Ratatouille

I just did a whole lot of entertaining. Bouquet garni was my feature. Bouquet garni is to flavor what wonderbra is to wishing for more. To get the full punch from the pack, you can’t leave anything out–a bundle of fresh thyme sprigs, parsley, a few leek tops, celery fronds and a bay leaf. I stuffed it into a whole seasoned and seared chicken before I roasted it, surrounded by pearl onions. I used it to put some perfume (along with French butter) in the braising water for my brussel sprouts. When the brussel sprouts were ready, it didn’t hurt to finish them in a tiny bit more butter with a little bacon grease from the morning’s breakfast. The same start of butter and bacon for the gravy with the chestnut colored crust made by the chicken in it’s pan scraped into the pot along with a sprinkle of flour, toasted, then a pour of a lovely stock, and red wine. Went along with roasted squash, deconstructed stuffing (toasted bread crumbs, mushroom, onion and celery saute and butter.)
Next day I used my bouquet garni for white bean soup started with a mince of carrot, celery, onion sauteed til they make your heart beat just a little faster, with a few garlic cloves, finished with a tiny chop of peeled potato and fresh tarragon.
And I used it for the ratatouille. I haven’t made ratatouille since that rat won rave reviews. But I tell you the bouquet garni is the secret. Cut the eggplant in medium slices, the zucchini the same, the peppers seeded, and roughly cut, tomatoes the same–all roasted separately, or at least on their own ends of the sheet pan. Add a few cloves of garlic and a few sprigs of tarragon to the eggplant; everything else, just olive oil, salt and pepper. In a saute pan, butter, olive oil, bouquet garni and sliced onions with pinch of salt, pinch of sugar and grind of pepper. When everything is just done and not a moment later, combine them in a beautiful gratin dish, layered if you have the patience, with the onions and their bouquet nestled in. Drizzle over a few tablespoons of the tomato juice left over from the seeding and a teeny weeny bit of your stock. Cover for ten minutes in a 400 degree oven and uncover for five. Serve after the white bean soup with the best little goat cheese rounds you can get your hands on. Salad finished. Simple happiness spread like spilt milk.

Pick it up

You want to know why I don’t have any mirrors in my house that are easy to find? Because I’m tired of looking at myself. The color is dull, the skin is falling like snow off a pitched roof, and the hair–let’s just say that a girl that gives herself a haircut with her son’s paper scissors is better off avoiding reflection. I thrive on the rest of the world, where even the same old, same old, year after year can get better.
ie: the Thanksgiving table. A huge mound of deep golden bird, surrounded by a terrain of mushroom and celery stuffing with rivulets of butter and broth winding through succulent bites of toasted bread, soaked to a saturation of happy. Glowing bowls of jewel red cranberry sauce with spicy bits of candied ginger and slender slivers of pecans tucked in the holiday balls that are brussel sprouts. A tiny reservoir of gravy in a porcelain pot and baby onions swimming in cream. You could leave it like that or serve baked apples with a cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and calvados, a sweet potato pie from a great grandmother’s recipe that knocks the socks off a cat or a sparkling wine from a French cellar or a whole new salad that nobody can get enough of–baby beets braised with a bouquet garni, tossed with a little butter and lemon and fennel nestled into a salad of little gem lettuces, St. Augur, and deeply, darkly caramelized shallot.
The Thanksgiving Table to a cook is the Nutcracker Suite to a ballet dancer. Expected to always be the same, an endless performance, exhausting, and the mark of fabulousness if you can take all that and make something of it.
That’s what I’m talking about.

Bring me back

I’m longing. I have my husband near me and my baby in shouting distance, but I am aching for France, and I don’t know what it is exactly. The hours I spend cooking or the markets of stall after stall of food just pulled an hour ago from the earth or sea, a table spread with candlelight or wine so good it sings to you below sound level and may even slightly adjust your cellular structure. I miss the trees outside my kitchen window at the Chateau des Sablons. I miss the bread. And so I have started Poule-au-Pot with a few chicken breasts still on the bone, an inside stalk of celery, a bay leaf, parsley sprig, a cinnamon stick, 3 cloves stuck into an onion and fresh thyme. Holy cow I’m feeling better already. The smells from the kitchen are the whole kit and kaboodle in a pot. When the chicken is cooked through (it has to simmer as slowly as possible to stay tender,) I’m going to set it to the side and add bundles of leeks cut into three inch lengths and tied with string, the same lengths of carrot, peeled chopped potato and just a tiny knob of butter. On the side I’m going to get lardons going, just until they are beginning to crisp, along with baby onions. When they are done I’ll use the same pan to saute mushrooms and then crisp buttery squares of croutons for a deconstructed sort of stuffing that typically goes inside an entire trussed chicken when you poach it for the same dish. When everything is done, pull the chicken from the bones, and toss the vegetables with butter, season with salt and pepper. Pile the vegetables around the edges of a platter with shallow sides, and the chicken down the center. Season the broth to taste and then pour just enough over the platter to make everything juicy, but not soup. Garnish with the lardon, baby onion, mushroom and croutons. Pear Tarte Tatin wouldn’t hurt for dessert.

The truth

Ferd is in trouble for entertaining his music class. I don’t know what to say about this. He is a born performer. I know there is also great value in listening. And in learning not to upstage the teacher. And that the other students in the class are not there for the Ferd Show, they are there for music theory and to sing. Everyday he comes home with a note saying he didn’t quite measure up. Of course if he paid attention, the note wouldn’t say that. The thing is, if Jonathan wrote me a note everyday with checks next to all the things he noticed I did right and no checks next to ALL the things I did wrong, I would rip up the note before I even looked at it. That’s the truth. I know I can’t tell Ferd that, so instead I have been making him his favorite dinners. Last night was bacon, polenta with lots of butter and parmesan, and peas with shallot. For dessert, a coconut cupcake.

I’m back. Ripples, clouds and rhythms of all that is France still moving through me. I miss the air and and the chocolate I eat before my coffee and the Wine, and the cheese I fell madly and entirely in love with and the view from the Fortress of Chinon of slate roofs and exquisitely pointed turrets in the village below. If you eat, drink and breath a country, you bring it home.

Get your Veruca Salt&Frank Black on and start simmering 40 cloves of garlic in stock for a seared chicken only better dressed with a jewel of Beurre Rouge and a saute of wild mushrooms spilled over the top. We served it with tiny bundles of braised leeks and carrots and thinly sliced pomme de terre flipped around in the pan with butter and herbs until they were deep brown and crispy on the edges, finished with a shaving of black truffle.

If you have it in you, keep going with tiny pots of creme brulee made with fresh heavy cream, a vanilla bean and a crackle of sugar.

Chicken with Thyme and Poached Garlic

Bring a small saucepan of homemade chicken stock to a simmer. AAdd 3 heads of garlic–cloves separated from each other–but no need to peel. Give your little poaching liquid of pinch of salt, a grind of pepper and a thyme sprig. Let it happen slowly for about 40 minutes.

Marinate chicken breasts with olive oil, thyme, shallot, and parsley. Season well with salt and pepper and sear. When you are done searing, the garlic cloves should be ready as well. Take them out of the liquid (save the liquid for, who knows?) and toss onto the roasting sheet along with the chicken. Roast in the oven until the chicken is JUST done—no longer. Let it rest and serve it room temperature (that’s the way it’s done.)
Bring a pot of water to the boil. Add a celery top, a bay leaf, peppercorn, a thyme sprig, a parsley frond and a dash of olive oil.
Add 2 1/2 pounds of leeks that have been cut into four-inch lengths, cleaned and tied into bundles along with 2 pounds of carrots that have been cut into the same length. Add more water as needed to cover. Adjust the salt to taste. Simmer until tender. Remove from the liquid. Toss with butter.

Reduce the liquid, adding a little white wine if you like and save to add to a soup, or to moisten the vegetables before serving, or to make into a gravy.

Sautéed Mushrooms

Choose the most beautiful and interesting mushrooms that you can find. Remove the dirt with a paper towel, and give them a rough chop. Color a clove of garlic in some olive oil, remove the garlic from the pan, and add the mushrooms. Without adding salt, or moving them around once the hit the pan, add the mushrooms in a single layer. Don’t overcrowd. Once they pick up a little golden brown, season with salt, and stir them around until they are cooked through. Throw in a sprig of thyme, a bit of finely minced shallot, and remove the mushrooms from the pan. Repeat with the rest of the mushrooms. At the end, throw all of the mushrooms back in the pan, and just because we are in France, add a tiny bit of butter, then a sprinkle of flour. At the end, a pour of heavy cream or crème fraiche. Toss and taste. Oui, oui!.

If you are really feeling it, make yourself some Beurre Rouge—same recipe for Beurre Blanc, just substitute a beautiful red wine for the white wine and vinegar. It’s gorgeous with roasted chicken. 1 cup of red wine reduced with a few tablespoons of chopped shallot and a sprig of fresh thyme. When reduced to a few tablespoons, add a few tablespoons of heavy cream, reduce another minute, and then bit by bit, 2 sticks of cold butter. Keep warm over a bain marie.

Pommes Sarladaise

Don’t despair. It’s a lot of cooking, but we’re in France—we can do it.
This is a big crispy on the bottom and tender in the middle affair. It shouldn’t be too fussy, but if you have the opportunity to make the traditional way with goose or duck fat, fuss away. Otherwise, butter and olive oil. Don’t be shy with it—about 5 tablespoons and some fresh herbs are fine. Slice about 2 pounds of potatoes thinly and heat up a heavy sauté pan with gently sloping sides. Add the potatoes and cook for about 15 minutes. Give them a shove a few times, but not too much. Stir in a chopped truffle or 3 garlic cloves and continue to cook until beginning to brown on the bottom. Taste again for salt and pepper. If they need to be crispier on the bottom, give them another go without disturbing.

Crème Brulee

This is delicious. Bring to the simmer, 3 cups of heavy cream with 1 vanilla bean. When you see tiny bubbles forming around the edges of the pan, remove from the heat and allow to steep. (Mr. Pepin throws in a piece of orange zest.) Whisk separately, 6 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of sugar, adding the sugar in a thin stream, while you whisk constantly, until thick—about 5 minutes. Stir some of the hot cream into the egg, by adding it just a drop at a time. When this is completed, you want to strain the mixture to remove any bits, as you pour the liquid into your ramekins (leaving room at the top.)
Set the ramekins into a baking pan and pour hot, but not boiling water around them, to come halfway up the top. Bake for about half an hour. Cool completely in the fridge, then cover the tops with a layer of brown sugar and broil or torch until bubbly and smooth.

Cappucino in Bourgueil automatically comes with whipped triple creme and shaved chocolate. There is no explaining, you just have to drink. After the croissant arrives, there is a pregnant pause, and then a petite dish of truffles is slipped under the radar of the Mothers Against Chocolates with Breakfast, who seem to be out of work in Bourgeil all together, as I have never noticed even one flashing evil eye–with chocolates flying from hand to mouth at all unreasonable hours of the a.m. After due fortification we made our way into the open market that spills out from the main square to buy fresh fish, herbed sausages, local apples, massive cabbages that opened up like roses and cheese. Tonight there is a lesson with Jean-Pierre on how to taste one cheese from another and a wine tasting with Jerome. E voilà, life unfolds.

It,s hard to be patient enough to keep the bouef simmering in the oven until the meat is completely tender. The sauce made itself. A complex puddle of crisped lardons, gently sauteed onion with thyme and garlic, the deep browning of the beef, and hours together in the oven. The mushroom sauté I put in about 45 minutes before it,s done and a rich stock and bottle of deep red wine take it to a place of tres joilie. If you use a noixette of butter and flour, thin it with a little of the sauce before adding and bring the whole thing to a simmer again before serving.
The sky was layers of color today in Bourgueil. Leaves carpet the grass and it is getting colder. I bought five baguettes and held them under my arm for the walk home. It,s tricky business not dropping a baguette.

Bourgeil is even better now that I have been to bar a vins bourgueil de la promenade. Thick block tables and stools and the most amazing charcuterie and fromage board (served on a piece of slate) that I have ever known. Tender chunks of braised bacon, a bologna with curing swirls of fat, two types of country pate, and a jambone sliced as thin as paper. I have no earthly idea what the cheeses were, but I will find out. I was in a state of bliss and in no state to ask questions. There were two very creamy ,earthy, majestic slivers most certainly in the family of camembert, a type of blue that lifted you from the inside to just above cloud cover and two goat that were like freshly washed linen that had spent the day in the crisp Fall air to dry. To start I had fois gras topped with a cool yellow layer of fat as delicious as the underneath, topped with a compote of green tomatoes that was I convinced was fig with star anise. You can shame me for my mistake until you try for yourself.
My ladies and one gentleman arrive tomorrow and I will be at the open market in the town square first thing to get the vegetables and fruits picked that same morning and to see if I can,t find some of the nectar in the guise of cheese that I had at lunch. Ina moment I am off to see mr. Druet to buy some of the best reds that the region has to offer and clear skied full bodied pink skirted rose.

unknown.jpegIn the morning, after I fall out of bed, throw on my clothes, rush down the steps of the coach house and across to the chateau to start breakfast, the first thing I do is open the window shutters, big as barn doors, and fold them back against the house to let the daylight in. I get two pots of coffee going, a great big jug of hot milk and either drive like mad two minutes through the fields to get fresh croissants from the village, or start dipping chunks of baguette in a bowl of eggs, cream and vanilla bean to brown in butter.  I slice fresh clementines in half, fill one bowl with raw flat oats and dried fruits and another of formage blanc.  Everybody in, everybody eats, everybody out, I shop in the village for our class and dinner and they wander through towns nestled in along the river or a fortress or cave packed with dormant bottles of deep red wine.  Then it’s back for cooking and tasting and drinking in our hearth of a kitchen and into the dining room for dinner.

Menus:

Day 1
Boeuf Bourguignon with croutons
Buttered Potato
Greens with classic vinaigrette
Chocolate Soufflé

Day 2
Roast Pumpkin with tomato concassees & lardoons
Cotriade Bretonne (Fish stew with leeks)
Endive and Watercress
Lemon Tart

Day 3
Pan Seared Chicken with fresh thyme, poached garlic&
wild mushroom sauté
(Beurre Rouge)
Braised leeks and carrots
Pommes Sarladaise
Greens, St. Agur and warmed hazlenuts
Crème Brulee

Day 4
Classic Quiche with Gruyere
Pork Loin marinated with Dijon, garlic, and fresh herbs
String Beans
Wine makers white beans
Oven roasted tomatoes
Tart Tatin