Thursday, March 15, 2018

French Cheese: Coulommiers

Coulommiers is regarded as the petit frère (little brother) of Brie which is an odd relation because though it may be smaller it is actually the ancestor of Brie. When first arriving in France all those years ago, we noted that every supermarket was graced with its presence. Wherever we have lived or visited in France, there was a small round to be had. It being less runny, having a thicker rind, and tasting of almonds make it my preference over Brie. Being able to bring home a whole cheese or two instead of just a slice is in its favour also.

A fantastic way of serving is first cutting the round longitudinally to get two halves. Layer thinly sliced truffles on the bottom piece and top with the second. Wrap in plastic and store in a cool place (preferably not the fridge) for two days. For a dessert version, fill instead with chopped dried fruit (such as apricots, raisins, prunes, cranberries) and nuts (such as pistachios, hazel nuts, walnuts, almonds) mixed with a couple teaspoons of mascarpone. Store for at least a day in the fridge. Garnish with some whole fruits and nuts on top. Serve with a white wine. A bread chock-a-block with dried fruit and nuts could take the place of the filling. Another savoury approach is to simmer some cream or crème fraîche in a saucepan, remove the croûte (send it to me, please, as I am of the mind that one can never get enough of a bloomy rind), chop the Coulommiers, add the pieces to the warm cream, toss in a herb sprig like thyme or oregano, stir till smooth, salt to taste, and pour over pasta (penne would be an excellent choice). A less rich variation is subbing pasta cooking water for the cream.

I love when it is young enough to have a more solid centre as the contrast in textures adds to enjoyment. Regardless of the age (affinage) of the cheese, it is essential to bring it to room temperature before serving. The difference? Extreme lusciousness. If you go the sweet route, and serve it as a dessert in the cosy company of fresh fruit like mixed berries or figs, you won't mind not eating a pastry. Especially if you dribble some herb-infused honey on it.

However my favourite way of scoffing this cheese is exactly that: unadorned, unaccompanied, delectable sliver after delectable sliver vanishing through ecstatic lips.

À la prochaine! 

Other French Cheese Posts:



Bleu d'Auvergne
Bresse Bleu

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Resistant Starch: Pasta Alfredo with Peas & Shrimp

Desserts or homey, slowly simmered meals are not the only edibles that can comfort.

Pasta drenched in Alfredo sauce rich in cream, butter, and . . . 

. . . cheese will pamper the self just as much.

Not only does cooking the pasta and peas and storing them overnight in the fridge the night before saves time the following day, such a process allows the starch to become resistant when the pasta is reheated. For two servings, ingredients and their amounts are in boldThrow in two large handful of frozen peas (if fresh, add during the last few minutes of cooking) with enough pasta for two servings into boiling water and cook till just al dente. Drain, put into a container, and stir in a little oil to keep the pasta from sticking together. Cover and put in fridge.

The next day, in a suitably sized skillet, pour in 6-8 tablespoons of cream, bring to a simmer, add 4 tablespoons of sweet butter.

When butter is completely melted, add 8 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan.

Gently melt all the cheese while stirring frequently till sauce is thick and smooth. When a spoon is dragged across the sauce and stays parted for a few seconds, it's done.

Toss in the pasta, peas, and three handfuls of small, cooked shrimp (if frozen, first thaw and then squeeze out the liquid which can be reserved for court bouillon).

Stirring often, simmer for a minute or two . . .

. . . until everything is slicked with a scrumptious glaze and most of the liquid is gone. Salt to taste.

Cocooning, baby! That's the word the French use to denote setting up your personal environment in such a way that you feel cozy, protected from a fast-moving, demanding world. Afterwards, it would not be remiss, if you snuggle under a courtepointe douce (soft small quilt), propped up with a cushion here, a cushion there (especially for the feet), and read a book. Ah,  les petits bonheurs (the little things of happiness)!

À la prochaine!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sun Then Snow . . .

Though last week has been cold, I couldn't resist getting bundled up and strolling through the garden. The daffodils waved hello. How can they flaunt such exuberance? It's because last season their leaves were allowed to rot in place so as to nourish the underground bulb which became this out-of-sight powerhouse waiting to generate what we are seeing now: ornate lanterns requiring no light to shine.

Sweet violets are superb ground covers because they are evergreen shade-lovers, have fragrant late-winter flowers that can be candied, and spread readily through ballistic seed dispersal (click here to see it happening) plus myrmecochory (foraging worker ants carry the seeds back to the colony). To maximise flower visibility as the vigorous foliage can obscure the flowers, in late summer I take a line-trimmer to the beds and mow them down to a couple of inches above the ground.

Overwintered blue tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia) cover crop has done its soil protection job well. Soon it will be cut down and forked in so it can do its soil enrichment task also.

Once ivy reaches the end of its vertical support, it morphs into a robust bush that bears fruit which nourishes birds throughout winter. There's lots of ivy chez nous. Some grows up the pergola's pillars onto its roof. There has been this one starling who I have been observing from my office. She flits in and out of the ivy, plucking and swallowing berries in a flash. Once I witnessed her indulging in a fast food feast consisting of ten berries which she ate in a New York minute.

What beverage to go with that dish of ivy berries, my dear starling? Water, preferably of the liquid kind, please. Freezing temperatures the last few days mean that ice is slipped out of the birdbaths so they can be filled with fresh water.

The daffodils and heather cheer me up each and every time I peek out my office window.

Just before the temperature dropped even further, Dirac the Cat, with the aid of fedar (feline radar set for profiting from anything) popped out to relish sunny warmth before . . .

. . . snowflakes came floating down . . .

. . . and kept coming down . . .

. . . until all was leaden grey, but with the dreariness made less by white fluff. By that time, we were inside; Dirac the Cat was munching a treat and I was sipping something gloriously hot.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review / The Faith Of A Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Ms Oates' collection of thirteen essays on writing commingles heart and head to the extent these two often warring factions make an accord. Though a slim volume, it achieves much because of this harmony. If sentences are to be polished with costly adjectives, then let those embellishments be words like tessellated, hieratic, and  hypnagogic. The preciousness of her repetitive command write your heart out (in To a Young Writer) is easy to accept at face value because it stands out, like a Tiffany setting, supported by the shining evidence of her skills.

In Notes on Failure, one of the longer essays, she tackles the topic from several angles. One is that disappointment and frustration can beget favourable results. James Joyce's lack of success encouraged him to keep going since his work was so unpopular, he had nothing to lose. An odd safe haven was created from criticism. He profited from as his brother Stanislaus remarked, that inflexibility firmly rooted in failure. 

The obscure wellsprings which flush out creativity are discussed in Inspiration! A sight there, a sound here, a smell over there, an event over here can compel a writer to drink from the well. But what makes them go back again and again to quench that thirst, to get to know their obsession better, to bring the private in the public sphere? To answer her question, Why the need, rising in some very nearly to the level of compulsion, to verify experience by way of language?—to scrupulously record and preserve the very passing of Time? she quotes Vladimir Nabokov: All poetry is positional, to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better. Tentacles, not wings, are Apollo's natural members.

A two-part essay, the longest in the anthology, is titled, Reading as a Writer. Reading benefits writers in various ways. One such means is analysis. How does that author pull off what she does? What rhythm of sentence length? What vocabulary? What is the meaning of the finished piece? She elaborates on the latter by focusing on Anton Chekhov's short story, The Lady with the Dog. Its theme is stated right in the story itself: . . . Every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. She concludes:

The story's theme is like a bobbin upon which the thread of the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin, the thread would fly loose. Lacking this thematic center of gravity, the story of "fated" lovers would be merely sentimental and unoriginal.
In general, fiction of a high quality possesses depth because it involves absorbing narratives and meritorious characters and is at the same time a kind of commentary upon itself. In Chekhov, among other writers of distinction, "fiction" is counterpointed by "commentary" in a delicate equilibrium. The commentary can be extricated from the fiction, as Ray Carver chose a succinct epiphany from Chekhov to affix to his wall: . . . and suddenly everything became clear to him. But the fiction can't be extricated from the commentary, except at the risk of reducing it to a mere concatenation of events lacking a spiritual core.

The Faith of a Writer is a gracious, pragmatic, and knowledgeable companion to writers. It will be kept on a shelf near my desk. I recommend it highly.

À la prochaine!


Book Review / Florike Egmond's An Eye For Detail: Images of Plants and Animals in Art and Science, 1500-1630

Book Review / Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal

Baking From Around The World by Jessamyn Waldman

Rodriguez with Julia Turshen

Book Review/The Confidence Game: The Psychology Of The Con And Why We Fall For It Every Time By Maria Konnikova


The Faith of a Writer at Amazon

Joyce Carol Oates' Twitter account

Thursday, February 15, 2018

French Cheese: Pont-l'Évêque

From the Normandy town, Pont-l'Évêque (Bishop's Bridge), comes an eponymous AOC cheese tasting of butter and hazelnut. Since it is marketed in a wooden square container, not only is it carelessly referred to as Brie in a box, it is also a cinch to make fondue right in its packaging.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (350 degree F). Remove lid and discard.

Remove cheese and unwrap.

Remove any labels from the lower box half.

Flatbread for dipping!

Line the bottom of the box with parchment paper and fit in the cheese. Slash its rind several times. If desired, herbs and/or garlic could be tucked in. If slashed more deeply, then white wine or Calvados could be added. Place on lined baking sheet.

Bake for around twenty minutes. The rind will puff up and there will be some lava flows.

Slice the flatbread like you would a pizza. If presenting as a dessert, then apple or/and pear slices could be substituted. In that case accompany with a white wine on the sweeter side.

The wedge shape is so functional, the pointy end pierces through the croute while the wide edge acts like a handle, keeping your fingers away from the cheese. 

Molten cheese draped over flatbread triangles is a pleasure that embellishes daily life without much ado.

À la prochaine!

Other French Cheese Posts:

Bleu d'Auvergne
Bresse Bleu

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Roasted Chicken Legs & Braised Leeks

How to enjoy roast chicken without the bother of roasting one? Yes, there is always the local rotisseriein France, they are as common as bakeries and beauty centres. But the real answer is chicken legs! They are inexpensive, succulent, and because of their being the dark meat, contains more iron than breasts. They are also a simple way of ensuring of having evenly cooked meat, that is, no overdone breasts because there aren't any. When a large quantity of chicken legs are roasted, the chef gets many of the same benefits of roasting a whole chicken: crispy skin, lots of leftovers, a good amount of drippings for gravy, and meaty bones from which to make flavoursome broth.

Preheat oven to 218 degrees C/425 degrees F. Though any oven pan can be used, a rimmed baking sheet does the trick because it's capacious so as to contain numerous legs, shallow enough to encourage crisping, and has sufficient depth to contain the drippings. The pan can be lined with foil or in my case covered with a thin, flexible, usable pan protector. Keeping the seasoning simple, using just butter . . .

. . .  and coarse salt . . . 

. . . goes a long way in tastiness.

While the chicken is roasting, prepare the braised leeks. Trim off the tough green tops and roots. Slice down the length without cutting through the side or the bottom. Splay out the leek layers under running water and rinse well, targeting any trapped grit or soil. Slice thinly. Melt a knob of butter in a skillet, add the leeks, stir for a minute or two until mostly wilted, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until tender which takes around fifteen minutes. They will braise in their own juices. Keep warm until the chicken is done.

Depending on the size and number of chicken legs, it could take from thirty to sixty minutes before they become crackly crisp.  Our six medium ones took around thirty minutes. No need to turn them. Pierce one in the thickest part to see if the juices run clear.

Place them on the bed of leeks. The butter theme is strong in this one, with textural side notes both crisp and soft.

Left-over chicken can be shredded off the bones, portioned, and frozen. Once defrosted, it can be added to pasta and grains, stuffed inside tacos, enchiladas, and pita bread, tossed with avocado. It's delicious served hot, warm, or chilled.

There was a nice amount of jellied drippings which I put on left-over pasta shells and peas. The next day I added shredded chicken and gently reheated. Most excellent.

Knowledgeable, talented, and thrifty cooks always have made various stocks from meat bones and vegetables. So the exceedingly fashionable 'bone broth' which is being presented as something fabulously unique, has been around a long time. Regardless your perspective, it is gorgeous stuff. Using a suitably sized pot, throw in the meaty bones along with savoury veggies like carrots, onions, celery, herbs too, like bay leaf, parsley, thyme, sage, don't forget spices also, like peppercorns, cloves, ginger, cayenne, garlic. Cover with water. Simmer, partially liddedso broth can become concentratedfor three to five hours. A steamy kitchen and a gurgle here, a warble there, coming from a stock pot relaxes me like few things can. However, if you are more out than in your home, do the simmering in a crock pot overnight. Instant pot and pressure cookers are also alternatives.

À la prochaine!