Quick ‘n easy!

The apricot season has started!!  Last Sunday I bought my first apricots of the season from one of the vendors in the market in Saint-Chinian.  Mr Cathala grows all kinds of fruit in Argeliers, not far from Saint-Chinian, and he sells his fruit at the market on Thursdays and Sundays!

I bought two different kinds of apricots from Mr Cathala.  I’m no longer sure what the names of the two varieties were – they were both delicious even though they were very different from one another!

The red ones were somewhat smaller than the apricot coloured ones, and their flesh was softer.  Both were juicy, with the apricot coloured ones tasting sweeter.

When I went last fall to visit Top Fruits, a pick-your-own farm also in Argeliers, I signed up to their mailing list.  With the fruit-picking season now under way, I receive weekly newsletters from Sarah Pearce at Top Fruits.  She always concludes her newsletter with a couple of recipes, and this week’s apricot recipe was perfectly timed for my purchases!

I decided to use the firmer apricots for Sarah’s Poele d’abricots aux pain d’epices, pan-fried apricots with gingerbread.  The ingredients are simply apricots, butter, and pain d’epices.

Sarah’s recipe called for 16 apricots, 15g butter and four slices of pain d’epices.  Since my apricots were on the large side, I decided to use only five (they were about double the size of a regular apricot), but kept the butter and pain d’epices quantities of the original recipe.

I cut the apricots in half, removed the stones and sliced the apricot halves thickly.  The pain d’epices was cut into small dice.

As my frying pan is on the small side, and since I didn’t want the apricot slices to be too crowded in the pan, I fried the apricots in two batches.  I heated the butter over high heat until it started to brown, then added the apricots.

After about a minute I gave the apricot slices a gentle stir.

After a further minute of cooking, it was time to add the diced pain d’epices.

Another gentle stir, and voila, dessert was ready!!

This was a wonderfully tangy dessert with great flavour!!  There was too much for two people, so we ate the leftovers on the following day.  It tasted even better, as the flavour of the  pain d’epices had had a chance to meld with the apricots!  Better still was the scoop of vanilla ice cream I had bought to go with the leftovers :)!!

How do you like your apricots??

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It’s artichoke time!

The artichoke season is under way in my garden, and I am very fortunate with my crop this year!  I re-planted a row of artichokes last year – and I am reaping the rewards!! 🙂  Artichokes are a delicious vegetable that I never tire of!

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When I bought some new plants last year, I asked the vendor how far to space them.  He recommended a distance of 1 metre between plants, and added some advice: he told me to dig holes halfway between two plants and to bury a bucketful of compost.  The plants would  find the nutrients and take what they needed.  Good advice!!

What with the rain we had over the winter, and the compost, the artichoke plants are looking magnificent.  As a result of their lush growth, they have sent up many flower stalks and an impressive number of large, beautiful artichokes!!

I’ve not yet completely solved the problem of earwigs, which started a few years ago – they just seem to love squatting under the outer layer of leaves of the artichokes!!  I imagine that I could resort to insecticides, but that wouldn’t do!  I would rather live with the fact that I’ll have to shake them out of their hiding places!! 🙂

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One of my favourite recipes is called “Barcelona Grilled Artichokes” from Patricia Wells’ book, “Patricia Wells at home in Provence”. For this delicious dish the prepared artichokes are sliced, marinated in a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and grilled – the result is totally yummy!

Barcelona grilled artichokes

Talking to other people about food and cooking is always rewarding and interesting.  One of my neighbours told me to braise artichokes with potatoes – I tried that, but the result didn’t taste exceptional.  The same neighbour also gave me the idea of adding tomatoes, so I tried cooking the artichokes with smoked bacon and tomato, which worked wonderfully well!

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In Claudia Roden’s “Middle Eastern Cookbook” I found two recipes I enjoyed. The first used honey, lemon juice and preserved lemons, the second paired the artichokes with broad beans and almonds. Both produced delicious dishes and I’ll be preparing them again.

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My overall favorite dish was the artichokes cooked with bacon and tomato and I will attempt to give you the recipe below.  Pictures of the progress are at the end of the recipe.

Artichokes with bacon and tomato

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

5 globe artichokes
200g smoked bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
1 large clove of garlic
1 tin chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp chopped parsley (optional)
1 lemon, juiced

Prepare the artichokes:  Pour the lemon juice into a bowl large enough to hold all the artichokes and add enough cold water to submerge the trimmed artichokes in.  Trim the artichokes by snapping off the leaves, starting at the base and working your way up.  Once in a while dip the artichoke into the acidulated water – the newly exposed flesh can turn brown very quickly.  Once the leaves remaining on the artichoke start to look yellow-ish you can stop snapping.

Trim the top with a sharp knife.

You will probably be able to see the choke now – a mass of fine white hairs at the centre of the artichoke.  I imagine that they would make you choke and hence the name?

Remove the choke with the aid of a teaspoon, and keep the trimmed artichoke bottoms in the bowl of water.

Cut each artichoke bottom into eight wedges.

Chop the onion and bacon into small dice and cook gently in the olive oil until the onion is softened.

Add the garlic (chopped finely or pushed through a garlic press) and cook for a minute longer.  Turn up the heat and add the drained artichoke pieces.

Fry, stirring from time to time until the artichokes start to brown around the edges, then add the chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 – 15 minutes until the artichokes are tender and the sauce is reduced.

Serve hot on their own as a vegetable course, or allow to cool, dress with a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve as tapas or an appetizer.

Note: you can of course use frozen artichoke bottoms for this recipe, which will reduce the preparation time and will produce very similar results!

Let’s meat again!

At the end of February, I got together with friends to explore the making of terrines and pates.  Some were to be for the store cupboard and others were to be eaten right away.

A recipe for rabbit terrine came from Simon Hopkinson’s book Roast Chicken and Other Stories; the recipe for perfect smoked mackerel pate came from Felicity Cloake; and from Jamie Oliver’s website came a recipe for pork rillons.

We started our cooking session with the rillons, which we had planned to eat for our lunch.  The pork belly had been cut up and salted the night before.  After being rinsed and dried, the pieces went into a frying pan with a little lard, to be browned all over.

The smell of the sizzling pork was wonderful!!

The remaining ingredients for this dish had already been prepared.

The browned pork cubes were put into an oven-proof dish, along with the herbs, the garlic, some lard and white wine.  The dish went into the oven for an hour and a half!

With the rillons out of the way, we started on the rabbit terrine.  The recipe called for a small rabbit, pork back fat, skinless belly pork, pork fillet, bacon rashers, onion, garlic, butter, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs, cognac, salt and pepper – quite a list!!

The butcher had already boned the rabbit, which was incredibly helpful!  In his introduction to the recipe, Simon Hopkinson calls for all ingredients to be chopped by hand, as the resultingtexture is nicer.  We chopped everything into small pieces, but the results were still a little too coarse for our liking.

We chopped some of the meat using two very sharp knives – that worked fairly well!

The hand-chopping took a lot of time and elbow-grease, so we put some of the meat through an old-fashioned meat grinder.

The remaining ingredients were mixed with the chopped meat..

… and then we packed the mixture into terrine jars – the kind that seal with a clip and a rubber band.

The terrines were put in a deep baking dish.  Hot water was added to come halfway up the jars, and then the dish went into the oven for just over an hour.

At that point, we were ready for a little aperitif!!

After a few sips of vin d’orange, we made the perfect smoked mackerel pate.  The recipe was very simple.  Smoked mackerel fillets were skinned (and any remaining bones removed), then pureed in a food processor with cream cheese, creme fraiche, and horseradish.  A few grinds of black pepper, some lemon juice and some chopped dill were folded in, and that was it!

I had dug up a horseradish root from my garden – somehow it looked a little like a sea creature, don’t you think?? 🙂

We ate the smoked mackerel pate with some toast – it was absolutely delicious and a perfect start to our meal!!

The rillons were our main course.  They had been filling the kitchen with the most delicious aromas for far too long!!

We served them very simply, with a salad of ‘bitter’ leaves and blood oranges.  The ‘bitter’ leaves were endive, chicory and radicchio.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich taste of the pork.

At the end of that delicious meal, our terrines were ready to come out of the oven:

They were looking very good! Of course the jars would have to cool completely before the clips could be taken off, and then they would have to stand for a week or two for the flavour to develop fully.

Prior to writing this, I opened a jar to taste it.  The pate is absolutely delicious – well worth the effort, and definitely one to make again!

Lunch in Mirepoix

At the end of last week’s post, I promised that I would tell you about my visit to Mirepoix and my lunch there.  We had chosen Monday as a day to visit because that is when there is a market in Mirepoix, and also because the restaurant at Relais de Mirepoix was open.

The market was as delightful as I remembered from my last visit (see my post from a while back).  The stalls were set up in the square, some in front of ancient timber-framed houses, and others under the arcades.  There were all kinds of wonderful things for sale – woven baskets, vegetables, carpets, cheeses, incense, bread, shoes, and not forgetting the dried chillies!

After a bit of retail therapy, we set off to find the hotel and restaurant, Relais de Mirepoix, where we had booked a table for lunch.  My friend Lynn had heard a lot about the Relais de Mirepoix from her friends, so we were all eager to experience it for ourselves! The cold light of a grey and chilly winter day is never ideal for taking pictures, but the building shone with an elegance that had witnessed several centuries

We had a very warm welcome from Emma Lashford, who has been running the hotel with her husband Karl for just over a year.  Karl had worked at the hotel a few years ago for the previous owners, which was when Lynn’s friends met him.  When the hotel closed down and the 400 year old building came up for sale, Lynn’s friends decided to buy it, and they put Emma and Karl in charge of running the business!

After taking our coats, Emma showed us some of the rooms on the ground floor.  They had turned one of the rooms into a very cosy bar!

The former kitchen of the mansion can be used as a private dining or sitting room for groups. The kitchen for the restaurant is at the opposite end of the building, in case you are wondering.

There’s a wine cellar behind the iron grille!

I’m very interested in old floor tiles – here are three different patterns from the hallway, the bar, and the former kitchen:

In the elegant dining room, the tables were beautifully set!

Below is my place setting, with a glass of ginger beer!!  Because I was driving, I wanted a non-alcoholic drink to start with, and that ginger beer just hit the spot perfectly! 😀

The food was delicious, nicely presented and expertly served!  Have a look at our menu.

A creamy root celery soup, topped with toasted almonds, chopped egg and parsley.

Perfectly scrambled eggs with smoked salmon

Rigatoni pasta with salmon, sea bream and prawns, and a very delicious shellfish sauce

A skewer of roasted quail, presented on a bed of quinoa and wheat berries.

Crispy almond and pear frangipane tart with mini raspberry pannacotta

Pineapple carpaccio with coconut sorbet, topped with a crispy biscuit.

We finished that wonderful and memorable lunch with coffee, after which Emma offered to show us some of the suites and bedrooms upstairs from the restaurant.  The rooms we saw were very spacious, and there were some beautiful orignal features such as the hand-made terracotta tiles, the doors and the marble fireplaces.  I didn’t take any photographs, you’ll be able to get an idea of the accommodation on the website of Relais de Mirepoix under the heading hotel!

Thanks to Emma and Karl for such a warm welcome – I’ll be back!

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Melting moments

You may know that I adore chocolate in all its forms: on its own, in desserts, in cakes, Belgian chocolates – you name it, I’ll probably have eaten it!!  🙂

Many years ago, I ate the most wonderful fondant au chocolat in a restaurant.  A fondant au chocolat is a chocolate pudding with a melting interior!!  I’ve been intrigued ever since, and a few weeks ago I decided to make some at home, purely in the interest of research on your behalf, you understand!! 🙂

I searched the internet for recipes, and finally settled on this one from the BBC Good Food website.

The ingredients were very simple:  butter, eggs, sugar, flour, a little coffee, some cocoa powder and, of course, chocolate!!

The preparation was not difficult either.  To start with, I brushed the moulds with melted butter and dusted them with cocoa powder.  The recipe specified dariole moulds or individual pudding basins, but omitted to give an idea of the size.  I had some dariole moulds, so used two of them, and I replaced the individual pudding basins with ramekins.

Next, I put the butter to melt over a very low heat, then added the chocolate pieces to that.  While the chocolate was melting, I beat the eggs with the sugar until they were very fluffy and thick.

I added the melted butter/chocolate mixture to the beaten eggs, and mixed the two, then added the coffee and the flour, and folded everything together until well blended.

My mixing bowl had a pouring lip, so it was very easy to fill the moulds.  The recipe called for six moulds – I managed to fill the two dariole moulds and five ramekins.  The darioles are kind of small, so the ramekins might have been the right size.

I cooked the two darioles right away.  The ramekins all went in the fridge.

After exactly 12 minutes, the puddings were well risen!

I ran a knife around the inside of the mould to help ease them out,  and served them with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!

The fondants were very delicious – the interior was still squishy, although not as runny as on recipe photograph.  Next time, I would reduce the cooking time for the dariole moulds by a minute or two.  They would probably turn out to be100% perfect.

A couple of days later, I cooked three of the larger ones, the ramekins that I had put in the fridge.  After 12 minutes cooking, the fondants turned out almost exactly like on the picture in the recipe!!

I have two more in the freezer for another day!!

Have you tried making these delicious puddings or something along the same lines?  Do you have your own foolproof recipe?

Let it flow

A few months ago, I discovered an olive mill near Beziers.  Domaine Pradines le Bas is just a few kilometers from Beziers town centre, in the direction of Murviel-les-Beziers.  Francine Buesa has been planting olive trees on the estate for more than 15 years, and her trees are now in full production.

Olive grove at Domaine Pradines le Bas

I visited again last week to watch olive oil being pressed.  The olive harvest starts as early as at the end of August, when the olives destined for the table are being picked.  The harvest can continue into January.  Once the table olives are picked, the rest of the harvested olives are being processed for oil.  Green, purple and black olives come from the same tree, but are at different stages of ripeness.  As olives ripen, their oil content starts to increase.

Olives ready for pressing

Olives ready for pressing

At Pradines le Bas, the table olives are picked by hand, whereas the olives destined for olive oil are harvested mechanically.  A special harvesting machine is used – the machine spreads what looks like a giant upturned umbrella underneath the tree, and then gently vibrates the tree, shaking off the ripe olives.  The upturned umbrella catches them all!  The olives are then loaded into large crates and taken to the mill for processing.  Here’s a picture of the machine:

Olive harvesting machine

Olive harvesting machine

At the mill, the olives are loaded into a machine which separates the leaves from the olives, and washes the olives.

Starting the milling process

Starting the milling process – the cleaning machine

The black box on top of the machine takes care of the leaves, a bit like a giant vacuum cleaner, whilst the ‘washing machine’ is below.  Once the olives are washed, they are transported to the room next door.  Stepping into the room next door was great!  There was a wonderful scent in the air – difficult to describe – somewhat herby but definitely smelling of olive oil.

From the hopper, an Archimedes screw takes the olives to the mill unit, where they are pulped, stone and all!

Arrival of the cleaned olives

The olive pulp then goes into a malaxer, a machine, which slowly mixes the olive pulp for up to 45 minutes.  This mixing helps the extraction process later on.

Malaxer with the lid closed, to avoid oxidization

Here’s a video for you – unfortunately you don’t get the smell, but you’ll get an idea of the noise!! 🙂  (Note: e-mail subscribers, you may have to visit the website in order to be able to watch the video)

The olive pulp being mixed.

From the malaxer, the pulp gets pumped into the extractor, where the pulp is spun to separate the liquid from the solids.  The solids end up next door and are later spread out in the olive groves, nothing is wasted!

Extracting the juice from the olive pulp.

The yellowish olive juice runs through a sieve into a container, from where it is pumped to a centrifuge.

Olive juice!

The centrifuge separates the water from the oil.  The golden coloured olive oil runs from the spout in a thin but steady stream!

Freshly pressed olive oil

When freshly pressed, the olive oil has a cloudy appearance.  The oil is unfiltered, so tiny particles of olive pulp are still in suspension.

The pressing plant

Once pressed, the oil is transferred to stainless steel tanks, where, over time, the particles slowly drop to the bottom, leaving the oil perfectly clear and sparkling!

Over 900 litres of olive oil!!

The bottom of the stainless steel tanks are v-shaped, and that’s where the solids collect.  A tap at the bottom of the tank allows the solids to be drawn off.  That part is sent to a soap factory for processing into soaps and cosmetics.

Stainless steel storage tank

The oil is now ready to be bottled and sold!  The shop is right next door to the mill.  Large windows in the shop allow the visitors to see the equipment throughout the year.

In the shop you can find a variety of olive oils (you can taste them all!), tapenades, table olives and cosmetic products, as well as a selection of products from partners (vinegars, jams, etc.).  You can also buy via the on-line shop, but nothing beats tasting the oils before you buy!  When you buy olive oil, bear in mind that up to 10 kilos of olives are used to make a litre of olive oil.  At Pradines le Bas, all olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.

Making olive oil is not the only activity at Pradines le Bas.  Up the stairs from the olive mill is a gallery for contemporary art.  Don’t miss it if you visit – the exhibitions change on a regular basis, and are always worth a look!!

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