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.

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A week of food!

This week has been wonderful as culinary experiences go!  At the end of last week friends arrived for their annual holiday in St Chinian, and we started as we meant to go on, with a great BBQ on Sunday evening at their place (sausages, lamb chops, grilled courgettes and aubergines).   A few days later I visited Domaine Gayda near Limoux to celebrate the birthday of another friend.  The sunflower fields along the way were beautiful, lifting the spirits!

Domaine Gayda is a beautiful property, at the same time winery and restaurant, and if you’re in the area you should stop by for a wine tasting or a meal or both!  I was particularly taken with their Sauvignon Blanc, which was served with lunch and took home a case.  The lunch menu is three courses, and there are two choices per course; wine and coffee are included and the views from the terrace are spectacular!  For starters I chose the tartare of tuna fish with nori which was very good!  Some of my dining companions opted for skewered quail, which smelled divine.  For main course I stayed with Fish, a beautiful piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed potatoes and bean sprouts.  A couple of fellow diners had chosen the roasted pork filet, but I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to capture it – I can assure you though that it was very good and looked it too!  The choices for dessert were apricot soup or chocolate tart.  Can you guess which one I had?

Another BBQ in my garden followed – I decided to make the hamburgers which we’d tried out for our last cooking get-together, accompanied by courgettes marinated in lemon juice with garlic and olive oil, grilled courgettes and grilled potatoes and buttered green beans.  And just in case that wasn’t enough, I’d made an apricot tart for dessert.  My friend Janet has a wonderful recipe for stuffed courgette flowers, and since there were quite a few flowers on my courgette plants we prepared that too!

For the recipe only the male courgette flowers are used and the fresher they are the easier they are to handle. Once they are cleaned, the stamen are removed from each flower, being careful not to tear the flowers open. The filling is made with very fresh goats cheese, roasted pine nuts and chives, seasoned very lightly, and then stuffed into the flowers. I guess a piping bag with a wide nozzle might make this easier, but all we had to hand was a teaspoon. Just before grilling the flowers are drizzled with a little olive oil, and they don’t take very long, perhaps 3 minutes?

Janet had also prepared some parcels of sweet onions, one seasoned simply with pepper, the other with Piment d’Espelette, which cooked for a long time and were beautifully tender.  The left-over goats cheese filling went very well with the smaller of the grilled potatoes.

The sun had started to set by the time we were ready for the apricot tart, which had all the promise of summer, juicy golden fruit and a hint of sweetness from the base.

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!

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!

With the arrival of the warm weather there is an explosion of blooms everywhere!  In my garden the roses are particularly good this year, and Mme Meilland (also called Peace) is really going for it.  She starts of with a tame and decorous bud of the palest yellow, with splashes of pink along the edges of the petals, but once fully open she turns into one of the blowsiest roses you’ve seen, just amazing!  That rose always reminds me a bit of some of the hats the Queen Mother was famous for at one time.

With the help of two friends I spent most of Wednesday gardening, trying to catch up!  Between the three of us we managed to get a fair bit done:  weeded and butted the potatoes (lots of tasty purslane in there – edible weeds which are good for you!), planted aubergines, peppers, chilis, melons and courgettes, and did a lot of other general weeding and clearing up.  As you’ll see the in the picture, watering in my garden is mostly done by gravity.  There is a canal system which brings water into the village and so long as I level the earth well enough I can just let the water run along the rows of plants!  This morning I managed to get lettuce, beetroot and onions planted, as well as carrots and parsnips sown and watered in – it’s slowly taking shape!

Earlier in the week on a visit to Bize Minervois I came across these charming sights.  Above the door you can just about see that something was once written there – could it have been CAVE? But what was the rest??  The street signs in Bize Minervois are all individually hand-made by a ceramicist and they look delightful!  Placette St Genies is the home of Les Remparts, and the picture with the wonderful irises and roses was taken in the garden of Le Figuier – both holiday homes for rent (a few weeks only remain at each for this season!)

On the way back to St Chinian I just had to stop to snap this for you.  It’s Valerian (Centranthus Ruber) in its red and white form.  Valerian seems to grow very well in our area, and right now forms great big patches of pink in areas.  When combined with the yellow broom it is simply stunning.  The poppies this year have put on a good show, but not quite as spectacular as the ones in Monet’s painting of the poppy field in Argenteuil, perhaps next year?

Last Sunday I stopped at Villespassans for their annual fete – a charming affair with a small brocante (flea market), some old cars and a number of stalls selling artisan made products and wine.  The field next to the old cars was home to hundreds of Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis Pyramidalis) and there was some cistus and broom blooming as well.  The birds were singing all around and the sun shone – what more could I possibly want?  The top of the bell tower in Villespassans always looked pretty interesting from afar.  But looking at the close-up I noticed a raft of aerials and last year’s Christmas decorations – ho hum…

A walk around St Chinian brought some more delights:  Yellow irises growing alongside a stream (there are masses along parts of the Canal du Midi),  a white climbing rose on a fence, a wild cherry beginning to ripen and some Spanish broom caught in the evening light.  May really is one of the best months to spend in Languedoc!!

The last picture in today’s post is a riddle – I wonder if anyone knows the name of this plant? It’s growing in a pot in my garden 🙂

Versatile Blogger Award

A few weeks ago I was nominated by Peri from Peri’s Spice Ladle for the Versatile Blogger Award – I was very surprised and deeply honored – THANK YOU Peri!!  Peri writes wonderfully about Indian food and I enjoy her blog a great deal!

The Rules of Acceptance:
Thank the person who gave you this award

  • Include a link to their blog
  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (I’ll go for 10)
  • Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.
  • In the same post, include this set of rules.
  • Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs.

I’d like to nominate the following blogs for the Versatile Blogger Award

Sky Hacienda
Cathy Bidini
The Craving Chronicles
Cooking in Sens
Five and Spice
Pholloyo
Frugal Feeding
Tasting Tales
Lula Harp
The Soulsby Farm

May day, may day

May has arrived and with it a slew of bank holidays.  May 1st is one of the holidays which are very strictly observed in France; hardly anything is open on Labour Day.  The next one is May 8th – VE day and again it falls on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of people take the “pont” and have Monday off.  On May 17th we celebrate Ascension, and finally May 28 is Pentecost Monday.  Then there are no more bank holidays until Bastille Day on July 14th!

The week really started well – a visit to Floralies in Florensac – a fete which was conceived entirely around plants and flowers. The blooms were fantastic and the local brass band was great at keeping us all entertained!

After that a quick trip to Marseillan for a light lunch – the sun was out and the terrace at the La Taverne du Port open – and yes, there was a table for two! A starter of Sardines en Escabeche, followed by gratinated oysters and mussels. Just perfect and oh so good!

The reason for the light lunch was that I had gotten a little carried away in the market that morning:  found some very young broad beans, wonderful fresh goat’s cheese, white asparagus and our butcher cut me two veal escalopes.  I cut the broad beans into finger long pieces and steamed them, dressed them with good olive oil and lemon juice, with a little salt and sugar, and left them to cool.  To serve I just spooned a little of the dressing over the beans and crumbled some of the goats cheese over.  I’d forgotten to pick some parsley in the garden – ho hum….  

White asparagus needs peeling, but to me it is well worth the effort.  It also takes a little longer to cook than the green stalks.  I decided to serve it with a veal escalope, simply pan fried, and some orange flavoured hollandaise sauce.  For that, two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice and one tablespoon of apple vinegar were reduced to half and left to cool.  I then added the egg yolk, salt and butter cut into pieces and placed the pan in the simmering water, which was waiting for the asparagus.  Stir and stir until it is the right consistency et voila!  The veal was one of the tenderest pieces of meat I have ever eaten – I went back to the butcher to find out what cut it was and he told me it was Merlan, a small piece near the shoulder blade, and that it exists both in veal and beef.  I’ve put my name down for the beef version when he next gets it in.

May 1st saw me at a Vide Grenier in Olargues, where I found two bargains!  One was a stove top waffle iron, which I’d been thinking of for some time.  It looked in need of a good clean but that was easily achieved at home with soda crystals and hot water.  The other was an old linen sheet with a decorative hemstitch edge, which was still brand new.  After a few washes and being run through the mangle it is now on the bed, and just the right size too!   With all that exercise of walking around and bargaining lunch at the Fleurs d’Olargues restaurant was just the ticket.  Their food is very well prepared and beautifully served.  It was a little too cool to sit out on the terrace by the river, but I enjoy the dining room, which is airy and spacious without feeling as though you’re in an old garage workshop (which is what it was before it was converted into a restaurant some years ago).    The restaurant is owned and run by a Danish family, and in addition to great food they also offer fantastic bread, which is home made.  I always have to watch that I don’t have too much of that, so easy to eat…

It looks very much as though this is turning into a food blog, so I will have to make sure that those of you who would like to read about other things wont get short-changed!!

Spring is on the way?

This week has been under the sign of spring!  With temperatures of up to 25 degrees I’ve been heading for the garden as much as possible.  One of the many jobs waiting to be accomplished is pruning.  Look at the tangled mass of branches in the picture – that’s one of the three kiwi vines in my potager, and it needs a good haircut!  Cyril from Domaine La Madura has lent me his electric secateurs and that makes the task less painful (blisters!) and much faster.  After five years of pruning the kiwis I’m still not entirely sure if I’m pruning out the right canes, but so far there’s been fruit each year!  My table grapes are also pruned already – I’m always amazed when I look at the cut glistening with sap, in some cases positively dripping.   (Continued after the photographs) –>

At the beginning of the week I decided to buy my seed potatoes to get them sprouted ready for planting.  On the way to Beziers the countryside was ablaze with trees blooming their hearts out – white, pink, some already leafing out, and others with flowers on bare branches.  It always gladdens my heart to see all that blossom!  With the good weather the cauliflowers I planted last October have come one very rapidly, and we’ve started eating them – cauliflower cheese, cauliflower soup, cauliflower with pasta, cauliflower on its own….  When it’s really fresh the flavour is absolutely superb, and it cooks in next to no time.  I will dig out Jane Grigson’s vegetable book for a few more ideas of what to do – there are four more heads in the garden to be picked!   Any suggestions??