Cooking with friends – summer food

The theme for our last cook group get-together was summer food, and it fell to my partner and myself to host the group.  It was fun planning the menu and finding the recipes.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Grilled squash blossom stuffed with goat’s cheese and pine nuts
  • Mango, Avocado and Prawn Salad
  • Chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham with creamy tomato sauce
  • Foil grilled potatoes
  • Char-grilled vegetables with shredded basil
  • Summer fruit sabayon

I’ll start with the squash blossoms – they are delicious, and pretty easy to prepare: allow 3 squash blossoms per person, and use a good quality fresh goat’s cheese, the kind which mashes really easily.  I’m spoilt as I can always get that kind of cheese from the Combebelle goat farm!  Since there were seven of us I used two cheeses.  To the mashed cheese add four tablespoons of pine nuts.  The pine nuts have to be toasted beforehand to a lovely golden colour in a dry frying pan, and left to cool, before being mixed with the goat’s cheese.  Add a little fresh thyme and some freshly ground pepper to the mixture and taste.  You should not need to add salt, as the cheese will have already been salted.  Next comes the fun part, where you stuff the mixture into the squash blossoms!!

First check the flowers – if they are male flowers (recognized by the thin, long stem attached to the flower) the stamens inside the flower(s) will need to be removed.  Female flowers are usually at the end of a small courgette/zucchini, or there will be no stem whatsoever.  Once the stamen is removed fill the flower with a teaspoon full of the cheese mixture, and delicately reshape the flower.  Continue until you have stuffed all the flowers, then cover them with clingfilm, and keep them in the fridge until you are ready to cook them.

We cooked them over a charcoal fire on a lightly oiled grill.  The cooking takes only seconds.  If you have a removable wire grill I would suggest you use that, so you can lift them all off at the same time.

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They were all eaten as quickly as they were cooked, and very delicious they were too!!

The mango, prawn and avocado salad was just what the title says: perfectly ripe mangoes and avocadoes, and peeled king prawns, dressed with lime juice and olive oil, and flavoured with red onion, chilli pepper and chopped coriander.  You’ll find the recipe at the end of this post.  The recipe for this salad was inspired by a dish prepared by Andonis Vassalos at Hotel Cuq-en-Terrasses in Cuq-Toulza.

For main course we prepared chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham.  The twist to the recipe is that you stuff sliced mozzarella and chopped basil under the skin of the chicken breasts, then wrap them in Parma ham.  Unfortunately I could only get skinless chicken breasts, so we improvised a little ;).  The Parma ham was laid on a piece of clingfilm and topped with the sliced mozzarella and the basil.  The chicken breast was laid on top, and the ham wrapped round it with the help of the clingfilm. A few toothpicks helped to secure the ham.

The chicken breasts were baked in the oven until tender and juicy (having removed the clingfilm), and the accompanying sauce was made with tomato paste and cream.  We jazzed the sauce up a little with some Worcestershire sauce, angostura bitter, and a tiny hint of smoked paprika, which worked very nicely!

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To accompany the chicken we prepared foil-grilled potatoes and char-grilled vegetables with basil.  The potatoes were cooked on the BBQ, in individual foil parcels, and flavoured with herbs.

They were delicious, with the potatoes slightly caramelised on the bottom.  The full recipe is at the end of this post.

For the char-grilled vegetables we used a mixture of aubergine, courgette and pepper.  The vegetables were grilled over a charcoal fire, and tossed in a dressing made with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and vinegar.  Shredded basil added a wonderful flavour.

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This is a picture of the main course on a plate.

 

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We finished our feast with a summer fruit sabayon – a deliciously light ending to this perfect meal.

P1100664Fresh raspberries are difficult to find in this area, but I was lucky enough to have a good crop in my garden.  The peach season had just started, though if good peaches or nectarines are difficult to find, you could probably substitute other fruits (think of blueberries, black and redcurrants, blackberries etc.).  The sabayon was prepared in advance, and poured over the fruit just before we were ready to have our dessert.

It takes no time at all to grill, so long as you remember to pre-heat the grill in time :)!

And here you have it – lovely caramelized egg foam, with the fruit just warmed through!  And then it was all gone…

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The recipes for Chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham, char-grilled vegetables and the summer fruit sabayon came from very old issues of BBC Good Food magazine, and can be found by clicking on the links to the PDF files further down in the post.

Mango, Avocado and Prawn Salad

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 30 minutes plus 20 minutes marinating
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 ripe mango
1 ripe avocado
20 prawns, cooked and shelled
2 limes
½ red onion
1 red chilli pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. chopped coriander
8 lettuce leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

In a non-metallic bowl or dish mix the juice from one lime with the olive oil, and season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper.

Prepare the mango: cut the flesh from the stone, and cut it into 1cm cubes.

Cut the avocado in half, remove the stone, peel and cut the flesh into 1cm cubes.

Cut the chilli pepper in half, remove the seeds and cut into very fine dice. You may not have to use the entire chilli depending on the heat.

Put the onion half on the board, cut side down, and make a lengthways cut from the root end to the top.  Then slice thinly across.

Add the chopped avocado, mango, onion and chilli pepper to the bowl, along with the prawns, and mix gently until all ingredients are well blended. Be careful not to overmix or mash up the avocado.

Leave in the fridge to marinate for half an hour or longer (up to four hours).

Cut four thin slices from the remaining lime and reserve the remainder.

Place two lettuce leaves on each of four plates, and heap with the salad, distributing the prawns equally between each plate. Sprinkle each serving with some of the chopped coriander, and garnish with a lime slice. Use the remaining lime to squeeze a little juice over each portion.

Serve with bread if liked.

Chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham

Foil-Grilled Potatoes

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

750g potatoes
1 large onion, sliced
30 g butter
6 tbsp. olive oil
Fresh thyme and rosemary
Salt and pepper

You will also need aluminium foil

Scrub the potatoes well; if they are new potatoes there is no need to peel them. Cut the potatoes into 5mm slices.

Prepare six pieces of aluminium foil, about 40 cm long. Smear the centre with a little of the oil, then distribute the sliced potatoes evenly between the six foil pieces, making mounds in the centre of each piece of foil.  Top each portion with the sliced onion, then season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil, dot with a piece of butter, and sprinkle with thyme and rosemary if liked.

Bring the long edges of the foil together and fold over several times to make a tight seal. Fold the short edges up, and crease to complete the seal. Repeat to make six tightly sealed foil parcels.

Place around the edge of the pre-heated grill, close the lid and cook for approx. 40 minutes. Serve one foil parcel per person.

This is best made in a Kettle type BBQ, but could equally be baked in the oven at 220 – 240 centigrade.

Chargrilled vegetables with shredded basil

Summer fruit sabayon

Where are my marbles?

Marble used to be a way of life in the village of Caunes-Minervois, until not that long ago.  The marble quarries at Caunes were first exploited in Roman times, and have been in use more or less ever since. Until the mechanisation of the extraction and finishing, many of the inhabitants of the village were involved with marble in one way or another, be it physically working in the quarries, producing or repairing tools, or laboriously polishing the marble by hand.  The polishing was usually done by women and children, whose lives were often cut short by the side effects of inhaling the marble dust.

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In the middle ages the quarries were owned by the powerful Benedictine abbey in Caunes.  After the French revolution, ownership of the quarries passed to the state.  Today the Terralbes quarry is exploited by one of the companies who exploit the quarries at Carrara in Italy, with most of the post-extraction processing carried out in Italy.  Over the centuries, the marble from Caunes-Minervois has been used to decorate such illustrious buildings as the Louvre in Paris, the Grand Trianon in Versailles, the Opera house in Paris and St Peter’s in Rome, to name but a few.  Its distinctive red colour can be found in many private houses in the village too!

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Caunes-Minervois celebrates its heritage each year with a Fete de la sculpture et du marbre, a two-day event in June.  The guided visits of the marble quarries are fascinating, for their historic and geological insights.

From Caunes, the little train took us up into the hills behind the village, and to the entrance of the quarries.  There our group split into two, with one half (including myself) going to visit the Terralbes quarry, and the other half going off to see the historic “Carriere du Roy”.

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The Terralbes quarry, which is still being exploited, is impressive – if only for the sheer size of it!  If you want to find out more about marble itself, have a look at this article about marble, on Wikipedia.

Modern extraction methods mean that very few workers are required to get the huge blocks of marble cut.  To start with, holes are drilled into the rock vertically, and then a steel cable, which is studded with diamond cutters at intervals, is used to cut around the blocks.

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Once all the cuts are made, the blocks are dropped; we didn’t see this done, but below you’ll find a video of it, which is pretty spectacular! (Note: e-mail subscribers please visit the website to watch the video)  The reason the blocks are dropped rather than lifted, is that any faults within the stone will make it crack and break, rather than appear later during the processing and finishing.  Generally only perfect blocks are sold, so there is a large amount of waste.

The broken marble is however not altogether wasted.  Twice a year a stone crushing machine is brought on-site, and the waste is transformed into marble chippings, which can be used as hardcore and building material.

The historic “Carriere du Roy” is on the other side of the hill from the Terralbes quarry, and I had some spectacular views of the valley of the Cros stream on the way there.

The sheer drops and steep sides make this valley an ideal spot for rock climbing, and I observed several climbers on the opposite side.

The “Carriere du Roy” was a quarry specially set aside by King Louis XIV in 1700 for his own use.  Exploitation at this quarry ceased some time ago, probably during the first half of the 20th century, and today the quarry is a protected heritage site.  Our guide explained how columns were quarried in the old days, with the stone masons cutting most of the column in situ, then lifting it from the stone by using wooden wedges, which would be soaked and by swelling would lift the stone clear of the support.  There was always a danger that the column might break during the process, and one such example is still there for us to see today.

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Where the marble is directly exposed to the elements, it will eventually change colour, and age to the point of not really being recognizable as marble to the untrained eye. The “Carriere du Roy” is on a marked walk which you can find on the IGN map at http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil.  If you find yourself in Caunes and have the time, I would suggest you try the walk, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

Back in the village there were many distractions, including food and entertainment.

In the abbey church there are some beautiful examples of red marble and the Abbey itself is well worth a visit.

So, mark your diary, and look out for an update on http://www.lesmarbrieresdecaunes.fr/ for dates of any future events in Caunes-Minervois.

Come to the fair

This year, for the 25th time, Lezignan-Corbieres hosted PROMAUDE, a three-day county show.  What started as a small, market town fair, has turned into a one of the largest events of its kind in the area.  The name is a clue to what it is all about: to promote the Aude department and all it has to offer in the way of food and wine, tourism, arts and crafts and …

For the 25th anniversary, a special pavilion had been erected, very close to the entrance to the fair.  The pavilion had been shipped from Holland especially for the fete, and you can tell by looking at it that it has been around for some time – they don’t make them like this any more 🙂 !!

Inside the pavilion was the Degustotheque-Tastoteca where a number of wines could be tasted.  There was also a space for cookery demonstrations, but I managed to miss those :(.

Food and drink appeared to be everywhere, and people were certainly tucking in!  I went to the fair on the spur of the moment, after lunch, which was a mistake – I should have gone BEFORE lunch and tried some of that food!!

As I was browsing the many stalls, I noticed music coming closer.  It turned out to be La Fanfare des Goulamas, a brass band, wonderfully disguised as insects and animals found in the garrigue.

For children (and adults) a large area had been set aside with games of all kinds, and right next to that was the “living farm”.  Several producers had brought some of their livestock along.  Heureuse, the dairy cow, was getting fed up on this last day of the fair, constantly being petted by small children, who shoved handfuls of straw in her face, thinking she would eat it.

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The calves next door and the goats were more perky, and not quite as “petted out” yet, whilst the donkeys were patiently waiting for their next riders.

The biggest draw of the “living farm” was the trout pool.  A large rectangular basin had been set up, with a fountain in the centre, to aerate the water.  The basin was well stocked with trout, and visitors could fish for their supper!

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The agricultural side, so important to a county fair, was of course well represented, and there were all kinds of tractors and farm equipment on show!

Earlier in the day an Agility Dogs Competition had been held, and the trophies were being prepared for the winners.

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The most fascinating part of the show, for me, was the blacksmiths’ corner – a large area where an outdoor workshop had been set up by the Aude Blacksmith’s Association.  I counted seven hearths and at least as many anvils, and in the centre was a large power hammer.  The place was a hive of activity, everyone working away at his piece, which was to be part of a large sculpture on the theme of Wine and Gastronomy.  The video, which I’ve included after the pictures (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to watch the video), should give you a good idea as to how a piece of iron can be transformed into a work of art!

So there you have it – a great day out, and one I would recommend you to repeat if you are ever in the area at the time Promaude takes place!

Cherry Celebration

The cherry harvest is in full swing right now, and to celebrate it, the village of Mons-la-Trivalle holds a cherry festival each year, at the beginning of June.  Cherries are grown all over the Languedoc region, but they seem to especially thrive in some areas.  The upper valley of the River Orb is one of these areas, and if you go for a drive at the right time during spring, you’ll see the most amazing sights of trees, white with cherry blossoms!  Later on you’ll see stalls set up by the roadside, selling cherries :).

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The growing season for cherries is pretty short.  From mid to late May, locally grown cherries start to make an appearance in our weekly farmers market.

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The first of the crop are usually quite expensive, but as the season gets under way the prices drop.  Cherries can never be a cheap fruit though: each cherry has to be carefully picked by hand, and that takes time!

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I arrived at the “Fete de la Cerise” just after lunchtime – parking was well signposted, and the view from the car park (up the hill from where the fete was taking place) was spectacular!

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Walking down the road to the village, the cherry trees I passed were heavy with fruit, and the sun was shining – what could be better??

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When I got to the fete I made a beeline for the flea market; there I found a very good selection of all things bric-a-brac, and fell in love with a bentwood armchair – more on that later :)!

The “cherry market” was great too – although, since I was relatively late, the cherries were not as much in abundance as they had been in the morning. But there were enough for me to snap pictures of, and to buy.  I had it in mind to make a Clafoutis, a dessert traditionally made with cherries.  The selection of stalls was excellent, colourful ceramics vying with equally colourful baskets, and there were plants, and hats and of course food!!  I couldn’t resist the French Fries from the Belgian food stand :)!

Entertainment was provided for all ages:  Donkeys would take children for a ride, there was a gyroscope, a stilt-walker, and then there was a corner where a number of games had been set up!  I decided to try a game called Quarto, where wooden pieces are placed on a board, with the aim of forming a line where either the colour, height, shape, or top of the pieces match.  The interesting part is that you chose the piece which your opponent has to put down on the board.  Can’t be that difficult, I thought, and promptly lost the first two games :(, but then I won the third 😀 !

The cherry theme was in evidence everywhere!  Even the members of the roaming drum band had decorated their drums, and in some cases themselves, with cherries!

After all the exertions in the market, I had an ice cream and a glass of water in the local cafe.  From where I was sitting I had a great view of the bentwood armchair – it just kept calling to me.  In the end I simply had to go and take another look at it, and guess what – I came away with the chair in my hands :).  The seat needs re-caning, but the price was good and the shape just so beautiful!

Once I’d gotten my chair home (luckily it fit into the car!), I made the cherry clafoutis.  It’s a very simple dessert: cherries baked in a kind of pancake batter.  Originally from the Limousin, clafoutis is now popular all over the south.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different recipes and methods, and I’ve now hit on one which I like best.

Cherry Clafoutis

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Time: 45 min
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

500 g cherries
125 ml milk
60 ml cream (single or whipping)
2 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp kirsch
butter for greasing

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Butter a round or square oven-proof dish, just large enough to hold your fruit in a single layer;  I used a 23×23 cm sized ceramic dish for this recipe.

Wash your cherries and decide on whether or not you want to stone them – I’m not sure whether cooking the cherries with their stones adds any flavour, so when I have enough time I will stone them.

In a bowl mix the flour and sugar, then add the cream, milk, kirsch and eggs and stir with a wire whisk until combined.  Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes; stir briefly, then pour over the cherries and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The exact cooking time may vary depending on your oven, but the clafoutis is cooked when it starts getting puffed around the edges and is no longer wobbly in the centre.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  If serving to children you can omit the kirsch and add a drop (but only one drop!) of almond essence.  You can make this a day ahead, in which case you cover the dish with clingfilm once it’s cooled enough not to melt the clingfilm, and put it in the fridge right away.  Ensure you let it come to room temperature before serving.