Chili à la Française

 

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Recently, I was overcome by desire for chili. I had neither cooked nor tasted chili since we left behind our ranch in Central Texas to move to France. Thanks to the mail-order supermarket “My American Market” it has, however, become possible to recreate some of those familiar flavors or at least close facsimiles thereof.

CLAUDINHA’s CHILI & CORNBREAD

 

As it turned out, with the exception of the coarse cornmeal and the can of “Rotel” diced tomatoes & green chilies, all ingredients for this recipe came straight out of our local supermarket. The biggest difference between Ranch chili and French chili was the meat I used. In Texas, we only ate flavorful deer meat, mostly Axis deer, raised on our own land. And the meat for my Ranch chilis was not ground but diced, which added a more interesting texture to the stew. Commercially processed ground beef just can’t match that. A word of caution before we proceed with the cooking. Do not, and I mean not ever call this “Texas chili”. Texas chili consists of beef cubes cooked slowly and gently in a sauce of freshly made chili paste. Period. Tomatoes or, heaven forbid, beans are never to be found in a true Texas’ Bowl o’Red. My chilis, on the other hand, have always included tomatoes and red beans, both from cans. That’s the way I like it.

For my first French chili, I began by softening the diced onion and garlic in a goodly slug of olive oil under low-medium heat before adding the ground beef.

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Once the meat was nicely browned, I mixed in most of the can of “Rotel”,

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followed by the content of the envelope of “Mexican spices” and a tablespoon of ground cumin seeds, working in the spices while turning up the heat to medium-high.

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Under high heat, I doused the mix with the dark beer and scraped the pan bottom vigorously while inhaling all that nice hops aroma. After a couple of minutes, I turned down the heat all the way, put a lid on the pot leaving a very small gap on one side for steam to escape. I let the meat simmer in the beer for around fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Then it was time to add the large can of whole, peeled tomatoes with their juice, stir well, put the lid back on and continue to simmer the chili for another hour or so.

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While the chili burps and bubbles contentedly, one could utilize this spare hour to get the cornbread going – but only if the chili is meant for the same day. Cornbread is such a lusciously sweet and crumbly kind of bread that it’s most delicious when eaten still warm from the oven, slathered in soft demi-sel Charentaise butter from the local farmer’s market … nothing could be better! You’ve seen a recipe for cornbread in my April 7 post, this time around I used a straight-up 1:1 mix of white wheat flour and yellow cornmeal.

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For the dry ingredients, I combined

  • 1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • 10 grinds of a pepper mill filled with white peppercorns
  • 1 tsp Piment d’Espelette [or smoked paprika]

In a separate bowl, I beat the bejeebers out of

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 Tbs yogurt [I used sheep milk yogurt, Greek-style should be equivalently tart]
  • 6 generous Tbs creamed corn
  • 2 Tbs fluid honey
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

In yet another bowl, I beat the two egg whites with a little salt into fluffy soft peaks, which, on second thought, is a superfluous step I shall not repeat. Considering the coarse cornmeal in conjunction with the creamed corn, it’s a bit silly to try to introduce lightness into such a wet and heavy dough, don’t you agree?

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I combined the wet with the dry and folded in the fluffy, pouring the resulting farrago into a baking dish which went into a preheated oven at 200ºC/~400ºF for about 30 min, plus 10 min with the oven turned off.

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To finish the chili, I added both the coke and the well-rinsed beans and let it simmer without a lid to evaporate some liquid and to heat it through thoroughly for serving.

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This kind of chili is extremely benign, suitable for children and spiceophobic adults. It tastes even better reheated and freezes well, so it pays off to make a big batch for easy meals later. If you utilize a chili kit with a separate cayenne pepper envelope, use it sparingly, or not at all if you cook for guests with unknown Scoville scale tolerances. It’s much safer to let the diners heat up their individual portions with Harissa paste. The intensity of the cayenne powder develops through the cooking process and it is difficult to judge the resulting heat level, while the paste is a condiment that you taste immediately. Or set the table with a variety of Tabasco sauce flavors 🌶 Enjoy in good health!

 

 

 

 

 

A Gigantic Gourd

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Our friends Steve and Lorraine gave us a zucchini the other day. Their neighbor tends his potager with great dedication, growing all his vegetables organically, which they seem to appreciate since his produce grow happily to rather impressive sizes. We were presented with a 1.76 Kg or, in Imperial measurements, a three-pound fourteen-ounce zucchini. What do you do with a beast like that?

One finds zucchini or courgettes in the vegetable section of the supermarket, but biologically speaking they are fruits which belong in the Genus Cucurbita, gourds or squashes. C. pepo, our courgettes are one of the oldest known gourds. They were already cultivated 10 000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many gourds are commonly used as winter squash, like pumpkins for example, and they can be stored for months. Zucchini, however, fall into the category of summer squash. They are preferably harvested when they are still young and tender, and eaten raw or grilled.

Clearly, our zucchini fell into the winter spectrum. Quite firm, not to call it wooden, with a large core of seeds, it wasn’t at all suitable for raw consumption. I walked past it for a few days looking at it a bit sideways, to tell the truth, but one can’t very well throw out a perfectly healthy vegetable, never you mind it’s actually a fruit. Finally, I decided to make zucchini bread. I’m not sure what came over me, but it seemed to be the only way to process a kilo-and-a-half-plus of aging zucchini.

Many decades ago, when we lived in Michigan and even earlier in Texas, I used to bake bread occasionally. Those were times when it was difficult, sometimes even impossible to buy actual bread, meaning a same-day baked loaf with a crust and a flavorful center as opposed to pre-sliced, plastic-sheathed squishy things languishing on store shelves for weeks on end. Since moving to France, I haven’t baked anything other than a tarte now and then. And cornbread, I forgot about making cornbread. Anyway, that’s not bread, it’s soul food. I gladly leave the creation of true bread to professionals.

On the internet, I found a well-liked recipe, possibly one of Elise Bauer’s “Simply Recipes”, and adapted it according to the content of our pantry. The dry ingredients evolved into:

  • 2 cups/450 g white wheat flour
  • 110 g coarsely ground blanched & skinned almonds*
  • 120 g cornmeal
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 1 heaped tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • a good lick of freshly grated nutmeg

[* I had processed the almonds a few weeks ago for a different recipe and it was high time for the leftovers to disappear. Ditto for the cornmeal. I would suggest just using 3 cups of flour]

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Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.

My next chore involved processing that unloved mega gourd.

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3 lb 14 oz of gourdness!

Without much fuss, thanks to the kitchen machine, this yielded 1 255 g or roughly 44 oz of squashy flesh.

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Lastly, again in the kitchen machine, I combined the wet ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of white sugar
  • 1/2 cup of light brown sugar
  • 3 tsp of good quality Bourbon vanilla extract
  • 1 envelop of vanilla sugar
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened apple sauce

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I beat the wet ingredients until fluffy and creamy, before folding the dry into the wet, adding some coarsely chopped walnuts along the way.

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I had no idea how much of the shredded zucchini I should use, so I gradually added three heaped cups, roughly the same amount as the dry ingredients. I should’ve stopped right there. But I didn’t. As there was a goodly amount left, I foolishly incorporated every last bit of the shredded gourd thus tilting the balance of proportion between vegetable matter, or fruit matter as it were, and dough to 2 to 1. Bad move!

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Before

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During

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After

After 60 min at 160ºC Umluft or 320ºF convection, plus 15 minutes with the oven turned off, our zucchini loafs looked quite nice with an evenly browned, crusty top.

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But the zucchini aggregation had overwhelmed the small amount of dough. Alas, as you can see, instead of bread we had sliceable pudding.

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Lesson learned: continue to cook if you must but leave the baking to people who know what they’re doing 😱

Tomato Pie

This past weekend gave us a great taste of summer with bright sunshine, cheerful birdsong and a mini-harvest of strawberries from our rather pathetic strawberry bush that lives in a flowerpot on the patio.

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Tomatoes are currently a bestseller both in the local produces markets and in the supermarket chains, and they are very well priced. When I went shopping early Saturday morning, two other items caught my eye. Firstly, and especially interesting to me because I like sheep’s milk yogurt, I noticed crème fraîche au lait de brebis, the American equivalent of which would be sour cream made from sheep’s milk. I had never noticed crème fraîche based on anything other than cow’s milk, so naturally, I had to try it. Secondly, there was an excellent special on Italian Mozzarella di Latte di Bufalo. That clinched the deal, we would have a tomato pie for our light and summery dinner!

Being lazy by nature, I used a ready-made, store-bought shortcrust pastry dough for my pie. The only slight effort I invested was a blind-bake with ceramic beads to make the pie a little crisper.

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While that was going on, I sat comfortably at the kitchen table slicing a small mountain of ripe tomatoes and letting myself be distracted by a British TV program on home renovations. The tomato slices also had a brief pre-bake in a 110ºC/225ºF oven, seasoned with a few grinds of a pepper mill, some coarse sea salt, plus ground coriander seeds, dried marjoram, a little brown sugar, and a few drops of olive oil.

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The purpose of that extra little bit of heat was simply to bring out the tomato aroma more strongly. Meanwhile, the pie assembly commenced on the kitchen counter by spreading the sheeply sour cream all over the bottom of the pre-baked pie case and sprinkling it with lemon zest, salt & pepper, ground coriander, powdered parmesan cheese, and some left-over shredded Emmental cheese. I also distributed teaspoon size dots of tomato pesto here and there. That’s a flavorful base for our Tomato Pie! After the tomato slices were placed in concentric circles, I just added the Mozarallo bits, shredded fresh basil, some yellow cherry tomato-halves, and another dusting of parmesan – we were ready to go in the oven.

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This pie would be as easy as, well, pie if you omit the pre-backing altogether. With juicy tomatoes, it will come out soggier than ours, though. Lay the dough in a pie tin, smudge sour cream and some mustard in the bottom, followed by shredded cheese(s), and salt & pepper. Slice a bunch of ripe tomatoes and put them on top of the cheese in overlapping circles. Finish with more seasoning and cheese and the pie is ready to be baked as per package instructions. That’s all there is to it and it’s very tasty on a warm evening, maybe with a glass of chilled white wine. Our dish wasn’t any more difficult, just a little more time-consuming. For once😎, I used mostly store-bought and processed ingredients, for example, the tomato & basil pesto was a commercial item and the grated parmesan cheese came in an envelop. I love freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, who doesn’t? But it’s prohibitively expensive which makes it a rare treat for special occasions. For cooking, I think, the powdered stuff is quite sufficient. I look for the best freshness date and buy the most expensive-by-weight small pouch.

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Our dinner included the Tomato Pie with a slice of cold-smoked wild Alaskan salmon from the fish counter in the supermarket, some frisée with fake crab salad from the deli counter, and a cup of yellow pepper and mango gazpacho from the cooled dairy section, where I also found the mozzarella and the sour cream. See, I told you I’m lazy! The wine, by the way, is a chilled Bordeaux Clairet. A dry yet fruity, light red wine mostly based on Merlot grapes. It is a very popular summer wine in the Bordelais region. Have a great week!

P.S. Here’s an update: In response to my Tomato Pie post tonight, my dear friend T. Michael Jackson of Traverse City, Michigan allowed me the use of his recent and completely incidental “Tomatoes in Colander” painting for my little story. Thank you so much, Mike, I love it! So much more apropos than roses!!

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“Tomatoes in Colander” by T. Michael Jackson, 2019

 

 

Fischsuppe, once again

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t cooked much lately, but when I recently received the medical advice to eat less raw vegetables in favor of the cooked variety, I went straight to the market and stocked up on root veggies, greens, and two lovely pieces of dos de cabillaud otherwise known as cod.

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After scrubbing everything, I started by separating the “good” parts of the veggies for the soup from the odds and ends to be discarded. Those I collected in a large pot of water with two cubes of Court-Bouillon heating up on the stove.

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Adding a handful of cardamom seeds and curly parsley, I let these “aromatics” simmer to extract all of their flavors while I sliced and diced the vegetables for the soup. We had, in order of cooking, potatoes, carrots, shallots, leeks, celery, and fennel.

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The dirt bits are coriander seeds

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As always, I dry-toasted crushed coriander seeds first, before adding oil in which to roast the potatoes for a good five minutes. It took about another five minutes to gently toss and turn all the other gradually added vegetables to release their flavors. Meanwhile, the bouillon was ready to be drained, so I could add it to the veggies roasting in the sauteuse.

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Put a lid on it and simmer for about ten more minutes.

When the vegetables were still al dente, I laid the fish on top of the soup, replaced the lid and simmered the concoction for another ten minutes, before checking for doneness. the fish should have just turned opaque and flake easily. I used quite thick pieces of cod that had come to room temperature to cook through more evenly. I flavored the cod with a dusting of white pepper, curcuma [turmeric], and lemon zest, plus a little sea salt. To add a twist to the simple fish soup, I made a shrimp persillade topping for the fish. In a small frying pan, I heated some butter to which I added breadcrumbs, letting them brown carefully. Next came salt, garlic paste, and finely diced curly parsley, all the while mixing the ingredients vigorously before adding tiny, pre-cooked, shelled shrimp to heat up in the persillade.

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Fresh parsley & capers add a finishing touch. Guten Appetit!

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Cornbread & Sunday Sunshine

As I record my cornbread recipe, it has become increasingly overcast and a light drizzle moistens the air. Not so earlier this morning. When I looked out an upstairs window, the day was delightfully bright, crisp, and shiny.

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April 7, 07h57

With my first cup of coffee, I processed yesterday’s cooking pictures. Going downstairs to fetch another cup, I took my camera with me for a delightful stroll among our newly sprouting green stuff. That gave me the opportunity to mingle pictures of sauteed onions with those of delicate vine leaves to make my recipe a little more adventurous.

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Saturday’s kitchen session revolved around Southwest flavors which we miss over here in France quite a bit. That is until we discovered a French online business called “My American Market” where we now order things like creamed corn and Rotel chile&tomatoes, not to mention pancake mix and, yes, Cheetos.

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The 13 ingredients for my cornbread, 14 if you count the eggs individually 🤓

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Firstly, combine the dry ingredients:

  1. 1 package Jiffy corn muffin mix
  2. 1 rounded cup cornmeal
  3. 2 tsp baking soda
  4. 1/2 tsp salt
  5. 1 rounded Tbl crushed, toasted cumin seeds
  6. 1 tsp powdered cumin seeds
  7. 1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette

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Then add the moist ingredients:

  1. 10 oz of the creamed corn
  2. 4 Tbl Rotel tomato-and-chile bits without the liquid
  3. 2 eggs, lightly beaten with 1 Tbl of Rotel liquid & some freshly ground nutmeg
  4. 2 Tbl honey
  5. 2 Tbl olive oil
  6. 1/4 cup finely shredded cheese [Comté in my case]

Blend well and pour into the baking dish of your choice. I decorated the top with the remaining creamed corn and coarsely chopped cheddar cheese.

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Using a convection oven, I baked the cornbread at 180ºC/350ºF for 10 min, lowered the temperature to 150ºC/300ºF and continued to back for another 30 min. The bread wasn’t quite done, so I added a few more minutes at 180ºC to finish the center and get a nicely browned top.

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While the bread was in the oven, the skirt steak for our fajitas needs to be marinated. Some good quality olive oil, fajita seasoning, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, dried herbs, piment d’Espelette – or whatever comes to mind or happens to be laying around your pantry.

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We brought that olive oil back from San Sebastián in January, it’s delicious.

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Looks like we might have some figs this year!

Meanwhile, it was time to slice and dice the vegetables, green and red bell peppers, yellow and red onions, and a little garlic for the fun of it.

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As usual, I sautéed my onions first by themselves at a low temperature to let them gently caramelize, before I added the peppers, garlic, and flavoring.

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When all the veggies were pretty much ready, I turned up the heat and added the juice of the zested lemon for a fruity finish. Truth be told, this kitchen version of fajitas, both the meat and the vegetables, is pretty much a lame second choice. Real fajitas should be charcoal grilled, nicely charred, and dripping with Tex-Mex flavor!!

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Our Clematis growing steadily over the pergola support.

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With a little avocado and a drizzle of Balsamico, it was pretty tasty, nevertheless.

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A lot of Color & a few Beans

Fall Colors

In just a few hours, clocks will go back to standard time here in Europe. A good time, I thought, to celebrate another seasonal change, leaf color. We don’t have majestic maples nor delicate aspen around us, just vines. Vines and assorted evergreens.

Fall Colors

So let’s immerse ourselves in some crazy vines, shall we?

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

 

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Fall Colors

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

All that color made me hungry. Let’s whip up a quick and nutritious meal. Quick, that is to say, if you remembered to soak the haricots Tarbais for a few hours in the morning. Should you have forgotten, that’s alright, too. Bring the beans to a boil and cook for about 15 minutes. Drain and start again with fresh cold water. To flavor the cooking water, I like to use a small “pot” of vegetable bouillon.

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In the background, a portion of frozen chunky tomato sauce with yellow onions that I made a while ago for future use.

 

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We still had some dried Espelette chiles laying around, two of which I boiled with the beans to soften them. I could then scrape out the meat to be mixed with salt and olive oil for a spicy condiment to enliven all sorts of tame and boring foods.

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After about an hour and a half, the beans were done. I separated them into one bucket for some other time and a nice, smallish portion for our dinner. Those I pan-fried in duck fat with a few bacon bits and a lot of Curcuma and white pepper. the Curcuma [an immune system boosting root in the ginger family, also called Turmeric] turned the beans quite yellow. Such a lovely fit with our colorful post!

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Beans, sauce, and fettuccine are ready to go, let’s eat!

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Happy Autumn, my friends!

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Coal Fish without Capers

When we moved into our new home in April, our green space, a courtyard garden between the house and the street had been maintained only in minimal fashion for some time. The previous owners had long moved to Spain and stayed in Cognac only sporadically. It fell to a neighbor and avid gardener to do the most urgent tasks whenever he could. Since he knew the garden so well, we had arranged with him to become our gardener of record. But soon after we moved in, he fell ill and outside of two brief sessions, he was never again able to continue the necessary work.

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Throughout the summer, always hoping he might be able to return, we watched the already unruly plants get completely out of hand. the vines grew over the barn shutters and invaded gutters and soffits, threatening the integrity of the tiled roofs of the barns. The poor cypresses drooped every which way with heavy loads of cones, and the mushrooming rosemary population proliferated beyond reason. It was high time to take action!

On the dot of eight on a greyish morning, a three-man crew of the “Thomas Espaces Verts” garden maintenance company arrived with their heavy equipment.

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Some of the work was quite precarious, especially at the laurel hedge along the wall to our neighbors. It had grown through the mesh cover of the pergola by several feet.

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Trying to scrape the vine tentacles off the white façade – with partial success only.

By 16 hrs, the job was nearly done and the agile monitor lizard went back on its trailer pad.

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That left only the clean-up of bits and pieces which the guys accomplished with the same professionalism they had shown all day, aided by leaf blowers and rakes, before driving off into the sunset.

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They were actually driving in an easterly direction, but that just doesn’t sound right, does it?

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Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Thomas et son équipe !

Meanwhile, in the house, some cooking was going on. Since we both like hearty soups and I am a smidgen lazy, I usually steam fish with fennel and capers as the last step of preparing a stew. For some unknown reason, this time, I decided to bread the fish and pan fry it. I don’t like breaded food, mostly owing to the unnecessary calories, but I have to admit that it can be delicious. When I was much more slender and so young that I naturally believed I would remain slender forever, I used to get a bagful of those deep-fried breading tidbits that the Long John Silver chain used to sell. Oh, those frivolous days of yonder!

The recipe I was planning to use for the breading called for the egg dip between the flour and the crumbs to incorporated crème fraîche. Talk about calories!! What most intrigued me, though, was the idea to mix the breadcrumbs with fresh dill. A great starting point for a flavorful breading, I thought.

So, what are we cooking, then? Pollock or saithe or coalfish, that’s what we’re cooking. Pollachius virens, Gadidae, called lieu noir here in France. We’re also going to have skinny green beans with red onion & garlic & ginger confit, plus some peppers & dried tomatoes for color.  And, an accidental side dish, satiny mashed potatoes.

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Here we have the potatoes which, after being started in cold water with a vegetable bouillon cube & salt, will be boiled for 20 min with a Tbl of the diced garlic.

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Dill & lemon zest will become part of the breading

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clockwise from top: nutmeg [for the potatoes], lemon zest [for the breading], marinated dried tomatoes [for the green beans]

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Breadcrumbs with salt, white pepper, powdered coriander, dried sage mixed with 2 Tbl of fresh, chopped dill and the zest of a smallish lemon.

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Before stirring 2 heaped Tbl (!) of crème fraîche in the egg, I added a little anchovy paste to enhance the overall flavor

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The breaded lieu noir should rest in the fridge for 15 min [or longer] to let the breading adhere to the fish for frying. Meanwhile, one can look after the beans and their aromatic confit.

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Our other side dish, the mashed potatoes truly were an accident. My original intent was to mash the boiled potatoes with the “stick” attachment of a hand-held mixer, a weak immersion blender, as I believe they’re called. Only, the darn thing wouldn’t work. Well, the mixer worked perfectly fine, but I couldn’t open the sliding shutter covering the stick attachment site. The stubborn plastic thingy plain refused to slide further than halfway. Neither could I find the mixer manual in the drawer specifically designated to hold the manuals of all our large and small appliances. All of them, except the Bosch hand mixer, apparently. Lengthy search-and-rescue missions for operating instructions while hot potatoes wait for action, any action, and another dish awaits stirring, isn’t such a hot idea. So I tossed the mixer back in the cupboard in disgust and poured the potato pieces with a little cooking liquid including the garlic bits, the nutmeg, a dollop of cream & butter, and some crème fraîche in the blender, where it turned into this incredibly smooth and silky potato cream. Sort of like soft serve ice cream, only hot and potatoey.

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At least, nobody can say it’s monochromatic 😇