29 May 2013

Recipe: Strawberry and Rhubarb Jam


Our neighbour, Tony, is seeking new hobbies to keep him busy in retirement. A few years ago he built rows of vegetable and fruit patches. Today his patches are thriving. Where Tony gets more pleasure in building the garden and planting seeds, Chef delights in picking and cooking the fresh produce.

I often catch Chef nosing over the fence line to check on Tony's neglected sprouts. Most of the produce waits patiently for his children to visit and take home, but last week Tony passed a handful of rhubarb stalks over the fence to Chef. With the seasonal produce in hand, Chef offered to swap the homegrown produce for homemade preserves. English country living. How sweet it is...

Rhubarb is mostly associated with sweets and desserts, but it also works well as a relish or spring cordial. It is very bitter, so sugar is often used to lessen its bite. Strawberries are a great sugary fruit complement to the rhubarb's tartness.

Where available, pick your own rhubarb and strawberries. If P.Y.O. is not available where you live, search for your region's best produce at local farmers' markets or supermarket. Late spring rhubarb paired with early summer strawberries celebrates two seasons and their star fruits.

I have started making batches of jam as I, too, wanted to enjoy sharing jars with family and friends. I find it quite fun, and like the fact that you can make big batches to store and have on hand as a personal touch for house guests or to give as a sweet gift.

23 May 2013

Family Matters

I bid au revoir to ma belle mere yesterday. I admit, it has taken ten years for me not to feel anxious before her arrival or have a pounding headache at her departure.

Non, non, non! I know what you are thinking.

My nervous stomach and headache are not because we do not get along.
Mais non! Au contraire. 
I very much enjoy my time with Arlette ("Lettie"). It is the language barrier which to date has set my heart racing in anticipation of her arrival, and sent extra blood pumping to my brain during her stay.

Lettie and Chef, Le Mans, 2005

When I first met my future belle mere, she managed about five words in English and my French was limited to a 14-year old grade school lesson plan. I replayed mom's advice over in my head,
Honey, just smile and look pretty. Say 'merci' alot.
Don't drink too much wine... She'll love you!
In that initial introduction, Lettie stated she was too old to learn English and that I had to parler francais, particularly if we planned to one day have a family. I ignored mom's echoing voice and told Chef to refill my glass of wine. Mon Dieu! I had known her for five minutes and her son for five months.

Conveniently, Chef seems to work the majority of his mother's visits and, when around, is not the most patient translator. As I enjoy a good girly chat, I have worked hard at learning French to prevent us sipping Champagne in silence. When we do get lost in translation, we turn to improvised sign language and keep our tight tongues relaxed with glasses of wine. I can affirm, both work wonders.

Wanting to raise our daughter to be bi-lingual has been a great motivator to keep learning French. I have noticed my ears now decipher the individual words sung in endlessly strung verses of French children's CDs. I can follow le journal on television, and take delight in laughing at an understood punch line.
Salut a la petite souris. Lettie and Ouisie, May 2013
During this visit, when not trying to wear Ouisie out at the playground or an amusement park, I enjoyed gardening and sprucing up the cottage with Lettie. I learned a lot about the importance of gardening, namely pruning, but enjoyed learning more about ma belle mere.

This past February she turned 70. She loves playing board games, but struggles not winning the aging one. Through our choppy conversations about family and raising children, I realised it is not her age that bothers her, but rather the misguided paths and wrong decisions from early in life she wishes she could redo. She explained,
Si je pouvais, je recommencer dès ma naissance.
Start over from birth? I cannot fathom wishing my life with a different mother and father. And then she explained.

12 May 2013

Cheese Battle: England vs France

There is a pressed curds battle being waged. It spans the English Channel. High fat milk keeps the soldiers fit and a rind is their only line of defense. It is getting pretty stinky. Can you smell it?

According to cheese guru and British Cheese Award founder, Juliet Harbutt,
British cheese is on a roll. France has 100s more cheesemakers than we do but in fact Britain produces more unique cheeses. 1
In a country historically known for its staple Cheddar and Stilton, Britain now boast over 700 unique cheeses compared to around 600 in France.  Although Cheddar is still the nation's most popular cheese, the varietal growth and public interest continues to expand.  

Chef has grown fond of British cheese, particularly with the region's cow and sheep varieties, but he maintains that his native France makes better goat cheese. A true French patriot, defending a national treasure within enemy grounds.

We continue to discover new local cheese and enjoy developing personal and professional friendships with the artisan cheesemakers. Of course, there are some cheeses that the French do better. There are some the Italians have mastered. But the British cheese revolution is one worth exploring. 

If you are in a cheese rut and looking for some new flavours, here is one sampler featuring  five established British cheesemakers with inspiring stories and award winning cheeses that I simply adore.

10 May 2013

Fish Flop

Chef and I had planned Dover Sole for last night's dinner.

The plan was to follow our normal routine, whereby Chef cooks the fish and I pour the apéritifs  The agenda changed when he phoned home to say he would be later than expected and to go ahead with dinner.

I should preface, I have never cooked Dover Sole.

I consider myself a decent cook, and am comfortable steaming and grilling fish. As Chef fired off a laundry list of steps for preparing Sole Meunière, I carefully listened and envisioned plating a culinary classic for Ouisie and me. I had watched him prepare the dish numerous times, and the steps sounded simple enough over the telephone.

Chef's Dover Sole Meunière with Langoustine Risotto. Family holiday dinner  in Honfleur, France.

Eager to put the method to practice, I occupied Ouisie with her favourite cartoon and headed to the kitchen.
Lightly dust fish with flour. Heat oil in pan on medium to medium/high heat. Add fish, skin side down.
Four minutes into the fry, I smelled disaster as the fish heads began adhering to the pan. It was then apparent that the fish out of water was me, not the ones sizzling on the stove.  I added more oil and recited the recipe in my head.
Allow skin to crisp. A good ten minutes. Turn fish for final few minutes and add in butter, shallots, and garlic. Et voila!
With the heads now glued to the pan, the necks snapped as I flipped them for the final agonizing minutes. I added more oil in hopes of loosening the bonded fish. Had I missed a step?

01 May 2013

Pop's Peanut Brittle Cookies


Growing up, family road trips involved a lot of singing, travel bingo, pinching my brothers for crossing imaginary borders on the seats, and pit stops.

While we kids ventured to try new sweets, mom stuck to French burnt peanuts. As for dad, he would pass on his standard almond chocolate bar if a bag of homemade peanut brittle was for sale.

His adoration of peanut brittle is known amongst close friends and family. If dad is at a county fair, you can bet he will hunt down the award winning brittle to taste and take home. Another treat my dad loves, cookies.

This recipe combines both of dad's loves in one heavenly serving (hence the dedicated title). It is savoury, sweet, and succulent with each crunchy bite. I look forward to making dad a batch on my next visit home!

The keys to success are: good unsalted butter, dry roasted peanuts, soft caramel (toffee), and good quality sea salt. I recommend Maldon Sea Salt which is a reputable brand and available in most stores. For added WOW! Maldon Smoked Sea Salt brings out the contrasting flavours of sweet, nut and salt.

For peanut allergies, this cookie is just as enjoyable with caramel and sea salt.
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