Monday, August 29, 2011

Aisle Pick Up Something For Dinner

Aside from those rare days. …even rarer in the summer, when I go into some sort of cooking flurry, I really don’t need much food. Gone are the days of feeding 2 teenage boys (they're generally normal...unless I'm taking their picture), 17 of their nearest and dearest friends and a couple of neighbor kids thrown in for good measure. Also gone are the days of enough storage space to have one extra of almost everything in case of famine or plague. I buy my vegetables precisely when I need them at the daily market down the street, my bread at the patisserie, fresh daily also, and the tiny grocery around the corner suffices for anything else I might need (save Skippy Super Chunk).

But whenever a friend with a car heads out to one of the big supermarchés on the periphery of the city, I hitch a ride. I love to poke around, checking out what’s available, what’s prevalent, and what is non-existent. This sport is only fun when I have nowhere to be because the grocery store lines are un-flipping-believable. But that’s another article.

So here’s my rundown. The fruit and vegetable section is enormous. I mean, HUGE. And busy. I’ve never had to wait in line to get at the tomatoes before, but it’s happened to me here.  This section includes most things I’m familiar with although it’s really light on broccoli. Which is just fine with me. Don’t tell my kids but I’d probably be happy if I never had to eat broccoli again for the rest of my life. There is a higher preponderance of endive, shallots, leeks, fennel, and zucchini, a gazillion types of lettuce and various bean pods that mystify me. I mean, who really takes the time to shell these things, anyway?

The fresh milk section is about 2 feet wide and there is no such thing as a gallon of any of it. A pint is all you’re going to get…although you can buy the type of milk that will last, unrefrigerated, through a nuclear holocaust…but I am genetically incapable of buying it. People just don’t drink milk here. When I tell them I love a tall, cold glass of milk with a sandwich they come dangerously close to gagging.  I’m a little disappointed because one of the first phrases I learned on my Rosetta Stone French program…. actually the only one…was “the boy drinks milk”. I have NEVER been able to use that sentence; although I’m sure French boys drink milk…somewhere!

The proportions of the chip section….that enormous, colorful and caloric aisle in the U.S. is only a little  larger than the milk subdivision. Oh they’ve got salty snacks and some are REALLY nummy, but they obviously do not carry the importance in the French diet of…say….CHEESE.

The cheese aisle…now that’s another story! Do not get stuck here at 6 o’clock at night when you need to be somewhere in a hurry. You won’t get there. Trying to get through the mob is problem enough but making up your mind also takes time. Hard, soft, pasteurized or not, fresh or aged, goat, sheep or cow.  This thing goes on forever and doesn’t include the deli section of cheese (a small portion of it on the left), which also blows the mind for variety. The yogurt sector is the same. I don’t know what the French fascination is with yogurt, but they’ve got an entire aisle of it…. that and creamy pudding type desserts. So I shan’t worry about them. They’re getting their vitamin D.

Which brings me to the deli. There are sausages (some of which I just don’t even want to know their origins) a few salads, you can ask for sliced meats, sauces, cheeses and a few ready-made savory pies, pastas and roasted meats. But I want to point out there is not one, single, shuddering bowl of pink fluff or pistachio goo. Nor, have I seen a single clear plastic catering pan heaping with bright yellow, over-mayonaised potato salad. In fact, in spite of the fact that mayonnaise is French, I rarely see salads bound together with the stuff. Perhaps that’s different in the north…but this here is olive oil country, cowboy!

Chocolate also has an aisle of it’s own and I have been known to spend 20…okay, maybe more…minutes there examining my options. And don’t bother me while I’m pondering either!  It could get ugly. Chocolate chips are not included in the French penchant for the cocoa bean, however.

The wine aisle is not an aisle. It’s regional airport landing field. And it’s not one runway…. it’s three. It’s miles bigger than the beer section in a Wisconsin liquor department, which is saying something!  Local wines, wines from all the other regions of France, very little foreign wine, red, white, rose, dessert wines, wines for 75 euros and wines for 2 euros. Boxes of wines and cases of wines. Wines on special and wines for special occasions. This is just too much for me! While I may have a genetic inclination to drink real milk, I do not have that special, distinctly French gene that seems to just understand wine. Mind you, that doesn’t keep me away from this particular aisle. I look at it as research.

I haven’t even started on the meat aisle, but if I continue, this article will just be too long. So I won’t. That will be next week. As I sit here in the square, sipping a glass of red and eating a bowl of tapas, which in this case is a spicy, marinated version some of those mysterious, aforementioned beans, I’m thinking of what to make for dinner. I’ve got loads of fresh veggies given to me by a friend. Along with my string of garlic hanging from the ceiling and a bottle of olive oil and one of shallot vinegar, and a wedge of some variety of savoie cheese, I should be good. The Skippy is coming with friends in two weeks!


Monday, August 22, 2011

Plum Crazy

My mom used to do really goofy things in August. You know, those hot, humid, dog days of August when the best you can do is....roll over. Nope, not mom. Every year, on what seemed the the hottest, most impossible day, she would clean the attic. Or make pickles. Both are hot, sticky, miserable jobs. But she always said, "I'm already hot and sweaty. I might as well do the hottest jobs on the hottest days". There's mother wisdom for you.

Saturday the yellow plums were ripe. NOW! And I had a tree dripping with them. It was also 100 degrees. Taking mother wisdom to heart, I decided to make jam. I had already bought the jars and ingredients and was dying to use my old, french, copper confiture pot,  so I went at it. I Martha Stewarted away my steamy afternoon, trying not to sweat in my bubbling brew, and ended up with 2 batches of 6 jars each. The golden jam was just beautiful. I couldn't stop surveying my work and marveling at it's perfection.

The next morning, craving toast with jam, I opened a jar that hadn't sealed. It wasn't jam, it was syrup. Delicious syrup, but decidedly messy on a piece of toast. As were the rest of the jars. Back to the internet (where I had learned to make it in the first place) where most of the suggestions for this problem were.... use it for ice cream syrup.

I don't want ice cream syrup. This is my freezer.

Ice cream is not an option. Ice cubes aren't even an option.

So today I opened every jar, emptied them, rewashed, resterilized, and recooked the jam with a little additional pectin. This time it set. It might be golden, plum flavored cement by tomorrow....but by golly it won't be syrup.

So with all the waste and extra cooking, I've only got 8 jars now. And ants. But mom was right. Doing the hot jobs on the hot days really sort of erases the discomfort. I had a great day. I still have 6 pounds of plums. But it will be hot again tomorrow and I now I know what I did wrong. If it works tomorrow, I'll publish the recipe. And you can have the ants too, if you'd like.

Have a wonderful week!


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It IS Easy Being Green

The markets here in Aix en Provence are exploding...bursting with choice, local, fruits, vegetables and herbs. But the most magnificent thing about les marchés (read more about our markets in Aix here) in August, is they're not exploding with people. There's a laziness to the days right now that I love. Everyone is on vacation, including many of the venders. And I can move around the market without getting stepped on or jostled and I have the opportunity to converse with the venders about such earth-shattering subjects as the merits of Tahitian versus Madagascar vanilla beans.  I want to stay away from the markets...I really do. Because I always buy more than I can consume in a day or two...just because it's beautiful... and ripe...and perfect. I have become pretty adept at taking veggies almost past their prime and turning them into something that I can at least stick in the freezer. I see, as I'm writing this, that there is a red pepper in the basket in front of me that is starting to shrivel with age. It will go in the broiler today with some olive oil and get itself roasted back to a new form of perfection.  I wish I could do that for myself! Oh yes, I guess I could. It's called a chemical peel!

Anyway, 2 weeks ago on a rainy, gray day I was perusing the market...again for nothing in particular. I passed a vender who happened to have a big fat, glorious pile of basil. And it was the thick-leaved, shiny variety (they call it Italian basil here) that I love to use for pesto. Summer pesto is a tradition at my house and when this herb is  thick and fragrant, before it flowers, one has to grab the moment. Which I did this day. I filled a sack and changed my afternoon plans.

Pesto was always one of my kids' favorites. On pasta, on crackers, on a sandwich, with tomatoes...whatever. And the wonderful thing about pesto is it makes basil preservable. It freezes like a dream, thaws fast and brings the late lazy days of summer back to mind when one is buried up to the neck in snow. Of course, here in the south, I don't need to worry about the snow thing but...winter is matter how it presents itself.

I'm low on good kitchen tools here but I did buy a food processor. My splurge was really the fault of a fellow blogger named Sharon, and her citrus tart recipe but I did have pesto in mind when I bought it. And you really need a food processor for this. Unless you're a kitchen saint...or nuts. So here's our favorite pesto recipe.


4 C. well packed basil leaves (this does not mean well packed as in brown sugar. But you can push it down a bit. Bruising won't matter much. It won't have time to lose it's flavor).

1/2 C. olive oil

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 to 1/3 C roasted pine nuts (do not skip the roasting step. This makes a world of difference in the flavor.)

1/4 C. grated parmesan cheese (yes, I mean buy a good quality wedge and grate it in the food processor)

1/4 C. grated asiago or pecorino cheese (same as above)

Wash and dry the leaves. Make sure they're good and dry by flinging them around in a towel or running them through the spin cycle of the washer (in a towel) ....yes you heard me. A top-load washing machine is the BEST kitchen tool. Do not try it in a front-loader (I tried that at my friend Kerry's house one time and she was picking spinach out of her underwear for a month). Then spread them out on a towel to dry.

Puree the leaves with a food processor. Add the oil, garlic and pine nuts and process until a paste forms. Then add the cheese and just process to blend.

That's it. Perfect pesto. I leave one batch in the fridge for dinner and the rest is frozen in 1/4 C. portions in freezer bags. I NEVER make one's always at least 4. And it's so comforting to have a stack of flat little green bags in the freezer. For that moment when....

Just for extra fun, here's a great recipe using pesto. I haven't got any photos. Philadelphia Cream Cheese has just recently come to France and I can only get it at the big supermarkets. But take my word for it, unmolded, this is a beautiful addition to an apero table;  it's green, red and white stripes singing summer.

Pesto and Sun-Dried Tomato Torta

1 ½ pkgs (8 oz. each) cream cheese           
            into chunks
 ½ C. unsalted butter, into chunks
8 oz. dried tomatoes                                    
fresh basil leaves for garnish

 In a small bowl, cover tomatoes with boiling water and let them stand 2-5 minutes, or until softened.  Drain well and chop.  Line a mold or bowl with plastic wrap, letting ends hang over.  Layer half cream cheese mixture, half of the pesto and half dried tomatoes.  Repeat layers.  Fold ends of wrap over top and refrigerate at least two hours.  To serve, invert and remove plastic wrap.  Garnish with basil leaves and serve with crackers or toasts.

These freeze beautifully so I make two in soup bowl sized molds and one goes in the freezer for the inevitable moment when someone arrives for a drink and all I've got is old cereal and sour milk.

Bon Appetit!


The pesto recipe looks amazingly like one at Epicurious. Who knows, maybe that's where I got it back in the '80s...but I doubt it. I'm sure they stole it from me! The Torta recipe, if memory serves me right, came from my friend Steve Immerman. Thanks Steve. I've used it a million times.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Feeds the Fire

Two weeks ago I received an award. Actually I received the same award from 2 different bloggers! I’ve gotten awards before and though I really do appreciate them,  a long time ago I declared this an award-free blog. Because it’s kind of a “blogger thing” and I write primarily for people who aren’t.  But since I got 2 last week, I decided to (sort of) play just because it might be fun.

The awards came from Lee over at Traveling Sardine Class and Renee at Writingfeemail. Please check out both of their sites. Lee and I have been blog friends for quite some time. Renee and I are new friends and I so much enjoy being a part of their lives. Thank you Renee and Lee.

I was the proud recipient of the Blog On Fire Award. All this means is that other writers like my work and that could not make me more proud. After receiving the award, I’m supposed to write 7 things about myself that you might not know. Geez, my life has become a bit of an open book in the last year and a half so what would anyone want to know? This ain’t easy. But here goes.

  1. From the time I was a young child until I was a teenager, I had a reoccurring dream that involved a very large wolf who walked on two legs and splendidly dressed in a green Robin Hood style outfit. I spent the dreams running away from him, up and down and throughout a grand cathedral.  He looked an awful lot like this fellow, except he was enormous, and mean, and not a cartoon. The weird thing is, this Disney film came out long after the dream started and when I was 4 I had never even seen a Cathedral…so what the heck does that mean?

  1. I think snakes are evil…and I often have dreams about falling into a deep, dark pit of writhing serpents. No more about dreams. Somebody may be able to interpret them and then I might have to accept some very harsh facts about myself. By the way, I have good dreams too. I just can't remember them.

  1. When I was younger I was sure I was going to be hit by a truck (yeah, I know...a truck?) by the time I was 25. This didn’t consume me…it was just “a fact”. But I made a bucket list of all the things I wanted to do before this tragic moment…and did almost all of them. Except parachuting and hang gliding (although I did make my first jump at 49). On my 26th birthday, my friend Mary turned to me and said, "congratulations".  “For what?”  “You’re not dead!”  Oh, yeah…that’s right.

  1. When I was 18, I quit college and went to work for a big game outfitter in northern British Columbia as a trail cook. I didn't know what a big game outfitter was...I just wanted to live in the Rockies (one of the things on that list). I was deposited in the middle of the mountains, with a horse,  a bunch of cowboys and hunters, and no electricity or running water. At my interview I had told the boss that I knew how to cook. Of course, I had no idea. NONE! I learned very quickly (because the cowboys were hungry) how to bake bread in a tin, fire-heated oven, stuff moose heart, how to kill and skin a rabbit…or an elk, and that I do NOT LIKE brains and eggs or rocky mountain oysters. I also learned to make do with one bath every 2 months and do the laundry in a giant tub of water from the river, heated over the stove.  Oh yes, and to always take a pitcher of water to the outhouse in the summer. Life is more pleasant if you pour it down the hole first so as to clear out the blowflies. A blowfly-bombarded bottom is really an icky thing. These are things everyone should know, don’t you think?

  1. I used to be 50 pounds heavier. But I'm not ready to talk about that.

  1. I did go back to college and earned a degree in television journalism. Not because I wanted to be a journalist, but because I’d been there so damned long and all the credits I had already taken fit into the degree. I worked as a television reporter for a couple years. Until (among other things) I just could no longer stand sticking a camera in the faces of people in the midst of tragedy and ask them the stupid question, “how do you feel right now?” And writing to a 5th grade level. And other assorted nonsense. But it was great training. For what, I don't know, but still... great training.

  1. When I grow up I want to write a book…and be a singer. I can’t sing, but oh, wouldn’t it just feel so good to belt one out once in awhile? I might be able to write. But I just don’t know how to start the book. 
Now that I've filled you in on some of the inane details of my life, I'm supposed to pass this on to other bloggers. Which I'm not going to do (remember I said I was sort of playing). Not because I'm lazy, but because I can't pick. All the bloggers on my blogroll are there because like 'em.  As far as I'm concerned, they're all "on fire" and I hope that you will take the time to check them out. Yep...over there to the right....under "Places I snoop regularly".

Here's to a great week everyone!  


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

HTML Headaches

I've been meaning to write a blog. I really have had it on my list for days. And I will. I promise myself... I will. But right now I've got one hell of a headache.

I'm not kidding.....this is killing me!

I've been working on an awesome new project that I can't talk about just yet...but once again it's put me back into the world of websites and html code...a place I do not belong and a language I have no business even attempting. We already know my problems with French! But I shall persevere. I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR and all that. This is not going to beat's not going to beat me....its not going.....

Okay, it's beaten me for today. But as Scarlett says, "Tomorrow's another day."

But before tomorrow comes, I am going to take 3 ibuprofen with a nice, chilled rosé chaser...and don't call me in the morning. I mean it! Something tells me you'd be sorry.


Monday, August 1, 2011

Dog Days??

It's August! How did that happen? And August, in France, is the month for vacation. As I've mentioned before, this is really NOT the month to try to head to the beach. And so I don't. But in my world, August means it's time for my mini-vacation as well. I don't go far...actually just a few blocks up the hill. My end-of-summer vacation (this is my 3rd year) involves relocating myself to "the mansion".

I house-sit for an lovely, older couple who head up to Brittany every year for a month or two. I believe this big, old house is 17th century with a remodeling done in the 18th century (but don't quote me on that). And I don't have the whole house, just a lovely little apartment at the top, with my very own...turret. My job is to keep the house looking lived in, harvest and eat the grapes and plums, and take care of the garden.

This year is the best year ever because Madame got me an internet key so it's not necessary to plod back to my apartment in town every day to do my work. Now, Arthur and I are settled into our new digs for the next month or two. We are happy campers...and I LOVE this kind of camping!

Our first night, Arthur couldn't sleep. He just didn't know what to do about all...those...delicious.... insects. In the morning, he went cat-batty when he heard mourning doves and numerous other birds as they welcomed us to our vacation home. We have neither of these things in town. Yesterday, I let him outside. The poor puss. He's a city cat. His tender paws have touched nothing but my terra cotta floors and the clay roof tiles of Aix en Provence. He gingerly explored this new thing called....dirt......and found himself a lovely perch on the old gate of the villa. He sharpened his claws on a real tree. He dutifully chased away all the neighbor cats as has now transformed himself into a bourgeois, summer-home-living, feline prince.

As the princess, I think it is my duty to show you around the old dump. It's a very simple apartment, but at the same time it's luminous, comfortable (aside from the mattress which could possibly also be 17th century), cool, and tranquil.

My teeny kitchen is charming. It has no less than I need...but certainly not more. My knives are going to have to make the trip up here.

I love the old cloth on the table, it's wounds and tears disguised by patches from another fabric.

The living room, with it's old....everything (aside from my speakers sitting on the table), just makes me feel all cozy.

The morning sun pours in the guest room...yeppers...I've got TWO bedrooms!

My bedroom is big and bright and I love laying on that bed and reading...aside from that little back problem the mattress is causing.

The view from my princess turret looks like this in the morning

And when you look down from that window, you'll find my stone-surrounded, private terrace.

My writing desk in my bedroom... just an oh-so-perfect spot. And sitting here, I just couldn't resist the urge to share my little vacation house with you.

It's not the Ritz, it's not high design. But there's something about it's relaxed antiquity that makes me feel at home. And by the way, Arthur has his own special feature. Long ago, in who knows what century, some other cat owner cut a little hole in the bathroom door so cat princes could access their boxes as well. Isn't that just nifty? 

I hope everyone is having a wonderful vacation..however large or small it may be.