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.

A night in Vezelay.

IMG_3248One year later, almost to the day.  I not only made it back to France, but to Burgundy and even more specifically, Vezelay.  One of my absolute favorite places, anywhere in the world. And I was able to share it with one of my favorite people in the world, my mother.

Last year, when we were in the region for three months, my parents intended to come over and stay with us for a bit.  But, life got in the way- my grandmother had to have surgery on the arteries in her neck which were very blocked (yes, kind of a big deal) and so instead of a trip to France, mom got a trip to the hospital to take care of my grandmother.  And that was only one of many trips to the hospital to take care of others for her over the last year.  It has been a rough year, to put it mildly.  And so, we decided to take a week off from everything and escape.

We flew into Paris straight from Atlanta and rented a car and headed for the A6 towards Beaune.  But we were going to arrive one day earlier than the reservation in Beaune began, and as it turns out, Vezelay is somewhat on the way between Paris and Beaune.  A little out of the way, but as I saw it, that would only provide an excuse to take the back roads, through Chateau Chinon and Autun, into Beaune.  I booked a hotel at the aptly named Le Compostelle, and off we went.

The drive out of Paris was bad but not as bad as it could have been, and once we cleared a ridiculously long bouchon (traffic jam) in the Parisian suburbs, we were on our way.  I actually really enjoy driving in Europe, despite my rather loud complaining about driving in Paris traffic.  People seem to follow the rules, and traffic flows fairly smoothly.  And for a country that seems incapable of directional signage, France does a beautiful job with signs along the autoroute telling you what lovely historical buildings or towns or points of interest you are passing. And suddenly, there was a sign for Vezelay.  We exited, paid our exorbitantly priced toll, and wound our way along the backroads towards our destination.

And it was so worth the trouble of getting there.  This is a place where it feels as though life has flowed on in the same way for thousands of years, and just for a passing moment, you can step into that current and become part of it.  There is a deep silence to the place, and a feeling of calm.  The air, that early October evening, was still and cool and scented with lavender.  We checked into Le Compostelle, where we were helped with our luggage to our tiny room on the third floor by a slender French man who proclaimed himself to be a “French bull.”  We took a moment to freshen up from our long voyage and then stepped out into town to find dinner.  And oh, what a dinner we found.

Last year, my children and I came repeatedly to Vezelay.  They probably weren’t so thrilled about it, but you’re getting the message that I really love it here so we came often.  We never, however, ate a good meal here.  There was a restaurant about halfway up the hill that had intrigued me, but I naively thought that the mention on their door that they were in the Michelin guide meant I couldn’t afford it or that it would be fancier than a 9 year old could handle.  However, I now understand more about restaurants in France, and also this time it was just me and mom, and so in we went without a moment’s hesitation.  Silly me- my kids would have done just fine- nothing fancy about this place, but its simplicity belies what is going on in that kitchen.  I can honestly say that this was the best meal we ate the whole time we were in France, on that very first night there in Vezelay.  This tiny little place, in this tiny little town, serves up some pretty incredible food.  I had duck, thinly sliced and medium rare, in a sauce made from currants, with a gratin of potatoes on the side to further soak up the deliciously tart sauce, followed by that wonderful French invention:  The cheese cart.  Where you get to choose several and then they tell you what order you should enjoy them in.  My mother, however, was the smarter of us that evening.  As much as I love cheese, the cherry clafoutis with a dish of homemade cherry sorbet on the side was the hands-down winner.  If you’ve never tried a clafoutis, I suggest correcting that situation as quickly as possible… And the sorbet?  A stroke of genius.

And thus, full, happy, and exhausted, we climbed to our third story room, opened the windows as wide as possible, and both fell immediately to sleep.  There is nothing like fresh, cool air to help you sleep deeply, which we both did, and were awakened the next morning by quite possibly the best combination of sensations in the entire world:  The smell of freshly baked bread, and the sound of bells ringing in an ancient basilica.  Of course, by the time we actually got up and out the door, it wasn’t exactly early (jet lag, you are a cruel mistress), but we managed to get pain au chocolat and cafe au lait anyway.  We did a little shopping at the local brocante and wandered into a few art galleries as we made our way up the steep hill towards the basilica.  As we neared the basilica, we could hear the sound of singing coming from inside, and as we entered, we realized that the monks and nuns were gathered and some type of mass was going on.  Another incredible treat:  Listening to monks and nuns chanting together in worship of God.  Again, that feeling of stepping, just for a moment, into an ancient current…

My heart overflows.

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We met this charming little guy outside of the brocante that we stopped into.
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If you want to dine in Vezelay, I highly recommend coming here. And please, please have the clafoutis.
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Daily life…
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Our hotel. What it lacked in modernity, it completely made up for in charm. And in French bulls.

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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.

Eating what I want- then taking a long walk.

I hope this habit sticks when I return to Atlanta…  the long walk part, that is.

Yes, I’m thoroughly enjoying the good food here in France, and pretty much denying myself nothing.  Denial is not really my style, you see.   I’m not concerned, though, because we balance it out with lots of exercise.  Happily, the scenery surrounding my house makes me look so forward to exercising that it doesn’t feel like work at all.  It’s just a pleasure.  No equipment or special clothing required, and the kids can and do trek right along with me.  And perhaps you already know how I feel about kids and exercise and fresh air.

The other day I took my camera along on our walk, and this is what I came away with- I hope you enjoy these images as much as I do.  It just seemed right to tell this story in pictures.

Walking on a sunny day, with our dachshund Annie.
Filled with accidental symbolism, I snapped this at the end of our road. The crossroad leads to an old, abandoned “prieure”, so perhaps this is marking the way.
To the old abbey- I’m drawn to it every time.
Many of the houses were where employees of the priory lived.
The priory itself.
Another view of the priory. Am I using the right word for this place? Does anyone know?
A few of our charming neighbors.

A favorite little side road of mine, due to the spectacular view.