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Luci’s School of Tamales

Tamales

Luci and her husband Joaquin own a small Mexican grocery store where we often go to buy tortillas, masa harina, avocados, dried chiles, limes, and other ingredients for Mexican dishes. One of the first times I was in their store, I spotted several bins of unfamiliar varieties of dried beans. As I was pondering my choices, Joaquin disappeared into the back room and came back with a small bowl of freshly cooked beans. “Here,” he said, offering me the bowl. “My wife just cooked these, and you can see what they taste like. She puts a dried chile in the pot while they cook to make them taste really good. She is a very good cook.” He was right, and I bought a bag of those beans.

Tamale Ingredients

Some time later, Drew discovered that Luci makes delicious tamales on special order. A customer had failed to pick up his order, so Joaquin asked Drew if he would like to take them. Of course he did, and soon a bag of tamales was put aside in the freezer for us whenever Luci had extra. Even better, Luci agreed to come to our house and show me how to make this wonderful celebration food.

Learning to make tamales

Tamales are perfect special occasion, or fiesta food because they are richly delicious and fun to make. The preparation is somewhat lengthy and best accomplished with several helping hands and a pitcher of Sangria. The tamales need to steam for 1 1/2 hours, so you may as well make a lot and get some help making and eating them. Have a tamales party!

Sangria

That’s what I did. I invited friends to help cook and eat, Suzy made Sangria, and Luci arrived with her son Bryon to help translate for us. They brought ingredients for three different kinds of tamales and two different salsas, and soon we had pots boiling, spices toasting, masa mixing, and cornhusks soaking. A feast was on its way.

The Corn Husks

Filling Tamales

When Luci first came to the United States 20 years ago, she couldn’t find cornhusks for sale so she used aluminum foil to wrap her tamales. But dried cornhusks are commonly available now, and they make an exceptionally pleasing and aromatic wrapper. Four oz. dried cornhusks will wrap 16 tamales.

Rinse the dried cornhusks off in the sink. Place them in a large bowl and cover with hot water. Weigh them down with a plate and allow to soak for at least an hour.

Masa for Tamales

If fresh masa is available, use it. Otherwise, use coarse-ground dehydrated masa harina labeled for making tamales, rather than fine-ground masa used for tortillas. Two cups dried masa will make 16 to 20 tamales. Luci grew up making tamales in her home state of Hidalgo, Mexico. She doesn’t measure. She just pours out a small mountain of masa, covers the peak with salt, works in a few handfuls of soft lard, and adds water from the tap until the consistency feels right. The batter should be soft and spreadable, but not runny.

Ingredients: 2 cups dried masa harina for tamales, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 to 2/3-cup pure lard, 1 2/3-cup warm water or broth (possibly more), 1 tsp baking powder (optional)

Luci mixes her batter entirely with her hands. She starts with the masa and salt, and then works in room-temperature lard, adding warm water in stages until the dough is like soft cookie dough. Using broth in place of water makes a more flavorful batter.

Pork and Red Chile Sauce Filling

For the pork: 1/2 lb boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes, 1 1/2 cups water, 1/2 tsp salt

Put the pork in a saucepan with the water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and partially cover; simmer over medium-low heat for about one hour, or until the meat is fall-apart tender. Drain (reserve the liquid for making masa or other use). Shred the pork, using fingers or 2 forks.

Red Chile Sauce: 12 allspice berries, 12 black peppercorns, 6 whole cloves, 4 oz dried guajillo chiles, 3 or 4 chiles de arbol, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1 large garlic clove, 1/2 tsp salt

Toast allspice berries, cloves, and black peppercorns on an iron skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Shake the pan to prevent burning. Transfer to a small bowl. Seed and stem guajillo chiles and chiles de arbol. Rinse the chiles, then put them in a saucepan with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until soft—about 1/2 hour.

Put the softened chiles, cooking water, toasted spices, cumin, garlic, and salt in a blender. Puree until very smooth. Season with salt to taste.

Chicken and Salsa Verde Filling

Any kind of cooked, coarsely shredded chicken can be used for the filling. I used the meat from a pot-roasted bird cooked in our wood-fired outdoor oven. Cooking the meat slowly results in a succulent texture perfect for tacos, enchiladas and tamales.

Rick Bayless’s Poached Chicken (more or less)

Bring 8 cups water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add a thickly sliced white onion, 2 peeled and sliced garlic cloves, a chopped carrot, and 1 tsp salt. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 chicken legs and 2 thighs, simmer a couple of minutes, and skim any foam off the broth. Add 2 bay leaves, 2 sprigs thyme, and a sprig of marjoram. Partially cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add 2 breast halves and skim again, Partially cover and simmer 13 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the chicken to cool in the broth for a few minutes.

Remove the chicken pieces from the broth and set aside to cool. Strain the broth and reserve for making masa or other uses. Remove the skin and pull the meat from the bones in coarse shreds. Discard skin and bones.

Luci’s Salsa Verde

I am always amazed at how fresh and delicious this simple sauce is. Easy to make, too!

Ingredients: 8 to 10 tomatillos ( 12 oz), 4 or 5 serrano or jalapeno chiles, 1 bunch cilantro, 1 large peeled garlic clove, 1/2 tsp ground cumin, about 1/2 tsp salt

Remove the outer husks and rinse the tomatillos off in water. Stem and seed (optional) the chiles. Put the tomatillos and chiles in a pot with about 1 1/2 cups water and 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil. Cook at a brisk simmer 5 to10 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic clove and simmer one or two minutes more. Take off the heat and cool slightly before transferring the mixture, including liquid, to a blender. Add roughly chopped cilantro and ground cumin; blend to make a smooth puree. Season with salt to taste.

Queso Fresco Filling

Queso Fresco is an un-aged Mexican cheese that is mild in flavor and crumbles easily—sort of like a non-salty feta or a lightly salted farmer’s cheese. Combined with some sautéed vegetables, it makes a tasty vegetarian filling.

Ingredients: 2 or 3 ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 cup sliced), 2 jalapeno chiles, 1 small white onion (1/2 cup sliced), 1 1/2 Tbs vegetable oil, salt, 3 oz crumbled queso fresco or other similar cheese

Prepare the vegetables: Cut the tomatoes lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Seed and thinly slice the chiles lengthwise. Cut the onion lengthwise into thin slivers. Warm the oil in a small skillet over medium low heat. Add the onion and chiles and season with salt; sauté 5 to 6 minutes, until softened. Add the tomato slices and cook a few more minutes.

Assembly Line

Steaming Tamales

Here is where a lot of hands really help, and the party begins. You need a space to set out all the ingredients—platters of shredded meat or chicken or fish, bowls of sauces, crumbled cheese, and the sautéed or grilled vegetables.

Here is how to assemble a tamale: Choose the widest, nicest cornhusks for wrappers. Start by laying out a husk on the work surface and dry it lightly with a clean dishtowel. Spread a scant 1/4-cup of the masa dough into a roughly 4-inch square across the widest end of the husk. If the husk isn’t wide enough, you can add another piece of husk to extend it. Leave a 3/4-inch border along the bottom and side edges and at least 1 1/2 inches of the pointed end of the husk. Place a few strips of chicken or meat down the center of the masa and cover it with a Tbs. or so of the sauce. If using the cheese filling, place a little of the tomato-chile mixture down the middle and sprinkle on some crumbled cheese.

Folding: Fold each long side of the husk around the filling, enclosing it like an envelope. Fold the pointed end up to close the bottom. The package can be secured by tying a narrow strip of husk around the tamal and folded flap.

The wrapped tamales are cooked in a steamer. Fill the bottom of the steamer with 1 to 2 inches of water and bring it to a boil. Line the steamer insert with some extra strips of cornhusk and fill it with tamales, folded side down, in an upright position. If you don’t have enough tamales to fill the steamer, use extra cornhusks or crumpled foil to fill the space so that the tamales remain upright.

Put the tamales into the steamer, cover the pot, and steam the tamales over medium heat for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. The husk will peel away from the masa easily when the tamales are done. Turn off the heat and let the tamales sit a few minutes before setting them out on a platter to be devoured.

Serve with additional salsa, chopped cilantro, and lime wedges, if you wish.

Other wonderful tamale fillings: Strips of roasted poblano or other peppers, grilled or sautéed mushrooms, black beans and crumbled cheese, sautéed spinach or chard…just about any shredded cooked meat or cooked vegetables mixed with a little salsa or sauce.

Eating tamales

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Homage to Cabbage: Good-bye to Winter

Cabbage Head

Spring Solstice–time to say good-bye to winter and welcome to spring! It’s the time of the “hungry gap” when the supply of last year’s harvest is running low, and this year’s newly planted seeds are just poking through the soil. We’re down to a few carrots and leeks, an odd beet or two, a winter squash, some potatoes, a green cabbage, and one lonely Napa cabbage. These stalwart vegetables amaze me in their ability to come through the winter underground, in the root cellar, or in a refrigerator bin and still cheerfully offer themselves for our sustenance.

My friend Wendy Johnson tells a wonderful story about the last cabbage of winter in her book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. It was her first year as head gardener–or ” Head of the Cabbages”–at Tassajara Zen Center in the early 1970’s. She planted the fall garden with scores of mysterious Asian vegetable seeds, which led to a winter diet of cabbages in its many incarnations: Napa cabbage, bok choy, mizuna, mibuna, han tsai tai, Osaka purple mustard, komatsuna, and a “long green swell…of Chinese cabbage.” Wendy and the eighty other practitioners at the monastery ate cabbage braised, baked, boiled, broiled, stir-fried, seared, sautéed, and raw in salads…”one of the longest forced cabbage feeds on record,” she recalled. Winter stretched into spring…Wendy says that her collaboration with the head cook and “the endless fields of sincere garden cabbages showed me what it is to be resolute and respectful of all ingredients.”

Whole Cabbage

Wendy’s reverence for cabbage lasted through that winter and spring until the last cabbage was harvested in May. At that point, one of the Tassajara monks suggested holding a ceremony to honor the cabbage. While the gathering practitioners chanted and bowed “the last Chinese cabbage reclined ceremoniously on its right side, its green wrapper leaves tucked demurely beneath its ample carcass…expelling a world weary sigh.” It was a fitting farewell.

My first winter garden in North Carolina was also planted with indecipherable seed packages from Japan (a gift from a traveling friend) that filled the garden beds with all manner of heading and non-heading members of the brassica family. The plants turned out to be extremely cold hearty, thriving under row covers and low, plastic-covered tunnels all winter long. Cabbages and chicories have been the backbone of my fall and winter garden ever since.

Now, I want to honor my last cabbages not with chanting and incense but with some delicious recipes to show how much I love them. I will shower them with praise and handfuls of the first greens of spring—chives, ramps, watercress, and sorrel.

Minoru’s Okonomi-yaki Pancakes

Japanese Pancakes

Okonomi-yaki are savory Japanese pancakes made with vegetables and other choice ingredients incorporated into the batter. The name translates as “as-you-like-it”, so that is where the choice comes in. My first choice for the main ingredient is green cabbage, which is also most common in Japan. There, special pancake restaurants bring the batter and an assortment of fillings including bacon, shrimp, squid, and kimchi, as well as shredded vegetables to your table and allow you to cook your own pancake “as you like it” on a hot griddle.

Our friend Minoru made okonomi-yaki for us on a visit to his home in Japan. We sat on the floor around the dining table, and he cooked the pancakes on a large electric frying pan in the middle of the table. The pancakes were filled with green cabbage, green onions, and carrot, and topped with thick slices of pork belly. Minoru shared his secret for making the most airy, delicious pancakes—he separates the eggs and beats the egg whites to frothy peaks before folding them into the batter.

Ingredients for roughly 6 large pancakes: 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup water, 1/4 tsp salt, 4 large eggs (separated) Note: I usually substitute 1 1/3 cups sourdough starter for the flour and water—works great!

Filling: 5 cups finely sliced or grated green cabbage, 2/3 cup grated carrot or sweet potato, 4 or 5 thinly sliced scallions, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (chives, cilantro, parsley. watercress…more for sprinkling on top)

Bacon, proscuitto, ham, shrimp, etc. are optional additions.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, water, salt, and egg yolks to make a thin batter. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to standing peaks—they should be stiff but still shiny and moist-looking.

Heat a large griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat (electric griddle is heated to 400 degrees). Stir the shredded vegetables and herbs into the batter and mix well. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.

When the pan is hot, brush lightly with oil and ladle one or more pancakes onto the surface. Place a slice of bacon on top of each pancake, if using. After about 3 minutes, flip the pancake. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, then flip again until the bacon and pancakes are cooked.

Japanese like to eat their okonomi-yaki with mayonnaise and soy sauce. I think they are great with turmeric pesto, and Drew likes them with peanut sauce. Other delicious toppings include bonito flakes (or try hot-smoked salmon), pickled ginger, and chopped fresh herbs.

Spicy Peanut Sauce

Peanut Sauce

Ingredients: 2 Tbs peanut butter, 1 1/2 Tbs toasted sesame seeds, 2 garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 Tbs tomato paste, 1 or 2 tsp chile sauce, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 1/3 cup water, juice of 1 lime

Use a blender to puree all the ingredients.

Japanese Salt-rubbed Cabbage Salad

Very simple—a crunchy, flavorful addition to an okonomi-yaki meal.

Ingredients: 1/2 small napa cabbage (about 1 lb), 1 1/2 tsp sea salt, 3 or 4 scallions or a handful Asian garlic chives, Zest and juice from 1 Meyer lemon (or a regular lemon or lime and 1/2 tsp sugar), pinch red chile flakes or a thinly sliced jalapeno, a large handful trimmed watercress

Cut the napa cabbage in half vertically , then into 2 quarters. Remove any tough portion of the core. Slice the cabbage crosswise into thin slivers. Toss the sliced cabbage with the salt and massage gently. Put the salted cabbage in a colander with a small plate on top for a  weight. Place in the sink or in the fridge over a bowl and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Squeeze the cabbage gently to remove excess liquid and transfer to a bowl

Add the finely sliced scallions or chives, lemon juice and zest, chile, and chopped watercress. Toss to combine.

My Sister’s Salad

Carrots

My sister Ellen makes this salad with daikon and carrot. I made it in honor of the last over-wintered carrots and napa cabbage, with the first garlic chives, arugula, and mint leaves.

Ingredients: 6 cups finely sliced napa cabbage, 1 cup shredded or matchstick-cut carrot, 1/2 tsp sea salt, handful chopped chives, a handful arugula leaves, a few finely chopped fresh mint leaves, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds

Dressing: 1 garlic clove, pinch of sea salt, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1/4 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, 1 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 tsp soy sauce, 1 Tbs toasted sesame oil

Toss the finely sliced cabbage, carrots, scallions, and mint in a large bowl with 1/2 tsp salt.Set aside while you make the dressing. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic and a pinch of salt to a paste. Whisk in the lime juice, sugar and chile. Add the rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Whisk to combine. Adjust the seasoning and toss with the cabbage. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds before serving.

 

Cooking With Fire

“Maine…the Way Life Should be,” reads the sign as you drive into the state, and so it was in late September when we traveled there.

Coast of Maine

“The way life should be” includes the largest number of small farms of any state, and their contribution to vibrant farmers’ markets, country stores, and local eateries is easily apparent. Drew ate “the best pastrami sandwich ever” made with locally raised and cured meat and bread baked in a wood-fired oven from Maine-grown wheat at a tiny store on our way to nowhere. Maine also is the home of the renowned Common Ground Fair, held on fields owned by MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners) outside the town of Unity. The fair is overflowing with beautiful produce, cheeses and preserves, wool and yarn, crafts, Maine-grown food vendors, bread and pizza bakers, sheep and sheepdogs, oxen and draft horses, goats and llamas, and whole tent full of above-average chickens. As one native Mainer told me, “You can find a lot of organic people there.”

Farmer's Market Maine

I couldn’t help myself. I bought gorgeous red and yellow sweet peppers, shiny eggplants, voluptuous red and yellow onions, and fresh-from-the-ground potatoes. And lots of garlic. From more than a dozen varieties, I chose “Georgian Crystal” (rich slightly smoky flavor), “Music”(“very big, hot”), “Rosewood”(soft colors on large, fat cloves), “Bogatyr”(marbled purple stripe…on the hot side), and Hampshire Porcelain”(good strong flavor, long storing). If you want to order some garlic, email her at vegetablesdance@gmail.com.

Our friend Kenneth was our guide at the fair, and while I was ogling vegetables he attended a presentation on super-efficient woodstoves. When we reunited, I had bags of produce, and he had a newly purchased copy of “Cooking With Fire” by Paula Marcoux. Such serendipity! We headed back to the Pemaquid peninsula– a rocky spine of land sliding into the Atlantic Ocean, where Kenneth lives with his wife Angela and their son Conrad. They live in a clearing in the woods just big enough for their small hand-made house, a tiny garden, and an awesome fire pit made from an old cast iron cauldron.

For our first night of cooking with fire, Angela fried potatoes in a pan over the hot coals, we roasted hotdogs and sausages using green sticks whittled sharp by Conrad, and toasted buns on the grate. Then we slathered on kimchi, sauerkraut, and balsamic-onion jam from the Common Ground Fair. The feast was well seasoned with wood smoke and friendship.

Balsamic-Sweet Onion Marmalade

Red Onions

Inspired by a recipe for Balsamic-Cipollini Jam by True North Farms in Maine, this marmalade has a sweet-tart flavor and is great with anything cooked on a grill, in sandwiches or omelettes, or with cheese and crackers. Or, just eat it by the spoonful.

Ingredients: 2 large sweet onions (almost 2 #), 1 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary, 2 tsp chopped fresh sage, pinch red chile flakes, 1/2 tsp sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, 2 Tbs raw sugar, 6 Tbs balsamic vinegar

Cut the onions in quarters and slice them as thinly as possible. Warm the oil in a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat and stir in the chopped herbs and chile (optional). Add the onions and sprinkle lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Toss well and reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring occasionally, 15 to 20 minutes. When the onions are quite soft and beginning to color, add the sugar. Continue to cook another 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are golden brown and caramelized. Stir in the vinegar and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the onions are soft and jammy.

Ember-Roasted Onions — with thanks to Richard Miscovich and his tips for cooking with fire.

onions

You can make this delicious jam with ember-roasted onions, if you are so lucky to have them. They are easily made in a woodstove. Let your fire burn down to coals covered with gray ash, then arrange the coals in an even layer. Place unpeeled, whole medium-size onions on top of the coals. Turn the onions over several times as they roast, and adjust their positions in the coals so that they cook to the center without incinerating the outside. They are done when easily pierced with a kebab skewer.

Make the jam: Allow the onions to cool in their skins. Peel off the skins, saving all the juice and any bits of charred skin that may be stuck. Chop the roasted onion and put them and their juices into a saucepan with the other ingredients for the jam. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is the consistency of marmalade.

Ember-roasted onions are a great addition to salsas, Harissa, or Romesco sauce.

Pine Needle Mussels

Maine Seaside

The next night we decided to get more adventurous and try a recipe from Paula Marcoux—Pine Needle Mussels. This required an excursion to Pemaquid Point at low tide, where the ancient rocks cradle tide pools that are home to colonies of mussels hiding in the seaweed. We scrambled down the ledges and fissures—the legacy of a long-ago time when the North American and European continents were torn apart and the rocks were up-ended in their struggle to stay with Maine. We eased our way along the slippery edges and reached into the cold water to pry the mussels from the rocks. They hold on tightly against the pounding of the Atlantic waves, but we managed to fill a bucket and headed for home.

The next ingredient (actually, the only other ingredient) is a bushel of dry pine needles. Drew and Kenneth headed into the woods to procure them while Angela and I lit a fire and tossed the Common Ground Fair vegetables in olive oil to make a roasted ratatouille over the coals.

The instructions for Pine Needle Mussels are to prepare a fire pit or cooking surface—a 3×3-foot board or large flat rock for the cooking surface (we used the cauldron). Place a potato with a slice cut off the end so that it stands up in the center of the cooking surface. Arrange the scrubbed mussels, pointy end up, so that they lean against the potato in concentric circles—a mussel mandala.

Cover the assembled mussels evenly with pine needles, as deeply as possible. Put a glowing coal or lit match in the center of the pile, on top of the potato, to light the fire. Stand back and let the fire burn; when it dies down, the mussels are ready!

That’s the theory, anyway. Our pine needles were wet from recent torrential rains, and refused to burn. After much smoldering, we piled dry twigs on top of the needles and succeeded in making a hot fire. Voila! The pine-scented, smoky mussels were the most delicious seafood we had ever tasted…even with bits of charred pine needle and assorted sea grit clinging to the shells.

After we had devoured the mussels, we ate ratatouille and bruschetta with spinach pesto. I think Conrad had a few more hot dogs.

Fall Pesto

Ingredients: 4 plump garlic cloves, 1 cup Italian parsley, 1 cup spinach or sorrel leaves, 2 Tbs fresh dill, 2 Tbs fresh chives, 1 Tbs fresh mint leaves, 2 tsp lemon zest, 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, 4 Tbs walnut oil, 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Using a food processor, pulse the ingredients in stages to make a puree. Process the garlic and herbs, then zest and walnuts, then oils, and finally the Parmesan to make a rough paste.

Beef Ragu in the style of the Italian Grandmothers

“We are farmers, but we have something really beautiful.” ~Carluccia

onions

Carluccia is a farmwoman Jessica Theroux spent time with in Calabria during the year she gathered recipes for her book, “Cooking with Italian Grandmothers.” Carluccia’s deep connection to her animals and fields and to the vegetables she raised taught Jessica to pay attention to each little thing her cooking…to look and listen carefully to her ingredients, and to the people she fed.

tomatos

Our neighbor Rodney is a farmer who raises beautiful black Dexter cattle. His herd lives in our pasture and eats grass and herbs and, very occasionally, my garden. The cows are sweet and gentle and the perfect size for a mountain farm. When Rodney gave me a chuck roast from one of his steers, I wanted to honor the animal by cooking in the attentive style of the Italian Grandmothers.

There are two approaches to this ragu, depending on your schedule and/or temperament. You can mince the vegetables for the sofritto and slowly sauté them until they melt away into an “invisible layer of deliciousness”, a la Samin Nosrot, who says,” cooking is about seeking the deepest, farthest, richest flavors in everything…about extracting the the absolute most out of every ingredient…” Or, you can go the “just whack ’em up route” and create an equally delicious homey stew with hunks of flavorful vegetables.

parsley

Ingredients: 2 1/2 to 3 lbs grass-fed chuck roast or sirloin tip roast, salt and pepper, olive oil, 3 to 4 cups finely chopped or thickly sliced onions, 1 cup finely diced or thickly sliced celery, 1 1/2 cups finely diced or thickly sliced carrots, 6 to 8 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 minced fresh or dried hot chile pepper, 2 bay leaves, 6 sprigs fresh thyme, 10 crushed juniper berries, 1 tsp crushed fennel seeds, 2 cups canned tomatoes with juice (or 2 Tbs tomato paste and 3/4 cup water), 2 1/2 cups hearty red wine, 2 to 3 cups homemade or canned beef or chicken broth, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Me with some parsley.Cut the meat into 1 1/2 to 2-inch stew-sized pieces. Season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat 2 Tbs oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and brown the meet on all sides, working in batches if you need to. Add more oil if needed and sear each batch about 10 minutes. Remove the meat from the pot and set aside.

carrots

Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté the onion with a pinch of salt until soft, 7 to 10 minutes. Raise the heat a bit and stir in the carrots and celery. Add oil if needed. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Stir in the garlic and red chile and cook 1 minute. Add the bay leaves, thyme, juniper berries, fennel seed, and wine. Bring to a simmer and cook 3 to 4 minute. Add the meat and juices back into the pot. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands. Add broth and bring to a slow boil.

Stovetop Method: Reduce the heat to low and leave the lid slightly ajar. Maintain a gentle simmer, stir occasionally, and add liquid as needed. The liquid should reduce to a thick sauce by the time the meat is fork-tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Oven Method: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook the ragu until the meat is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. If the ragu is more liquid that you want when the meat is done, strain the liquid through a colander into a saucepan. Skim off any fat and boil to reduce and concentrate the flavors. Return the broth to the ragu.

Taste the ragu and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with polenta, pasta, couscous, or bread.

David’s Feast

French Cheese and Tomatos

On our way back north to Paris, we took a detour into a more austere and less populated region of France–a rocky land of forest, hilly pastures for beef herds, windy and narrow roads, and gray granite barns and houses. Our friends, David and Carrie, have referred to this region of central France as the “Ozarks of France,” and it is a difficult enough place to make a living that many of the farmers moved away and sold their old homes to people like David and Carrie. The thick-walled stone house has been renovated to make a comfortable country retreat where they tend a glorious summer garden and welcome visitors with warm hospitality. They shared with us all the best things–ripe plums picked from the community trees, mushrooms gathered in the fields, ancient stone ruins shrouded in mist, and a well-stocked wine cellar beneath the house. As if that were not enough, David cooked a feast! And he even let me help a little.

Cooking with the French

David cooks the way many good cooks in France cook–deeply connected to local and seasonal flavors and inspired by market or garden produce that looks, smells, and feels most alive. David shopped at the weekly farmers’ market in a nearby village and Carrie gathered beautiful fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden. The cool, rainy fall weather was perfect for a day of cuisine maison, or slow home cooking. Of course, we opened a bottle of good wine to sip with the meal.

 Goat Cheese with Honey

Goat Cheese Appetizers

For an aperatif, Carrie warmed small rounds of goat cheese and drizzled a little local honey on top. Cuisine du terroir of elegant simplicity.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Vegetable Gratin

Roast Leg of Lamb

David likes to cook from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. This is based on one of her recipes.

Ingredients: 3 medium potatoes (2 lbs.), 3 medium or 2 large yellow onions, 5 medium tomatoes, 8 garlic cloves, 4 to 5 Tbs olive oil, several sprigs fresh thyme (1 Tbs. chopped leaves), 2 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 2/3 cup dry white wine, 5 1/2 to 6-pound leg of lamb

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the bottom of a large roasting pan or gratin dish with a split garlic clove.

Slice the potatoes, onions, and tomatoes about 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the peeled garlic cloves. Roughly chop the thyme leaves. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Overlap slightly if necessary. Season with salt, pepper and thyme. Repeat with layers of onion followed by tomatoes. Pour on the wine and drizzle with olive oil.

Trim most of the fat from the leg of lamb, leaving only a thin layer. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Place a rack over the pan of vegetables and set the leg of lamb, fat side up, on the rack. Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes for rare lamb, longer if you prefer more well-cooked meat. Let the lamb sit 15 minutes before carving into thin slices. Arrange the lamb slices on a platter and serve the vegetable gratin from the pan.

Chard Tart

Chard Tart

This was really, really good. Leftovers make a great breakfast.

The dough: 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2-tsp salt, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup pine nuts

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir them together until the dough comes together in a ball. Divide the dough into 2 balls, wrap in plastic, and set aside.

Filling: 1 1/2 lbs. chard leaves (no stems), 1 cup golden raisins, 2 beaten eggs, salt

Wash and dry the chard leaves. Chop them into narrow strips and place them in a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and stir in the beaten eggs. Add the raisins and mix well.

Roll out one ball of dough and press it into a tart pan. Spread the filling over the dough. Roll out the second ball of dough and cover the filling. Pinch the edges together.

Bake in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.

Roasted Beet Salad

Another great way to eat those roasted beets from the street market…a lovely fall or winter salad and a great pairing of walnuts and beets. Roasted or boiled, the beets are delicious.

Ingredients: 4 medium beets, 3 shallots, 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill, 2/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts, 1 Tbs walnut oil, 4 Tbs cider vinegar, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, salt and freshly ground black pepper, 1 1/2 cups arugula leaves

To roast the beets, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour or more, depending on size. Beets are done when they can be pierced easily with a thin knife blade. Cool and peel. While still warm, slice the beets into wedges, place them in a bowl, and drizzle with vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Finely chop the shallots and add them to the bowl. Add the dill, chile flakes, and walnut oil and toss to mix well. Put the arugula leaves on a platter, Scoop the beets over them, and distribute the toasted walnuts on top.

Market Day Cooking–Food, Glorious Food!

French Market

One of the true joys of traveling in France is shopping at the outdoor markets. Our guidebook called them “a barrage of color, sight, and sound.”The abundance and beauty of the produce is astounding–for me, it is Christmas Day. Stalls overflow with vegetables and fruits, nuts and olives, mushrooms and truffles, dried and fresh herbs and spices, cheeses, breads, sausages and cured meats, fish, chickens and ducks, and fresh meat. And then there’s the rotisserie chickens and grilled sausages… Lebanese specialties such as felafel, flatbreads with za’atar, and tabouleh…giant pans of paella, coq au vin…or trays of fresh pasta and ravioli. You can snack on galettes or pommes frites, or perhaps a bowl of onion soup. Oh, and take home roasted beets–what a great idea! One of our favorite markets included a van full of country bread, driven straight from the wood-fired bake oven located on a nearby farm.

Italian Market Vegetables

French Market Sausages

These are traveling markets. In rural France, the small towns host street markets on different days of the week, and various venders make a circuit to augment the more local and seasonal fare. The fall specialties include an array of wild mushrooms, fresh walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts, freshly pressed nut oils, juicy dried prunes, figs and pears, and the most gorgeous garlic I have ever seen. Southwest France is a land of small, traditional, family farms that is overflowing with the good things of the earth–food that is flavored with a benevolent climate, rich soil, and careful tending. This is the home of cuisine du terroir, country cooking seasoned with the flavor of the land.

Mushrooms At A French Market

Our home away from home in Dordogne was in a beautifully converted ancient stone barn, looking out over softly rolling hills toward the river valley and surrounded by fields of just-harvested tobacco, ripening walnut orchards, pasture, and forests of oak and chestnut trees. It felt like home, complete with a rusting vehicle in the field across the way. Each day we foraged at the markets and brought the loot home to our tiny kitchen. We emptied our shopping bags like Christmas stockings, and reveled in the riches. It was truly hard to know what to cook first. When the ingredients are so good, why get fancy? Simple is best.

French Rental Home

Roast Fingerling Potatoes

The markets were full of freshly dug potatoes, full of flavor and smelling of the earth. Fingerlings or other small, smooth-skinned yellow potatoes are first choice. Look for Red Gold, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, French Fingerling, or Russian Banana. They are best when not long out of the ground.

Wash the potatoes and dry them well. Cut fingerlings in half and larger potatoes into quarters so that the pieces are of equal size. Place the potatoes on a roasting pan that is large enough to hold them all in one layer. Drizzle them with a flavorful olive oil (2 Tbs per pound of potatoes) and toss well. Sprinkle on a generous 1/4-teaspoon sea salt and 1/2- tsp chopped fresh rosemary per pound.

Roast the potatoes in the hot oven for 50 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan and flipping the potatoes every 10 to 15 minutes so that all sides turn a toasty brown. They are done when the outside is crisp and the inside tender.

Signature Salad

On our very first day in France we stopped at a small bistro outside the railroad station where I got to eat what turned out to be the signature salad of southwest France. It was sublime.

Fill a bowl with bite-size pieces of red and green loose leaf lettuce (the most common variety we saw in the region was soft, frilly head of green-shading-to-red leaves) and curly endive. Dress the greens with a vinaigrette made with 4 Tbs mild olive oil, 2 Tbs walnut oil, and 2 Tbs wine or cider vinegar. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Top the salad with toasted walnuts and slices of toasted baguette with rounds of goat cheese, placed under the broiler to melt the cheese.

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

Market Veggies in France

It still felt like summer in the south of France in late September, and the deep purple eggplant, vibrant red and orange peppers, ruby-red onions, vine-ripe tomatoes, and shiny green zucchini were irresistible. Add some fat lavender-striped garlic cloves and a bundle of fresh thyme…it’s a lovely way to bake a summer garden. We had this dish as a filling for lasagne at the little railroad station bistro.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Ingredients: 1 large red onion, 1 beautiful shiny-skinned eggplant –12 to 16 oz.(or 2 smaller ones), 1 or 2 red or orange sweet peppers, 2 slender zucchini, 2 medium tomatoes (or 5 or 6 canned plum tomatoes), 3 to 4 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 tsp. sea salt or Kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 3 fat garlic cloves, 3 to 4 Tbs fruity olive oil

Extras: fresh mint leaves, pitted green olives, splash of sherry vinegar

Slice the onion from top to bottom into thin wedges. Cut the eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips, then each strip into 3 or 4 pieces, slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch rounds. Slice the tomatoes 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the garlic.

Combine the onion, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and garlic in a large roasting pan. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss again. Distribute the tomato slices over the top (or squeeze the canned tomatoes with your hand over the other vegetables.

Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fresh mint leaves and chopped green olives. A splash of sherry or balsamic vinegar is nice.

Smoky Grilled Fish and Beet Salsa

Our farmhouse in Dordogne had a patio and outdoor grill where the barnyard used to be. We brought home fresh fish from the market, and Joe fired up the grill with a bag of grapevine trimmings. The fire turned out to be quite smoky, rather alarming to our host, but the fish was delicious and greatly enhanced by a beet-orange salsa borrowed from a recipe by Yotam Ottalenghi. It’s surprising how many ways you can find to eat beets when they come ready-roasted from the market! The salsa was spiced with piment d’Espelette, a dried pepper from the Basque region. It is medium spicy and very flavorful–somewhat like Aleppo pepper, only brighter and fruitier.

Build a big, smoky fire and grill skin-on fish, whole or fillets, until cooked through–3 to 4 minutes per side. If you don’t like smoke, use a normal grill fire. While someone else deals with the fire, make the salsa.

Ingredients: 1 roasted or boiled medium-large red or yellow beet, 1 medium orange, 1 small red onion, 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp toasted and crushed coriander seeds, 3/4 tsp toasted and crushed cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, salt, 1 Tbs walnut oil, sea salt or kosher salt, vinegar

Peel and cut the beet into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the orange and remove all pith and tough membranes from the segments. Chop into small pieces. Finely chop the onion. Combine the beet, orange, onion, olives and parsley in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the spices, lemon juice, and walnut oil and pour over the mixture in the bowl. Mix well and season with salt to taste. Add some toasted walnuts and a splash of cider or sherry vinegar, if needed, just before serving. This salsa is brilliant on top of a winter salad of spinach or spicy greens.

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For dessert, all I had to do was walk down the lane to a long-empty chateau and pick fresh figs from the tree that hung out over the bank. Not so easy, but well worth the sun-ripened figs, bursting with juice.

In Paris, there are at least 100 street markets that set up in the various neighborhoods on specified days of the week. The market near our apartment stretched for almost a half mile along a narrow greenway between two avenues. It was the Louvre of street markets, and I gazed for hours at frilly green and red lettuce, stacks of wrinkled, moldy-rind cheeses, seductive radishes, and fish so fresh they seem to have just jumped out of the water

Joie de Vivre and Thanksgiving

Last summer, when I couldn’t cook, words I read in Su Mei Yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut, took on new meaning. She gives insight into the cooking of Thailand by explaining that “the Thai people are Buddhists who believe that life is marked by suffering, impermanence, and constant change. They seek and grasp at every chance to celebrate pleasure and happiness. Good food and the community spirits of sharing reflect this philosophy.”

The Thai philosophy of food can be summed up in two words, according to Yu: arroy, meaning delicious as well as “touching one’s heart”, and sanuk, meaning fun and spiritual joie de vivre. Sounds like they celebrate Thanksgiving every day.

We were in need of an infusion of joie de vivre, so we went with friends Joe and Suzy to France. As we traveled south into the Dordogne, I knew immediately that we were in the land of arroy and sanuk, as well as joie de vivre. This is a region of rich river valleys blessed with a temperate climate, ample sun and rain, and a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Contented cows and sheep dot deep green pastures, fields of vegetables and fruit and nut orchards thrive, and the wine is legendary. This is a land where almost every village gives it’s name to a kind of cheese, wine, or sausage–all you need to do is pop into the village baker, and you have a feast.

French Landscape

French Door

Our first stop was in Villaines les Rochers, a village of willow basket makers. We were the guests of David and Judy, who make their home in one of the cave houses common to the area. These houses are dug into the soft rock in the bluffs above the river to create a unique space that is open to light yet insulated from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The sun-facing rock wall has the added advantage of creating a superb microclimate for tomatoes and peppers and plants like grapevines and figs (even better, you can climb up on the roof and pick the figs!). David and Judy tend a garden that produces some of the most beautiful and delicious vegetables I have ever seen or tasted.

French Tomato Plate

One of the great things about being a traveler welcomed into someone’s home is that they know the flavors of their home terroir and want to share the best food possible. Our hosts gathered sun-ripened tomatoes and herbs from the garden, goat cheese from the near-by town of St. Maure, figs from the tree outside their door, mackerel from the Atlantic, and wine from a small neighboring vineyard to make a welcoming meal full of joie de vivre.

As you will see, this is not fussy cooking–not the image of the French chef. This is wonderful food staight from the earth and the sea, shared with good friends, and remembered forever with gratitude.

Appetizer of Goat Cheese and Figs

French Fig

Cut ripe, fresh figs in half and arrange on a baking pan. Place a 1/4-inch slice of goat cheese (Judy prefers the ash-coated Chevre de St. Maure) on top of each fig. Broil until the figs are softened and the cheese bubbles. Voila!

David’s Tomato Salad

French Tomato

David and Judy grow sweet, richly flavored heirloom tomatoes–Zebra and Corno-de- something, as well as the hybrid “Sungold” cherry tomato. Red, green, and gold create a spectacular mosaic of flavor and color. This is David’s speciality.

Arrange slices of red, green, and yellow tomatoes in a pleasing pattern on a large platter. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper, finely chopped red onion, and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle fruity olive oil over the top. Enjoy!

Grilled Mackerel

We bought whole, fresh mackerel at the local grocery store (cleaned as we waited), and David prepared it for the grill, using fresh herbs from the garden.

Rub the mackerel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and coat with finely chopped sage and rosemary leaves. Tuck a sprig of rosemary and a few sage leaves into the cavity of each fish and set aside in the fridge while you prepare the grill fire. Grill over medium heat until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Bon apetit!

Serve with a salad of lettuce and gorgeous red radicchio.