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.

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.

Skiing Park City.

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Snow on the mountains of Salt Lake at sunset.

Well, I said we were going to do it, and we did.  Skipped out of Atlanta on a flight to Salt Lake, where we rented a car and headed up the mountains towards Park City.  And what a fabulous trip it was!  We stayed in a not-so-great hotel, which is normal for us- we go for travel in quantity, not quality, and so cheap is what we choose.  But who cares?  The bed was comfortable and clean, and what really matters is that the powder was fresh!

And that we ran into some friends that we hadn’t seen in 7 years.  As it turns out, they live there.  So, these two terrific people joined us on the slopes for our day of skiing.  But wait- it gets even better:  Mike, who is a pilot who flies at the same airline as my husband, is an expert skier as well as an instructor.  So he was the one to take on the teaching of our somewhat stubborn, always dramatic, 13 year old daughter.   I know without a doubt that she made the progress that she did because of him.  I know this because last year we went skiing at Lake Tahoe and my attempts to teach her ended with her lying on the snow, writhing about in a fit of insistence that she hates skiing, for about an hour.  At which we point I gave up and we went to the lodge to drink hot chocolate…

But this year, the whole family was able to ski together!  Hooray!  Our 10 year old son is already a good skier due to a lower level of resistance to the idea than his sister, and so there we were, all 4 of us plus our 2 friends, having a blast at Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah.  And if you are a skier and haven’t been here, I highly recommend that you give it a try.  I grew up skiing Colorado.  I am a Texan, and this is what Texans do:  Drive to Colorado for ski trips.  Often on church buses, which is a particular type of torture that I won’t go into here. I had never skied Utah because, well, it’s too far to drive to from Texas.  But now, living in Atlanta, Salt Lake is an easy 3.5 hour flight followed by a 30 minute drive to the slopes.  Of course, we can call it easy because of the Pilot’s job, for which I am extremely grateful.  But anyway, it’s a terrific place and is quickly becoming a favorite.

So, the skiing was wonderful on the day that my daughter and I skied, but the next day was snowy and cold and  I’m not tough enough for that, so instead my daughter and I headed for the food and shopping of Park City itself.  We had a lovely day doing that.  Park City was at one time a silver mining town, and all those patinaed historical buildings give Main Street so much character.  The shops range from interesting and quirky to ridiculously expensive and posh (this is where the Sundance Film Festival happens, after all, so there is serious money in this place), but all are fun to peruse.  We had lunch in a place that you pretty much have to be a local to know about, and since we were locals for a while this summer, we know how to find it.  The roast turkey sandwich?  They slice the turkey off the actual roasted bird as you watch.  This is fresh, homemade food- nothing fancy, but delicious nonetheless.  My favorite spots to visit, however, are the art galleries.  This little town has an amazing selection of art and artists, and wandering in and out of them feels a little like being in an open air museum of sorts.

It was especially interesting for us, having spent the entire summer out there last year, to see the town and the surrounding countryside in deep winter, contrasting to how it looked when we were there in summer.  Summer was beautiful, with the aspen trees fully decked out and the grass green and the wildflowers blooming. There were  horses in the fields, and nesting sandhill cranes in the fields and overhead, their bizarre calls filling the air.  Winter was equally beautiful with its deep blanket of snow and the stark white trunks of the Aspens fully visible.

I’m not sure which I liked best.  I think this may call for more research..

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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.