Thursday, October 17, 2019

Autumn Advances

Days are becoming shorter and colours more sombre. Nearly two months of steady rain have also contributed to the lessening of light where it seems each day is just one premature, sustained gloaming. Semi-evergreen penstemon with their claret-coloured blooms are still going as they have been since early summer therefore making themselves especially valuable for smaller gardens like ours where every plant must work harder and longer in providing visual interest regardless what season. In larger gardens, the gaps resulting from short-lived displays don't dominate as much because there's always something of interest somewhere. Root veggies, planted just six to eight weeks ago, are getting closer to harvest. Their lush foliage is a welcomed contrast to withered and falling leaves, but I must say I enjoy the satisfying crunch of dead leaves underfoot!

Violet turnips are gleaming like huge amethysts. 

Carrots need another month to become mature.

But until then, the small, tender carrots which are thinned out to allow others to grow larger will have to do. And they do very well indeed when they are briefly simmered in butter and a bit of water. The water evaporates leaving the carrots with the most scrumptious glaze made by the butter and the sugar naturally occurring in these garden-fresh baby carrots.

The strawberry bed has put out many runners; twelve of them have been potted up in a recycled shallow container. The rest of the runners have been clipped and put on the compost so as not to choke the original plants' growth. Strawberry plants become less productive with each passing year, necessitating propagation every season. This coming spring, these runners will have developed enough roots to be transplanted into a bed which haven't had any strawberries planted for several years as strawberries are disease-prone and must be rotated. In early summer, four-year, hardly productive plants will be removed after harvest. As the bed empties through time, other crops are planted  Strawberries are worth all the trouble as our freezer can attest: container after container of slightly sugared, delectable berries waiting to be put into smoothies, cobblers, and more simply, served in their own syrup and dressed with vanilla-flavoured whipped cream.

Autumn is an excellent time for planting new arrivals and relocating existing ones. Sixteen laurel plants which came from cuttings of established laurels on our property were transplanted from their three-year-old nursery bed. I did one most days. The steady rainfall kept the soil at the right moisture level throughout the three-week period so not only the holes could be spaded easily but also sieved compost from our pile could be incorporated readily with the dug-up earth. The newbies will lengthen the existing hedge to completely flank the back garden's eastern boundary. The splendid but self-seeded and rather large rose of Sharon which has pressed itself against the fence presented a problem but my solution so far seems to be working. After digging a few trial holes, I could see no competing roots. I did give the bush's expansive branches a good pruning so I could work around it, digging and transplanting. The 'hedglings' are positioned around ninety centimetres (three feet) from the wire fence so as to allow an alley where I can go to clip and trim behind the hedge. 

Across the back garden, along the opposite boundary fence, the five Leyland cypress trees which were planted last autumn, mostly developed roots this season, reserving energy so they can grow an astonishing ninety centimetres (three feet) next year. They will fill in the space left by the much slower-growing ivy which has covered the majority of that fence. As with many serendipitous pairings, as the ivy became more and more of a background for the red rose already planted there I slowly realised that one of the most spectacular colour combos is a floriferous cloud of red roses being framed by a tall wall covered with stalwart, dark-green ivy. The cypress will elaborate further on that theme.

The trees grew only thirty centimetres (one foot) this summer. But once they get going, they need at least four trims per year or else there will be a dark, brooding forest on that side! For that reason I use them very sparingly as they gallop away with growth before you can locate your shears. Since neighbours seldom appreciate being shrouded in gloom and gigantic trees are not able to be felled with clippers, it is not uncommon for these lovely trees to be the basis for legal disputes.

The potted bougainvillea has started to present their true flowers, tiny white blooms in the centres of gorgeous crimson sepals. That cheery yellow around the pot's base is provided by perennial snapdragons which have self-sowed in the cracked patio and have decided to perform a second show after their early summer debut.

Giant lavender which has been blooming since August is holding onto some of its flowers. A peony's burnished foliage complements the bluish spikes.

À la prochaine!


Strawberry Cobbler

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Single Serving, No-Bake Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie

It's nice to make something special for just you. This cookie is delicious and takes about ten minutes to do from start to finish. The oats and peanut butter pushes it to the healthy side by providing a needed boost of long-lasting energy.

The ingredients are few and are all pantry staples (from Lindsay Maitland Hunt’s Healthyish cookbook via Food52)

  • Peanut butter, natural, creamy, 2 T
  • Oats, quick-cooking or instant, 2 T
  • Sugar, Icing/confectioner's, 1 tsp (regular sugar can be buzzed in a food processor till it becomes powdery)
  • Vanilla, 1/4 tsp
  • Chocolate chips, semi-sweet, 1 T
  • Fleur de sel/flakey sea salt, a sprinkling

Using a fork, blend the first four ingredients until the mixture forms a stiff paste. 

With your fingers, form it into a thick disk and put on a small plate lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper allows transferring it to another plate if desired. Also it seems to me that it helps the bottom of the cookie to firm helping it to hold together. Score down the centre with the tines of a fork. Put in freezer for around five minutes.

Meanwhile measure out the chocolate chips and put in a ceramic bowl.

Place bowl in microwave or over boiling water in a pot on the stove. Stir once or twice as the chocolate melts. I don't know about you, but I find melting chocolate extremely relaxing. And that delectable fragrance whets the appetite!

Spoon over a half of the cookie or the whole surface if you prefer (that way you get a bit of chocolate with each bite!) If it doesn't set on its own, put it back in the freezer until the chocolate becomes solid. Peel off the paper.

Don't forget to sprinkle the fleur de sel before serving! Though it doesn't have the alluring fragrance of a baked good or can't be dunked into coffee, it was an excellent treat. I forked off chunks which stay together enough to be handheld and popped into my mouth. The creaminess along with some crumbly crunch coupled with the contrast between salty and sweet makes this cookie a delight. Its cold state plus not having to turn on the oven was welcomed here in southwest France as the days are still quite warm. 

À la prochaine!


Microwave Molten Mudcake in a Mug (only three ingredients!)

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Iron Cookware Series: Strawberry Cobbler

Cobblers tend to be two different kinds, one closer to cake, the other more like a crumble/crisp but with a biscuit/scone topping; I prefer the former. Years ago I made a cake-like cobbler, but in the upside down manner using a regular baking dish, that is, the melted butter and berries went first, then followed by the batter. For this present one, I am using the opposite method, first the melted and very hot butter, then the batter followed by the berries. This way, with the help of the cast-iron, the bottom surface also becomes carmelised as well as the regular browning on top, hence simulating a double crust. Though this cobbler can be made with fresh strawberries, I opted to use some from our garden's frozen bounty.

made in a 10 inch skillet; 6 ample servings or 8 regular ones

Cake Batter
  • Flour, white, 16 T (1 American 8 fluid oz cup)
  • Sugar, white, 12 T (3/4 American 8 fluid oz cup)
  • Baking powder, 1 1/2 tsp
  • Salt, 1/4 tsp
  • Egg, 1 large or medium
  • Milk, whole, 8 T (1/2 American 8 fluid oz cup)
  • Crème fraîche or sour cream, 4 T (1/4 American 8 fluid oz cup)
  • Vanilla extract, 1 tsp
  • Butter, 2 T
  • Strawberries, fresh or frozen & sliced in syrup, .7 litre (3 American 8 fluid oz cups)
  • Cream and strawberry coulis for serving

Preheat oven to 177 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). If using fresh strawberries, hull, rinse, and slice. Toss in two to three tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for around ten minutes or until juice is formed. Drain off most of the juice and reserve for later use as a coulis. If using already sliced, frozen berries, let thaw a bit and then drain and reserve syrup. Put first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir until blended. Place the next four ingredients in a jug and mix with a wire whisk. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry. Stir with wooden spoon until smooth. Melt butter in skillet till hot and bubbly, but don't let it brown. Pour in the batter. Top with the berries. Bake for around thirty-five minutes or until a tooth pick inserted into the centre comes out dry and/or when the centre is pressed, it acts springy. Let cool for five minutes. Serve with cream and coulis.

Lovely at all temperatures, but my preference is slightly warm.

The centre is sodden with strawberry juice but the borders are fluffy cake.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Autumn 2019

Following this past Monday officially ushering in autumn, the rains came and will keep coming all week. After a month of no precipitation, there's the satisfying fragrance of petrichor in the air, the amusing sound of my sabots squelching as I traipse through the garden, and the intriguing sight of soft tonal values switching to intense chiaroscuro with colour accents of deep pink, golden yellow, and mellow claret; at least that is under the ivy-covered pergola where rose of sharon, black eyed susan vine, and bougainvillea are all thriving.

The bougainvillea was gifted to me by the high school student who I tutored for her English exam which she then passed. That summer nearly ten years ago it bloomed well. I dutifully brought it in as the days got shorter as it is not winter hardy in our climate. Since then, the blooming varied from none to sparse. After being placed under the pergola last season for decorative purposes where it still got sun but no rain, it BLOOMED. Research revealed it needed drought stress for those gorgeous sepals to appear. That's right, they are sepals, not blooms. The actual flower is tiny, white, and mostly hidden. Additionally they grow on new wood, so late winter pruning is in order as is light trimming after each bloom cycle. As this variety is a late-bloomer, the show has just begun as it is studded all over with tiny, red sepals. Yes!

These two remaining and totally sodden raspberries are saying no more harvest this season.

Carrots are best planted at the end of May, June, and July when the carrot fly is not so hell bent on laying its eggs at the base of the ferny foliage. These were planted end of July and should be able to be harvested mid November.

As we both don't care for grapes with seeds, the twenty or so vines which were here when we arrived were gradually cut to the ground and allowed to be covered with ivy, but this one managed to fruit!

Turnips which were planted in early September may not have the time to develop roots, but for sure their mild greens will be harvested regardless.

This was the season that the cherry plum tree out front was felled. Now the Box Elder stands alone clearing that area a bit to allow both us and the sun access.

Those plants sidling up the side of the house in the above photo are perennial herbs, specifically sage, fennel, and rosemary. Rosemary had already flowered in the spring and is doing a repeat one now.

The hollow stump of the cherry plum shows clearly it was long past its due date.

The potted crew of shade-loving plants will miss the shadow that the plum tree once cast. They will be re-located under the front balcony entrance and sun-lovers will be put in their place.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Yogurt/Crème Fraîche With Fresh Figs & Cinnamon Maple Fig Butter

Autumn officially will arrive this coming Monday. Here in southwest France, the days may be still hot, but the evenings have a bit of a chill in the air. So serving food at a cool temperature but with some warming, sweet spices is a nice compromise. Our fig tree recently gave us a flush of ripe fruit, the third this season, and probably the final one.  As with the abundance of peaches earlier, making fruit butter is an effective way to process such a delicious deluge.

makes around a litre (a quart) of Cinnamon Maple Fig Butter

  • Figs, whole, fresh, rinsed, 4 litres (4 quarts)
  • Sugar, white, 8 T
  • Maple Syrup, 2 T
  • Cinnamon, 2 large pinches
  • Ginger, 1 large pinch
For each serving:
  • Yogurt, whole, plain, 8 T
  • Crème fraîche, 2 T
  • Fig, fresh, quartered for garnishing
  • Icing sugar
  • Maple syrup, a drizzle

Place the figs in a suitably sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, preferably an enamelled cast-iron pot. It's fine if the pot is full. Cover and cook over medium heat for around ten minutes till mostly soft. Smash and crush the fruit with a large wooden spoon. Cook another ten minutes.

Working in batches and using a Foley mill, sieve the figs directly over a pot which fits the mill snugly. When finished sieving, ensure that the bottom of the sieve is scraped with a clean spoon. Put a handheld blender directly in the pot and blend till smooth.

Clean the pot in which the figs were softened and pour the sieved, blended figs into it. Add sugar, maple syrup, and spices. Cook, partially covered as to avoid splattering, over low heat, stirring every fifteen minutes or so, for around two hours or until the taste and consistency is to your preference. At first, it will have the colour of caramel which will deepen into a shade of chestnut. As it reduces, the flavour will intensify and start to resemble the rich one of dried figs, with notes of coffee and chocolate. Let cool a bit. Spoon into jars and store in the fridge where it will keep for a couple of weeks.

Fruit butters can be used in baked goods like muffins and simple cakes where they will add moisture and flavour. They are great spread on toast/crepes/crumpets or directly eaten with a spoon right from the jar! In that case, I highly recommend a chaser of a teaspoon of natural peanut butter following each teaspoon of fig butter. Any surplus can be frozen.

Mix yogurt and crème fraîche till smooth and creamy. Spoon into a serving dish. Put a heaping teaspoon of fig butter in the centre and four more spaced around the perimeter. Place the fig quarters in between the mounds of fig butter. Sprinkle with icing sugar and drizzle with maple syrup. Lovely, lovely, lovely! Not too sweet and not too luscious, just perfect, it make a wonderful breakfast, snack, or dessert. And I love the delicate crunch of the seeds.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fresh Fig & Raspberry Maple Spiced Smoothie

The raspberry patch and the fig tree still are going great guns. Smoothies make a gorgeous, high-energy late afternoon snack. If one were going to eat all that fruit it would take a lot more time than quaffing them down!

For one large serving or two smaller ones, put five, washed, ripe, halved figs along with a large handful of rinsed raspberries plus generous pinches of ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg in the mixing container that comes with a handheld blender. Cover with milk. Add maple syrup to taste. The amount of sweetener will vary per the sugar content of the fruit.  Blend till smooth.

The addition of raspberries always gives a nice blush to smoothies. Autumn was very much in the air while these were sipped on the balcony overlooking the front garden. Therefore the slight heat given by the sweet spices was welcomed.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Peach Butter

Close cousins to jams and preserves, fruit butterssome of the better known ones being apple and prunedo not contain a smidgin of butter despite their name. The butter reference in this case describes the silky, spreadable, fondant (melt-in-your-mouth) texture which is achieved through simmering, sieving, blending, and reduction via a second simmering. It can also be regarded as a paste, similar to tomato paste, but sweet, not savoury and a bit less thick. It is an effective way to process the abundance of peaches streaming in from our potager. This peach butter can be kept in the fridge for a few weeks, or if longer conservation is required, it can be either frozen or canned.

makes around 500 ml (2 American cups of 8 oz)
  • Peaches, fresh, 1.8 kg (4 lbs)
  • Sugar, 8 T
  • Lemon juice, fresh, 2 T
Peaches are beautiful in several ways: their fuzzy, round form with a circular seam connecting a dip on top and a tip on bottom says we are both friendly and substantial; their blend of warm-toned colours, we are drop-dead gorgeous; their fragrance, stay awhile, won't you? And you do, since their flavour is stupendous. How do I pick them? By shaking the tree! A few bounce off my head and the cats. But all in all most of them miss us and eventually get placed in the harvest basket none worse for the wear.

Rinse ripe peaches. Cut each in half (using the seam running around the peach as a guideline). Remove pits and discard them. Place fruit in a heavy-bottomed pot, preferably an enamelled cast-iron one. No need to peel because not only is time saved, the flavour and colour will be more intense.

Toss in sugar and lemon juice. Partially cover and simmer for about thirty minutes or until the peaches are falling apart and extremely soft. Stir occasionally. If peaches are not very juicy, some water may need to be added.

Working in batches, pass them through a Foley mill placed over a pot, that is, crank the handle clockwise three times and then one counter-clockwise turn to unclog. Repeat until the residue is no longer sopping wet. Remember to scrap off the bottom of the mill before using a hand-held mixer, blending well the mixture right in the pot. Rinse out the pot in which the peaches were simmered.

Pour the simmered, sieved peaches into the clean pot and reduce, partially covered, stirring fairly frequently to prevent sticking for around thirty minutes or until it's thick enough . . .

. . . that when a large spoon is dipped into the pot and that spoon is etched with a smaller one down the middle, the parting will stay. Let cool for five to ten minutes. Ladle into a clean jar. Keep covered in the fridge.

Oh, yes!

Almost too pretty for words, but how about translucent and the colour of rosewood?

Much closer to a sauce than a jam or jelly, it sinks deep down into the billowy bread folds. So good!

À la prochaine!