Asparagus time!

Each spring, I await the coming of the asparagus seller to the weekly market with eager anticipation! Asparagus can be had in the supermarkets well before it arrives at the weekly farmers market, but the supermarket offerings have often travelled a fair distance and are not as fresh as they should be. Most vegetables lose some of their quality if stored too long after harvesting, and asparagus is no exception! The sooner it is eaten after being harvested, the better!! I like to eat the first asparagus of the season simply boiled and served with melted butter and some steamed new potatoes. Once I’ve had my fill of it that way, I will prepare it in different ways.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend suggested that I try Jane Grigson’s recipe for Asparagus and Chicken Gratin. The recipe can be found in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a wonderful collection of delicious recipes for pretty much every kind of vegetable, and one which I just happen to have on my bookshelf! 🙂 . To sum up the recipe, cooked asparagus is layered with cooked chicken, a white sauce is poured over and the whole is topped with grated cheese, breadcrumbs and some melted butter before being baked until golden and bubbly. Sounds simple – and it’s incredibly delicious!!

The ingredients call for 500 g of asparagus and half a large roasted chicken. Since I don’t prepare roasted chicken very often, I bought three chicken leg quarters from the new poultry stand in the market (that’s a story for another article – I promise!) and roasted them.

I cut a thin slice from the end of each stem and peeled the lower parts of the asparagus in order to minimise waste. I cut the prepared asparagus stems into approximately 5 cm pieces before cooking them in boiling salted water.

I drained the asparagus pieces when they were just tender but retained a bit of bite, and refreshed them in cold water. I set the cooking liquid aside as that was to be used for the white sauce. Here are the main ingredients ready to be layered:

For the white sauce I used 1.5 tbsp of butter and 1.5 tbsp of flour, 300 ml of asparagus cooking water, and 150 ml of cream. For extra flavour, I also added the residue left behind in the tin from roasting the chicken!! I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper and cooked it until it was nice and thick.

While the sauce was cooking, I put a layer of asparagus into my gratin dish from Poterie Not, and topped that with the diced chicken, which I topped with the remaining asparagus. I decided to use the tips for the top layer and to arrange them in a pretty pattern, but you can do it any way you like. I did not want to overfill my gratin dish, so I filled a smaller dish as well.

I poured the white sauce evenly over the filled gratin dishes and sprinkled the tops with breadcrumbs and grated comte cheese. Grigson specified cheddar cheese in her recipe, but alas, it’s not easy to find cheddar in our part of France.

Once the melted butter was drizzled over the gratin, it was ready to go into the oven. The recipe called for a moderate to high temperature – I set the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade and baked it for about half an hour. While the gratin was in the oven, I prepared some tender broad beans which I had picked in my garden that morning. The pods were very young with the beans hardly developed, so I steamed them whole.

Here’s the finished gratin – it was divinely delicious and well worth the effort that went into its preparation!! Do give it a try if you get a chance!

What’s your favourite way of eating asparagus?

Lunch at a snail’s pace

Many years ago (in 2001!!), Susan Sisk visited Saint-Chinian for a two-week stay, organised by the dearly missed Nadine Holm of Nadine’s Tours and Travel.  After her visit, Susan sent me her travel journals, along with photographs to illustrate them, and allowed me to add the lot to my website!

Blogging was almost non-existent at the time, but Susan’s travel journal was a kind of forerunner of this blog – you can find all her writings about that visit to Languedoc on http://midihideaways.com/journal/index.html .  One of her articles is headed “2 hour lunches, 3 hour dinners“, and in the article she describes a meal at Restaurant Lo Cagarol in the village of Aigne, amongst other food related stories. Cagarol is the Occitan word for snail, and Aigne is a circulade, a village built in concentric circles, shaped like the circles of a snail shell – voila the reason for the name!!

Lo Cagarol had somehow dropped off my radar for a little while, so I made a conscious effort to re-visit the restaurant.  Chef-proprietor Christophe Esperou still turns out delicious food, so my efforts were richly rewarded!!  It was so good that I went twice in fairly quick succession, and I’ve booked to meet friends there for lunch later this month!

Christophe’s food has evolved over the years – he now concentrates on using seasonal ingredients and keeps his menus small, but changes the dishes on a regular basis.  His lunchtime menu of three courses is priced at 16 Euros and includes a quarter litre of wine – what’s not to like?? 🙂

Without further ado, here are the pictures of the food!! The dishes were all so delicious – I won’t even add and descriptions. I think you’ll be able to tell from the pictures.

Starters:

Gratinated oysters

Deep-fried camembert

Deep-fried camembert

Asparagus soup with poached quails egg

Asparagus soup with poached quail’s egg

Chicken liver salad

Chicken liver salad

Main courses:

Duck pie with potato topping

Duck pie with potato topping

Cod with aioli topping

Cod with aioli topping

Duck breast with mushroom sauce

Duck breast with mushroom sauce

Pan-friend salmon with risotto

Pan-friend salmon with risotto

Desserts:

Creme brulee

Creme brulee

Pannacotta with strawberries

Pannacotta with strawberries

The dining room at Lo Cagarol has a rustic feel to it, and the seats are very comfortable!  On one of my recent visits, there was a fire burning in the fireplace, which made for a lovely atmosphere.

Dining room of Lo Cagarol, Aigne

Dining room of Lo Cagarol

Outside the restaurant, there is a large terrace, which will be in use as soon as the weather is warm enough!

Lo Cagarol, Aigne

The terrace at Lo Cagarol (picture from the restaurant’s facebook page)

The restaurant is open six days a week from Fridays to Wednesdays for lunch and dinner; closed on Thursdays.  They don’t have a website, but you can check on Facebook for news.  Do call ahead to book your table!  The phone number for the restaurant is +33 (0)4 68 27 84 22.