Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cooking. Show all posts

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cassoulet update

In my article of 7 November 2009 entitled Memorable cassoulet [display], I mentioned my enthusiasm for the preparation of this traditional dish from south-west France. Then, in an article of 24 January 2010 entitled Handmade French ovenware [display], I described my discovery of a pottery firm that produces the traditional ovenware for cassoulet. All that was missing was a typical photo of my own cassoulet preparation served up in a handmade Digoin dish. Here, at last, is the missing photo:

You might ask: What persuaded me to prepare a cassoulet dinner? Well, last Friday evening, French TV offered us a live transmission from Cardiff of the rugby match between France and Wales. Since I've always associated cassoulet with rugby, I decided that this match provided me with an excellent pretext for inaugurating my ovenware. It was also the first time I tasted my home-cooked duck confit... which is excellent.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Handmade French ovenware

In my article of 7 November 2009 entitled Memorable cassoulet [display], I may have misled readers at the level of the illustration. It wasn't a photo of a cassoulet that I myself had actually prepared, but rather an image that accompanied the cassoulet recipe I had found on the web. If I refrained from showing you a photo of my own cassoulet, at the moment I wrote that blog, this was mainly because my production was stored away in the freezer in three or four Pyrex dishes.

The photo I borrowed was excellent in that it shows clearly the various ingredients: beans in a light tomato sauce, fragments of pork ribs, Toulouse sausages and pieces of duck confit. [Click here for an explanation of the latter product. If, instead of paying a fortune for duck confit in cans, you wish to learn from a US website how to prepare it yourself, then click here.] But that photo was slightly misleading, too, for a reason I shall now explain. The final stage in the preparation of a dish of casssoulet, just prior to its being served, consists of smothering it in bread crumbs and baking it until the sauce starts to bubble up through the crust. In other words, when the dish of cassoulet is placed upon the dining table, it's not particularly photogenic, since you can't really see any of its ingredients, which remain hidden beneath the brown crust of bread crumbs.

There's yet another reason why I preferred to borrow that photo I found on the web. It's almost sacrilegious to present diners with a cassoulet that is not served up in the familiar brown ceramic earthenware dish used traditionally down in Gascony. Here in the Dauphiné, I was totally incapable of finding this kind of cooking dish in supermarkets or crockery shops. It was only yesterday, after having used the web to track down a producer of ovenware, that I finally obtained several beautiful specimens of handmade dishes for cassoulet.

The pottery firm Digoin, located in Burgundy, dates from 1875... but they've never got around to dealing directly with retail customers. Besides, their French website [display] remains rather rudimentary. Here's a presentation of some of their typical earthenware products:

One of their specialties is this splendid old-fashioned vinegar jug:

Finally, I had to order my Digoin cassoulet dishes through a crockery shop in Saint-Marcellin. The amazing thing is that the beautiful handmade cassoulet dishes (each of which comes in its own unique shades of brown) were not particularly expensive: less than ten euros each. I'm amazed and thrilled to discover that ancient manufacturers of this kind still exist in the modern world.

Now, having said all this, I must point out that I'm still not ready to show you a photo of a steaming Digoin dish of Gamone cassoulet. The reason, this time, is that cassoulet is simply not on my personal menu for the next few days, since my refrigerator is stocked with lots of fresh food that I must eat before starting to take stuff out of my freezer. Besides, as you might have gathered, a dish such as cassoulet—combining beans, sausages, pork and duck—is primarily a tasty and tempting source of calories to be consumed (washed down with red Bordeaux) when it's freezing outside. Today, the weather at Gamone is quite mild: not nearly chilly enough for cassoulet.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Memorable cassoulet

A fortnight ago, when the weather turned cool and damp, I had a sudden urge to carry out a cooking experiment. I wanted to see if I could successfully prepare the famous cassoulet dish from south-west France, which looks like this:

Back in my Paris studio in the rue Rambuteau, I often used to heat up canned cassoulet, but I had always imagined (wrongly, as it turned out) that only an expert chef could actually prepare this dish. I discovered, luckily, that the Leclerc supermarket in Saint-Marcellin stocks all the essential ingredients, including Toulouse sausages, garlic saucisson, ribs of pork (both natural and smoked) and the special white beans known as cocos (which actually come from the Paimpol region in Brittany where Christine and François live). The recipe is quite elementary, but the cassoulet needs to simmer for a few hours. It's best eaten a few days later, after being covered in breadcrumbs and baked in an oven. The results of my cooking experiment were excellent. Using minimal quantities of ingredients, I nevertheless ended up with four dishes similar to what you see in the above photo... and I kept three of them in the freezer.

Now, why have I got around to writing, today, about my home-made cassoulet? Well, this afternoon, I returned to the huge Leclerc supermarket to do my regular shopping, and I dropped in at the busy counter where they sell ham, sausages and cold cuts of all kinds. I was surprised and thrilled when one of the female employees, recognizing me, asked: "How was the cassoulet?"

In this kind of situation (which is not uncommon), I believe that shop employees whom I don't know personally are capable of remembering me, not so much because of my physical features, but as a consequence of the mixture of my accent and the actual words I use, which is somewhat unexpected, indeed weird. Somebody with a strong British accent like me would normally be expected to use relatively simple phrases, with limited French vocabulary, and the speaker might be forgiven for making mistakes. Instead of that, the lady found me making precise requests for various ingredients and insisting, for example, on the fact that I wanted the traditional sausage from Toulouse, pork ribs both smoked and natural, etc. In other words, I'm sure it's the unusual contrast between my accent and my actual language that renders me "memorable"... in the sense that an employee in a busy supermarket (at a counter where customers have numbered tickets, and wait in a queue) is capable of recalling that a guy with a foreign accent, a fortnight ago, purchased the ingredients for Castelnaudary cassoulet. Needless to say, a trivial happening of this kind is most pleasant for me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Basic stuff

For a few hours after a lengthy plane trip (of the kind, say, between Europe and Australia), I always have a weird intermittent feeling that I'm still floating in the sky. I imagine that this is a common experience (like jet lag), but I've never known what it's called.

People who've had the privilege of traveling in a 2-horsepower Citroën automobile are likely to discover that their body memorizes the sensation of going around corners. I don't think I've been back in a deuche (slang abbreviation for "2 chevaux", 2-horsepower) for a quarter of a century, but my body can still feel the unsettling way this vehicle swoops down into corners. I say "swoops down" because the vehicle gives the impression on corners that the suspension is so slack that the chassis is going to grind into the macadam. It feels as if you're riding along in a hybrid contraption composed of a rocking deck chair on wheels, enclosed in an enlarged and slightly glorified sardine can.

Why am I evoking this amazing and unforgettable automobile? Well, I still laugh when I recall a shocked American couple in Paris, decades ago, describing the 2-horsepower Citroën as "basic car". I've always loved that quaint expression, which says all that needs to be said... just as the vehicle itself comprises all that is really required, with no frills attached, to get from A to B.

In fact, what I adore is the adjective "basic". It's a handy old-fashioned word... which became the name of a computer programming language with which we all had a love/hate relationship at one time or another. Nowadays, of course, just as nobody uses the Basic language, practically nobody uses the adjective "basic". In environmental contexts, people prefer more sophisticated words such as "ecological", "renewable", "sustainable", etc. For me, "basic" means all that, and more. It's an adjective that evokes, for me, the time-honored philosophical principle of Occam's razor, which stipulates, in a nutshell, that "simplicity is beautiful". If there are several hypothetical solutions to a problem, it's often a good idea to start out by preferring the simplest one.

That's my basic cake. I've been baking it regularly for years.

-- Mix 250 g of melted butter with 250 g of sugar.

-- Add 5 eggs and beat.

-- Mix in 250 g of flour. Add a packet of yeast and vanilla sugar.

-- Cut up a few apples and place them, along with sultanas, in a glass baking dish. Pour the cake mixture on top... and let your dog lick the emptied bowl.

-- Bake for 40 minutes at 200 degrees. Ease out the cooked cake (with a flexible trowel) and turn it upside-down.

In terms of culinary simplicity, I don't, of course, get anywhere near my dear mother, whose recipe for basic chook (chicken) was: Fill it with bread crumbs and dried herbs, then stick an onion in its bum and bake it until it smells good.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Food time at Gamone

As usual, the following scene is a prelude to my regular bread-making:

That's to say, I never bake bread without a massive proportion of walnuts. Besides, it's a peaceful activity to sit down in the sun and crack open walnuts with a hammer.

Leaves of mint, parsley and coriander (from my small vegetable garden) are a prelude to the preparation of my favorite Thai dish of prawn rissoles. Sophia appreciates this operation, once every week or so, because she gets the prawn heads and shells.

The prawns and herbs look like this when they come out of the mixer:

Then I shape it up into a rectangle and cover it in bread crumbs:

I then leave it overnight in the refrigerator, and cook the rissoles the following day.

The cherry season is in full swing at Gamone. Sophia has developed a taste for this fruit, which she picks up beneath the trees. Usually, she doesn't even bother to spit the seeds out.

My strawberry patch is full of fruit. Curiously, Sophia is not at all attracted to them. I like to eat them straight after they're picked, at garden temperature, with sugar, a little lemon juice and sour cream.

You might have guessed that I eat well here at Gamone. And so does Sophia.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Our daily bread

For many months now, I've got into the habit of using constantly the same fixed menu for my bread machine.

The local supermarket sells an ideal whole-grain flour, produced by the Francine company, which also sells the yeast. The recipe is simple: just under a third of a liter of water, a heaped teaspoon of salt, half a kilogram of flour and a packet of yeast. As soon as the machine has been mixing these ingredients for a few minutes, I drop in a plate of walnuts. About three and a half hours later, here's the result:

I find it tastier and better textured than any bread I could buy in a local bakery. It keeps well, too, wrapped in a dish towel in the refrigerator.

My dog Sophia joins me when I'm kneeling down on the floor and using a hammer to crack open the walnuts on a thick wooden chopping block that I bought in Bangkok long ago. She's entitled to every fifth or sixth walnut. During the final thirty minutes, when the bread is baking, a fantastic aroma invades the house. Later, Sophia dashes up to me, in the kitchen, whenever she happens to see me about to cut a thick slice of bread. Needless to say, she's entitled to a chunk from time to time.

POST SCRIPTUM (after tasting, this morning): The abundance of walnuts at Gamone causes me to exaggerate at times. To make my product a little less like cake, it might be good if there were a bit more basic bread with my baked walnuts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thai prawns

In the cooking domain, I often become attached to a particular dish for a certain period of time, which means preparing it at a rate of once every fortnight or so, say, with slight variations. For the last couple of months, I've been going through a Thai prawns period. Here's a photo of the basic ingredients:

Besides the prawns, shallots and garlic, the green stuff in the bowl comes from my garden: a mixture of finely-chopped parsley, chives, mint and coriander leaves. The French product called Maïzena is corn flour, the large jar contains powdered ginger, while the small jar contains red chili paste. One bottle contains Thai fish sauce; the other, Japanese sesame oil. Place the shallots, garlic and aromatic plants in a food mixer along with a tablespoon of cornflour, two teaspoons of fish sauce, a teaspoon of ginger and a small quantity of chili paste. When the mixture is homogeneous, add the prawns and mix for a few seconds. Place the result on a board covered in bread crumbs, flatten it into a rectangle and sprinkle the upper surface with sesame oil followed by more bread crumbs.

Leave the board and its contents in the refrigerator overnight, so that the paste coalesces into a solid slab. The next day, I sliced the past into small rectangles and cooked them slowly on the plancha plate of my Cuisinart grill.

I served up the prawn rissoles with pieces of baked red peppers and deep-fried rice noodles.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Exotic bread and Greek cheese

I have fun with my marvelous bread machine. Making exotic bread falls into the category of creative art. For example, on Saturday afternoon, I tackled a new recipe in order to take along a home-baked loaf to a dinner evening at Linda's place. Basically, it incorporated walnuts (not unusual in our corner of France), but it was considerably more complex than ordinary walnut bread. But, before describing the recipe, I must say a few words about our dinner evening, which was great. Besides Linda, there were two other nurses: my old friends Eveline and Lulu. And I met up for the first time with Eveline's companion, René. Although it wasn't exactly a warm evening, Linda organized her dinner (Hungarian goulash and steamed potatoes) on the lawn outside her old farmhouse, beneath the stars. Well, just as we were starting dessert, the valley was lit up by an unexpected fireworks display: no doubt, some kind of a village celebration down around St-Nazaire-en-Royans. As far as we were concerned, it was as if Linda had organized this show for our dinner evening.

Yesterday, I repeated the bread recipe with slight variations, then I tasted the end result with Greek feta cheese. Delicious! The quantities I indicate in the following instructions are for a loaf of 750 grams. Start out with two tablespoons of butter at the bottom of your bread machine (or cake dish, if you're operating manually). Beat an egg with a fifth of a liter of milk, and pour the mixture onto the butter. Sprinkle 375 grams of ordinary white flour onto the liquid. Next, add the following four ingredients: three teaspoons (referred to as coffee spoons in France) of sugar, two of salt, one of cinnamon and two tablespoons of dried milk powder. I then added ten grams of dried granulated yeast, distributed evenly over the surface of the previous ingredients. Finally, the fruit: 170 grams of dried raisins soaked in water, then 50 to 100 grams of chopped walnuts. [Here at Gamone, I tend to be heavy-handed in my use of walnuts, since I've got big bags of them in various corners of the house.] In my bread machine, when the kneading was terminated and the dough was ready to start rising, I covered the surface with a mixture of dried poppy and sesame seeds. The bread was cooked slowly until the crust was dark brown.

The resulting bread, with a rough nutty texture and spicy aroma, can accompany either salty cheese or sweet stuff such as fig jam. Let's give it a name: Gamone walnut bread.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Finding the right foodstuffs

In my articles of 30 December 2006 entitled My daughter at Gamone [display] and 15 January 2007 entitled Show me your machines [display], I mentioned that I had purchased a splendid cooking gadget, which might be described as a multifunction grill and griddle, manufactured by a US firm named Cuisinart.

There's no problem in using it to make delicious toasted sandwiches of the kind that Australians often eat for breakfast. Recently, I've also used it successfully as a hot plate to cook a Thai dish, hotly-spiced prawn rissoles. But I had never succeeded in preparing one of my favorite foodstuffs: the flat panini sandwiches that I buy on the street whenever I visit Grenoble or Valence. The problem was that I had never found the right resource: that's to say, the basic uncooked panini bread roll. Employees in food shops don't necessarily know from whom their boss acquires their raw materials, while those who do imagine that it's a professional supplier with no retail outlets. Most often, they tell me that I can surely find the panini rolls I'm seeking in supermarkets. But, when cooked upon my Cuisinart griddle, the texture and taste of the rectangular panini rolls sold in the sliced-bread section of supermarkets simply don't end up tasting anything like the products I buy on the street in Grenoble and Valence.

This morning, I finally got around to solving the panini problem. The following photo shows the tasteless supermarket product at the top and, underneath it, a big authentic deep-frozen panini roll of the kind used by professionals.

Early this morning, I happened to be in St-Marcellin to get my car repaired, and I stepped into an excellent bakery to buy a couple of croissants. Once again, I popped the panini question, and the baker's kind wife supplied me immediately with the name and address of a wholesale supplier near Romans who nevertheless sells to ordinary clients like me. As soon as my old Citroën was repaired, I hurried off to the place in question. The only minor problem was that I had to purchase a big cardboard box of forty deep-frozen rolls, and then I had to dash home as quickly as possibly to put them in my deep-freezer, where they occupy an entire drawer.

With cold turkey and tomato filling, and served up with fresh Gamone lettuce, sliced cheese and a sprinkling of walnut oil, the culinary result exceeds my most optimistic expectations.

PS Natacha, who considers (quite rightly) that many of the Earth's finest products come from her native Provence, will be happy to learn that the manufacturer of my deep-frozen panini rolls purchased in Romans has his factory in Tarascon.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Meat balls

I love the tragicomic song by Calvin Russell called One Meat Ball.

Here are the words:

Little man walked up and down,
To find an eatin' place in town.
He looked the menu thru and thru,
To see what a dollar bill might do.

chorus:

One meat ball,
One meat ball,
One meat ball,
All he could get was one meat ball.

He told that waiter near at hand,
The simple dinner he had planned.
The guests were startled one and all,
To hear that waiter loudly call.

repeat chorus

Little man felt so ill at ease,
He said: "Some bread Sir, if you please."
The waiter hollered down the hall:
You get no bread with your one meat ball.

Little man felt so very bad,
One meat ball is all he had.
And in his dreams he can still hear that call
You get no bread with your one meat ball.

Maybe I was inspired by this song, today, when I decided to prepare an experimental dish of meat balls. It's more likely that I was thinking of a Greek restaurant in Sydney—called simply The Greeks—that proposed this delicacy back at the time I was a student. In any case, my experiment was conclusive, and future visitors at Gamone are likely to be served this dish.

One would imagine that meat balls and tomato sauce are a simple dish. In fact, they require some twenty ingredients. And their preparation and cooking, from start to finish, take about an hour of fiddling around. The quantities of ingredients indicated here are for two people.

Meat balls

— 350 grams minced steak

— 30 grams breadcrumbs

— 1 medium-sized onion, chopped finely

— 1 clove garlic, crushed

— 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves

— 1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves

— 1 teaspoon caraway powder

— 1 egg, slightly beaten


Sauce

— 2 tablespoons olive oil

— 1 medium-sized onion, chopped finely

— 2 cloves garlic, crushed

— 100 ml red wine

— 400 grams tomato pulp [can]

— 50 grams tomato concentrate [can or tube]

— 150 ml chicken stock [commercial soup cube]

— 1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves

— 1 teaspoon sugar

— 1 pinch cinnamon


Preparation

Mix together the ingredients for the meat balls, then form eight balls about the size of eggs. Don't start to cook them until the sauce is ready. Start the preparation of the sauce by cooking the onion and garlic in oil. Cover with wine and let it simmer until reduced to about half its volume. Add the other ingredients for the sauce, along with salt and pepper, and let it simmer, without covering the pan, for ten minutes. Meanwhile, start to fry the flattened meat balls, on both sides, in a non-stick pan. Cover the meat balls with the sauce, and let them cook gently for another ten minutes. Sprinkle finely-chopped fresh mint on the meat balls, and serve with saffron rice.

Naturally, if unexpected guests arrive, you can always be inspired by Calvin Russell and only give one meat ball to each person... with or without bread, depending on your attitude to such guests.

Monday, May 28, 2007

School for chefs

On Saturday afternoon, by chance, I came upon one of the most fascinating TV programs I've ever seen in the domain of high-class cooking. It was the fifth and final episode of a cooking competition, L'Ecole des Chefs (the school for chefs), that has been going on at a weekly rhythm for the last month. There's a good French-language website about the competition [click here to display this website], which includes typical video extracts.

The general idea is that seven promising young apprentices were selected from several French écoles hôtelières [culinary colleges] and invited to participate in an extraordinary month-long training experience, guided by four distinguished chefs:

Alain Dutournier of the Carré des Feuillants (Paris)
Yannick Alleno of the Hôtel Meurice (Paris)
Alain Llorca of the Moulin de Mougins (Alpes-Maritimes)
Régis Marcon of the Clos des Cîmes (Haute Loire)

In yesterday's episode, there were four finalists, two males and two females. At the start of the final trial, each contestant received an assortment of splendid foodstuffs, to be used in the preparation of two dishes. The first dish was to be based upon Mediterranean rock lobsters (the equivalent of Australian crayfish), and the second on roast lamb cutlets. Each of the four finalists worked in association with one of the four above-mentioned chefs, who acted as a coach, but without actually participating in the manual operations of the food preparation and cooking. All phases of the activities were precisely timed, and we TV spectators were treated to a lengthy presentation of the work of each of the four finalists, followed by the comments of the jury members, another group of four distinguished chefs:

Joël Robuchon
Thierry Marx
Marc Veyrat
Marc Haeberlin

The resulting TV program was highly informative and didactic, since we were invited into the hectic kitchen environment of the dynamic young culinary creators and their experienced coaches. Apart from the immense imagination and practical competence of the apprentice chefs, I was impressed by their ability to work calmly and efficiently under the huge pressure of the competition. Not only did they have to think and act rapidly, but they had to deal with the constant advice and criticism of their respective coaches, while knowing all the time that they were being filmed and, above all, that they would be serving the outcome of their cooking to four of the world's most famous chefs.

In the world of high-class cooking, it is not by chance that the French word for a master of cooking is chef, which simply means "chief". He/she rules over the kitchen in a style that appears to be almost tyrannical at times, crying out orders to his/her subordinates that must be obeyed instantly, exactly as the chef has commanded. The atmosphere is almost military. There is no time for discussion, and no place for disobedience. The only acceptable reply to an order is "Oui, chef!" Meanwhile, the chef has his/her eye on everything that is happening in the kitchen, including the possibility that one of the electric ovens might suddenly break down.

There were all kinds of tiny but fascinating details, such as the way in which these culinary artists use their bare fingers, all the time, to pick up hot pieces of food in pans, to turn them over while they are being cooked. When performed by a great chef, even the way of tipping a saucepan with one hand and using a spoon in the other hand to splash buttery juice rapidly and regularly over the roasting lamb becomes an artistic gesture. The terminology used in rapid discussions between professionals is precise and apparently universal. Plausible names for newly-invented dishes were generally invented spontaneously during a ten-second conversation between the apprentice and the coach, often while they were walking from the kitchen to the jury's dining table. Once there, the apprentice had to describe in a few brief remarks the specificity of his creation, just as if he were conversing with diners in a top-class restaurant, and he had to remember to wish them "Bon appetit!" Several times, the members of the jury complimented the apprentices on the simple fact that they had mastered the technique of serving up their dishes hot, straight out of the oven. This did not prevent the apprentice chefs from devoting a lot of last-minute attention to the purely aesthetic fashion in which the food and sauce were laid out the plates. Funnily, while watching this interesting program, I often had the impression that it was some kind of a sporting event, involving highly-trained young athletes.

The self-assurance of the fourth contestant, whose first name was Hugo, worried me as soon as I saw his initial discussion with his coach, Régis Marcon. The two of them appear to be smiling but determined individuals, used to making up their own minds, and I was afraid that a conflict might erupt in front of the TV cameras. Hugo had decided spontaneously that he would use vanilla to flavor the sauce for the green vegetables accompanying his roast lobster. Well, Marcon disagreed firmly but politely, warning his apprentice that this would give rise to an excessively "heavy-flavored" sauce. Hugo's immediate reaction: "Chef, I'll prepare my vanilla sauce, and then you'll taste it. If you like it, I'll use it. If not, I won't." Later, in real time, we saw Régis Marcon sticking his finger in Hugo's vanilla sauce, tasting it and flashing an expression of amazed delight. Hugo had just invented a new concept of serving up lobster!

Hugo was the winner. The prize: he will spend the next six months touring the planet, working in each of Joël Robuchon's restaurants. There is little doubt that, on Saturday's TV, we witnessed the birth of a future great chef.