Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What I love about France...

I really love my life in Texas, but it would be a lie to tell you that I don't miss France. Some days more than others!

More than anything today, I feel nostalgic. And it's probably because my parents are on their way to the United-States as we speak. I am really excited to be able to show them my adoptive country once again (they came to Austin 5 years ago). Still, I cannot help but think about the things we would have done together in France. I can tell you it would have involved some big family reunions and probably a trip to our second home in the South in Antibes. And maybe, I think Juan and I might have gone on a short trip just the two of us, probably to Bretagne (the Brittany region).

But enough of my "rant", I know we are going to have a great time in Yellowstone with my parents - that's where we're meeting them. My Mom will make us laugh by trying to speak English - not the best English ever, but hey at least she tries! And I'm sure my Dad will take us on some crazy adventure.

So now, I leave you with a list of some of the things I love and miss about France:

  • I love all the small shops from the boulangerie (bakery), to the boucher (butcher's shop), the poissonnerie (fishmonger's) and the petite epicerie (very small grocery store) -particularly if you live inside a city or small town, like I did in Lyon. You can walk to pick up your daily baguette and maybe grab some meat for dinner.
  • All the different sceneries, from the Atlantic ocean, to the Mediterranean, to the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Loire valley. All the small villages, so unique in their own way, that I dream to discover. I vacationed around France every Summer with my parents and still feel like I have so much more to see.
  • The proximity to so many day trips and vacation spots. From where I grew up in Bouvesse, I am 1 hour 1/2 from Switzerland, 3 hours from Italy, 4 from Paris and Marseille. I remember driving from Lyon to Brest with my parents and it felt like an eternity (we slept around Paris to break down the kilometres). Even driving 1 hour away to Lyon felt longer than ever! Now I've lived in Texas for many years and I am not scared of driving distances. It's a big big big state, so you have to drive a lot to sightsee. We used to make a 7-hour drive to see Juan's parents in Brownsville quite often!
  • Last but not least, of course, I love the cuisine. I love to know how much of it is influenced from the rich history of France and its profuse and diverse regional cuisine. I miss the typical Bouchon restaurants of Lyon and the mom-and-pop restaurants found along the countryside roads.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eat Your Soup!

Coming from a rather low-income family who survived World War II, my mother was raised to watch her pennies and therefore cook on a budget. So it's not surprising that she has kept the habit of making vegetable soup during cold months -a peasant's meal back then. It's inexpensive, filling and very satisfying.

Even though my parents are living more comfortably than my grandparents, most of their dinners still start with a soup during the cold seasons. And that's how I grew up too. A simple dinner would be a bowl of soup, a boiled egg with "mouillettes" (thin and narrow pieces of buttered bread used to dip in the egg -"mouiller"/to wet), cheese and fruit.

Even though Juan has tried my Mom's soup many times while back home in France, from the seven years we have known each other, I have never prepared it for him. And that's pretty incredible, considering how much I cook. Go figure.

Poor Juan caught a cold last week, so I thought it was a great time to make him a comforting bowl of soup. I chose whatever looked good to me at the market, but the sky really is the limit! I do not get tired of eating it -and neither does Juan-. It's comforting, and undeniably good for you. It feels like a warm hug from the inside.

My mother's soup is a medley of vegetables from our garden. She always uses leeks, carrots and at least one potato but the rest is really depending on her moods. She always cooks her vegetables in her pressure cooker, then blends it.

One tip I can give to you for making this soup is to really check its consistency. I personally do not like my soup to be very thick -I don't find it very pleasant on my tongue-, so I make sure to blend the vegetables with very little liquid. That way, I can adjust the thickness by slowly adding ladles of the cooking liquid.

And here's how I eat it: with a very small piece of butter that I put directly in my bowl and a splash of milk (and I always check the seasoning). Try it, I can already hear you say: "hmmmm".

Vegetable Soup

(serves 6 to 8, or makes one big batch for 2 and serves over three meals).

1/2 green cabbage, sliced roughly.

2 medium carrots, peeled cut into 4 chunks.

1 big zucchini, cut into big chunks

1 medium white onion, peeled and cut into big chunks

1 big white potato, peeled and quartered.

Boil a big pot of water with some salt. Meanwhile cut all the vegetables.

When the water is boiling, immerse all the vegetables and cook for 40 minutes.

With a skimmer spoon or a ladle, scoop out the vegetables and put in the blender. Try not to put too much water to be able to adjust the thickness afterwards. Work in batches and be careful to not overfill your blender (only fill it half full). You are working with hot liquid (I hold the top of the blender with a towel in order to not burn myself)!

Pour each blended batch in a big saucepan. Stir the soup and add more cooking liquid if your soup looks too thick. Again, I personally do not like when it is too thick so I usually add about 3 ladles of liquid. Add slowly.

Add 1 tsp 1/2 of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, stir and serve hot!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Farewell to Summer Salad

Goodbye Summer, hello Fall! It's official now!

Even though temperatures have gone down in Austin and an autumnal air is slowly but surely  settling in, we are still very much in an between weather stage.  Before we enter this beautiful season, in which I predict lots of delicious and comforting dishes, soups and desserts, I thought it would be great to make a farewell to Summer salad.  

I just cut two very good heirloom tomatoes, red onion, a cucumber and some good quality Feta cheese. I try to cut all three ingredients at the same size. I especially like big pieces of Feta, not crumbled. Chopped up some chives and dill. For a vinaigrette, I mixed fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Sprinkled some fleur de sel and pepper.

It's very refreshing and full of flavors. I think I might make it again to take on a picnic this weekend, to enjoy the fact that we are finally somewhat able to stay outside and not melt! I will buy some mortadella and (excellent) fresh bread at Mandola's Market and head to a park with Juan (who I hope will feel better by then). 

Stay tuned, for my favorite vegetable soup recipe, for all of you sick with a cold (and I know there are many of you) out there...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Apple Turnovers

Apple turnovers or chaussons aux pommes in French, are found along with croissants and pains au chocolats (among other things) in French bakeries. If you enter a boulangerie early in the morning, when everything is still warm out of the oven, the heavenly scent of freshly baked everything is enough to put you in an olfactive coma.

When I am back home, my Mom sometimes welcomes us at breakfast, with a fresh baguette and croissants on the table. Croissants are certainly not the most nutritious breakfast item, but they’re pretty hard to resist when you live far away from home like me and you visit once or twice a year - and they're pretty hard to resist period. So let the feast begin! I warm up some milk in the microwave, take my favorite bowls out, scoop out some chicory coffee. The powdered chicory coffee dissolves into the warm milk, turning it into a beautiful cafĂ© au lait color. Its smell, sweet, powerful and invigorating always wakes up my appetite. I squeeze an orange (my parents always squeeze fresh oranges every day for breakfast). Butter and jams (and occasionally Nutella) have been left out on the table after my parents' early breakfast. France Info – a French radio station- plays in the background. Nothing makes me feel more at home than this moment.

We do not typically eat apple turnovers for breakfast in France, even though, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that! I would say that they’re more of a snack food. I remember sometimes sharing one with my Mom if we were shopping in the afternoon.
Chausson aux pommes, which literally translates with “apple shoe”, are so easy to make (much more than croissants and pains au chocolat). I buy store bought puff pastry, a few apples and a lemon, and you're on your way to "yummy land". What makes a good apple turnover to me is how puffy and flaky it is. I like to use Granny Smith apples, to bring a little tartness to the applesauce.

Chaussons aux Pommes

4 apples (I used Granny Smith)
1 lemon
the juice of 1/2 an orange
1 tsp orange zest
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp butter
Puff pastry dough (store bought)
1 egg + 1 tbsp milk (for the egg wash)

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. Prepare a bowl of cold water with the juice of the lemon. Drop the lemon in the water.

Peel and core the apples one by one and place in the water. When you're ready to dice them, dry them quickly on a paper towel, dice and place in a bowl. I cut small dices.

Pour the orange juice and the zest, stir and add the sugar and cornstarch. Mix together.

Let's make the applesauce! In a pan, heat up the butter and add the apples. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft and the consistency of applesauce. I use a potato masher at the end to make sure my applesauce does not have big chunks of applesauce. If you like your applesauce to have chunks, then skip this step.

Allow the applesauce to cool for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, roll out the dough just a tad, to make sure it's not too thick. Cut out 4 inches circles (I used a bowl as a guide) and place on a parchment paper covered sheet pan. Reserve in the fridge while the applesauce cools down (it's important that the puff pastry stays cold).

Place about 1 tablespoon of applesauce (or just enough so you can seal the circles) on one half of each circle. Brush one half of each circles with the egg wash and fold over the applesauce and press the edges together with your fingers or a fork. Make sure it is well sealed. Score small lines with a knife and poke one small slit on top of each. Brush the top with egg wash, sprinkle some sugar and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Serve lukewarm or at room temperature.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sunday Meal - La Poule au Pot

I treasure family dinners; Especially Sunday ones. There's just something about putting an effort into cooking something special for the ones you love. Everyone gets to roll up their sleeve and help. Nice dinnerware and tablecloth are set. We serve an aperitif. On met les petits plats dans les grands - we make an effort

I fondly remember my dimanche lunches when I was younger. My Mom or my grandma Meme would cook a roast of lamb, or a roti (a roast) with greens beans or cardoons from the garden. More often than not, Meme would bake a dessert like a tarte aux pommes (apple tarte) or an ile flottante.

One of those Sunday classics in France is a dish called la poule au pot. It's a very popular French dish that is supposedly attributed to Henry IV who, concerned with the well-being of his subjects, wanted them to be able to mettre la poule au pot (put the chicken in the pot). The recipe cannot be easier. The whole chicken is cooked in a pot of water along with some vegetables. We traditionally serve a poule au pot along with some mustard and cornichons (French gherkins). Meme would always accompany it with rice that was cooked in the chicken broth. My personal touch? I grate some Gruyere cheese on the hot rice. It melts quickly and makes the rice very gooey and tangy. Unbelievable.

Poule Au Pot

1 whole chicken
1 bay leaf
20 peppercorns
1 onion stuck with 3 cloves
1 tsp salt
4 carrots, peeled
4 turnips, peeled
1/2 tsp of dried thyme
Dijon mustard
Gruyere cheese (optional)
Fleur de Sel

Put the chicken, the onion, the peppercorns and the bay leaf in a large heavy pot and cover with cold water. Add the salt. Bring to a boil (about 20 minutes) and scoop off the scum at the surface of the water. Simmer for 1 hour and add the vegetables and the thyme. Simmer for another 50 minutes.

Remove the chicken and vegetables and lay on a plate. Cover the chicken with foil. Add 1/2 cup of rice to the water/stock and cook for 20 minutes.

Sieve the rice through a colander into a big bowl, in order to keep the broth. Adjust seasoning to the broth if necessary.

Carve the chicken and serve it along with vegetables and rice. You may serve it along with some broth, Dijon mustard, cornichons and Fleur de Sel. I absolutely love to grate some Gruyere cheese on top of my rice. It's just wonderful.

Make sure to keep the stock as it can be re-used for soups and many recipes. Place in the fridge and the day after, remove and discard the top layer of fat. You may keep homemade chicken stock for 3 months in the freezer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Where I'm From

I am from Space Invaders and Pong, from Malabar bubblegum with tattoo and candy necklaces.

I am from linden and plane trees, geranium and vervain.

I am from the home on the hill, overlooking the mountains, from the old restaurant room. 

I am from impromptu Wednesday baking and pretend kitchens, from treehouses and tap dancing.

From my father's stubbornness, and my mother's vivacity.

I am from Jean-Pierre and Ginette, from Bertrand, Carrier and Moret.

I am from the family hotel that my great-grandmother owned and from hard working jobs in factories and farms.

I am from France, from Bouvesse, from the Rhone river and the ruins of a medieval village.

From roasted chicory coffee and saucisson, from homemade preserves and peach wine.

But I am also from Texas, from unbearable heat and never-ending roads, from "y'all" and "fixin' to".

I am from all these places, that's where I am from.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Earl Grey Tea, Cranberry and Walnut Cake

I have been wanting to bake with tea for a while -since I like to drink it so much. When I woke up Saturday morning, I felt very inspired to create the recipe for a cake that would be perfect as an afternoon snack, along with coffee or tea. I opted for 2 beloved ingredients of mine to marry the tea with: walnuts and cranberries

I'm rather proud of the results, I have to say. The combination makes for a perfect crunchy and tangy flavor. And the tea you ask? I used Earl Grey tea and it's exactly what I imagined; you can definitely taste it but not so much that it's overwhelming. It gives it a unique freshness and a hint of je ne sais quoi.


Earl Grey Tea, Cranberry and Walnut Cake

1/4 cup of boiling water
4 tea bags of Earl Grey tea
1/2 cup of roughly chopped walnuts
1 cup of sugar
3 large eggs
1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup of flour
1 1/2 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of baking soda
1/2 cup of dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a loaf pan or a bunt pan.

Boil 1/4 cup of water and brew the tea bags for 10 minutes. Squeeze out all the liquid, discard the bags and allow the tea to cool.

Place the walnuts on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 F oven for 5 to 10 minutes (until slightly golden color). Do keep an eye on them so they don't burn! Allow to cool.

Mix together the eggs and the sugar until smooth and pale yellow. Add the butter (at room temperature). 

Sift together the flour, the baking powder and the baking soda. Quickly and lightly dust the cranberries with flour (it will prevent them from sinking at the bottom of the pan) and set aside in a bowl. 

Slowly fold in the flour mixture into the egg mixture. When it is well incorporated, add the tea. Stir well. Add the walnuts and stir. Then delicately fold in the cranberries. At that point, do not overmix. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Everyday Vinaigrette

Making your own salad dressing is super simple and very easy. In France, salad dressing is a vinaigrette. It's an emulsion of vinegar and oil; that simple. Sometimes people add mustard to it - like me. A real vinaigrette does not have mustard though. I guess it's very personal and I think every French family has its own recipe and technique ("Does the mustard go before the vinegar or after the oil? What about the vinegar, does it go before or after the oil? Ah! zat iz ze question!")

As a child, faire la vinaigrette was one of the first thing I learned to do in the kitchen. We would eat green salad every day for lunch. When you hear "dings" and "clinks" in my parents' house around 12 or 1pm, take it as a clue that lunch is about to be served. My mother makes the vinaigrette right before eating, directly in our big salad bowl (thus the noise of the utensils on the glass bowl),  to which we add the salad.

I have kept the same ritual but I also often make a batch of vinaigrette, to keep in the fridge for a few days (I use a small empty glass jar of mustard or a mini empty bottle of wine). I use it on tomatoes, cold cooked asparagus, cauliflower, artichoke, leeks, in a rice or pasta salad...

The three main ingredients for my Everyday Vinaigrette are: 
  1. mustard (la moutarde): Dijon mustard is what I prefer.
  2. vinegar (le vinaigre): red wine, white wine, champagne, Balsamic or raspberry - any kind, but good quality. You could even try fresh lemon juice or freshly squeezed orange juice.
  3. oil (l'huile): olive oil, canola, walnut or my favorite - sunflower.

Everyday Vinaigrette:

A pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper
1 tsp mustard
1 tbsp vinegar or fresh lemon juice
3 or 4 tbsp oil

Dissolve a pinch the salt into the mustard by whisking (or, if you choose to skip the mustard, dissolve in the lemon juice or vinegar) and add the pepper. Add the vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking, until smooth. Voila!

Depending on my moods, I also like to add thinly sliced shallots. They have a mild taste that I really love in green salads. Of course you can also add some pressed garlic. I like to let it sit in the vinaigrette for about 10 minutes to make it more mild, before serving.

I'm really curious to hear how you all make your salad dressing. Any secrets you can share?