Tuesday, July 28, 2009


"Oh what is this new devilry!" I cried this morning upon spying a large crate of plums on my doorstep. I just had the glut of everything in my own garden under control when a kindly neighbour dropped off the fruit - so it was back to the jam pan.

I've taken a confiture inventory of my larder and I now have:
  • plum 2009 x 10
  • cherry 2008 x 6
  • peach 2008 x 10
  • pink peach 2008 x 6
  • apple & brandy jelly 2007 x 5
  • fig 2007 x 1
  • strawberry 2007 x 4
  • framboise, bisous Mini-B x 1 - (raspberry, love Mini-B) date unspecified - a frothy pink confection with pond life skittering about on the surface, which belongs in a Petri dish, not my larder, but I love the scrawled label.
BB and I don't really "do" jam (we're toast and Marmite-ers or egg soldier-ers) but his parents are coming to stay in three weeks' time and they'll be eating a lot of jam sandwiches (with the crusts cut off of course) and Victoria sponge cake with their cups of tea!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

courgette and mint soup

It's safe to go over to the mill at the moment because Top Modèl is here holding things - which is nice (he's not called Top Modèl for nothing). He's helping BB on the roof for two weeks and this morning he turned up with eight other friends to move the final truss (weighing 500 kg) onto the road to within reach of the crane.

When the heavy lifting was over, I descended from my lookout post in the bedroom and stood at the kitchen window, fishwife-style, serving pastis to the workers, listening to them bicker about the price of cheese and trying to offload their courgettes on one another. I've come up with a use for my football-sized ones - soup tureens. Whilst I was hollowing one out the other day, the previous mayor arrived to return some of BB's tools (funnily enough, BB was out) and spotting the gargantuan courgettes on the windowsill, asked why I had picked them so early! As I removed the spongy insides - the texture of a damp pillow and probably just as tasty - I made a mental note to be washing my hair if he ever invites us for dinner.

Courgette and mint soup

Serves 6
2 oz/50 g butter
2 medium onions, chopped
2 lbs/900 g courgettes, chopped into chunks
24 fl oz/700 ml home made chicken stock
2 handfuls mint leaves plus extra for garnishing
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the onions on a low heat until soft - about 10 minutes. Add the courgettes and cook for a further 5 minutes.

2. Add the chicken stock, 1 handful of mint leaves and salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Leave to cool.

3. Blend in a food processor with the remaining handful of mint leaves.

4. Serve chilled, garnished with the extra mint finely chopped.

♫ Cook along to: AC/DC Rock 'N' Roll Train

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

l'amour en cage

Saturday we went out for lunch for our wedding anniversary and against my better judgement, I was persuaded by the patron to try some terrine de pied de veau vinaigrette - terrine of calf's foot. (You may recall that the last time I was in the same room as tête de veau my upper body had to remain alfresco.)

A slice of the terrine arrived with a curl of lettuce and, at first glance, it didn't look too bad - no obvious signs of hoof - so I pluckily put a forkful in my mouth. First impression: a taste of vinegar and shallots in the gelatine, nothing too vile. But as the gelatine dissolved whilst I was dissecting the untouched remains, the full horror of what was left in my mouth revealed itself on the plate - pieces of finely chopped skin (with hairs still attached thereto) and tendon and other stuff that's generally sent to the glue factory. Gag!

This is where a cheap napkin dispenser on the table would have come in handy, but in its absence, I had to spit into my linen napkin, which remained under the table for the rest of the meal. I still feel slightly queasy at the memory.

On the way home we stopped at a farmers' market where I spotted a box of physalis. I can't resist these ethereal-looking fruits the colour of sunshine with their fragile papery wings. In France they're called l'amour en cage (love in a cage), presumably because once the outer husks become skeletonized, they look like cages. Much more attractive than the STD-sounding English name!

Friday, July 17, 2009

the perfect 10

We set off for the shops today with - for the first time in my 21 (+) years on this planet - "cheap napkin holder" on the shopping list. We're in the midst of a mini canicule (heatwave) at the moment (37°C today) and the little puddles of water left every time a chilled beverage is set down between sips (three per 125 ml glass on average) are starting to warp the wooden surfaces. Solution: serve drinks with cheap disposable napkins - those recycled, single-ply jobbies that stick to the undercarriage of the receptacle - to mop up residual condensation.

I had in mind a classic, 50's-style, chrome-look, stainless steel dispenser, and this being mainland Europe (and not a tiny little island in the middle of the Atlantic), I assumed that I would be spoilt for choice. But after visiting four shops (avoiding Bos Equipement Hôtelier - too soon to go back there, although they probably have an entire room devoted to napkin dispensers), we were left with one option. (Note the word "option" not "choice", the latter denoting a variety of things available for choosing between.)

This is what we ended up with …

frosted glass, nice shape, easy on the eye. And when the napkins were inserted it looked like this - all shipshape and Bristol fashion …

but after five minutes …

napkins flopping about all over the place in a sluttish fashion and displeasing to the eye.

So, applying our minds to the "perkiness" factor of the napkins, we considered the following options:

1. Air flow: Two hairdryers, one blowing from either side, would keep the napkins upright. The simplicity of this appealed to BB until I pointed out that the hairdryers would clutter up the table leaving little room for condiments. Marks out of 10: 5

2. Varnishing: Varnish the napkins. Stroke of genius. Until we remembered the primary function of the napkins was absorption. Ok for dislodging a piece of tzatziki cucumber from between your front teeth but not good for mopping up a glass of wine spilt in your guest's lap. Marks out of 10: 2

3. Gravity-driven wedges: (illustrated here by BB on the back of a proverbial envelope) ...

Now we're talking! A wooden wedge placed either side to stop residual flapping about. Sounded impressive but after a couple of trial runs we found that it was tricky to extract the napkins because, for once, it did what it said on the tin and they were "wedged in" and applying force ripped the cheap paper. Marks out of 10: 0

4. Adjustable cramp-based solution: Do away with the glass holder altogether and substitute two book ends with a bungee cord wrapped round to imitate expensive "spring-loaded" model advertised on Amazon ("Customers who bought this also bought Bill Haley Rock Around The Clock"). I liked this cavalier, thinking-outside-the-box solution but concluded that the whole ensemble would clash with my Wedgwood fine bone china. Marks out of 10: 6

5. Catenary: (where y = a * cos (x/a))

Again dispensing with the holder, hang the napkins up in a catenary by stapling them all together and attaching the ends to the ceiling with drawing-pins. Not practical for outdoor dining and once you'd extracted one napkin the whole lot would fall down. Marks out of 10: 1 (because I was impressed by the word "catenary").

So - no perfect 10. Suggestions/comments welcome.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

almond and lavender biscuits

One of my favourite screen savers is a bewitching photograph of lavender fields in Provence - armies of pale purple flowers marching over rolling hills as far as the horizon. Not only is lavender gorgeous to look at and great for scenting linen but being a herb (it's a member of the mint family), it's incredibly versatile in cooking too.

My lavender bushes are in full bloom right now and flush from the success of the stuffed courgette flowers, I searched for lavender recipes on the internet and found hundreds. It can be added to salads; candied to use as cake decorations; used to make 'lavender sugar' (pulverize the flower heads with sugar in a liquidizer) to use in baked goods or custards or to scatter over ricotta to eat with strawberries or peaches; used to flavour ice-creams, sorbets and jellies; popped in a glass of champagne; used in stews or sauces; added to bread recipes or herbal teas. In fact its uses are only limited by your imagination.

The addition of lavender buds to these almond biscuits gave them a distinctive sweet floral flavour. But use judiciously or it can be over-powering (especially dried lavender which is more potent than fresh.) This is taken from Nigel Slater's almond and lavender biscuits.

125 g butter
50 g castor sugar
100g plain flour
100 g ground almonds
2 level tsp lavender buds

1. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz until you have a dough-like consistency. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

2. Pre-heat oven to 300°F/150°C. Roll out the dough on a floured surface, cut out biscuits with a biscuit cutter and place on a greased baking tray.

3. Bake for 25-30 minutes until pale gold in colour.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

chicken noodle soup

Last week (the second week of Wimbledon) was so hot and clammy and reminiscent of travels in Asia that all I wanted to eat was spicy food, and flicking through Ken Hom's Foolproof Thai Cookery, I came upon this sublime recipe for Northern Thai chicken noodle soup. Ken says to use 2 tablespoons of Madras curry paste or powder, but I thought that seemed a bit excessive so I only used a teaspoon. (I could still taste the subtle lemon grass and coconut flavours so I think I was right to do so - but who am I to argue with the Homster.)

serves 4-6
175 g/6 oz fresh or dried egg noodles
175 g/6 oz boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic
1.2 litres/2 pints home made chicken or vegetable stock
1 x 400 ml/14 fl oz tin coconut milk
2 small red or green chillies, seeded and finely shredded
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp Madras curry paste or powder
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp lime juice
fresh coriander and basil leaves to serve

1. Cook the noodles in a pan of boiling water according to the instructions. Drain and set aside.

2. Trim the lemon grass to the tender whitish centre, cut into 7.5 cm/3 inch pieces and crush with the flat of a knife. Cut the chicken into strips.

3. Heat the oil in a large pan until very hot then add the onion, garlic and lemon grass and stir-fry for about 3 minutes. Stir in the stock and coconut milk and simmer on a low heat for 10 minutes.

4. Add the chillies, chicken, fish sauce, sugar, curry paste, salt and pepper and stir well. Add the noodles, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

5. Remove the lemon grass. Stir in the lime juice and serve garnished with coriander and basil leaves.

♫ Cook along to:
James Taylor Something in the Way She Moves

Talking of Wimbledon: We watched the final on Sunday and I had the luxury of not caring who won, Murray having lost in the semis. (Note how quickly he went from "Great British Hope" to "Scottish Loser"!) What a match - but we were more captivated by what was going on at the far end of the rogues' gallery, aka the Royal Box, where Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Illie Nastase appeared to be having a flutter. Twice, between games, we saw Borg peel off a note from a wad of cash that could have choked a horse and pass it discreetly (with 12 BBC cameras on him) to Nastase. Classy!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

chap door (leave your courgettes and) run

It's that time of year when BB asks, "what's for lunch?", followed tentatively by, "it's not courgettes again is it?". I swear if you look at a courgette plant for ten minutes you can practically see the fruit growing and it's a challenge to pick them before they measure less than 10 cm - turn your back and they're as big as seal pups.

At the height of summer you can't give them away and you often see little courgette stalls set up along the road-side with chicken scratched signs inviting - nae imploring - passers-by to help themselves. When that fails, some people resort to that adolescent game of Chap Door Run, where you dared your friend to ring a stranger's doorbell then run away. Only in the grown-up version, they ring the doorbell, leave courgettes on your doorstep then run like hell.

Last year, some of mine (actually a lot of mine) rotted on the plant because I couldn't be bothered to pick any more, self-seeded and are now taking over a considerable portion of the garden, John Wyndham style. This year I've promised myself I'm going to deal with the glut by harvesting them early and making soup (with mint - also in abundance in the garden) to freeze for the winter, and chutney.

One thing I'd never tried before was stuffed courgette flowers, which I did yesterday - and boy were they a hit. If you can get your hands on some courgette flowers I urge you to try this recipe. I'd expected the gossamer thin petals to be very fragile and to fall apart when I tried to open them but they were surprisingly elastic, like cling-film, and quickly returned to their original shape after stuffing.

After trawling the internet and perusing my cook books, I opted for this recipe (although there are many more I intend to try) by Lucas Hollweg from Timesonline.

Stuffed courgette flowers

Serves 4
For the stuffing
250 g ricotta
25 g grated parmesan
zest of half a lemon
12 mint leaves, shredded
salt and pepper

12 courgette flowers
vegetable oil
150 g self raising flour
260 ml fizzy water

1. Mix together the ingredients for the stuffing. Remove the stigma from the inside of the flowers and carefully fill with stuffing then twist closed.

2. Heat 2 cm of vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan.

3. Mix the self-raising flour and fizzy water to make a light batter. It should be the consistency of thin double cream. Dip the stuffed flowers in the batter, being careful that they remain closed, then fry in the hot oil, 3-4 at a time, depending on the size of your pan. Make sure that both sides cook, turning them if necessary. It should take 2-3 minutes for the batter to become crisp and the palest gold.

4. Drain on kitchen paper and season with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon before eating.

♫ Cook along to: JJ Cale After Midnight

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

vin de noix

Now that I'm able to type without my fingers blundering all over the keyboard in a series of false-starts I can report that the BBQ was a huge success. Having been put in charge, I delegated most of the tricky stuff tout de suite to my 'Operations Manager' BB, leaving him to work out how to get all that stuff up the mountain. In the end, it turned into a Top Gear-style challenge, with two battered old C15s fighting it out to get as far up the steep rutted goat track and as close to the cabane as possible - which they managed to do to within a short distance, but not without the loss of an exhaust pipe.

Despite having agreed the menu in advance, everyone turned up bearing a little something of their own. So, to the already groaning table - sausages stuffed with apples and onions, tranches de gigot d'agneau (slices of leg of lamb) marinated in fresh mint and olive oil, giant crevettes the size of baby lobsters, bruschetta, tomato and red onion salad, corn on the cob with lemon and garlic - was added little bouquets of parsley, a jar of pickled wild mushrooms, fingers of courgettes, new red wispy-skinned potatoes still covered in damp soil, a creamy blue cheese dressing, griottes, fresh raspberries, a bottle of walnut wine and a goats' cheese.

After lunch some of us played boules, while others (me) went for an (involuntary) dip in the fountain or sat on the grass drinking wine and admiring the snow-covered peaks of Mont Blanc in the distance.

Roquin brought along a bag of green walnuts for me - smooth husked, like an unripe pear, with a sharp clean astringent smell - since we no longer have our own walnut tree. It's the time of year to make vin de noix (walnut wine) which is drunk as an apéro. I use the 40/40/40 recipe, used by everyone round here - 40 nuts, 40 spoonfuls of sugar (about 1 kg) and leave for 40 days. This year I'm going to add some cloves, cinnamon and lemon peel.

Vin de noix
40 green walnuts, quartered
5 litres red wine
1 litre gnole (or pure alcohol)
1 kg sugar

Place all the ingredients in a container and leave for 40 days in a cool dark place. Strain and bottle.