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
  • 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
  • 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

Cooking with friends and All that Jazz

A few weeks ago a friend told me about a dinner & concert to take place at Chateau St Jacques d’Albas, near Laure Minervois.  The performance was to be by the James Pearson Trio, known for their appearances at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London and the theme for the evening was the music of Oscar Peterson.  Chateau St Jacques d’Albas is a little outside the village of Laure Minervois, and has been beautifully restored by Graham and Beatrice Nutter, the current owners.  The evening started with aperitifs in the domaine’s tasting room, from where we filed into the next room, which was set up for the concert.  A beautiful Steinway concert grand took pride of place.  We selected seats on the gallery overlooking the room, to get a better look at the musicians.
The musicians were James Pearson on piano,
Sam Burgess on double bass,
and Pedro Segundo on drums.
We listened to one set before dinner, which was served in another beautiful room next door.
Large glass doors at both ends made this a wonderfully light and airy room.  Dinner was a tomato and mackerel terrine, followed by a very tasty main course, although I’m not sure what it was (could have been a saute de veau).  Pudding was delicious, a slice of brioche or bread topped with blueberries and some sort of syrup and caramel.  By then the light was not good enough for a picture, sorry, and in any case the dessert disappeared rather rapidly! 🙂

After dinner we returned to our seats for the second part of the evening, another set of fantastic music!  The guys really went all out and you really could tell why they are regularly playing at one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world.

Apologies for the poor video quality, but I think you’ll get an idea of what the music was like.  Two more pictures from the concert below, nice cufflinks, James!

And now for the latest in my series of “Cooking with Friends” posts.  I’m writing this a second time, as somehow wordpress managed to lose all my text and pictures :-(.  Our little group got together in Narbonne last week, to try our hand at Paella, and being that our hostess lives very close to Les Halles we had decided to go shopping together for some of the ingredients.  The Halles in Narbonne are an absolute must for any food lover, and I am amazed at the quality and choice each time we go there!  On our way in we passed a stall selling mainly hams, and they have an intriguing slicing machine, which cuts paper-thin slices from great big chunks of dried ham.

The little cups on each ham are for catching little drips of fat!  But we’d come for fish for the Paella, and some fruit and vegetables for the starter and main course.  We settled on squid, mussels and prawns, but not the tuna, tempting as it was.  We’ll leave that for another time!

For starter we’d decided on making Gazpacho, so we needed cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion.  For dessert a Gazpacho of a different kind was on the menu, made with fruit:  strawberries, red currants, peaches, water melon, charentais melon.

Once everything was unpacked back at the ranch, many hands set to to make short work of the preparations.  The most interesting dish was the Paella: first chicken thighs were fried in the large pan (and set aside), followed by the fish and chorizo (and set aside), followed by the vegetables (peppers, garlic, tomatoes).  Then the reserved ingredients were added to the pan and everything mixed & evenly distributed.

Special paella seasoning was added, along with the strained stock from the mussels, which had been steamed open in advance.  Finally in went the rice and then the dish was set to simmer on the stove.

While we waited for the Paella to cook, it was time for a glass of wine, and the Gazpacho.  Doesn’t it look beautiful with that drizzle of basil oil?  There were crutons to go with the soup too!

After a little wait, and let me say this – it was worth every minute, came the Paella, beautifully decorated with the prawns and some mussels!

It looked pretty good on the plate too, and tasted every bit as good.  I’m sorry to torture you, but even as I write I am salivating, and it’s not been long since lunch!  In case you are wondering, the stand the pan is on is a special gas burner for Paella, but since it was a bit too windy we decided to cook it indoors – just to show that you can always improvise!

Once we’d had our fill of the main course we had barely room for dessert, but the fruit Gazpacho was wonderfully light and refreshing.

And on our shopping trip someone had spied a red fruit sorbet, which went perfectly with the cold soup!

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!

Windmills, wine and food

What do those have to do with one another, you might well ask.  Nothing really except that it all happened the same week!  Last weekend the theme was “Journees Europeens des Moulins”, in other words European mill days and the idea was to look back on history and heritage.  The windmill in St Chinian is fully functional and once a year the sails go up and if the wind is right the mill turns and makes stone-ground flour (not for human consumption, according to hygiene regulations!!).  Among the local historians there is dissent as to whether the mill was originally designed to grind grain or whether it was to process lime, which was burnt in the nearby kiln.  When it was reconstructed some years ago, they argued it out, but the flour lobby won.  This year it was grey and cloudy and the wind too strong, so here is a picture from a sunny day!

On Tuesday Domaine La Madura bottled some of last year’s white wine – always an exciting operation.  The bottling plant comes on a truck, and the wine has to be pumped across the river.  There is no space for the truck to park outside the cellar, so Cyril has to put on his gum boots and brave the icy waters and slippery stones to get the hose pipe across the river bed.  In part made a little more perilous this year as we’d had rain not long before so there was lots of water!  

Once everything is hooked up the pump in the truck draws the wine into a holding tank, and then the bottling operation can begin – in theory.  The whole setup is very complex and needs a fair bit of fine tuning.  Bottles are fed in one end, get washed and dried, filled with wine, the cork pushed in, the capsule dropped on and tightened, the two labels pasted on and then agile hands put the bottles into boxes which are sealed and stacked on pallets.  It takes six people to keep the whole thing running and if it all runs smoothly the plant can process something like 2400 bottles an hour.  I’m looking forward to tasting the 2011 vintage of Domaine La Madura Classic blanc, cheers!

Auberge La Selette was my last dining out experience, and very nice it was too!  For aperitifs they serve a cucumber/garlic dip with croutons along with some luques olives, followed this time by an amuse bouche of gazpacho (yummy!)   I’m not fond of raw oysters, but I love their gratinated oysters, plump and juicy with just the right amount of cheese and grilled to perfection.  The salad with feta, anchovies and olives looked good too and was very tasty.

For main course there was duo of scallops and gambas, tempura of gambas on a herbed potato puree, and veal kidneys in red wine sauce.  All of it well executed and delicious.

For dessert we had tiramisu and profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce.  The profiteroles had the wow-factor when they arrived at the table, but I was more than happy with the tiramisu.  Do reserve if you want to go for dinner.  The night I was there the place was packed; service was good if a little slow (but then we were there for the evening, and we didn’t starve!), and despite the volume the kitchen coped very well.

In the garden things are finally moving – the tomatoes are planted and the potatoes are beginning to flower, so we’ll soon be enjoying the first new potatoes!  The roses are flowering their hearts out, and the first blossom on kiwi vine are opening.  That means that I’ll be pollinating every day now:  pick a male flower and then go over all the open female flowers – a little tedious at times but it works!!  With the recent rain everything is lush, including the weeds, but they’ll soon be under control again!

And here’s the gallery!

Wisteria hysteria, flowers and restaurants

Last week I showed you a tantalizing picture of the wisteria buds, and felt a little bad that I included only the one photograph at the end of the post, so here are a few more, for all of you who enjoy the generous blooms of wisteria flowers.

Last sunday the weather was perfect for a wild flower walk, so off we set down Rue de la Digue (past La Digue) and the potagers along the road, and into the vineyards.  It’s a gentle walk, crossing the river over the ford, and past a grove of olive trees.  After a little while we decided to veer off the path and walk along the river, perhaps we’d find some wild asparagus?  No luck with the wild asparagus, but there was a discovery albeit not of the edible kind:  wild tulips!!  In all the years I’d never come across them perhaps I’d not been out at the right time, or maybe the weather had not been damp enough when it needed to be.  First there was just one lone tulip, the some still in bud, and finally there was a patch of them!  Utterly delightful!

There were other flowers too, and the Euphorbia in particular were looking very good.  The wild arum is the first one I’ve come across here too.  At the end of the walk there were a few interesting picture opportunities:

On Monday came the highlight of the week (so far): dinner at Restaurant Lo Cagarol in Aigne (we’re you can find Maison du Beaupre).  Stephanie and Christophe have been running the restaurant for the past eleven years (how time flies!) and Christophe’s touch with the food is very sure!  The four of us tried to have as many different dishes as possible, but there were firm favourites.  For starters there was Foie gras a l’ancienne, served with a jelly made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois, Escalope de foie gras served with a creamy asparagus soup, and Gambas sauvage au curry rouge.  Both the foie gras dishes were perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the wild prawn was very tasty too!

Before the main dishes arrived, we had a Trou Occitan, a small glass of vodka with a scoop of sorbet made from Muscat de St Jean de Minervois – very much a palate cleanser and delicious!  For  main course we had Montgolfiere de St Jacques, a dish of scallops and prawns in a creamy sauce, topped with a puff pastry lid which sealed in all the flavours; Entrecote steak which was beautifully tender and cooked to perfection and Thon Albacore, which was the best tuna I’ve ever tasted, tender and succulent and in no way dry (!), the two served with mashed potatoes with olive oil and vegetable spaghetti.

Then came the cheese course, and with it something I’d not come across before:  A sorbet made with sheep’s milk (from a local farm), served with honey and crunchy nuts.  There was very little sweetness in it except for the honey, and just a hint of cheese.  Great idea!  The other   we tried was gorgonzola, served on a crouton over a puree of sun-dried tomatoes.

Dessert was obligatory, and when it’s as nice as at  Lo Cagarol one can always find room :-)!  I can’t quite remember the French names of the desserts, so here’s a description:  the first was a cigarre filled lime and cactus sorbet and fresh gariguette strawberries, topped with cream.  The second was a ganache made with Valrhona chocolate, served with fresh raspberries, and lastly there was Baba au rhum, which was served with the most divine banana ice cream – to my mind bananas and rum go really well together!
So there you have it – a fantastic meal!! If you want to try Lo Cagarol yourself be sure to book! You can find the restaurant on facebook here!  And here’s the picture gallery of all the photographs in this post.