Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Biggest French Secret Revealed

In a nutshell and for free, here it is. The real reason French women don't get fat.

They do not snack. They only eat at set times during the day and the evidence to this truth is as follows.

Ma Fille invited a friend to the Middlest's birthday party. The party was during the lunch hours and so all the children ate their hamburgers and hotdogs, gobbling up chips and punch and cake like any other child.

When everyone left, excepting a few close friends we'd invited to stay for a bbq and grown up party, Ma Fille's friend stayed too.
It had been a couple of hours since the kids had eaten but it wasn't yet the 'gouter' or snack hour of 4 o'clock when I offered her something to nibble. She's nine years old and  has already learned the French woman's rule of snacking because she didn't say 'non, merci' and she didn't say 'yea sure'. What she did was more ingrained than that, more a part of her, more tellingly French.

She looked at the clock.
That's it. When I asked her if she was hungry and wanted a little snack, her first reaction was to see if it was snack time. And it wasn't. So she said no.

There it is. The secret revealed. Simple, huh?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Asparagus Mousse & Shrimp Bake

My inspiration for today's recipe was a ready-made meal I saw in this week's grocery store mailer. In my typical fashion I thought, wrote little notes and looked through my cookbooks before gathering the ingredients and spending the better part of this morning experimenting in the kitchen. I thought it sounded like a great idea to mix these seasonal foods in a new and different way. This is probably more time consuming than most of the things I share with you but it was really worth the effort in the end. For we Americans who are used to opening cans of soup rather than making sauces the idea of a béchamel sauce may be scary. Don't let it be. It's so super easy and making it from scratch allows you to control the salt and fat which is a bonus. 

I'll give you the recipe as I wrote it this morning--in three layers. This way you can work through each step and then assemble.
{Asparagus Mousse & Shrimp Bake}

{asparagus flowers}

Asparagus Mousse & Shrimp Bake

ingredients list

9-10 fat, fresh stalks of asparagus
1 tablespoon creme fraiche
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons good flour
2 cups low-fat or demi-ecreme milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
20 shrimp, cooked and frozen
olive oil
1 clove of garlic
fresh parsley
parmesan cheese

First layer.

The asparagus. We are getting into the height of the season for this peculiar vegetable. I think it's peculiar because of the way it grows, straight up with no anchor, pointing skyward like a flower. I suppose the tufted end is the flower after all and the spear the flower stem.You can find wild asparagus all over if you look closely. The kids gathered a few skinny stalks from our garden last weekend and it grows freely along the woodland trails around our village. The asparagus I bought for this recipe is farmed just down the road.
{fresh is best}

I have cooked asparagus many times but have never done it the proper French way until today.What you do is wash it and then cut off the hard, woody white end. Then you peel it with a paring knife all the way up to the base of the flowered tip or until you feel the outer skin get soft. It's delicate and wonderful work. I know it sounds silly but I love doing things in a new way and being able to 'feel' that it's right. As you gently peel it, the lovely fresh scent of asparagus will release a bit, the freshness of the inner stalk giving way.
{trimmed asparagus}
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and lower the trimmed asparagus into it. Boil for 7 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse in cold water immediately. This will keep the green bright and almost electric.
{cooked asparagus}

Put your cooked asparagus in a blender with the tablespoon of crème fraîche and mix until smooth. I did it with my trusty hand held mixer.
Set the asparagus mousse aside for assembly later.

Second layer.

Béchamel Sauce. Don't be nervous like I was. It's really easy to make this and once you know how you can jazz it up in so many different ways. It's just Texas cream gravy at its heart. (French chefs are rolling in their graves.)
I use the Julia Child recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Here's what you do:
Melt the 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a saucepan. Add in the 3 tablespoons flour and stir with a wooden spoon over low medium heat until you have a white roux. Don't let it brown at all. Or you have something else entirely--the base for brown gravy or the copper penny colored base for gumbo.
{white roux}

Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of low fat milk with 1/2 teaspoon salt to a simmer. Watch it so that it doesn't boil over and burn your cooktop like I usually do.

When your roux is mixed and ready and your milk is simmering, pour the milk over the roux, whisking constantly and madly until combined. No lumps this way. Bring this beautiful, pure white mixture to a boil whisking all the while until it's recognizable as béchamel.

{béchamel sauce}
Third layer.

I cheated. I bought my shrimp cooked in olive oil, parsley and garlic at gourmet frozen food shop extraordinaire, Picard. If you live here in France I suggest you do the same. If not, I'm sure you can easily find cooked frozen shrimp to doctor up with parsley and garlic or work from fresh to the same end.
If you're using frozen all you have to do is gently reheat.

{Picard shrimp}

Now to the assembly.

First, spread the asparagus mousse on the bottom of a shallow oven proof dish.
Like this:
{asparagus mousse}

Then spoon on some of the béchamel. Be sure to whisk it again first to get rid of any film or lumps.
It will look like this:
{asparagus mousse & béchamel}

Now cover this with the shrimp.
See how easy and pretty this is:
And finally, more béchamel to cover and a sprinkle of grated parmesan and breadcrumbs.

Now just put it in the oven under the grill until the cheese melts and breadcrumbs get all toasty. You may notice I don't have breadcrumbs on mine. I was out because I used them all to make chicken parmesan sandwiches yesterday. It would be the best final touch though so do it even if I didn't.

This is what we had for lunch today with a big, green salad, avocados and fresh baguette.

BUT, I made crêpes for breakfast this morning and rolled the asparagus and shrimp into a cold one and it was divine. I think if you were to layer some crêpes with this like a lasagna or stuff crêpes with the mixture and cover with extra béchamel it would be the stuff French dreams are made of. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oh, Boy! He Can Sing

I've always liked boys.
I think they're cute.
I especially love it when they sing.

Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge and then live in Guys and Dolls; swoon.
Nicolas Cage's Elvis moment in Wild at Heart.
And come on....John Travolta was my first crush of all time, flames fanned by  the sad face he made when he sang Sandy.
Imagine if Brad Pitt had done some singing during my first pregnancy and subsequent height of my crush on him. Ooo, la la.  Some of you may remember my tale of shedding a tear in the grocery aisle as I looked at a People photo of Brad in those days. Thank goodness he only bared his abs and saved me a lot of heartache. And Mon Mari a huge amount of eye rolling.

When I watched Country Strong the other night I fell a little bit in love with Garrett Hedlund. I had a look to see who this cute guy with the low, low rocking cradle of a singing voice was and realized that I am getting older. I really despise it when I think someone is cute and then find out he was born while I was in high school. It's like when I saw an interview with Zac Efron and he said something like, 'even the older ladies who are like 30 scream'. Ugh, like 30? I never had a crush on him anyway. He's too pretty.
Like Wooderson said in Dazed and Confused, 'I keep getting older and they stay the saaaammmmme age.' I think that's how I feel.
mr east texas himself

Back to Garrett. have a listen and see if you don't feel a little weak in the knees.

Monday, April 11, 2011


When we looked at this house last spring the lilac tree was in bloom.

I've waited expectantly all year for it to bloom again so I could cut some of the fragrant, delicate flowers and fill the house with them.

I imagined myself walking up the back stairs with an armful of pale purple flowers bouncing and bobbing, scattering their delicious scent as the bees trailed behind.

Today I did just that. And so did the bees.

I wish you could smell them.

 Enjoy! Have a happy Monday.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Middlest is Seven

My Middlest is seven. How did it happen? He's lost two teeth.Teeth that it took him nearly a year to grow in. He reads French and English, writes in impeccable French script and knows that flattery will get you everywhere. He's my love. And if that isn't enough, here's my list of seven things about the Middlest:

1} He has a raspy voice. Always has. And when he's hoarse he says his voice is 'crunchy'.
2} He has rhythm and can find the beat in any song. A seriously talented dancer.

3} He says I'm his 'one true love' and that Mon Mari is his 'best friend'.
4} He's eaten three BIG pieces of homemade chocolate cake in the past two days.
5} When he's hot he likes to tell us all how sweaty his armpits are.
6} There's not a day that goes by he doesn't make someone laugh.

7} Today when he opened a birthday gift and it was a new Star Wars game for DS he said, 'BOOM!' accompanied with a boyish arm gesture.

Happy Birthday Middlest!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spring Weather, Pirate Swashbuckling & Hemingway

I've been kind of quiet this week and I thought I should tell you why. A confession and excuse making session in case you've wondered what is keeping me from writing for you.

{sunshine nest}
First of all, it's the weather. It is beyond gorgeous for the first sustained period of time this year. And if you know me at all you know I'm a sucker for the sunshine and fresh air. The swimsuit has made its appearance, I've gladly packed away the winter sweaters and boots and am back in my favorite skirts and sandals, pink wine has been served on the terrace and I must confess I've hung out the laundry in my knickers. It's been so very nice and I've been like a happy bird flitting around and singing a spring song.

Big news:
This weekend marks the Middlest's birthday, my April ray of sunshine is turning seven, and I've been busy planning a pirate themed backyard extravaganza. Would you think it impossible to find red and blue bandanas for making swarthy pirate hats?  I can tell you it is.
We've made cannonballs out of balled up newspaper covered in black electric tape, a plank to walk across while carrying said cannonball in a shovel, a blue tablecloth ocean covered in islands for a pirate version of musical chairs and a treasure chest pinata full of confetti and plenty of Haribo sweeties.
Wish me luck. And watch for his special birthday post on Sunday.

Finally, while not party planning and scaring my French neighbors with scantily clad laundry hanging I have been preoccupied with a new book. It's the fictionalized story of Hemingway in 20s Paris told through his first wife. There's a lot of happiness turned melancholy, booze-filled afternoons, days spent plucking away on a typewriter and pages cut lean by Gertrude Stein's editing. Oh, and impromptu living room boxing matches.

And so there they are; my excuses laid bare. I hope you'll understand.
Until Sunday, bon weekend everyone.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

French Fashion for Men

Leclerc Mode Homme 
Hey handsome.
This is from a flyer for a major grocery store chain here in France. I couldn't resist sharing it with you.
Bon mercredi!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--Strawberry & Spinach Salad

It's finally upon us. My favorite season for fresh produce.

Here in the South of France and nearby Spain the strawberries are ripening.

At the grocery store on Friday there were two older women--perfectly coiffed and smelling sweetly of French lady. I watched them take a marked interest in the strawberries from Spain, looking them over before settling on the variety grown here in the nearby village of Mauguio. They are called Gariguettes.
They scooped up a small plastic tray of these and left the Spanish ones behind. I bought both--the less expensive Spanish ones for the kids to inhale in five minutes and the more expensive neighborhood ones for today's salad.

After the strawberries my French ladies paused for a moment over the new crop of green asparagus, also from Mauguio. They touched it, said a few things to each other and tut, tutted their disapproval as they passed them over.
Presumably to wait until Mauguio harvests the really good stuff.
Probably next week.

I took their lead and left the asparagus for another time.
For today then, it's strawberries--les fraises Gariguettes.

{les fraises Gariguettes}
There are so many things to do with strawberries and when I can wrestle them away from my childrens' greedy fingers I like to make this salad. It is my sister's creation so I give all the credit for its creativity and deliciousness to her.

Strawberry & Spinach Salad

1/2 pint or 4 large strawberries
2 cups fresh young spinach leaves
1/2 cup whole almonds or pecans
1 tsp sugar

Balsamic Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or a nut oil if you like
1 tablespoon really good balsamic vinegar
dash of salt
coarse freshly ground black pepper

First, take your salad bowl and mix the dressing in the bottom of it.

Adding the oil slowly to the vinegar, whisking as you go until combined.
You may need more oil if you like it less tart but I prefer it this way.

Season with the salt and pepper. The freshly ground black pepper is great in this salad. The Romans always ate them together so I figure it's good for me too.

{strawberry and spinach salad}

Then it's just a matter of washing your spinach leaves and strawberries and toasting your nuts.

Mix almonds or pecans (ma soeur uses pecans but they're hard to find in France) with the sugar and then gently toast them in a hot, dry pan. Watch them carefully and shake them around to coat and keep from sticking.
My advice is to use pecans if you can.

Put the clean, dry spinach in your bowl, slice strawberries and add them in.

When you're ready to serve the salad top it with the nuts and then mix from the bottom to coat with the vinaigrette.
Don't do this until you're ready to eat it though because if you do the spinach and strawberries will get all soggy.

This is good with a grilled steak or roast chicken.

{pretty little salad}

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What Kirsty Ate

My new friend Kirsty, the fabulous Aussie, came over from Provence last weekend to have some lunch and speak some English with us. She has a Mister, I have a Mari. She has trois enfants and so do I. She's about to up the stakes in the enfants department with her fourth but I'm sticking at three. (sighs of relief heard all the way from Texas)
We had a wonderful time together and she documented it all in gorgeous photographs. I didn't know my house looked the way she saw it. That's just her eye. It works for photographs just as well as it does when she puts squares of fabric up on her design wall in preparation for another beautiful quilt.
She mentioned the food and took a photo of the table so I thought it only fair to give you the menu and recipes just in case you'd like to have your own Cuban day in the sun. Mon Mari makes fun here because Americans can't go to Cuba but I draw on experience eating at a delicious Cuban restaurant in Houston for this meal. In a  word, garlic.You'd better eat it with the one you love.

Cuban Pork on the barbie & Garlicky Black Beans

Grilled Cuban Pork

2 pork tenderloins

juice of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 lime
6-8 crushed garlic cloves
fresh coriander (cilantro)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
salt & pepper
1 tsp cumin, optionsal

Mix the marinade together. Pour over pork in a ziploc bag or large bowl with plastic wrap over and let sit overnight. It is better longer but if you don't have the time give it at least 3 hours in the marinade.

Take it out of the fridge a good half hour before you're ready to grill it. Shake off excess cilantro and garlic and grill.

Rest for 10 minutes under tented foil before carving.

Garlicky Black Beans

2 800g/28 oz cans of black beans or 1 11/2 cups dried black beans

6 cloves of garlic, smashed and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 slices of smoked bacon, chopped or ham bone with bits still on if you have one
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp oregano
2 fresh bay leaves

1 can of chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup of chicken stock or enough to cover
1 chipotle pepper, chopped (optional if you like it spicy)

If you're using dried beans, soak overnight, rinse and then continue.

Cook the chopped bacon in a pot until just browned. Drain off excess bacon grease until you have about a tablespoon left in the pot.
Or if you're using the ham bone, just chuck it in with the garlic and onions.
Chop onion, crush and dice garlic cloves and add them to a stock pot with the bacon or ham bone.
Cook for 4 minutes until a bit soft. Add in the cumin and oregano and stir. Warming the dried spices brings out the flavor.
Now add in your beans. Drained and rinsed in cool water if you're using canned.
Stir well to combine. Then add in the bay leaves and let it just simmer there for a few minutes.
Next, add in your tomatoes, tomato paste and chicken stock. Stir well. If you're using the chipotle pepper add it here.

Now all you have to do is bring it up to a slow boil and then reduce the heat, cover and leave for as long as you can. I like to do mine a few hours in advance. When I made them for Kirsty I let them cook for about 5 hours. Just check on them and give them a good stir every once in while to torment everyone around with their delicious smell.

Bon Appétit!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poisson d'Avril

I learned something new today. April Fool's Day in France is called Poisson d'Avril. I learned this when Ma Fille came home for lunch with a colorful paper fish and tried to stick it on my back. She says the children have been making these fish all day long and sticking them, softly, softly like a 'Kick Me' sign on unsuspecting teachers' and friends' backs.

This was all she knew. So, naturally my curiosity kicked in and I had to find out why. And then tell you.

From what I can gather one explanation is that it's to do with the calendar. In 16th century France the King moved the New Year from the beginning of April to the beginning of January. Pesky King. And when he did this you can imagine that it took awhile for this information to get passed around the country. How fast can you relay calendar information on a horse anyway? That left a lot of country bumpkin's, those in remote areas and those stuck in their ways to continue celebrating the new year around the first of April. Apparently, and this is where I get lost, there was plenty of paper, crayons and Scotch tape laying around for 16th century Frenchies to fashion colorful fish and then stick them to those who weren't in on the 'January 1st makes it a new year' thing.
I'm not really buying it.

Another explanation is that across the world, different cultures and religions have a day of foolishness in the spring. This makes more sense to me. Have you ever seen a butterfly go all googly for a flower or an adolescent girl giggle when an adolescent boy throws a clod of dirt near her or dangles a worm by her ear?  Puppies, kittens, birds and bees all go loo-laa in the spring. Heck, I asked you to call me Summer Girl for goodness sake!

The fish thing? Well, my money is on the fact that fish make for good humor. Have you ever seen Basil Fawlty sling a smoked herring around? Fish are funny. And that's the truth.

Enjoy your shenanigans today. Be silly and free and kick up your heels like a spring lamb. My kids are busy taping paper fish to the backs of their friends.
And of course, it's France so there's a special pastry shaped like a poisson made especially for the day. I'm off to investigate further.....