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Monday, August 29, 2011

C'est si Bon! Travel Tales: How Many Blueberries in Your Bucket?

Does the amount of blueberries you pick correlate to your enjoyment?

Let’s see how the picking went.

We arrive at Nice Berry Farm. And Cedar Grove Berry Farm.

Nice Berry Farm, Hillsborough NC

Both farms sit next to each other and both have blueberries on the branches we can see, easily. Aileen and I have picked before together. So we have that memory installed in our memory bank.

We wonder outloud if this memory in the making can live up to our previous one. And then we laugh, and wonder if it matters?

As we continue speaking about the memory, it becomes clear that while we each have one, we don’t agree on what it is, or even exactly when it is! But we do share that we felt the same about it. Happy!

So off we go, deeper into Cedar Grove Farm, whereas Rich took the grove to the right into Nice Berry farm. We were the only pickers there on Tuesday morning.

Rich was intent on finding the best berries. What are the best berries, Aileen and I wondered. The biggest? The sweetest, the small tiny most flavorful ones? We giggled and pointed up to the high branches and then decided the ones that were best were the ones we could reach.

Aileen and I exclaimed, almost in unison; what a perfect day. (I hope it’s not annoying; how happy we were.) What were we each going to do with said berries? She had given me some poblano peppers from her garden and I proclaimed I would put them with the berries to make a sweet and hot jam! Our fingers stained purple, our palms looked like we had a bad run-in with a blue bic pen. We ate the occasional berry, speculating over jelly, preserve, and confiture.  The conversation meandered as we ducked under branches, and upon hearing the swarm of bees and wasps we quickly came out of the deep bramble where we were sure the really biggest and best berries lived.  Life was like that, we mused.

The smell of fermenting berries rose up to us, and as we were shorter than Rich we had the benefit of a more potent impact from the" wine leavings." 

Throughout this few hours we’d banter with Rich, but couldn’t see him -  where are you now? you doing ok? Rich swears his totem animal is a bear. Based on recent sightings in Orange County, I wondered if he might not actually find a bear hunched beside him eating the "best"  blueberries. If that happened, I didn't know who to fear for most, the bear or the berry picker.

Rich came out of his rows to join us. His bucket was full. Full!! He showed us how to pick clusters and rolled them off the bush with his fingers, the berries plopped into his waiting bucket. But when we did, the sound was a bit more hollow as our buckets were only a quarter full. Drat.

Who do you think felt the day was a success?
Rich, who picked the full bucket?
Or Aileen and I who laughed in the blueberry branches, but only picked ¼ as much.

Is it the result that counts, or the experience? What do you think?

Either way, the preserves are delicious; both sweet and hot!

 Blueberry Preserves with Thyme, Bay, Lemon, and Balsamic

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Guest Author Post: Kim Wright and a "Mid Air" Christmas Party

I asked my friend, Kim Wright, how being a food writer helped her become a novelist. I first met Kim once upon a time in a writing workshop in Charlotte, NC led by the Infamous Author and Creative Writing professor, Fred Leebron. It’s a  great pleasure to witness Kim's work flourishing so! Kim is a fantastic inspiration! Read what Kim says about the connection between Food and Writing. Below her post below I’ve included some C’est si Bon! recipes created for her novel, Love in Mid Air's, delectable Christmas Dinner Party scene.    

Kim Wright is the author of the novel Love in Mid Air  and a nonfiction guide for writers called Your Path to PublicationShe was a professional food and wine writer for twenty years.  

People often ask me if my former job as a food and wine writer has any influence on my present career as a novelist.  I think the background of the writer always affects the private inner lives of their characters. The only question is how.
For example, there’s the old saw that literary writing comes out of character, which gives rise to the further issue of “How much does a writer need to know about his or her character in order to convincingly write him?”  Do you need to know his date of birth? The kind of car he drives?  Her height?  Her favorite song?  Even the most detailed books and the most complete character studies won’t include all this information….it’s a bit like what William Faulkner used to do.  Apparently he wrote out full and complete bios of each character before he began his novels – probably 95% of what he’d written in these bios never made it onto the pages of the novels, but the important thing was that he knew it.  It informed how he wrote about them even if it wasn’t explicitly on the page.
So we have to know a lot about our characters to craft a book, but precisely what we need to tell is open to wide interpretation.  Some writers get deep into inner lives while never giving their characters specifics.   Can anyone remember the color of Emma Bovary’s hair, the precise age of Scrooge, or Ishamel’s last name?  What constitutes an important detail, worthy of going into the book, depends on the writer.
My characters eat and drink.  They eat and drink their whole way through the books.  A lot of scenes take place in restaurants.  Even more take place in kitchens.  I know that Kelly doesn’t eat avocados and Elyse drinks Pinot.  I know the precise menu of their Christmas dinner party.  I list all four of the desserts the ladies share on the sampler platter.   I describe colors in terms of food – celery and eggplant and chocolate.  People are always feeding each other, especially in bed.  They take their kids to Ben and Jerry’s.   They make huge vats of soup.
It’s a weird little quirk and I doubt most readers pick it up.  But it’s a definite leftover from my career as a food writer and one of the primary ways I pin down my characters.  A sophisticated palate tells us a lot about someone’s past life.  Making soup is a yearning for a simpler kind of life.  An adventurous eater might make bold choices somewhere else.  A person who chooses white wine over red simply so her teeth won’t get stained – well we all know she won’t end up well, don’t we?
What can I say?  Once a foodie, always a foodie. 

Kim's newest release, called Your Path to Publication - fills a much needed "How to Make it as an Author" void for aspiring writers who have completed a work of fiction. 

Now then, here are the recipes so you can prepare and revel in Kim's Christmas Party right in the comfort of your own home, and who KNOWS what that might inspire. Bon Appetit!

Write to me for more information about Our Trip to Gascony coming up in five weeks! October in Southwest France is time for Cepes, (France's porcini,) Duck, and the Wine Harvest. The  party is just getting started in Gascony's kitchen! 

Cooking Up a Tres Gascon Storm, or Two

Roasted squash bisque
A perfectly smooth entre for a sexy holiday gathering.

serves 8

1 1/2 pounds butternut squash, split and seeded
Drizzle of olive oil
¼ pound bacon slices
1 cup each minced carrot, celery, and leeks
1/2 cup each chopped fresh chives, parsley, and thyme
zest and juice of 1 orange
4 cups half and half
4 cups chicken stock
salt and freshly cracked black and cayenne pepper to taste
1 tablespoon additional fresh chopped chives, garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 and drizzle a bit of olive oil on a sheet pan. Place the butternut squash curt side down and throw in the oven for a good thirty to forty minutes. Or until tender enough to scoop out.

In the meantime heat a large soup pot over medium heat. add the bacon and cook until crisp. Remove bacon and set aside for garnish. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Save for another use of desired. Add the celery, carrots, leeks, and herbs. Stir well, cover, and sweat over low heat for 15 minutes. Do not brown them. Add the orange juice and zest and roasted squash to the pot, stir well. Then add the half and half and the stock. Season with salt and both peppers. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and cook, partially covered for another 20 minutes or till all the vegetables are very tender. Process with a stick blender to desired consistency. Pour into a tureen and ladle up at the table. Garnish each bowl with the chopped chives and reserved bacon.

Waiting For Fromage...

Pear and blue cheese salad
This salad offers fantastic contrasts of sweet, salty, crunchy, and spicy, tastes; bien sur! What could be next on the menu?

Serves 8

1 head romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
couple handfuls of salad ready spinach, torn into bite-size pieces
one handful of arugula, washed and torn into bite-size pieces
8 ounces blue cheese - crumbled
4 ripe pears, cored and chunked (leave skin on if pretty or peel)
½ cup walnuts, chopped

2/3’s cup olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, smashed, salted, and minced
salt and pepper to taste

Arrange the lettuce, spinach and arugula on plates and top with the blue cheese, pears, and walnuts.

In a small bowl whisk the balsamic and oil together, add garlic, season with salt and pepper, then just before serving, drizzle over the salad.

Your Table's Ready

Salmon en Papillotte
The fragrance of leeks and salmon lure you to slowly but surely, open the delectable packets on your plate. Umm. 

serves 8

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 pound white mushrooms, sliced

1 leek, washed, cleaned of grit and julienned

3/4 pound french green benas (haricot vert) sliced thinly on the bias 
1/2 pound sugar snap peas, sliced thinly on the bias
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 pounds skinless salmon fillet (about 1 1/2 inches thick), cut into 8 pieces
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup dry sherry

Preheat the oven to 375°. 
In a nonstick skillet, heat the 4 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. add the onion, leek, and mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook over moderately high heat, stirring until translucent, 5 minutes. add in the green beans and the sugar snaps and cook just another minute or unitl the color comes up. transfer to large platter and let cool slightly.
Heat 2 large, sturdy baking sheets in the oven. On a smooth surface, lay out eight 14-inch-long sheets of parchment paper and brush with olive oil. Mound some of the vegetables on half of each sheet. Set the fillets on the vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Fold each packet in half, then fold up 2 sides to seal, leaving 1 side open. In a small bowl, combine the stock and sherry; spoon 1 1/2 tablespoons into each packet. Fold up the last side, sealing tightly.
Transfer the packets to the preheated baking sheets. bake for 9 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Plate the packets and serve to each guest to open at the table.

'Bout Time For Something Sweet

Write to me for more information about Our Trip to Gascony coming up in five weeks! October in Southwest France is time for Cepes, (France's porcini,) Duck, and the Wine Harvest. The  party is just getting started in Gascony's kitchen! 

Mocha Panna Cotta
Inspired by the scandalous and clandestine love affair of coffee and chocolate this dessert marries a late moonlit night with a morning in the piazza - comfortably, oh so comfortably.

Makes 8 servings

Panna Cotta
3 teaspoons powdered gelatin
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder, or substitute instant coffee powder
1 cup cream
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups mascarpone
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup high-quality chocolate sauce

Espresso Chocolate Sauce
½ cup high-quality chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon brewed espresso or strong coffee
1 cup heavy cream

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons of the water. "Bloom" until the gelatin is soft. 
In another small bowl, combine the espresso powder with the remaining 2 tablespoons water. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream, sugar, sour cream, mascarpone, vanilla, and chocolate sauce. Add the espresso mixture and the gelatin and mix well.

Place the mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water. Cook the mixture, whisking constantly, until smooth and hot (approximately 150 degrees to 160 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer).
Remove from the heat and divide the panna cotta evenly among 8 pretty coffee cups. Cover the cups with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic does not touch the custard. Refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours to set.

To make the chocolate sauce: heat a small saucepan over medium heat with the heavy cream. When the cream is hot, add the espresso and the chocolate, stir until smooth. The sauce may be made the day before, refrigerated and then warmed in the microwave when ready to serve.

To serve: top each cup of Panna Cotta with some of the Espresso Chocolate Sauce. Serve each “coffee cup” on a saucer or larger plate.

Write to me for more information about Our Trip to Gascony coming up in five weeks! October in Southwest France is time for Cepes, (France's porcini,) Duck, and the Wine Harvest. The  party is just getting started in Gascony's kitchen! 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

French Travel Tales: Mr. Turbot and the Chateau Kitchen

A few summers ago, picture the esteemed and aristocratic Loire Valley and a very old spectacular Chateau, Chateau du Pin, where my colleague and fabric artist, Peg Gignoux, teaches Making Art in France Workshops. We were here to launch a week of cooking and culinary excursions called Cabbages and Kings with a group of C'est si Bon! Teen-Chefs. Once we set foot on the grounds we quelled rumours, but just barely so, of the Chateau's back staircase being haunted. The mouths of six very excited Teen-Chefs gaped at the thought. But the lovely kitchen presided calmly over our first evening meal. We rested that night and got ready for the week. 

Even with three chaperones/assistantes/instructors we didn't want to bite off more than we could comfortable  smear across a crusty baguette. We aimed the itinerary, our menus and offerings at simplicity. And Butter.  Because this was the Loire for Heaven's sake. 

And so, the week began. While we were at Willie's, the butcher in nearby Champtocé-sur-Loire, we ordered our fish, le Sandre, for Thursday's menu. What a perfect fish. Legendary, delicious and with a flavor so delicate the fish would practically jump out of the Loire River and cook itself. Wouldn't it? It would rejoice and embrace the prodigious amounts of Beurre Blanc it would swim through, and quite literally glide onto our spoons. Spoons that we would raise, praising butter and the Loire and plop the morsels like worms into eager baby bird's, er, Teen-Chefs, mouths. 

The Courtyard at Chateau du Pin

We left the butcher's shop and busied ourselves with a marvelous Mushroom Pilgrimage to the caves in a far flung village and came home (a Chateau can be a HOME!) to find a rather unapologetic box in the refrigerator. It was full of a strange triangular salty being. The label said simply, Tourbout. One student who knew a bit of Latin said it came from Turbo, which meant - you won't ever guess - spinning top. Great. Once we opened the box, I had to agree. Dinner was a spinning top. And for trepidation's sake, I give you a fitting poem. 

Upstairs in the Chateau

The Emperor’s Fish - An Ancient Ode to the Turbot

Back when the last Flavian was ripping up a half-dead
world – and Roma slaved for a bald Nero –
in sight of the shrine of Venus, which Doric Ancona upholds,
the marvelous expanse of an Adriatic turbot appeared,
and filled the nets. 

This fish, this spinning top, certainly filled our nets and the Box before us. If I can read between the lines of the poem, "The council of state is called to deal with the crisis of how to cook it, where the fish can neither be cooked by conventional means due to its size, nor can it be cut into pieces."

Such a fish was so prodigious that it was fit for the emperor alone. 

So we called in our council and assistante, Harriet Hoover, who looked it up on google and gave us a diagram to follow in its dissection. Once we tipped it out of the box, and picked it up from the floor it felt like leather strapped bones. Sharp Chateau knives, perfect for le Sandre, a gentle fish, bounced off its skin. 

By far the best instructions were found in Le Guide Culinaire. They illustrate how even the esteemed Escoffier knew the Turbot was a tough nut to crack, and how chefs also, more so in the past than now, knew enough to be Surgeons. Or Murderers.

Mr. Turbot, Before the Incident

On page 238 of Le Guide there is a telling passage. And I quote. "Before commencing to cook a whole turbot especially if it is very fresh, it is advisable to partially detach the two fillets from the centre bone on the black skin side. Fold the fish over on itself and press hard to break the spine in two or three places."  

Fold a fish in half? Ca va. Chef Escoffier continues his bizarre instructions. "Then, cut the fish in half down the center of the spine and across into pieces of the required size."

What? Of course, Chef. We took turns jumping and folding and finally popped out the fillets. Methinks being a Courtesan in the Emperor's Court was easier, by far. At dinner there was rejoicing, and we drowned the pleasant fish in lots of Beurre Blanc. Oh. Yes. And the table laughter drowned out the sound of footsteps on the back staircase. At least for the moment. 

The Front Door.

 The Chapel.

One of Many Staircases.

Beurre Blanc

Tradition tells us that this is a "nantaise" specialty. People from Nantes attribute its creation to Mère Clémence (a restaurant on the levee called the "divatte"). Its reputation grew quickly and it began to be served at all the fine tables in Anjou, Tours and all the way to Orléans.

Beurre blanc accompanies pike, sole, salmon, turbot, and even scallops marvelously. The sauce is an emulsion of melted salted butter thickened with a reduction of shallots and wine (muscadet for purists).

1 to 2 shallots, chopped fine
8 ounces white wine
2 ounces lemon juice
1 tablespoon heavy cream
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
salt and white pepper, to taste

Combine the shallots, white wine, and lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan over high heat and reduce to 2 tablespoons.

Add the cream to the reduction. Once the liquid bubbles, reduce the heat to low.
Then, add the butter, one cube at a time, whisking first on the heat and then off the heat. Continue whisking butter into the reduction until the mixture is fully emulsified and has reached a rich sauce consistency. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serve over the Turbot.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

French Travel Tales: Compagnon du Devoir

Close your eyes.
Tear off a piece of your baguette or batard.
Taste it. 
Does it call to mind cream or butter? 
The fields of wheat where it began?
The oven fire where it was born? 
Can you conjure up an image of the baker who formed it?

Fassy Boulangerie, Provence

In France, the Compagnon du Devoir is the ancient guild that trains many of France’s most respected craftsman. This encompasses such varied fields as gold smiths and masons -- and of course the one specialty that piques my interest so divinely - the trade of the Boulanger, the bread bakers.

To become a Master Baker – a Maître Boulanger – takes a total of about seven years. They participate in what is known as the Tour de France.  This is a seven year program where the young apprentices travel to various boulangeries and spend time working, sweating, and crafting the various specialty breads of the department

The Compagnon thrives even today due to the careful nourishing of the rigorous program by the Master Boulangers around the country. This is very much like the care and feeding required to maintain a levain, the sourdough bread starter – it feels like a miracle and a blessing.

What was it about the subject of being a talmelier, a bread apprentice, that was so compelling? I think it was a number of things.

1. The sensual nature of the heavy intense work. The kneading, the fire, the aromas.

2. The community of bakers, living and baking together in an intimate connection. A sort of "all for one, one for all" type of commitment. 

3. In the Sixteenth century it was forbidden for a woman to pursue this field. 

4. And then a connection to my own mother who was a doctor. She started the wheels (perhaps the wheels of pastry?) turning early. She shared countless stories about her journey through medical school and of being a woman in a man's profession.  This encouraged me to go to the Culinary Institute of America. 

When doing research for my manuscript, City of Ladies, I reached out to Maître Boulanger Lionel Vatinet, of La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. He and his wife, Missy, were very open and willing to share his experiences in the Guild.  Missy shared what it was like to listen in as a woman and a wife, letting me know that there is still a lot of resistance to woman infiltrating the ranks of the Compagnon brotherhood. Then came the day when, through Lionel, I was able to offer a glance behind the boulanger's table at Eric Kayser’s in Paris to our eager Teen-Chefs.

in Paris at Eric Kaiser's, mixing

I am still enamored of bakers.  The hours they work are during most of the world's dreaming time. I love that! I suppose I sense a parallel connecting the deep history of the baking craft and the pursuit of writing.  

At least in my book! 

at Eric Kaiser's sampling

And what a simple pleasure it is to support these skilled artisans.  Eat bread! Good crusty bread! For even in France there is a danger of breads being produced by factories. Yes, it is hard to imagine that even the quintessential icon of France, French bread, is in danger.

I invite you to visit this tres fantastique video of boulangers working on their trade from the Compagnon.

An especially interesting note is that women are appearing and rumored nearly ready to be sworn in as the first Master Bakers, Maître Boulangers.

Teen-Chefs at Poilane, Paris

So please tell me. 
Would you be able to tell if a baguette was made by a man or a woman?
And how would it differ?

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