Saturday, March 28, 2009


I have a new best friend and her name is Dusty.

Dusty and I have been getting along splendidly during the past week and a half while I've been house-sitting for Susan and looking after her daughter. A few times a week we go on runs, always interspersed with short stops if Dusty find something particularly luscious to sniff or needs to, shall we say, mark her territory.

Otherwise, I try to make sure that we get in two walks a day.

At the beginning, I always had her on a leash, my head filled with visions of screeching tires and honking cars. I quickly noticed that Dusty had a habit of going off around town on her own, and found out that the leash was, in fact, a new thing for her. Dusty has incredibly good common sense, and is quite at ease in town, weaving in and out of traffic and looking both ways before crossing the street (I swear, I have seen her do it!).

Do I still get uneasy about it? Absolutely.

But if she was on a leash all of the time, I'd never have the chance to be taken on a walk by her. Which is what happens at least once a day.

Dusty will trot ahead of me, maybe 20 feet or so, investigating corners and doorways, periodically looking back at me to make sure I'm following her. If I ever decide to turn down a certain street or turn around to head back home, I just have to wait for her to glance back again, which she does every 45 seconds or so, motion to her with a quick nod, and head in the new direction. She will immediately join me, galloping out front so that she will again be leading the charge.

During the time when I'm working at my desk in my room, she can be found at least half the time on the floor near me, waiting for me to finish so that we can go on another walk.

Dusty always comes to the market with us, though she's probably the only dog there not on a leash. Like I said, she's quite the city dog, and people seem to know her well, and not mind too much if she slips back behind the stalls to try and find a scrap of something or other.

Myself, I've been spending my market time waiting patiently in line for my current addiction: endives.

I've seared them and topped them with an olive-oil fried egg for a light lunch on a cold and rainy day (of which there have been quite a lot this past week). But my current favorite way is sliced and tossed in a salad with roasted beets.

Did you know that until recently, you could never find raw beets at the markets here? Everyone always bought them pre-roasted to save themselves the trouble of roasting at home.

I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the roasted beet that Baptiste slipped into my bag last week. He suggested cubing it and tossing it with a simple vinaigrette, and while that sounded lovely, I took it one step further by combining it with fresh apples, cheese and nuts...oh, and one of his gorgeous endives.

This salad is ideally suited to variations. In the past three days I've had it in as many different ways: once with beets, pears and comté, another day with beet, endive and apple, and the third day using the recipe below. Note that this is a rough outline, and I encourage you to play with proportions and ingredients.

Beet and Endive Salad

1 medium to large endive
1 1/2-inch thick slice of peeled, roasted beet*
1 medium apple (I've been using Jonagold or Cox's Orange Pippin)
1 1/2-inch thick hunk of parmesan (I'd guess around 1 oz)
Handful of pumpkin seeds
1 tsp. sherry vinegar
3 tsp. good olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Remove any yellowing leaves from your endive and slice the very end of the stem off. Thinly slice the endive horizontally into slices about 1/4 inch thick.

Cube the beet and parmesan into bite-size pieces (about 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch).

Peel, core and cube the apple into bite-size pieces.

Combine the endive, beet, parmesan, apple and pumpkin seeds in a bowl and toss to mix. Add the sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and toss again to thoroughly combine. Don't worry if your salad starts to get a little pink--which it will, thanks to the beet--just enjoy eating pink food!

Enjoy with some good bread and maybe a glass of dry white wine like a Sancerre or Pinot Blanc.

Serves 1

*If you need to roast the beet yourself, do as follows:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Cut off your beet tops, leaving about 1/2 an inch of the stem still attached to the beet root, and reserve (they're fabulous sautéed in just a bit of olive oil). Scrub the beets and place them in a baking pan. Add enough water to come up the sides of the pan 1/4 inch. Cover the pan tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and roast until the beets are easily pierced through with a knife. This can take anywhere from 40 minutes and beyond, depending on the size of your beets. Once cooled, use your thumb to nudge off the beet skin and discard.
Oh, and wear an apron! Beet juice can stain your hands and your cutting board, but don't let it stain your shirt!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the cake

Periodically--it seems to be about once a month--Susan hosts a friendly neighborhood wine tasting at her home.

For the event last week, I gathered about 14 stools around the kitchen island, put out lots of silver and 32 plates (one plate each for the shepherd's pie, salad and cheese and the others for dessert) with a nice blue trim and searched out the four boxes of tasting glasses in the back prep kitchen.

I was downstairs tidying up the kitchen when Baptiste walked in, his black curls bouncing everywhere, loaded up with a huge bag of his very tasty mache. I finished unloading the dishwasher after a friendly two kiss greeting, and he got to work washing the mache in the zinc vegetable sink.

Baptiste is one of my favorite farmers at the weekly market. His vegetables are incredible, usually arriving about a week earlier than anyone else and always tasty. We split our vegetable shopping between his stand and another run by an adorable older couple. But our endive? Those, we always buy from Baptiste.

Just a few weeks ago, while Susan was spending her week teaching in Paris and I was holding down the fort at home with the animals (except for two days of classes, when I took the train in to assist), I ate up our supply of four endive in salads inspired by this recipe. When she returned, we went to the Saturday market as usual and I was surprised that Susan didn't pick up any more endive. I figured maybe the season was over, or maybe she wasn't as much of a fan as I was, but I didn't say anything, not having had my coffee and croissant yet.

Days later, I heard my name called from the kitchen, and I went downstairs. There was Susan, visibly heartbroken at the idea that she wouldn't be able to eat any of Baptiste's endive until she returned home from her trip to the states weeks later. I couldn't decide whether to laugh or crawl under the kitchen island. I don't think she could either.

That night at the wine tasting, after finishing with the dishwasher, I came to take over washing duties from Baptiste, and he politely but firmly nudged me out of the way and continued his work. That, of course, didn't bother me a bit, until I happened to glance down at the mache floating in the sink.

On my first or second day here, Susan had shown me the proper way to wash and serve mache (bought at Baptiste's stand, bien sur). It takes anywhere between 5 and 7 washings, depending on how dirty it is, which can take quite a while, but you can't skimp for fear of allowing a single piece of grit to slip past your guard and onto an unsuspecting diner's plate.

She had also stressed that mache should be left in the little florets it grows in, so you can imagine my shock and horror when I saw that Baptiste, while washing his mache, had cut off all of the leaves from every floret, leaving them all swimming individually in the sink.

Knowing that there was nothing I could do to save the already massacred mache at this point, I casually mentioned Susan's theory of leaving the mache whole to Baptiste, who grinned at me, shrugged, then commented that seeing as it was his mache and he didn't care, neither should anyone else.

I knew someone else wasn't going to have quite the same point of view, and rushed upstairs to warn Susan so that she wouldn't faint at the sight of those desolate mache leaves.

Earlier that day I had baked and iced a cake for dessert. We had a glutton of carrots on hand, so Susan decided that I should try a carrot cake, a version from her delightfully stained and dog-eared copy of her own Farmhouse Cookbook.

This is not the fluffy, cream cheese frosting-swirled carrot cake of your youth, however. This is a down-home, thick, almost fruit cake-esque cake, full of warm spices and walnuts.

And did I mention that I topped it with a caramel frosting?

Whoa. I mean, the cake was good, though it probably would've been better if left to sit for a few days and have the flavors meld and marry a bit more, but that frosting was out of this world.

Imagine a (slightly) salted butter caramel melted all over a dense, nutty cake and you'll be getting warmer.

It was all I could do not to get out a spoon and eat the entire pan full myself, and it must be said that I was not overly pleased when Susan called in her daughter to help me lick the spoon after I had finished frosting the cake. I'm good at sharing, really I am, just not when there's caramel frosting to be finished.

I imagine that this would go equally well with white or chocolate cakes. Because of its thickness, I also think it'd be great on any kind of pound cake or spiced bundt cake. Come to think of it, I can't really imagine it not going well with anything, even an ice cream sundae.

Caramel Frosting
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

1 stick (8Tbs) unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 Tbs. milk
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. confectioners' sugar*
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add in the brown sugar and reduce the heat to low. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon until the sugar melts and is fully incorporated, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the milk, then raise the heat to medium. Continue stirring until the mixture just comes to a boil, then remove the pan from heat and cool slightly.

Once the mixture is lukewarm, whisk in the confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup at a time. Fully incorporate each portion of sugar before adding in the next one. At this point, the frosting shoud be smooth and free of lumps.

Whisk in the vanilla extract, then spread the frosting immediately over your cake.

Yields 1 cup, just enough for the top of a 10-inch bundt cake, with pretty drips down the side.

*If you run out of confectioners' sugar or just don't have any on hand, grind up your regular sugar to a very fine dust in a coffee grinder (clean it first!). You can add a touch of cornstarch as well, but I didn't this time, and the frosting was still unbelieveable. Just remember to measure the sugar after it's been ground, not before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The way you do the things you do

I was intimidated.

I had just arrived a few days earlier, and now was the first time that Susan had asked me to do any sort of cooking with her, side by side.

There I was, supposed to be an assistant in the cooking class, but I'd already observed that most of my techniques need to be changed, tweaked or reinvented. At least I was humble enough to admit it. That's a start, right?

It's been a bit difficult to change the way I do certain, basic things. For example, my mise en place...well, it sucks, to be quite frank. I have always been one of those people who chops up the mushrooms furiously while the tomato sauce is bubbling away on the stove, trying desperately to finish them before the sauce has reduced too much.

It's the same way with baking. I never put things out in little bowls beforehand, channeling Julia Child. Those were, in my mind, just a few more bowls to wash, and living without a dishwasher last year in San Francisco made me quite frugal in the dish dirtying department.

However, I see the logic of it all, and am trying to force myself to get everything out and ready before I begin any step at all.

It's difficult, but I'm working on it.

Oh, and just so you know, if you do do mise en place correctly, and put out a vinegar for whatever recipe you're using, be sure to cover it with a plate or something. Vinegar evaporates slowly, and if you don't use it within the first few minutes off putting it out, you'll end up with less than you thought. Crazy, eh?

I have learned that when you blanch things, you should put them in ice water just until they are cool, then immediately spread them out on a towel to dry. Otherwise, you'll end up with waterlogged vegetables.

This is a certain curved paring knife with which I have fallen in love. Nothing better for peeling apples, shallots, garlic, what have you. Oh, and while we're at it, take out the little green thing in the garlic. Not because it's necessarily bitter, but because there's a noticeable textural difference.

Hmm...what else? I've learned that one or two small cookies with your post-lunch coffee is always a good idea.

There should be music playing when you're cooking, but there MUST be music playing when you're cleaning up.

Speaking of clean-up, your knives should be washed and dried immediately after use. No soaking in the sink or any of that. They will last much longer if you treat them well.

Tea tastes better when you drink it out of a bowl in the wee small hours of the morning.

As you can see, I feel like a sponge, just absorbing anything and everything that I can. I mean, I only have four months here, and there's so much to learn.

Susan and I recently had a phenomenal lunch that I have to write you about, even though we ate it so fast that taking a picture didn't even cross my mind until hours later. It's main component is fava beans, which are in season at the moment, so get on this recipe as soon as possible!

The recipe is simple, in the Italian tradition of letting your ingredients really shine through. This translates as such: buy/use the BEST ingredients you can find!

The recipe below is going to be a pretty rough outline, as I'm trusting you to taste and judge how much of each you want to put in.

Fava Bean Salad

3-4 big handfuls of fava bean pods
2 oz. hard sheep's milk cheese, such as Abbaye de Belloc or a young Manchego (you want something hard and firm, but still quite young, say 18 months max)
good olive oil
2-3 sprigs fresh savory (thyme could probably substitute here)
fleur de sel or good sea salt

Bring a medium saucepan full of water to boil.

Strip the fava beans out of their pods, then add the beans to the boiling water. Allow to boil for about one minute, then drain and place in a bowl.

Once cool enough to handle, use your fingernail or a small pairing knife to cut a slit through the outer layer of the fava bean (it's light green), then use your fingers to gently unwrap the bright green bean inside. Repeat with the remaining favas.

Cut the cheese into bite-size squares, about 1/2 inch X 1/2 inch. Strip the leaves off of the savory or thyme, taking care not to include any of the woody stem.

Toss the fava beans and cheese together with the savory in a medium-sized bowl. Add enough olive oil to come to 3/4 of the way up the mixture.

Combine well. Sprinkle fleur de sel on top of each plate before serving.

Serves 2.

*Make sure you serve this with plenty of good, crusty bread. You'll want it to soak up that beautiful olive oil you used.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mise en place

I have to apologize for my recent absence in this space. (Sorry!)

You see, it has taken a lot longer to get my internet up and running here in Louviers than I could have possibly expected. It also took a few rather emotionally-trying phone calls with some rude "customer service" people at a particular French company that shall remain nameless, and which resulted in absolutely nothing.

Thank goodness for sweet American computer experts who are only a phone call away in Paris.

Now that I'm back online, I will of course, be filling you in on how I've been spending my time thus far (Paris, macarons and vinaigrettes, oh my!). I thought it might be fun, though, to send along a few pictures and a broad overview first, then share more details later. I hope you won't mind.

Paris, never know where to begin there, do you? The city is just too good, and it's hard to be articulate when I have such an utter devotion.

For the time being, suffice it to say that I received some great recommendations from this lady and this book. I followed Clotilde's chocolate recommendations, as well as some found here, which led me to heavenly tablettes filled with candied apricots and almonds from Jean-Charles Rochoux and an insanely smooth 85% chocolate tablette from Pierre Marcolini. Oh, and a chocolate-basil ganache!

And did I mention some of the best duck I've ever had at this lovely restaurant?

Oh, and my first Ispaphan.

After a week in Paris wandering around old and new haunts, I headed to Rennes to visit my lovely friend Merrill who's working there as a language assistant, or was until the entire country started to strike. Either way, she is lucky to live within two minutes of a fabulous bakery with an amazing buckwheat baguette and a wine store with an adorable owner who has a gift for picking out tasty bottles for under 10 euros.

Oh, and in case I forget to mention it later, I really missed rillettes and Reblochon. Huge thanks to Merrill for providing them!

After a lovely long weekend in Rennes, I managed to get myself to Louviers with my two heavy bags in tow. I should thank the incredibly nice strangers in the Métro and on the trains who helped me with my bags. Just picked them up and started up the staircases without a word.

The house is lovely, old and full of staircases and light blue windows. Oh, and the exposed beams, persnickety Aga stove and stunning butcher block island don't hurt the ambiance either. There are heaving bookshelves everywhere, giving me plenty to keep myself busy when I'm not looking after my young charge or working on mise-en-place or recipes for class.

I had my first official cooking class as an assistant yesterday, and it was even more fun than I expected. And I had high expectations, mind you. Filleting my first mackerel, putting together the mise-en-place, setting the table, being a gopher--it didn't matter what it was, I learned something doing it.

So far, it's kind of like living in a fairytale, albeit a fairy tale with an ornery stove that decided to go out yesterday morning. Eh, c'est la vie. Besides, I have blankets and a beautiful green stove to cook at and dance around.