I want to share a little recipe with you. It’s asparagus season here and every year we eat tonnes of it and the way we’ve normally prepared it, is steamed until al dente and served on a platter with boiled egg scattered over the top and then washed over with a mustard vinaigrette (essentially an oil-based sauce with vinegar – to which you can add lemon juice, salt, pepper, mustard etc, whatever you feel like!).
We’ve been eating it for years and I’ve never considered preparing it any other way, I like it so much! That is, until I ate Philippa’s oven-baked asparagus.
Philippa and her partner John have a winery here in the Minervois – Hegarty Chamans – where they make a great range of organic and biodynamic whites (I love their Marsanne Roussanne!) and reds. Their philosophy of how they make their wines follows into the kitchen. Philippa is an amazing cook and meals there are a real treat. It’s like a celebration of fresh produce (often from their ‘potager’/ vegie patch), colours and aromas. There’s no messing around, just simple, pure flavours blended beautifully together. And it all feels so healthy! (if I leave my wine consumption out of the equation). This dish in particular is a beauty. Thanks Philippa, I’ve been hooked ever since you served this entree of asparagus!
Philippa’s Oven-Baked Asparagus
(Yum! and great served as an entree…)
2-3 bunches green asparagus
a good cup full of grated Swiss Gruyere (my favourite cheese EVER) or Parmesan
3-4 dried chopped dried chillies (or 1 or 2 fresh – very hard to find around these parts!)
salt and pepper
chop the ends off the asparagus spears (I never really peel the ends), then rinse and pat dry in a teatowel
pour olive oil into bottom of a good heavy baking dish and swirl to spead the oil
place the spears, then top with the cheese, then the chillies, drizzle more oil and then add salt, pepper to taste
bake in moderate to hot oven (in my old gas oven I cook them on ‘7’) for 30 mins ( or for however long you want, depending on how much crunch you want to leave in the spears)
Et voila! so simple and so delicious!
…and a note on the wine! Asparagus is a difficult thing to match with wine. But if you really can’t resist, go ahead and eat them with a dry but fruity white… Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris
You don’t get to meet too many Aussies around here (that’s ‘Australian’ when talking Orstrayan)… it took me more than 10 years to meet this one. Yes, there are quite a few foreigners around here – English, Dutch, New Zealander, some Americans, Irish,Canadian – but not so many from where I’m from.
I’d always been told about ‘the other Aussie’ in the next village – “Vous ne connaissez pas Joff-wah?!?” (aka Geoffrey), they would exclaim. No, I’d respond. I hadn’t met ‘the other one’, even after many years of exploring Felines, a mere 3 km’s from us , I’d never set eyes on Joff-wah. I’d been told I would have remembered if I’d met him. And I now know why.
Meeting ‘Geoff’ (I’ll stay simple) finally happened via the lovely Evonne, who had recently moved in and become the third Aussie in our parts. How wonderful to finally have some ‘mates’ from the other side of the world!! I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to finally hear the word ‘dance’ rhyme with ‘ants’ and to hear news of a dawn meeting at Geoff’s to watch the AFL Grand Final of Australian Rules football. Unheard of in the Minervois until now! After all these years. Geoff also has a French partner (divine Florence) who also works in wine, like mine – it’s mad we’d never met.
Now I should tell you that Geoff, as well as being token Aussie in his village, is also known as a damn fine snail catcher and cook. It’s a big tradition around here and once these little slimy creatures come out in force after a big rain, you hear much talk amongst the locals of ‘cagaraula’ (‘snails’ in local Occitan). Evonne had told me how good Geoff’s snails were and it was thanks to him that I got to try my third-ever* meal of ‘les escargots’…
* (the first time was back in 1997 in Cape Town where Benji and I had recently eloped – long story and one that I will explain, later! – and out dining with some Frenchies, I thought I should dip my toes into ‘their’ cuisine once and for all)
And what were they like? Bloody good!!
I must say I loved every bit of this dish. A bit of tomato here, a lovely chunk of pork meat there, some snail flesh here… It’s amazing how well the flavours merged and complemented each other. I just didn’t want to stare at my fork for too long and wonder about where the big slimy chunks had grown up.
After beginning our evening with a yummy apero of La Tour Boisee white wine, the snails slid down deliciously with red. Florence’s La Tour Boisee Minervois 2010 was a real treat.
I used to think that these creatures were torn from their outside homes, cleaned up a bit, thrown into a cook pot and then served swimming out of their shells in cream and garlic. Not so simple! Snail hunting and preparation is a carefully orchestrated, time-consuming passion. I could give you my boring, textbook account of how Geoff prepares his snails, but I think the words of the Snail Hunter himself are far more interesting:
1. Once the snails are collected they are put into a bird’s cage. Trapping the snails in a cage allows them to empty their stomachs from herbs or plants that could be poisonous to humans. So a period of starvation assures that you are not going to kill your friends after your dinner party. You can change their diet by feeding the snails with herbs, spices and salads that do not harm humans. Starving the snails makes them thinner and less earthy tasting. So this caging period is a tricky one and most Snailers have their method of doing it. Some other elements that determine the length and method of caging the snails are also the climate, type of cage and the location of the cage. It is a long process as you don’t want the snails to die of starvation, neither suicide from madness, or just simply close back up in their shell in hibernation. Consider the caging period of a snail like trapping the wine in a container. Wine is alive and its “caging period” between the vine to the table is felt at the time of digestion.
The only time I put them in the bath tub or the kitchen sink is to clean them (I had been told the cage had sat in the family bath tub) – the “cleaning period”. Depending on the amount of snails I have, I’ll use either the tub or the sink.
Cleaning the Snails
2. Cleaning the snails comes before the time of death. You clean the snails after the caging period. Washing and sorting the snails is the biggest manual task of the cook. It can take up to three hours to clean them. You give them a good little scrub on their shell and try to make a last minute moose (frothing). Some sorry arsed Snailers throw little bit of vinegar on them to make them froth. I do this in very small amounts to the last of the snails that have not yet come out of their shell. Note: before the snails go into the pot for cooking you have to make sure that the snail can come out of its shell and that is not dead. Snails that die in the cage during the caging period either die from old age or unsupervised mismanagemant during the caging method. Do not include any snails that are dead or that haven’t cracked their bonnet after the cage !
How do they Die?
3. The Time Of Death. This is very delicate. Once the snails have been cleaned they are put into a large pot of COLD water and heated very slowly. As the water warms up the snails drift off to sleep and as the water gets hotter they die.
That was so delicious, so can we have the recipe?
4. My recipe is not a secret. However I don’t go telling just anyone. Cooking snails takes years of practice. In this region a snailer is only able to cook snails about 4 to 6 times maximum per year. I do it about 4 times a year, depending on how much rainfall we get. This year will be my 9th snailing season. I use fresh pork sausage meat.
Hmmn, I guess that means we can’t have it.
And no Benji, you can’t take home any of Florence’s family record collection!
No recipe, no records, but a final word from the SH:
I think there is a village rule that does not allow snailing until around the 1st of May. Snail hunting season! This is an old rule however and there is a blind eye towards it as there are not as many snailers as there used to be (Snailers: my word for them). The most discreet way around this rule is to never talk about it, and if you do happen to go snailing in the off-season you should never brag about how many snails you got.
Amongst the existing Snailers there is huge competition. You should never be seen on another snailer’s turf. I did make a slippery visit this morning to check the snail turf of Lily Marty just to see if a few snails had cracked their bonnet but there were none visible. While shifting around on her turf I felt like I was stealing scones from her kitchen window. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to be seen. I do have my own snail turfs around the place which are not as good as the snail turfs of some of the older local Snailers, as some are a bit more complicated to access.
The first major rain will bring out the big snails. Apparently we have just gone through the driest winter in one hundred years so I am not familiar with what state the hibernating little buggers will be in. I guess there will not be any major difference to the hibernation state of a snail from previous years but this is still unknown as there is not a living Snailer older than one hundred years to tell me. All I can imagine is that soon the snail hibernation will be ended by a big rain and snailing will be given the green light ! I love the smell of snails in the morning !
Thanks Geoff (and Florence and Evonne!), for your ‘Les Escargots a La Minervoise’. From one Aussie to another, they and the evening were tres, tres bon!
…Umm, here we go again! For those of you who saw this as a ‘mini-post’ a few hours ago, you must have been thinking ‘so where the heck is that recipe then?’. Well, I was in a hurry to pick up our child from school and WHOOPS pressed the ‘publish’ button instead of ‘save draft’. I’ll give it another try.
As for the spelling …well yes, I checked in the cookbook. It’s one of those words, like ‘rhythm’ or ‘Mediterranean’… I always have to think twice about it or look it up!
So here is my version of a ‘Rattatooey’ (that’s how I pronounce it, causing grimaces all round I’m sure) – a very traditional French dish that for me, unlike any other dish, evokes Summer in the South. The colours of the ingredients are sublime and just thinking about cooking it conjures up images of potagers (vegetable patches), big cast-iron casserole pots simmering on country kitchen stoves, lashings of fresh basil and chilled French wines. Many households are cooking up this dish right now and on my visits to friends’ houses I love nothing more than peeking into their pots to see what theirs look like. Vegies cut big or small? Diced or sliced?? Oily, not so oily? Fresh tomotoes, tinned?
I say ‘my’ version as yes, there are many. The ingredients are almost always the same, but the cooking methods differ. I’m a little embarrassed admitting that mine has conserved tomatoes in it instead of fresh, but it has. A good friend of ours came to stay this Summer (more of him in later posts) and being the most wonderful cook he is (and being French, I must also add) I was eager to get his opinion on what the ‘correct’ way to prepare this is. Strike out! He insisted the tomatoes had to be fresh. Ohh, I thought to myself, now I feel unworthy. Oh well. It’s always tasted good to us and what’s the point in arguing with this Frenchman, whose opinions on cooking and wine I admire so much.
I should add that my two of my favourite references for cooking are Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion’ and Susan Herrmann Loomis’s ‘French Farmhouse Cookbook’ and I first accessed this recipe from their reassuring pages. They were both wedding presents and how many times did I think to myself in those early days as a mute-non-speaking the local language-housewife with her apron – ‘where wold I be with out you??!??’ Well I must say that neither of their versions use conserve/ tinned tomatoes either!
Our friend did have a little extra advice for me too. On his departure, he mentioned that during the vintage I should be preparing many good meals for my husband, be kind and – with a wink – be a ‘bonne femme’. What did he mean? Did he really mean the housewife variety relegated to her stove or being simply good to Him? In the kitchen, elsewhere? (now don’t go there…). Mais merci, I’ll take that on board.
Incidentally, in French, ‘bonne femme’ could be either ‘good woman’ or ‘good wife’ – it’s the same term for both. For the blokes however, there’s no such confusion as husband has its own word – ‘mari’.
I’m beginning to think we’re all destined to be good housewives here! (in the countryside anyway, if not the towns).
Anyway, here’s my recipe, minus the fresh tomatoes, from one Bonne Femme to you!
With these quantities, you can serve this to 6-8 people and still have left-overs.
This is one of those dishes that just gets better and better on the second and third days. Ideally, I make this the night before serving.
(I change my portions each time, according to how it looks in the pot, so these quantities can be varied according to your taste)
4-5 medium onions, sliced (I love them!)
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 eggplants, sliced
8 zucchinis, sliced to 1cm thickness
3-4 capsicums (that is, peppers or poivrons, depending on your country!) – green, yellow and red, seeded and sliced
1 x 690g bottle crushed tomato pulp (you may not want to pour all of it in)
2 x 800g tin tomatoes
olive oil, sunflower oil for frying
chopped parsley and torn basil
Cut the eggplant into 1cm (or finer if you like) slices, place the slices in layers on a large tray, sprinkling salt over each layer. Cover with tin foil, weigh down with a heavy book and leave for one hour.
Heat up a generous amount of oil in a large cast-iron casserole/ heavy-bottomed pot and fry the onions over medium-low heat until soft and golden.
While the onions are frying, seed and chop capsicums, chop zucchinis, chop garlic.
As the onions become soft and golden, add the capsicum and the garlic and stir well. Increase heat to medium-high, stirring frequently to mix the ingredients.
Lower heat, cover with lid. Cook for further 15 minutes.
During this time, rinse the eggplant slices, drain through a colander and pat dry with tea towels.
Prepare one or two fry pans for shallow frying eggplants with generous amount of blended olive oil/ sunflower oil in each.
Stir in the tomatoes into the pot.
Stir in zucchinis to the pot, add freshly ground pepper and continue simmering with lid on.
Over a high heat (watch that the oil doesn’t burn) fry the eggplant slices until golden, re-adding oils to the pan/s regularly. This step is one of the most time-consuming in this recipe, but I really think it makes a difference to the dish. Once slices are cooked, I lay them aside on paper towels on a large tray.
Please note: I don’t salt the pot until I’ve tasted it with the eggplant added – even if the eggplants have been well-rinsed there can be a residue of salt.
Once all the eggplant slices have been fried, I add them to the pot, taste for salt and then re-cover and leave simmering for another 20 minutes.
Serve cold, warm or hot the next day with torn basil leaves and freshly chopped parsley.
This is a great side dish for bbq’d meats – especially lamb. It also goes very well with country sausages.
We also enjoy serving left-over ratatouille as a pizza base or tossed through pasta – it’s a delicious mix with spaghetti or fettuccine, sprinkled with basil and parmesan.
This has to be one of our all-time favourites and is so ridiculously easy to make! The combination of flavours with the simple cauliflower base is completely moreish (especially if you’re a salt lover like me).
It wasn’t until I moved to France that I started eating so much of this vegetable. At home my parents didn’t really serve it – note: we DID actually eat vegetables at my parents’, and not just the frozen variety either, just in case you were thinking ‘ahh, those Aussies with their chops and three frozen veg’… But I remember it well at one of my best-friend’s mum’s… She would always serve ‘cauliflower cheese’ with a family roast and we’d all fight over it. But these were probably the only times I ate it. In France my husband’s family eat it regularly and eat it as an entree or sidedish, boiled or steamed and then served with a vinaigrette poured over the top and chopped parsley. This recipe isn’t very different to this, just a few more flavours and time in preparing each ingredient. It comes from one of the queens of cooking in Australia, Stephanie Alexander, in her brilliant ‘The Cook’s Companion’. When Benjamin and I first moved to France this was one of the only two cookbooks we brought with us on the plane (and you should see how big the book is), and I can’t believe how helpful it’s been, all this time.
We eat this as an entree, or to accompany a BBQ. And it is amazing as left-overs the next day or two (if you’re anything like me and love to eat food upto a week after it’s been in the fridge. Parents from the Depression and their influence!!..)
‘Cauliflower Polonaise’ (from Stephanie Alexander) – serves 4 with these quantities, but I tend to always double it!
Oh, and I almost forgot: a small cup of home-made vinaigrette (I have added this to the recipe as I like it moist!) – mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, red-wine vinegar, olive oil
Steam cauliflower, section it up and then put aside on a serving dish. (You may like to prepare all the ingredients ahead, so that the dish is served hot or warm, or otherwise serve at room temperature).
Shell the eggs, and separate the yolks from the whites (my husband thinks I’m nuts every time I insist on doing this). Chop up the whites and then crush the yolks with the back of a fork, keep apart in bowls for later.
In a frying pan, toss the breadcrumbs in the butter, always tossing to avoid them burning. I like my mix to have larger crouton-sized chinks as well as crumbs, so maybe do the chunks forst and then add the crumbs at the end. Fry until very golden.
Drain and then fry the capers in some oil or butter until they open.
Scatter ingredients over the cauliflower in this order – egg whites, yolk, breadcrumbs/ croutons, capers and then the parsley. Pour over with vinaigrette… et voila!
Here I am, sat at the computer, trusty old ugg boots on my cold feet (can’t knock the Aussie out of this girl – thanks Mum for retrieving them out of the bin in Oz) and a roaring fire in the potbelly to my left. Nearly all the vines in the area have now been pruned, the days still mostly crisp amd summer seems an eternity ago! It’s hard to imagine the abundant green leaves and plump fruits of the summer vines now that they’re bald and trimmed… BUT the days are longer and the blossom’s bright petals around the landscape signal Spring approaching. Before too long the leaves will be sprouting all over again! So now is the time to make the most of what’s left of the cold and enjoy some winter meals!
I have a trusty mother-in-law who provides me with ideas for new dishes (is she worried her only son won’t be eating well enough?!), and the first time I cooked this was last Autumn (ahh, the beautiful Minervois Autumn! – for a glimpse, see below).
This recipe is perfect for the Autumn/ Winter chill! It’s a braised cabbage dish, that you leave simmering slowly on the stove for a few hours. I bought the baby cabbages at our local Tuesday market from Valerie, an organic producer whose beautiful garden we visited a few months ago. It’s a luxury having access to such amazing produce. Her stall is one of my regular stops on Tuesday market day as her produce is so fresh and delicious – and after seeing her garden I’m in awe of how much hard work goes into filling her baskets of food each week. And no matter how frosty the market mornings get at this time of year, Valerie always has a huge smile and happy to share recipes. Merci Valerie! p.s. her home-made jams are worth trying too – especially the Muscat Jelly which is an incredibly good partner to aged ‘fromage de brebis’ (ewe’s milk cheese)
Here’s how I make the VERY SIMPLE braised cabbage:
+ Cut cabbage up into quarters (or halves if small) and steam for about 15 mins. Remove. ( this step is quite important if you suffer unwanted gaseous situations!)
+ In a heavy frypan or cast iron cooking pot, fry a couple of thinly sliced onions until golden in sunflower oil.
+ Add about 250g of chunky ‘lardons’ pieces (bacon) and fry together until browned.
+ Place cabbage pieces on top and cover with lid and cook on very low heat for about 2 hours.
Serve this on its own for a simple lunch dish, or with pan-fried crumbed veal. If you want something lighter than cabbage, use ‘endives’ instead. I think we call these ‘witlof’ in Australia? No need to parboil!
Whether you’re eating this on its own or with an accompanying meat, this tastes delightful when paired with a crisp, dry white. We often serve this with Benjamin’s Picpoul de Pinet 2009… which we actually enjoyed with friends last night!