Thursday, January 12, 2017

'Don't Scrimp on the Shrimp' Bisque

Comfort food, based either on a flexible interpretation or even better, sans recipe, is eaten often chez nous. At times, however, following a methodical and exacting approach appeals because it simultaneously teaches new skills while honouring old ones. In that way, expertise continues to build upon itself. Special celebratory meals assist in this endeavour by giving carte blanche in terms of the expense and amount of time required for elaborate cuisine, making its indulgence a joyous fit.

Shrimp bisque was the first course for our Noël dinner

If you are of the squeamish persuasion, choosing whole, raw shrimp in all their verminous horror replete with unnerving eyestalks, is challenging. The Calm One and I tootled off in our much loved electric car to visit four supermarkets which were scattered in and around Angoulême before I actually put a hand in the freezer filled with shellfish, pulled out the right-sized packet, and put it in our cart. As we skipped from market to market, cognac went into one basket, but not the alien creatures, fresh chives went into another, but not the fringy frights, and in the penultimate shop, roast beef, but not the briny thingies. We had worked up enough acclimatisation, not to mention we were running out of stores, hence on the final try, celery found its rightful place as finally did the shrimp though my eyes were partially closed when I plonked them into the cart. As he said, all that creepy crawly aspect is bad enough, but do they have to be grey too?

The camera lied as the shrimp were a shade of slimy slate

makes four ample servings

  • Butter, sweet, 1 T
  • Shells and heads from 400 grams of raw, medium shrimp
  • Litres, 2, scant, water
  • Bay leaf, 1
  • Butter, sweet, 3 T
  • Shrimp, medium, fresh or frozen, whole, raw, deveined, shelled, about 30, 400 grams
  • Bay leaf, 1
  • Carrots, medium, 2
  • Celery, stalks, 2
  • Shallots, 6
  • Cognac, 235 ml
  • Rice, white, long grain, 4 T
  • Parsley, fresh, several small sprigs
  • Thyme, fresh, several small sprigs
  • Cayenne, 1/4 tsp (I used one tiny dried whole pepper)
  • Cream, 235 ml
  • Lemon juice, freshly squeezed, 3 T
  • Chives, fresh, 4 T
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In order to overcome my aversion of getting physically close to shrimp while shelling, deveining, and decapitating them, I thought of all the wonderful people who fished, packaged, and transported these wild shrimp to me. As it was the least I could do to express my gratitude, I had no trouble in doing what was needed to be done:  locating the first joint from the head, and slicing it off; pulling off the shell; cutting out the black vein.

While the shrimp resided, covered, in the fridge, the shrimp stock was made.

Stir fry the shells and heads in one tablespoon of butter over moderate heat for several minutes till slightly browned. Add water and the bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, for a half of an hour.

Strain the broth via a fine sieve and discard the shells.

Stir fry the prepared shrimp in a tablespoon of butter over moderate heat for several minutes till opaque. Upon peeking into the kitchen, The Calm One exclaimed, that is the same as those creepy things? Cover and reserve them in the fridge, keeping four shrimp separate which will be used for the garnish.

Now this is something a mother can love

Finely chop the carrots, celery, and shallots. Slowly saute while stirring them occasionally in two tablespoons of butter over medium heat till soft, about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Mirepoix or soffrito forms the savoury base of many a dish

Remove pot from heat and pour in the cognac. Return to heat and while stirring, let the alcohol mostly evaporate.

Add the tomato paste and rice. Stir for a minute.

Pour in the shrimp stock and add a bay leaf, cayenne pepper, parsley, and thyme.

Parsley, thyme, bay leaves, along with the shallots, came from our potager

Simmer, uncovered, for thirty minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Add all the shrimp except the ones reserved for the garnish. Blend the soup with a stick mixer. Then pass the mixture through a fine sieve; the more you can get through the sieve, the thicker the soup. Return the bisque to the cleaned pot and add cream. Gently reheat and add lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finely mince the chives and the four reserved shrimp. Place the garnish in each soup plate and ladle the bisque around them. Since what I wrote in the previous week's post captures the essence of the bisque, I'll repeat it here:  Being of Goldilocks consistency, the bisque washed over my palate in a briny wave with an undercurrent of spice, nutty taste, slight sweetness, a bit of tang, and buttery savouriness, all laced with cream and cognac. It was the better the next day, and the day after, it reached regale status.

À la prochaine!


Wikipedia entry on bisque

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Our 2016 Noël Feast . . . and the continuing triple feline saga of Dirac, Eli & Ernest

The Calm One and I hope your holidays were joyful. After a nice long break, it's great to be blogging once again. French supermarkets having a foire du vin every autumn encourages squirrelling away bottles in our sous-sol's cool, dark cellier. There is ample shelving for pumpkins, onions, and potatoes from the potager along with space for growing mushrooms, crocks for fermenting various delices, and storing late-ripening tomato vines. A sanctum of plenty. And there are wine racks! A Pomerol from our stash was deemed the best choice for the holiday table. Don't worry, your vision is fine because that is a garlic press in the below photo. We'll blame the cognac that told me to take a sip, OK, several sips as I poured some into the shrimp bisque, not to mention that blindly rummaging the innards of a kitchen drawer with one hand while stirring several pots on the stove in rapid succession with the other renders corkscrews and garlic presses remarkably similar to the touch.

Our winter-flowering heather obliged with a small bouquet

Pomerol is the AOC referring to a small area within the right bank of the prestigious région viticole of Bordeaux. It has unassuming chateaux, no official classification, and not much recognition outside France until the American wine critic, Robert Parker, extolled its virtues starting in the 1980s. But it does have the exceptional blue clay of Petrus whose domain produces some of the most expensive wines in the world. The main cépage is the merlot grape variety. Pomerol is quite varied, from light to full-bodied. Though our moderately priced bottle did not come from Petrus, it still was wonderful, fleshy and fruity.

Last autumn, we got several, small wine glasses for a pittance at a flea market 

Since Pomerol pairs well with roasted, grilled, and braised meat, roast beef was chosen as the main course. With turf comes surf. Enjoying shrimp bisque at various restaurants, I always wanted to make one from scratch. Next week's post will have detailed instructions on this potent but silky mixture of shrimp, tomato, rice, cognac, mirepoix of carrot, celery and shallot, shrimp stock, cream, lemon, thyme, cayenne, and bay leaf. Until then, let's focus on the garnish, minced shrimp and chives, centred in a shallow soup plate.

The soup was ladled around that tempting little mound. Being of Goldilocks consistency, the bisque washed over my palate in a briny wave with an undercurrent of spice, nutty taste, slight sweetness, a bit of tang, and buttery savouriness, all laced with cream and cognac. It was the better the next day, and the day after, it reached regale status.

Last spring we forced some of the potager's rhubarb by overturning a large terracotta crock over a plant so there would be tender, pink puree in the freezer for our Noël dessert of rhubarb fool. Having made it before, I wanted to try something different which was adding crème anglaise which was folded completely into the whipped cream before partially folding in rhubarb. Having made also crème anglaise before, I, of course, wanted a new slant, so that lovely, thick custard sauce was made not with milk, but with cream. So what we have here is essentially unfrozen ice cream threaded with puree and topped with rhubarb coulis. Details on making the custard will be posted within this month. 

Beautiful billowy bounty

The day after, leftovers! A boon for both the chef, moi, and the dishwasher par excellence, The Calm One. Roast beef was sliced thinly and served with its reduced red wine/pan drippings sauce, along with mayonnaise, cornichons, pickled onions.

Once opened, wine is best consumed within several days

Brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes were reheated in the oven. Some astuces for great roasted taters is to give the pot of drained, cooked-till-nearly-fork-tender potatoes several good shakes to create texture, and then put them in a roasting pan in which butter was melted till bubbling either in the oven or on the stovetop depending on the pan's functionality, carefully coating all the pieces with the hot fat. Roast at any temperature that is convenient, until well browned, usually around thirty minutes.

Meanwhile, in The Furry Kingdom, where Dirac the Cat may be . . .

Eli the Kitten, formerly Eliza the Lost Kitten (who has found a home, ours!), is not far behind. We now think that he was very young when I found him dashing across a busy street, probably closer to two months than the three that we had guessed. Hence, his youth made it difficult to identify his sex. But as he got huskier, I realised, oh, it's has to be Eli, not Eliza. Eli likes to suckle the crook of my arm, especially if it is clothed in my favourite flannel shirt. Only recently has he started to meow, before it was more of a rumbling burple which was heart-rending in its innocence. He regards Dirac as his lost mama, running under his big stepbrother's belly for some determined milking. One is disappointed, the other, beyond irritated.

Ernest the Sous-Sol Cat (formerly Ernest the Stray Cat) continues his half-wild, half-tame ways. Some cold nights, he stays in the mud/potting rooms where his bedding, food, and litter are kept, during others, he is out-and-about, eventually returning, often in a disheveled state, but always pleased with himself.

Ernest loves to lie on the chopped-down mustard plants which had served as an overwintering, living mulch

À la prochaine!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Eliza, The Lost Kitten

Eliza's tiny tabby form dashing across a heavily trafficked street was spotted by me during my morning walk this past Saturday. Unless you are familiar with the ways of a kitten, you may not realise that a kitten is essentially a baby on amphetamines. Therefore this post will be short and sweet because I hear a hungry mewling OR there's a rapid series of pinpricks up my legs which are clothed in two thicknesses of pants OR the strap dangling from my camera obviously exists only as a kitten plaything OR all three events are happening at the same time.

Embarrassingly pretty, she is probably about 3 months old, has a partial classic tabby bullseye pattern, and hazel eyes

As of yet we have been unable to find her owners. But at present she is snug and safe chez nous. Weekends is when I changed our bed linens so Eliza admirably assumed a supervisory role.

Those sheet corners are done well!

Dirac the Cat is slowly becoming accustomed to yet even more new fur following his introduction to Ernest the Stray Cat. After hissing and smacking her with his paw since her arrival, today he gently sniffed her nose while I held her which is a very good sign. They are still being kept in separate rooms until their meeting becomes more consistently amicable.

You haven't stuffed the duvet in its cover yet!

She found the first day with us fairly tough but she is adjusting well to her new surroundings and routine.

I prefer kitten food but this pillowcase will do.

The Calm One had made a large batch of his special macaroni and cheese awhile ago and there was some still in the freezer. Out it came, resplendent with its three different pasta shapes and cheeses. Not to mention frankfurter chunks. It got further adorned with a cheese topping and put under the broiler for a few minutes till a lovely crust formed.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Italian Pasta & Beans

The recipes of Rachel Roddy, a Rome-based food blogger and cookbook author, are noteworthy for their sheer doability. In this particular case, a simple technique of simmering pasta directly in a stew consisting of beans, garlic, rosemary, and tomatoes instead of just stirring in already cooked pasta made all the difference. However to do that enough flavoursome liquid is needed. She used the water from cooking dried beans. Since our larder only had canned ones, they along with dried porcini and the liquid in which the mushrooms were rehydrated went in the pot. Both crème fraîche  and Grana Padano were in our fridge so those were added also as finishing touches.

serves four

  • White beans, canned, about 660g (400 g drained) 
  • Olive oil, virgin, 5 T
  • Garlic, 2 fat cloves
  • Fresh rosemary, a few sprigs
  • Tomatoes, crushed/pulp (choose the best available, I used the brand, Cirio), 400 to 600g depending on desired consistency
  • Egg pasta, dried, small shapes (I used short, wide noodles), 220g
  • Porcini, dried, a small handful, and the water in which they were reconstituted
  • Crème fraîche, 2 T
  • Grana Padano, a large handful of shavings
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cover the porcini with hot water and let steep about ten minutes. Strain into a jug and repeat several times. Reserve the water. Coarsely chop the porcini.

Peel the garlic cloves and gently crush (I used a metal skimmer). In a medium-sized pot, warm the olive oil over a low flame and add the cloves. Stir for a couple of minutes or until fragrant and translucent.

Add the tomatoes, the rosemary, and the porcini. Simmer covered for ten minutes.

Add the rinsed, drained beans and several sloshes of the mushroom liquid and cook covered for another ten minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Toss in the pasta and add mushroom liquid until . . .

. . . all is well covered.

Cook until pasta is tender, about ten minutes. Mix in the crème fraîche.

Top with the Grana Padano shavings.

Taking a little over thirty minutes to do, this dish was delicious, comforting, and satisfying. I loved the luscious chunks of tender garlic.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Ambling Towards Winter Solstice . . . and Ernest the stray cat

How is it possible to be so chilled out while working in our garden during chilly days? Snug cap, leather work gloves, flannel shirt, and fleece jacket help for sure, not to mention cups of hot cocoa, but mostly it is the calming nature of autumnal garden chores. Planting a cover crop of mustard seed is such a task. The annual veggie beds will benefit from living mulch by being protected against soil erosion during winter. Either the first hard frost or the battery-operated string trimmer eventually will fell the plants. The foliage then will be dug into the soil to enrich it. The incongruous sight of bright green popping up causes me to grin widely making my face resemble a crazed, carved pumpkin. Not that I wear orange pancake makeup. I swear I don't. Honest.

The middle bed along with the one in the upper right soon will be planted with overwintering onions/shallots/garlic

Fall colours sooth with their muted tones.

The bed filled with green is a mustard planting done about a month ago: it's a fast grower!

Abelia, a bush loved by bees, is holding some of its delicate, pink flowers, but their maroon sepals are even more of a visual treat.

Several remaining figs are ripening even as leaves yellow and fall from the tree.

There's enough to make a clafoutis with them. The recipe is here, just substitute ripe figs (halving or quartering them depending on size) for the blackberries.

Dirac the Cat is staying close by me these days because of his experiencing some emotional stress as he is no longer the only grey fur chez nous.

Dirac the Cat trying to photobomb the shot of the figs in the pan

Ernest the Stray Cat
started to hang around our garden about a month ago. Short-legged, bull-bodied, dog-eared, he has come a long way from being in a super-stressed statehe spent the summer darting into homes poaching food from resident felinesto my being able to pat his head. He is still too jittery for a trip to a veterinary clinic, so the main focus besides feeding him and keeping his crate situated under the pergola cozy with clean linen and blankets, is coaxing him into the sous sol which is where he is fed. However as soon as the door is closed, he stops eating and cries to go out. Hopefully he will become socialised soon enough to spend the night indoors if forecasted freezing temperatures do occur next week. For the most part, Ernest and Dirac are accepting of each other, usually touching noses when meeting, but at times, they both become unsettled during the slow process of Ernest adapting to his new home.

Sneaking a shot through a pot of zinnias

The foliage of the trumpet vine has turned a wonderful shade of gold.

It and some ivy cover one side of the pergola

Dahlias will flower right until the first killing frost.

That's a yucca in the foreground

Of all the different dahlias, my favourite form is the single one whose bonus is that they usually don't need staking.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cinnamon Apple Almond Custard Tart

Apple. Almond. Autumn. And the soothing comfort of custard along with a bit of spice. This layered tart appeals to both the eye and tastebuds: a buttery crust with plucky, steep edges filled with ground almonds and apples slices, topped with a creamy garniture, and dusted with cinnamon.

For a 23 cm tart which gives 6 servings

  • Apple, large, 1 (a Granny Smith apple worked well in mine)
  • Almond meal (I prefer non-blanched for its texture, robust flavour, and its colour, but blanched will do), 75 g
  • Eggs, 2
  • Sugar, 5 T
  • Cornstarch, 1 T
  • Crème fraîche, 200 ml
  • Cinnamon to dust
  • Shortcrust pastry, all-butter, for a 9-inch tart pan, either homemade (see below) or store-bought

Ingredients for shortcrust pastry

  • Flour, white, 215 g
  • Salt 1/4 tsp
  • Butter, sweet, cold, 108 g
  • Water, ice-cold, 3 to 6 T depending on age of flour

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. If making the pastry, cut the butter in small pieces and add to the flour and salt. Work with your fingertips until you get the texture of coarse sand which takes several minutes. Add tablespoon by tablespoon of water until you can press the dough into a ball. Knead lightly about five times. Reserve in fridge while making the garniture. Whisk well the eggs, sugar, cornstarch, and crème fraîche.

Roll out the dough and carefully fit inside the tart pan.

With a knife scrape the lip of the pan clean of dough. The scraps can be frozen for future use.

Spread almond meal on the pastry.

Slice the apple in quarters. Core, peel, and slice thinly. Arrange a single layer on the almond meal.

Pour the liquid mixture over the apples.

Bake for thirty minutes. Dust with cinnamon. Let cool for ten minutes. Slice into six portions and reassemble them on a serving platter.

It's best served either warm or at room temperature.

Each bite was scrumptious!

À la prochaine!