Thursday, February 28, 2013

Colourful entrée

A lovely simple entrée, made from so many beautiful things picked fresh in the garden:
*Fresh finely-grated beetroot, mixed with a little sour cream, salt, pepper, and a live olive oil and dash of white balsamic vinegar;
*Small whole Roma tomatoes with halved pale orange tomatoes(not sure of name of variety, but sweet and delicious), with vinaigrette;
*Sliced clove garlic
*Sliced small fresh cucumber
*Mix of salad greens--lettuce, sorrel, a little rocket
*Borage flowers, blue and mauve(they are completely edible).
It looked gorgeous. And tasted great!

Friday, February 22, 2013

My new e-book's out!

By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, my new e-book on authorship matters, is now out in the ASA's wonderful new Authors Unlimited initiative:
It includes a piece on my experience of blogging about food, on this site!
There's a clip I made for it too, at You Tube:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gourmande: childhood feasts of food and words

An essay on childhood feasts of food and words:

Sophie est gourmande comme une chatte, I heard my mother say to Dad one day when I was about ten or eleven, and I hugged the phrase to myself, loving the sound of it. I rolled the phrase around my tongue all day, savouring the creamy roundness of 'gourmande', the slinking movement of 'chatte.' It was something hard to translate into English: greedy as a cat? No, that isn't right. There's no real native word for 'gourmand' in English, no alternative to the French. It's not about greed, but about sensual enjoyment. I knew exactly what it meant, I could see the cat's delicate, yet rough tongue, smell the bowl of cream set before her, hear the softness of her paws on the kitchen lino. I had forgotten about the original intention; now it was simply another evocation of the power of words, of their satisfaction, something akin to the imagined delights of our birthday cakes.
Gourmande comme une chatte..the phrase stuck in my head as I wrote in my diary: 'Today, I started the Bluebell Club at school, to write stories. And at dinner for dessert we had chausson à la pomme, with lots of cream..Mmm.'
I had watched Maman making the pastry for the chausson, multi-leaved puff pastry, flaking delicately like skin. She kneaded and rolled it, her hands dimpling the pastry as if it were the soft fresh skin of a baby. Under the pale skin, you could see a yellow flush of butter, and the pastry, cool from its 'resting' in the fridge, sighed under the rolling pin. I asked Maman, "But why does it have to rest?" And she, seriously, her hands covered in flour, said, "It makes it better, you see, more beautiful." I watched the rolling, busy imagining a voice for the soft-skinned beauty on the table, hearing, in the sighs and gulps of air under the roller, a sweet cool plea, "let me rest, I'm tired, let me rest.."
Maman let me drape the drooping fold of pastry onto a dish, cover it with a cloth, and put it into the fridge. Again, another time, I see Dad at the table, a teatowel tied around his waist, carefully paring away the flesh from a duck's carcase. It's a couple of days before Christmas, and this dish will be the centrepiece of the Christmas table. In front of him, on a big white plate, there's already the deboned skin-and-flesh of a chicken. It looks like a cloak, a cool, pale pink, faintly gleaming cloak. Dad sees me watching, and smiles."I like doing this," he says."It's so slow, so perfect." At other times, I've been irritated, stunned, by Dad's need for perfection: my impatience is too much to be borne. But just at this moment, I understand. He wraps the duck (a loose, palely yellow, tweedy-dimpled coat) over the pinkness of chicken, and inside that, the pearly- pale green of young leeks. Deftly, he tucks and rolls. The roll of flesh and vegetable sits high above its steamer, gently cooking, sweating juices, and Dad says, "Go on, away you go, you make me nervous, hovering like that..'
So it's back to my diary and the words of description, rolling like buttery pastry and smooth duck flesh off the tip of my pen. I try out words: "opulent" in English,  "ruisselant" in French. That's one of my favourite words, ruisselant , has been ever since I first read that fairy tale where the good girl's words turn to diamonds and the bad girl's to toads. The book said that the diamonds 'ruisselaient' from the good girl's beautiful mouth. Streaming, I translate , not finding much joy in it. Ruisseler is better--in it, I can see the sparkle of water, the bright points of light, so like diamonds, on a stream. And I can hear it, too--the bustle of water, the bright morning sound of it. Streaming is good, too, in its way, showing movement, the languid infinity of water. I try the two words out, rolling them in my mouth as if they were sweets. No, not sweets--like hot chausson, covered in cream..
Even at the worst of teenage times, when shame at being a 'wog' made me defensive, I never forgot that I was gourmande. Something stronger than shame kept me interested in olives, and ratatouille, in home-made chips and our favourite goûter of two pieces of chocolate, jammed in between slices of bread. The smell of vegemite, its look, made me feel sick; juxtaposed with the pale flabby bread favoured by my schoolmates, it looked disgusting. I thought that the white sliced looked like slices of white thigh, a thought I kept to myself, since my friends had already told me that the bread we favoured looked like compressed cow dung. Sometimes, going to the supermarket with Maman, we would beg, S'il te pla..ait, when we passed such exoticisms as blue jelly crystals, green GI cordial, frozen chips, tinned sausages. We knew she'd snap Non! but we'd try, anyway, because sometimes, that way, you got the odd bottle of lemonade, the odd bar of chocolate. When we went into the city, rattling into the station on the old red trains, at Wynyard Maman would get up, smooth her skirt and say, "Bon. Who wants a doughnut?" What a question! At the counter in David Jones, we'd stand, noses pressed against the glass, while the girl rolled a doughnut for each of us--in cinammon and nutmeg and sugar. Behind the glass, there were also doughnuts with fairytale coverings--pink and blue icing, sprinkled with hundreds and thousands, or silver cachous. I did so want a blue one, with silver cachous. But like frill-top socks, and gold lamé dresses, which I also secretely longed for, they were beyond Maman's boundaries of taste, and I didn't even ask for them. The plain hot doughnut was delicious, anyway, although if like me, you were gourmande, and savoured it slowly, you risked getting it snatched out of your hand by a greedy younger child. Around us, the Food Hall stretched--long glass shelves, filled with jars of sweets; the coffee counter, where delicious smells billowed; the deep glass cases full of sausages, and salami, of ham and speck and bacon, where ladies with thick eastern European accents congregated; the beds of ice where fish rested--the brightness of haddock, the buffoonery of skate, the thick white flesh of flake."That's shark," my mother said, pointing at the flake, and earning a sharply disapproving glance from the woman behind the counter. Shark! I gazed in horror at the thick flesh, wondering, with a tightening of my skull, if that one had eaten people..And if it had, and you ate it, would that make you a cannibal? Ugh.. And I remember the times Dad brought back live chickens, or rabbits, saying, "We'll rear them,and eat them." It was alright, with chooks--you never got to know them, but rabbits! We had one we called Jeannot, and his passing is recorded in my diary with a terse, "Jeannot est mort." Jeannot is dead. I swore I wouldn't eat him, but when he was served up to table, he was no longer a pet but just a dish, a fragrant steaming dish of brown meat and mustard and cream. Camille, however, stuck to her guns, and for years afterwards Maman tried to fool her into eating rabbit."It's veal," she'd say. But Camille looked at her pityingly, and shook her head.
Dad had an idea, gleaned perhaps from the war, that chicken's blood was good for you--you meaning us children, of course, not him! So whenever he killed a chicken, he gathered the blood and then fried it into cakes, flavoured with onion. Sanquetous, he called it, a word derived from Southern patois. Ugh! it was like a combination of sponge and old leather, tasteless and revolting. I wrote in my diary, "Dad made sanquetous today.Ugh. Why doesn't he eat it, if it's so good for you?" The very look of that homely, plain, almost barbaric little word made me see the blood, spattering in the pan, flattening and hardening like lava. I loved boudin, black pudding, which of course is made of blood too; but it was poles apart from sanquetous.
Dad loves wild food. In the park, he'd gather pissenlit, dandelions,and make a peppery, bitter salad which I, for one, did not like. In France, he gathered mushrooms--much to my mother's wariness--and he complained loudly about how, in Australia (at the time) you couldn't eat kangaroo. I wrote disapprovingly in my diary, "Pissenlits again! even their name is horrible, and embarassing." It seemed unfair that you could get into trouble for saying 'pisser', yet the weed was allowed to flourish its piss-the-bed crudity in our salad bowls!
At school, there was a tuckshop to which once or twice a fortnight, we were allowed to go. There were cakes, and packets of chips, sandwiches and drinks, and I'd spend minutes in front of the display case, trying to choose. Sometimes, we could put a lunch order in, in a brown paper bag: One devon roll, one butterfly cake. It seemed the height of exoticism, to me. Especially the butterfly cake, with its wings of sugary, slight sponge and its thick white cream, unlike any we ever had at home. I knew Maman would sniff and say, not even real cream! So I licked the cream even more fervently, loath to admit that it didn't, indeed, have the same lush smoothness, the same depth to it as proper whipped cream. Sometimes I had a cream bun, too, their large shiny globes reminding me shamefacedly of one of the nuns at school, whose large round form ressembled one of those buns, a sweet she was particularly fond of. I wrote, in code, "She eats cream buns. And she is a cream bun!"
Like a gourmande, I drew up vocabulary lists, image lists, cheek by jowl with descriptions of food."Bizarre-- a beggar in patches," I wrote, before complaining, "Nothing special today, except that we had gigot, (lamb roast)with rosemary, and a tatine( Tarte Tatin or upside down apple tart).I had three pieces. I wish there was more."

Monday, February 11, 2013

South-west French menu frangourou style

As my family's from south-west France, I grew up with all the delicious things that characterise its culinary traditions--such as ducks, geese, herbs, garlic, corn, nuts--and the other day I decided to make a dinner which reflected those things but with added frangourou touches, and of course, sourced as much as possible from the garden and pantry. It would be built around a centrepiece of duck breasts done Gascon style, pan fried with a delicious pepper and Armagnac sauce.
Once upon a time, we used to keep Muscovy ducks here too in our New England fastness, and made confit and duck ham and cassoulet and so on frequently; but David got sick of keeping them--ducks are messy creatures, they breed prolifically so we were getting swamped with regiments of ducks that eventually had to be dispatched, plucked and prepared--not the most enjoyable of jobs. Plus the kids--and ourselves--got sick of the taste.
These days, as it's many years since we kept ducks, we're not sick of the taste any more and enjoy it when we have it on occasion. I've discovered that one of our local butchers( the same one we sourced the wild rabbit from) also sells duck breasts, two to a pack, that are considerably cheaper than you can buy them in the supermarkets. They're from Australian-bred free range ducks,delicious, very tender, with a good coating of the rich fatty skin that gives duck its particular flavour. (And lest you think it can't be good for you, let me just quote this statistic I read once:France has the lowest rate of heart disease in the OECD--and south west France, which eats so much duck and goose fat, has the lowest rate in France!)
So here's the menu:
Entrée: Herb and garlic soup
Ingredients: handful chopped lettuce, half-handful chopped sorrel, chopped herbs according to taste--I made a mix of lots of different ones we have in the garden, including sage, tarragon, thyme, garlic chives and chives; three or four large sliced garlic cloves, plus an extra one to put in at last minute. Stock, a little butter or olive oil, splash white wine.
Fry the 3-4 sliced garlic cloves, add the herbs, lettuce, sorrel. Stir. Add a little salt and pepper. Add splash of wine, stock. Cook for about 20 minutes, add last garlic clove(sliced or chopped) in last few minutes. Optional: Serve with slice of home-made bread fried in the duck fat, or in olive oil.
Main: Meat: Gascon-style duck breasts in pepper and Armagnac sauce(you can substitute cognac or brandy for the Armagnac if you don't have any)
Score the duck breast skin in a criss-cross pattern; push in peppercorns(green is best) into some of the score marks, rub with a bit of salt. If you have duck fat to cook these in, so much the better--if not use olive oil. Fry the breasts skin side down first, on a not-too hot stove, till the skin is golden(about 10 minutes), then turn and cook on the other side, about 5-6 mins depending on thickness. Duck should not be overcooked but should be still pink and juicy inside. In last minute or so, pour out most of the fat from the pan(keep to use for cooking chips, croutons, vegs and the like, it's delicious and keeps well in the fridge). Splash in the Armagnac into the pan, swirl around, then serve the breasts warm.
Main: vegetables: Fresh fennel stewed with thyme, fresh  sweet corn with tarragon. The latter is a frangourou touch-in south west France, though maize meal and flour is used a lot in cooking, sweet corn is unknown--and people never eat corn on the cob, that is considered food for the ducks, geese and pigs! But our gorgeous garden sweet corn would make those prejudices vanish, I'm sure!
For the fennel, simply chop it up in small pieces, fry briefly in some olive oil, add salt, pepper, good lot of thyme and one bay leaf. Add water to just cover, simmer till fennel is soft. For the corn, boil cobs till done(only 1 minute or so), then scrape all the corn off the cobs, swirl in a bit of butter, salt, and chopped tarragon.
Dessert: Hazelnut quatre-quarts(a simple butter cake), with coffee cream, decorated with pralined almonds and crystallised violets from Toulouse(the latter optional of course!)
Quatre-quarts is a plain simple butter cake, a classic French family cake. It's called quatre quarts, or four quarters, because it's made up of four equal parts of eggs, butter, sugar and flour. Only in this case I replaced half the flour with hazelnut meal. You need either 4 small eggs or three medium ones, 150 g melted unsalted butter, 150 g castor sugar, 150 g self raising flour(or in this case 75 g SR flour and 75 g hazelnut meal) . Beat the whole eggs together, adding sugar, till light and frothy. Fold in the melted butter alternatively with the flour/meal mixture. When completely mixed in, pour into a greased round cake tin. Cook in a 180 degree C oven(350 F) for 35 mins. Top and sides should be nicely golden brown. Cool cake on rack then when quite cold spread with whipped cream flavoured with some sweet coffee. Meanwhile, while cake was cooling, I'd also made some pralined almonds, using slivered almonds, caramelised in a pan with sugar and a tiny bit water, till they are golden brown, crunchy and delicious(they need to be completely cooled down before putting on the cream.) The finishing touch was the speciality that I always bring back whenever I visit the beautiful ancient city, Toulouse, that was my home as a young child--crystallised violets. But of course you can use whatever you like or simply leave with the pralined almond and coffee cream top.
Bon appétit--or bon apetís, as it's said in Occitan, the old language of the Toulouse region!