Almost Spring in the Possum Kingdom!

Once a year, our bank manager asks us to come in for a meeting. Our guess is that his bosses insist he meets periodically with his clients and he has to write-up a report. He’s a nice man, and has always been very helpful to us when it counted, so we always say yes.

It is quite stunning out today; sunny and the temperature must be around 80 F. Limoux, where our bank is, is a town we quite like, so it’s not a burden to go there, except that the parking can be a bit tricky.
After the meeting, we decided to walk to a grooming store a bit farther away. The lady who owns it runs one of the kennels we want to check out. And, after that, we were walking back to the car when we noticed that a new restaurant had opened up on the Place de la Republique

Just opened last weekend

It was just before noon, and they were putting up their menu. They have what we call a “menu” here, which is a fixed price for a set number of courses. It was 13€ for two courses, either entrée and main course, or main course and dessert, and there were a lot of tempting dishes. They had just opened on Saturday, so are truly brand new.
We decided to try it. We had never gone out for my birthday last month, so this was a nice treat. They had trouble finding us a table, because they were already all booked up!
I had the salmon with chopped leeks in a lemon sauce:

Salmon with chopped leeks

And JM had lasagna.  There was a lemon cake with lemon whipped cream for dessert:

Lemon cake

The salmon and leek was outstanding. The cake was nice, but I have had (and made!!!) better. But that leek thing was something special.
This is me; I’m happy:

Me? American? Why do you ask?

JM is happy!

JM enjoying the day

 

Hope your day is as nice as ours was!

Ciao for now,

Randy

Okay, so I didn't have a picture of the actual cake

Cheating here; not Amish Friendship Bread!

 

Every year, most of France has events for the “Telethon,” which is similar, I think to the Labor Day telethon in the States. I assume there are televised events, but mostly I’m familiar with the local events that villages like ours put on. One of the things we do here is a bake sale on the Saturday market and for the last couple of years I’ve contributed a little something.

So, this year I gave them an Amish friendship bread. I dropped it off at the town hall yesterday, but I didn’t get over there until close to noon. A couple of the ladies who run the charity table started chasing me in the street. They wanted to know if that cake was mine. Slightly worried about why they wanted to know I admitted my culpability in the matter. They all wanted the recipe. Apparently, because it was a big cake, they decided to cut it into pieces to sell individually, and they had to taste it first. I don’t think any of it made it to the sale table! They all bought slices for themselves and one lady bought half of the cake to take home for her family.

I explained the concept and promised I’d give them some starter and translate the recipe.

Anyway, I was seriously flattered. There were other cakes on the table that hadn’t sold even one piece and this is France, after all. Food IS important here, and an American cake impressed everyone.

Now I guess I have to make some more starter, because I actually got tired of keeping mine alive, and how much cake can two people eat?

 

Ciao for now,

Randy

Baking Memories

Mini Corn Rye Rolls

People often ask me if there isn’t anything that I miss about the U.S. In the main, my answer is no. However, the few things that sometimes I DO get a hankering for are all food related.

Now, most things one can find through the various import stores. You may have to pay for them, but you can get them. Still, there are fresh things that just can’t be found.

A doctor once told me that his theory was that the foods you ate as a child had a resonance for you that new, “learned” foods would never have. And I think that for me there are several of those mostly things that come from the East Coast, where I grew up.

For example, I sometimes can almost taste a Taylor’s Pork Roll sandwich in my mind. The smell and taste of that will always be linked with childhood visits to the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Just writing about it I can taste it, smell it’s  odor mixed with that of fresh roasting peanuts from the Planter’s peanut store and the salt of the ocean. I can see my parents, the push chairs, the crowds, and once again I’m just a child.

I DO have a recipe for knock-off Pork Roll that I  plan to try later in the year, just to see if I can do it. But I have the strong feeling that it will never be the same.

But there are things that I CAN re-create successfully, and one of them is Jewish Deli Corn Rye. I have tried the recipe from “Secrets of a Jewish Baker,” and while that is successful, it’s also time consuming and needs to be planned out, as just making the sour takes several days. So, I wanted to create a recipe that was easy and above all, quick. I think I have succeeded.

Waiting for some lox

I suppose it seems silly to crave these things when I live practically next door to a bakery. But a French bakery, no matter how wonderful, will never be a Jewish Deli, and when that craving comes over you, the heart wants what the heart wants. So, here is what I do:

JEWISH DELI MINI-CORN RYE ROLLS

1 C rye flour

2 C white flour (I’ve used bread flour, all-purpose, a special pizza flour I get from Italy and a mixture of bread flour and something called semi-whole wheat. All have given good results)

1 1/4 C warm water (clearly, you may have to adjust this depending on the flour you use and weather conditions)

2T Olive Oil

2 tsp Sea Salt

1T sugar

2T Caraway seeds (if you hate caraway, leave them out, but I do think they are what “make” rye bread!)

1T lemon juice (this helps the yeast to work, but also I think it adds a small hint of sour without any taste of lemon in the final product)

1 pkg yeast

1 C leftover dough from last batch (this is optional, but over time, it builds the flavor and texture and eventually you have what is basically a sourdough starter and can leave out the yeast).

Cornmeal for sprinkling baking pan and top of bread

I mix this in my stand mixer. Because I’m lazy, I don’t proof the yeast. I put the rye flour in first, then sprinkle on the yeast, then add the rest of the flour. This lets me use water that is a bit hotter (from the tap, not microwaved) without killing the yeast. But if you want to proof the yeast the traditional way, go for it!

I toss in the rest of the dry ingredients and the leftover bread dough, including the caraway seeds, then pour in the oil, lemon juice and the water and start the mixer on slow. Once the majority of the flour is incorporated, I turn the speed up for kneading. I do keep an eye on it because the flour/liquid balance really needs adjusting as you work. Its amazing how a humid day or the batch of flour you use can affect the way the dough comes together.

Now, because of the rye flour, this is a sticky dough. I let the machine knead it until it mostly pulls away from the sides of the bowl and there is very little flour residue left. However, it never completely forms a tight ball the way a white bread will do. I always finish the kneading off by hand, and even once it is a ball, it remains a bit tacky. That’s okay.

I oil a bowl or a plastic container with a lid and throw the dough in there. One of the things I like about this recipe is that it’s very versatile. If I want to make the rolls quickly, I put the bowl (as long as it’s not metal!) into the microwave, set it at 350 watts and microwave for a minute, let the dough rest for about 5 minutes, than microwave at the same power for another minute. I leave the bowl in the microwave with the door closed, and let it rest for 20 minutes, and it has by then doubled and is ready for shaping and baking.

If, on the other hand, I don’t have time to bake it right away, I put the covered bowl in the fridge and leave it for several hours. This slows down the rising, and I have plenty of time to do other things without worrying about it.

Once it has risen, I take a chunk of dough that is 1/2 cup to 1 cup in size and put that in a reusable container with a lid. I chuck that into the fridge, but you can freeze it if you aren’t going to use it within the next few days.

The rest of the dough I separate into 8 pieces and form into rolls. I put them on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment that I’ve sprinkled with cornmeal. I like to roll the pieces in the cornmeal so that they have some on the top as well, because I think it gives them a nice, rustic appearance when they’ve baked.

I slice a cross into the tops then put them in 200 C (400 F) oven for 20 minutes.

You could also make this into a single, large loaf if you so desire; just adjust the baking time accordingly.

Ciao for now and Bon Appétit!

Randy

 

So Cool!

Did you mention food?

 

Not the weather, unfortunately, but a great new service available in the Possum Kingdom.

I have mentioned many times that there are days where I find the job of shopping for groceries outside of the village arduous, boring and time consuming. But, for the last few months, the SuperU in Mirepoix has  been advertising an online grocery service.

I’ve been tempted, but never got around to trying it. Now, they don’t deliver to us here in the Possum Kingdom, as we are too far away. But what they do offer is the equivalent of a personal shopper. You place your order with their website, pick a time when you want it to be ready and then go pick it up. The charge for this is 4 Euros, which is a bargain no matter how you look at it.

When  you get to the store, you go to the delivery bay and ring the bell. A very nice employee shows up, takes your name and brings all your groceries that have been nicely packed in boxes and then they even load them into your car! After that, it’s just a question of swiping your credit card and you’re done.

I never, ever shop on Saturdays. But I was out of almost everything, as it had been close to three weeks since I last went to do a big shopping trip. So I figured, what the heck, how awful could it be.

It wasn’t awful at all! It was brilliant! I even ordered a rosbif (that’s roast beef in French) and two kilos of figs, and they were all beautiful and perfect. The nice SuperU lady explained how she had looked for the farthest away “use by” dates on all the fresh things like milk and cheeses, and showed me that the one thing I had ordered that wasn’t in stock had been removed from the list and I wasn’t charged for it.

They threw in an insulated bag for the cold stuff and a second free, reusable shopping bag as a welcome gift, And, because it was my first order, I didn’t even get charged the 4 Euro fee. We had left the house at 2:30 and were back at the house with the groceries inside at 3:30! This has never happened before, since it takes 40 minutes just to get there and back.

Now, clearly, if there are special items that they have and which haven’t been added to the website,  you aren’t going to be aware of them. They don’t have EVERY item in the store online, although there is a place where you can ask for special things. So, I guess I will occasionally be going in to shop myself, but this has another huge benefit beyond the time saving: no impulse buying! If you don’t see it, you can’t buy it.

I have to admit that I am weak, and I am often tempted by things I see, even if I would never have considered buying them if I didn’t see them. So a system like this is ideal for me. It will undoubtedly save me money in the long run, because I will only purchase that which I know I need, not that which I merely want.

For you who live in big cities, this is nothing new, but for us out here in the Possum Kingdom, this is true progress and a service I plan to use in the future for sure.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Hopelessly behind

Somehow, at this time of year, there is never enough time!  I have meant to come and post here for days and this is the first chance I’ve had. And, in order to do it, it means I can’t actually work on something else. My only consolation is knowing that almost everyone else in the western world is in the same situation.

We had a lovely Thanksgiving, with our friend Diane visiting us from her temporary home in the UK. I make a lot of turkey breast for us on a regular basis, and I told Diane that I just couldn’t stand the thought of MORE turkey for Thanksgiving. So, instead, I made a traditional Thanksgiving pot roast! I discovered that stuffing goes really well with pot roast, so now may have to make it every time.

I found a great recipe for a pumpkin pie cake that was easy to do and actually way better than plain old pumpkin pie. Even JM, who declared that he hates pumpkin pie, liked it. It was really more of a crumble than a pie and I will be doing that again too.

Besides celebrating Thanksgiving, it was also the first annual Peachiversary! We found our darling Miz Peaches LaRoo one year ago on the day after Thanksgiving. And how thankful we have all been for that.

On Saturday was the Foire au Gras in Limoux, which is a food festival mostly devoted to duck. As always we made some excellent discoveries, including some delicious jams for a woman who came from near Perpignan.

Also, we tried out a new restaurant, and what a find! Called TONTON & TONTINE, it looks like nothing special from the outside. But a friend in the village had recommended it. I would have to say it was one of the best restaurant meals I’ve had in a very, very long time and an experience I would be happy to repeat. I have their card and will put the details up on this site soon. I’m just feeling too lazy to go downstairs and get the card.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend. I have some new pictures to upload, as we also decorated the tree and wrapped presents. All that without having to go through shopping on Black Friday!

Ciao for now,

Randy

Pictures from Espezel 2010

As promised (a day late!), here are some pictures from Espezel. Mirepoix to follow.

From Espezel 2010

Here was the local band (really glad we didn’t have Peaches with us; she would have been terrorized)

From Espezel 2010

This year’s poster:

From Espezel 2010

Some lovely horses:

From Espezel 2010

Monsieur Rolland from the Domaine de Cassignole, where we buy blanquette Ancestrale and the best grape juice we’ve ever tasted:

From Espezel 2010

Festivals

One of the things I like about this time of year is the autumn food and agricultural festivals. I don’t really like to do too many in the summer, because it’s hot and crowded; two things I’m not fond of. But in the fall, even if it’s crowded, it’s not hot and therefore a thousand times more enjoyable as far as I’m concerned.

Last week was the apple festival in Mirepoix. I love it because they are so creative with their theme each year, building amazing statues out of apples (I’ve got photos but need to upload them and will try to do that tomorrow). We were extremely lucky to have beautiful weather on Saturday morning when we went; Sunday the weather was foul and I felt terrible for the organizers and producers who had to be there anyway.

We always come away with a few purchases, of course. This year I discovered a wonderful apple that I hadn’t tasted before, called the Pinova Grise (maybe it’s Pinova Gris, I’m not sure about the “e” though). It is everything I love in an apple: sweet, tart, crunchy and juicy. In the last week we’ve already gone through our first three kilo bag! And that’s just eating them as is, not cooking with them.

We also picked up a seven kilo bag of potatoes from the growers in Sonnac. I made a wonderful, but simple gratin with them the other day: four large potatoes, peeled and sliced thin. I layered them in a buttered casserole dish with a bit of sea salt,some garlic and a touch of nutmeg, then poured 40 cl (about 2 cups) of creme fraiche over the top and baked it until it was brown and the potatoes were tender. The taste of the potatoes came through beautifully and really blended perfectly with the cream and seasonings. The perfect autumn comfort food.

I also picked up some apple cinnamon jam that I haven’t tried yet, but which looks divine. And we bought half-a-dozen types of patés to get us through the next few months.

Unusually, the agricultural fair at Espezel was THIS weekend. Generally there are at least two weeks between the events, so we have time to feel like spending money again, so we weren’t even sure we should go to Espezel and be confronted by all that temptation. But today was again glorious and we adore the drive up to the Plateau de Sault, so we decided to go but be prudent.

That’s easier said than done though. This year the organizers did a bang-up job of laying things out and had most of the food producers all together at the first part of the fair as you walked in. That made it much easier to scope out the food products and decide what we were interested in buying, although we always do a full walk around first before buying anything.

We did try to be reasonable, and I think that overall we succeeded. We always have to buy some aligot, that amazing concoction of potatoes and cheese that is stirred together in a cauldron until it is smooth and amalgamated and just begs to be eaten until you can’t swallow another bite.

Then we knew that we wanted some cheese; we ALWAYS want cheese! But that is one of the hardest decisions to make, as there is just so much of it! We chose a booth that was a bit out of the way of the other food places, hoping to help a seller who might not draw as much business because of his location. We only bought two types of cheese as well, which for us is quite sensible!

Then, there were several local beef ranchers who sell direct to the public. I stopped at the table of a couple who are just next door in Rivel! I’m making a roast that I purchased from them, which is about as lean as any beef I’ve ever seen. If it works out I’m sure I will be buying from them again, as they make regular deliveries to individuals in the area. I love the idea of buying things directly from those who produce them if it’s at all possible.

For a change we made it out without overbuying and we avoided all the pastry tables. I had a freezer full of banana muffins that I made last week and it really seemed like overkill to buy more cakes of any kind.

As we left, the crowds were really starting to arrive and I told several friends from the village that they should go today if they could, because rain is predicted for tomorrow and Espezel in the rain is a far less enjoyable experience, unless you enjoy mud!

Ciao for now, (and photos to be posted soon, I promise)

Randy

Sorry for the silence

But things have been awfully quiet around here for the last week or so. All of our friends who were in town for the holidays have gone and we’ve entered that sucky, January/February time of year where you have the feeling that you’re just kind of waiting.

You’re waiting for spring, or storms or anything really, just to have something going on. JM and I are always waiting for our favorite TV series to restart on British TV (Come on LOST and HOUSE!!!) and trying desperately to find something that doesn’t suck to watch at night.

In the past, I would spend a lot of this time baking, but we are both being very good about watching what we eat. Even with the holidays we’ve both lost weight over the last couple of months (I’ve lost 5 kg and JM has lost 8 or 9), so I’m not going to jeopardize that with making cake!

I am cooking more healthy things though; lots of soups with different combinations of vegetables, slow cooker meals, etc. I made a soup the other day with mixed vegetables, baked sweet potatoes and a touch of ras-el-hanout seasoning; it was terrific (can you say that about your own cooking?) and I was surprised to see that JM not only ate it, but asked to have the leftovers! He normally would never eat sweet potato, so that was a definite healthy hit.

The interesting thing about losing weight, is that it becomes self-rewarding. You would kind of like to have a pastry, then you look at your thinning waistline in the mirror and realize you’d rather have THAT than the pastry.

I have found that eliminating as much sugar as possible from my diet makes it much, much easier for me to watch the rest of what I eat. Somehow sugar itself causes me to crave more food. Once I cut out the extra sugar from coffee, tea, yogurt, etc., I no longer fee hungry for any snacking at all, and the weight just seems to come off without a struggle.

For us, this seems to be the only way to do it. I’m a life-long dieter, and although I’ve been at a mostly stable weight for 10 years now, I do occasionally go up a few pounds, especially in ice cream season. I am absolutely terrified by the idea of gaining more than those few pounds, so finding a strategy to control it before it gets out of hand has been vital.

JM, poor boy, never had to diet before around the age of 45. He could always eat everything he wanted and stay the same. That ended and he’s been struggling with it ever since. Not having that long time dieter’s mentality is probably a bonus for him, because he’s not tempted to try crazy things. And, there is the fact that he doesn’t really eat in between meals, which is a major help in weight control. So, for him, just cutting out sugar and desserts other than a bit of fruit compote, is really all he needs to do.

I guess dieting is better than waiting to gain more weight!

Ciao for now.

Randy

Espezel!

Yesterday was our annual visit to the agricultural fair at Espezel. Yes, it rained, but no, we didn’t mind.

In fact, it rained early when we were walking Shmoo, but had stopped by the time we left for the fair. Miraculously, it didn’t rain while we were there and started to rain again while we were driving home. Of course, the only benefit to not having rain right at the minute we were there was that we, personally, didn’t get wet. The ground, however, was a mud pit everywhere outside of the main village. That meant that all the livestock exhibits were a challenge, since I am not known for my grace even during fine weather. I did manage to get through without falling on my butt though, so that was a plus.

I swear that there there were even more booths this year than last. You really wouldn’t think it possible that more people could set up. We didn’t get to every single exhibitor, mostly because after a while you can’t take in anymore information. As it is, we had trouble deciding where we should buy what. Finally, we tried not to make too many purchases at any one booth, preferring to buy from as many different people as possible. I think we wound up not going crazy and didn’t buy anything that we wouldn’t normally eat.

We bought several kinds of cheese (cow and goat) some dried sausage of different types, fresh duck sausage to broil or grill, aligot, that magical concoction of mashed potatoes and melted cheese that is cooked in huge cauldrons and stirred with a wooden spoon, a goat and tomato fougasse (kind of like a sauceless pizza), an apple fougasse (like a free-form apple tart), a huge beignet that I shouldn’t have eaten because that’s just too much fried dough, wine, vinegar and a can of paté. Between that and our purchases at the apple festival last weekend, we really don’t need to shop for a while.

My only negative came when I bought a bottle of wine for Mom and a bottle of Banyuls vinegar for me. I had wanted a 500 ml bottle of vinegar and paid for that, but discovered that the guy had slipped a 250 ml bottle to me instead. I thought the bottle he put in the bag looked small, and I should have gone with my instinct and said something. Still, I wasn’t about to drive back for that, so live and learn in the future I guess.

We didn’t stay to watch any of the demonstrations of herding, because we could tell that the weather was going to get worse. However I did see a lot of beautiful Border Collies wandering around and that made me sad a little because I really was missing Maggie. Shmoo gave me lots of cuddles when we got home though, so that helped some. God forbid I should see a BC for adoption in a weak moment, because I will probably do it!

As always, the drive up to Espezel is stunning. Even in the rain there are wonderful sites to see. Yesterday, the clouds were hanging on the hills and everything looked magical under dramatic skies. I don’t think I could pick a place in the world that I would rather live or anything I would rather do than wander a fair like Espezel.

Ciao for now.

Randy

Apple Festival 2009

Yesterday turned out to be just as predicted: beautiful, chilly, windy and perfect for a visit to the Mirepoix Fête des Pommes 2009.

We were pretty early, just after 10:00, so there weren’t a lot of people yet, which does make it easier to look around calmly, especially when your arm is attached to a Shmoo. All of the displays were set up, however, and we had our pick of apples, etc.

We made one major mistake: not bringing our wheeled shopping cart. Once you load 3 kg of apples, a bottle or two of juice and several cans of patés and confit de canard, a canvas carry-all is VERY heavy. Poor JM was doing the carrying, since I had the aforementioned Shmoo and I think he was really suffering by the time we got back to the car.

There definitely seem to be fewer vendors this year. I don’t know if it’s because they feel they don’t sell enough or because some of them have gone out of business because of the economic crunch. We did our part to help though. And, from what we’ve tasted so far, it was worth the money. The Honey Crunch apples are really outstanding and JM thought the duck paté with green peppercorns was terrific. Maybe I’ll try the confit today.

Shmoo did get a bit excited at seeing other dogs, but he was better than he has sometimes been in the past, and by the time we were leaving, he was ignoring them all. I don’t know if that was tiredness or the realization that I wasn’t going to let him play with them, but it was a welcome result. I don’t think he’ll get to go to Espezel though. Nothing to do with him as much as I realized that it is hard to really shop and look around when you have to always be vigilant not to let 85-pounds of pure muscle take off in a crowd.

Here are the pictures that I managed to take despite my furry appendage; enjoy.

This year's theme was music

This year's theme was music

Here are the Bongos

Here are the Bongos

It was hard to get the whole guitar into the shot

It was hard to get the whole guitar into the shot

A Xylophone is always nice

A Xylophone is always nice

Some nice patés under "les couverts" (covered walkways)

Some nice patés under "les couverts" (covered walkways)

We came home and lit a fire. Then, last night, I finally got to try my fireplace grill with some English-stlye sausages made by someone in the area. I need to work out some of the bugs (not used to how long it takes to grill stuff), but the end result was worth the effort.

That’s what I call a perfect Fall day.

Ciao for now.

Randy