20 September 2009

Autumn's arrival

Apologies to anybody who actually reads this thing-- there's been plenty of cool stuff to write about lately, but time and motivation have been limited. Kind of literary constipation.

Maybe this post will be a move towards restored regularity.

My folks are in town, and so I've cooked for us a few times. Nothing fancy, but it's always fun to have people to experiment on. Since I was to cook last night, I went to the Prez Wilson market early in the morning before meeting my dad for some patrimonying.

No, I wasn't going to roll him for his retirement funds.

France opens up a bunch of its governmental holding to the public for touring each year, which is known as the patrimoine.

The French have had an love-hate relationship with the extravagances of their various rulers (monarchs, emperors), and with a lot of those extravagances being architectural or artistic treasures, it would be a waste to let them just degenerate, yet France is so lousy with the things, they can't all really support being tourist museums, either. So the government uses a lot of amazing old chateau or palaces for their digs, and for a few days each year, the public shows up to see these normally off-limits sites, and maybe to check up on the government, too. And boy do they show up-- the line to get into the Palais Elysees, the French White House, basically, had a line over half a mile long and about 6 people across. There were over 100 sites open in Paris, and other sites across France included places like this or this, both local govt offices in the Limoges region. We met in the 8e to see the Palais Elysees, but I got us into the wrong line and so we saw the ministry of the interior (Hôtel de Beauvau; not a hotel in the English sense, as one of the foreigners in line asked me, but a public building or mansion in the French sense), instead. Then we went to the 7e and saw the Italian embassy, a smaller mansion with genuinely spectacular interiors and garden and the Hôtel de Clermont, home to the ministry for relations (as in, "I did not have relations with that woman?") with parliament. All told, a pretty enjoyable morning and early afternoon, and we came home with pamphlets from each stop and even a souvenir DVD from the ministry of the interior.

Anyway, I had a lot of mutually exclusive ideas about what to cook for dinner, and as usually happens in that situation, I wound up coming home with way too much stuff and nothing appropriate for any of the original ideas. I blame the change of seasons. Even though the temps have stayed nice, we've clearly crossed the summer-fall food line. And I wasn't expecting such a rapid change.

First thing that tripped me up was the winter squash at Joel Thiebault's stand. I love winter squash. In fact, I've only ever encountered 1 winter squash I didn't like, and that was my first week in Paris, apotiron, a gargantuan orange squash they sell here by the wedge, since a whole one would feed the entire city of Paris. For a month. Maybe it was just a bad piece, but I made several days' worth of pasta sauce with it, and it was just nasty, with strong flavor of ... well, I still don't know, but something really objectionable. I don't really make it a point of sampling objectionable tastes, so my library is a little small, there.

So the bounty of different squashes on the back stand definitely had my interest. And since I've already learned that I have no idea what the squashes here taste like, I decided to try 2. Not the sucrine, which looked a dead-ringer for butternut, but 2 rather squat, wide varieties, one intensely green, the other the color of a butternut. I figured they had to be at least a little different from each other, and hopefully at least one of them would be edible.

The next find that derailed my plans was the availability everywhere of fresh cépes.

A cépe and its equivalent in 1-euro coins.

Quoi? Cépes-- porcini mushrooms. Or something like porcini mushrooms, since cépe can be used more generically for wild mushrooms. When we bike in Italy in the fall, it's always porcini season, and we often ride past porcini hunters. I absolutely love the things, but they're virtually impossible to buy fresh in the States. But as I said, they were everywhere yesterday at the market. They ranged from 12 euros per kilo (can't possibly be the desirable species that fall under that name) to 40 euros per kilo ($59 at the current painful exchange rate), so there's a lot on the line as you pick your vendor. I decided to try my potato-and-mushroom lady. Gotta figure that since that's all she does, they'd be killer. I bought 4. For $25. They'd better be killer...

And in fact, there was a little concern about that, because when I got home after the patrimonying, I noticed that one of the cépes was decidedly green on the underside of the cap, and it really didn't look much like the other 3 at all. I'm no mycologist, but I know that eating the wrong mushroom can go really badly for you, and I realized that offing my parents in Paris would probably fall pretty far on the low end of the bad-son/good-son scale, so I put the green one back in the bag to deal with later and used one of the good ones for an appetizer of fresh tagliatelle in a cépes cream sauce. Simple, delicate, let the flavor of the mushroom come through. The cépe was milder (wimpier?) than the porcini we eat in Italy, but it was still a nice mushroom. Having baked off both squashes (in quarters), I used half of the tan one for a squash puree to accompany the pork we had for the main course, since it was sweeter and moister than the green one. The rest of the squash, some leftover spinach, the mushrooms, and a big bag of band-sawed veal bones from the "crépine" butcher got stuffed into my tiny French refrigerator after considerable reorganizing.

Today, feeling a cold coming on and so not up for carousing, I set about emptying that fridge of leftovers, a kind of fall cleaning. The drier squash seemed a perfect candidate for either a pasta stuffing or gnocchi, just as I'd usually use a sweet potato. With a freezer already full of eggplant agnolotti, I made a big batch of squash gnocchi to keep the eggplant company: "rice" the squash by pushing it through a strainer, make a well, add an egg, some flour, seasonings (salt, pepper, nutmeg), cut that all in with a pastry scraper, form gnocchi, and freeze. Freeze 2 lbs, in fact. With a lamb or duck ragu, or just browned butter and sage (maybe some crushed amoretti?), they're going to make several great quick lunches or first courses for dinner.

The riced squash, egg, flour and spices before mixing

Dough combined and rolled out

Cut into portions

Rolled and ready for shaping



But what to do with the 3 remaining cépes? Looking through the refrigerator, I saw that I still had some plums that I poached in red wine and spices earlier in the week. Plums are very much in season here, mostly tiny yellow, purple, and green varieties, very sweet, and delicious. But my yellow plums had gotten a little past perfect in the fridge and were too numerous to finish off quickly, so I poached them to extend their shelf life, as it were. I used them for dessert (with a genoise cake made with chestnut flour) in one meal and cooked down the poaching liquid to a syrup to serve with duck (with great success, if I do say so) in another. But I still have some left, and their (2nd) expiration is fast approaching.

So I decided to make a mushroom-and-plum dinner. Sounds weird, but combinations of fruit and mushrooms are fairly common in northern Italy, and I was hopeful that the wine-ginger-quatre-epice poaching liquid would really work with the earthiness of the mushrooms. With freezer space now fully accounted for, I made a lasagnette for dinner. Never made a lasagna with my own fresh pasta before, so this was to be a learning experience.

First, though, I still had the little issue of the green mushroom. I thought a long time about whether to use it or not. I mean, I paid $6+ for the damn thing. So it basically came down to wasting $6 vs dying in my sleep. Oh, what the heck-- I've had a good run. Throw it in! I did at least pull off the green fins under the cap and hoped that whatever poison might be lurking there would be protein, so the cooking would denature it. Mushroom baddies are usually alkaloids, though, so even I knew that was wishful thinking.

Rolled out pasta dough to match our little loaf pan, parboiled (15 sec, before moving to cold water and blotting), then layered with sauteed cépes, some chopped poached plums (just enough pieces so you'd get about one in each bite per layer), béchamel (enriched with a little truffle oil-- if I'm going to kick tonight, no reason to spare the extravagance), and some parmesan. Baked at high temp for about 20 min, served with simple green salad with mustard vinaigrette (I am still in France, after all).

Cépes and poached plum lasagna

Maybe it's the hallucinogenic effects of that tainted mushroom, but holy cow, was that lasagnette good. The sweetness and spiciness of the plums went beautifully with the mushrooms, and the homemade pasta in the layered section was perfectly toothsome, but crunchy and delicious on the curled up edges. It was heavenly. I don't think I'll ever make a lasagna with dried pasta again. I was only planning to eat half of the little pan tonight, but knowing it wouldn't be nearly as good tomorrow night, I had to make the sacrifice and finish it off.

I just hope it doesn't finish me off later tonight...

15 September 2009

07 September 2009