Friday, December 18, 2009

La farce

Right around Thanksgiving, a facebook post from my friend Steve led me to a minor epiphany.  Martha Stewart, although I hadn't thought of her in years, has had a profound impact on my life.   Before I ever wanted to marry Jamie Oliver or to be Heidi Swanson --- hell, even before I started wanting to be French, I wanted to be like Martha.  I subscribed to Living from age 13 and devoured every issue from cover to cover.

Like any "lifestyle guru," she's surely not all that she aims to appear to be.  I know she's got thousands of people working for her at this point, which makes it hard to maintain the "do-it-yourself" feel, and on the most recent cover of Living her face is so airbrushed that she looks like something out of a Pixar movie.

But the lifestyle she promotes has come to shape my ideals about slow food, whole foods, tasteful decorating and an appreciation for old and beautiful objects.   Unlike the Paula Deen lifestyle, Martha's lifestyle is one I could stand behind.  Granted, she caters mainly to rich, bored people who can afford to have Meyer lemons express delivered from California for a cake.  But to me, the core of the Martha agenda is to get people to realize that home-making - cooking, gardening, decorating, fixing and building -  is an art that everyone can and should enjoy.  And you don't have to be a millionaire to take the time to do these things.

Plus, Martha was talking about organic gardening and slow food years before the Whole Foods craze set in.  She kept her own chickens for the eggs long before it came back into style among urban foodies.  And now, for Thanksgiving, she has presented a vegetarian menu on her show.  Ahead of the times once again?

I veganized the stuffing recipe from Martha's show for a Thanksgiving party in Bordeaux a few weeks ago, and I just made it again for Christmas with my family here in Atlanta.  I don't usually make things like this twice, but it was so delicious and everything in it is seasonal (for those of us in North America or Europe) right around Thanksgiving/Christmas.  In Bordeaux, I picked up everything from the market, including button mushrooms and just a few porcini mushrooms for the stock.  In Atlanta, of course, everything was available at the Dekalb Farmer's Market.

To make it vegan I just left out the butter and replaced the 5 eggs with one 200g package of silken tofu, which I whisked into the broth before pouring it on.  We had some grapes in the fridge, and I added a few of these for some interesting color and texture.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Topinambours belong to a class of what French people are calling légumes oubliés, or "forgotten vegetables" that are coming back into style as people become more interested in eating locally.  The English name for them is Jerusalem artichokes, which just sounds wrong to me because they have nothing to do with Jerusalem and are more like potatoes than artichokes.  They're a member of the sunflower family.

Apparently they grow like weeds. That's according to Ed Ward, who says that he refuses to pay for them since his garden was once overtaken by Jerusalem artichokes.  I can only be jealous!  They are quite tasty and very interesting nutritionally.  One of the best plant sources of iron, they have a similar texture to potatoes but contain half the calories.  And they have a completely unique flavor that is indeed similar to that of an artichoke.

Here's a simple salad to boost your iron intake without digging into a bloody steak.

1 lb Jerusalem artichokes
red wine vinegar
olive oil
1/2 red onion
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Scrub the Jerusalem artichokes until clean.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the Jerusalem artichokes; cook until they are tender but not totally mushy (around 8 minutes).  Drain and allow to cool slightly in a colander.

Meanwhile, slice the red onion very thinly and place in a bowl.  Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and cover with a few teaspoons of vinegar.  Allow to marinate for around 10 minutes.

Peel the Jerusalem artichokes: their skins come off fairly easily after they've been boiled (just like tomatoes), except around some of the more knobby parts, which I just pop into my mouth.

Slice the Jerusalem artichokes thinly lengthwise and arrange on a plate.  Drizzle with the vinegar mixture, scatter a few onion slices on top.  Add salt, pepper and olive oil to taste.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


People always talk about how expensive it is to eat in an environmentally conscious way, but there are so many little tricks.  I'm gonna get preachy for just a little bit.

For me, this is a huge one.  Think about all of the carbon emissions involved in the production of that one little cup of strawberry yogurt that an average American or French person might have as a daily treat.  There is the cow, first of all, and we know that cattle farming is the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases.  Then there's the transport of the milk to a factory, where they add sugar (which was either imported from some faraway sugar-cane producing place or extracted from sugarbeets or corn, which was probably farmed with pesticides).  Then there's the packaging, which is probably never recycled.

So, at least a few of these problems would go away if people chose plain soy yogurt instead.  At the store, indeed, soy yogurt tends to cost about twice as much as traditional dairy yogurt.  But if you make it at home - aha! - you save money and get rid of the packaging waste problem.  If you eat any yogurt at all, a yogurt maker is most certainly a wise investment.  Judging by the selection on ebay, everyone bought one in the seventies and then just got too lazy to use them.  I bought mine for about 10€ plus shipping, I think.

The name yogurt maker sounds pretty fancy, because the device is actually just a dish that remains at a constant, warm temperature when you plug into the wall.  It comes with a cover and 7 to 8 jars with lids.  I use mine not only for making soy yogurt but also for making yeast doughs.  It's the perfect warm place to allow dough to rise.

So, sojaourt [soja (soy) + yaourt (yogurt)]; you're not gonna believe how easy this is.  One important point, however: don't use soy milk with added ingredients like sugar, constarch, carageenan and the like.  The ingredients list should say: water and soy beans (or "tonyu"). Any other element can make things go awry, askew and astray -- sometimes all three.  So Silk brand is out of the question. 

1.5 litres soy milk
1 tablespoon soy yogurt

Whisk the yogurt into the soymilk.  Plug in the yogurt maker and pour the soymilk into the cups on top of it.  Place the lids on the jars.  Ten hours later, the yogurt should be firm.  Place it in the refrigerator. 


I use this yogurt in recipes all the time, and it also makes a very nourishing snack with whatever fruit's in season.

A farewell to eggplants

You can tell something's up with the climate these days.  The basil plant in my window box really shouldn't be thriving in late November, and tomatoes and eggplants shouldn't still be showing up in the market stalls, should they? But they are.  And while we've had a few chilly days, today was downright balmy.  I'm not complaining, although I do hope we can avoid a global catastrophe.

At any rate, here's one last summer vegetable recipe.  It's adapted from an eggplant and quinoa grain recipe I found in a wonderful vegetarian cookbook by Garance Leureux (Ma cuisine végétarienne pour tous les jours).  I was put off by the idea of boiling eggplants at first (didn't boiling go out of style with polyester slacks?), but it turns out that the water from the eggplants gets soaked up by the quinoa (or in this case bulgur), so the end product is not watery but firm and delicious.

Eggplant and bulgur gratin

2 large eggplants
2 medium onions
2-3 small tomatoes
fresh basil, parsley
200g coarse bulgur wheat

1) Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.  Slice the eggplants into half-inch rounds and plunge them into the boiling water, placing a heat-proof bowl or heavy baking dish on top to keep them submerged.  Boil for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the eggplant is tender.  Drain the eggplants and then place them in a bowl to keep them from drying out too much.

2) During this time, cut a small X in the skin of each tomato and dip them into the boiling water for about 30 seconds.  Peel the skin from the tomatoes and chop them coarsely.

3) Coarsely chop the onions.  Heat a little olive oil over medium-high in a saucepan and add the onions; cook for 2 minutes or until translucent.  Add the bulgur wheat, the chopped tomatoes, and 3/4 cup of water. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down.  Add the crumbled tofu and allow to cook over low heat for about 5 minutes.

4) Place a layer of eggplant slices across the bottom of a lightly oiled baking dish, and cover this with a layer of the bulgur mixture.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and torn fresh basil leaves (or other herbs).  End with a thin layer of bulgur wheat or with slices of tofu, if desired.  Bake the casserole for about 20 minutes at 400°F (200°C).  The wheat under the eggplant should be tender (but still al dente), and the top should be browned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Apple walnut braid

Here's another Beth Hensperger bread recipe.  The original recipe contained real milk, all white flour and eggs, and while I made substitutions for the first two, I was afraid not to use eggs.  I should point out that I generally don't have a problem with free-range and organic eggs as long as I really know where they came from; I just don't eat them often because they cost an arm and a leg!  I had been craving this type of bread for a while before I made it, and since this recipe produces two huge braided loaves, I've still got some in the freezer for the occasional craving.
Fresh apple-walnut braid

1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast (or 2 tablespoons fresh yeast)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup warm water (105° to 115°)
1 cup warm soy milk (105° to 115°)
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour
3 to 3.5 cups whole wheat flour
2 large tart apples, cored and coarsely chopped (2 or 3 cups)
1/2 cup raisins or dried currants
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces
2 tablespoons walnut oil (or olive oil)
2 eggs
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon salt

1) In a large bowl with a whisk or in the bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the yeast, brown sugar, warm water, warm soy milk, and 2 cups of all-purpose flour.  Beat until smooth, about 1 minute.  Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until bubbly, about 1 hour.

2) Add the apples, raisins, walnuts, oil, eggs, spices, salt and 1 cup more of the flour.  Beat until creamy, about 2 minutes.  Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough is formed that just clears the sides of the bowl, switching to a wooden spoon if necessary.

3) Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and springy yet firm, about 3 minutes, adding only enough flour to prevent from sticking.  Place into a lightly oiled container, turn once to coat the top, and cover with plastic wrap.  Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1.5 to 2 hours.

4) Turn out the dough onto the floured work surface and divide into 6 equal portions.  Roll each portion into a long, fat strip with tapered ends.  Lay three strips side by side and braid (this takes a few tries to get it right).  Pinch the ends of the braid together and tuck them under.  Repeat to make the second loaf.  Place the loaves in 2 greased loaf pans.  (I used a large sort of roasting pan and an oval casserole dish; whatever the bread fits into works).  Cover loosely and allow to rise at room temperature for about 45 minutes.  Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

5) Bake in the center of the preheated oven until the loaves are browned and sound hollow when tapped, 45 to 50 minutes.  Remove from the pans immediately and allow to cool completely before slicing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Three-day bread with sprouted rye

"This bread takes three days to make from start to finish..."

Yes!  This was a very satisfying weekend project.  The recipe came from a book called Bread For All Seasons by Beth Hensperger, something I picked up on a Barnes & Noble clearance table years ago.  It's an interesting book that includes a lot of food history and cultural detail on breads from around the world, and reading it will give you a serious urge to knead fragrant, yeasty-smelling dough.

The pain de campagnard recipe that caught my attention says this: "Here is a superb bread similar to the earthy wheat-rye loaves once made with sharecroppers' grains at harvest time in the French, Italian and Hungarian countrysides."  See what I mean?

While the bread involves a three-day process, the amount of actual work involved is around 30 minutes.  I tweaked the recipe ever-so slightly, using partially sprouted rye grains (yep, from the sprouting jar) instead of soaked wheat berries and using a higher proportion of whole wheat flour.  I also used fresh yeast instead of dry active yeast just because I find fresh yeast to be one of the most intriguing and alluring ingredients of all time.

 I usually make quicker breads like focaccia or normal whole wheat bread, which only have to rise for about an hour total.  The longer fermentation process with this bread gave it a seriously alluring crust that I haven't been able to achieve otherwise.  So here's the recipe with my modifications:

Pain de campagnard

2 Tablespoons crumbled fresh yeast (2 teaspoons active dry yeast)
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup tepid water (around 90°F)

11/2 cups tepid water
1 cup all-purpose (white, unbleached) flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup sprouted rye seeds (or 1/4 cup wheat berries, covered with boiling water and then left to soak for 4 hours)
1 Tablespoon crumbled fresh yeast (1 teaspoon active dry yeast)
1/3 cup rye flour
3 to 4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 Tablespoon salt

Day one (starter):
Place the yeast and tepid water in a large container with a lid (I used a large cast-iron stockpot).  Add the whole-wheat flour, whisking hard until a smooth batter is formed.  Cover and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day two (sponge):
Blend the whole wheat and white flours.  Alternately add the tepid water and the flour in three additions.  Whisk to combine until a smooth batter is formed.  Scrape down the sides of the container, cover and allow to sit for 12 to 24 hours at room temperature.  The sponge will begin to bubble and has a sweet and pleasant aroma, as suggested in this shot by my sticking my nose in it.

Day three: Dough
Sprinkle the yeast and the sprouted rye (or wheat berries) over the sponge.

Beat the sponge down with a wooden spoon to combine.  Add the rye flour and the salt, beating hard to combine.  Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time.  When the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the container, use your hands to knead in the remaining flour.

This dough remains very sticky throughout, so I just kept kneading it in the container rather than trying to turn it out onto a work surface.  Rather than flouring your hands, try wetting them to keep the dough from sticking too much to your fingers (it will still stick a little though).  Knead for about 3 to 5 minutes.

(Note: the picture to the left shows just half of the dough, as I had already put half of it into a container for it to rise... no matter).

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl (or two lightly oiled bowls, as I did), and allow to rise at room temperature for 2 hours, until it has doubled in bulk.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into two equal portions.

My oven is small and does best with small bread shapes, so I opted to bake the first portion of this dough in a silicone muffin pan.  So I just divided one of the halves of dough into six and filled the little muffin cups about 3/4 full.

With the other half, I tried to do a miniature version of what the original recipe suggests.  Divide the portion in two and flatten each half into a fat rectangle.  Roll up the rectangle from a short end to form a tight cylinder.  Twist the ends of each cylinder and tuck them underneath, so the shape is slightly less thick at the ends (a batard form).  Place the loaves onto a lightly oiled baking sheet.

Loosely cover the dough with plastic wrap or with a slightly damp dishtowel.  (I had some sticking problems here, so I ended up concocting a sort of tent with damp dishtowels and various props).  Allow to rise for around 1 hour.  Twenty minutes before the hour is up, preheat the oven to 425°F (around 220°C).

Bake until the crust is browned and hard and sounds hollow when tapped.  This could vary between 20 to 35 minutes, so keep an eye on your bread.

Wait until completely cooled before slicing!

The batard shapes didn't turn out so well, honestly.  They were undercooked underneath, they stuck to the pan, and they didn't rise very well.  The muffin-tin ones were a great success, though!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Basic tomato sauce

I can't believe so many people are still buying tomato sauce in jars from the store.  Take a look at that ingredient list next time and you'll find sugar, cornstarch, preservatives, bleck!

There are still tomatoes being sold at the market here, but at the tail-end of the season they lack the juicy sweetness of the July-August crop.   Putting tomatoes in the fridge is the worst thing you can do, as cold temperatures destroy a compound that accounts for a lot of their flavor; the same thing happens to October tomatoes on the vine.  The chilled fruits aren't spectacular in a sandwich or salad, but cooking them helps to bring back some of their character.

If you don't have access to fresh, locally-grown tomatoes, opt for canned tomatoes that have no additives (the ingredient list should just say "tomatoes").

Tomato sauce

1 lb fresh tomatoes (or one 16oz can of peeled tomatoes in their juice)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 branch of celery
1 large onion
2 small shallots
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh basil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Using a serrated knife, cut an X across the base of each tomato.

Plunge the tomatoes and the garlic clove into the pot and boil for about 45 seconds. Drain and allow to cool.

Peel the garlic clove; the skin should slip off easily thanks to the bath in boiling water.  Slice the shallots in half lengthwise and remove their papery skins.  Slice the base and top off of the onion and peel.  Coarsely chop the onion, shallots and celery.  Finely chop the garlic separately.

Peel the skins off of the tomatoes, starting at the little X.  They should just slip right off.  Doing this over a bowl allows you to save the juice.

Place the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the onion, shallot and celery.  Stir for one minute and then turn the heat down to medium low.  Cook until translucent but not browned (about 5 minutes).

Add the tomatoes and garlic to the pan and stir.  If your tomatoes are not very juicy, you might want to add a few spoonfuls of water to avoid burning.  Add the bay leaf and basil.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Allow to simmer over medium low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the bits of celery and onion are completely mushy.

Allow to cool slightly before removing the bay leaf and blending well with a stick blender.

Serve over pasta and/or vegetables.

To use this sauce for pizza, cook a little longer, uncovered, so that it thickens up, or just add a tablespoon of tomato paste (again: choose the kind with no added ingredients!)

I don't need to tell you that this recipe is far from an exact science.  Play around with the quantities, add red pepper flakes, thyme, olives...  Another variation: add a leek and an additional onion to the vegetables and cover the entire pan with water when you add the tomatoes...tada!  tomato soup.