Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Land Of Ice And Snow ...

You really would not believe just how much cassoulet four twenty-somethings are capable of scarfing down. I looked at what seemed to me a very inadequate pile of meat and rushed off to get a bit more, just in case, and then watched gloomily as three massive duck legs, six smoked sausages and a half kilo of smoked poitrine de porc sizzled in the duck fat, with the saucisse à l'ail held in reserve, for later.

It also never ceases to amaze me just how much dried beans will swell when you leave them to soak overnight, and they got even bigger as they simmered in white wine for an hour or so ... the challenge, of course, was finding something big enough in which to mix the mess of beans and wine with tomato pulp and onion. I do have one of those German earthenware thingies, so I wound up ladling the beans and liquid from the big sauteuse into the bottom and the lid of that, dividing the meat between them, and then pouring the rest of the beans over.

Covered both halves tightly with tin-foil and into a slow oven (about 160-170° is fine) for a couple of hours, then topped them up with more wine and stuck the sliced garlic sausage in there as well, then back into the oven for a final hour. I reckon there must have been at least ten litres of the stuff.

Guessing that that might not be enough, and having scanned through La Méthode, while all that was going on more or less by itself, I made up a batch of bastard puff, rolled it out really thinly on baking paper and used it (still on the paper, facilitates removal and reduces the washing-up) to line a lamington tin. This so that your pastry has walls: you can do that by folding the pastry over at the edges and crimping it with your fingers, but I wanted to be absolutely certain that the custard wasn't going to leak.

Pépin recommends that you blind-bake the shell and for once I didn't feel like fiddling too much so that's what I did, but I did think to put another sheet of baking paper on top with some dried beans, to stop the centre puffing up too much, which turned out to be a pretty good idea. The custard itself is just three eggs beaten up with a half-cup of sugar and the grated rind of two lemons until very white and stiff, at which point you beat in three teaspoons of cornflour and the juice of those two lemons. Pour that into the pastry shell, arrange very thin slices of a nude lemon on top, and into the bottom of the oven with it for fifteen minutes or so.

Anyway, we settled down to the table and looked in awe as the yoof spooned great steaming mounds of beans'n'meat onto their plates and then, ten minutes of solid munching later, repeated the performance. As I write, I note that there's just about enough for one person sitting forlornly in a plate: maybe Tony can give it the coup de grace at lunchtime. As for the galette au citron, that got cut into six portions and duly disappeared in its turn: we did, however, pass on the cheese course.

Sunday wasn't much better either: Jacques turned up in the afternoon to say goodbye to someone he kind of looks on as a grand-daughter, and incidentally give her a few recipes she treasures (for his special pate brisée, and the appareil that goes on top for his passionfruit tart) and when he left I got back to cooking again. Didn't have any passionfruit though, made do with some raspberries out of the freezer which made a more than acceptable substitute.

Whatever, it's Monday now and the pair of them fly out tonight, which is why I'm looking rather suspiciously at the great fat flakes coming down. They really do not want to miss that flight, and it would be a shame if some dim-ass lorry driver jack-knifed his truck and blocked the autoroute. Yes, I know, they don't have to be there before 18:30 so in principle leaving home at 16:00 leaves plenty of margin, but the snow truly does get me uptight.

When they do arrive over there, please take care of them. (If you don't, Tony may well introduce you to one of those Glasgow specialties which, collectively, go under the name of GBH.) Malyon really wants a barbecue on the beach for Christmas, and I can assure you that it's much easier, and that she's much more pleasant, if she gets her way.

From the same people that brought you "The Correct Order In Which To Piss And Apply Tiger Balm", a handy health advisory (also available as a video, should that interest anyone), we now have Food Safety N°3: "Always Read The Fine Print On Chickens". A simple enough precaution, but sad to say one that I neglected the other day when I came across a cheap poulet fermier. Because had I taken the trouble to look at the tiny writing at the bottom, just below the end-user licence and the user manual, I might have seen that it was "à bouillir".

Yes, it was indeed a boiling fowl. Doubtless had a long and happy life, as fulfilling as a chicken's life could be said to be, running around and eating worms and healthy grain (emphatically not reprocessed pig-shit, although exactly why they bother reprocessing the stuff when the pig's done a pretty decent job already I will never know) and growing older and putting on lots of muscle and sinew, until finally death took her. And he, or one of his merry band of little helpers, stuck her in a plastic bag and eventually, in the course of things, she arrived on a supermarket shelf near us. And I did not read the label, and took her home.

Have to admit that the smell was quite appetizing as the beast cooked, but the proof of the pudding is, as they say ... the eating was a lengthy exercise, we might have lost out on the deal, losing calories thanks to all the jaw work. There were leftovers: kebab filling maybe, and just for once I might make up some chicken stock, with an eye to onion soup later on.

A random thought: after all these years I'm kind of used to it, and it just fades into the background noise, but sometimes something happens to remind me that the French - and in particular, French banks - have a different idea of what customer service is than do you or I. Upstart banks with the CIC, an institution which has two branches in Chambery: head office in Avenue du Comte Vert, another in place St Leger. The first is closed on Saturday but open on Monday; the other, opposite-wise.

So, having a bank transfer to do on a Monday, I headed off confidently to head office to do the deed, and was delighted to read the little notice stuck up on the (bolted) doors: "In order to provide better customer service, and to better fulfill your expectations, we will be closed on Mondays from henceforth". I mean, who the frak do they think they're fooling? It's not as though there were angry mobs around on a Monday moaning, waving pitchforks and flaming faggots, demanding that the place be shut down. Not that I'd ever noticed, anyway.

OK, there was one bit of truth in there: this sort of thing definitely does fulfill my already pretty low expectations. And I sometimes cannot help but think that just possibly the absence of bank tellers, busily discussing their latest manicure over the phone with their copine at head office and lamenting the inadequacies of their boyfriend in certain departments, might well improve the customer experience. Just saying.

(As an aside, on the - locked - door through to the office area there was a prominent sign marked "PULL". Next to that, as smaller sign, saying something along the lines of  "Push this door if you want to speak to an advisor". You'd think they could get their stories straight.)

Yet another random thought - neurons are having a good day today - if you find yourself looking for a light lunch and have nowt in the fridge but some puff pastry, spinach or silverbeet, and a couple of eggs, do not despair! Oeufs florentines will be your saviour. Well, technically speaking, it's a croustade florentine, but let's not worry about the cooking Nazis, shall we?

Assuming there's just two of you, you should line a couple of small (5" diameter) tart moulds with that pastry, and here's a handy hint: should you find yourself, for some reason, without such moulds, just crumple up some tinfoil and form that into a ring, then put that onto baking paper on a tray. And drape the pastry over that, pushing it gently down into the middle so it's sitting on the paper. It has worked for me, on a number of occasions when I've had to do this sort of thing in kitchens that are unaccountably bereft of a wide selection of such useful things.

Those go into a hot oven for five minutes, which is plenty of time to wash, dry, slice and then fry the spinach or whatever in butter, with a bit of onion or garlic if you like (I like) until nicely wilted. This gets divided amongst the pastry cases and duly seasoned with salt and pepper, and I personally stick a spoonful or two of chopped tomato or tinned tomato pulp over that, before either breaking an egg onto it or, if you prefer, sticking a poached egg on there. You might like to sprinkle some grated cheese over that lot, before putting it back in the oven.

Won't take too long to cook, and a minute before you take it out, pouring some cream over is also, in my book, a Good Idea. It's hot, has buttery pastry and everything else you need - on top of that, it's quick, cheap and easy. What more could one ask for?

I discovered, quite by accident, something else the other day: namely, that overcooking pork is quite difficult, at least around here. I had a rolled piggy shoulder that had roasted for a little while in white wine and carrots and onions and garlic and it was fine but a bit pink still in the middle, so I had the brilliant idea of sticking it, still in its terrine dish, into the woodburner to finish off for an hour or so. At which point I went to bed. You spot the deliberate mistake there?

I remembered the next morning and hastily pulled it out - not that a few minutes either way were going to make much difference, after eight hours slow cooking - to find that although it had rather shrunk the meat had glazed nicely and was everything it should have been: soft, juicy and tender. Maybe I should do that sort of thing more often.


  1. From the same people that brought you "The Correct Order In Which To Piss And Apply Tiger Balm", a handy health advisory (also available as a video, should that interest anyone)

    Do they produce handy instructional videos on "How NOT to tell by sniffing which is the jar of paprika and which is the cayenne pepper"? That would have been useful, once.

  2. looked in awe as the yoof spooned great steaming mounds of beans'n'meat onto their plates and then, ten minutes of solid munching later, repeated the performance.

    So what I want to know is, how come your daughter is so slim??????

    Also - she is probably out of luck with the bbq on the beach for $mas day - she & Tony are going to Jeannie's for the day. But we had bbq lamb on Saturday night & bbq chicken, plus venison patties, last night (yes, both times there was Other Stuff on the table as well!), so she'd better be happy :)

    In other news, it's raining today - they should feel right at home.