Thursday, October 1, 2015

Soupe à l'oignon...and le château de Balzac

French Onion Soup is much loved chez nous. Though my recipe doesn't call for a splash of cognac, don't let that deter you from adding a tablespoon or so just before filling and placing the dish/bowls under the grill.

Paille des vertus onion variety from our potager has a superb depth of yum

For an excellent soup, the onions need to be fully carmelised, usually taking thirty to forty minutes over low heat. For more flavour substitute some dry white wine for the beef broth when simmering the soup. Making it the day before allows further mellowing. For even more wallop, the soup can be reduced in volume until your taste buds say, yup, that's for me. And don't forget the soup sans the cheesy croutons can be frozen.

Croutons are grilled, garlic sourdough rye slices smothered in Gruyère

Though a roomy, no-fuss casserole dish was used, for a special serving I finally dug out a small bowl that we found at a flea market.

So you don't forget you are eating soupe à l'oignon!

For this week's jaunt in our electric car, a Renault Zoe, we headed north in the late afternoon. Our destination, the village of Balzac that once was a seigneurie (fiefdom) as far back as the 12th century, is about a fifteen minute drive from our Angouleme. The lovely rural landscape is enough for a visit, but there are a few architectural gems also. Le Château de Balzac is one of them.

Yes, that's a cornfield on the right close to the château courtyard's wall!

The majority of corn grown in France is planted in the southwest, including our region of Poitou-Charente. Mainly exported to other European nations, it is used for feeding chicken, sheep, and pigs or made into silage for cattle. The cobs can be used for fuel, mulch, litter for animals, and soil conditioner.

The château is open just during July and August, but it still was interesting to see its exterior.

Where is the handle for the Zoe's rear side door? It's that black triangle on the bottom right of the window!

Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac whose parents built the château was a renowned writer of epistolary letters and one of the founding members of L'Académie française. Since he is noted for focusing on the idiomatic expression of French, the credit of executing in French prose a reform parallel to Francois de Malherbe's in verse is attributed to him.

Marie de Médicis visited the writer here at his hermitage

Apparently in this region, it was often the case of estates having two entrances, one for people, the other for carriages.

Stone carriage portal flanked by rose bushes and the smaller one for people on the left

There was another gate, one of metal, that allowed us to get a glimpse of the extensive grounds.

Though a peek through the gates was a treat, we will try to come back when the château is open.

The skies were quickly darkening as we left.

À la prochaine!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Penne With Creamy Roasted Sweet Red Pepper Garlic Sauce...and the early autumn potager

Our sweet red peppers are coming in. And coming in. Did I say they are coming in?  They are and they are all gorgeous!

My Roasted Sweet Pepper Spread/Dip (recipe here) is not only a wonderful way to enjoy these scarlet delights but also to process any surplus as it freezes well.

Contains olive oil, roasted sweet red peppers, roasted garlic, cream cheese, fennel the herb, lemon & salt

Though tasting great when slathered on all manners of delicious breads and crackers, it also takes to pasta with ease. All that is required is to put a couple of tablespoons, along with a little bit of the pasta cooking water, onto a pile of penne. Add some freshly grated Parmesan if so desired and mix well. Garnish with a sprig of fennel (the herb, not the bulb).

As the days are now cool, I have harvested most of the green tomatoes, leaving a few on the plants to take their chances.

Broccoli, by leafing out with a vengeance, is adding a subtle blue to the autumnal palette.

Mornings tend to be somewhat misty chez nous as we are not that far from the Atlantic Ocean.

Bee-loving abelia in the forefront and asparagus festooned with red berries in the background

Few of the rose bushes are putting out buds. The jewel-coloured dabs eventually opened up once they were inside the sous sol's potting room. My looking through the window which confirmed a wintry chill is soon on its way only accentuated the joy of brushing my nose against soft, fragrant rose petals. 

The coral buds have a captivating Old World Rose scent, though the others are pas trop mal 

Dahlias last through early autumn. The many varieties offer great versatility. They can be as tall as five feet with blooms the size of dinner plates...

...or demure and dainty when dwarf.

An early rising of a half moon etched in the late-afternoon sky is one of the prettiest sights.

The cranes soon will be migrating towards North Africa, usually right over our house!

From the link below:  Here’s what happens. On average, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day. But when a full moon happens close to the autumnal equinox, the moon (at mid-temperate latitudes) rises only about 30 to 35 minutes later daily for several days before and after the full Harvest moon. Why? The reason is that the ecliptic – or the moon’s orbital path – makes a narrow angle with the evening horizon around the time of the autumn equinox. The narrow angle of the ecliptic results in a shorter-than-usual rising time between successive moonrises around the full Harvest Moon.

Around September 27/28, depending where you live, look out for the full Harvest Moon, which will be also super-sized showing off a Blood Moon eclipse!

À la prochaine!


Comprehensive explanation regarding the up-and-coming Harvest Moon
September Equinox (day and night are approximately equal in length)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Caprese Socca...and Bouteville

An easy, delicious, and refreshing summer delight, Caprese salad is a cool, light way to enjoy the unbeatable trio of mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. A slight autumnal chill is enough reason for harvesting the last of our potager's annual herbs and ripe tomatoes, so let's adapt this lovely dish into a warmly filling one.

Socca is a savoury pancake made from chickpea flour
feeds two for a light lunch/supper or a satisfying meal for one
  • 8 T of chickpea flour
  • 8 T of water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • mozzarella, 4 thin slices
  • tomatoes, 5 thin slices
  • Basil, fresh, a small bunch
  • Olive oil, 1 to 2 T
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • fleur de sel, olive oil, chiffonade of basil, sherry/balsamic vinegar for garnishing
Whisk flour, water, and salt together. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet (23 cm/9 inch diameter), preferably well-seasoned iron or non-stick till hot enough to make water drops dance. Pour in the batter and quickly swirl the pan to even out the socca. Lower the flame. With a narrow spatula, work around edges to loosen as it cooks. More oil can be added to ensure a crusty browning and easy removal.

When it is mostly dry on top which takes a  few minutes, place the tomatoes, then cheese, and finally the basil. Cook till cheese melts and tomatoes are warm or another five minutes or so. Salt and pepper. Fold over, cut into two, and serve. Sprinkle fleur de sel/olive oil/sherry or balsamic vinegar and arrange chiffonade of basil on top.

Crunchy, creamy, saucy!

For last week's jaunt in our electric car, a Renault Zoe, we headed west once again, this time in the direction of Cognac. We explored a bit at Bouteville which is halfway to our destination. A ruined and pillaged chateau is undergoing partial restoration.

Presently the renovation is focused on a part of the upper story.

As we had the place to ourselves, the peace and quiet was most welcome. Ivy softened the edges of grey stone. I was happy to see the green abundance setting many seeds, but probably not as happy as the birds who will eat them throughout the winter.

Though we found strolling around the Chateau grounds and driving through the small village pleasant, the surrounding vineyards which could be seen from just about anywhere—neatly framed through arches, shimmering at the end of narrow streets lined with stone-housesare stupendous.

Having seen quite a lot of vineyards, both here and in Napa Valley, I was amazed at how these, whose grapes make Cognac, are kept in the most pristine condition. No weeds or overgrown grass paths to be seen.

l'Ugni Blanc grape is an important varietal for making Cognac

The Calm One and I would love to hike on the trails. Maybe when les vendanges (harvesting of grapes destined for wine making) is in full swing...

Sentier/path, Chaumes/stalks remaining after grain harvest & coteaux/hilly vineyards

Cognac which we have visited previously is an engaging town, but this time we just wanted to test the Zoe's mileage limits and the availability of no-cost, rapid charging. So we repaired to the supermarket hosting the service, and after thirty minutes returned to find the Zoe close to being fully charged. And we got the grocery shopping done too!

The supermarket places the charge point close to the entrance facilitating shopping, etc.

Back in Angouleme, Dirac's desire to scrunch his furry self into small boxes continues.

If it contains anything, he tries to remove the offending objectswith a little help from usso he can settle down comfortably.

The box is labeled CAT after all...

À la prochaine!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Herbs, Soup, Pasta & Fall Harvest...and the Charente countryside

Harvest is in the air which is still warm though tinged with a cool undercurrent. Annual herbs, like dill, parsley, marjoram, basil, and chives, all potted up in the spring, are getting their final trimming of the season. How to use that last flush of fresh herbs? In a nice pot of creamy potato, onion, dill, parsley, chives, and saucisses de Strasbourg soup...

Recipe link is at the end of this post

...or tossed with tagliatelle along with garlic, capers, olive oil, a little of the water from the pasta pot, salt, freshly ground black pepper, and Parmesan.

The trio of parsley, capers, and garlic are made for pasta

Delice de la Table, though a fantastic French variety of cantaloupe, is a challenge to ripen on the vine, at least this season with its short bouts of rain and long, bone-dry periods causing splitting which in turn means harvesting not fully ripe melons. But one did make it to full maturity and what a beauty it is! It matched the wondrous flavour of the others, but unlike those, its texture was equally wondrous. This is the best variety I have ever tasted.

When ripe, the skin turns a light golden with darker spots

Piments des Landes which are sweet when mature are being picked. There are some green, piquant ones on the plant that may need to be harvested before they have a chance to turn red.

Not quite a peck of peppers, and certainly not pickled, at least not yet.

The golden acorn squash bounty goes so well against the blue seat of our electric car, a Renault Zoe.

Though the car can be charged overnight chez nous when needed and at fairly low cost, we sometimes take advantage of the free, rapid charge provided by a nearby supermarket.

For last week's jaunt, we again headed west towards the village of Trois-Palis, leaving the Zoe near cornfields parallel to the Charente river.

Most of the corn grown in France is not delicious to humans, that is, it is not sweet corn, but food for livestock.

One side were cornfields, the other, the Charente...

How to take a photo of a gorgeous blue sky and billowing clouds? Turn your ankle in a cornfield path's pothole hidden by lush grass, fall face down with the camera and its fully extended zoom lens hanging from your neck so the whole kit and caboodle slams into your sternum in an exquisitely painful manner which you will never forget, then turn over on your back when the throbbing lessens a bit, and realise you got your camera, the sky, and an attractive angle exactly where you want them to be. In case if you were wondering, the photographer, camera, and cornfield are all doing fine. The sky, too, the last time I had the courage to look. And yes, I certainly put the fall in the harvest this time around...

Don't try this at home, kids!

À la prochaine!


How to make potato/onion soup with herbs, crème fraîche, & saucisses de Strasbourg (some photos are corrupted in this old post but recipe remains correct!)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Late Summer Pizza...and tootling about

A brief respite from torrid temperatures spurred us to make pizza after a long period of deprivation. How long? Unbearably long.

Wonderful 'Liguria' tomatoes from our potager

Homemade pizza, we missed you! (Recipe link is at the bottom of this post.)

Toulouse sausage, mushrooms, mozzarella, Parmesan & tomatoes on slow-rise dough crust

Since we now have a Renault Zoe, a rearing-to-go electric car, we are planning to do an outing each week. We went exploring west of our city, Angouleme. Our first stop was a pathway along the Charente River near St. Michel.

Bamboos are very appreciated in France

Walking through a green tunnel made of foliage is one of the most calming experiences in the universe.

The winding Charente River is noted for its enchanting beauty.

Near the very pretty village of Trois-Palis were fields of sunflowers. Their drooping heads, laden with black seeds, mean their harvesting will be fairly soon.  Unless the birds get to them first.

Sunflower oil is one of our favourites

Right off the field was a farm...

...composed of stone buildings.

Solid & practical for sure, but also not without graceful lines

Dirac the Young Cat has done a cursory inspection of the Zoe's interior. Cursory because when he started to claw the driver seat's back, The Calm One showed him the door. In the house, he is interested in boxes but only if they are small.

We have lost count of the number of scratches Dirac proudly carries on his handsome nose.

À la prochaine!


How to make pizza (some of the photos got corrupted on this old post, but the instructions remain correct!)