Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Holiday Greetings 2015/16 . . . and a litany of festive recipe links

The Calm One, Dirac the Young Cat, and I, all wish you and yours a very happy holiday! Souped-up Garden will return in the New Year. Light a few candles, throw some red bows/tinsel about, and fill a vase with fragrant herbs which will also fill your home with a bracing scent especially if you remember to crush a few leaves and stems when passing.

Bay leaf branches & their flower buds, rosemary, ivy & their dark blue berries

Since Dirac has been too busy shopping for our presents to pose, here's a photo of him as a kitten.

Wonderful kitten grew up to be a wonderful cat

I'll be trying out some new menu ideas during my break from blogging, but until weekly posting resumes the following links to recipes suitable for winter festivities hopefully will add some cheer. Cuban Hot Chocolate, made by melting bittersweet chocolate, adding cream, and sloshing in some salted caramel sauce, is potent. In fact, it's amazing, sensual, and unctuous beyond belief. A demitasse cup is an elegant way of offering it to your guests as an after-dinner treat. 

Not a demitasse serving; this amount sufficed for lunch!

Date Walnut Bread is a nice addition to the holiday bread basket. A bit of salted caramel spread on a slice works very well.

It also makes a great cream cheese sandwich

Crespelle en Brodo is a gorgeous Italian recipe. A stack of crepes are layered with Parmesan/freshly ground black pepper and steeped in strong chicken broth. As a first course, it is splendid.

A truly elegant version of chicken noodle soup

Polish-style Borscht with Beef Dumplings (this old post has some corrupted photos but the instructions remain correct) boasts of a clear, ruby-coloured broth. This recipe which was given to me by my mum-in-law may be labour intensive, but it does make a delicious Christmas Eve supper.

The family tradition chez nous embraces HUGE dumplings

Burek, i.e., Balkan Spinach Cheese Pie, is made with dough first soaked in clarified butter and then stretched by hand until it resembles the thinest silk. Its finished texture is closer to strudel than filo.

Dusting with paprika complements the green nicely

Stirring in some halved radishes while briefly sauteing the aromatics when making Lettuce, Capers, and Garlic Braised in Olive oil would add flavour, but also colour befitting the season.

What? You don't keep a jar or two of capers in your cupboard chez vous

Lemon Curd Almond Shortbread is halfway between a cookie and a tartlet. Having a nice supply of homemade lemon curd better known as sunshine in a jar comes in handy...

Baking them in muffin tins gives them a tapered contour

. . . for instance, to fill a Quick Coffee Cake

Dusting with cinnamon sugar before baking gives a toffee crust that locks in moisture

Joyeuses fêtes!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Musing About & Playing Around

Winter is the time I stay indoors more than usual because shorter days means gardening is done by 4PM and then what? Well, there's time for various musings and enjoyment! What will we be having for that up-and-coming holiday dinner? After a few days of consideration, we chose pan-grilled mushroom caps brushed with melted butter, roast rack of pork, Brussels sprouts, potatoes dauphinoise, and apple pie topped with coffee ice cream. And a nice bottle of Médoc that is lying patiently on its side in the cellier. The equally nice bottle of Cahors can wait for the next time we have pot roast of lamb. So, that's decided then.

Recipe here (omit the cheddar for the crust which can be made with 2/3 butter, 1/3 lard)

A satisfied belly is important, but how about the mind? A Coursera class perhaps? Not this year though I have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have taken since 2012 especially Daniel Chamovitz's What a Plant Knows. You won't believe this, but spending heaps of time on Twitter feeds your head! I know. Twitter! Though having used it sporadically since 2008, I have re-discovered it. Once a critical mass of individual tweeps who tweet excellent stuff pertinent to your interests are on your stream, oh, the joy of intellectual stimulation especially if you click on the links and related conversation. And for the eyes? How about bundling a lot of evergreen herbs like bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, and sage with a red ribbon, plopping them into a vase, and setting it on the mantlepiece? And that's for the nose, too, especially if you gently crush a leaf or so when passing. Some lengths of ivy will add grace to the arrangement.

Bay leaves


Most of the ripe ivy berries are for the birds, but a few bunches go into the vase

Browsing through plant catalogs is pleasant and part of the preparation necessary for next season's harvest. Doing seed/equipment inventory and figuring out what will go where is essential for our 2016 plant order which will be made in about a month. Trying a new thing each season is good, and this time I will plant a cover crop of white mustard as green manure. The idea is to sow late summer, and after two months of growth, mow, and then spade into the soil, letting the goodness develop over the winter.

Last season's seed packets stored properly in ziplock bags

Spading and mulching the numerous veggie beds continue.

Evergreen plants are the bones of a garden, especially its winter bones. The Yucca's leaves are backlit with the setting sun.

The biggest advantage of an earlier sunset is the opportunity to watch murmurations of starlings. A hundred or so that water at our bird baths whirl and twirl directly overhead before roosting en mass into a couple of nearby spruce trees. However, a much larger flocking consisting of thousands occur south of the garden, near a small forested area. They resemble an avian tornado which twists and turns, sometimes separating, then reuniting and flowing into varied shapes. And as amazing as that is, what is even more fantastic, is when they swoop down together to roost. All that fluttering commotion, and suddenly, a disappearing act punctuated with utter silence.

This pattern resembles a huge bird!

Dirac the Young Cat who of course lives in his own furry world has no problem with diminished daylight as he sleeps during that time so he can spend the whole night outdoors though . . .

Dirac's favourite plush toy is in desperate need of a good wash!

. . . he is known to wake up when he smells something that piques his interest such as my Minestrone with Beef.

I make a cauldron of the stuff which we eat three days straight!

À la prochaine!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Golden Acorn Squash Yet Again. . . and autumnal warmth lingers

Sautéing in olive oil small cubes of winter squash till lightly browned, stirring in some dried thyme and minced garlic for a few seconds before adding a tablespoon or so of water, then covering and simmering the whole lot for about ten minutes results in a delectable sauce for penne. Don't forget to boil the pasta while the squash is getting tender and carmelised. Be sure to add a bit of the pasta-cooking water to the skillet and a dash of sherry or balsamic vinegar before tossing in the penne. Heat for a minute or two while stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed. Have a generous hand with the black pepper mill and salt to taste before serving with freshly grated hard cheese. My favourite is Pecorino Romano, but I wouldn't say no to either Parmesan or Grana Padano. Eat with gusto!

Our potager is mostly asleep at the moment, though preparation of the thirteen beds continue in earnest because in just a couple of months I will be sowing seeds and transplanting sturdy seedlings in anticipation for the first 2016 harvest which will be around March/April.

The two bird baths in the background are visited frequently by gregarious starlings

The back of our potager is more wild than not which was the way most gardens once were which allowed leaves and pruned twigs to decompose at their leisure. Honeysuckle has volunteered to cover some of the heaps.

 My hiding behind these sundry piles gives me a cozy feeling

In between the back wall and these mounds is the fig tree whose denuded branches still have some fruit. I am waiting for the starlings to take notice.

Abelia and cranesbills have turned a glowing shade of mahogany.

The mulched bed will be the early-spring home for lettuce, spinach, and parsnips 

This robust evergreen hedge of laurels was planted about five years ago from tiny cuttings of mature specimens situated in the front garden.

A patch of calla lilies encouraged by the wet, warm weather recently put out fresh leaves.

They share their space with a very tall rose which provides shade

A little more than half of the numerous annual veggie beds are now spaded and mulched with oak leaves.

This will be the carrot & beet bed in a few months

Dirac the Young Cat is around a year and half now and is still growing. Or so I tell myself when I give him extra food.

He is checking out the active compost pile which is behind the slow-decomposing ones

He is a wonderful garden companion. Graciously calm but also incurably curious, he follows me all around.

His beautiful, full-tabby coat is halfway between silver & blue mackerel varieties

À la prochaine!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Experimenting With Warm Veggie Dips: Broccoli & Sweet Red Pepper

Scheduling the main meal for the two of us in early afternoon allows my playing around with ingredients in the evening while giving The Calm One an opportunity to sate his grazing instinct with his favourite nibbles from the fridge and cupboard.

Browned a bit, puffed somewhat, bound-with-cheese & hot from the oven

Working on a recipe is both frustrating and gratifying, and in that regard, messing about in the kitchen resembles life in general. The chagrin comes from noting the inevitable gap between an ideal concept and the real deal; the reward results from lessening that difference as much as possible.

Broccoli, sweet red pepper, garlic & fennel (the herb) all came from our potager

A warm dip is more adapted to the winter months than its cool counterpart, but they both share the tasty function of accompanying crackers, chips, breads, and crudités.  The last of the frozen Roasted Sweet Red Pepper Garlic Dip which I had made from the late-summer harvest and some broccoli fresh from our autumnal potager provided a colourful foundation.

Roasted sweet red pepper/garlic, cream cheese, fennel the herb, olive oil & lemon juice

Adding grated Parmesan and Edam, along with cream cheese and mayonnaise, and mixing well, brought it up to potential warm dip status.

Spreading the mixture in a pie plate and then baking for about thirty minutes in a 150 degrees C/300 degrees F oven until golden brown were the next steps.

A mound of this dip is not exactly an unyielding rock, but neither does it move like unctuous lava intent on lavishing grilled sourdough rye among other worthy dipping partners which was my envisioned goal when choosing the ingredients.

Dip & Swedish flatbread

The lack of ooze probably is caused by stolid Edam's inability to pull off molten lusciousness. A nicely aged cheddar would have been up to the challenge, but there wasn't any in the house. Also topping with additional cheddar five minutes before taking it out of the oven will boost the dipping factor. But it was good enough and its flavour held even when eaten cold.

Dip & corn chips

Ingredients for Broccoli & Sweet Red Pepper Warm Dip Experiment
(Tablespoons are level not heaped!)
  • Broccoli florets, finely chopped, 170 grams/6 dry oz, if less crunch is desired, parboil first
  • Parmesan, finely grated, 4 T
  • Cheddar, finely grated, 8 T
  • Roasted red pepper/garlic spread (recipe here), 2 T or substitute minced sweet red pepper/garlic/fennel the herb/lemon juice to taste
  • Onion, finely minced, 2 T
  • Cream cheese, 8 T
  • Mayonnaise, 8 T (substitute more cream cheese for some of the mayo if you want a less oily dip)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (go easy on the salt if using salty crackers/chips

Dirac the Young Cat meanwhile had no trouble embracing an effortless furry flow state . . .

. . . of tail meeting back paws.

À la prochaine!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Scouting Out Montbron

The Calm One will be giving a series of educational workshops culminating in a December treasure hunt for adolescents in Monbron. In preparation for that, we tootled off east of Angoulême for a fifty-minute drive in our electric car to check out the village of about two-thousand inhabitants. Parking the Zoe near Le Vieux Château, we started our exploratory walk.

My scooting down the steep steps flanking one side of the château and leading to the ville basse (lower village) provided a vantage point from which to see the monumental structure. It was built in the 15th Century within the remparts from stones of an earlier and destroyed château. Modified through the centuries and renovated by the town, it serves as a venue for municipal events and activities.

At the bottom of the stairs, the streetlights of the old quartier are shaped like golden lanterns which most likely provide a beautiful glow at night.

Note the orange and black lantern on the pigeonnier: shadow or painting?

Since the day was a jour férié (a national holiday, in this case, Armistice Day), it was just us and few others ambling about the winding streets.

Green garden gates are perfect cheery companions for narrow streets...

...ditto for pots of bright geraniums.

Eating fish on Friday (Vendredi), once mandated for Catholics by the Vatican, remains a part of the culinary culture in this region. But with a British twist.

The lower village slopes into countryside.

Succulents thriving in a rock garden

The surrounding Tardoire river valley consists of rolling hills presently tinted a mellow green and gold. 

That patch of bare earth is a veggie garden put to rest for the winter

Montbron and its environs have many points of interest and one are artisan flour and walnut oil mills in the Bandiat and Tardoire valleys. Another is the Vignoble de Saint-Sornin  from which is produced the vin de pays charentaisI can't wait to come back.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Roasted Broccoli Cheddar Soup

All the heads of broccoli have been harvested so it's time to make a copious amount of Roasted Broccoli Cheddar Soup. Thickened with a cheese sauce lightly flavoured with garlic and cayenne, this soup has both a delicious taste and velvety texture. 

Garnished with deep-fried young broccoli leaves and cheddar shavings

The headless plants however will keep putting out delectable side shoots until the first killing frost.

The numerous shoots add up to lots of broccoli for fried rice, pasta & fritters

makes 6 ample servings

  • Broccoli, 4-5 heads, trimmed of any woody stems 
  • Garlic cloves, slightly smashed, 3
  • Potatoes, all-purpose, medium, 2
  • Water to cover the veggies, around 710 ml/24 fluid oz
  • Cheddar, grated 473 ml/16 fluid oz
  • Cayenne pepper flakes or tiny whole dry peppers to taste (I use a v small amount)
  • Flour, white, 5 T
  • Butter, sweet, 4 T
  • Milk, 473 ml/16 fluid oz
  • Additional milk for desired consistency
  • Olive oil for coating broccoli
  • Broccoli leaves, a small handful
  • Cheddar slivers for garnishing
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 177 degrees C/350 degrees F. Line a shallow baking pan with parchment. Rinse and coarsely chop the broccoli. Spread on pan in single layer and toss with enough olive oil to coat well. Roast for about twenty minutes until lightly browned.

Place the roasted broccoli in a pot along with the peeled and coarsely chopped potatoes. Cover with water and simmer for about fifteen minutes or until all the veggies are very tender.

Meanwhile make the cheddar sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan and over low heat stir in the flour till smooth which takes about a minute or so. Pour in the milk slowly, all the while stirring. Whisk out any lumps. Add the garlic cloves and red pepper flakes or tiny small peppers. Simmer until thickened which takes about five minute. Remove the cloves and whole peppers if using. Toss in the cheese and stir until melted. Reserve.

Using a stick blender, puree the broccoli until the texture is more silky than not. Add a ladle of the blended broccoli into the cheese sauce and stir. Add another and stir. Then stir the cheesy broccoli sauce into the rest of the broccoli. If necessary, add more milk to get the consistency desired. Season to taste and keep warm. Put enough veggie oil (not olive) in a small saucepan for the broccoli leaves to float and heat until sizzling. Throw in some of the broccoli leaves. After a couple of minutes, remove and repeat until you have deep fried all the leaves. Garnish the soup with cheddar slivers and leaves.

The deep-fried  broccoli leaves add crunch and umami

Both in and outside the potager, foliage colour is much more vivid than in past seasons.

Golden feathery asparagus stems with red berries & burgundy abelia leaves

The veggie beds are still being weeded and mulched with leaves. Five of the eleven annual ones are done. Hopefully the dry and windless weather registering around 18°C/65°F will continue for a week or so. Any head start for late winter planting which occurs in just several months will make that rather frantic time less demanding.

Slowly decomposing oak leaves give off the most wonderful woodsy scent

One of Dirac the Young Cat's favorite kitchen spots is an overturned, large crock placed in front of a window overlooking the potager.

À la prochaine!