November 28, 2008

Sunday Thanks for a great year of friendship

Tuscan Black Kale **

While you home-friends are thinking of leftovers and retail therapy on a big scale (aka day after Thanksgiving), here on the French Kitchen ranch in Southwest France, we are just getting ready for the big day. Just like extended and distant families have to rearrange Christmas and school holidays, this bi-cultural life means accommodating the American mindset within a French framework. Sunday is a better day to invite 12 bi-cultural people for a mid day meal.

So I did order a turkey from the village butcher, have yet to find cranberries (I've got an alternate idea...see later*) and I am scouring the last of the potager for some bebe romanesco- those goofy green pointed outer space cauliflowers.

Like a pin-striped muscle car, the potager is lined in frosty threads. After an unusally mild and long Indian summer, the famous Garonne River Valley fog has just arrived with the first frosty nights- resulting in that most ephemeral visual morning treat- a hoar frost. So as I sing 'chick, chick, chicka, che' to my ruffled feathered friends who are busy discovering the freshly arrived kitchen peelings, I ran around the garden in my nightdress, jeans and hoodie to gather a few ideas for Sunday Thanks and these first winter images.

Sunday Thanks Menu Ideas-

fennel fronds and boats with hot anchovy and black pepper dressing

Three Greens
(wilted collard greens, black kale and savoy cabbage
tossed with crispy lardons and garlic)

Armagnac-caramelized Sweet Potatoes wedges

Turkey Roti
(just salt, pepper and duck fat inside and out)

My mother's cornbread stuffing
(the only reason to eat all this!)

Just Pumpkin Pie
& other sweet fantasies

However, the most important ingredient, usually buried beneath the parades, the football games, the piles of colorful sweaters, the too many too early Christmas toys, is the friendship that has gathered around this French Kitchen table during the last year.

During 2008, dozens of new and old friends have stopped, cooked, learned, taught, inspired and been inspired in my simple French Kitchen. On this 2-acre 'American' island of good food and convival gatherings in the most French part of France, I count my blessing, small and grand.
I thank all of you who have made your way to my woad blue door, put up with Bacon's exhuberent greetings and contributed your own good energy and laughter to making the French Kitchen table so memorable.

this is just a sampling...

* French Vodka Cranberry Martinis

**And thanks to Judy for her own kale post!

November 22, 2008

Pork & Beans- a very faux cassoulet

When the Diva, Judy Witts asked me 'what are you making for supper?' I was almost embarrassed to say not Cassoulet. And when she suggested that we post a 'come one, come all' let's cook together on our ongoing, occasional Whole Hog blog, I realized that a simple 'you too can do this tonight' version of French Pork & Beans was the answer.

When not cooking a full-blown Camp Cassoulet version (see the official recipe here!), I sometimes just wet the beans, add anything vegetable lying around and toss in some artisanal bacon at the end. Eh Voila! my version of pork and beans. Next, toss some leftover cheese in a pan with a slice of baguette on top and this is a simple supper that stands up to a bottle of new wine, Beaujolais or otherwise.

My non-recipe recipe goes like this:

Take 500 grams or about 1 lb of dried beans ( I used the fat pillowy Coco beans we grow here in Southwest France), put them in a pot of water to soak during the day.

Drain the now plump beans and put them in a pot. Cover with just enough water, about 3-5 cm or 1 1/2 - 2 inches. Put over a medium hot burner.

Add a couple of carrots, an onion, a few shallots, and two cloves of garlic chopped in small bean-sized pieces. Add a bay leaf, some fresh or dried thyme, a few black pepper corns and some lovage or celery leaf. Cover, let come to a boil, then turn down and simmer for about 45-50 minutes or until the beans are tender. Taste and salt as desired.

While the beans are getting done, fry up some good thick pieces of bacon, a hunk of ventreche, salt pork, ham or a couple of sausages. That's the Pork part. Then toss the meat and any fat into the Beans, stir and serve.

Too simple, too delicious. And it takes about 5 real minutes of chopping, and 45 minutes of cooking. That's less than an hour; less than the time it takes to run out to the store or order mediocre takeout. While the beans are cooking you can read a book, take a walk, or just watch the leaves drop from the trees. And you don't even need a can opener.

As I said, it's not cassoulet, but it is very tasty. And the next day there are leftovers for lunch with an egg dropped in the pan to poach in the bean liquor.

Buy good beans, use good water, kiss your butcher, pay attention. That's what makes the difference!This is Simple French Food.

beans at the Santiago de Compostela market

November 19, 2008

Season Changes- weekend cooking breaks from Cassoulet to Confit de Canard

Gotta love the l'ete Indienne we've been having this year. If there could be a more perfect fall, it would have to be like this one in a favorite painting of Monet's little studio boat that he rowed along the Seine and her tributaries.

Here along the Canal de Garonne, my own canal has been aglow with turning leaves that rolled from acid green to yellow, from gold to deep ochre with a splash of plum and bright red thrown in for fun.

It's just as well the weather held, as this was the time to do a bit of boat repairs.
Taking advantage of the bluer skies and still warm nights, Mark Wiggs, master marine carpenter and boatwright from Angleterre, has been sorting out 50 years of failing plywood and rusty screws.

As you can see, what that really meant is that Mighty Mark took the entire wheelhouse down with his trusty hammer and saw! Now he is building, from the steel frame up, a brand spanking new traditional solid red cedar and glass room perfect for winter morning cafe-au-lait and late summer evening suppers.

Here are a few pix for posterity and just to prove how mad I truly am. Twenty-two years of the Julia Hoyt and we're both ready for a facelift!

Stay tuned for the final unveiling soon!

Along with these structural changes, the season has changed, too, from the gastronomic overload of Fall's abundant markets and menus to the quieter space between the plates, the mid-week pause and to the gracious unhurried weekends.

To celebrate Winter's tardy arrival, I am offering a handful of weekend retreats, culinary quiet time and just enough good food and market color to usher in the festive time ahead. Interested in a weekend break in the French Kitchen? Just click here at French Kitchen Adventures for more details! In the meantime, just keep drifting on the current...

November 06, 2008

Stirring the Pot at Departures Magazine- Cassoulet Cassoles

November is a funny month.
Funny Strange.
Changes seems to begin at the end of the Fall season. New Presidents for some- Nov 4, Remembrances of past peace efforts for others- Nov 11, Turkey and Thanks- Nov 27, and yet another year under the belt- Nov 29. For better or for worse, November is my month. The last couple of years I have been celebrating its gloomy and drizzling arrival with the warmest of all French regional dishes...Cassoulet.

Camp Cassoulet continues to be a popular cooking weekend program here at the French Kitchen and abroad. Lisa and Tony Geer of the Mendocino Coast's Ledford House restaurant joined Tiffany and Michael from Seattle and Olivier and Carole from NYC and Paris at the end of a wonderfully warm Indian Summer October to market and cook yet another great Cassoulet. Here, even the experts can learn a new trick or two.

My Fall season started early over 18,000 kilometers away with teaching and cooking cassoulet for over 400 people in New Zealand in August. In September, I returned home to Southwest France for another round of convivial weekends in front of the French kitchen cheminée and enough beans to flat a raft of saucisse de Toulouse and duck confit.

But the fire really started to blaze when I got the news that Departures Magazine, that arbiter of all things luxe for American Express Platinum cardholders published an article 'Cassoulet Style' by Sylvie Bigar, New York journalist and delightful culinary snoop, about cassoles and mentioned a new little scoop of my own.

It's time to reveal what's been cooking on the French Kitchen back burner. The Hill Sisters (my little sister Stephanie and I) are opening our own, on-line French Kitchen Piggery Pantry & Boutique. And guess what's in stock now?

Cassoles, cassoles and more cassoles! Authentic, traditional, purpose-built clay pots, hand thrown by the Poterie NOT Freres along the canal du Midi near Castelnaudary. In her article, Sylvie gives a good argument for a rounded bean pot, but I must agree with Jacques Pepin that the shape is not as important as what goes in it. (click here for the official Camp Cassoulet recipe and cooking trucs here!) However, as far as cassoles are concerned, what is important is the actual quality of the pot- be it clay, enamel cast iron or stainless steel.

Fortunately you can now have your beans and eat them, too. Because these clay cassoles that the Not family have been throwing for since 1830 are hand-crafted from a special mix of local clay and silica, blended and fired at high temperatures to produce a rock-hard natural terre-cuit or French stoneware. Unlike softer terracotta pots, these are meant to be baked in hot ovens for long hours; they ring like glass when tapped.

The thick glaze is a rich earth color like the well-baked crust of a cassoulet. there are glaze drips and thumbprints that speak of the atelier and roughened hands that make these sturdy bowls. Cooking only deepens the colors and ages the bowl in a duck fat sort of glow. My own cassoles are over 20 years old now and a deep dark brown.

I love these pots; and the men who make them. Like the Artisan Food School teachers we work with, Ton-Ton Robert and the next generation of potters infuse their hand-built cassoles with the sort of love and attention we use when cooking here at the French Kitchen. At the Not Potterie, the cook with clay.

Interested in owning your own authentic Poterie NOT Freres Cassole?

The price is 75 euros (approx 100 US$) plus shipping and handling and is payable with Paypal or credit card (Amex included, of course!). Just click on the "buy now' button upper right. You will be contacted about shipping options available. I drove down in the rain last week to pick up a small order ready for shipping. These pots, made by hand, one-by-one are available in very limited quantities.

The standard size is big enough to prepare a generous cassoulet for 8-10 people using one kilo of dried beans (I use 100 gr, per person) and measures approximately 30cm/12 in. x 11 cm/5 in. and weighs 2.5 kilos or 5.5 pounds.

Since the Not Pottery does not ship, I asked Robert Not to stamp these special cassoles for me so that you would know they are the real deal, straight for France and full of French Kitchen inspiration. And if that is not enough to tempt you, I'll tuck a box of the very secretive Épice Rabelais as well as the official Camp Cassoulet recipe booklet!

(NOTE: FOR THOSE ORDERING A CASSOLE AFTER 19/12/08, the special offer including free Tarbais beans is now over. The 2008 harvest is now depleted.)

To order one or more cassoles, please click on the sidebar at right or email me directly at kate (at) thefrenchkitchen (dot) com. Cassoles weigh 4 kilos packed and are shipped by the French post service, La Poste, International economique and shipping costs are approx. 35 euros depending on destination.