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Wednesday, June 19 2013

The Fine French art of pressure canning

Summer brings a  bumper crop of fruit and vegetables in your garden or at tempting prices in the farmer's market.  Alas my freezer is full of hot pockets and chili poppers (just kidding).  Let's harken back to simpler times and a much more environmentally friendly food storage technique:  canning, a FRENCH invention.

Nicolas Appert, a candymaker and chef living in the Champagne region began experimenting in 1795 to develop a food preservation method in response to a competition launched by Napoleon, who was seeking better ways to feed his soldiers.  He perfected a technique using glass jars sealed and heated in boiling water, and won the cash prize of 12,000 francs.  By 1820, he was running a small company to market canned milk, peas and other canned goods.  Later in his life, Appert worked on a rudimentary pressure cooker dedicated to canning in order to improve sterilization efficiency and safety.

Pressure cookers are also a FRENCH invention, dating prior to canning AND pasteurization. In 1679 Denis Papin perfected the first pressure cooker used for food, but it wasn't until the late 1920's they were made safe enough for home use.  Even then, terrible accidents made them unreliable. After WWII in France, several companies began manufacturing different styles of pressure cookers, none of which were entirely dependable.  SEB company in Dijon, Burgundy, "Société d'Emboutissage de Bourgogne" was an industrial sheet metal stamping factory equipped with ultra-modern German machinery.  In 1953 SEB launched a "super cocotte" pressure cooker and pulverized the competition with its superior design and safety. SEB has emerged as the world leader in home small appliances and cookware, gobbling up Tefal, Moulinex, Calor, Rowenta, Krups, All-Clad and Lagostina. The world headquarters are now located in Lyon, and SEB is a household name in France.

Canning  always makes me think of my grandmother's cellar under her circa 1930's bungalow back in New Auburn, Wisconsin.  The basement smelled of clean dirt and damp, and was dimly lit with a single bulb close to the stairs.  A few ground level glass blocks trickled light, but not enough to make the basement kid-friendly.  It was a shadowy, frightening space. The ancient furnace hulked in one corner like a massive dragon and a crawlspace under the front porch made it seem as if the basement continued infinitely on into a dark realm where orcs, goblins and giant spiders dwelt.  

A shelf near the staircase held a  treasure chest stocked with bright jewels: purple beets, green beans, yellow pears and golden peaches, green apple-rhubarb sauce, scarlet strawberry jam and orange mashed pumpkin.  A rainbow trove of garden goodness; a bastion against nuclear attack, war and economic upheaval.  Canned goods in my Grandmother's basement represented both frugality and comfort.

Since the dark shadow of botulism hovers over every home canning project, a minimum amount of care is required . Avoiding botulism involves three points: 1) hygiene:  cleanliness of jars, the environment and the food  2) Acidity:  adding lemon/vinegar to create an acidic environment that clostridium botulinum bacteria do not like and 3) Temperature: use a pressure cooker if you can and follow instructions precisely and recommended cooking times.

Last week I made home-canned spaghetti sauce and fruit compotes for our Rollerblading club's GROL race marathon team.  We will be camping in Brittany for the race, and there's something luxurious about opening home-canned food when you're on a camping trip.  I would be comfortable camping with Alain Senderens and serving him my home-canned food.  I'm not sure he'd be comfortable with my American mannerisms and taste for Linkin Park.  Perhaps it would expand his horizons?  We could listen to Daft Punk together and discuss the hallowed history of electronic music.

My SEB brand French pressure cooker has a fixed pressure valve operating about 80kPa or 16 pounds.  Water boils at 120 degrees Celsius (248 F) at this pressure.  The higher temperature guarantees complete destruction of pathogens, including the bacteria causing botulism.  My SEB cooker manual recommends sterilizing jars of meat sauce for 60 minutes and fruit sauces for 20 minutes.  The time is counted when the little steam valve starts to turn and whistle, signaling that the pressure has been reached.  I have had this pressure cooker for twenty years now, and it's a faithful friend.

 I recently invested in a meat grinder attachment for my Kenwood Major because ground turkey is unavailable in France.  I have developed a borderline unhealthy attachment to this appliance.  Every accessory I buy makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable, like I'm keeping a concubine.  The meat grinder works wonderfully, much easier and faster than my old cast-iron hand-crank model.

Marathon Turkey Bolognaise Sauce - serve over Barilla Bucatini number 9 


3 lbs turkey breast, ground fine

1/4 cup duck fat OR olive oil

4 medium onions, minced

6 carrots, minced

6 stalks of celery, minced

8 sun dried tomatoes packed in oil, minced

4 cloves fresh garlic

bay leaf

1 liter homemade poultry stock*

1 cup tomato paste

1 lb can chopped plum tomatoes

2 cups whole milk

salt and pepper


Warning:  this takes 4 hours to make.  If you're canning the sauce afterwards, it's an all-day project.

Mince the onions and garlic.  Heat the oil in a large saucepan or pot. Add onions and garlic and cook over low heat for ten minutes until soft and translucent.  Add minced carrots and celery and continue cooking slowly another 20 minutes or so.  Add the ground turkey and cook, stirring to break up the chunks of meat.

Add the tomato paste, tomatoes, stock and bay leaf.  Maintain at the simmer, covered and stiring occasionally for 3-4 hours.  It should develop the consistency of thick soup.  Add a 1/4 cup of whole milk to the sauce every hour.  When it has simmered for at least 3 hours, taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Add milk if it's too thick, and more tomato paste if it's too thin.

*Since I ground my own turkey, I used all the leftover scraps and meat stuck to the grinder to make a homemade poultry stock.  I added carrot, onion, parsely, thyme, celery and fennel leaves in the stock water to make it extra aromatic, as well as some mushroom trimmings. (I keep little bags of tidbits in the freezer for making stock).

Wednesday, May 22 2013

The Thermodynamics of Chocolate Chip Cookies

I have a confession:  I cheat on recipes.  Whereas I regularly share my supposedly "top secret" chocolate chip oatmeal cookie recipe with the caveat, "measure everything and don't substitute," my friends often complain the cookies don't turn out "exactly like yours".  They almost seem to accuse me of not providing the correct recipe. They subtly imply I've left out a key ingredient, accidentally-on-purpose.  They think I'm a passive-agressive who doesn't want to share a recipe.

I must repeat:  if they don't use accurate measurements and follow the precise list of ingredients exactly, they won't get the same cookies.  AND YET I often don't follow my own rules.  I make this cookie recipe so often I don't even look at the card anymore.  I could make these cookies blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back, juggling geese.  I suppose this kind of familiarity breeds disrespect, because I often fudge the ingredients.

Danger! Danger Will Robinson! This type of fooling around can cause extreme changes in baking. If I add a few anchovies more or less to my Putanesca sauce, that is not going to change the result very much.  But if I add even 25 grams too much or too little of flour or butter, my cookies can vary from pancakes to hockey pucks.  Baking is the picky prima donna humpty-dumpty of the culinary world;  chemistry and physics are involved, and I've learned not to mess with those suckers.  You can adjust seasonings and fiddle with the sauce in your Blanquette de Veau but once your soufflé falls, you're stuck trying to pass it off as a plump crêpe.  You can't break the laws of thermodynamics.

I sometimes substitute whole wheat flour for some of the regular flour. This makes the cookies a bit firmer. I try different brands of chocolate -- I like the easily available "nestle dessert" brands in white,  milk chocolate and a dark variety called "Corsé" which has a very robust, fragrant flavor. This chocolate is only sold in bars, so I have to chop it with a knife into chunks for the cookies.  The chunks have to be the same size every time or the cookies will turn out slightly different.  

When I can get Cacao Barry (Callebaut) chocolate from a professional pastry store, I use those pastilles in my cookies, but it changes the baking time.  When I cook for the grape harvest, I use whatever brand of chocolate bars my employer has purchased, usually Poulain, a French chocolate that is made from Ghana cacao beans. Each type of chocolate has a different melting temperature, cocoa butter content, shape and size.  These physical qualities in turn affect the texture of the cookies and change baking times as well.  The size of eggs varies from 50 gr to 70 gr per egg, so this variation can affect the texture of the finished product. There are slight variations of oven temperature, different baking pans and finally baking times.  You can begin to see why it's difficult to have cookies turn out the same every time unless I use the same brands of butter, chocolate, sugar, etc.  

Maybe you understand now why I feel nervous when people ask me for my cookie recipe.  I'm pretty certain the cookies won't turn out exactly like mine, unless I write down such detailed instructions for the ingredient amounts and types, brands of chocolate, temperatures and preparation that I will look like some sort of crazy cookie lady with "issues", or maybe a neurotic obsessive compulsive baking freak. Or both.  Okay, I'm both.

Today I decided to make chocolate chip cookie dough and freeze it since I bought too many eggs and we are going away on weekend.  It's always nice to have cookie dough in the freezer in case you go to jail and your family needs cookies.  Right Martha?

So I began to assemble my ingredients on the counter, blended up a batch of oatmeal and then I realized I was out of the special "Beghin Say Sucre Vergeoise Brune" -- dark brown sugar.  This is not a trivial thing, because the dark brown sugar is the flavor foundation for my cookies, and without that ingredient, the cookies will not taste right.  White sugar will make the cookies crisp instead of chewy. Furthermore, while I live in an urban area less than a block from four grocery stores,  brown sugar (sucre vergeoise) is not a common ingredient nor easy to find in France.  I would have to drive to one of two large suburban supermarkets, a waste of gas and time for just one missing ingredient. 

So I decided to substitute a mixture of organic raw sugar with golden syrup for moisture.  I just improvised the amounts;  5 parts raw sugar to 1 part golden syrup.  I'm working with my baking intuition, a sixth sense I've honed, like Miss Marple's crime investigation technique, or my auto mechanic's ability to hear engine problems, based on years of experience.  I can kind of fudge the ingredients, and I sort of know what will happen.  Kind of - sort of - has its limits.

The dough mixture turned out a bit fluffier and wetter than it usually does.  When baked, the texture was more muffin-y than usual, while still moist and chewy.  In texture they ressemble my Grandma Merle's chocolate chip cookies I loved as a child, which had a package of vanilla jell-o instant pudding added to the batter.  Although that ingredient makes my grown up healthfood self cringe, the memory of those cookies brought a wave of happy nostalgia.

Here's my recipe, with just a few obsessive-compulsive details, and a huge disclaimer "they won't be exactly like mine!"

Variation Number 23 in b flat… Oatmeal Chocolate chip cookies

1 cup lightly salted butter, room temp

1 1/4 cup raw sugar

1/4 cup golden syrup (dark karo? molasses? it's your call...)

1 tsp vanilla

2 large eggs, room temp

1 1/2  cup blended oatmeal (oats chopped fine in the blender)

2 1/4 cup all purpose flour

12 oz chocolate chips or chunks

Mix the butter and the sugar with the syrup and the vanilla until creamy and light.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each.  Add the oatmeal and stir a few minutes to blend.  Add the flour, mix slowly until thoroughly incorporated, then add the chocolate chips and mix again until distributed evenly.

Make tablespoon sized mounds on a baking tray -- I do 20 per tray.

Bake at 180 C / 350 F for 8 minutes.  (Depending on your oven)

Thursday, April 18 2013

Truffle Potato Chips!

Can't eat just one. 

Wednesday, April 10 2013

Fennel with Tuna, Capers, Black Olives and Oranges

Here's a quick healthy dinner with fennel and tuna that is tasty and different.  TWO versions, because Fennel tastes different when it's cooked.  If you don't care for the bitter taste and licorice flavor, you may prefer raw, shaved fennel which tastes sweeter.

Ingredients (serves 2)

2 oranges

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 can of olive oil packed tuna

2 fennel bulbs

2 Tbsp capers

1/4 cup greek style black olives, pitted and chopped fine

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1 tsp grated zest of lemon

salt and pepper to taste

Cooked Fennel version:  Clean and trim the fennel bulbs and cut in quarters lengthwise.  Place in a saucepan with 1/2 inch of water and bring to a simmer. Check while cooking that there is a tiny amount of liquid, ideally all the liquid should evaporate by the end of cooking time.  Simmer for 20 minutes or until just fork-tender…uncover and boil for a few more minutes to evaporate any liquid.  Allow to cool to room temperature.

Raw Fennel version:  Clean and trim the fennel bulbs and shave with a mandoline, starting on the green end.  Toss with the juice of one lemon, sprinkle with salt and pepper and a drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil … cover and let marinate for at least an hour, stirring once or twice.

While the fennel is cooking / marinating, peel the oranges and cut into  segments (video instruction here).

Drain the tuna oil and juices into  a smal bowl and mix with the lemon juice, capers, parsley and chopped black olives.

Place the fennel on a pretty dish and arrange chunks of tuna and orange segments around it. Sprinke evenly with lemon zest (or grate the zest directly over the salad) Scatter the topping over and serve with rice or salad greens.

Here is a photo of the cooked version:

Wednesday, April 3 2013

RADISHES - Spring is Here!

One of the biggest adjustments for me about living in France was choosing the foods I eat according to season.  Growing up in Wisconsin, there just wasn't a lot of difference between summer or winter - the grocery store had the same stuff year round, except for maybe watermelon and corn on the cob.  Just about everything in the produce department was shipped from California or Mexico year round.

Here in France I can buy potatoes, leeks, carrots, broccoli and several varieties of lettuce and greens year round from local vegetable growers at my farmer's market. In winter there is a nice selection of squash, cabbages, spinach, fennel, celery and beets.  In full summer they grow zucchini, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes.  It's like California without almonds or surfers.

April means radishes, which begin to appear when the snowdrops pop up and folks start hawking bouquets of yellow daffodils.

The French like to serve radishes with a dish of butter and a glass of white wine.  You grab a radish, plonk a chunk of butter on it, bite and chase with wine.

I like to leave a bit of the green stem on the radish for color contrast and to use as a handle.

The day I bought my bunch of radishes, I sorted and cleaned the tops to remove sand and make a 'potage' - pureed soup. 

Creamy Potato and Radish Greens Soup

1 medium onion, diced

1 Tbsp butter

2 floury potatoes, peeled

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 bunch of radish leaves, separated, sorted and washed to remove grit

Saute the onion in the butter for five minutes on low heat.  Add the stock, potatoes and seasonings.  Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes.  Add the radish leaves and boil for 15 minutes.  Add a little more water if necessary and puree or run through a food mill.  Serve hot with a dollop of creme fraiche.

Thursday, March 21 2013

"American Cuisine" that French Guests Like

I recently hosted a dinner party for four Franco-American couples living in Chalon-sur-Saone.  I wanted to get us all together to speak Franglais, our secret language. It's like pig latin only instead of inserting "ay" on the end of words, you randomly substitute French when you can't remember the English word, making the conversation impossible for bystanders to follow, and quite confusing for ourselves.

When we have French friends for dinner, I don't usually cook American cuisine, unless specifically requested.  I don't believe there is a culture in the world that is more proud of their cuisine than the French.  It makes them inordinatlely happy when I explain how much I love French cooking, and serve them chocolate mousse, beef burgundy or gougeres. The 2010 Unesco World Heritage Listing for the "gastronomic meal of the French," gives them ample grounds for gloating, and media coverage of that event did nothing to dislodge the French reputation for arrogance. I usually prefer to make them happy by serving my French friends what they prefer to eat: traditional French food.  Let's face it, the USA has a bad reputation for cuisine.

For this dinner however I wanted to make down-home American dishes for my American friends, but I also wanted to please the French guests, or at least not disappoint them too much. The intersection in tastes between these two groups is pretty narrow. It felt like I was planning a country line dancing demo for theTwyla Tharp Company.

In the end, I decided to let my inner kid go crazy with nostalgic appetizers and desserts from my Girl Scout days.  My brilliant French husband came up with the idea of Chicken Mole for the main course.  Simple, elegant and flavored with chocolate - chicken is the Coco Chanel little black dress of main courses.

I could not locate free range chicken wings so I improvised and we had fun making jokes about "buffalo balls".  The corn dog muffins made with poultry weiners were a big hit, but next time I will use more dog and less corn.  The mustard recipe was just right.

My friend Pascal Laville of Cellier Saint Vincent recommended a wonderful wine to accompany the Chicken Mole, a powerful southwestern wine from Cahors. Here is the perfect wine that went well with my Mexican entrée:

For dessert, I ripped a page from the August 2006 Fine Cooking magazine for an upscale "S'mores" dessert:  sort of a baked alaska of chocolate ice cream on a graham cracker base, topped with italian meringue 'marshmallow' broiled in the oven.  I used miniature animal cookie cutters to make animal crackers with half the graham cracker dough, and arranged them around the base of the giant S'more.  I don't have a large enough ice cream maker so I caved and used a good quality store bought chocolate ice cream.  On the top of the cake I made a 'campfire' of cinnamon sticks soaked in moonshine and lit them on fire when I brought it to the table.

There were cries of delight when I brought my "Faux-Oreos" cookies to the table at the end of the meal.

"Those look like Oreos…Oh my gosh, you made HOMEMADE OREOS?!"  

"Well, it  was kind of an accident actually."

"An accident? How do you make oreos by accident?  Like you were making chicken cacciatore and whoops, you end up with Oreos?"  This was Jason, who should be working the audience of an LA comedy club instead of teaching English to French university students. Pearls before swine.

So, Jason, here's how I accidentally made oreos:

I saw a recipe for homemade all natural thin mint Girl Scout cookies on Heidi Swanson's blog. (OMG I have got to make those for my dinner!) So I baked the chocolate wafers, which were fairly easy to roll out and bake.  Dipping them in chocolate, on the other hand, proved to be an absolute nightmare… 

My first mistake was leaving the dark chocolate and all-natural organic mint syrup in a double boiler over simmering water.  I only left the kitchen for a few mintues, but then I started chatting with my daughter on Facebook about her upcoming internship at a local veterinary clinic.  I had forgotten to send some insurance paperwork, so I took care of that and by the time I finished and remembered the chocolate melting on the double broiler -  well, you get the picture.  When I peeked in the pan, it looked okay at first, but then I stirred and it was a thermo-nuclear chain reaction, like when the Hulk turns green. The chocolate seized and formed into a giant grainy mass. The more I stirred, the more awful it got.

An hour and one 13x9 pan of mint-chocolate brownies later, I managed to melt some fresh chocolate and flavor it with mint. I began to dip.  Dip would be a misnomer, it was more like frosting, each cookie taking about 10 minutes to coat on all sides.  I did 24 of them, loooked at my watch and did some quick calculations.  At this rate I'd be frosting all night.  Maybe I could crush them and make an oreo cookie pie? Eureka!  Vanilla sandwich cookies. Foreos? Faux-Reos?

Here's the menu that my American friends loved and the French didn't hate:

Poultry "Corndog"  Mini muffins with ketchup & 'ballpark style' mustard

buffalo balls - free-range chicken meatballs with home made buffalo dipping sauce

Locally grown celery sticks and Bleu Cheese (Roquefort Cave des Abeilles) dip

Chicken Mole with Bernardaud chocolate (from The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook, Wise & Hoffman 1990)

Basmati rice

Avocado pumpkin seed guacamole (from The Well-Filled Tortilla Cookbook, Wise & Hoffman 1990)

Fresh Drome valley hothouse tomato salsa with locally grown leeks and chives (recipe below)

Giant S'mores chocolate ice cream cake on homemade graham cracker base, italian meringue marshmallow topping and animal graham crackers - based on Stephen Durfee's recipe in Fine Cooking Aug/Sept 1997

Caramel corn (my Mom's recipe below)

Thin Mints - homemade natural recipe from Heidi Swanson (who, like me, obviously has too much time on her hands!)

Faux-Oreos - filling recipe below, because chocolate dipping was taking too d---- long!

Buffalo balls - chicken meatball appetizers - serve with celery and roquefort dip

(buffalo sauce)

4 boneless chicken breasts, about 500 gr (1 1/4 lb)

1 egg

1 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 cup parsley

1 Tbsp tomato paste

1 small onion an, diced and sautéed in 2 tsp duck fat

1/2 cup quick cooking oats

2 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp white pepper

1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce

2 oz (60 gr) pecorino romano or parmesan cheese, finely grated

Chop the breasts in small squares, removing anything that doesn't look like meat (tendons etc) and place in food processor with all the other ingredients.  Pulse on low until the mixtures is uniform.  Use a teaspoon and a small plastic knife or spatula to form little meatballs, about 2 tsp in size.  Place on a baking sheet greased with duck fat or oil.  Bake for 15 minutes at 350 F / 180 C.  Turn the meatballs over and bake 15 more minutes.  They can be chilled or frozen at this point and reheated later.

Fresh Tomato Salsa with Leeks and Chives

6 tomatoes, finely diced

1 Tbsp tomato paste

2 Tbsp chopped parsley

2 Tbsp chopped chives

1 'baby leek', white part only, chopped fine

1/4 lemon juice

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and let marinate for an hour.

Homemade Faux-Reos Filling

2/3 cup lightly salted butter

seeds scraped from one vanilla been

1 cup powdered sugar

1 tsp Jack Daniels Whisky (or rum/other spirits)

2 or 3 tsp water, as needed

Caramel corn

4-5 cups plain popped popcorn (1/2 cup kernels popped in 2Tbsp corn oil)

1/2 tsp baking soda (set aside in small dish)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 Tbsp corn syrup

1 tsp sea salt

1 Tbsp butter

Place popcorn in a heat resistant bowl.  Have ready a heat-proof spatula and non-stick sheet pan or line a cookie sheet with wax paper or parchment.  In a small saucepan, heat sugar, corn syrup, salt, water and butter.  Boil until the mixture turns a nice dark brown caramel color.  Remove from heat.  Whisk in baking soda so the caramel bubbles up.  Immediately pour it over the corn, stirring quickly to mix it and evenly coat the popcorn.  Spread the mixture in a thin layer over the cookie sheet.  Let cool and separate into small pieces.  Store in a tight closed tin.

Wednesday, March 20 2013

Gourmet Parenthèse chez Jean-Michel Lorain in Joigny

Begin the parentheses. The French quite often use the expression "une paranthèse" to describe a moment of digression, a pause in normal activity when something exciting or different happens in one's life.  A spa retreat in Tahiti. Wine tasting in Nuits St George.  Cooking classes at Cordon Bleu.  Alien abduction.  For my 50th birthday I was treated to a package at La Cote Saint Jacques, which in a way, was all of the above.

La Cote St. Jacques, a luxury hotel-restaurant in Joigny, is located in the north part of Burgundy and has been in the Lorain family for four generations. Jean-Michel Lorain joined his father Michel at the helm of this restaurant in 1983, the father-son duo maintaining the three Michelin star rating since 1986.  La Cote Saint Jacques is one of the ten longest running top restaurants in France, the culinary equivalent of Lance Armstrong, without performance-enhancing drugs. Jean-Michel took on as sole captain in 1993, the year his father retired.  Then in 2001 he undertook a huge renovation and moved the restaurant across the street overlooking the Yonne river. Michelin took away the third star, but Jean-Michel stoically held and won it back in 2004.  He has a reputation for creative flair within a classic French repertoire.  He walks the razor's edge of exoticism - just enough French tradition for vintage elegance but with a cosmopolitan touch. 

A room with a  lovely view, and a terrace overlooking landscaped gardens and the Yonne river.  We donned swimsuits and the fluffy monogammed hotel bathrobes, and trekked down to the spa.  30 minutes of relaxing and restorative polynesian style massage, a cup of mint tea. Next the sauna, the hammam, the jacuzzi and finally the pool. Back to our room to dress for dinner, floating.

We declined cocktails in the cozy library area, and glided downstairs in an elevator entirely of glass and gleaming copper - like a giant Lacanche oven door.  We had the chef's tasting menu, and were asked if we wanted to have a description of our courses in advance.  We opted for suspense, but ordered the sommelier's selection of five glasses to accompany each of our five courses, thereby avoiding the conundrum of wine selection.

Classic. Two types of artisan butters from Maison Bordy of Saint Malo; sweet and seasoned with fleur de sel & Indonesien white pepper.  A basket of homemade miniature breads included hazelnut and multigrain. 

Traditional. A mise en bouche of sliced black pudding with caramelized apple cubes and a tiny cloud of mashed potatoes. 

Enchanting. Condrieu Blanc Maison Pierre Gaillard 2010 and Duck foie gras harmonized to a pear theme: pear chutney, pear jelly, pear chips and toasted brioche with candied pears. 

Astonishing.Beaune Clos Saint-Landry 1er Cru Monopole Bouchard Pere et Fils  2010 and slow cooked ray in a coconut - lime emulsion with wok vegetables, rice noodles and tomato marmalade. 

Masterful. Beaune Teurons 1er Cru Albert Morot 2009.  Rare roasted pigeon breast with a cocoa mille-feulle filled with jerusalem artichoke and winter squash brunoise, chocolate infused sauce and a julienne of raw vegetables. 

Stunning. The ginormous cheese trolley;  I had fresh local goat, aged southwestern sheep cheese, 18 month old comté cheese and artisan Roquefort. Chateau Puech-Haut 2003 Saint-Drézéry.  

Agile. Beaume de Venise 2011 Les Bernardins and pre-dessert teaser: mango ice cream crumble, avocado mousse on passion fruit jelly, vanilla creme brulé and a chocolate pot de creme on a wafer with pear marmalade and a pear chip. 

June sunshine, alien abduction. Delicate cup formed of large candied whole rose petals and almond brittle with a sphere of pale pink rose-infused ice cream.  Candied rose petal crumbs and berries. 

Mellow. Coffee in the library next to the fire, with a plate of hand-dipped ganache chocolates.  My husband admired the selection of ancient Cognac bottles on display - one bottle said 1933.

End of parentheses.

Wednesday, March 13 2013

Jappeloup's Turkeyloaf

It's not considered unfortunate timing here in France to release a major motion picture about the French sport horse Jappeloup in the midst of the European beef-tainted-with-horsemeat scandal.  In France Jappeloup is as famous as Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Guillaume Canet, the lead actor and its screenwriter, is running the tv interview circuit this week, but nobody is asking him about  horsemeat. Instead they are talking about how Canet's life is similar to that of Pierre Durand, the 1988 Show Jumping Olympic gold medalist who rode Jappeloup to glory in Seoul. Canet was 15 when Durand and Jappeloup grabbed a surprise win, after Durand almost gave up his career to become a lawyer after an accident at age 18. Canet was a show jumper himself at the time, and his parents owned a horse breeding farm.  At the age of 18, Canet took a bad fall, but unlike Durand, he started acting and never looked back. Canet had not been on a horse for 20 years, and the film spurred him to get back in the saddle.

Horsemeat has been eaten for centuries in Europe. Despite France and Belgium being cited most often as countries where horsemeat is eaten, the largest single consumer of horsemeat in Europe is Italy. Horsemeat is not generally consumed in the USA or the UK, but that doesn't prevent us from sending our unwanted horses over the border to foreign slaughterhouses. For the first time since 2007, the USDA is processing an application for licensure and inspection of a slaughterhouse for horses in New Mexico.  If approved, some of the over 100,000 American horses currently shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter could be processed on domestic soil.  Animal rights activists including the Humane Society are up in arms, and Temple Grandin, famed animal science professor, activist and livestock consultant, basically came out against horse slaughter in 2011 by calling for requirements such as 24/7 webcam monitoring, that would be unacceptable to slaughterhouse management. PETA also opposes both export and horse slaughter, advocating instead humane euthanasia carried out locally for unwanted horses. 

Meanwhile, the Barbara Streisand Effect seems to be kicking in as horsemeat purveyors in  France, the UK and even Canada have reported increased business by as much as 15% since the scandal started.  People are curious to try something that everyone is talking about. When I first came to France in the 1980's there were several horsemeat butchers on street corner shops - horsemeat is required to be sold by specialized butchers to avoid confusion.  Those shops have all but disappeared, and horsemeat is more commonly sold either in supermarket or from mobile butcher trucks in the farmers' market.   Today horsemeat represents just 1% of total meat consumption in France.  According to the French National Stud, 24,000 horses were slaughtered in 2004 in France. This dropped to 16,000 in 2011. While there is a downward trend in consumption, French production still does not meet demand, and France imported nearly 27,000 tons of horsemeat in 2004, mostly from North and South America.  The cost of horsemeat and beef are nearly identical and as the price of beef goes up, so does the price of horsemeat.

At Chalon's Friday farmer market there is a horsemeat butcher truck parked near my vegetable sellers. He sells cuts of horse, donkey and foal and there is always a long line of customers. The prices are within a  euro per kilo of beef. (update…a week later I checked a gain and the price of horse had fallen, perhaps it depends on racetrack results?) Last Friday several beef butchers were running specials and beef was cheaper than horse.  Horsemeat has a reputation in France of being healthier and more easily digestible than beef. Some people claim it tastes better. It has  lower fat and higher amounts of good cholestrol and supposedly more iron.  In France it is recommended for anemic or frail people. 

Among my French friends and acquaintances, nearly everyone agrees the scandal is exaggerated, since nobody was sickened or killed.  A few of my horse-loving friends are positively horrified they may have accidentally eaten horsemeat in frozen lasagna or canned ravioli.  For most people however, the scandal is about whether to trust food labeling and how we can improve supply chain traceabiility for meats. The scandal has mostly hurt frozen prepared foods, with sales dropping 30% in France.  In a French TV news report, consumers were interviewed in supermarkets saying they didn't really care what kind of meat was in the lasagna, but wanted accurate labeling since fraudulent ingredients implies illegal practices throughout the processing chain.  This lack of confidence in ready to eat meals has consumers preferring to buy fresh meat when they can, and butchers are so far enjoying better business.

The scandal has also made two things known: 1) horses as well as other animals are being transported fraudulently without proper paperwork across borders and slaughtered by people who care only about profit, and nothing for human, let alone animal welfare. 2) Animals without proper paperwork could be unfit for consumption. For example, sport horses are commonly administered phenylbutazone which can be harmful to humans.  This drug is carcinogenic for humans and can trigger a aplastic anemia in high doses.  In January French authorities intercepted six horse carcasses tainted with "bute" that had been imported from the UK to France with inaccurate paperwork.  In the EU horses are supposed to be radio-chipped and have an equine passport in order to enter the food chain, but the system is poorly administered.

I ate a horse steak in 1987, when my French husband picked one up at the corner horsemeat shop for dinner - it was Monday and the beef butcher was closed. He "forgot" to tell me before we ate, but gave up the goods when I commented I didn't like my steak because it tasted "gamey".  I recall being mildly annoyed at him because I hadn't been informed what I was eating. My distaste for horsemeat has nothing to do with the fact that I love horses…in fact, I believe if we are eating intelligent mammals such as pigs then we don't have moral grounds to object to eating the less intelligent ruminants; horses, cows and sheep are all about the same for me. Tender foal filets probably are tastier than veal, so I might be willing to try, but I just don't care for the bloody tasting red meat, which is also why I don't like blood sausage.. it's the taste, not the concept. I was one of those "picky eaters" as a kid.

I would be perfectly happy eating fish and and poultry for the rest of my life.  I actually prefer duck to beef, and ostrich is a very good red meat.  Turkey is one of my all-time favorites, and it's better than chicken for several reasons: it has less fat, higher calcium, lower sodium and is cheaper than chicken.  

When choosing which meats we include in our diet, beyond the animal welfare consideration and the "yuck" factor, there are also environmental arguments to consider. A 2007 report by DEFRA-UK compared beef, pig, sheep and poultry in terms of resource use and environmental burdens.  Poultry had the best score in every category. Carnegie Mellon did a similar study in 2008 to compare food miles and climate impacts of different meats.  Any red meat was found to produce 150% more greenhouse gases than poultry in production and transportation.  The report stated that if US households substituted poultry for meat for just one extra day per week, this would decrease greenhouse gas production more than buying local 100%. Poultry is not only a healthier choice but also greener when compared to any red meat.

So, as the cow says in Chick-fil-A ads, EAT MORE CHIKIN?  (**see note at end of post) 

Ultimately, consumers need to insist on increased oversight for slaughterhouses, meat importation and traceability throughout the food processing supply chain.  We as consumers should know which animal we are eating, where it was born,  and what it has been doing since it was born until it entered the slaughterhouse.  So write to your congressman, and EAT MORE CHIKIN.

Here's a recipe to help you boycott red meat;  meatloaf, the darling of US carnivores, gets a gobbled makeover.  Instead of gravy, try serving with homemade buffalo wings sauce for a spicy kick.  Serve with mashed celery root and potatoes, celery sticks and a slice of blue cheese. 



2 lbs turkey breast filet

2 eggs

90 gr (3 oz) comté cheese, finely grated

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

1/4 cup finely minced parsley

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 small onions, minced

3 stalks celery, minced

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp salt

1 tsp paprika

2 tsp herbes de provence


Saute the finely minced onion in the olive oil.

Cut the turkey in large chunkns and blend in a food processor (or meatgrinder if you have one - I don't).  Process until rather fine mince.  A few acorn sized pieces are okay. 


Place bread crumbs, minced celery, grated cheese, tomato paste, eggs  and spices in a medium bowl.

Mix everything together.  Your hands work best for this, just wash them carefully before and after.

Butter a glass loaf pan and pack the mixture firmly into that.  Alternately, you can make meatballs and bake them on oiled cookie sheets.

Bake for 1 hour in a low oven 300 F  150 C.

Mashed Celery Root & Potatoes


1 small bulb of celery root

4 floury potatoes

2 Tbsp butter

1/2 cup warm cream or half and half

salt & pepper to taste


Peel the celery and potatoes and cut in cubes.  Boil in salted water for 20 minutes until soft.  Mash or run through a food mill.   Add salt & pepper, butter and cream and stir gently with a wooden spoon.  Serve immediately or keep warm over a hot water bath for 1 hour maximum.

Brook's Buffalo Sauce

* Buffalo is not a bison…it was invented at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. 


1/3 cup white wine OR cider vinegar

1 Tbsp chili powder

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 tsp hot pepper (cayenne, espelette etc)

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp canola oil

2 tsp honey

1 Tbsp cornstarch

2 Tbsp water


Mix the cornstarch with the water in a small saucepan.  Add all the other ingredients and bring to a boil while constantly stirring.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Add a little water if it's too thick and store in a jar, use within one month.

(** note about Chick-Fil-A: For non-American readers, Chick-fil-A is a fast food chain serving fried chicken which became famous two years ago when its CEO, a conservative Christian, took a stand against homosexuality and prompted a boycott which Sarah Palin then countered by asking Christians to "eat more chikin". Even when the company owners backpedaled last fall and announced they would cease funding anti-LGBT groups, the controversy raged on non-stop. In fact their sales have increased, according to the Barbara Streisand rule.  Since their chicken tastes really good,- it's an upscale KFC with better service- there has been a reaction by pro-LGBT poultry fans such as Ted Frank who created Chicken Offset, which lets you make contributions to LGBT charities to assuage your guilt. The comedy website Funny or Die created a brilliant spoof with comedian John Goodman playing Colonel Sanders entitled "KFC loves the Gays".)

Thursday, March 7 2013

Avant-garde Digital Cheesecake Brownies

Last Thursday I attended a digital marketing seminar right here in Chalon, at Nicéphore Cité. This is Chalon's new image & sound innovation center. It's located in a converted sugar refinery and the architects have done a brilliant job saving the beautiful buildings from a historical industrial site. The Nicephore center hosts conferences, offers training sessions and houses a business incubator with co-working office space for freelancers.  They also offer services in video and sound recording and rent out studio space.  Because Chalon is the birthplace of photography and Nicephore Niepce, it's particulary fitting to use this space for image technology.  When Kodak-Pathé closed down in 2006 and laid off 3000 workers, the local government has sought to encourage all manner of start-ups and new enterprises.

Thursday's conference topic was "Defining Communication Strategy Using Digital Technology Tools", and I was amazed by the cutting edge stuff I heard.  We discussed Responsive Web Design, QR+ codes, trends in mobile device use in Europe and how to leverage social media sites.  One of the attendees had just returned from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and there was a brief off-topic discussion about Phablettes.  When I  watch the French evening news, I sometimes get the feeling some French citizens are still living in an Emile Zola novel, especially when I see demonstrating workers burning tires and waving red flags with a hammer and sickle.  Wait a minute.  Apparently, the French communist party recently abandoned this symbol because it it's old fashioned and "irrelevant"? Another French paradox: France continues to pursue ultra modernity while clinging to tradition…this is the country that invented avant-garde.  Future trends and past traditions co-exist.

French people invariably love cheesecake and brownies, so it's a sure bet they'll like this recipe. I love the combination of oranges and chocolate, which somehow brings up a vision of Cortez returning from Mexico with a bag of chocolate nibs in an historically unlikely burlap bag stamped "Venezuela".  In my imagination he presents the bag to Queen Isabella of Portugal in a courtyard full of orange trees.  This is complete fiction of course, as apparently Isabella would have preferred a chest full of emeralds.

Caramel is my very favorite flavor, and it's delicious with both oranges and chocolate.  The caramel flavor here is subtle. It's from dark corn syrup in the brownies and dark brown sugar (muscovado if you can get it) in the cheesecake swirl topping. This brownie recipe is extra-dark chocolate flavored, but if you don't care for bitter chocolate,  substitute flour for the 1/3 cup cocoa powder and the brownies will be less dark and bitter. To serve at a fancy dinner, just add a couple scoops of caramel ice cream or vanilla ice cream and a dollop of caramel sauce with fresh orange slices as garnish. Go ahead, innovate.

Orange caramel cheesecake brownies

Ingredients for the brownies:

2 1/4 cups sugar (OR 2 cups sugar and 1/4 cup dark corn syrup)

1/4 cup water

11 Tbsp (150 gr) butter

5 oz  (150 gr) dark chocolate (or unsweetened chocolate), in pieces

3 eggs

1 1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup cocao powder

1/2 tsp salt 

1/2 tsp baking soda

Ingredients for the cheesecake swirl topping:

300 gr (10 oz) cream cheese

100 gr (1/3 cup) sugar, part dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla exract

1/2 tsp grated orange zest

1 egg

1 Tbsp flour


Preheat oven to 350 F.

Mix flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking soda together in a small bowl with a whisk.  Use a flour sifter or  a sieve if the cocoa powder is lumpy. Reserve.

Place sugar, optional syrup, water and butter in a large microwaveable mixing bowl.  Microwave on high for 2 minutes, stopping to stir a couple times.

Pour  the chocolate pieces over the hot mixture and cover, let sit 5 minutes.

Stir until smooth and allow to cool for ten minutes.

Make the cheesecake topping:  mix sugar, vanilla and cream cheese with an electric mixer on medium speed for 3 -4 minutes until smooth. Add the flour and mix again.  Add the egg and mix until just smooth, do not overbeat.

Add eggs and beat with an electric mixer for 1 minute.  Add half the flour and mix 1 minute more.

Add the rest of the flour mixture, mix until smooth.

Line a 9 x 13 or 14 " baking pan with parchment paper and rub the paper with butter or oil.

Pour the brownie batter into the prepared pan and spread.

Dollop the cheesecake topping over the entire surface of the brownie batter.   With a wide knife of thin spatula, swirl the batters without mixing too much.  

Bake 25 minutes.  The brownies should be set but very moist.  Do not overbake or they will be dry instead of chewy.

Wednesday, February 27 2013

Spanish cáscaras / regañas Olive Oil Crackers Against Sadness

I haven't posted lately because 1) my cat died 2) I travelled to Andalusia, Spain and visited awe-inspiring man-made monuments that made me feel insignificant 3) I've purchased a house here in Burgundy which involves a daunting year-long renovation project and 4) my best friend was on vacation so I took care of her five horses while staying at her house, both a pleasure and a heavy responsibility.

The combination of these things happening in short succession confused me.  It feels as if I've been pushed through a wormhole on Stargate and forced into somebody else's life.  Of maybe my own life in some alternate universe.  Sometimes existance just ambles along slowly, and then suddenly it starts up galloping out of control like a crazy carnival ride.

I was a Tapas virgin before my trip to Spain.  I'd heard about Tapas, but never tasted them or even been to fake tapas bars outside of Spain.  I had no idea how alluring and addictive tapas become, sneaking under your skin like a bad serial television show or sushi.  After three evenings of beer with paella (seafood rice), jamon iberica (cured iberian ham) and these amazing crunchy olive oil and sesame crackers, I never wanted to stop having Tapas instead of dinner.  I especially liked the crackers.  One of our waiters called them regañas, but they were slightly different wherever we went. The best crackers were in Seville, and they were labeled cáscaras (which is spanish for peel or shell).  Here is the photo of the (empty) package. 

I also bought a package of similar crackers labeled "regañas" but those are not as light and crispy as the cáscaras - puffy, like little pillows.. I wish I had brought back more packages…I can't find them here in France.  I can buy grisini from Italy at my local French grocery store, but I don't see cáscaras or regañas anywhere.  Ay!  More sadness.

I'm of the old school "push yourself forward when you're feeling gloomy" philosophy.  When life gets strange and sad, I head for my kitchen and bake as therapy.  As long as I don't eat everything it's okay, right?  The preparation and subsequent distribution of the food forces me into action and interaction.  It gets me doing stuff, talking to people, and pretty soon I feel better.  When you feel slightly better, you can face what is making you sad.  Reality doesn't go away, but it looks less massive and immoveable. Instead of the abominable snowman, you face Chewbacca.  More like a swamp you can wade through, an ocean you can cross.

I decided to try and make my own cáscaras or regañas.   I couldn't find a recipe anywhere on the internet, so I adapted a recipe I have for homemade saltine crackers with flour, olive oil, salt and sesame paste instead of salad oil.  Baking homemade tortillas or lefse, both of which I love to make is all about effort. You need to work on your skill and be patient to roll out the dough really thin. It's like rollerblading backwards.  You can't just have somebody explain the recipe.  You have to do it and practice.  You can make these crackers ahead of time for parties and store them in an airtight tin.  Just heat them in an oven 2 minutes before serving if they've lost their crispiness.

Brook's Tapas Crackers


2 cup all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 cup water

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup tahini

1/4 cup olive oil for brushing

flake salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds or za'atar* for sprinkling (optional)


In a stand mixer or bowl, mix salt, flours and baking powder.  Make a well in center and add oil and tahini -- mix with a fork until blended and add and water.  Knead with a dough hook for ten minutes until smooth--or knead by hand.  Cover and let rest for at least 30 minutes.  You can also wrap and chill overnight.  

Heat oven to 425 F or 205 C.

Divide the dough into walnut sized pieces. Make a 'snake' of each piece by rolling on your hands. With a rolling pin, flatten each 'snake' out into a long cracker shaped piece.  Try to gently stretch the dough to get it really thin (see through) and slap it on the baking pan.  Brush each piece with oil and sprinkle with salt, seeds or herbs if desired. (push the seeds into the dough with the rolling pin before brushing with oil.)  

With a pizza cutter, slice each long cracker into 8 or 10 little pieces.

Bake in hot oven for 7 to 9 minutes until brown and crisp.  

*My version of za'atar is 1 part sea salt, 1 part cumin seeds, 1 part caraway seeds and 1 part fennel seeds, ground in mortar and pestle until fine.

Monday, January 28 2013

Fluffy French mini-muffins with pumpkin - madeleines au potiron


French writer Marcel Proust and a lemon-flavored madeleine cake are linked together forever in my mind. If, like me, you survived French Lit courses in college, you might have read Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" (a.k.a. Remeberance of Things Past).  The delicate shell-shaped madeleine muffin is as important to the novel as the red embroidered "A" in Hawthorn's "Scarlet Letter." Proust's madeleine is a sensory triggor for his autobiographical hero Swann, who dips his madeleine in a cup of linden-flower tea and then bites into the sodden cake.  An explosion of lemon, butter, sugar and herbal flavors triggors an involuntary memory which in turn lets loose a stream of prose that flows into Proust's entire novel. Because of one little tea-dunked cake, Swann recalls previously suppressed memories about his past life in 19th century upper-class France and scores of French Lit students like me had to write essays on the nature of memory. What a hefty weight for such a delicate, fluffy little muffin to carry!

  Madeleines, like any other butter cake, are best eaten right out of the oven. They are surprisingly easy to make provided you have an electric mixer. If you don't have the pretty madeleine tins; go ahead and use mini-muffin pans; the taste is just as good. Madeleines batter is made like a genoise:  the whole eggs are beaten on high speed with the sugar for five minutes to make a fluffy, pale yellow meringue-like emulsion packed with tiny air bubbles. The flour and butter are next folded in with a spatula so the air bubbles remain suspended in the mixture. This technique makes the cakes extremely fluffy and light, yet tender.

In my version, I've taken out some of the butter and added pumpkin purée so the madeleines are not only healthier and lighter, but stay fresh and moist for several days. You can briefly warm them in the microwave a few seconds before serving. For a festive touch, decorate with a sprinkle of confectioner's (icing) sugar. The pumpkin, spices and orange zest go equally well with tea or coffee.

I dare you to dunk your madeleine, bite in with your eyes closed, and concentrate… what memory pops up? Here's mine:  I'm sitting at a window table on the State Street Steep 'n Brew in Madison, Wisconsin. I'm studying for a quiz in chemistry, charging up my brain with a big mug of hazelnut coffee and an apple-walnut muffin. Share your memory in the comments below please.

Madeleines au potiron  - French pumpkin mini-muffins


1 cup granulated sugar

4 large eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 cup flour

1/2  cup whole wheat flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp allspice

1/4 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup (113 gr) butter, melted and cooled

grated zest of one orange


1/ place eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat on high speed with an electric mixer for 5 minutes. 

2/ heat oven to 325 F or 175 C

3/ In another bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt and spices until completely mixed.

4/ pour the pumpkin into the egg mixture, and stir gently ten times with a spatula, with a folding motion.

5/ pour half the flour mixture on top and continue folding another 15-20 times.  Add the rest of the flour and fold again until nearly all mixed.

6/ add the melted butter and the orange zest, and continue folding until thoroughly mixed.

7/ use two teaspoons to fill greased mini-muffin cups or madeleine tin molds with a heaping TBSP of batter. (batter should come to top of mini muffin cup)

8/ bake 8-10 minutes, until just set.  Remove immediately from tin and cool on a rack. Sprinkle with a little powdered sugar if desired.

Wednesday, January 23 2013

French apple pie - tarte aux pommes

       American as apple pie goes the saying, but no dessert is more French than tarte aux pommes.  The difference between apple pie and tarte aux pommes?  We are afterall in France, so French apple pie is skinnier, dressed up fancier and topless. French apple pie has less sugar, little or no cinnamon, sports an all-butter crust, and contains no flour or cornstarch mixed in with the apples. Instead, the apples are arranged meticulously as one of those clipped lapdog coiffures, and given a sparse sprinkle of sugar. For this reason, the choice of apples is crucial. The ideal variety of apple to choose is Reine des Reinettes : queen of the queenlets! This is a very tart yet sweet apple that holds its shape when cooked without becoming floury. The Reinette is a French variety not available in the USA, so when I'm back home I look for Fuji, Empire, Gala, or Granny Smith--the latter requires a bit more sugar.

Half the secret to a good pie is in the crust. I make my own all-butter pastry from scratch and roll it out as thin as I can, about 1/8 inch thick. Most of the French women I know buy ready-made pie crust from the grocery store. Here in France there are some tasty ones made with 100% butter. I occasionally give in to temptation and buy them, but more often I make three crusts at a time in my food processor and freeze them, ready to thaw and roll.

A French pie tin --called a moule, (mold, which sounds like a fungus to me)-- has straight sides, so the crust is held up by the apples. The prettiness of the apples is important.  Just as none of my French women friends steps outside without mascara and an impeccable outfit, your tart must have, as the French say, une bonne présentation (nice appearance).  Here is an illustration of my method to cut the apples:

I also found this excellent apple cutting video in French.

TARTES AUX POMMES - French Apple Pie


6-8 apples

3/4 cup granulated sugar, preferably unprocessed (raw)

1/2 cup apricot or rhubarb jam

1/4 cup water


1/ Heat oven to 400 F / 200 C.

2/ Peel all the apples, leaving them whole, then cut in half and remove cores and seeds.

3/ Lay each apple half, core side down, on a cutting board and slice thinly (1/8 to 1/4 inch thick) while holding steady with your hand so that the apple half remains sort of intact. Like a sliced loaf of bread that remains together. Repeat for each apple.

4/ Pick up each sliced apple half and gently fan it out in your hands.  Lay each apple fan over the pie crust so they match and evenly fan completely around the outside.  Spread a second row of apple fans in the reverse direction inside the first row. Finish with a sort of spiral in the center, like a rose or the tower of pisa, use your imagination.

5/ sprinkle the sugar evenly over the entire top of the apples.

7/ place in bottom half of oven and bake 40-50 minutes until golden brown.

8/ In a small saucepan, heat the jam with the water, stirring constantly to a boil. 

9/ brush the jam over the entire tart to give it a sparkling appearance-une bonne présentation!

10/ serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream…in France I'd serve with Creme Fraiche and a glass of sweet white wine such as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC

Friday, January 18 2013

Salt'n Pepper GAUDES Cookies with Foie Gras Fat

Sablés aux Gaudes made with Jura-Bresse toasted cornmeal flour

         Many French chefs enjoy taking luxury products and combining them with humble, forgotten ingredients to create a fun surpise. An example is the return of the Jerusalum artchichoke in France, which had associations with wartime deprivation for many French. Now it's a chic accompaniment to lobster. 

In France, winter holidays mean eating foie gras. Not the fake mousse stuff that smells like cat food, but authentic, Southwest France protected designation of origin, whole duck liver sterilized in a glass jar (see photo above).  In French, foie gras entier de canard AOC du Sud Ouest de la France. That's the stuff. To serve, slice very thin and pass a basket of toasted whole wheat bread. Classically it's served with a sweet, late-harvest wine like Sauternes, but Alsace Gewurztraminer or dry Reisling work equally well.

I won't enter into a discussion about the cruelty of force-feeding ducks, particulary as I begin the third week of "assist feeding" my 12-yr old cat, stricken with acute asthma. I will express my opinions on the subject of animal welfare and partial vegetarianism in a subsequent post.

My topic today is what to do about the leftover golden fat?  What a waste…some poor duck suffered (or not) and certainly endured force-feeding with a funnel in order to produce that fat, so I don't want to throw it away. Plus it tastes amazing. Would somone please explain to me why it's worse to eat duck fat than butter spread on toast? I often use the leftoverr fat for sauteeing in place of butter. One day I thought, why not use it in place of butter in other recipes? I've got this lovely recipe for homemade savoury cocktail cookies, a bit like the Legendes Gourmandes cookies.

I adapted this recipe from the back package of an interesting locavore ingredient I discovered at my Chalon Leclerc superrmarket, Farine de Gaudes, from the region of Bresse and Jura. The package I bought comes from the Taron family Mill in Chaussin, which has been continually grinding various grains since the middle ages. Corn came to Bresse in the 1600's; the first written record in 1611 at Flacey-en-Bresse. Gaudes is the name for porridge or cookies made from the very fine, toasted cornmeal. Henri Vincenot, the famous author of fiction set in turn of the century rural Burgundy, talks about Gaudes and gives a barely understandable recipe. Traditionally Gaudes was a filling winter staple for Bresse peasantry. You can also substitute regular cornmeal or polenta. If you're feeling daring, try to toast it gently in the oven or in a frying pan over medium heat, stirring constantly until just light brown and fragrant. Then grind it in a blender until it looks like fine sand. That will be as close as you can get if you're living in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

After the holidays my sweet tooth is tuckered out, so salted cookies are more tempting. I experimented with how to remove the sugar and get a nice consistency. My resulting recipe is quick and easy with a food processor. Proceed as for old-fashioned "ice box cookies", forming the dough into a loaf, then chill, slice and bake. I tried using my cookie gun, and that also worked well. Sometimes I add a few tablespoons of fresh herbs like basil or rosemary. In the midst of January ice, aromatic pepper sounds better.

I've always loved pepper, and two years ago my daughter brought me back a pound of Cambodian Kompot pepper -- best and longest-lasting trip souvenir gift I've ever got. What a difference quality pepper can make for a recipe!  There are so many different types and aromas of pepper are out there to experiment with. Last weekend I tasted wild Madagascar pepper with a spicy, licorice tang and pronounced bite.  I could imagine that pepper as the crowning touch for a mushroom soup. I like to use Guerande sea salt which I buy in 1 kg bags.  The crystals are big, and need to be ground.  For this recipe, I place the salt and the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle, and crush them together.  Salt 'n pepper seasoning!

Salt 'n Pepper Savory Gaudes cookies with foie gras fat


optional 2 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil etc)

1/4 tsp (1,3 ml) salt, preferably French sea salt from Guerande

1/4 tsp (1,3 ml) fragrant peppercorns, freshly ground

5 Tbsp (70 gr) foie gras fat, or in combination with butter and olive oil

1 cup (150 gr) flour

1/4 cup  (50 gr) farine de gaudes (or toasted cornmeal)

1 egg

1/4 cup (60 ml) water (approximately)


Place the flours, salt, pepper, optional herbs and fat in a food processor.  Whirl on high speed until mixture resembles fine graham cracker crumbs.

Beat the egg with half the water, add to mixture and process on high. Now add dribbles of water until the mixture comes together in a ball of dough (see photo above). Depending on the humidity of your flours, you may need more or less water.

If you are using a cookie gun, fill immediately and bake--do not chill. Otherwise, gather the dough and form into a loaf, chill at least 30 minutes and slice in 1/4 inch thick slabs.  You can also freeze at this point, and have ready for surprise guests.

Heat oven to 350 F / 180 C.  

If desired, brush with milk or egg wash and sprinkle with herbs or seeds to decorate.  Or use a cookie gun (see photo above).

Bake for 8-12 minutes. Lower time gives you a tender cookie, higher time gives you crispy texture.

Wednesday, January 9 2013

Juraflore Cheese Dungeons

Doesn't this look like the start of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure?

          80,000 enormous wheels of Comté cheese give off a powerful stench. I can almost imagine I'm in the lair of a great smelly beast. The overpowering cloud of ammonia gas mixed with sulfurous  and fermenting barnyard aromas surround me as I follow our tour guide through the underground dungeons of Juraflore. I am in east central France close to the Swiss border, in the region called Franche-Comté, at Fort des Rousses, a masterpiece of 19th century military architecture.

 This is what it might smell like if 2000 horses were still stabled in the military bunker built by Napolean III to house 2500 mounted troops and protect France from the dreaded Austrian invasion. In 1998, Charles Arnaud, CEO of Juraflore Cheese, purchased a small portion of the historic fort sprawling over 230 acres. Until 1997, the enormous military complex of Fort des Rousses had been used for commando training, and Mr. Arnaud, an experienced mountaineer, served as a climbing instructor here. His family had been in the cheese business since 1907, and he noticed the deep underground  galeries of the fort would make excellent cheese ripening cellars. 

Charles Arnaud's crazy vision is reality 14 years later. Now hundreds of tourists like me slip on blue plastic booties to explore the stone hallways buried under meters of stone and earth. The tour is like something from Dungeons & Dragons, and the treasure is golden cheese. The vast earthworks of the fort maintain a stable year round 7 degrees celsius temperature and the lovely arched vaults churn a slow, steady current of air, perfect for maturing Arnaud's Comté cheeses. The fort was designed to stand a year long siege, so there is plenty of water to maintain the requisite 97% humidity for the initial cheese ripening room. In all, there are three different cheese ripening rooms, each with unique temperature and humidity conditions that encourage the process of ripening Comté. 

Our tour guide ushers us past a huge wall of awards won by Juraflore in various competitions, into a room displaying black and white photographs and artifacts of ancient cheese production and transport.

What looks like a wood-covered baptismal font on a stone pillar base is actually a cheese cellar used for storage before the invention of refrigeration. A cheese wagon in the center of the room has the sides of the barrels cut away to reveal cheese wheels between layers of wood and straw. Our tour guide gives us all the facts and figures in French, and answers all our questions. It's interesting and the guide is knowledgesable, but the tour remains a marketing tool for the Juraflore brand of Comté, representing only 10% of the total production of Comté cheese. There are are more than a dozen brands of comté. Our guide would have us believe Juraflore has the top quality, but I'm dubious. The Arnaud family makes some of their own cheese in Poligny, but the cheeses aging here come from over 32 different fruitières - the local name for cooperative dairies in the Jura where millk was collected and  cheese made since the 13th century. The history of Jura fruitières is interesting from a historical perspective - "The cheese dairy as a patriotic example" - but also sheds light on the cultural and political values of this rural French region.

A wheel of Comté cheese weighs over a hundred pounds, and requires more than 150 gallons of milk. Because the cheese needed to be stored for an entire year, the wheels were made very large.  But Jura farmers had small dairy herds, so one family didn't have enough milk to produce the giant cheese and a cooperative system was formed. The Jura now boasts the largest annual production of a single type of AOC cheese in all of France: 50,000 tons.

There are rows upon rows of cheeses here, stored on shelves from floor to ceiling.  In the different ripening cellars the cheeses progress like candidates for Miss Universe, through a process of elimination where the best cheeses are selected for further maturation. The  dungeon master, called an affineur (from the French "to make finer or better), wields his sonde, cheese probe, a metal tool with a sharp tip and hollow center he uses to extract a tiny core of cheese.  The affineur uses all five senses to test and select the cheese. First he taps each disk a dozen times all over; the sound of the cheese gives information about texture and density. An extracted core is examined for color, and gently pinched and curved backwards to test viscosity and elasticity. Finally the core is sniffed and a fragment tasted before the core is stuck back into the cheese and tapped into place. The dungeon master has the final say, and scratches his initials on the side of the golden disk.

In contrast to the ancient feel of the fortress construction and old-fashioned cheese relics, seven ultra-modern robots work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, carefully tending the cheeses. Each robot looks like a combination of a warehouse pallet truck and a miniaturized car wash. The robots gently lift each wheel of cheese on twin metal spatula arms and then whip out a round brush with a faucet poised overhead that looks just like the hubcap scrubber at a carwash. The cheese gets a thorough scrub and brine rinse, before being flipped and returned to the exact shelf location where the robot found it. Following the robots, workers toss a handful of Guerande Normandy sea salt on the freshly bathed and turned wheels.  

The whole process of cheese ripening looks just as as complex and mysterious as aging wine. Whereas raw milk cheese maturation has become industrialized for certain types of cheese, that is obviously not the case for Comté. It remains both art and science, with raw materials determining how good the final product is to some extent, but just like a hedge fund investment, both skill and luck affect the final outcome. I suppose you could say that producing a really good Comté cheese is like winning a game of dungeons and dragons. There are rolls of the dice and golden treasure for the hard work of investigation and battle. 

Hungry for MORE?  I found an interesting blog post by David Jowett on Comté cheese affineur, Marcel Petite. David Lebovitz visited there also and gives an excellent account of the tasting and ripening process.

Wednesday, December 26 2012

Crash Test Cuisine ~ Savoury Cookies made by Legendes Gourmandes

     I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. It's not my favorite holiday (that would be Easter) but it does feature time with friends, parties, and permission to enjoy sparkling wines and chocolate. If you're like me, you are feeling lazy yet have lots of entertaining, some of it casual drop in anytime!  I like to have some emergency appetizers and treats on hand. Not everyone likes sweets, so when I spotted a pretty mix-in-a-jar of savoury vegetable cookies at the new Lux E.Leclerc, made by Legendes Gourmandes, I couldn't resist trying. The ingredients list showed dried onion, garlic, peas and carrots. The jar looked festive.

This calls for crash test cuisine! The instructions on the back of the jar consisted of pictures that would work for a Chinese toddler, but I had to get out my granny glasses to read them.  It looked to me like this: Pour mix into a bowl, add 2 Tbsp of olive oil, 1/4 cup butter and 1 egg.  Stir with a spoon, form into little balls, bake on a cookie sheet. Easy Peasy as they say in Yorkshire. The dough was very pretty, buttery yellow with flakes of orange carrots and green pea dots.

Instead of dropping by teaspoonfuls on the cookie sheet, I decided to make something more biscuit-shaped. I patted each dough ball into the bottom half of an ungreased mini-muffins tin. I baked them 12 minutes at 350F (180C). I let them cool and they dropped right out of the muffin tins, no problem. The taste was wonderful, not too salty with the garlic and onion providing a pleasant foil to the sweet carrot and pea bits. I found the flavor a little too bland, but that is in keeping with French tastes. I suppose I could add a little dill, chives or rosemary to jazz them up if I liked. The consistency was tender and crumbly, like shortbread, contrasting with the chewiness of the carrot bits and the crunchy resistance of the peas. In fact the peas were almost too crunchy for my taste, close to a borderline density of "will this crack my tooth?" that was slightly alarming, considering my dental history.

Overall, I rate these savoury cookies 10 out of 10 for appetizing appearance, 10 for ease and speed to make and 8 for taste and texture.

Wednesday, December 19 2012

St Vincent's Cellar & Gourmet Legends in Chalon-sur-Saone


So Monday is Christmas Eve. Wait! Don't rush off in a panic yet;  My post is short today, so you can finish all that last-minute shopping.  Next year, try to plan ahead, okay?

I'm going to share two of my favorite shops here in Chalon. If you're passing through Burgundy, especially on those river cruise ships like Viking, I encourage you to stroll through our lovely town.  First, locate the statue of Nicephore Niepce, the inventor of photography watching benevolently over the river near where the cruise ships are tied up. You'll find the tourist office next door, where they speak English, have maps and offer good advice. Follow the river past the photography museum and past the Maison du Patrimoine--Chalon's compact, well-designed local history museum. When you reach the bridge at the top of the hill, turn left into our pedestrian district.  Right away you'll be surrounded by old buildings dating from Medieval times, some of them in the process of being renovated, but a few with plaques.

At the first crossroads you can admire a beautiful wood carving entitled "Christ Falls."   Speculum Vitae, The Mirror of Life is inscribed on the pedestal. This 1986 carved wood replica of the original stone statue was financed by the Rotary club and carved by local artist M. Gaillard, who also created the 'tree of life' found on the river bank to the far side of St Vincent Cathedral. The original stone "Christ Falls" was damaged by a delivery truck in 1943.  It was repaired in 1986 but was too fragile to return to its niche, so it's on display inside the Cathedral. The wood replica has a quirky addition of snails at Jesus' feet, a wink to the Burgundy roots of the sculptor.

Turn right at the children's clothing store, and head up past a shoe store and café to the prettiest spot in my town, the St Vincent Cathedral Square (Place St Vincent).  It's one block east of the Rue du Pont. You'll spot a small carved statue of St Vincent above the café on the southwest corner of the square, directly opposite the Cathedral. Remember that Saint Vincent is not just a Christian, he is the patron saint of winemakers, so it's fitting that he fondly watches over a square as dedicated to worship as to food and drink. 

On market days--Fridays and Sundays--this square is filled with local producers of vegetables, bread, honey, eggs or cheese as well as retailers selling fruits from southern France or Spain. Cafés line the edges, and their tables and chairs are shaded by umbrellas to spill over whatever is left of the sidewalks. Every Friday or Saturday night the square buzzes with conversation as friends congregate to drink, eat and celebrate. The modern look of a concrete sphere fountain set in a square basin contrasts with terraced medieval half-timber buildings all around the square. The breathtaking height and arrogance of the 1827 neogothic Cathedral facade hovers over everything like a deity made of stone.

From a food and drink point of view, this square is a feast. Two of my favorite food shops are located here: Cellier Saint Vincent wine shop and Legendes Gourmandes gourmet food shop.

Cellier Saint Vincent is a beautiful gem of a shop, with solid glass walls lined with lovely bottles and beautiful custom made wood cabinets inside to display wines and liquors from all over the world. The owner, Pascal Laville, is as knowledgeable as his shop is pretty. He is known for his friendly manner, his wooden bow tie and his moustache. I'm sure in Pascal's shop to find something delightful within my budget. He has an amazing offering of whiskies, and he generously shares advice, even offering to write a note of instruction for how long to keep a wine or what might best accompany it.

 My favorite thing to buy at Cellier St Vincent is a bottle of Joseph Cartron Vintage Creme de Cassis, a black current fruit liquor made by macerating freshly picked berries in alcohol, and then adding sugar. The liquor is intended to be drunk within a few months of opening since the alcohol content is only 15%.  It makes a lovely after dinner drink, and a fine substitute for dessert. Pascal has a very nice offering of Champagnes and Cremants de Bourgogne and he has the only Beaujolais that I drink:  Pierre-Marie Chermette's Domaine du Vissoux.  Pascal Laville discovered the winery before it was famous, and so he can still stock this hard-to-find domaine. Don't miss this surprising item to find in a a wine shop: fruit juices!  Beautiful artisan juices by Alain Millat have incomparable aromas and flavors, like fresh fruit captured in a bottle. There's something exceptional about a wine seller who sells fruit juice; an unbiased quest for taste and a passion for craftsmanship.

Legendes Gourmandes is not just your average gourmet food shop. I have special affection for this small enterprise run by two creative and energetic women, Emmanuelle Sotty and Christelle Lotz. They are not just retailers but manufacture some local specialties of their own invention in nearby Villefranche sur Saone.  The two friends started their business as a company selling gift baskets to companies, associations and groups. Their success led them to open a shop in 2006, and you can find them next to the spherical fountain adjacent to St Vincent Cathedral. 

A wonderful selection of gourmet foods from all over France, including spices, flavored salts and peppers, oils, vinegars and canned preparations like sardines and patés fill the shop with colors and flavours. Legendes Gourmandes manufactures some of their preparations, including flavored sugars, jams, syrups, sauces and imaginative kits for making risotto, rice pudding, cookies, muffins or quick breads. The store sells a selection of baskets, and I love to create my own Burgundy gift basket filled with snails, cassis sauce, Dijon spice bread, mustards and anis-seed flavored candies. Every time I visit the shop there is something new to taste.

Have a wonderful, delicious Holiday Season everyone!

Tuesday, December 11 2012

E.Leclerc: an ethical hypermarket chain?

         The first Leclerc "Distribution Center"
in Landerneau, Brittany in 1959 (above)
and modern store (below right)

      Edouard Leclerc died at age 85 on September 17, 2012.  According to the (false) urban legend about George W Bush, the French don't have a word for "Entrepreneur."  Maybe "Leclerc" would be a good translation. He invented a radical form of the modern hypermarket, beginning with a small grocery outlet in Brittany in 1949. Leclerc created not just the most important supermarket chain in France;  he built an innovative business model based on revolutionary political and religious ideas that ultimately, changed the social landscape of a nation. He created a supermarket chain that is not a corporation but a semi-franchised, vertically integrated cooperative. His business model includes a charter which members must sign, swearing to uphold values and ethics, like some secretive, militaristic religious organization. The "Leclerc Movement" is both unique and radical; a set of ethics behind a massive business venture. Leclerc and his family only own 2 of the 686 stores in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal; the stores are independantly-owned franchises that "adhere" to his movement. While all of this sounds very strange to Americans, it makes perfect sense in the context of France. Edouard Leclerc even considered running for President in 1987, but ultimately decided he could do more good by continuing his politico-economic struggle in the realm of commerce.

Leclerc was the first retail distributor in France to cut out the middleman and buy directly from producers, passing practically wholesale prices on to consumers.  Ultimately, Leclerc extended this practice to not just food and dry groceries but to the previously protected or monopolistic sectors of clothing, jewelry, fuel, pharmaceuticals, travel, perfumes, electronics and books. While this sounds like Walmart, don't be fooled.  That would be like comparing Wonderbread to a baguette made by Poilâne. Both Walmart and Leclerc have been accused of destroying Mom and Pop stores and driving prices too far down so that producers get crushed. But Walmart is a clearly capitalistic, publicly-held corporation that has to keep stockholders happy. Leclerc is a strange hybrid animal including a cultish philosophy tinged with elements of humanism that seem to directly spring from Edouard Leclerc's background, infused with the history and politics of post-WWII France.

Edouard Leclerc was raised in a devout Catholic family, the sixth of 15 children. He initally entered the seminary to become a priest, but the war disrupted his education. He was briefly jailed and accused of handing over a resistance hero to the Germans. Although his name was cleared, a cloud of doubt lingered throughout his lifetime, even after he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.  Perhaps it stirred him to good action? He finished his studies, majored in philosophy, and began a series of lectures to Catholic associations about his ideas. In 1949 he decided to practice rather than preach, and set up his own grocery store, selling a few basic items at the lowest price possible in order to help the poor. Instead of expanding through investment, he set up a unique cooperative franchise system in which members of his association owned their own stores but used his name free of charge if they agreed to uphold his philosophy. 

     Even today, franchisees of Leclerc supermarkets must join his 'movement'-- it even sounds like some sort of relgious cult-- and agree to uphold his values.  These include solidarity, independance, respect for the individual, obligatory employee profit-sharing, to fight for lower prices, to defend consumers, to uphold quality, to struggle against monopolies, and more recently, to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.  

locally-sourced pears at the Chalon-sur-Saone E.Leclerc, December 2012

     Throughtout the 1970's and 1980's the Leclerc led crusades to break up different retail monopolies. The fight to sell fuel at lower prices ran against brand-name gas stations and ultimately led to Leclerc expanding vertically to acquire it's own fuel distribution chain for the franchise members. The consumer reaped lower prices. The next fight was to sell pharmaceuticals including non-prescription medecines, plant therapies, herbal teas, cosmetics, baby products, bandages, and other high-margin drugstore items previously sold only by pharmacists.  Leclerc next attacked the travel agency sector, offering cut-rate vacations, air travel and cruises. His next struggle with books and media was only a partial win, as the government decided to protect small booksellers by maintaining the single-price rule. However, the competition from newly built Leclerc media stores and were probably the double whammy that helped drive FNAC and SURCOUF out of business by 2012. During the summer of 2012, when gas prices soared due to demand in China and trouble in the Middle East, Leclerc announced they would sell gas at cost to augment the French government gas tax relief.  This looked like more than just the old loss leader technique to bring customers to their store with the lure of cheap gas. It was like a symbol of the 'old Leclerc' fighting for the consumer.  Meanwhile, Leclerc has opened a new front in the war for consumers by preparing online grocery shopping with the "Drive"concept since 2008. Number one in France today, Leclerc has 144 Drive units, which may eliminate grocery shopping as we know it.

    All of this is making E.Leclerc sound a little like the second coming of Jesus, but let me be clear that while I admired the principles of fighting for consumers and breaking up monopolies, I was always somewhat creeped out by the 'Freemason' cultish styling of the movement. Leclerc propaganda sounded like the communist party at times, or like the Catholic Youth Movement.  I'm not a huge 'joiner', so these aspects turned me off. I should also add that when shopping in Leclerc, there is a definite "soviet" flavor to the environment that many of my French girlfriends dislike, and which also somewhat annoyed me. This was usually more than made up by the chirpy friendliness of the cashiers, who, unlike employees at Carrefour or Geant Casino (the competition) never seemed surly or desperate to perform. Somehow, the experience at Leclerc was always a bit cheap and simple, but with a big dollop of humanity that made me feel I was in a different country, or back at a Piggly-Wiggly in 1958. The other supermarkets in Chalon felt too plush, too commercial and the cashiers seem bent on getting rid of me as fast as possible so they could chat with their neighbors.  At Leclerc, I left feeling the cashiers enjoyed talking with me, and I had an enjoyable experience. Is this because of employee profit sharing? Private ownership? Did I just get lucky? In any case I always had a slight preference for Leclerc because it felt "different".

    What ultimately won me over as a fan of Leclerc is how their ethics system has embraced the environmental cause. Leclerc supermarkets were the first in France to stop giving free grocery bags, an unpopular move that first made me decide to shop at no other grocery store in 1996. Leclerc's movement is now emerging as a force in the locavore and sustainable agriculture crusades. Perhaps in response to accusations that supermarkets destroy small producers and encourage factory farms, Leclerc is attempting to bring together small local farms and food producers with their franchisees and help them perpetuate family farm practices that guarantee quality. The result is contracts signed directly between farmers and stores, similar to what the Food Alliance does in the USA, through Leclerc's "local alliance" program. Also in 2010, Leclerc established an in-house organic food certification, as well as a line of products featuring sustainable choices with a 'conso responsable approuvé' label to indicate products that meet a strict set of low-impact criteria  throughout the product cycle: ingredients, production, transportation, packaging and disposal/recycling.

     This new crusade, if past efforts are any indication, could mean that France emerges as a world leader and a model in sustainable family farming and production of high-quality goods with ethical practices and animal welfare considerations. I am crossing my fingers and hoping Leclerc will carry on with this fight.  I will keep spending my euros in E.Leclerc stores, knowing that every purchase I make is a vote for the kind of food I want to have available for my children and grandchildren. I will also keep trying to buy most of my food at the farmer's market of course, beccause that's even more effective.

The facade of the Chalon-sur-Saone E.Leclerc with photos of local producers, part of the new local alliance campaign (below)

     Instead of leaving you with a recipe this week, I will leave you with these fantastic videos made by a communication agency in Brittany called agence producteurs locaux (in French but its mostly music and images), which cameos the producer alliances made with local farms by the brand new Leclerc store that just opened in Lux next to the fulfillment center in Chalon:  sample video on youtube (watch them all!)
  go to Leclerc Lux video   

Sources: (English) , 

(French) ,

Monday, December 3 2012

The Magical Milk Machine

Photo of the milk machine in Chalon-sur-Saone, Place de l'Obelisque near McDonalds.

            What's black, brown and white and moos when you push the buttton? One of my favorite food landmarks in Chalon-sur-Saone --it's the automatic milk distributor in the center of town.  The machine is near the Obelisk commemorating the 1778 construction of the Burgundy Canal du Centre. The milk is creamy and smells delicious. This is the real thing: whole, raw milk, straight from the cow to the spigot. It's fresh, it's fun and it's locally-produced with a delivery system that is sustainable, ecological and economical. I take this milk in my morning coffee, and this milk makes the very best vanilla custard I've ever tasted.--I'll share my recipe below. At first I was afraid to drink raw milk without boiling it first, but my son downed glasses of it with no ill effects. (This is why I had kids--to test my food for toxins.) A liter of milk costs 1 euro, roughly 50% cheaper than supermarket milk. Here is a video of my husband and kids buying the milk--it's a festive outing and kids love it.

go to milk machine video on Facebook

            Last week I accidentally met one of the two owners of the magical milk machine. He lives less than 4 miles from this distributor, and he fills it every morning with fresh milk. He sells an average of 100 liters per day between the two machines he manages. Last Friday I took my clean empty glass bottle and headed for my machine.  When I arrived, there was an older couple fiddling with the controls, looking frustrated. They told me they had put in a euro coin but nothing happened. I proceeded to try all the usual tricks, pushing buttons, banging like Fonzi on the "Happy Days" juke box, and finally adding my own euro coin, thinking it would push theirs down and start the process. Finally I gave up and called the mobile number listed on the machine "In case of breakdown call Fabien or Bruno".  Fabien answered on the second ring, and after I explained our predicament, he told me he'd be there in "five minutes."  I should have translated that to the French "as soon as I can." 15 minutes later, I knew many interesting facts about the gentleman sharing my vigil and his companion.  He was born in France of Polish immigrants. He had been  a soldier in Algeria and a coal mining superviser in Montceau, a town 30 minutes west of Chalon. His daughter got married last year to a policeman.  His wife died five years ago. This was the first time he tried to buy milk from a machine, and he was deeply disappointed.  He seemed skeptical when I told him I had been using this machine for years without a problem.

            "It figures," he said, "Just my luck."  He had some sort of difficulty with his car registration at the sous-prefecture today, so he felt he was having a run of misfortune.  I thought to myself that a war veteran and retired coal miner probably knew more than me about runs of misfortune. He had a short exchange in Polish with his pretty blond companion. 

            He glanced at his watch and sighed, and announced, "No one is coming, I'm not waiting anymore." Perhaps years of disillusionment with authority had given him a bad feeling for private enterprise. Maybe he didn't trust someone who would sell milk from a machine, as if they were ashamed to look you in the face. I begged him to stay a few minutes more.  I was afraid it would look suspicious if I was here all by myself. I whipped out my cell phone and called Fabien back, but got his brother, Bruno.

            "Fabien's on his way, he'll be there any minute," he said. I glanced at my companions and thanked Bruno.

            "He's held up in traffic,"  I said, "He should be here any minute now." I could see my companions were dubious, and they waved their hands in dismissal, evidently thinking me naive to believe that excuse. 

            "They're not coming, he probably forgot and just left now." I sighed, thinking that 'Solidarność' was indeed a remnant of the past. I'm American and gullible,  and even more importantly, I'm from Wisconsin, the dairy state, so I defended the farmer.  

            "I'm sure he just got delayed," I said. "The traffic from Lux, where the farm is located, is really bad right now due to a highway construction project," My companions shook their heads at my inexperience, and urged me to go home, not to waste my time. I had better things to do, they told me. I shook my head and held up my bottle stubbornly.

            "I put my euro in that machine, I want my milk!"  The man pressed a coin in my hand, and gave me his empty bottle.  

            "Go home, it's cold! Come back later!"  He was sweet, but I was obstinate.

            "I want to stay here and make sure the machine gets repaired," I said, "someone has to be here to testify and to make sure nobody else loses a euro."

            They refused to take back their euro, and smiled and waved at me as they walked away. Sure enough, not even 5 minutes later, along came a white van with a photo print of the milk machine emblazoned across the side. It pulled right up on the sidewalk adjacent to the machine. The milk cavalry was here! Beaming a huge smile, a small, energetic young man hopped out of the car and came over to shake my hand and apologize.  

            "Traffic was terrible!" He was in a hurry, and walked straight to the machine, whipping out keys and deftly opening the entire front panel on the machine like a carnival ride. I watched as he tinkered with the mechanism over the coin collection box. He removed several small copper coins that had clogged up the gears. He didn't grumble, but listened as I told the story of my companions dropping in a euro, my trying to help, and their insistance in leaving me.

            Fabien told me the machine has never really broken down, but he's had problems occasionally with the coin slot getting clogged when instructions were not followed and users inserted light copper coins or even plastic tokens. The machine is also equipped to take payment with a special USB key which is sold alongside the clean, empty bottles. I prefer the satisfaction of dropping my euro coin in the slot, because it reminds me of those giant gumball machines I yearned after when I was a kid.

            Soon the machine was unclogged and working. Suddenly I had a strange feeling and I looked up,  spotting my companions pulling up right beside us in a red car.  I indicated the empty parking spot next to the machine, motioning for them to pull over and get their milk.  They smiled but pointed straight ahead; they didn't want to stop.  The light turned red so they halted, and I ran up to the car window as the gentleman rolled down his window.  I indicated the farmer and told them the machine was working.  Did they want some milk?  I could get them a bottle if they'd just wait 2 minutes. 

            "No thanks, we'll try again next time." he said.  He accepted the euro and the bottle reluctantly.  

            "The machine was clogged with tiny copper coins," I explained, "people don't read the instructions."  My companions waved and smiled; perhaps they still thought me an utter idiot. That's okay. I was filled with the happy thrill of the machine working again, and satisfied that my innocent faith in farmers and new technology was justified.

            I filled my bottle, listened as the machine mooed and felt at peace with the universe.

Video of Bruno Boireau and his cows!

Vanilla Pouring Custard 

--serve this instead of whipped cream with any dessert

1 liter whole milk

1/2 split vanilla bean

3 egg yolks

1 whole egg

1 tsp cornstarch

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 tsp salt

Better if made 24 hours ahead.  This can be a tricky preparation, so read the instructions completely before starting and be prepared to watch over and stir continuously while it cooks.

Pour the milk in a saucepan and add half vanilla bean split down the length.  Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When the milk is steaming but not boiling, turn off the heat and remove from the burner.  Cover to keep hot.

Mix the salt, sugar and cornstarch in a mixing bowl.  The cornstarch works as a thermal buffer to prevent the proteins in the eggs from cooking too quickly, and will help you keep the sauce smooth as it cooks. Add the eggs to the sugar mixture and whisk or beat briskly for 5 minutes, until the mixutre becomes foamy and turns a light lemony color.  

While continuously whisking the eggs,  pour a stream of hot milk over the mixture. The gradual heat and constant movement will firm the proteins without destroying them, so the eggs don't curdle.

Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Settle yourself in for 15-20 minutes of constant stirring. An instant read thermometer is helpful. Heat the mixture to 77°C or 170°F while stirring.  It will feel 'too hot' to the touch, but not boiling. Remove from the heat quickly when it reaches temperature. Visually it will begin to coat a spoon like English double cream.  If you're nervous, fill a bowl or sink with cold water in case you need to suddenly cool the mixture. If you see it getting thick, plunge the pan in cold water to stop the cooking.

Chill the pouring custard in a nice pitcher for 12 hours at least, and serve over cake or pie as you would whipped cream.

Thursday, November 29 2012

Snails for the bold!

In a previous post I wrote about the cultural yuckiness factor of certain foods. Snails must be on the list of things most Americans think are gross.  It took me years to actually want to eat snails, and I'm still not 100% convinced I should really be eating them even as I chew. In fact, I absolutely cannot eat them in the classic fashion, served in their shells with yummy garlic-parsley butter that would make even badger testicles taste delicious. My sad lack of enthusiasm for eating snails persists despite the sexiness of the accessories involved. I have a particular weakness for serving dishes designed for just one type of food, like asparagus platters, egg cups or caviar dishes. I don't even like caviar! Consider the artful display of a dozen escargots:  in restaurants you'll get a special little dish like this one

(isn't it cute?) with 12 indentations to hold the shells.  You are presented with a special snail clamp to hold the shell steady. It looks like something used for brain surgery, and there's a wicked looking fork to dig the little guy out of his hidey hole.  It's all very enticing, like a child's toy medical bag. Faced with the reality of a plate of snails in front of me, I choke. This happens at the precise moment when I pull one out with the terrible snail fork and bring it up to my mouth, poised and ready to bite. The soggy worm-like body and antennae-eyes hanging down below the fork trigger my gag reflex, and my appetite is spoiled. I can't eat them.

            In Frank Herbert's DUNE science fiction series, the Bene Tleilaxu scientists create a genetically engineered hybrid of pigs and slugs which Herbert called 'slig' in order to provide a cheap source of protein for the galaxy masses. Alas, I think of slig every time I eat snails.  Such are the perils of reading science fiction. 

I have learned to eat snails if I hide them in something tasty. I tell myself or other picky guests or suspicious children they are  mushrooms. The small chewy, meaty chunks taste like bacon. I pretend to be Paul Atreides Muad'Dib eating slig.

            Snails are actually supposed to be good for you: 15% protein and only 3% fat.  They contain good fats that may actually lower cholesterol. They are a source of calcium, iron, selenium and vitamins E, A, K and B12. I imagine they cure cancer, end world hunger and bring John Lennon back from the dead, just like kale does.

            A word about obtaining snails: don't think you can just go out and gather any old gastropod crawling around in your back yard and boil it up. You don't want to end up  like those Vietnamese immigrants who ate poison mushrooms that looked similar to the ones back in Asia and ended up in the hospital with liver failure. Snails have to be the right breed. Helix pomatia are considered the best, but helix aspersa or helix lucorum are good and less expensive although their texture is supposedly less pleasant as their pomatia cousin. Snails gathered in the wild must be purged of any possible nasty (i.e. poisonous) substances they may have ingested that could make humans sick, while not bothering the snail.

            My French mother in law is a woman of great courage and once performed the work of purging snails to make her grandkids happy. My daughter was always keenly interested in eating and creepy crawly things.  She had gathered a couple dozen snails in the backyard and wanted to try eating them. Her grandmother did all the work to purge the snails, prepare and cook them. Tasting the result of 2 weeks of work led me to the following conclusion: I'd rather buy the critters in a can, since the taste is the same and someone else has handled the really disgusting work.  Take my advice and buy them here.



If you’re curious for more go here: my article about snails in burgundy



So my francophile friends, be brave, be bold! Try one of the recipes below that make eating snails less yucky by hiding them in innocent-looking preparations. 


Chicken Breasts stuffed with snails


4 boneless chicken breasts

½ can snails, drained and rinsed

1 bunch fresh parsley

2 cloves garlic

2 shallots (If you can’t locate shallots, substitute green onions or leeks)

2 Tbsp butter

sprinkle of salt

few grinds of pepper


for the sauce: 

8 shallots

¼ cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup dry white wine (Chablis, chardonnay)

¼ cup chicken stock

1 stick (4 oz) butter


Serve with rice, greens and beets.


1/pound the chicken breasts flat inside a Ziploc bag.  Chop garlic, shallots and parsley fine.

2/ sauté the garlic and shallots in the butter until soft.  Add parsley and set aside.  Boil some water in a large saucepan.

3/Lay each breast on a large square of heat-proof plastic wrap (microwaveable) and spread the parsley mixture evenly over the breasts-sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper.

4/Arrange some snails (drained and rinsed) on the breasts, and fold over the breast to make a pocket—wrap the plastic wrap tightly around the snail so it makes a sausage-like package.

5/ Lower the water to a simmer and place the breasts in the saucepan, cover and cook about 30 minutes at barely simmering temperature.

6/meanwhile prepare rice and vegetables and sauce.

7/To prepare the sauce, chop the shallots fine and place in a small pan with the vinegar and the white wine.  Simmer until almost evaporated. . . about 15 minutes on low heat.  There should be just a tablespoon of liquid left.

8/Add the chicken stock and boil 5 more minutes.  Meanwhile, unwrap the chiken and arrange on a serving plate.

9/Just before serving, heat the wine mixture and whisk in the butter by tablespoons to make a creamy emulsion.  Immediately spoon the sauce over the chicken pieces, garnish with parsley and serve.


Snail Quiche


9 inch pie pan with your favorite (butter!) crust

1 Tbsp olive oil or butter

2 leeks, white and tender green parts chopped OR 1 onion+1 clove garlic+1 bunch green onions, chopped

2 large eggs

1½ cups half and half or cream

1 bunch parsley, chopped OR ½ cup chopped spinach

½ tsp each: oregano and thyme

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

1 can snails, drained and rinsed.


1/ heat oven to 400 degrees F.

2/sauté the leek or onion-garlic mixture in the oil until soft.

3/beat the eggs in a small mixing bowl with salt, pepper and herbs.

4/while beating, pour over the cream or half and half, mixing completely

5/mix in the parsley or spinach.

6/spread the leek mixture on the bottom of the pastry crust, then the snails.

7/Pour the egg mixture over the top.

8/bake for 25-35 minutes, until a knife inserted half-way from the edge comes out clean.

9/serve hot or warm with a tossed salad.


Bon appetit!

Wednesday, November 21 2012

3 easy recipes to start eating French

French cooking is not just foie gras and truffles, or rich sauces and puff pastry.  Remember Julia Childs cursing as she flops a crepe on the floor or nicks her finger slicing fish or boning duck?  She didn’t always make it look easy, but French cooking can

            My first recipe is a nod to my husband, who first impressed me by making his own salad dressing.  French people are surprised to see bottled salad dressing in US grocery stores. In France we make simple vinaigrette            The third recipe is a favorite appetizer here in my adopted Burgundy; gougeres (goo-zhairs).  These are bite-sized savory puffs of egg, butter and flour dough, with ham and cheese bits stirred in. The French love to entertain for 'aperitif' (uh-pair-uh-teef);  it’s simply a pre-dinner drink, often Chardonnay or Cremant, our local sparkling wine.  Kir is the standard offering here in Burgundy and you can read about here: Kir in Burgundy. Aperitif will include a dry snack such as nuts, olives, or quite often gougeres. This is an easy, impressive way to treat your guests or family to a French 'aperitif'. 

 Petites gougères apéritif

            French vinaigrette salad dressing

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp water

2 Tbsp dijon mustard

1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup corn, safflower or sunflower oil


1/ mix the vinegar, water, salt, pepper and mustard in a dish or jar with a fork or mini-whisk until it forms a smooth emulsion.

2/ While continuously mixing, slowly pour the oil in a thin stream.  You can also add the oil in 1/4 cup increments to  a jar, cover tightly and shake.  This dressing keeps for a month covered tightly and not refrigerated.


            White wine, cream and bacon pan sauce

2 tsp olive oil

2 turkey or veal cutlets, or 2 chicken filets, pounded flat or pork filet medallions for 2

4 slices smoked bacon, chopped

1/2 onion, chopped fine

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup creme fraiche OR 1/2 cup sour cream + 1/2 cup heavy cream or half and half

salt, pepper


1/Heat olive oil in non-stick pan and fry the meat, covered, over medium heat for 15 minutes until just done (use a meat thermometer, or cut into the meat to check it's not pink)

2/ remove meat to a plate and cover or put in microwave to keep warm

3/ saute the bacon in the hot pan for 2 minutes.  Add onions and continue frying until the onions and bacon begin to caramelize.

4/Pour the wine over the onions and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring to unstick all the brown bits that have a nice flavor and let the alcohol evaporate from the wine.

5/Stir in the cream and a pinch of salt and pepper, taste to adjust the seasoning.  Add the meat back in the pan and heat briefly. . .serve over noodles or potatoes.



3 large eggs

3/4 cup water

6 tablespoons butter, cut up

3/4 cup flour

1/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup comté or emmental cheese, chopped fine in a food processor

1/2 cup cooked bacon or ham, chopped fine by hand


1/Preheat oven to 400 F.

2/Place water and butter in saucepan with salt and bring to a full boil over medium heat.  Boil just until butter is melted.  Turn heat off.

3/Add flour all at once and beat quickly and vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture forms a ball and leaves sides of pan. 

4/Add eggs, one at a time and beat well after each addition.

5/After last egg is added, beat well for 30 seconds longer,  then stir in cheese and ham.  Do not let cheese melt—it should stay in little chunks.

6/Make teaspoon sized mounds, as for cookies, 1 inch apart on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.  You can also pipe out little mounds with a pastry bag. 

7/Bake immediately 20-30 minutes until puffed, light brown and crisp.  Serve warm in a basket covered by a tea towel so they stay hot.

You can bake the puffs ahead, refrigerate or freeze, and heat in the oven 5 minutes before serving.  Bon appetit !

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