Saturday, 28 May 2011

Marmalade that's Worth the Weight

At check in for a flight back to Canada last week, I almost hit the 23kg weight limit for one of my suitcases.

There were the dreaded numbers in glowing red on the luggage scale:  22.4kg.  Phew. That was close.  No way I was leaving that suitcase behind.  It was filled with precious cargo:  thirty jars of marmalade, each made from fruit that I grew and picked, and made myself. 

Dear, sweet Hubby looked at me with something between bemused exasperation and kind indulgence.  For him this was another in a long line of my culinary shenanigans like the time I brought back a whole watermelon and a bag of mangoes from Thailand.  Honestly, I’d rather spend my baggage allowance on interesting foodie finds than clothes.

Hubby helps with the orange amer (bitter orange) harvest
I was never a fan of marmalade until we bought our seaside shack in the Menton eleven years ago.  Behind our house were two mature orange amer or bitter orange trees, looking quite neglected and over grown but nonetheless completely covered in big, bumpy, dark orange fruit.  

Of all our many fruit trees, the bitter orange are the first to ripen and the big, bright fruit remains on the trees for many months.  Most villages in the south of  France take advantage of their robust nature and line their streets with them in part because the oranges hanging on the trees make the streets look cheery throughout fall and winter.

In March, city crews using ladders and compact mechanized fruit pickers collect the oranges to reduce the risk of them falling and bonking passers-by on the head. Presumably they go into the trash.  Pity.

I didn’t give a second thought to those four bitter orange trees in our garden until one spring I thought I’d try my hand at making some marmalade and I’ve been making it ever since.  
Lemons from the middle terrace
Kumquats from the East terrace
Every year the mix of fruit is a bit different, depending on what is in abundance in the garden.  Many years ago our magnificent lemon tree was suffering from a disease necessitating a radical pruning that left us lemonless for two years.  Thankfully it's fully recovered and once again producing beautiful luscious lemons.  

This was a banner year for citrus in our garden:  lemons, kumquats, blood oranges, and bitter oranges all made it into the preserving pan. 

I give jars of marmalade to all my friends and sell the remainder at my bake table at the annual Great Glebe Garage Sale in Ottawa at the end of May to raise money for one of our favourite charities, the Nepal Youth Foundation.

Perhaps bringing almost 23kg of home-made marmalade to Canada is, in fact, a shenanigan, but I think this year's marmalade is one of the best ever and it was well worth filling that suitcase and sharing it with others.

If you scored a jar this year, lucky you!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

A Delicious Surprise in the Garden

Whenever I return to our house in France after being away for a while, I drop my bags and shoot into the garden to see what's up. 

Spring is my favourite season here because it brings dreamy anticipation of what's to come.  Orange trees in bloom means jars of marmalade.  My lime tree laden with tiny limes means gin and tonic on the terrace with friends.  Olive trees covered with little white olive blossoms bring October's harvest party and fruity emerald oil for salads.  Little Fraises des Bois in the strawberry patch means, huh?  I don't remember seeing strawberries in our garden before.  Where did these come from?

It could only be one thing.  Once upon a time we had a bumbling gardener but we fired him since he was always killing as many things as he was planting.  He must have planted put them there years ago and with all the rain we've been having in the south of France lately, the patch must have taken hold, a legacy to his fickle and dubious abilities.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Fraises des Bois.  When I was a little girl I remember foraging with my grandmother and although I didn't appreciate her quirky passion at the time I do remember how much I liked finding the little wild strawberries and being scolded for eating them as I found them instead of collecting them.  Their intense fragrance and slightly sour taste was irresistible.

I'm in good company.  Loius XIV of France was also very fond of strawberries.  His gardener,  La Quintinie,  grew them in the greenhouses in Versailles when he was appointed Steward of the Fruit Gardens in 1673.  He did such a good job he was later appointed Director of Fruit and Vegetable Gardens in all royal residences.  Quite the honour.  

Further poking around in the garden inspired me to collect some lavender and I created this recipe to celebrate all the little surprises that spring brings.

 Fraises des Bois in Meringue Nests 
with Lavender Cream

Serves 6
Preheat oven to 95˚C/200˚F

Hand held beaters or stand mixer
Baking sheet lined with parchment.
Two large serving spoons

2 pints (500g) Fraises des bois 

Meringue Nests
2 large (60g) egg whites
¼  cup (55g) superfine sugar
½ cup (55g) powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream Filling
1 cup (250g) whipping cream
2 tablespoons (10g) powdered sugar
5 fresh lavender sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried flowers or chopped fresh flowers

Prepare the Strawberries
Quickly dip the strawberries in water, drain, and set aside on paper towels to dry

Prepare the lavender cream
Heat the cream until steam rises from it.  Just before it’s about to boil, pour it into a bowl and stir in the lavender, the 2 tablespoons (10g) of powdered sugar and the vanilla.  Cover and refrigerate until cold.

Prepare the Meringue

Beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment on medium until foamy.
Add the cream of tartar and continue beating while sprinkling in about 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar.  Continue to beat until soft peaks form.  Increase the speed to high and gradually sprinkle in the remaining sugar.  Keep beating until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Sift the powdered sugar over the mixture and fold it in by hand with a spatula until it’s fully incorporated and the mixture is smooth.  You must use this mixture at once.

Use Large Spoons for Quenelles
Form the Nests
To form the nests, gently drop large spoonfuls of the meringue onto the parchment lined baking sheet to make 6 - 8 nests.  You can be creative and make any shape you want as long as there is an indentation to hold the cream.  I made quenelles for this recipe because they look pretty.  If you'd like to make the same shape, rather than take up the page telling you how to make quenelles, here is a practical YouTube video that  demonstrates the technique.   How to Make Quenelles

After you've dropped the nests onto the parchment, you'll need to make an indentation for the cream.  Rinse the spoon and shake the water off of it. It should still be wet.  Push the spoon gently down lengthwise into the top of the nest.  Pull it away while still pushing gently into the meringue.  Lift the spoon up and away at the end of the nest.  Rinse the spoon after  making each indentation and repeat with the remaining nests. Try to work quickly because if the nests become too dry they will crack when you make the indentations.


Bake the Meringues 
Bake the meringues for 1 hour at 200˚F (95˚C).  After 1 hour, turn the oven off and let them stay there to dry out further until you are ready to make the dessert.  The meringues can be left in the oven overnight.

Assembly and Finishing 
Remove the nests from the parchment and set them on individual serving plates.  Be sure they have cooled completely.

Pour the cream through a fine sieve into a mixing bowl to remove the lavender.  Whip the cream on high until medium peaks form.  Spoon a generous portion of cream into each of the nests and top with strawberries.

You can decorate the plate with little edible spring flowers or sprigs of lavender, whatever you can find to make the plate pretty.
Serve immediately.

If you can't find Fraises des Bois, you can substitute something fresh that you may find in your garden or the market.  Blueberries, raspberries, sliced peaches or nectarines are all lovely alternatives.

Traditional French Chantilly or whipped cream, has 10% powdered sugar by weight.  I reduced this to less than half because the meringues themselves are quite sweet.

Be careful not to use too much lavender to flavour the cream.  The lavender is meant to be very subtle.  To much lavender and your cream will become bitter and taste like perfume!

Monday, 9 May 2011

A Rice Ball Cooker. A Fun Find from a French Flea Market

Nothing like the lure of a good flea market to coax me out of bed early on a Sunday morning especially when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.

I've always been a fan of garage sales and flea markets especially those in France where I always find something new and interesting.  

French junk is different from Canadian junk for sure. 

Today's Vide Grenier was in Cap d'Ail, a small village within walking distance of Monaco.  As with many of the local Vide Grenier, this one was sponsored by the local Lion's Club and there were hundreds of vendors and thousands of bargain hunters all looking to get rid of junk or scoop up deals.

I'm always on the lookout for silver serving pieces, tableware, and interesting kitchen items and today I scored a triple play:  a pretty antique cake plate with flowers and gold trim, a vintage wooden ravioli cutter, and most interesting of all, 2 rice ball cookers. Grand total: 14. The man who sold me the rice ball cookers generously took the time to give me instructions on how to use them and of course, provided a recipe.

The minute I got home I ran to the kitchen and cooked up some rice.

Taking the vendor's advice I filled half of the ball with rice and submerged it in boiling water.  After 10 minutes of cooking and 5 minutes of resting, I cracked it open to find perfectly cooked rice.

I couldn't find much information about rice ball cookers and how to use them except for a little ad from the December 1934 edition of Good Housekeeping Magazine.  For a mere 35¢ you could get a rice ball and a recipe book. With inflation factored in I think I got a pretty good deal! 

If you'd like to learn more about garage sales, flea and antiques markets in France, follow this link to my other blog, The Auntie Times, Used Stuff in France Three Ways.