A Day in our Lives of Self-Isolation

I was tempted to call this post “A Day in the Life of Iwan Denissowitsches French Sister”, but reconsidered quickly because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to either the millions murdered in the Gulags nor Alexander Solschenizyn. It would’ve been catchy, though.

We have been in self-isolation in our house and small garden since the middle of last week. It was a rapidly evolving decision to shutter ourselves in after I came back from my last physical therapy session à la méthode McKenzie. I had worn gloves to open the doors to my therapist’s building and office, and I used my coat sleeve to open the door to his WC before leaving and I didn’t get close to any of the other patients. Was that enough? I didn’t see my therapist using hand sanitizer, but then, he didn’t actually touch me. He just demonstrated the exercises I was to execute on an upholstered treatment bench covered with a disposable sheet. I then repeated those movements on that very same sheet. Had he changed it after the patient ahead of me? Didn’t it look kind of crumbled? How easy it is to drive yourself nuts!

I washed those gloves as soon as I got home. They are made of beautifully stitched light grey suede and they are quite special to me. My grandmother used to use them for her daily morning exercise on her horse Jassa, roughly 50 years ago when she was the same age as I am now – my grandmother, not Jassa. When I started university, I lived at my grandma’s for the first two semesters. Gradually we developed certain routines in our communal lives. For example, before driving to the stables, she would make a Müsli for her breakfast. It consisted of some diced apple and banana, lemon juice, oat flakes, raisins, hazelnuts, and cream. She would leave a small bowl of Müsli for me on the kitchen counter so I wouldn’t go to classes on an empty stomach. This was also where she would dry her gloves after washing them in the utility sink in the far corner of the kitchen. Washing one’s suede gloves simply mean washing one’s hands in the Age of Corona, while wearing gloves. You diligently soap each finger, the in-between-the-fingers spaces, palms, thumbs, and the back of your hands. Rinse. Repeat. Then dry your gloved hands with a towel to soak up excess moisture and remove the still wet gloves. Take the handle of an old-fashioned wooden cooking spoon, inserting it into all the fingers, one by one, to separate the layers of leather. Finally, dry the gloves dangling from those cooking utensils. Since my grandmother went riding most mornings, there were usually gloves suspended over assorted crocks on the old, wooden draining board in her kitchen, right where she left the Müsli for me.

In order to restock the fridge and pantry after our first full week of seclusion, we had to go shopping. Currently, that is a potentially life-threatening activity for us old folks, but deliveries aren’t part of our lives here in the smalltown hinterlands of provincial France. One of the supermarket chains in Cognac called Auchan offers the next best thing, drive-through shopping. One orders online and picks up the order outside the store. Lately, this has been advertised as No-Touch-Drive-Through where you pull in and open your trunk, they load the purchases into your trunk and you drive off into the sunset.

I set down at the computer in the morning around 9hrs30 in my pajamas to work my way through the virtual Auchan shopping aisles. Three hours later, I was still in my PJs and ready to jump out the window. Owing to the extremely high internet traffic, the website was operating at a snail’s pace, switching again and again to a “we’re doing maintenance and will be back in a few minutes” page randomly alternating with “Oops, page not found” instead of loading the requested pages. Such fun! Some food choices were limited, but basic kinds of pasta and rice were available, and even toilet paper. Since my shopping basket tally reverted to zero several times during this lengthy ordering process, I checked out well before ordering every item on my long list. I just didn’t want to push my luck. My allotted pick-up time was roughly 24 hours later.

En los tiempos del coléra* one has to carefully consider how to emerge into the outside world. Firstly, one has to print and sign the government form in which one pledges on one’s personal honor that this trip to the grocery store is unavoidable. Then the customer and order numbers have to be verified in the Auchan app on one’s phone. Shopping bags have to be loaded, plus an insulated bag for frozen items. The person venturing out has to be outfitted with washable outer clothing, a gaiter** in place of a mask, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and courage.

Although I encountered a checkpoint along the way, the Gendarmes waved me through without demanding my paperwork. I suppose a grey-haired old lady in a batterie-powered mini-car posses little thread to the community! The pick-up @AuchanDrive worked very well and was so efficient that I backed into our garage with my load of groceries in no time flat. That’s when the real work began. Since any number of people had touched the groceries and our bags, and we now know that the virus lives happily up to five days on assorted surfaces, everything had to be wiped down with alcohol and then repackaged if at all possible. After that chore, the shopping bags were sanitized as well, and the car door handles, the steering wheel, stick shift, not to forget the little button with which I fold in the side mirrors so that the car fits through the narrow garage door, and the car keys, naturally, everything had to be wiped down, including the table in the utility room were all our groceries had awaited their individual bath. That done, gloves disposed of, I stripped and loaded the washing machine with my potentially contaminated clothing. Next came personal sanitation. Throat gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash which isn’t actually anti-viral, but tastes so bad that it must be a corona killer, how could it not be? I also washed my glasses in hot soapy water followed by a long, hot shower for myself.

I may be paranoid, but the CoVid-19 illness scares me deeply, both for myself and my husband. In Italy, healthcare personnel and facilities have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of seriously ill patients. Protective clothing for nurses and doctors is no longer available in many places so that health care personnel can’t properly care for patients, instead, they succumb to the virus themselves. In Italy, ER doctors are forced to make a dire choice, a life-or-death choice. Who will get the ventilator, who will suffocate in panicked agony in some hospital corridor, alone, utterly alone? To be swiftly and unceremoniously cremated, although, even some crematoria have now reached their operational capacity.

I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I grew up engaged in discussions of medical and scientific issues. And I spent the majority of my working life as a cellular biologist in three different medical schools. Therefore infectious diseases are neither new nor scary for me. What is scary is the speed with which this new viral fellow spreads its wings among the global population. What is truly scary is the administrative molasses through which our alleged leaders are dragging their feet instead of showing a proactive initiative. China originally denied the existence of a new coronavirus, but anyone paying attention knew by the end of December that something awful was brewing. Yet, for the two following months, there was very little, if any, thought given to preparing for a possible pandemic. Plants could have been retooled to manufacture ventilators and face masks, for example, triage centers could’ve been created, negative-airflow ICU cubicles could have been built, but no, instead, it was called a hoax and scaremongering. I don’t know how many times I responded to Facebook comments which pointed out that tuberculosis is worse, seasonal flu is worse, that there are just a few old people dying. Well, thank you very much, this old woman isn’t quite ready to die yet! And the shame of seeing young adults frolicking on beaches because “this is my time”, “this is spring break”, and “I don’t care what you think” is plain unbearable in light of the thousands that have already died. Where are the parents of these bozos? Why don’t they cut off tuition for cushy student lives and instead let their offspring work as delivery drivers to supply nursing homes with much-needed supplies?

But most of all, I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I watched helplessly when my sister-in-law Felecia slowly suffocated during the endstage of lung cancer. I’ve seen the panic in her eyes when she couldn’t get the oxygen her brain needed to keep the encroaching madness in check. I remember how she fought us with furious strength to run away from her hospital bed in a desperate quest to find that oxygen that her lungs could no longer process.

I hope to never again have to see that panic in the eyes of someone I love.

*Gabriel García Márquez, paraphrased, original title: El amor en los tiempos del cólera, 1985 or Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988  

**In the frozen North of America a gaiter is not so much protective footwear than a kind of endless scarf protecting one’s neck and lower face against icy winds.                

Happy Fish with a little Frost

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You have to admit, these codpieces -allow me to rephrase- these pieces of cod do look happy! They are about to be steamed in a deep pot filled with vegetables cooked in broth.

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The night before, I soaked some Tarbais beans and cooked them while the rest of the vegetables received a good wash and dice-and-slice.

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In addition to the beans, there were three more newcomers enhancing my latest version of fish soup, yellow pepper for crunch, algae for ocean saltiness, and freshly grated ginger for punch.

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Soon, the ingredients were sorted, ready to go in the pot.

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As always, my soup began with the dry toasting of crushed coriander seeds, before heating olive oil to receive the first batch of veggies, followed by ginger and lemon zest. Once that was heated through nicely, it was time to add all the remaining, softer vegetables like fennel, yellow pepper, and parsley, all submerged in Court-Bouillon.

The beans joined the party just ahead of the algae which formed a soft bed for the cod. With the lid firmly closed to steam the happy fish, it will be ready to jump onto your plate in about 15 min.

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A glass of peppery Côtes de Gascogne Colombard-Ugni Blanc is a perfect match for this aromatic soup, possibly to be followed by some home-grown sweet and juicy grapes with your cheese course?

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After dinner, your partner, like mine, might read a Robert Frost poem to you as you relax in the salon. Such a lovely closing of summertime in Cognac, France – although it did put Monty the Fox to sleep.

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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 Canicule and a Can of Fish

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16. Juni 2019, 21:25:29

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17. Juni 2019, 21:59:24

Over in my other blog, you know which one I mean, I’ve recently finished posting about our Loire Valley trip. Castles galore, of course, and some wine and food, scenery, and all those precious memories of adventurous times on the road. But you know, one’s home turf can be beautiful, too! Summer has arrived and with it a changing landscape in our small but lush courtyard garden.

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We’re still in the throes of our bathroom renovation which generates daily mayhem in the form of high pitched sounds from power tools setting nerve endings on edge and powdered sticky stuff seeping through cracks and crevices. From the front door through the entry and up the stairs, bubble-wrap-like plastic protects delicate ancient tiles and old oak steps, while thin plastic sheets billow over doorways, but the dust settles everywhere, protection or not. Our house has currently the air of a chantier, a work site requiring hard hats, it seems. To top off all that fun, the main sewer pipe got plugged up by ingrown roots and we had to call the Roto-Rooter pros with their heavy-duty equipment, cash or check, please. Naturally, all this is happening as we go through the hottest week of the year. A quiet cup of early morning coffee in a shady spot under the pergola is much appreciated indeed!

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The jasmine shading the pergola is in full bloom, releasing a lovely scent.

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I love to prepare pies with ready-made dough from the grocery store in the summer. Last week I had a solitary sweet potato lying around, so I made a pie layered with very thinly sliced sweet potato, pre-sliced Emmental that needed to disappear, spinach – first wilted in a large pan with softened diced onion and a dusting of fresh nutmeg – and tomatoes. Light, easy, and tasty with a green salad, just right for warmer temperatures.

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Yesterday’s Tarte au Thon à Canicule, my Heatwave-Tuna-Pie was even easier.

The ingredients were:

  • 280g net or ~10 oz of tuna packed in water, drained
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp each garlic paste, anchovy paste, harissa paste
  • 1/2 Tsp crushed, dried marjoram
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

mix the above vigorously, cover with saran wrap and refrigerate while you pre-bake the dough, if you wish, and slice the tomatoes in thick slices. Once the dough is ready, toss the cooled tuna mix with 2 Tbl of fresh lemon juice and spread sour cream and sweet mustard generously over the pie bottom. Spread the tuna mix evenly across the pie round and cover it with densely packed tomato slices. I sprinkled some parmigiano bits on it simply because I had them, but cheese is really not necessary for this pie – lots of tomatoes are! Drizzle the pie with olive oil before baking.

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Bake the Tarte au Thon à Canicule for 45 min. at 200º/180ºC convection [400º/360ºF convection] for ~45 min. Before slicing, let it rest for 10 minutes or so. As a matter of fact, if you’re not too hungry, slide the pie on a rack to cool down without getting soggy, while you clean and slice a crunchy garden cucumber and maybe some radishes. Especially on a hot day, this pie tastes even better at room temperature.

And don’t forget to close the shutters against the heat!

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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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