Wednesday, December 23, 2009

spiced nuts, stuffed dates, joyeuses fêtes

I'm cooking Christmas dinner this year, which is traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve in this region (and called le réveillon), so I shall be up bright and early tomorrow morning for an eight-hour cooking fest: oysters, foie gras, roast turkey and bacon with  sage and onion stuffing and bread sauce, sautéd sprouts with chestnuts, carrots steamed with lemon and butter, melon sorbet, cheeses and Katie Bear's Mum's Christmas pud. All that's missing is snow!

I've just made these spiced nuts (based on a recipe served in the Union Square Café in New York) and  stuffed Medjool dates to serve with apéros when friends drop by. Wishing you all joyeuses fêtes!

Union Square Café bar nuts
1 lb / 550 g assorted unsalted nuts (brazils, hazels, walnuts, almonds)
2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp melted unsalted butter

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F. Spread the nuts on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 10 minutes.

2. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and toss the nuts in the spiced butter. Serve warm.

Dates stuffed with mascarpone, orange zest and walnuts
This was inspired by three things which remind me of my childhood Christmases - tangerines, dates and nuts.
30 large dates such as Medjool
250 g mascarpone
zest of 1 orange
a handful of walnuts, crushed
Make a slit in the side of each date and remove the pit. Mix the mascarpone with the orange zest and crushed walnuts. Place the mixture in the freezer for 10 minutes then place a quenelle of the filling in each date.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

tartiflette and good news

I was expecting to hear by email, this news that I've been anxiously awaiting for ten days, but it arrived by post, as I was lying on the sofa in a trance, covered in a purring cat fur coat watching the snow falling and listening to St. Paul's cathedral choir singing Christmas carols. Between ding, dong, merrily on high and silent night the post lady gave a toot toot and handed BB a thick white envelope bearing a Paris postmark. For years now I've been talking about doing a cookery course and I finally went ahead and applied to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris last week and I've been accepted to do the basic cuisine course in March. So I'm off to live in Paris for three months. How good does that sound?

The envelope contained the usual admin stuff - terms and conditions of payment, tuition fees payment form, internal rules of the school, housing information - and a measurement sheet for my uniform. I've never worn a uniform for work before - unless you count the Batman cape I had to wear in court. BB, whilst happy for me, is sad that I'm going away for so long but I can always pop back for the odd weekend (three hours by TGV) to re-stock the freezer with PC dinners. I'm so excited.

To celebrate I made my favourite winter comfort food - tartiflette - and because I was feeling in such a generous mood, I didn't fight BB for the crusty cheese bits stuck to the sides of the (chipped) dish.

Serves 4-6
2½ lb/1.1 kg potatoes, peeled
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced
½ lb/225 g bacon, diced
½ cup white wine
1 large Reblochin cheese, cut in half horizontally
salt and pepper

1. Boil the potatoes until just cooked. Drain and cut into chunks.

2. Heat the oil in a frying-pan and fry the onion for about 5 minutes until golden brown then add the bacon and cook for another 5 minutes.

3. Place the potatoes, onion and bacon in a large ovenproof dish and season with salt and pepper. Place the cheese halves rind side up on top and pour over the wine. Bake in the oven at 350°F/175°C for 20 minutes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

rabbit stew, Fidel Castro and the ice-cream van

Our freezer is fit to burst at the moment with all the meat we've been given in the last few days: wild boar from Roquin, half a goat from Mini-B, red deer from a jubilant Jean-Yves - who shot the only stag of the season* and his first in 20 years of hunting - and a rabbit from Pierre.

The goat was delivered in an old clapped-out ice-cream van that Mini-B is currently using to deliver hay to his cows now that all his tractors and his C15 are broken down. As if that wasn't ridiculous enough, he's grown a long beard that looks like a packet of dry Weetabix and taken to wearing combat gear (trousers held up with a bungee cord) and a military cap that make him look like a young Fidel Castro. He's a sight to behold driving round the village.

The rabbit from Pierre was still warm, having just been shot down by the lake, and after BB had skinned and jointed it I made a rabbit stew. Wild rabbit has a much stronger, gamier flavour than its farmed cousin and it went very well with olives in this recipe by Anthony Bourdain.

Lapin aux olives
Serves 4
4 rabbit legs
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 small carrot, coarsely chopped
1 celery stick, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig flat leaf parsley
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1½ cups white wine
flour for dredging, plus 1 tbsp
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp tomato paste
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 cups chicken stock
handful of pitted green olives
salt and pepper

1. Combine the rabbit with the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves, herbs, peppercorns and wine. Marinate for 2 hours.

2. Drain the marinade and reserve the liquid and vegetables separately. Pat the rabbit dry, season with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. In a pan heat the olive oil until hot and add the butter then brown the rabbit on both sides until golden brown (about 3-4 minutes per side) and remove.

3. In the same pan, brown the vegetables from the marinade until caramelised, add tomato paste and flour then stir in the vinegar and marinade liquid. Cook until the liquid is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon then add the chicken stock and bring to the boil. Add the rabbit pieces and cook over a low heat until the meat is tender (about 1 hour).

4. Remove the rabbit and set aside. Strain the cooking liquid and return to the pan. Add the rabbit, bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and stir in the olives.

*Gun hunting is tightly controlled in France in terms of the species and number that may be hunted and is managed at a regional level according to the ecological needs of the area and its animal life. In our commune this season, the quota is 4 red deer (one stag, one doe and two fawns) and 14 roe deer - with an unlimited number of wild boar.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Geneva: caviar, Chinese and a naked man

Glimpses of tangerine skies and mountains embroidered with snow between ancient four-storey shuttered buildings; a €150 spoonful of caviar washed down with a shot of Beluga vodka; an epic Chinese banquet with perfectly formed dim sum and a naked man in the bottom of a sake glass. Oh, Geneva.

Five of us - Nainbo and his wife (who come from Geneva), Papou, BB and I - set off early on Friday morning under a clear blue sky for the one-and-a-half-hour trip to Geneva. First stop, Planet Caviar (where Nainbo's son works) - importer and exporter of some of the finest caviar and smoked salmon in the world - for a tasting.

We were extremely privileged to taste some Black Beluga from Iran - there's about 150 euros' worth shown there - which we licked straight off our hands without any kind of garnish. It tasted like a breath of fresh sea air with a note of something earthy and the eggs just melted in the mouth like butter. It was wonderful - and nothing like the cheap imitation stuff you buy in the supermarket. This was followed by a chaser of smooth Beluga vodka in these cool glasses which you'd be tempted to slip in your pocket if you were that way inclined.

Next stop, the supermarket, to stock up on Tête De Moine cheese for my Swiss Girolle cheese cutter which makes beautiful curled flowers of cheese, and Swiss chocolate.

Laden down with our purchases and still giddy (and slightly smug, it has to be said) from the tasting, we stopped off at a brasserie for an apéro before lunch, where BB and Nainbo sat staring out the window at cars playing spot-the-latest-model.

Lunch was an extravaganza, a kaleidoscope of aromas and flavours which made me briefly pine for the city and a Chinese restaurant on my doorstep: beef balls with pickled ginger; dumplings - pork, translucent shrimp, scallop and steamed vegetable; prawn spring rolls wearing a mohair coat of crispy white shavings of bread; crab balls; steamed sea bass with chilli; fried scallop with asparagus; stir fried sliced duck with pickled ginger and pineapple; chicken with black bean sauce and green pepper. I tried everything and had to loosen my jeans before I could squeeze in a miniature dessert of sponge cake sandwiched with ice-cream and red berries, rounded off with sake, which held a little surprise in the bottom of the cup.

As we left the city, the sun was setting on the snowy mountain peaks, illuminating them a dramatic tangerine and I fell asleep in the car making little snuffling noises of contentment.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

sheep and chickpea salad

I couldn't get to sleep last night, it was raining so hard, but I had to be up early so I started counting sheep.

The sheep of my sleep-deprived imagination are cartoon sheep, thick and white as bales of cotton wool, doing split leaps over a fence (this is apparently the stereotype - even though I've never been taught how to count sheep or discussed it with anybody else) but by number 12 my sheep was looking lightly grilled round the edges and had a sprig of rosemary in its mouth and my mind started wandering to recipes and I had to start all  over again.

We're going to Geneva on Friday to do some shopping and have lunch in my favourite Chinese restaurant - so the iron and the R&B boots will get two outings this year.

I made this chickpea and carrot salad with orange vinaigrette using organic sunflower oil which added a subtle smoky flavour to the nuttiness of the chickpeas and the sweetness of the carrot and orange. Warning: You may be tempted to eat the whole lot straight out of the bowl before it reaches the table.

1 tin chickpeas
1 carrot, grated
Chopped flat leaf parsley
For the vinaigrette
1 dsp cider vinegar
1 dsp orange juice
2 dsp organic sunflower oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Make the vinaigrette by placing all the ingredients in a screw-top jar and shake to combine everything. Place the chickpeas and carrot in a bowl and pour over the vinaigrette. Mix well and garnish with chopped parsley.

Friday, December 4, 2009

the law is a (horse's) ass

Our fireman friend Titi came round yesterday looking for some legal advice on French planning law - from me, a Scottish criminal lawyer. I'm quite often asked for advice on legal problems as varied as (French) divorce, (French) debt recovery, (French) liquidation, (French) land disputes, (Italian!) consumer law, (American!!) consumer law (I actually wrote a vague 'I know my consumer rights and will take you to court unless ...' letter on that occasion and got some money back for the boy), but they all look at me in disbelief when I try to explain that the law is completely different in every country and anyway, I'm not an expert in any of these fields in Scotland, never mind anywhere else. But they just don't get it.

Titi's being taken to court by the mairie for building an impressive wooden shelter for his beautiful new horse (unlike Nainbo's unimpressive one for his donkeys) without planning permission.

I appreciate you can't have people building willy-nilly all over the shop, but we're talking about a horse-box-sized construction in the middle of the woods to protect his animal from the harsh winter elements - not the Elysée Palace. Ultimately the mairie  could allow him to leave it there but they're making him pull it down and we can't help thinking that this is an act of petty retribution for Titi resigning from the local council. (I could say a lot more here about local planning laws and how zones suddenly change from non-constructable to constructable depending on who's in office and how much land the incumbents have - but then I would probably become an (involuntary) expert in (French) libel law.)

Anyway, he's refusing to pull it down so we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

BB managed to wrench himself away from the kitchen table and Adventure Rider today (it almost required medical intervention and skin grafts!) but left 25 metres of water pipe for the new house uncoiled round and round the kitchen and the sitting-room in an attempt to straighten it out. Have you ever tried balancing a hot tray of chicken kievs whilst playing Chinese Ropes with 25 mm plastic piping at knee height? Thought not.

This was a Ready Steady Cook meal because all I had in the fridge were two chicken breasts, an egg and some butter - and some two day-old bread, a clove of garlic and potatoes and herbs from the garden. So I made chicken kiev and hasselback potatoes with sage - which was very, very tasty.

Chicken Kiev

Serves 2
2 skinless chicken breasts
2 large knobs of butter
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 dessert spoon finely chopped herbs, such as parsley and/or chives
1 egg
Plain flour for dusting
Olive oil

1. Place each chicken breast between clingfilm and pound using the flat side of a mallet to about ½ cm / ¼  inch thickness.

2. Mash the butter, garlic and herbs together and form into 2 log shapes.

3. Place the butter at one end of the chicken breast and roll up, folding the sides in as you go, to completely enclose the butter. Leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.

4. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg. Coat the chicken in flour, dip in the egg mixture then coat with breadcrumbs.

5. Heat some olive oil in a frying-pan and shallow fry until the kievs are golden brown on all sides. Remove from the pan and place in a moderately hot oven for 15-20 minutes until cooked through.

Hasselback Potatoes with Sage

Peel some potatoes and make small slices ¾ of the way through each one all along it. Tuck some torn sage into each slit, brush with olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place in a moderately hot oven for 45-60 minutes until soft in the middle.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

sleeping injuries and kidneys

You, dear readers, must be as sick of looking at those pictures of the crane as I was looking at the real thing for so many months. I really must try and write more frequently. So without further ado ...

BB is working on pre-plumbing and pre-electrics at the moment which would appear to involve sitting at the kitchen table in front of his laptop reading the news out loud or following the threads in the Adventure Rider Ride the World forum - when he should be swotting up on the latest French building regs. He was in the kitchen again today as I was trying to cook in peace, shrieking: "Dingy! Dingy! The man was rescued in a dingy!" (many of his few words are exclamations of disbelief at poor spelling), followed rather too gleefully I thought by: "Man walks free after strangling wife in his sleep".

Actually, I've been on the receiving end of something similar a couple of times - nothing as drastic as death by strangulation, obviously - but I've woken up with a yelp after BB has hit me in his sleep. He woke himself up the first time and said: "I'm sorry my love. I thought you were Mini-B"! As a result I've taken to sleeping turned away and as far over from him as possible and wake up looking as if someone has rolled a pizza wheel across my face, where it's been pressed into the edge of the mattress all night.

You realise things may be off to a rocky start when a recipe begins: "Soak in warm salted water for 2 hours to get rid of the vile smell." So began the recipe for rognons de porc aux tomates (pig's kidneys in tomato sauce). This is confirmed when the cat flees the house squawking like a wailing baby when you place a morsel of the offending article before him. But this turned out to be a big hit with BB, who likes his offal, and with me, who doesn't - thanks to the rich tomato sauce. For the rognon cognoscenti out there, this one's for you.

Rognons de porc aux tomates
Serves 2
10 oz / 275 g trimmed pig's kidneys
4 oz / 100 g chopped bacon
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 glass white wine
1 tsp sugar
A handful of fresh basil
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Soak the kidneys in warm salted water for 2 hours. Remove and pat dry.

2. Fry the bacon and kidneys gently in some olive oil for 20 minutes. Remove from the pan and brown the onion in the same pan in the remaining bacon fat. Add the tomatoes, wine, sugar, basil, seasoning and cook for 15-20 minutes until the sauce has reduced by a third. Return the bacon and kidneys to the pan and cook for a further 15 minutes. Serve with buttered toast.