Waking Up to Authentic Niçoise Salad...Bonjour!

france wine estate
The view from our window. Man, I miss buildings.
Just kidding. That was sarcasm.

Sleeping in after the previous night's porcini mushroom bonanza, we awoke slowly, contentedly—and definitely not until breakfast was over. Oops? It looks like the only option for us was to begin preparing lunch. The struggle of life continues!

Happily, we found ourselves introduced to the classic Niçoise (nee-swah) Salad. It's wildly simple to put together, but throw the tag "Niçoise" in front of it, and you've suddenly created a French masterpiece. Our version was a little different from the standard as we were out of some things, but the traditional & authentic recipe is written here. The beauty of this salad is that you can basically throw on whatever you like as long as you keep an eye on the central idea, which is essentially freshness and simplicity...bon apetit

Niçoise Salad
Meaning, you guessed it, salad from Nice, France...Bienvenue!

  • 2 heads lettuce (I recommend Boston or Bibb.)
  • 2 cans troll-/pole-caught tuna*
  • 4-5 beautiful red heirloom tomatoes (or about 1/2 pound), cut bite-size
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered pole-to pole, or sliced into rounds
  • 6-8 oz thin green beans (haricots verts), trimmed and halved
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 1/3 cup pitted French black olives (Niçoise ideal!)
  • 4-8 anchovy fillets 
  • 2 tbs capers (optional)
  • 1 pound potatoes (I recommend Red Bliss) boiled and cut into wedges 
  • 2 ears of corn (skip the corn and potatoes if you're short on time)
  • Vinaigrette (see recipe below) or EVOO, balsamic, and red wine vinegar for serving

  • french salad
    Our Petit Niçoise in-the-making
    If using potatoes, boil until tender. Remove, keep water rolling, and blanch green beans in the boiling water until tender but still crisp, 3-5 minutes. Move to ice bath, drain, and set aside. Use the boiling water to cook the [shucked] corn for about 6-8 minutes--don't let it get mushy! Once cool, strip off the kernels with a sharp knife.

    As for the rest, I could go into specifics, but just assemble this salad the way that suits you. Good ingredients will lead to good flavors. Often you'll see all the ingredients sectioned off atop the greens, and the anchovy fillets decoratively lain across, beckoning you to come chow down. But you know what? Follow your heart.

    Because the dressing could get lost among all the ingredients if pre-applied, I suggest putting the dressing on the side and letting people dress their own portions.

    Vinaigrette Recipe (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
    Whisk the following ingredients together...you know what to do after that.

  • 3/4 cup EVOO
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (3 lemons)
  • Splash red wine vinegar
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 tbs finely chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tbs minced fresh thyme
  • 2 tbs minced fresh oregano
  • 2 tsp dijon mustard
  • Salt & Pepper

  • french salad
    The display-all-ingredients method, courtesy of this blog.
    Wait..who put those chickpeas there!?
    * As it turns out, the Chowgypsy has a pretty strong stance on what tuna you choose buy (surprise, surprise...). Allow me to explain: Most canned tuna is caught by a "long line" method, wherein a long line with many attached hooks is dropped into the ocean to float and catch tuna. What really happens during this process, according to Tristram Stuart's book, Waste, is that "this longline, which can be up to 78 miles long with thousands of hooks, "gives rise to a discard rate [of non-tuna specimens] more than 71 times greater than fishing for [tuna] on an ordinary pole and line...

    ...Some new "'dolphin-friendly' methods of catching tuna, which can involve surrounding and scooping up entire marine habitats, can actually kill even more kinds of other fish, turtles, and sharks. For 15, 721 tons of tuna caught using these dolphin-friendly methods in the eastern Pacific, fishing fleets killed 15,737 tons of sharks, rays, and other fish--a by-catch rate of over 50 per cent. By-catch tuna fisheries regularly includes critically endangered and vulnerable species such as [five types of] sea turltles, minke and humpback whales, great white sharks, sting rays...mako, hammerhead, and numerous other types of shark" 

    Visit the Montery Bay Aquarium's site for more information on which tuna purchases are sustainable and information on any other marine dweller 

    You have the ingredients, you have the tuna knowledge. I release you.
    gironde wine
    Our happy little eating place
    Soon we head back to Le Bugue for more work on the garden...I'll miss you, wine country.
    france vineyard
    Care to take a stroll?
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    Out-of-body Experiences and Mushrooms

    A free weekend in Bordeaux?

    Fine...if I must.
    gironde france
    Welcome to Gironde...
    After a few days of garden work, we were whisked off for a weekend to Joelle's family home in Gironde, which borders the famous wine country Bordeaux. About 100 years ago, her grandfather began making wines on this 45 acre estate (which might explain the free-flowing wine we have encountered since our arrival), and we tagged along for the return of Joelle's son, who had been making wines in New Zealand for the past six months (tough life, huh?). 

    Little did I know that to celebrate his homecoming, we were in a for a dinner that would render me incapable of of performing any other action than raising a fork to my awe-stricken and salivating mouth for a good 30 minutes...at least.
    I have humongous vats of wine in my backyard.
    What about you? A playhouse?
    I told you they own a vineyard...
    Let's backtrack a bit for a small 
    primer on the area of Le Bugue, where Joelle and Julius live. While you may not have heard of La Bugue proper, you have heard of the delicacy for which it is famous: foie gras (literally: fatty liver). Additionally, here you will find France's sweetest strawberries, finest porcini mushrooms, and--the final blow--wildest truffles. Alas, the season for truffle and mushroom hunting doesn't come around until later in the year, when John and I will be long gone from France. (Hear that? That's the sound of my heart breaking.)

    Never fear! By a stroke of good fortune, Joelle had managed to procure some of the renowned cépes (sounds like: crepes), aka porcini mushrooms. I had heard of porcinis before, and probably had even eaten them (in a rehydrated form), but I had I truly known them before this night? Never. 

    Was it an out-of-body experience? Maybe.

    The Porcini is not a normal mushroom. It's thick, beefy, smooth, and tastes like an elven forest would taste if we were somehow able to take a bite...of a forest? I wouldn't be surprised if wood nymphs themselves cultivate these all year until a silly mortal strolls by, takes note, and calls the alert to the rest of the town, "Everybody call in sick to work--it's porcini pickin' time!" And then everybody starts screaming and TVs explode and probably some people spontaneously combust. Supposedly work attendance rates really do plummet. 

    A culture that calls in sick to hunt mushrooms? This is why I love Europe.

    So no, there would be no room for greens tonight. We simply couldn't seem it necessary to find room among the pork tenderloin, roasted pommes de terre (aka "apples of the earth," aka potatoes, ha!), and porcinis sauteed with garlic and parsley. 

    A dinner, brown and beautiful. Let the gluttony begin. 

    We finished the night off surrounded by French friends and family animatedly talking into the wee hours of the night. John and I understood little, and we spoke like 12-month-old babies, but somehow it didn't seem to matter. This random wwoofing experience had brought us up close and personal to the real France, and it was wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if my life is actually happening, or if I'm still in my cold winter Wyoming bed, dreaming the dream of France. 

    Tomorrow we head back to Le Bugue. How can I return to work after something like this?
    Julius and Joelle, wondering how they got stuck with these two strange Americans...
    And long after darkness falls, the baguette and the French alcohol remain

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    Jamming Out in France: Easy Apricot Jam

    There are times when I get so caught up in the excitement and anticipation of planning out the places that I intend to visit within the next few years that I forget to take notice of where I actually am. And like a slap in the face, I open my eyes and realize that I'm knee-deep in lavender trimming a crawling rose bush on an 18th century French estate. 
    french garden
    Our landscaping site in Gran Castagne
    I've landscaped before, but this was not throwing mulch on the front yard of a stuccoed suburbian McMansion. No, touch this soil, and you're transported to the times when members of the French noble class inherited these countryside mansions through the generations, living and biding time as they pleased, or using them nonchalantly as their vacation respites.

    Imagine it: gazing over the rolling hills and gardens while servants tended to chores and, oh, your every whim (I'm not saying that the system was ideal...). Everything you ate was fresh (lack of refrigeration will do that) and nearly guaranteed to come from the surrounding land.There is no feeling quite like it. Who knows how long this ivy has crept up the side of the house? How long the nearby church's crumbling bell tower has announced the breaking of a new day?
    prune garden
    don't forget your sunhat!
    nut cracker
    Cracking walnuts...again
    And again I wonder, how did I get lucky enough to play this minor role in this estate's far-reaching history?

    This is one of the things that I find most fantastic about Francethe deeply-felt presence of its own past. The average Dick and Jane live in homes that have stood for hundreds of years. There's not a maniacal eagerness to tear down the old and build over with the new; people exist with time here, not against it. Cracking walnuts, making jams, raising chickensit's the natural way in this countryside, and it simply hasn't been left behind. 

    The other night, a friend of Julius & Joelle's was ranting about how with growing access to supermarket food, in a few years, people "won't even know how to butcher their own rabbits!" It was as though he was complaining that people weren't using CDs now that ipods are so en vogue. And mind you, this man is a graphic designer--he works on computers all day, and yet still, like so many of the French, he understands the value of making food an interactive process, not a passive one. 
    foie de poulet
    Homemade local chicken pate for lunch
    I fear that many for many Americans, these sentiments have been sadly lost, but thankfully, with help from the Slow Food Movement, we are slowly regaining consciousness. Locally-grown and/or raised food, apart from helping your community and reducing your carbon footprint (among other things), just tastes better

    With that spirit in mind, here's an amazingly simple apricot jam that Joelle made while I hovered nearby. There are no exacts--Joelle is a bonafide eyeballer--but if you follow the pictures and directions, you will have made your first French jam!

    Easy Apricot Jam
    how to make jamIngredients 
    Apricots, approximately 1.5-2 lbs
    2 vanilla beans, split in half lengthwise
    One immersion blender (it's not mandatory, but you really should own this magic stick)

    Pit enough apricots to fill a big pan. Save the pits. Throw the vanilla beans in there. Cover the apricots with sugar. Liberally (see picture). Let sit for a few hours, or all day. Much juice will have accumulated in the pan. 

    Set the pan over medium-high heat. Cook cook cook until things start to get hot. Stir every once in a while. Stir more often as things get frothy. Once the froth flirts with spilling over the sides of the pan, turn the heat to medium. The apricots should be pretty tender by now (if not, wait a bit longer), so pull out that immersion blender, and have at it (depending on your desired texture, you can slice/chop the apricots beforehand instead of blending). 

    Keep the jam at a low simmer for a couple hours, checking every once in a while to make sure the bottom doesn't burn. When it looks like it's thickening, take a little bit out on a spoon, let it sit for a couple minutes, and see if it's an acceptable consistency. If so, take the pot off the heat, and put the jam into sterilized jars. The jam will thicken a bit more as it cools. Turn the jars upside-down to seal, and don't mess with them for at least one day. Chow.

     (If you want to speed up the process or have a thicker jam, add a tsp of agar agar after blending, take off the heat, and start jarring)

    So what about those pits? If you want to add a little elbow grease to this recipe, as soon as you pit the apricots, take a mallet out and hammer the pit until you have access to the lovely, almond-like kernel within. Soak the kernels in water up until you set the apricots on the burner, and slide the skins off. Throw the kernels in with the fruit before cooking. Chop finely beforehand if you're skipping the immersion blender step.

    The Savings: Let's get this straight: It is always much, much cheaper to make your own preserves. There is no argument, and it's surprisingly easy. A jar of high-quality store-bought jam (meaning no added thickeners or high fructose corn syrup!) runs at about $4 for four ounces--that's $16 per pound! Clearly, if you buy apricots at around $3-5 per pound and factor in the cost of sweetener, you're still paying less than half for something fresh and homemade!

    While you eat your jam, enjoy a few more pictures from our days landscaping...
    wwoof france
    maybe I'll just, ehhh, have a dip?
    french garden
    Hi, um, is that a pool I see peeking through the hedges?
    france landscape

    wwoof france
    french garden

    french gardens
    france homes

    gran castagne
    Oh look, that must be a little garden nymph

    thoughts?  excitements? leave a comment :)

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    Joelle's Shredded Cabbage, Ham, and Walnut Salad...aka French Cole Slaw

    First of all, a little about our hosts...
    If you don't let yourself be taken by the French force that is Joelle, you'll have to resign yourself to a dull and unfulfilling existence atop the wildflower-rampant hill that is her home. The woman is a powerhouseuntameable hair (think my mom's hair on steroids), piercing hazel-blue eyes, and strong, tanned hands that warn you that however beautiful she may be, delicate she is not. She's the type of woman who'll casually mention that she will eat a certain friend's dog if he doesn't stop calling during the early hours of the morning.
    Joelle, facemask, and electric grass trimmer
    I can foresee aligning myself with the mischievous grin of hers. Not only because she is the model of what a fun and strong and carefree French woman should be, but also, the woman can cook. It's not the type of skill that is honed simply through the years of raising three children (which she has done). No, it's the skill that is found innate within a lucky few. She doesn't need to taste her creations as she goes along--she simply knows. I call it the ability to taste food in one's mind, and when you find someone who can do this, you better come hungry.
    A sampling of our first dinner from Joelle...
    Above, we have some of Joelle's creations, and I want to point out the style of pork chop you see. They referred to it as a British cut, wherein the top layer of fat on the pork chop is left on, thus braising the chop while cooking and eliminating the constant worry toward having a too-tough pork chop. Ask your butcher if he can give you the same.

    Now, if you will, imagine England in the late 1700s,: a time of London "high society," riding from city to city with a horse and carriage, real dukes and duchesses...you get the picture. And then imagine riding up to your country home and seeing the head gardener of that extravagant estate strolling among the hyacinth, tending to a climbing rose as it reaches up the mansion walls, giving you a curt but friendly nod as he moves through, unwaveringly focused on ensuring that everything--every seed, tree, bloom, and vine--looks perfect in the garden he has created and over which he now presides. And thus you can imagine stout and proper  London-born Julius, Joelle's husband. 
    wwoof dordogne
    Lunchtime with Julius & Joelle
    Julius is the type of man who could watch you do a backflip while swallowing a sword and juggling monkeys and maybe, if you're lucky, he'll feign a glint of surprise. It's just that old country British mode de vie that seems to have been transported through the centuries into his blood. But don't be fooled, he wouldn't be married to the wildcat that is Joelle if he wasn't hiding a soft spot for good fun and humor. A landscaping artist by trade, John and I have much to learn from he and Joelle's gardening know-how.

    In closing, I'll mention a wonderful salad Joelle made for lunch one day. I suppose you can think of it as a sort of rendition of cole slaw, expect this is French and exciting. Shredded Cabbage, Ham, and Walnut Salad

  • Half-head of large cabbage (thinly julienned by hand or use food processor)
  • 1 cup toasted walnuts or hazlenuts
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 2 shallots, halved pole-to-pole and cut into thin half-moons
  • About one pound 1/2-inch-thick, high-quality ham, cubed (you'll probably need to get this cut at a deli to avoid the thin-sliced stuff--I suggest Eden Farms or Snake River Farms Kurobuta if you can find it). 
  • EVOO
  • Balsamic & red wine vinegar

  • Directions
    Mix everything together and dress with EVOO and a splash of balsamic and red wine vinegar. Keep in mind that the cabbage will exude water and this will add to the dressing after you let it sit for a while. Add salt and fresh-cracked pepper to taste. Let sit for at least two hours to soften the cabbage a bit. Add more EVOO and vinegar to taste. Yup, it's that easy.

    Chow down.

    Feel free to leave out the ham and throw this on some fish as an excellent crunchy topping.

    The Savings: The cheap price and far-reaches of cabbage is practically absurd. Feeding a crowd costs next to nothing with this recipe since half a head of cabbage only sets you back about one dollar. Nuts are the most expensive item, but they're a minor role in this salad. The cheapest items: cabbage, ham, and raisins, pack the majority of flavor!

    Up next: some misadventures with Julius & Joelle :)

    Leaving Lyon and Entering the World of Julius & Joelle...

    I felt that familiar sense of urgency to escape the city as we prepared to take leave of Lyon and our wonderful couchsurfing hosts. First stop, however, was the street market taking place literally right outside Theo & Quentin's front door, where John and I ate through our breakfast by means of sampling fresh French cherries, melons, various olives, local chèvres...everything short of, um, the pig brain...
    french food market
    Tye dye beans!
    pig brain
    I'm not sure where to begin...
    french food market
    I love you, oozy cheese in the bottom right corner
    french food market
    Hey meat man, do you not want your photo taken?
    With full bellies, we ventured onward toward the next leg of our journey, which would take us to Perigueux (pear-ee-goh), then La Bugue, a region about an hour away from Bordeaux, to wwoof with Julius and Joelle.

    We rented a car from Lyon, assuming that our cheap rental price saved us money against the price of the train ticket, and we were wrong. 292 miles meant $30 in toll fees (France goes crazy with these) and $60 in gas, so while we weren't way outside of our budget, taking the train or hitchhiking was, in hindsight, the way to go. You've been warned.
    A rustic street in Thiers

    Nevertheless, the car did give us the freedom to do a bit of exploring, and once John got over the hiccups of driving stickshift in a foreign city (at which point I could begin breathing again), we found ourselves on a little side trip to a town called Thiers. It's not the delicate and dainty city you might imagine as it comes into view amongst the green hills. No, this town has gained its renown for its knife-making skills. Not the type of place that a medieval soldier casually invades, that's for sure.

    After Thiers, we stopped for a night in Clermont-Ferrand, a city that's been around since, ohhh, year 848. It's pretty old. We couchsurfed with a couple med students, who had mixed nuts, olives, and a cold regional beer waiting for us. And this was before the dinner of potato and zucchini gratin was pulled out of the oven.

    Remind me--why on earth do I deserve to be this lucky?
    clermont ferrand cathedral
    I spy something black...
    The city is also notable for its 10,000(ish)-year-old chain of dormant volacanoes and one of the most ominous and grand Gothic cathedrals I have ever seen--the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Oh, and it was constructed entirely of black lava stone...in the 13th century...no big deal...right?
    le bugue france
    Entering Le Bugue...

    We arrived to La Bugue that night and ventured to an even smaller nearby town called Journiac to find the place that we would call home for the next two weeks. 

    Ascending the hill to Julius & Joelle's isolated, 192-year-old home, you can--as the chiché goes--leave all your worries behind. Whether it's the snug kitchen with its wood-burning stove, the jazz playing in the background during dinner, or the white, down-filled comforter than envelops you at the end of the day, you can't not feel relaxed here. And that's just the inside of the house. Don't even get me started on the view.

    The Savings: Unfortunately, with tolls and gas prices, renting a car didn't end up saving us the money we thought it would (see this link for advice on cheap travel options in France). Not to be disheartened, couchsurfing on our second night kept us from spending any money (and we got lucky since she cooked dinner for us!).
    journiac france
    Welcome to Journiac...

    Stay tuned for adventures with our Anglo-French hosts!

    Lyon Tourism & Gastronomy: Introducing The Bouchon

    John shows the pastries who's boss
    Lyon, Lamb Knuckle, and Beef Snout, Oh My!

    So, did I mention that Lyon is supposedly the gastronomical center of France? We were lucky to find that Theo and Quentin’s district, the Croix Rousse,  is central for shopping, food, and metro transportation, so although many shops in France are closed on Monday (as well as Sunday), we certainly managed. After waking, we quickly found a bakery and forced an almond & chocolate croissant, a Swiss pain au chocolate, a nutella-stuffed donut, and two espressos upon ourselves for under five dollars. (I try to ensure that the bulk of the pastry is consumed by John, and it’s not easy. Rather, it’s easy for him—not me.)

    We spent the day sightseeing, and I must tell you that the place to find the best view of Lyon lies in front of the amazing Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (which you can reach by a funicular train). Even though it was pouring rain and I was awaiting death by lightning strike, the view of the city below was stunning enough to keep me rooted for at least a minute. Don’t miss it if you go to Lyon.
    lyon plaza
    Strolling in Place Bellcour
    leon city hall
    Guarding the City Hall

    lyon notre dame
    An ominous overlook of Leon at the Notre Dame
    lyon notre dame
    Facade of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière
    city of leon
    Watching the storm roll in from Lyon's Notre Dame 
    The hills of Leon...
    french streets
    Hunting for an authentic French Bouchon...

    OK, it's time to get serious. This is where it gets good. Really good.

    Near-starvation at about 10 that night, we threw ourselves at the mercy of our couchsurfing hosts, and they lead us to an authentic Lyonesse restaurant, Le Laurencin. Now, Le Laurencin isn't just any anuthentic Lyonesse restaurant. It's a Bouchon. The food of bouchons is something comparable to southern soul foodthey use everything, and it is damn good. As I write, I can feel my stomach looking up at me with puppy dog eyes, asking me why we didn’t just build a small home in this restaurant, in which we could happily carry out the rest of our days.

    But I'll warn you: Bouchon food is weird. Kind-of-scary-weird, but surprisingly satiating in a stick-to-your-ribs way. Unlike the Parisian noveau-art-bird-food you might imagine when you think "French cuisine," the Lyonnaise culture keeps things fatty, meat-focused, and doesn't waste an inch of the animal. It's rustic and rowdy, and you better come with a hungry tummy and an open mind. Allow me to give you some examples:

    french bouchon food
    Beef snout, veal "trotters" and fromage blanc with French herbs
    As an appetizer, John had museau de boeuf (beef snout), pied de veau (veal trotter), and cervelle des canuts (a fromage blanc blend with French herbs). I had a salad with chevre-filled puff pastry balls which I'll only classify as acceptable, as the cheese was disappointingly scant.
    bouchon food
    My puff salad
    Unsure about that stinky, soupy Reblochon cheese?
    My main plat of lamb knuckle (which is actually lamb shank) with gratin dauphinois (creamy potatoes with Gruyere) was arguably the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. Fall-off-the-bone tender and positively dripping with a rich rosemary sauce, I literally couldn’t stop eating it, despite the dull ache beginning to manifest itself in my stomach. 
    Lamb knuckle lamb shank
    Lamb knuckle (lamb shank) with a rich brown rosemary sauce & potatoes au gratin

    french quenelle
    Pike quenelle with lobster sauce and rice
    John took the strange route (again) and dined on pike quenelle with lobster sauce and rice. It was a bit too fishy for my liking, which only went to support my theory to seldom trust a dish that comes with rice as its side. I was happy to have tasted the beautifully textured quenelle, however. Made with egg, a mild-flavored ground fish, and flour, it puffs up in the oven to a textural combination of soufflé and crème brulee, and a taste of whatever you throw on it. Next time I'll avoid the lobster sauce.

    Theo (our Couchsurfing host) also had a notable dish: andouillette, which is essentially a sausage of pork intestines that typically and enthusiastically includes the colon. I'm going to have to tell you that it's one of the few foods I find to be disgusting. John, on the other hand, can eat it by the spleenful without reserve.
    french andouilette sausage
    the infamous andouilette, or "colon sausage"
    My gastronomic experience continued its upward slope, ending with the absolutely most amazing profiterole (and maybe dessert) I have ever devoured. Floating atop a thick chocolate sauce was a light and crisp cream puff, a couple heaping scoops of almond ice cream, and enough whipped cream to embarrass a cow. It hurt to eat something so good.
    best profiterole ever
    The one profiterole to rule them all
    And so concluded our first meal at a restaurant in nearly two weeks of French dining, and one of the best meals I've ever had (!). And all, I might add, for $19 per person. Oh, my heart. 

    We walked home, and I entered a state of nirvana. Soul food gets me every time.

    The Savings: We bout a 10-pass subway ticket to get around for a 10% discount on per-trip ticket price. We bought a small baguette, cheese, and salami at a grocery store for lunch instead of paying restaurant prices. While it took us a lot of walking to find the right-priced restaurant for dinner, it paid off! We were lucky to have locals to steer us in the right direction.

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