3 months later: La Chef de Rang

When my family asks me how my new job is going, I often respond with the words “I could write a book about what goes on here.”

About a year ago I came across this meme during my internet wanderings:

What I do

It was only a few months before I began my internship in the kitchen, and I thought to myself, “It can’t possibly be like that.”

But I’m here to tell you; it is.

In France, working in the restaurant-hospitality business is known as being en service; literally “in service” and in fact, we are servants of a sort. Servants to the omnipresent Chef who watches and sees all. Servants to the clients, servants to the vacation periods and holidays that descend upon us with their last-minute preparations. The days are long, 12 hours if I’m lucky and while a few of you out there might be saying “I work a 12 hour day,” you probably don’t do it all on your feet with a smile permanently fixed on your lips while keeping track of sixteen different tasks you have on hand and your boss muttering orders in your ear.

If you do: my sympathies.

Maybe it sounds like I’m complaining. Maybe it sounds like I don’t like being la chef de rang. Neither are true. But to say that the job is high stress is an understatement.

So what do the head chefs, the commis chefs, the maître d’hôte, and the servers do at the end of the day?

We drink.

This is the main decorative feature in my apartment.

This is the main decorative feature in my apartment.

I’ve seen my colleagues put away magnums of wine before dinner service commences, the Chef and his 4 friends drink 8 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of champagne. One morning a commis arrived and downed a pint of beer before he’d even turned on the ovens.  I myself have stumbled home at 6 am after an all-nighter, swearing that I have to stop partying like I’m 21 and act my age, only to go out the next week and start all over again. This is a typical work week. All done in the name of bad coping skills in the face of emotional and physical exhaustion.

On the other hand, there’s a certain amount of camaraderie you find with your colleagues. It’s impossible to work with people you don’t get along with, for as one of my colleagues put it: we spend more time with each other than we do with anyone else. So you learn a lot about tolerance, a lot about patience, and a lot about how to have an argument one night only to turn up the next day and give your boss an affectionate peck on the cheek.

And you learn to deal with the fatigue, the stress, the aching “smile” muscles, how to balance your personal life with your work life when your career takes up 90% of your waking hours. It’s something that I’ve struggled with in the past three months, falling into bed in between shifts barely finding time to call my husband in Toulon let alone do the things that bring me pleasure.  I can’t promise that I have it all figured out, especially with a city-wide festival coming up in one month and tourism season starting right after. I can’t promise I’ll be blogging regularly, but I’m hoping that I can start sharing food, wine, and stories here once again.

There was the woman who thought it was perfectly acceptable to bring her aggressive dog into a crowded restaurant, for instance. Or the day a head chef decided I should do a strip tease on the bar which resulted in my all-male colleagues chanting à poil* until Chef walked in and asked what the heck was going on.  Or how many of our clients believe I’m married to the maître d’hôte for some inexplicable reason.

Like I said, I could write a book…

*à poil = get naked

A Foreigner in France, Restaurants , , , , , ,

To Arles and a New Year:

By the time you read this, I will be gone.

Arles, Old Centre Ville,

Arles, Old Centre Ville

By gone, I mean gone to Arles.

A few weeks ago I was offered a position as Chef de Rang (way less posh than it sounds) at the restaurant of a very well-known chef. Thus, once again this year and for the last time – mostly because the year only has two weeks left – I’ve packed up and moved: this time to Arles.

Arles is in Provence, situated about halfway between Marseille and Avignon. It’s an old city, and by old I mean there’s one of these 500 meters from my new apartment :

They still do bullfights here.

They still hold bullfights here.

An ancient Roman amphitheater.

It was founded by the Romans in B.C. something and was one of the most important cities in ancient Gaul. Even more important than Marseille because of its location on the Rhône river which gave the Romans easy access to the rest of the region around it. After Nice it is probably one of the oldest cities in France.

streets2 (2)

Today Arles is still known for its ruins, but it’s also known for its gastronomic specialties such as bull, rice and salt. If you’ve ever heard of rice or salt from Camargue – that’s Arles.

If you’re into art, the city was made famous by Van Gogh who lived and painted some of his most famous works in the city, including this one.

Café la Nuit by Vincent Van Gogh

Café la Nuit by Vincent Van Gogh

The Café la Nuit still exists by the way. It’s around the corner from me at the Place du Forum.

Café la Nuit today

Café la Nuit today

Place du Forum

Place du Forum

Two things often catch me and most Americans when they come to a city as old as Arles. The first is how small everything is. The city center on a map might look large but in reality you can walk from one end to the other and back in about fifteen minutes. The streets are barely wide enough for the smallest of sedans and two-way traffic? Hahaha. Don’t even think about it. They probably wouldn’t even qualify as alleyways by American standards. In fact, Arles isn’t even really a city in terms of population – it’s a medium-sized town that feels like a city only because of how compact and on-top-of-each-other everything is.

hotel ville2 (2)

streets4 (2)

The other thing that surprises people is how outwardly ugly these cities can be. Don’t get me wrong, they each have their charm, especially in summer when the city officials kick it into high gear cleaning the place up for the influx of tourists, but the rest of the year when it’s grey and cold (because the Mistral blows nearly everyday and it does get cold in Provence) it’s not exactly the most fetching of places. Don’t be alarmed. Remember that people have been living here, squashed together on streets that haven’t changed since they were first paved for millenia. Literally.

Tiny streets

Tiny streets

That’s bound to cause a little ugliness. Let’s face it, we’re not the cleanest of species.

But, Arles can still be charming. The little street my apartment is on, is one example.

window (2)

So, if you haven’t looked it up by now, you’re probably wondering what a Chef de Rang is. It has absolutely nothing to do with cooking, if that’s what your thinking. In plain terms a Chef de Rang is a server. But this isn’t your 30-pieces of flair* type of service. This is shoe polish, manicures and white napkins over the arm type of service. Remember the opening to Downton Abbey where you see the butler in white gloves measuring the place settings for exact distance and continuity? I was given a pair of white gloves to wear when folding the napkins and I swear, the Maître d’ has a ruler.

It’s that kind of place.

I'm not this guy.

I’m not this guy.

It’s a prestigious beginning for me as I’ve decided to pursue further training as a sommelier. Working for a Michelin starred chef is nothing to sneeze at and it’s not easy to fall into an opportunity like this the way I did.

more ruins

more ruins

The downside is that I’m working twelve hours days. I start at 9:30am and I finish at 11:30pm (there’s a two-hour break in between). The other downside is that France’s internet providers are rather… slow… at setting up internet for new clients.

So what I’m trying to say is that this blog is going to be on the back burner until well-after the New Year. Blogging takes a lot of time… any blogger will tell you. Writing, photography, editing, formating, the process can take hours. And for now, I just won’t have the time or energy (or the internet) for it.

rhone (2)

Thus I leave you with good wishes for a New Year as I settle into yet another adventure in French gastronomy.

And a photo of the little Christmas tree that I found under my sink.

 tree (2)

*Kudos to you if you got the reference to Office Space. If you didn’t, go download or netflix that movie immediately. Immediately.

A Foreigner in France, Restaurants, Travels , , , , , , ,

Winter Warmers: Chocolate and Tahini Cookies

plated2I wanted to show you photos from Arles, the landlocked city south of Avignon to where I’m moving for work. However, the past two attempts I’ve arrived on mornings that were blistering cold and couldn’t work up the motivation to stand still and take photographs. It’s much easier to run around from one apartment hunting appointment to the next.

It’s not usually this cold in France. Well, it’s not usually this cold in Provence. Well, it’s not usually this cold in Toulon in late autumn. It’s been downright freezing and windy the past week and it comes as a double shock, because not only has the temperature dropped to freezing or close to it, but two weeks ago it was in the low 70°S (20°s in Celsius).

Therefore, I’m cold. When I arrived in Arles last Thursday there was ice – honest – ice! – melting on the sidewalk and one of the real estate agents spent our walk to an apartment telling me about the snow that had fallen and thankfully, melted, the night before.

“Il était tout blanc! Vraiment étonnant.”*

Sugary, buttery, eggy better is always the start of something good.

Sugary, buttery, eggy better is always the start of something good.

I looked with some trepidation over at the rushing river and wondered how I’m going to go running before work, in the dark, and keep myself from falling into the Rhône.

upclose doughMaybe it’s due to the cold that I’ve become obsessed with cookies. You probably already know about my obsession with ice cream. I’m always ready for ice cream to the point of getting nervous when the freezer is running low. But lately I’ve been craving cookies, any and all cookies. Peanut butter, chocolate chip, chocolate chip with raisins, chocolate chip with walnuts, chocolate with Nutella and cranberries and these: chocolate and tahini.

What’s the connection with cold weather and cookies? I believe it’s the oven. First we have the preheat. It’s not very exciting, but it’s the anticipation of knowing the next time I turn to the oven, possibly lean up against the door to test it, I’ll feel a little bit of warm. Then there’s the moment I put the cookies in the oven. A wave of heat hits my face, fogs up my glasses as I slide the cookie sheet into the fire and know that in just ten minutes I’ll have delicious, soft cookies hot from the oven.

Oven anticipation

Oven anticipation

And finally there is the moment after those ten minutes have passed. It’s the moment of the first taste. We all know we should wait until the cookies have cooled slightly, have had time to set, but screw that, I want my fresh, hot, melting cookie. It burns my mouth and it burns my stomach and the combination of butter, sugar, and chocolate all hot and melty makes me forget that it’s freezing outside.

snowman1This particular cookie recipe is unique as the tahini cuts into the sweetness of the cookie, but tahini isn’t salty so it’s not your traditional sweet-salted combination. Instead we have something that is sweet with a touch of savory, a real savory not a biting walnut or tart raisin savory. I also like this recipe because of the unsweetened cocoa powder. It’s organic and actually supposed to be used for hot chocolate but the box said it was “suitable for baking too” like it was an afterthought that people might bake with cocoa powder. So I don’t know if that had changed my mental perception of the product or if this cocoa powder is truly different, but the cookies have a very light, almost milk chocolate taste that does in fact, make me think of hot chocolate.

Which, in a cookie, is just awesome.

If you hadn’t guessed, the diet I mentioned in my last entry is not going well. Nevertheless, it’s going to be a cookie winter. Because cookies are wonderful. And cold is not.

I’m going back to Arles this week. And then I’m moving there the week after. So at some point, I will have photos along with more to say other than “It was really cold.”

plated1

*It was all white. Really surprising.

Chocolate and Tahini Cookies
Author: 
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12 cookies
 
Sweet chocolate cookies with a savory tahini swirl. Makes 12-15 cookies
Ingredients
  • 65g butter
  • 120g sugar
  • 1 medium egg
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 ½ tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder*
  • 125g all purpose flour
  • 1 – 1.5 tbsp tahini
  • 20g dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
Instructions
  1. Preaheat oven to 180°C/350°F. In a food processor or large mixing bowl with a hand mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and cocoa powder and mix again until you have a homogenous batter. Then add the baking soda and baking powder and salt and give it another quick mix just to stir them in. Then add the flour and mix just until the flour is completely blended and the dough starts to stick together. Now add the chocolate chip pieces and blend, or stir by hand until just mixed.
  2. Finally add the tahini. Using a teaspoon, drizzle the tahini on top of the dough and gently swirl it through the dough like you would a cake batter. The idea is to have a kind of swirl going on so that it doesn’t completely mix into the dough.
  3. Unfortunately, while this makes a good cookie, it’s a pain to dish out. So use a teaspoon and one hand to create little balls of dough and plop them at large intervals onto a lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes. Let cool just enough to set – a minute or two – before digging in.
Notes
*try and find something you’d make hot chocolate with, if possible.

A Foreigner in France, Recipes , , , , , , , ,

When bake-offs become reality: Tarte Tatin

Le Tarte Tatin

Le Tarte Tatin

A few years ago France finally embraced the FoodTV craze and began broadcasting shows like TopChef and MasterChef. Before that there was les Escapades de Petitrenaud (a seriously amusing show), a few cooking shows here and there and Un Dîner Presque Partfait on M6. The news of course included any – news – about food that was important, usually featuring a recipe or new trend a few times a week. Each year’s new publication of the Michelin Guide is anticipated like the Oscar picks. But that’s about it. There were no serious cooking competitions. Not like Iron Chef, Chopped, Cutthroat Kitchen, TopChef, MasterChef, Hell’s Kitchen, TopChef Kids, TopChef Masters, TopChef Cat Edition: Menu Meow. Did I miss any?

I made that last one up.

But now, the cooking competitions are everywhere. With a bit of a twist. France would

Courtesy of M6.

Courtesy of M6.

never throw together bakers, pastry chefs and cooks or cuisiniers in the same show. No no. They are all three very different mediums. And thus, each gets it’s own competition. So while MasterChef only airs on Friday nights on TF1, Monday’s I can sit down to watch Le Meilleur Pâtissier Amateur de la France (translation: the Best Amateur Pastry Chef in France) on M6.

This might sound interesting, and at times it is. But mostly it’s watching a bunch of people watch things bake in an oven. Which, let’s face it, is half of what pastry is all about.

On the other hand, it’s probably the most deadly show ever to watch when you’re out of work and have nothing to do, because it starts giving you ideas. Ideas like “I should make 100 French macarons” or “I could really go for cookies,” or “That tarte tatin sounds so good right about now.”

I know, it's two apple recipes in a row. I'm sorry.

I know, it’s two apple recipes in a row. I’m sorry.

And thus, despite telling my husband every day that I’m going on a diet, I found myself with a tarte tatin.

What is a tarte tatin?

It starts with apples and a dough ball

It starts with apples and a dough ball

It’s quite possible you’ve heard and/or seen one. If you haven’t don’t worry. It’s just apple pie.

However, it’s a bit more complicated than apple pie. For one thing, the French don’t put tops on their pies. I don’t know why, but they seem to think it’s weird and would never consider it. For another thing the crust isn’t sweetened (though it is buttery) and finally it’s covered in caramel and cooked upside down.

This is what the contestants were staring at for thirty minutes

This is what the contestants were staring at for thirty minutes

The last part causes more than a bit of stress for the baker/pastry chef. The point of a tarte tatin is to have a crust that is golden and crispy while the apples are at once, completely caramelized and melted with a very structured, perfectly circular, plateau-like presentation. But because it’s cooked upside down, you can’t actually get at the apples to check if they are done and that they’re cooking flat until you finish baking the pie and flip it over. You can try, like I did, but you’ll end up breaking and deforming the crust.

But there's caramel

But there’s caramel

Or you can cheat, like I also did, and slice your apples super thin.

I have to say that for a first attempt at the tarte tatin, I’m pretty pleased. The drawback to slicing the apples as thin as I did that the pie became rather flat. It still tasted good and it looks like a tarte tatin is supposed to look – especially from the top – but it’s a bit thin. A good apple tarte should have a bit of height to it; from the crust, but mostly from the apples.

And then more apples

And then more apples

If you happen to be afraid of homemade caramel – if you happen to get distracted rolling out your crust and end up with a crunchy caramel – never fear. As long as you don’t burn it, it’s fine, because it all evens out in the baking.

There’s the added bonus of of gratification, a feeling of accomplishment when you flip it over and discover that you’ve succeeded. It’s like the reveal when you pull the cloche off of a fancy entrée. You can’t help but smile.

It smells like pie...

It smells like pie…

And then dig in.

Luckily, in a few weeks I won’t find myself in the position of nothing to do. In fact, I’ll probably never see the TV again, because I’ve been offered a job in Arles. This is good for my sanity, my wallet, and my waistline.

More about that sometime in the future.

And that's what was left a day later...

And that’s what was left a day later…

Tarte Tatin or French Apple Pie
Author: 
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: France
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6
 
French apple pie or apple tarte. Very soft, caramel apples and a butter crust.
Ingredients
  • 150g all purpose flour
  • 75g butter, in small pieces, room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp sugar (if you can’t live without it)
  • 40 ml milk OR water*
  • 3-4 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, deseeded, sliced into chunks.
  • 75-90g butter
  • 100g sugar
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.
  2. For the crust: In a mixing bowl add your flour and salt (and sugar), and using your fingers or a pastry cutter mix the butter into the flour until you get a crumbly mixture. You want the butter to be cut in as fine as possible, but don’t expect the dough to stick together. That’s what the milk or water is for. Mix those in now and knead for 2-3 minutes until you get a nice homogenous dough. Cover in plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge until ready to use.
  3. Or you can roll it out right away, getting it ready for the tarte. You want it to be pretty thin, but not paper thin. Think omlet crust thinness – about ⅛ inch. The best way to roll out your crust is on a piece of wax paper. It makes the process of putting it over the apples so much easier later on.
  4. Get your apples ready to go, if you haven’t already. Set aside.
  5. In a frying pan melt the butter and sugar until you have a nice brown caramel. It’ll smell like a bakery. Using a wooden or rubber spatula mix then two to make sure the caramel is homogenous. Don’t worry if there are some lumps or brittle pieces, just make sure you don’t burn it.
  6. IF you’re using a cast iron pan that can go in the oven, simply lay your apple slices on top of the caramel in a pretty swirl. Then put some more on. If you’re using a pie tin or something different, pour the caramel in, be sure you don’t burn yourself in the process, and then line the pan with your apples.
  7. Place the uncooked pastry crust over the apples and tuck in the sides to it looks like a pie crust with nothing inside. Or a pie top I guess. Cut a tiny, tiny hole in the middle to let the air circulate through and bake 40-50 minutes until the crust is crispy and golden brown. When the tarte is very close to done, the caramel will start to appear, bubbling on the sides of the crust. If it looks like there is too much liquid, never fear. Very carefully, very gently and without breaking the crust, hold the tarte down and pour some of the liquid into the sink or trash.
  8. When done, remove from the oven and let cool and set for about 10 minutes. Then flip it over.
  9. Enjoy with ice cream. Or more caramel. Or pumpkin butter. Or coffee.
Notes
*Milk or water: it’s totally up to you. I used almond milk because it was sitting in my fridge and I never get through it before it goes bad. So go with your gut on this one.

 

A Foreigner in France, Recipes , , , , , , , ,

Les Pompiers have nothing to do with Apple Cake II

DSC00130I was once again at a loss for something to write about this week when providence struck. It is after all, almost the holiday season. The ski stations are getting ready to open, the crazy perfume commercials are starting to make a timid appearance on television before they start their all out onslaught in December straight through to Valentine’s day and Beaujolais Nouveau day is on Thursday.

Beaujolais Nouveau actually has nothing to do with the holiday season.

But the local pompiers do.

DSC00121

Pompier is French for fireman. Don’t get them confused with pamplemousse, like I did my first year in France because if you tell people you have to call the grapefruit they will think you are a fruit. Never fear, my husband once confused the English word avocado with the French word for lawyer: avocat. That was a crazy New Years.

Each year, to kick off the holiday season les Pompiers go door to door brandishing , not axes or firefighting gear or asking if your cat is OK, but calendars. That’s right calendars. Which for a nominal donation they will give you your calendar for the coming year, a receipt that names you a friend of your local fire department, and a handshake and best wishes for a bonne fête.

DSC00084

My first year in France, I was home alone when the pompiers arrived, but I was prepared. Peter Mayle mentions this yearly ritual in his masterwork A Year in Provence. I was excited. I gave them 20 Euros. They were excited. My husband returned home and I told him about the firemen.

“You gave them 20 Euros!!!” His jaw dropped.

“Yeah!”

“5 Euros is typically the maximum.”

DSC00088

“Oh.”

Well, Americans are known for over-tipping in Europe anyway, aren’t they?

Unfortunately, I think there’s a reason for these low and somewhat depressing donations. The content of the calendars are boring. Photos of equipment abound: trucks and hoses, the planes to collect sea water that gets dumped on the summer brush fires, fireproof jackets, axes and helmets are all good things to have. But where’s the beefcake? Aren’t firefighters supposed to be physically fit with cool tattoos? That’s what I want to see. And as I said to my husband when I flipped through this years’ calendar, even without a job I’d be willing to give a bit more money for a bit more beefcake.

So Pompiers de la France, take a hint. Sex sells. This is France after all.

DSC00094

In conclusion, I made apple cake.

What intrigued me about this recipe, found once again in the latest issue of Saveurs (French edition) is that there is no butter. Only oil, milk and a whole lot of eggs.

DSC00097

It’s a super simple recipe. Almost too simple. But that isn’t really a bad thing as that leaves a ton of room for improvement. My husband suggested more apple than the four small ones I used. I proposed walnuts and even replacing the oil with butter – maybe a half and half kind of a thing.

DSC00115

It was super light, super moist and actually got better after a day out on the counter. I recommend giving this one a go when you need an easy and very adaptable cake for a holiday party. Preferably one your mother-in-law tells you about at the last minute.

Apple Cake II
Author: 
Recipe type: Cake
Cuisine: French
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6
 
Super moist and simple apple cake that can easily be adapted and improved on.
Ingredients
  • 4-6 medium to large apples
  • 4 eggs
  • 150 g powdered sugar
  • 170 g flour
  • 1 packet (about 2 tsp) baking powder
  • 3 tbsp neutral oil
  • 4 tbsp milk
  • some powdered sugar for sprinkling
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C
  2. Peel and cut the apples into small, thin slices. Set aside. Maybe add a little bit of lemon juice to keep them from browning if you desire.
  3. In a large bowl beat the eggs and sugar until it whitens: if you’re doing this by hand it’s going to take about 10-15 minutes. Get that elbow grease going. Add the flour and baking powder and mix just until homogeneous. Then add the milk and the oil and mix until you have a smooth shiny batter.
  4. In a greased cake tin, pour in some of the batter – about half – then add half the apples. Pour the last half of the batter on top and then add the rest of the apples. It’s going to seem like ALOT of apple, but it’s all good. Trust me.
  5. Cook 30-40 minutes. The top should be nicely browned when done.
  6. Let cool and powder the top with a bit of sugar. Serve.

 

A Foreigner in France, Recipes , , , , ,

Stuffed Acorn Squash is nothing in particular

DSC00042I spent a long time coming up with something to say this week. I even wrote a long ranting entry on what happened at the prefecture last week when I went to renew my visa. Hint: Bullet proof glass, lots of paper shuffling and a woman who, despite speaking with me in French for 10 minutes, asked me if I was ready to have an interview in French.

Let’s just take a moment to pray that I am given my 10 year residency permit this year, because something might get torched if I have to do this again.

Sounds drastic? How about this photo I dug up on my husband’s old computer from my first week in France four years ago?

This was outside our first apartment.

This was outside our first apartment.

I was told that this is a common and therefore “acceptable”* form of protest.

NaNoWriMo is rolling along. The weather has finally turned from early autumn to “hey it might be December in three weeks!” and I’m waiting for Beaujolais Nouveau day to roll around so that I can go out with my other ex-pat friends and boire jusqu’à je ne peux plus boire.+

Grenadine and persimmon not included in this recipe.

Grenadine and persimmon not included in this recipe.

I’ve been playing with photography and experimenting with textiles and lighting. So far, success is elusive. As you can see.

That’s really it.

So I bring you Acorn Squash, which doesn’t get enough play.

This isn't your average acorn squash.

This isn’t your average acorn squash.

Yeah, yeah, we know you can roast it in the oven with a knob of butter and some cinnamon and nutmeg and it’s very tasty. Acorn squash tends to be a bit sweeter, a bit nuttier, almost bordering on chestnut quality taste, so the butter, the cinnamon play off that, creating a kind of sweet side during dinner. But I wanted to use that sweetness by combining it with savory flavors.

stuffing

Bulgur and spinach and tomatoes and onions and smoked Toulouse Sausage. That about sums it up. These things make a perfectly acceptable meal on their own; they make a warm healthy and filling bulgur-type salad. Acorn squash makes a perfectly acceptable side to something. I was worried these flavors would not match, but we were pleasantly surprised. Bulgur has that comforting homey wheat flavor and the smoked sausage adds an extra layer of savory, while the vegetables just add vegetable freshness.

sausage!!!

I always want to add some sort of snide sausage remark here.

This was the first time my husband had eaten acorn squash. He’s one of those people who likes vegetables but is very suspicious when I bring home a new one. However, he liked this meal and the squash so much that he literally scraped the skin of the squash completely clean. I have to say, I felt a little proud. Of me.

prep work

Next week, or in a few days, whichever, I’ll try to come up with something more interesting. For now, enjoy your acorn squash and your autumn.

*acceptable meaning they don’t look to hard for the culprits

+drink until I can’t drink any more

DSC00082

Stuffed Acorn Squash
Author: 
Recipe type: Main, Dinner
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2
 
It’s stuffed squash! Nothing is better for the autumn.
Ingredients
  • 1 acorn squash
  • 120g fine bulgur
  • 240g vegetable stock
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 100g spinach, chopped (I used frozen, but fresh is obvious better)
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2-4 cloves garlic
  • 2 small Toulouse sausages
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Some shredded cheese (optional)
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 220°C/420°F. Cut open acorn squash and empty the insides. Peel and pierce the garlic cloves. Rub some olive oil on the inside of the squash, place the garlic inside, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and wrap in tinfoil. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the squash is tender and easy to pierce with a fork.
  2. In the meantime, boil up the vegetable stock and cook the bulgur. Mine takes literally 5 minutes, but I’ve read elsewhere it can take up to 20. Basically until cooked and soft like couscous. Add spinach, onion, and tomato and mix. Cover tightly to keep warm. You can add salt and pepper if you want, but with the stock, it shouldn’t be necessary.
  3. In another medium sized pot, bring water to a boil and boil the sausages for about 15 minutes. The cooking time will depend on the size of the sausage, but 15 is usually pretty good for the smaller ones. (Stop laughing, you child, you.) Drain water and chop up the sausage, then add to the bulgur.
  4. Once the squash is done, remove them from the oven, and pack your bulgur, veggie, sausage stuffing into the squash. You can really smash it in; it’s more fun like that. There will be plenty of stuffing left over, either serve on the side or keep for another day. Top with a little bit of shredded cheese, if you like (I used Emmental cheese, but mozzarella, parmesan or cheddar would all work). Wrap the stuffed squash back in the tinfoil and bake another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm.
  5. A Sauvignon blanc or light light Pinot noir would both probably work here. Maybe a Chardonnay. Think Burgundy.

 

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Sometimes you just need a pumpkin cupcake.

DSC00032

Pumpkin Cupcakes, the easy way.

It’s November. That’s pretty heavy autumn. In some places they’re getting into winter. I heard there was snow in parts of the States. But here in Provence, the weather is still warm. 17-21°C in fact. That’s the mid to high 60’s, low 70’s for those of you not using Celcius. Only today, out of the past three weeks, has it rained and the temperature dropped to a reasonable 14°C which means I can pull out a light sweater but not have to wear a jacket, except for fashion purposes.

I can’t really complain. It’s raining but I get to stay home in my apartment, snug as a bug. I don’t even have to go running if I don’t want to get wet. There’s an elliptical machine by the window, all set up for use. There’s no “case of the Mondays for me,” no office to run to, no colleagues to deal with. I’m just listening to music, finishing off that second cup of coffee and wondering what to have for lunch.

Such is the non-explicit, semi-positive, non-despairing life of the unemployed. It sounds ideal when you don’t take bills, loans, and mortgages into consideration.

Cupcake batter and pumpkin butter swirl. Batter is better.

Cupcake batter and pumpkin butter swirl. Batter is better.

On a more positive note, November is National Novel Writing Month and I’m once again participating, albeit at a much slower and more thoughtful pace than the 100,000 word monster-mess that I wrote in 2011 and is now in the re-write phase. For those of you who like to write out there, it’s only November 5th and not too late to start. I love NaNo because the community spirit is motivating and inspiring. A welcome change from the drudgery and isolation that is part of being a writer.  Sans-emploi, I’m free to spend my November writing away and enjoying the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the world doing the same thing. It’s nice to be part of a team again.

Not very upbeat, today. Are we? You might be thinking right now.

Blame it on the rain.

Sometimes you just need a cupcake to keep yourself going. These are made with pumpkin butter from Trader Joe’s that I smuggled back into France and allspice. I dipped them in chocolate, because it’s raining and it’s chocolate.

Staring Trader Joe's. They should move to France.

Staring Trader Joe’s. They should move to France.

The pumpkin butter was sweeter than I expected and though really good, I was afraid they would have that teeth-hurting sweetness that is alright the first bite but then after just sickening. They did – just a tiny, tiny bit – but that was the beauty of dipping them in dark chocolate. That cut down on the sweetness by supplying a touch of bitter cocoa taste. And when it cooled it gave a nice variation to the texture. Craquant as the French say.

And that’s today. Cupcakes, rain, and words.

They didn't last long.

They didn’t last long.

Pumpkin Cupcakes With Chocolate
Author: 
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12
 
Pumpkin cupcakes adapted from http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2008/11/pumpkin-cupcakes/
Ingredients
  • 60g butter
  • 135g granulated sugar
  • 125g flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • ⅓ cup milk
  • 4 tbsp Pumpkin butter
  • About ½ tablet of dark chocolate, as high in cocoa as you like
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 175°C/350°F Butter up your cupcake tin or line it with liners. Set aside.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
  3. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, all spice, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.
  4. Add egg to the butter, sugar mixture and beat until smooth and light. Alternately add the flour and milk, mixing all the while to keep the batter smooth, beginning and ending with the flour. Add in the pumpkin butter and beat just until the batter is homogenous.
  5. Scoop the batter into the cupcake tin, about ¾ full each. Bake about 20 minutes or a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool.
  6. Start a water bath for your chocolate. Melt in the water bath. Dip the tops of the cooled cupcakes and swirl around a bit to get the chocolate to cover the entire top. Cool completely. Enjoy with rain.
  7. Makes 12 small cupcakes

 

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Comfort is: Pasta with Tomato, Sausage, and Fennel

air shotNow that I’ve graduated, I find myself in that not-so-fun purgatory of the Job Search. I can’t imagine anything more tedious, frustrating, or disheartening in the entire first world. Especially right now in France when the unemployment rate is 12.5% and climbing. Often, I want to put more than just a cake in the oven: then I remember my oven is not gas, and did that ever work for anyone, anywhere, anyway?

Probably not.

So the next best thing is comfort food.

Cat photo bomb.

Cat photo bomb.

I’ve already waxed not-so-poetic on comfort food before. It’s as simple as macaroni and cheese or homemade garlic mashed potatoes. One of my favorite comfort foods is pasta with tomato sauce and lots of garlic. It’s easy, it’s adaptable and as I find myself with more than enough time on my hands these days, it’s also fun to dress up.

dough ballLike my cats, I need to knead something in order to reassure myself that all is right with the world, even when it isn’t because someone just turned the vacuum cleaner on. (The vacuum here would be the job search) There’s nothing more satisfying in my mind than sticking my hands in some dough. It doesn’t matter what kind of dough: cookie, brioche, pasta, bread. If I can roll it in my palms and press it into a “floured surface” I’m happy. At least for the time being.

So with lots of time, the need to knead,and a craving for comfort food, I turned to homemade pasta which I wish I had the patience to make all the time because the boxed stuff just doesn’t compare.

veggies

Recently, I came across Lemon and Anchovies recipe for pasta with braised fennel, chicken sausage, and tomatoes. It’s a mix of seasons: I’ve always considered fennel an autumn vegetable – though correct me if I’m wrong – and tomatoes are a summer thing. I like mixing seasons, especially now when the weather is still caught between summer and autumn despite the calendar being well into October.

DSC09990

Though she gets full credit for the idea, I wasn’t interested in following her recipe exactly. For one thing, chicken sausage? If I went to the butcher and asked for that he’d come back with “What’s wrong with pork?” and for another, I really wanted to try a sauce.

sauce success?I’m not sure if I would call the sauce a success or not. It didn’t really look like a sauce and wound up more like a marinade. But when I poured it over the pasta, it was soaked right up and the spaghetti took on great, tangy and smokey flavor, light enough that it didn’t cover the flavor of the homemade noodles. So it’s not what I wanted, but it turned out a success in other ways.

The fennel added a licorice sweetness, tempering the acidity of the sauce and adding an extra layer of flavor. This dish wasn’t just pasta and tomato sauce any more.

paswineWith it, I drank a Malbec AOC Touraine from the Loire. It was recommended to me by my new favorite caviste in Toulon when I asked him for something different to discover. I had no idea Touraine grows Malbec grapes, though I’ve had more than a few bottles of the Bordeaux version. This was velvety with a deep, rich nose of black fruits. Again black fruit hit you with the attack, the developed into a bit of black pepper and spices – typical Loire – and then ended with smooth tobacco and leather flavors. I was worried it wouldn’t pair well with the pasta – tomato sauce and red wine are near impossible to match. It wasn’t the most orthodox pairing in the world, but it handled the acidity of the tomatoes and smokey sausage without losing its own flavors.

Making pasta and sauce takes time. Eating it takes less. But both provided a comfort for this wandering soul for an evening.

pastrand

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Gastronomy is: Bagel Sandwiches

Bagels stackedIf you’re like me you love Mel Brooks. If you know me, you know I love Mel Brooks. Despite the fact that he made my maiden name famous and now the Schwartz is always with me, I love his farces and parodies. One of my favorite movies of all time, one I can watch over and over is Robin Hood Men in Tights. Mostly because I think Carey Elwes is hot. Remember that line where Rabbi Tuckman says Robin and Marion are made for each other? “I mean what a combination! Loxley and Bahgel! It can’t miss!” That’s what goes through my head every time I eat a bagel.

So yeah… bagels.

DSC09953

France consumes more bread than any other country in the world and they are proud of it. The numbers of baguettes per household far surpass any other household anywhere. Visit a bakery one day in a small French village. People order two, three, four baguettes for one day. People eat bread along side pasta. It’s an obsession. There are boules, ficelles, pain de mie, bâtards, pain de campagne, and the list goes on. But they don’t really know about the bagel.
boules warmMy husband first tasted, first saw a bagel the first time he came to visit me. I was living in Vermont and he went to Dunkin’ Donuts one morning when I was at work. I asked him how his breakfast was and he said “I had this thing called a bagel. It was amazing. Do you know it?”

“Dude,” I said, “I grew up Jewish. Of course I know bagels!”

He didn’t quite understand the whole Jewish-bagel-lox thing then. He does now.

hole makingBack to what I was saying: bagels are not common in France. They’re getting there. McDonald’s – the bane of my French existence – has/had bagel burgers, and Picard – the frozen foods wonder – sells bagels frozen in packs of six and frozen bagel sandwiches. But who wants a frozen bagel? Not me.

And with all the good, fresh bread here, I rarely thought about bagels, though my husband – now aware of the heaven of the lox and cream cheese on a bagel combination – talked about them often. So maybe it’s the past four years of watching him buy frozen bagels and the sudden appearance of Philadelphia Cream Cheese in all the supermarkets. Maybe it’s due to my recent trip to the States. Whatever. I cracked and made us bagels.

ready for dunking

Bagels are, in fact, one of the first breads I baked in France. However, that was before I could shop for complicated ingredients that required reading packaging on my own, and bought the wrong kind of yeast. The bagels of then were OK, they were edible, but there was a certain amount of disappointment in the house.

boiled

This time – four years later – armed with a degree in gastronomy and definite French skills – I got the right yeast and the bagels I wanted.

fixin's

We topped them with garlic and herb cream cheese, tomato, onion, avocado, lettuce, a tiny bit of Dijon mustard and turkey breast.

Fries and pickles. This is haute-cuisine, people. Because it’s fresh, it’s simple and it’s a bagel.

sammich

Apparently, this is what a degree in gastronomy gets you. Not just bagels, but Bagel Sandwiches.

For the record, my husband, who was sent to the store for these ingredients, also came home with smoked salmon. Because he needed his bagel, cream cheese and lox fix.

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Whole Wheat Bagel Sandwiches
Author: 
Recipe type: Sandwich, Bread
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
 
It’s just a bagel sandwich, but it still deserves a recipe. Bagel recipe adapted from the Sophisticated Gourmet: http://www.sophisticatedgourmet.com/2009/10/new-york-style-bagel-recipe/
Ingredients
  • 1 package of active dry yeast
  • 1½ cups of warm water
  • 200g of multi-grain flour
  • 300g of whole wheat flour
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of salt
  • Sandwich fixings like: turkey, tomato, cream cheese, avocado, lettuce, red onion, and Dijon mustard
Instructions
  1. Pour the yeast into your water. Do not stir. Let it sit for five minutes, and then stir the yeast, until it all dissolves in the water. While waiting for the yeast to dissolve, mix your flours and salt in a large mixing bowl with a fork.
  2. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in part of the water/yeast, mix a bit and then add the rest of the water. You should have a shaggy, coarse dough. Knead for ten minutes until the dough is smooth, firm, and elastic. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic and a damp towel and let rise at least 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size (I always just skip the bowl change; kneading and letting the dough rise in the same bowl.)
  3. Preheat oven 220°C/475°F. Carefully divide the dough into 8 pieces Shape each piece into a round. Now, take a dough ball, and press it gently against the countertop moving your hand and the ball in a circular motion pulling the dough into itself while reducing the pressure on top of the dough slightly until a perfect dough ball forms. Repeat with 7 other dough rounds. (See his photo on the link.)
  4. Coat a finger in flour, and gently press your finger into the center of each dough ball to form a ring. Stretch the ring to about ⅓ the diameter of the bagel and place on a baking sheet lined with cooking paper. When all eight balls have been bagel-shaped let sit for another 10 minutes. While waiting, bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  5. Coat a finger in flour, and gently press your finger into the center of each dough ball to form a ring. Stretch the ring to about ⅓ the diameter of the bagel and place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Repeat the same step with the remaining dough.
  6. Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to lower the bagels into the water. Boil as many as you are comfortable with boiling. Let them sit there for 1 minute, and them flip them over to boil for another minute. Extend the boiling times to 2 minutes each, if you’d prefer a chewier bagel (results will give you a more New York Style bagel with this option).
  7. If you want to top your bagels with something – seeds, herbs, what have you, you’re supposed to do it now. Or you brush the bagels with an egg wash. I disregarded all of these things and just brushed mine with olive oil. Why? Because I didn’t have any eggs and like olive oil.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes or until bagels are golden brown. Flip all bagels once about halfway through for crisp-ness on each side.
  9. Let bagels cool completely until slicing open. Top one side with cream cheese, then turkey breast, then onion, tomato and avocado last. On the other side spread a very thin layer of mustard, and top with a small handful of lettuce. Assemble for sandwich goodness. Eat with pickles.

 

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Westport Rivers Winery: Tasting in MA

Chardonnay It has been a long time hasn’t it? Between limited internet, a broken computer, my internship, writing two (very long) papers and general life, this blog had to take a back seat. I could tell you about what I’ve been doing for the past three months, but I’d rather jump right into the thick of things.

So let’s get started.

I’m not in France.

Shocked?

As I type this, I’m in the States visiting my mom and recently engaged my sister. As I had some time after finishing my degree and hadn’t yet met her fiance we all decided it was time to make my way to the States. A big congratulations to her.

Store Front

Coming to the US again gave me another opportunity… explore New World wines with a more trained palate. When my mom told me she was taking a Friday off from work for us to do something together, I decided that mother-daughter day would involve a wine-tasting.

I searched around for different wineries in the area. There are quite a few around Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut many more than I expected. Not all of them were wineries in my book. Making apple wine and blueberry wine and raspberry wine and grass wine does not qualify you as a winery if you’re just turning the leftovers from local orchards into an alcoholic beverage. I was looking for real wine from real grapes.

Smushed grapes in grass... a new salad?

Smushed grapes in grass… a new salad?

I made that last one up, by the way. No one is making grass wine. At least I hope not.

I settled on the Westport Rivers Winery. They have an extensive, Winery barnaward winning wine list, with everything from Champagne method sparklings to fortified dessert wines. After having worked at a winery with a wine list just as vast, including some of the best Crémant de Loire in the region, I was very interested to see what they were coming up with.

Westport Rivers Winery is located in Wesport, Massachusetts. No shock there. They have about 322 acres of vines and everything is grown on the property. They don’t buy from negotiators or import other grapes and so their wine is all local and they can control every step of the process. And they make a fair amount of wine – about 100,000 bottles a year.

Still wine
What impressed me about their vineyard (we’ll get to the wines in a bit) was just how many different varieties of grapes they have. Your typical American Chardonnay and Pinot noir were representing but they also grow Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Riesling, Muscat and a few I’d never tasted before such as Rkatsiteli and Gruner veltliner. And there was more. Incredible.

vineThey only offer tours on Saturdays, but for $10 one is treated to a tasting of 7 wines. There’s an added perk that you can keep the champagne flute. Glasses are not at the top on my list, but  always welcome. Afterward, you are free to wander the grounds and explore the vineyard itself. There’s not much to do other than walk, but Westport Rivers is on a beautiful piece of land in a beautiful location. An almost idyllic farm scene; lush and green with rolling hills and a view of the ocean behind a part in the trees.

Winery land

We had the added luck of visiting just as they were starting to harvest the grapes. The vines were still ripe, heavy with berries and it was interesting for both me and mom to see the differences in varieties while they are still in grape-form. It was also interesting to see their trellising technique which is slightly different from France.

Seven wines might seem like enough to some people. It was for my wine shopmom, but with over 14 wines for sale, it wasn’t for me. I love Rieslings and theirs was not on the traditional tasting list. I asked if I could have a taste and since they already had a bottle open, the woman conducting the tasting agreed. This was quite kind of them as I know how much wine – therefore profit- goes down the drain and down other people’s throats at a tasting bar in the course of a week.

So how were the wines?

Blanc de blancQuite good. The sparklings were crisp and vibrant with very lively flavors, reminiscent of Champagne but still with their own New England style. Their whites were dry, fruity, somewhat typical but well crafted and I was particularly fond of their 2012 Cinco Caes: a blend of five different grapes – including Pinot noir – despite it being a white wine. You just don’t get blanc de noir still wines in France.

The 2010 red Pinot Noir was lovely. They don’t make much red as Pinot and pigsit’s rather difficult to grow the grapes to ripeness, so they like to call it “A Pig’s Flight” in homage to its rarity. This was full of red fruit, some earthiness typical of Pinot noir, but also some spices like nutmeg and cinnamon – strange but again, reminiscent of New England. At least to me. I found it a bit expensive at $30 a bottle, but I guess if it’s rare, one can’t really argue against it.

I’m taking home the 2012 Cinco Caes and the 2011 Chardonnay. The first because I thought it was a very vibrant and fruity wine. Light, but complex and my husband and I will very much enjoy drinking it. The Chardonnay because it’s a classic example of New World Chardonnay and I don’t get to explore and experiment much with it, in France.

Winery land sep

Wesport Rivers Winery is doing brisk business. On a Friday afternoon in late September they had what a steady stream of visitors and seemed to be preparing for an event as well. I was pleased to see it. They make quality wines (a little on the expensive side, but still worth it), are located in a beautiful area and are warm and welcoming to their guests. When I come back to the States for the wedding, I would love to visit again with my husband. Definitely worth the trip and the taste.

Westport Rivers 
417 Hixbridge Rd
Westport, MA
508-636-3423
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