Homemade Pesto.

IMG_4353Is there anything that smells more like summertime than fresh basil?

Except maybe tomato vines, or cilantro? Or fresh cut grass…

But basil is right up there at the top of my favorites, so I picked up a big bunch of it at the farmers’ market the other day.  It doesn’t last long, once picked, so you’d better figure out something to do with it, and quick.  You can only do so much with it fresh before it’s no good anymore.  And so, as I usually do in the summer, I made pesto.

I love to make pesto.  I understand perfectly well that pesto can be made from anything.  That it’s not limited to basil or a certain kind of nuts, or really anything.  But I like for it to taste a certain way that is familiar to me and sort of comforting.  One of my familiar tastes of summer.

Here’s what I do:  I pick the leaves from a bunch of basil and rinse them, then I bring a pot of water to boiling.  When it’s boiling, I add the leaves and wait for the water to return to boiling, then let them boil for about a minute.  I quickly remove them from the heat, turn them into a colander, and run cold water on them to stop the cooking.  This keeps them nice and green in your sauce.  Drain the water well (and by this, I mean get your hands in there and squish it out).  In your food processor, add several cloves of garlic (this is an art, not a science, people.  You have to make it taste like you like.  But I do about 3), some good quality parmesan (though I usually go for domestic because it’s much less expensive per pound.  Save the good imported Italian stuff for when you are eating it straight with a nice red wine and can savor those little crunchy crystals…).  Chop those up nicely in your food processor, then add some pecans and do the same.  Next, add the basil, then a little sea salt.  Now, the fun part:  while your food processor is running, pour in olive oil until this chunky mixture turns into a lovely paste.  One you can envision smearing onto a baguette and then toasting.  Or onto chicken thighs as they are roasting.  Or, my favorite:  mixing into a batch of roasted zucchini, summer squash, and maybe peppers… heaven.  Take that pesto/vegetable mixture and heap it onto a pile of cool, crunchy Romaine for an amazing summer salad.

To recap the ingredients:
Basil

Fresh garlic

Parmesan

Pecans

Salt

Olive oil

Yes, that’s it.

Add a chilled Rose wine, and as far as I’m concerned, you have summertime, in its essence, on your table.

La vie est bonne.

 

* You’re going to have a lot of pesto, but that’s okay.  Buy those little tiny mason jars that are so cute, and that you’ve seen and yet wondered what on earth you could possibly do with them.  The pesto that you do not eat immediately will freeze beautifully in these tiny jars, topped with a thin layer of olive oil.  This will keep a long time in your freezer, and will allow you to remember what summertime tasted like, even in January when you think that it will never be summer again.

You’re welcome.

Dinner with friends.

Caviar and Sprats.
On the left are Riga sprats with thinly sliced lemon and parsley, and I think some butter. That is not marmalade on the left, but caviar of some type. But you probably knew that. I have to take a deep breath before eating either one, but they certainly look lovely.

I put this post into the “What we’re cooking” category even though it’s not about my own cooking.  I think it counts, though, because we were very much enjoying someone else’s cooking, and especially since we were enjoying it with them.  Food is always so much better when you are sharing it with good friends, and then when you’re sharing it with friends and sharing a few bottles of really good wine- well, that takes it to another level altogether.

We are fortunate enough to have friends on many continents (I love that) and from many different backgrounds, so saying that our Ukrainian friends fall into the “Most Interesting” category is no small thing.  But they are definitely that.  They are interesting in so, so many ways, beginning with the dinners that they serve.  These people know how to host a dinner!

This is how it goes:  You arrive at around 6:30 and are nearly immediately seated at the dinner table, which is laden with cheeses, a platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, and chopped fresh dill, a plate of cold cuts from an Atlanta institution called Patak Meats, cooked mushrooms of some type- either cooked in sour cream and covered with cheese, or wrapped in pastry, a platter of Olga’s homemade pickles, another piled high with Olga’s homemade bread, and if you’re lucky, that beet salad made with unrefined sunflower oil that might convert even the most diehard of beet haters.  Sometimes caviar and smoked fish.  And of course there’s wine.  There’s always wine.  I’ve learned to sip very, very slowly and remain constantly vigilant against Oleg and his stealthy pouring; apparently, he is opposed to empty wine glasses and takes his job as glass filler quite seriously.  And for the next 2-3 hours, you will sit and eat all the delicious things that have been piled on that table, and you will talk.  World politics is a favorite topic, with the Pilot and I often playing the role of avid listeners as Olga delivers passionate discourse on topics such as the state of the Ukraine.  She had me in tears the other night over the current situation; they have family still in that country, after all.  Olga’s passion is countered only by Oleg’s calm, quiet demeanor as he gently suggests that she take a moment to calm down with a cigarette (they are Europeans, after all) out on the balcony.  She always takes his suggestions.  This time, I joined her.  Sans cigarette, of course.

Literature and history are also favorite topics.  Did I mention that these friends are highly educated, both having trained as engineers at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute?  And then immigrated here when the Soviet Union fell apart, where they worked hard to learn not only a new language but a new career, or two?  They are both brilliant and fascinating, and this makes for incredible conversation when you add my equally brilliant husband into the mix.

After you’ve spent 2-3 hours enjoying the cold cuts, vegetables, and cheese, it’s time for the main course.  Yes. The main course, at 9 p.m.   I learned this when I traveled to that part of the world back in the 90s:  Don’t be fooled by the copious quantities of food in front of you that this is all there is.  And certainly don’t fill up, because there will be more food, and lots of it.  And you will miss out if you’re already full.

The other night, the main course was a stuffed cabbage dish called golubtsy.  It’s a classic Ukrainian dish that’s also made by Russians (but PLEASE do not mention that around Olga these days) and it is filling and delicious.  It consists of cabbage leaves filled with meat and rice and then cooked in a pot on the stove till everything is tender and the flavors blended.

Served, of course, with more wine.  And more conversation.  And then, usually by around 1 a.m., when I can’t even imagine eating another bite and can barely keep my eyes open, I manage to get the Pilot’s attention and suggest that it is quite possibly time to head home, against the pleas of Olga that “It’s early still!  You can’t go!”  coupled with the hint of a dessert that is yet to be served.  I have yet to be able to eat dessert at their home.  But I always leave completely satisfied, filled to the brim with friendship, good food, and the promise of the next time that we will see this lovely family.

 

L’été, il est arrivé.

IMG_4212Translation:  Summer has arrived.  And for me that means fresh vegetables, in abundance.  I think that this is my favorite time of year to cook!  Until autumn arrives and I get to pull out my Le Creuset and make a beef bourguignon again… But for now, this is my favorite time of year to cook!  Last night’s dinner consisted of sauteed zucchini and squash, with a little onion and garlic and bell pepper, finished off with with fresh thyme and basil from the garden.  Served over quinoa with a generous amount of parmesan, with a salad of cucumbers still warm from my mom’s garden, tomato, and goat cheese with olive oil.  I really don’t need anything else (though I’m certain that my Texas family were wondering where the meat was).  Heaven.

We followed all that with a fresh blackberry cobbler; I was actually going for a clafoutis-type dessert, but I don’t think I quite achieved it in this gluten free version.  I will have to try again- less flour, more egg.  But it was delicious nonetheless.  I should have taken a picture, but I didn’t have time.  It didn’t last that long.

Fresh zucchini and blackberry cobbler?  Yes, summer has indeed arrived.  I’m ready for my travels to be over for a while so I can get to our local farmers’ market and get into my kitchen!  My vagabond soul is actually ready to settle in for a few weeks!

I’ve got some cooking to do.

Le dîner chez nous.

That's the bottle of wine, a wild boar saucisson, and the melty Mont d'or.  You can just see a bit of the Roquefort I used for the sauce as well.
That’s the bottle of wine, a wild boar saucisson, and the melty Mont d’or. You can just see a bit of the Roquefort I used for the sauce as well.

That’s French for dinner at home, in case you were wondering.  Which is what we do most nights- we don’t eat out that often- but last night’s dinner at home was special.  Eating well is part of the story of our time in France, a very important part of the story, and so I just want to write this little bit down so I can remember it.  And so, you get to know about it too.

We’ve been hanging on to this one particular bottle of wine for two months now, waiting for the right moment to open it.  Our time here is getting short, so we kind of decided it was now or never and made our own special occasion.  This bottle of wine is special for several reasons:  our Norwegian friends bought it for us while they were here, and spent WAY more money on it than we usually do.  And, this particular bottle was a grand cru, the best wine made from the best grapes of Burgundy.  It was a 2006 Echezeaux, from the Caves Réunies du Couvent des Cordoliers du 13eme Siecle, in case that means anything to you.  It does now to me.

We didn’t do much- who needs to, when you have a wine this good?  I simply warmed a round of Mont d’or cheese, sliced some baguette, cooked some of those skinny little French green beans, and sauteed a couple of steaks (the local charolais, of course) in a pan.  I did cave to the Pilot’s wishes and make a blue cheese sauce (and it turned out delicious!), but that was it.  As far as I’m concerned, we could have stopped at the Mont d’or and baguette.

I’ve often thought that the world of wine can seem a little pretentious.  I’m not a wine snob, and I really don’t know that much about it- I drink what I like, and think you can find a perfectly good wine for a reasonable cost.  But then, a wine like this comes along to show that you do get what you pay for.  There are no words to describe how delicious this was.

The French certainly do know how to live…

I feel the same way about this that I do about the Mont d’or cheese:  if you are a wine lover, then do yourself a favor, at least once, and try a Burgundy grand cru.  You won’t regret it.

Market at St. Honoré les Bains.

These lovely, hand-made saucissons were on display this morning at my favorite cheese stand.  Also for sale here is the world's tastiest butter.
These lovely, hand-made saucissons were on display this morning at my favorite cheese stand. Also for sale here is the world’s tastiest butter.

The market at St. Honoré is hands-down my favorite market around.  And I’ve tried lots of them, so I should know.

Today was market day in our town, Moulins-Engilbert.  Our town is the center for Charolais cows and all that concerns them, and the market here is very interesting and quite nice as well.  But really, I prefer for my markets to be all about food.  All the clothing and stuff just get in the way of what I’m really there for.

And that is cheese.

And other foods too, yes.  But cheese… I’m starting to dream of all things fromage these days, and beginning to worry as well, as our return to the US becomes imminent.  What will I do with no access to époisses affiné?  Or mont d’or?  I’m not really sure.

So today, I took a few pictures of my favorite cheese stand as well as a few other vendors, in order to help with withdrawals or when I start missing cheese too much.  At least I can revisit these photographs and smile fondly…IMG_2668

But there are other things to remember about this market as well.  After all, it was here that I picked up my turkey extraordinaire for this year’s Thanksgiving feast.  And there’s also the cheerful lady who sells wonderful fresh vegetables.  Oh, and the lady who brings her truck in with a few selected fresh chickens or guinea fowl, and fresh eggs.  I got a chicken from her one week, and it was pretty fantastic.  No, the market at St.  Honoré doesn’t have any of the extras like wool socks or tablecloths, but I think that it’s the simplicity of it that makes me like it so much.  I can walk right up to my favorite stands without having to wade through loads of traffic or being pestered to buy cough drops to help vaccinate circus animals (and how can you say no to that?)  Nope.  Just food, and the best of it, at that.  Of course, I still haven’t managed to take any photos- it’s just too intense for me when I’m here and I am on a MISSION, which is probably the reason my children no longer want to come with me to this one.  Lucky for me, though, some of my favorite vendors were at our town’s market today, and I was able to get a few good shots in spite of the near freezing weather and nasty mix of rain and snow.  Mostly of cheese…

Then once we get this stuff from this lovely market home?  Well, my 9 year old has decided he really likes to cook.  He has proclaimed himself in charge of chopping ALL vegetables, which slows things down a bit but is so worth it!  He’s become quite good at caramelizing onions, and loves to deglaze a pan for a sauce.  Eggs are truly his forte as well as his favorite thing both to make and to eat, but he excels at spaghetti carbonara as well.  It’s such fun to see him applying his typical intensity to getting the mushroom sauce just right.

And thus my homegrown French immersion course has expanded to include cooking classes as well!  This is working out quite well for me, I’d say.

To further your cheese education (and I’m all about a good education!):  http://www.lafromagerie.co.uk/epoisses-affine/

And this one:  http://www.pongcheese.co.uk/shop/vacherin-mont-dor.html  If you are a cheese lover, then you truly haven’t lived till you’ve put a Mont d’or, in its little wooden box, into the oven for 15 minutes and then dipped some nice crusty baguette into it.

Look at these lovely little goat cheeses!
Look at these lovely little goat cheeses!
The saucisson man will definitely put the hard sell on you, but he's so nice about it!  My husband and son adore saucissons, my daughter despises them.  I am somewhere in the middle.
The saucisson man will definitely put the hard sell on you, but he’s so nice about it! My husband and son adore saucissons, my daughter despises them. I am somewhere in the middle.

French Thanksgiving.

No, this has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, really, other than the fact that I am very, very, thankful for it. But I neglected to take any photos of our lovely feast, so this, snapped on our terrace on a day of sunshine, will have to do.

Yes, I know that the French don’t celebrate this completely American holiday.  Well, mostly American- the Canadians, I recall from living there, have their own version that comes in October, but in any case the French do not.  But, we had to have our Thanksgiving celebration, and I have to say that we had a lot of fun putting this together over here.  We had a somewhat full house- unfortunately, part of the guests that we had for the week had to return to Paris so that they could get to the airport in time, but one of our guests was able to stay.  For me, the more the merrier as far as cooking a meal goes!

I arranged ahead of time with a butcher that I’ve come to trust in order to acquire a turkey- you can get turkey meat here easily, but I’ve never seen an entire turkey at the local butcher shop.  So, early Thursday morning, after saying goodbye to one shift of our guests, I headed to St Honore-les-Bains, a tiny little town that doesn’t seem to have much going on except for this fantastic market each week.  And I do mean fantastic.  So much so that it deserves its own post, which hopefully will come later this week (I keep forgetting to take pictures because I’m so enamored with the food!!!)  But last week, just as promised, was the butcher waiting for me with the most perfect turkey I’ve ever had.  This turkey had barely even been refrigerated, much less frozen.  In other words, I’m fairly certain the unfortunate creature had been ambling about, doing turkey things, only the day before.  God bless him for his sacrifice…

After retrieving my turkey, I headed to the vegetable stand for some fresh potatoes, a lovely head of lettuce, some leeks, a handful of brussels sprouts, and some apples for this Alsatian tart recipe that I’ve fallen in love with (it involves creme fraiche, which I’ve concluded that you can add to just about anything to make it amazing).  I also picked up some chestnuts for roasting on the fireplace, and of course, more cheese.  I’m perfectly well aware that cheese is not part of the typical American Thanksgiving dinner, but after all, I am in France…  And oh, the cheeses that this man at the Thursday market has to sell…  I actually count him as part of our education here, because each week, he likes to give my children and I samples and teach us a little something about each one!  Such fun!

I have to say that this was one of the easier Thanksgiving meals I’ve ever prepared, mostly because I didn’t make any dressing. This was not an oversight or laziness on my part:  I am a Texan, and do not consider anything but the cornbread variety of dressing to be an acceptable accompaniment to turkey.  I’d rather have nothing than eat or make the bread stuffing, and thus nothing is what we had since I couldn’t get cornmeal.  Now, if you’ve made cornbread dressing, you know that it is an involved process that must be begun days in advance, and then takes a considerable amount of time the day of.  Not making it made the meal shockingly easy to prepare!  I simply roasted the turkey, which by the way did not have his head still on, basting it with a homemade stock every 45 minutes, made a salad, roasted the brussels sprouts with a little olive oil and sea salt, and caramelized the leeks and added a little of that wonder ingredient, creme fraiche.  Our guest contributed mashed sweet potatoes, and that was that.

May I say that we achieved turkey perfection?  That this was hands down the most deliciously tender and moist turkey I’ve ever tasted?  Even without cornbread dressing?  I’d like to credit this to my mad cooking skills, but I think, really, that the French are onto something here.

Fresh food is better.

Saulieu.

We did not eat here. But some day, for a special occasion? Maybe?

Our search for language-learning opportunities, good food, and educational experiences continues!  This week, it took us to Saulieu.  This little town was suggested to me by our rather sour part-time neighbor, who only visits from Paris every so often.  He’s critical of nearly everything (“At the market in town, you can get food as bad as in the United States!”), but gave rave reviews of the food in Saulieu, in particular a fromagerie and a relais.  He was right about the fromagerie, or cheese shop- it was wonderful.  The relais, which means “roadside cafe,” was anything but a roadside cafe.  It is in fact a very, very expensive, very fancy restaurant, probably with Michelin stars though I didn’t check.  He was probably right about this too, but with the least expensive menu beginning at 89 euros per person, it didn’t seem like the place for the kids and I to dine.

Did I mention that this neighbor drives his Porsche in from Paris, where he is in banking?  I suspect that we do not have the same budget.

However, his recommendations did get us to Saulieu, which was definitely worth the trip.  Burgundy is known for its food, and apparently Saulieu is known for some of the best Burgundy has to offer.  The cheese shop was definitely one of those places that is filled with the best of Burgundy.  A tiny little space in the center of town, it’s possible that you could follow your nose to find it. My kids, especially my daughter, were not impressed with the smell inside the shop.  And I must admit, it was not good.  But oh, the cheeses that were inside this tiny place!  A variety of different types of chevre, varying from the fresh and white to the ancient and gray-looking (those kind of scare me), filled one side of the shop.  In the middle, on a sturdy table, were several large wheels of cheese:  an Italian Parmesan, an Emmental, a Comte, a Cantal- it reads like a list of some of my favorites!  We sampled a few different cheeses, and ended up buying a small crottin (this translates either as “dung” or “a small round goat cheese”), a slice of Emmental, and a small piece of Cantal.  And, I couldn’t resist some fresh farmer-made butter to take home as well…

We also came across a little “epicerie” selling fresh vegetables.  I picked up a couple of sweet potatoes and a handful of the best brussel sprouts I’ve ever eaten- I roasted them for nearly an hour with olive oil and sea salt- delicious.  Like sweet little brussel sprout french fries… And we found (but did not enter) an amazing looking patisserie.  And a toy store.  And a sign saying something to the effect of “Napoleon Stayed Here When He Left Elbes.”  I think.

Church, with the military cemetery.

And then, we found a beautiful old church surrounded by a cemetery, including a cemetery for soldiers from World War II.  I’m always so intrigued and touched by anything concerning World War II here.  It happened here, after all, and history where it actually happened fascinates me.

We ate lunch here, in the yellow building behind the large “grill” sign. Cozy, charming, and yummy, and didn’t kill my budget.

I figured we earned a good lunch after all that walking and history learning.   So, though we did not eat at the “Relais”, we ate next door, and had a fabulous meal for the much more reasonable price of around 15 euros.  I had a terrine followed by coq au vin, and finished my meal with a cheese plate in keeping with my cheese theme for the day.  I was presented with about 7 different choices, and I picked a rather dry chevre with some pretty funky mold growing on the outside, a tomme, and an epoisse affine http://www.cheese-france.com/cheese/epoisses.htm.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen this one, but the proprietor suggested it as a specialty of Burgundy  and so, well, what could I do?  But, it was delicious.  Kind of salty, with a melting sort of texture- I can’t believe that I loved it, but I did.  Now, it didn’t smell as horrid as the Muenster I had in the Alsace, which I would compare to the odor of rotting flesh, but it did smell rather awful.  But oh, so delicious it was!

And between this cheese and the Muenster, I’ve come up with a new rule for living well in France:  Don’t smell your cheese before you eat it.  You’ll miss out on a lot of good stuff if you do.

What, you might ask, did the kids learn from this crazy day of exploring?  Besides a little history where it happened and how to choose a good cheese plate?  My daughter received her first compliment on her French.  And I am absolutely beside myself with glee.