Almost springtime

Spring is very much on the way in Languedoc – the almond trees have been blooming for some time now, and I just had to share the wonderful flowers with you!

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And what better way of celebrating spring than to cook some wonderful food with good friends.  We got together once more in Narbonne, this time to try our hand at tapas, fish baked in salt, and key lime pie.  As before we started our food-fest with a trip to Narbonne market halls.  The selection there is just too wonderful, and great discipline is required not to come away with far more than one needs!

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The sepions are tiny squid and we got some for the tapas.  The fish came from the stall just around the corner.  We decided that we needed two and ended up with around 3kg of seabream for the seven of us – too much??

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One of my favourite stalls is to one side and stocks a selection of wonderful dried hams and other Spanish charcuterie.  The hand-cranked machine is used to cut beautifully fine slices of dried ham, and it’s fascinating to watch the ham falling like silk ribbons onto the waiting paper.  We got some for our tapas, and I bought some more to take home for later in the week.  After a few more stops for creme fraiche, bread and a few vegetables we headed back to the ranch again, weighed down with bags.

As so often I got too stuck into the cooking and as a consequence did not take nearly enough photographs.  I promise to try harder next time!! 🙂

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The recipe we used for the fish came from Jamie Oliver;  I’ve included a link to it here.  The salt mix contained lemon zest and fennel seeds, along with egg and a little water.  So here are the two seabream,  already stuffed with parsley and basil, on a bed of salt.  The fishmonger had gutted the fish for us, and explained that one of them had the roe inside, so he’d emptied them both via the gills instead of cutting the belly open.  Soon they were covered with the remaining salt mix and set aside while we prepared the rest of our feast.

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Our tapas selection included some stuffed cherry bomb peppers, bought at the market, tomato toasts (slices of toasted french bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and half a tomato and drizzled with a tiny bit of olive oil), serrano ham, and baby squid.  Have you ever prepared squid?  Well, I hadn’t either!!  There’s a kind of hard, bone like plate inside the soft body, which needs to be removed and the tentacles need to be pulled off the body, which needed to be emptied and cleaned.  Messy work!  the “beak”, the squids mouth, needs to be cut off the tentacles along with the eyes.  Eventually I got them all done, and after rinsing the larger bodies were cut into pieces.  The squid were cooked very briefly with some olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and parsley.  There must have been some ink left as they turned black-ish (no, not burnt!!), and they did taste delicious.

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For dessert there was key lime pie.  Well almost, as the limes came from Mexico instead of Florida, but that was good enough.  The recipe we used comes from this website.  We’d initially planned to make two different versions, one which was to be baked and the other which sets without baking.  In the end we made two different types of crust but only made one filling, which turned out to be more than enough.

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Making the filling is very simple, the lime peel is grated into a bowl, the limes are then juiced and the condensed milk and creme fraiche mixed with the remaining ingredients – it does thicken magically as the recipe says!  Poured into the prepared crust and chilled for a couple of hours, then decorated.  We decided that the creme fraiche to decorate/serve would have been overkill.

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Look at those beauties!!  They did taste every bit as good as they looked and we did eat them both!

Now back to the fish:  Jamie’s recipe says “Pre-heat the oven to full whack” and to cook the fish for 15 minutes.  I do like his ideas but I intensely dislike sloppy instructions like that – every oven is different and “full whack” just doesn’t do it for me.  The fish monger in the market hall had told us to cook the fish at 180 degrees for 40 – 45 minutes and that’s what we did.  It turned out absolutely perfect, juicy and tender.  I found that the fennel seeds and lemon zest in the salt mixture added no flavour whatsoever, so I would skip that next time.  Interestingly enough, the fact that we had left the fish to stand for about 45 minutes meant that the salt had had a chance to penetrate the flesh of the fish.

We did attempt Jamie’s recipe for aioli, which promptly split, despite following instructions.  So we started again using an egg yolk as the base and added the split mixture slowly, resulting in a very delicious aioli, which went very well with the fish.

We also opted to make a different salad to go with the fish, with endives and citrus fruit, to counterbalance the richness of fish and aioli.  All in all a wonderful meal, and everyone agreed that they would be happy to cook the fish in a salt crust again. Do give it a try, and let me know what you think!

And here is one last picture of the almond blossom for you…

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Cooking with friends – a round up of recent months

I would like to dedicate this post to my dear friend Monica Hodson, who lost her battle with cancer last Monday – I will miss her!

Losing Monica has been a shock to the system, having seen her battle and rally always left me with a vague hope that she might yet pull through, but alas it was not to be.  It’s made me supremely aware that friends are very important to my life and all too often I don’t spend enough time with them, as our lives get increasingly busy.  It was one of the reasons behind our cooking group – to get together on a regular basis, and to share food and good times.  And we’ve been doing this ever since it all started back in March.

I’ve not been keeping you abreast of what we’ve been cooking (and eating :-)) so here’s a run-down of the last three occasions;  I’ll start with the most recent first!

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Hand-raised pies – typically British food and very traditional.  In Britain they can be bought in almost any shop, and when they are good they are very good.  But who would go to the bother of making them at home?  Well, in France the only equivalent is pate en croute, so we decided to give them a try.  Ingredients are simple – the pastry is a hot water crust, made with flour, lard, egg, salt and water.  The filling has varying ingredients, but most seem to call for pork.  We decided to make three different kinds:  “pork, apple and elderberry pie”, where we substituted cranberries for the elderberries which are out of season,  “chicken and bacon pie” and “small pork pies with quails’ eggs”.   The pork, apple and elderberry pie was made in a raised pie mould, to be eaten hot for our dinner.  The other pies were topped up with jellied stock after cooking and left to mature in the fridge for a day or two before being eaten.

The verdict:  The pastry was very soft and not easy to work with.  We tied a strip of grease-proof paper around the outside of the raised pies to stop them collapsing, which worked great, but this instruction was missing from the recipes we were using.  All three pies tasted delicious and were well worth the effort.  Would I make them again?  Yes!!

The time before it was my turn to host the get-together, and the theme was Autumn Food.  I drew on all kinds of influences and came up with a menu of pumpkin and chestnut soup for starter, goulash with bread dumplings, and apple strudel.  A fair bit of work but we had three extra pairs of hands, and it all worked beautifully.   As the goulash took the longest to cook we started that first, only onions, beef, paprika, with some garlic, caraway seeds and some tomato paste – no water added!  We made our own strudel paste and tried to pull it as thin as possible – the idea is that one should be able to read the paper through it!  My grandmother was able to do that, but I think it comes with practice 🙂 – she made it practically once a week when there were apples around.  It still turned out very nicely though and tasted delicious!  The bread dumplings use up stale French bread, which gets moistened with some boiling milk and left to steam.  Eggs are added along with chopped parsley, finely chopped sweated onions and seasoning, and then the paste is formed into mandarin sized balls which are simmered in salted water for about 20 minutes.  The pumpkin and chestnut soup was delicious and simple.  Chopped onions, carrots, celery and leeks are sweated in olive oil to develop the flavour, the pumpkin and chestnuts added and brought to a boil with some vegetable or chicken stock.  When everything is tender the soup is blended to a smooth texture, and served with a dollop of creme fraiche and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil.

The verdict:  I would make all of it again, and have actually made the pumpkin soup twice since.  The goulash takes fairly long to cook as the onions need to be cooked slowly until very soft, and the meat is added only at that point, and needs some cooking time itself, so not a dish for a speedy supper!

The time before our theme was Lebanese food and we had some very delicious food on our plates.  On the menu we had kibbet aadas (lentil fingers); stuffed vine leaves; filo parcels (brik); yoghurt cheese (labneh);  Kibbeh & salad for main course and for dessert there was cardamom yoghurt mousse with orange compote.

The verdict:  All of it was delicious, and some of it was very simple and easy to prepare.  I would definitely make the yoghurt cheese balls, lentil fingers and filo parcels again.  The tahini dip was simplicity in itself and very yummy.  The vine leaves tasted delicious but were a lot of work and the kibbet was good but a little dry.  The yoghurt mousse and orange compote were very good too and I’ve kept that recipe in my file.

The secrets of Tarte Tatin – explained!

I first encountered Tarte Tatin when I went to London in 1987 to work at Le Merdien Hotel on Piccadilly.  In Germany apples are plentiful and grown all over, and I’d tried all sorts of apple cakes and tarts, but never that wonderful confection, which was “accidentally” invented by the Tatin sisters in the 19th century (see Wikipedia link at the end of this post).  I soon found out that whilst very delicious, Tarte Tatin is not one of the easiest dishes to prepare.  For starters you really need a very heavy tin, preferably copper or cast iron, which distributes the heat well, and which can go into the oven.

Corail apples used for Tarte TatinCorail apples

The ingredients are simple:  apples, butter, sugar and shortcrust pastry.  About an ounce and a half of butter goes into the tin.  You decide if you want to use softened butter and smear it evenly over the inside of the tin, or if you want to let it melt gently.  Next comes the sugar: six tablespoons of it and regular granulated will do fine;  sprinkle it in an even layer.  Finally, the apples: a question of choice and personal preference.  You want to use apples which don’t turn into mush on cooking, so Bramleys are out.  They should also not be too sweet nor too juicy.  Here in France I like to use Chantecler apples, which have a wonderful flavour when cooked.  At the Meridien hotel in London we used Golden Delicious apples, and I have used Reine de Renette and Corail (pictured ) with success. For my 9.5″ tin I used 11 medium-sized apples.

Tarte Tatin being prepared

apples fitted into tin for tarte tatin

Peel and core your apples then cut in half.  Stand the cut halves in the tin, cut side against the uncut side, fitting them in tightly.  Keep two or three extra halves, which you place on top – you’ll see why later.

Tarte Tatin ready to be cooked

Once your mould is prepared and filled you put it on medium low heat and start the cooking process.  To start with, you want to just see the apple juice beginning to run – take your time, your patience will be rewarded.  Altogether the cooking time on the top of the stove took an hour and 20 minutes, but this will depend on how juicy your apples are.

tarte tatin cooking on the stove

The cooking process is slow and as the apples soften you’ll be able to fit the extra pieces in here and there, use a table knife to help you slip them in.  That way the finished tart will not have any gaps and be nice and high.  Turn your oven on to 180 degrees.  You might have to turn the mould from time to time, to make sure that it is cooking evenly.  Keep an eye on it all the time.  Eventually the water will evaporate and the sugar will start to caramelise.  Don’t be tempted to speed up the cooking process by using higher heat, you want your apples to cook and absorb the sugar and butter mixture, and that will take time.

sugar starting to caramelise in tarte tatin cooking

Once the sugar starts to caramelize you have to watch like a hawk and make sure the heat is not too high.  I’ve burnt my fair share of Tarte Tatins at that stage and had to start all over again.  When it starts to go from a light butterscotch colour to a somewhat darker caramel you’re almost there.  Give it a few more minutes and make sure the colour of the caramel is even across the tin, you might have to move it around on the hob a little to make sure it’s done throughout.  When the colour is almost that of a chestnut remove the tin from the heat; you don’t want the caramel to be too dark as it will cook some more in the next step.  Now pop the tin in the oven.

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the right caramel colour for tarte tatin

The idea now is to cook the tops of the apples which did not get cooked with the caramel.  The length of cooking depends on the type of apple you are using, a general guide is about 30 minutes, but test to check if the top of the apples are soft after 20 minutes.  Once done take out and leave to cool – you can leave it overnight in which case you can cover the tin with some foil and refrigerate it.

Tarte tatin ready for pastry topping

Make some shortcrust pastry with 175 flour, 100 butter and 3 tbsp water.  If you like you can add a tablespoon or two of sugar, but I find that’s not necessary.  Chill the pastry for at least half an hour or overnight.  Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees. Roll the pastry and cut a circle 1.5 – 2cm larger than the top of your tin.

pastry ready rolled for topping tarte tatin

Brush off any excess flour and then place the pastry disk over the apples in the tin.  The excess should be slipped down inside the tin, I use the back of a flat pastry brush to help with this.

pastry top on tarte tatin, ready for final bake

Once the pastry is all neatly tucked in bake for 25 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is golden.  Remove the tin from the oven and leave to cool for at least 10 minutes.  Invert a large plate over the tin and very carefully turn the tin and plate over in one swift movement – be very careful as there may be hot sugar syrup inside which could leak and burn you.  If everything has gone to plan the tart will slip out beautifully onto the plate, although you might have to give it a helping hand with a sharp downward movement, holding the tin on top of the plate.  Lift the tin off et voila.  Don’t worry if one piece has stuck to the inside of the tin.  Carefully take it out with the help of a palette knife or a table knife, place it in the gap in the tart and lightly smooth over with the side of the knife, nobody will know.  Serve your Tarte Tatin slightly warm, either with crème anglaise, crème fraiche or good vanilla ice cream, but of course it can also be eaten on its own.  Bonne degustation!

Tarte Tatin

The above tart was cut into six generous pieces and gobbled up in record time!  You could also serve eight with it.  For more information about the history and/or legend of Tarte Tatin, have a look at the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarte_tatin .  Be warned – once you’ve tasted a piece of my version of Tarte Tatin you may find fault with many desserts routinely served under that name.  And of course there are the variations made with all sorts of other fruit and even vegetables and different types of pastry, but they are all just “in the style of” and are really upside down cakes or tartes!!

A walk through the woods (and the market halls of Narbonne)

My father has always been an avid mushroom gatherer, and I’ve inherited his love for wild mushrooms, despite the fact that he’s able to spot a cep a mile off and I usually see one when I almost tread on it…  This hasn’t stopped me going out mushrooming with my parents while they were staying these past two weeks, though.  The weather had been wonderful, sunny/warm days interspersed with some rain, just perfect for growing mushrooms.  The last time we set off for a walk we found plenty of mushrooms, but none of them the kind that we would want to eat.  There are many comestible mushrooms, but a lot of them don’t taste fantastic, so in the main we’ve been sticking to ceps.

A few years ago I organized a guided mushroom walk for a group of us, which turned out to be a fantastic experience.  Benoit, our guide met us in Ferrals-les-Montagnes, and from there we drove a little way into the forest, where he gave us our orders:  pick every mushroom you find, regardless of what it is!  After an hour and a half of searching we pooled our loot and our guide explained the different types of mushroom and how to recognize them. He also sorted the safe ones from the poisonous ones, and we ended up with a nice pile of ceps, which were then turned into an omelette.

Whilst we’d been searching the forest, Benoit had been busy preparing for lunch:  He’d brought along pate and ham for starters, eggs already beaten in bottles for the omelette, and he had thought of everything, to the point where he had brought real glasses for our wine!

Soon we were munching away, thoroughly enjoying the fruits of our labour!!  Here are some pictures of the mushrooms we DID NOT eat, magnificent thought they were :

Back to now:  since we did not find any ceps ourselves on our last outing we made do with the mushrooms for sale in the market in St Chinian – and that was no great hardship!

Once cleaned my mother cooked the ceps with a cream sauce, and we had them with home-made bread dumplings, a Bavarian speciality – yummy!

Later in the week we all went to Narbonne – I’d heard about a great place for lunch in Les Halles of Narbonne, and decided we’d give it a go.  We arrived at the halls around 11.30, in plenty of time to have a good look around and do some shopping.  First though, we stopped off Chez Bebelle and asked to reserve for lunch.

The olives looked every bit as good as they tasted, and there was lots more – I just couldn’t keep up with pictures.   After a good look at everything we headed back for lunch.

The main attraction at Chez Bebelle is the fact that you all sit around the bar and watch as your food is prepared – well almost, there are some tables next door, but I think it’s much more fun to sit up close to the action.  Giles, the proprietor is a well known rugby player from Narbonne, and he has built up a great place to have lunch at.  His sister did the cooking when we were there, and she was a model of calm.  Giles had written our name on the place mats to reserve our seats, and when he came to take the order that name went on the docket.  Then he got his megaphone and called our order across the aisle to the butcher stall.

The meat came neatly wrapped sailing across the aisle (yes, I kid you not – that man knows how to catch!), and then our name got written on it, and it queued up with the rest of the orders.

Right in front of us was the plate with tomato bread – did that look tempting!!  By now there were people waiting for seats all over the place and the atmosphere was buzzing!

Soon enough our order was ready – yummy entrecote steaks and hamburgers (one topped with a fried egg) with home made fries!  And the tomato bread tasted fantastic!

There was a good choice of desserts, and even though I should not have I did all the same!

There was quite a choice but we plumped for apple and pear crumble and moelleux aux chocolat.  And the coffee was one of the best in a long time!  I don’t think we’ve ever had this much fun at lunch anywhere.  And I know I risk Chez Bebelle getting ever more busy by writing about it, but I think it’s a piece of “real” France that is too good not to share.

After all this food a walk around Narbonne was called for, and I’ll leave you with a few impressions of centre ville.

And they’re off

Earlier this week I was driving along and noticed the car suddenly making a very strange noise, a kind of loud hum, as if the cooling fan was going flat-out.  It disappeared again after a few seconds, but not long after I heard it again.  I started to worry a little.  Then I opened the window and the reason for the noise became clear: sticky grape juice all over the road!  I’d completely blocked out of my mind that the grape harvest had started on Monday in a lot of villages, and of course with the harvest come lots of small tractors all over the countryside, taking the grapes to the wineries.  The machine-harvested grapes get a little more squashed than the manually picked ones, and inevitably some of the juice leaks out on to the road, dribbling as the trailers bounce their way along.  And then the tyres stick to the sugary road and make a very strange noise indeed 🙂

At the cooperative winery in Saint Chinian things are well under way and incredibly well organised.  Weeks before the harvest each vineyard is visited and analyzed, and later on grape samples are taken to check for ripeness and sugar content.  Then the different parcels of land are picked in succession, generally the same kind of grape variety at the same time.  Once the tractors bring the grapes to the cooperative they queue up for the weighbridge, where the grapes are also tested for sugar content.

Then they are sent to the various dropping points.  I am sure that it takes lots of skill to reverse the trailers to exactly where they are supposed to be.

In a great big whoosh the grapes are tipped into the stainless steel container and start their way to becoming wine.

An Archimedes screw takes the grapes up to the de-stemmer, the machine which removes all the stems from the bunches of grapes (and any leaves too).

The grapes then go on to be either pressed or go directly into tanks for fermentation.  It really is a wonderful time to be on holiday in the area; the weather is generally very good, the smell of ripe grapes lingers in the air, and it’s fun to watch all the activity in the villages!  And of course soon the wine fetes will be under way…

This post would (of course) not be complete without a mention of food!!  Last Sunday I was invited to a mechoui at the house of friends near St Chinian.  According to Wikipedia,  “In the cuisine of Northern Africa, Méchoui is a whole sheep or a lamb spit roasted on a barbecue. The word comes from the Arabic word šawa, which means “grilled, roasted”. This dish is very popular in North Africa.”  And it was just that.  A whole lamb (15 kg) which was spit roasted over an open fire for about four hours.  I didn’t know what to expect but the meat was just amazing, tender, juicy and oh so tasty!!  I leave you with a few pictures of the process.  Needless to say I ate far too much; there were aperitifs while we enjoyed the beautiful evening, and then everyone was invited to pick at bits as the roast was carved.  Finally we all sat down and accompanied the choice cuts with couscous, vegetables, roast potatoes (also cooked in the fire) and harissa sauce.  Cheese followed, and then came three desserts, and the whole meal was accompanied by wines from Domaine la Madura.  Life really can’t get much better than an evening spent with good friends sharing great food and wine!

Going up with a bang!

The St Chinian fireworks were wonderful as every year, and just in case you are wondering, here are a few seconds of the finale

Bastille day was celebrated in style, with two days of partying and music.  Both evenings the children gathered with their parents in front of the Mairie to await the distribution of lampions and flags, in preparation for the procession around the village. The play of shadows on the walls was too much for me to resist – and the actors were most likely quite unawares of their “performance”.

The gardens in front of the Mairie were beautifully lit and decorated – it felt just like in a fairytale.
Marianne was watching over it all, lit up with tricolor lights!

And the colours of the French flag were present even in the red, white and blue lights strung on the main square all the way down to the stage.Off we went to the football stadium along with most of the village, to watch the fireworks.

Over the years the fireworks have gotten better and better, and now we have an amazing display, which lasted some 15 minutes!

Now for some food!  Our cookery group got together in my garden in St Chinian this week – the theme was BBQ as it was summer, and the food was eclectic and very delicious!  We started off with a salad of crabmeat, avocado and mango, followed by marinated prawn skewers, and we cooked damper bread to go with some of the food.  There were also some marinated and grilled courgettes.  I got a bit carried away with the food and missed out on taking pictures 🙂

Then came the pork spare ribs, glazed with home-made BBQ sauce.  On my last visit to Colorado, Peter Holm gave me his recipe for a spare rib seasoning mix, and Bill Law, one of my facebook friends, pointed me to a site called amazingribs.com .  A little while back I’d seen an article on using a kettle BBQ to smoke food, and was keen to explore that with the ribs.  My butcher trimmed the ribs for me and cut the slab lengthwise, to make for easier manipulation on the grill, and I seasoned them the night before.  The recipe called for long, slow cooking (3 – 4 hours) and that was worth all the effort – evident by the speed with which the ribs disappeared.

And once they were gone we grilled some Rissoles, burgers which had a medley of vegetables incorporated, making them very light and tasty. To finish we had grilled nectarines with vanilla ice cream, with little drizzle of brandy over the nectarines – just a perfect finish. And the weather… we ended up sitting out until almost midnight and as it was a new moon all the stars were out.

The recipe for the Rib Rub is as follows:

1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp granulated onion
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp coarse salt
1 teasp cayenne pepper
1 teasp ground black pepper
1 teasp ground white pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix well, store in an airtight jar until required.  Rub into ribs and leave to marinate over night.

The recipe for cooking the ribs was found on www.amazingribs.com and the claim that they are the best tasting ribs ever is definitely not far-fetched!