Crooked House

A country life in France

A Month in France: Nothing is Lost

I am lagging on the A Month in the Country prompts, and lagging badly at that. I have a list of prompts to be caught up on and I shall be working my way through them here, or at Scattered Thoughts depending on where the post most naturally sits.

I have elected to tackle the prompts not in date order necessarily but to seize upon prompts that offer me space in which to write down the things that I am feeling the need to say. Even if I need to crowbar it in. The thing is, I am going to continue to be short of time and space in which to write and so a two-for-one is useful and I hope to do as many of those as I can.

Seems like a plan?

NB: I have been plagued by computer issues since beginning this post. A Windows Update took forever and since it was installed I have had real issues with WordPress. For “yesterday” below, please read “over a week ago” ! Most of this post has been typed “blind” due to extreme typing lag. I apologies for any typographical errors or nonsense that has crept through but right now? I can’t take any more of this. Sorry.

Journal Prompt 14/08/20

Were you inspired to cook more – or less – during Lockdown? What do you make when life gives you ripe bananas ? How do you use up food that is too ripe or somewhat stale? Recipes please – both for us and for your descendants

Anybody who knows anything about me will tell you that I cook. I have always cooked, from being knee-high. I have worked as a cook in private service – a horrible experience in many ways but it couldn’t take my love of cooking from me. It’s just what I do.

Were you inspired to cook more – or less – during Lockdown?

Lockdown feels long gone to us here in France and so I find it difficult to recall detail but I do know that my cooking activity remained unaffected by the confinement, unless you count my weekly horror at the poor quality and limited range of fruit and veg that came home from the Crooked Man’s shopping trips (I don’t drive and the shops were only permitting lone shoppers entry). I struggled with the loss of my control over my larder! I wrote good lists based on a week’s meal plans but simply could not rely on what I needed appearing in my kitchen later.

What did, has, and continues to affect my cooking activity is the damn heat. We are existing mostly on salads, for which I enjoy not only seeking variety but also the creating of a wide range of inventive and interesting dressings. I like to use new combinations of ingredients and I really enjoy plating things up attractively. It all helps to compensate for the lack of actual cooking.

My weekly shopping, now that I am allowed to go, does at the moment fill my deep salad drawers (2) with salad stuffs, and my fridge shelves are stacked with packs of suitable proteins. We normally keep some smoked salmon in there and a pack of two ready-cooked roasted chicken breasts, plenty of cheese, usually some charcuterie too, and we ring the changes with prawns or crayfish and so on. At the moment we have chicken breasts, smoked peppered mackerel and a pack of crab-style Surimi in there. So not much actual cooking in the close future either!

Some days I don’t even do so much as assemble a salad. It is sometimes so hot that neither one of us feels up to eating a meal, not even a salad plate. We do however keep infeasible amounts of Apéro snacks in the fridge and cupboard and so we elect to simply nibble with a white wine spritzer. Some days we go a little heavier and do a Tapas-style spread. I always have some spicy Chorizo at the ready!

What do you make when life gives you ripe bananas ?

Life rarely gives me ripe bananas. I am not honestly all that fond of bananas and certainly dislike banana-flavoured things. Banana Bread almost never features in my repertoire, which is a shame because I do believe that the Crooked Man enjoys it.

When I do fancy a banana, I want a properly ripe one. They should be well-speckled all over.

UK bananas are so rarely ready for eating, though sometimes one may score a really cheap bag of decently-ripe bananas from the reduced bin. It’s madness, I tell you.

Honestly, I do not think that Roz’s bananas (left, image (c) Roz Cawley) were even ready (according to my taste), let alone “gone over” and ready for resigning to a banana bread (I might, if push came to shove, make my beloved a banana bread if I were presented with some black bananas). But variety being the spice of life and each to their own, our choices are personal 🙂

What Life has given me recently, or rather what my lovely French neighbour has given me, is a surfeit of pears.

A box of pears was brought to my door last week, embarrassingly in the middle of the morning and when we were still abed. We are retired. It had been a sleepless night. It was defensible but frankly, it is not the French Way. So, yes, embarrassing.

I digress. Let us return to business.

It seems, to the best of our understanding (she speaks no English) that the drought has affected her pear tree badly and it had dropped all of its fruit at once. She had too many pears to deal with.

Temperatures have dropped and yesterday I found myself with greater reserves of energy and a willingness to engage with the heat of the stove. I actually had a hugely productive day but let us begin with the pears. I made Pickled Pears, using an old Delia recipe (I can tell that it is old because it gives Imperial measurements first) but with a couple of modifications due to abortive shopping trips. France can be odd at times – imagine it, a supermarket with absolutely no white Wine Vinegar on its shelves! Far more surprising than the fact that they had no light soft brown sugar.

It has been a very long time since I last saw sugar in such quantity!
Lemon slices and whole spices

I had to use my very expensive Maille Chardonnay white wine vinegar, which came up short and required me to increase the amount of cider vinegar in the mix. I used golden granulated in place of the soft brown sugar. Otherwise, as written – apart from the fact that I cored and (more or less) quartered the pears.

Vinegars added and ready for boiling

Sadly, the pears had suffered. Though not windfalls, they had of course dropped so some bruises were evident. However the bigger problem was that the wasps had got into most of the fruit that I peeled yesterday. Pickling them whole was decidedly not an option; a shame but that’s the way life goes, matters rarely are perfect and neither were my pears.

Let us hope that the pickles are a lot closer to perfection. Who knows – I have never made these before but I do trust Delia. They should be good.

Life gave me pears but Mother Nature gave me Sloes.

I embarked upon, not the usual Sloe Gin, but some Pacharán (also spelled Patxaran, in the Basque).

We discovered this tipple when we were down in Spain two years ago. It is very delicious and ludicrously cheap. We like to drink it long, with tonic, but also enjoy it as a liqueur as is standard.

Pacharan is a liqueur based on Anisette and flavoured with sloes. Most recipes seem to include cinnamon sticks and a few coffee beans. Others add a variety of other flavourings and these include such as orange peel and vanilla pods. I decided to go “vanilla” and leave out the Vanilla (ho, ho, ho) etc.

We had trouble finding the Anisette. I had read that Pastis should not be used as it is flavoured with Star Anise, and that the sweeter Anisette should be used, instead. Our first supermarket yielded none at all but our second venture brought forth the single variety seen above and left.

When I got it home, I found that it is also flavoured with Star Anise!

Naturally, having bought this bottle, we later found ourselves in a third supermarket and that one sported several brands one of which proudly claimed “Anise Vert” in its makeup. There will be further Pacharán experiments and we shall try different brands to see which works best. I may even do a control with Pastis. Let’s face it, we have many sloes to go at and the remaining ingredients come straight from the larder.

The liqueur can be strained after a month or may be left for up to eight months, after which the sloes tend to impart bitterness. Commercial varieties are required by law to soak their sloes for a minimum of one and a maximum of eight months.

Ready in October but perhaps we shall leave it until April and stock up on the commercial variety if we manage to drift South for the winter.

During the course of the day I also made some Keto Peanut Butter Cookies:

and I experimented with making Keto Cheese “popcorn”.

It kind of popped and it kind of didn’t. It was however scrummy. I used Mimolette cheese for this experiment. (There have been further experiments in the intervening period up to now.)

Yes, a productive day and it seems that I have been more inclined to turn to the kitchen since lockdown ceased – but I seem to be wandering away from the prompt.

How do you use up food that is too ripe or somewhat stale?

If I have rapidly ageing vegetables or salad greens, then I make soup. I frequently make “Green Soup” – an unspecified brew often made with limp salad leaves, slightly soft cucumber (imparts a fabulous freshness to the soup) spinach, asparagus stalks, leek tops – whatever comes to hand. Lettuce is good but watercress and rocket are even better. Nettles are often included. Peas make a good addition, either in the brew or a few petits pois added whole after the soup is blended. Green Soup makes a good destination for things that might otherwise be discarded as “useless” – those asparagus stalks, leek tops, cauliflower greens, radish tops, broccoli stalks and so on.

Green Soup is useful as it can be served hot to warm the bones on cold days or chilled on a hot French summer evening. A two-for-one!

I use a very basic soup-making method for such times. I start by sautéing my chopped vegetables in butter. Sometimes I will begin by softening onions but some Green Soup flavour combos are too delicate for an onion base. In such cases I leave out the onions or use leeks or spring onions instead. Once the veg get going, I add liquid in the form of water, stock or milk (or a combination). I recommend vegetable stock but chicken or other light stock also works well. Simmer for perhaps fifteen minutes before removing from the heat and blending. I sometimes add cream at the blending stage. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.

If I want extra body in my soup I will add some potato at the initial stage with the onions and sweat them down. I rarely peel them as the skin adds extra flavour to the soup.

Cheese also gets the rescue treatment if it is beginning to dry out. Parmesan rinds are saved for adding an extra tasty savour to soups and stews. I just keep them in the freezer in a ziplock bag. Various ends of cheese are grated and treated similarly – there’s nothing that isn’t improved by a sprinkling of tasty cheese and it’s good to have some handy. I am delighted now to have the impetus to make the Keto Cheese “popcorn” (see above) – something that actually requires dried out cheese to make it!

If ever unfortunate enough to allow some Dorset Red to go past its best, a very small amount grated into a Broccoli soup makes for a most awesomely tasty soup.

Meat is expensive and nothing is wasted. The occasional (very!) roast might see the leftovers minced and fashioned into rissoles. This works best with pink lamb, mixed up with the leftover onion sauce that went with the roast. Add rosemary and plenty of black pepper. Coat with some breadcrumbs (see below) or not. I draw the line at “currying” cooked meats, something of which I retain some unhappy childhood memories. Raw meat scraps and bones are frozen in bags until I have sufficient to make a pot of stock.

Bread is never wasted. If we use half a loaf I try to freeze the remainder for later use before it even has a chance to become stale. If some escapes me I will make breadcrumbs and freeze them for later, or cut some cubes for croutons (very excellent with my old friend, the Green Soup.) I have always enjoyed a Bread and Butter Pudding or, even better, a goodly hunk of a solid and delicious Bread Pudding, scented with tea and spices, and chock full of dried fruit. Overall, I think that the French have the best of it with their Pain Perdu (Lost Bread), known in the UK as French Toast but which we grew up calling Eggy Bread. I love Eggy Bread even in its most basic form but I have been treated to some utterly delicious Pain Perdu in top flight restaurants. It can be a beautiful thing indeed.

The French (and other Continentals) place great importance on their daily bread. It is precious and to lose some is unthinkable. The ducks may lose out but Human tummies are filled with the eggy deliciousness of Pain Perdu instead.

My personal zero waste strategy goes back a long way; I have been significantly impoverished at various stages of my life and food has been too costly to waste. It is a habit difficult to divest. I am interested in the fact that some renowned chefs are picking up the trend towards zero waste. Massimo Bottura produced a book in collaboration with 45 other top chefs; entitled Bread is Gold, it features three-course menus made from foods that might otherwise be wasted. I had the opportunity to purchase a signed copy when we ate at Osteria Francescana last year but, having already spent a small fortune on our lunch, I felt the need to resist; something that I now regret. I believe that it is a book that I would have enjoyed reading.

Bread is Gold” – the title reflects that importance placed up the most basic of daily foodstuffs. Gold, not to be wasted. Ensure that nothing is truly lost.

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