My husband and I, not because we want to, live apart for much of the time. Our collective desire is to be together. That would be our happy life. When we are together we cook. When we are apart, we often cook separately what we have cooked together. It makes us feel closer in some way. In Grenoble recently we went back to a favourite little Moroccan restaurant. There is a large North African and Arab community in the city and it is one of the things we love about the place. This is not the grandest, nor the most expensive but it is family run and in the simple surroundings which appear not to have changed in decades you will get a fantastic meal served with grace and style by one of the children and not break the bank. If I could remember it’s name I would share it ….
We had this dish as a starter not for the first time and back home in Cantal decided to try and replicate it. Since then we have made it together and we have made it apart. The restaurant has the edge, of course but I would urge you to give it a go because it is rather luscious.
Peel an aubergine (eggplant) and dice it, put into a pan with sufficient water to immerse (initially it’s light and spongy texture will cause it to float) and a teaspoon of salt. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer until really soft. Then drain in a collander and let all the water release. Meanwhile, chop around 3 ripe tomatoes (if your tomatoes are dull and flavourless please use tinned – life is too short to willingly eat uninspiring tomatoes) and crush as much garlic as you dare – I use a fat clove for each tomato. When the aubergine is well drained (feel free to give it a good squish to this end) sautee the garlic and tomatoes in a glug of olive oil with around a teaspoon of crushed cumin seed, twice that of crushed coriander seed and a half teaspoon of paprika (smoked or not depending on your own preference). I add a pinch of sugar too – I find it makes tomatoes more tomatoey for some mysterious reason. When the tomatoes are well cooked down stir in the aubergine pulp. Let it cook for about 10 minutes and then fork it, mash it or even blend it (I blend with my trusty stick blender because I prefer the silken texture it gives). Taste and add salt (mine is black and volcanic from Hawaii but that is not at all necessary – it honestly happens to be what I have in the house and is not any kind of arty condiment affectation) and more crushed coriander seed. You can finish with chopped fresh coriander (cillantro) and it will be all the better for it but it is hard to find here in my coin perdu and I can’t seem to get it to grow successfully – a matter of huge frustration which borders on the obsessional. Last of all drizzle with more olive oil.
This can be eaten hot or cold – we favour just above warm with bread – here in bread heaven we have a ridiculous choice of course, in North Africa I imagine it would be eaten with pitta and, as an aside, I have dipped crunchy raw veggies in it too and it is good and feels rather virtuous.
As a point of interest – the aubergine was once called mala insane (the apple of madness) and it is a member of the nightshade family. Though not deadly, it does contain toxins which will upset a sturdy tummy when turning from flower to fruit. You have been warned.
PS: The title is a Moroccan proverb of which I am very fond
Purists will note that it’s the wrong quote because The Walrus and The Carpenter wooed Oysters to their steamy end and this recipe that I am going to share is for Mussels.
I adore Mussels though it wasn’t always so … the first time they were set before me I must have been seventeen and we were on holiday, skiing in Andorra. Staying in a Chalet whose chief cook and bottle washer, not to mention bed maker – an early exponent of ‘free’ skiing in a resort in return for pandering to the every whim of demanding groups of holiday-makers – was our doctors daughter who had some name or another that I can’t remember but was always called Boo to her friends. Boo served up Mussels around Day-8 when the dozen or so of us had had ample opportunity to get to know one another and, doubtless influenced by the cheap Spanish wine flowing at the table, the chap next to me (really old … he must have been at least forty) regaled me with their feeding habits which in his view included sewage – the raw stuff. I didn’t try a single one. Which means that I never associate them with food poisoning. A few days later we dined out and my mother and I ate paté and suffered dreadfully. I couldn’t eat THAT for years afterwards. The Mussels waited in the wings until I met the second man I married. His mother I adored and we ate on our first meeting at The Beetle and Wedge which had just been acquired by a wonderful couple who took it into local (and not so local culinary legend) – they are retired now … am I really that old? But anyway significant other, the parents and I lunched. And she ordered Moules. I watched fascinated as she delicately forked the first into her mouth and then used the shells as pincered cutlery. Bread to dunk, no mayo nor fries it seemed like the perfect meal … these little orange jewels … to a fish worshipper. So I gave them a try – sereptitiously at first and then throwing caution to the wind gobbling them by the bowlful whenever they were available.
Every opportunity included a sojourn to a lovely village (one of les plus beaux villages de France, no less) in Wissant which is a few kilometres up the coast from Calais. It was the quickest nip-away – just a couple of days and a couple of nights. First night in this pretty northern village my eyes alighted on the Moules Frites notice chalked on a restaurant A-board. No sooner spotted than feet under the table, order in and I was waiting. They did not disappoint – steaming mussels and crispy fries, a glass of something or other, and then another and I reeled back to the hotel where my room looked over the moat. I was so pleased that with no booking that the hotel had given me a room looking over the moat. So so happy. As my head hit the feathery pillow and I closed my eyes, hands laid on my replete belly a duck started to quack. It quacked louder and louder and louder and I put another pillow vainly over my ears. Windows along the corridor opened and expletives were yelled before they slammed shut again. But all in vain. The duck quacked and quacked and quacked. In the early hours of the morning I seriously considered throwing myself IN the moat. The duck quacked and quacked and quacked. At dawn I got up. I pottered around bleerily and eventually mustered the strength to dress and wander downstairs for a pre-breakfast stroll. As I opened the heavy front door, the fresh early morning air and the sound of silence hit me – the quacking had stopped. I walked along the moat which had things floating in it. Things that had been thrown from windows – shoes, boots, bottles and cans. Ducks in flotillas were quietly making their way up and down bobbing occasionally in the delectable weeds beneath. All except one. Fast asleep, her head under her wing entirely oblivious of the murderous thoughts I (and clearly others judging by the floating detritus in the moat) had for her … à l’orange, avec cerises, confit – anything but another night of quacking. Which I duly got the following night before beating a hasty retreat to the hovercraft home.
Now it’s fair to say that I don’t live on the coast. In fact I am probably 350 kilometres from the nearest coast but fresh Moules are readily available. So I took it upon myself for the first time to cook the real thing. But I had a slight problem. I don’t keep wine in the house when on my own and Moules Mariniere traditionally uses wine or cider. Nothing ventured this is my recipe. And may I tell you it is delicious and I am not entirely sure what the alcohol is for – though those cleverer and more gastronomic than I will doubtless be able to comment.
To feed me for two days or HB² and I once royally:
500g Mussels – mine were cleaned if they aren’t you need to deal with beards and barnacles
1 onion – mine was red I don’t think it matters a jot
A good nob of butter (salted … I favour the Breton stuff with salt crystals)
Two or three bayleaves (dried are fine, fresh is prettier)
The leaves from a couple of good sticks of thyme (as with the bay fresh is prettier and actually a little milder so augment as needed if you grow your own as I do)
Lots and lots of parsley
250 ml Water or wine or cider
Wash the mussels in plenty of cold water. Scrape away any barnacles with a short-bladed knife. Pull off all the beards and wash the mussels again. Discard any that are open and do not close when tapped sharply (I have to admit I was quite scared of poisoning remembering the fellow in Andorra all those years ago so beat them soundly and soundly again to be sure)
In a large, lidded pan sautee the finely chopped onion in the butter with a good handful of chopped parsley until the onion is just beginning to soften
Add the wine, water or cider or any combination that your palette demands and bring to the bubble.
When bubbling tip in the mussels and forget any reference to The Walrus and The Carpenter because it will make you weep and feel like a murderer
Shake and shake the pan vigorously every couple of minutes and lift the lid after about 5 … the mussels are cooked when they have opened to reveal their amber jewelled morsels
Sprinkle with more parsley and tip into a big bowl to bring steaming to the table and devour (as demonstrated by mother in law above) with the freshest and tastiest white bread you have available and the self-righteous smirk of a person who has achieved a culinary classic and secretly knows how ridiculously simple it is
PS: The only seafood currently awarded AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status is the Bouchot de Mont St Michel – mussels that you can see clinging happily to their posts infront of the iconic tidal Island in Normandy that has it’s near twin in Cornwall at St Michael’s Mount. I learned this watching‘Qui veut Gagner des Millions?’ (‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’) which helps my French enormously!
I always keep my promises. Sometimes I take what seems like a rude length of time to get there, but I always keep my promises. So I promised food and food you will get. I’m no cordon bleu whizz. I’m certainly not a chef … I knew many rather celebrated ones in my Cheese incarnation. I know that chefs are amongst the hardest working people on the planet. And I know they often work in conditions that would have other’s screaming for Elf and Safety. I would never ever dream of aligning my kitchen efforts to them. I am a cook learned at my mother’s knee and my grandmothers table. Almost learned by osmosis the understanding of how to. Shell peas and beans. Hull strawberries. Make apple crumble, fruit cake, victoria sponge. Mint sauce. Roast the meat to go with the sauce …. my French friends still find that unbearably funny. And for the kitchen moments of my adult life there has been ‘Gordon Ramsey Tom’ best friend and best man to be of my daughter’s intended, Tom has fixed many a kitchen moment when I have been about to throw a pot into the yard garnished with a few well chosen and perfectly ripe words. Tom has gone far since working for Gordon but for me that will forever be his handle. Probably best not to tell him.
We are in the mighty grip of a la canicule here in France … that’s a heatwave by the way. It has sweltered for weeks with virtually no rain to be found in my region leaving the mass of massive trees curling at the edges, yellowing, browning. The normal verdant green is fast becoming a memory. We even have a hose-pipe ban … scourge of the English and guaranteed to start a riot of polite tut-tutting there, it is genuinely needed here. The saddest thing is watching the cattle in the scorched fields. Normally they would be ruminating delightedly on succulent green pastures whilst their farmer toils away cutting, turning and bringing in the great cotton reels of hay or bagging them for winter silage. This year, the pickings are lean. Doubtless there will be a rain of biblical proportions soon enough so I am not complaining. But I do appreciate that I am fortunate not to have my living affected. A farmer’s life is never a simple one despite the myths created by town dwellers.
Food has to fit the bill in the heat just as it has to in the cold. I am a pathalogical soup eater. And though not vegetarian eat a heavily veggie diet. So in this weather my mind turns to cold soup. Ice cold soup. And Gazpacho in particular. At this point per-lease feel free to skip my rambling drivvle and scroll to the recipe laid out at the end of the piece. I’m certain you have eaten it in many different guises. I have an almost uncontrollable addiction to recipe books which culminated in my children forcibly packing up 9 crates full and despatching them to a delighted charity shop. The shop which, incidentally, never let on to the children that most of them had come from there in the first place when I was an eager volunteer sorting the donations in the tiny back room. It became a standing joke with the equally tiny and extremely feisty manager’s mum, Pauline who worked with me on a Tuesday, that any cookbooks were mine to peruse for first refusal. Fiesty she was. 72 years old and London born I remember her taking off at a sprint across the near dormant Cotswold town square in pursuit of shoplifters. She bagged them, brought them back, locked the door and called the Police. Whilst waiting she gave them a dressing down any army sergeant major would be proud of which incorporated much fruity language and revolved around ritual humiliation and shaming. I think of her often. So I have no shortage of reference and I do read them all but in the end, as with most things I tend to start with authenticity and work with it to suit my own taste and hopefully those of anyone else sitting at my table. And the references are increasing slowly slowly. I remember volumes and seek them out like a piglet sniffing truffles and eventually hold the cherished volume once more and meanwhile there are newbies on the block which I lust after and hunt down just the same.
Gazpacho. Garzparcho. Gath-pacho (that Spanish lisp attributed to King Pedro Castilla is apparently a myth. I am frankly gutted to have been put straight – I always loved the image of the preening posturing king insisting everyone else speak as he did just because he had the regal clout to insist). However you pronounce it, it’s roots are in Andalucia in roaringly hot southern Spain. Although on my little voyage of discovery for this piece I discovered that there is another stewy soup in la Mancha (where the man of dreamed the impossible dream) also called Gazpacho which bears absolutely no relation to that which the name conjurs up for most. Heavy on fowl (the more species the better and if you have a bunny to boil with them, it’s a even better) and bolstered with unleavened bread. This might well appeal to me in a few months but right now the thought turns me rigid with fear!
No-one really seems to know why it’s called Gazpacho though there are a few rather appealing theories. One is that it comes from the Spanish word that means stuffed. The French verb is gaver so I guess it’s a theoretically a common stem. Since I don’t speak Spanish I actually don’t know what their verb is … I would love to be enlightened since the theory otherwise seems a teeny bit tenuous – sorry Jane Grigson who is in all other respects on my own personal A-list as a purveyor of the delicious! Another thought is that it results from the need to eat from a bowl or Kaz – that’s a very old Moorish word by the way, and I don’t speak Moorish nor any other Arabic either so I really am out on a limb here. To be honest my life is too short to worry why.
Gazpacho is basically salad liquidised and chilled. Leaving aside such fearful thoughts as lobster, mango watermelon or peach (all of which have appeared in my daily recipe selection by email from Journal des Femmes and all of which are doubtless crooned over in 5 star restaurants somewhere), the main ingredients that don’t change are tomatoes, cucumber, some sort of pepper, onion and garlic. The burning issue, that which splits houses in Spain, is the inclusion or not of bread. My own way leaves it out. But if you want to take some stale good (and it must be good not packet pap) bread and soak in water for 15 minutes and then squeeze the water out again and add it to the mix, feel free. It will give a velvety texture. For me it isn’t necessary. I prefer to pass a basket of the good fresh stuff alongside.
Here’s how I made this one which yields a decent amount for 4-6 scoffers:
8 fully ripe preferably vine tomatoes. Big ones but not beefers
1 Green Pepper (deseeded and chopped)
1 Red Pepper (ditto)
1 Cucumber (peeled – I don’t bother to deseed but you can)
1 Red onion (peeled and chopped)
1 small yellow onion but a bunch of spring onions also called scallions would do nicely (chopped)
3 cloves of Garlic (smashed and finely chopped)
Red wine vinegar
Olive Oil (virgin please)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 scant teaspoons castor sugar
I take the tomatoes and cut a cross in their bottoms, put them in a bowl and cover them with boiling water for a minute or so. Then I slip the peels off. Over the weeks, if you choose to follow my kitchen antics you will realise that this finesse is a rarity. My explanation is that it is less of a faff than seiving later.
As the water gets under their skin they will take on an other worldly appearance … retrieve and skin at this point
After skinning, I chop the tomatoes and sling them in a blender and blitz them to a liquid. Then add the rest of the veg in batches. The last batch will dictate the texture of the soup so if you want some bits in it, barely blitz, if you want a slight crunch blitz a bit and if you want it smooth (this is a peasant soup and I’m more peasanty than haute cuisine so I’m not here to make silk) blitz some more. But don’t overblitz or it will all begin to foam … think rabid dog – not a good look. One point here … you don’t actually HAVE to blend this. You don’t HAVE to have the equipment. This soup was made daily for the workers in the fields down in the previouly acknowledge to be scorching south of Spain … the momias and amantes who made it lovingly not to mention the reluctant hemañas, and who carried it out at lunchtime, had no such luxuries. You can chop finely enough with a good sharp knife crushing as necessary with the flattenened blade.
Then season. Start with a tablespoon of vinegar (and sherry vinegar is more authentic, but I’m in France) and 2 of olive oil plus your paprika (and if you don’t like the idea, feel free to leave it out or invent your own twist) and sugar. Pop in the fridge to chill and after a while check the seasoning. It is to your taste … play with it, have some fun it will reward you. If you aren’t lucky enough to have tomatoes that taste really tomatoey you can add a little puree from a tin or bottle or some juice. It won’t do any harm – surely the thing is to enjoy the end result not to be afraid that the Food Police will come knocking at your door demanding explanations!
I make mine in the morning to eat for supper to allow plenty of developing and melding of flavours. And then the fun starts. Spoon into bowls and serve with whatever garnishes take your fancy … chopped cucumber, pepper, onion, egg (hard boiled for the avoidance of doubt), serano ham are all traditional. But chopped olives are a good edge (green please despite what that doyenne of culinary brilliance, Elizabeth David might have indicated … black are too earthy and I think she may have been either having a laugh or a bad hair day, or both) and I love mint so I garnish with it and serve a little bowl of chopped fresh leaves alongside. I don’t do icecubes – they water the soup. And it does freeze. I brought up four daughters and always had a housefull of rabbit’s friends and relations – now I live on my own, mostly. This means there are ALWAYS leftovers. One time I will share my freezing method, of which I am rather proud.
PS: Throughout the writing of this post I have had one image. My second daughter, aged four and deliciously chubby dressed as a Spanish Onion and singing this song at the top of her very enthusiastic lungs:
We are the best of Spanish onions
chosen for our sleek appearance
We are kept in separate places
For we seldom smell too sweet (smell too sweet)!!
The rhythm was Spanish, there were castinets involved and I was enchanted. And I can’t chop an onion to this day (21 years on and she is no longer remotely chubby) without hearing the sounds of those children echoing joyously through the corridors of my mind.
So said the glorious self-proclaimed ‘Superwoman’ who is Shirley Conran and I have to agree. However, it is also true that if I live to be twice the age I am now I will never tire of stuffing mushrooms.
Oddly enough, as a child I was frightened to the point of being phobic of fungus. It’s called Mycophobia in fact and happily I grew out of it (except for a disastrous relationship with a man called Mike but that really is another story). Who knows why I was so scared, but my evil older brother was quick to use toadstools to ward me off if he didn’t want to play with me. On one occasion, along with one of his best friends he trapped me in the narrow passage between our old wooden garage and the laurel hedge, dark and dank on one of those musty Autumn days, by luring me down to ‘see something amazing’. I was about 5 so imagined a lollypop tree at the very least. They blocked the entrance as I ventured in to find the wonders of which they spoke, so that there was no escape when I came across the giant clump of festering fungus in my path. I was found some time later, a gibbering, sobbing wreck by my father who presumably assumed I was playing quietly somewhere on my own. I don’t believe in Karma so do not connect in any way the fact that the friend was later the sole British survivor of the Estonia Ferry disaster, with the torturing of an innocent by fungus.
Today I can be found happily examining the huge variety of fungi that we find out walking, photographing them and poring over our books to find out if they are edible.
In August, walking high above the Vallee de la Santoire in the Cézallier paysage of Le Cantal, we found the most enormous mushroom. It looked like a pancake and was roughly the diametre of a big one. We photographed it. The following day, our young neighbour happened past with an armful of the same whoppers … I asked him if they were edible. Oh yes, he replied – they are Coulemelle and they taste really good – especially the young ones. His girlfriend (who hails from further south in Lozère) was later heard shouting down the phone to her mother ‘he’s brought me a load of enormous flat mushrooms …. what on earth do I do with them?’. Despite the fact that I prefer not to be branded a nosy neighbour I listened intently and made notes. On checking our book they get three chefs hats which is as good as it gets – the edible fungus equivalent of a big fat gold star.
The Bean gives scale to the beast
Coulemelle (Latin name Macrolepiota procera) grow a long stem with a distinctive frill some way up. The young plant has a rounded cloche cap which eventually opens up into a large flat beret. They look very sturdy but in fact they are delicate and on picking will quickly start to wilt underneath. The gills (lamelles in French) are almost tissue soft.
When Two Brains arrived from the US for his present stay, we walked a walk I have not done for a year even though it is only a ten minute drive from home, on account of the fact that there is a kilometre stretch on the road and The Bean behaved deplorably the last time and had to be carried. Low and behold on our way we found a Coulemelle. Just one and quite old so we decided to make it into soup as instructed by those we had spoken too or evestropped on. You can also include them in a stew the same sources reveal. My first attempt at the said potage and I can report it was edible but the flavour so delicate as to be barely discernable and my choice of thyme to season overwhelmed the mushroom. Overnight, though it developed and the second bowl at lunchtime the following day was improved if not memorable. And we didn’t suffer any ill effects. Which was a big hurrah!
A week and several walks later we hit the mother-load. These little lovelies tend to grow on their own – or at least apart from one another, not in sociable clumps. We found a baby all by itself and then in a barbed wired field taunting us, an adolescent and a fully mature stonker. Two Brains hesitated but surcumbed to the look of longing on my face and braved the field like a commando seeking a hostage. The Bean watched anxiously but mercifully beloved master returned unharmed and triumphant.
Stealthily sliding under the wire
Commando style across the field
Capturing the hostage
Return to the wire
The Bean watches anxiously
The next day, a single speciment close to home and the cook-up was on. The baby made a lovely omelette – and the curious thing is that the taste is stronger than their older siblings. The big boys went into a soup thus:
Remove stalks and discard (I expect they are perfectly edible but I didn’t)
Cut the cap into thin spears
Sweat a largish onion (and if you must a clove of garlic but personally I think that is too strong) in a small knob of butter or about a dessert spoon of olive oil
Chuck in some parsely stalks, chopped
When the vegetables are softened, add about a pint of milk and the same of water
Simmer for 45 minutes adding a good tablespoon of chopped parsely half way though
Blitz with a blender and stir in a good dessert spoon of cream or crème fraiche and eat with the smug look of someone who is eating something delicious that cost next to nothing
So there you have it – my first recipe for virtually free soup. We are no experts and as tempting as it is to go into a fungal frenzy we are taking one genus at a time and learning about it. And we have our gloriously irreverant pharmacist to assist where necessary because this is France and that is all part of the Chemist’s service.
PS: On the same walk we picked up a huge quantity of Chataignes (sweet chestnuts) of which more in a later post including some tasty recipes (assuming we survive the tasting) …