

Being blown to bits were the plants in the courtyard, my new haircut and the tarps at the marché. This mischievous wind has blown my thoughts asunder as well. So it’s "potluck" today, dear readers. I had intended to make this short and sweet and stick to a new year’s greeting for 2008...and then that wind kicked up and my thoughts got tumbled...and, well...then the king cakes showed up in the town’s boulangeries and suddenly I had a new year’s post that was going every which way!

Hang on to your hats (and anything else not nailed down!) and just go with me on this one.

As the lights and greens of the holiday season are being pulled down from our little rues and the silver lavender fields are being frosted white, the Gateau de Roi, or king cake, arrives to celebrate Epiphany. There are two types offered. Last year, La Fourchette brought you an introduction to one of these annual delicacies and its tradition. This year it is only fair to shine the light on the “other” little gateau.

Made with brioche, it is a ring, symbolizing a crown, with the same bean/king combo baked inside. Same tradition, same rules...different cake. I’m a brioche lover so this is easy for me: Make mine brioche from here on out! Topped with candied fruit and seriously grand sugar crystals, it is sometimes studded with candied fruit on the inside as well. Me, I prefer the simple brioche, keeping my candied fruit to the top only...but to each her own.

Enjoyed as a dessert to end a winter meal (and see who will be bringing the next cake while the season lasts), or as a little something to nibble with tea as the morning light breaks open a new works. It’s not exactly the salads that I crave after the holiday feasting...but it’s all good.

The "sujet" or charm buried in the first cake of the season this year was not a king but that of a boulanger! Bravo! A petite reminder to appreciate those who bring us our daily bread!

As for 2008, starting with a clean desk and a revised system for organizing and tracking all of my projects has me feeling quite optimistic about the year ahead. Actually, if truth were told, I always feel optimistic about a new year. 2008 is simply the next year about which I feel optimistic. After the high energy of the holidays, I look forward to the early hours of the new year for reflection. A bit of clearing of mind, body and spirit. An opportunity to start with a clean...plate!

I send to all of you my best wishes as we step gently into this new year together.

May we go into 2008 with a sense of fearlessness...

...feet on the ground and heads in the clouds (just enough to stay in touch with our dreams!)...

...and may we keep our forks ready to dig into all that comes to greet us in 2008.

I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Bonne année,

* In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

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