A fig for your thoughts

RECIPE:   ROASTED WHOLE FIG TARTELETTES

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When I was a kid, I hated eating fruits. Juices were sometimes okay, but eating a whole apple? Gross. It felt too strange in my mouth, both crunchy and soft, firm yet juicy. Not to mention its overpowering tangy taste… it was too confusing for a kid used to a modern diet of spaghetti and meatballs, Doritos, and the Brazilian staple of steak with arroz e feijão. Every Rosh Hashanah I was tortured to eat apples with honey for a sweet New Year. And it was not only apples that scared me but all kinds of fruits. Some were surprisingly soft and mushy inside and had all kinds of seeds and deadly pits hidden in the center. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that by the time I would grow up this would have to change. It would be too ridiculous to refuse a tangerine at the ripe old age of twenty on the grounds that I felt “icky” about eating fruit. And probably like a lot of other children, I started getting used to fruits by consuming them when they were almost unrecognizable: transformed appearance, engineered consistency and/or taste, loaded with sugar (e.g. fruits roll-ups, gushers… you get the idea).

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The other night, we went to one of our favorite restaurants in the area, La Coulemelle, a great bistrot-style place in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid (which would literally translate to Saint-Beanie-the-Cold — probably one of the best village names I ever heard). They had just entirely changed the menu and when dessert time came, I couldn’t help but feeling a little disappointed at first. They only had desserts with fruits in them. No chocolate. No caramel. No nuts. Just lemon, fig, and peach. There it was; my childhood reluctancy to eat fruits was still lingering in my grown-up body.
Adélaïde managed to convince me to order the figues rôties. As the waiter brought my plate, it struck me to see that the figs were not distorted like in most desserts. I was wriggling in my chair. They were whole, beautiful and a little intimidating but as I started eating spoonfuls of them, I realized I love figs just as they are. Because you could really feel the taste of figs exploding at every bite. It was like I could suddenly swallow all the fruits in the universe and enjoy it. It was actually so good we went to see the chef and asked for the recipe. Luckily, Michel was kind enough to share it with us: dribble honey, butter, Maury wine (from Roussillon), and salt on the figs and put them in the oven for 5 minutes. Disarmingly simple. A couple of days later, we made a tartelette version of this dessert de la maturité.

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Aromatic fruits like figs and pomegranates remind me of the Mediterranean sea and the lands of my great-grandparents, Izmir and Rhodes. In the book I’m reading at the moment, Belle du Seigneur, by Albert Cohen, the main character, Solal, is a League of Nations officer who also comes from that region, from the island of Cephalonia. And he uses precisely this imagery of oriental flora and Mediterranean paradise to ravish Ariane, the woman he wants to seduce:

What kinds of trees were there in Cephalonia, asked this daughter of wealth, this consumer of nature’s beauties. With a faraway look in his eye he reeled off the names of the trees he had so often recited to others, ran through the list of them: cypress-trees, orange-trees, lemon-trees, olive-trees, pomegranate-trees, citron-trees, myrtle-trees, mastic-trees. Reaching the limit of his knowledge, he went on inventing lemonella-trees, tuba-trees, circass-trees, prune-trees and even puple-trees. Wonderingly she inhaled the vanilla-sweet fragrance of his miraculous forest.

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Roasted whole fig tartelettes | Serves 4


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Pretty in pink

RECIPES:   PAN-SEARED PINK TROUT   |   PROVENÇAL SAUCE VIERGE

Pan-seared pink trout | Infinite bellyThe Auvergne Lignon river | Infinite belly

Ten minutes away from our house, there is an old stone bridge that passes over a river. Once in a while, just after crossing it, we would spot a car with its nose in the forest at the beginning of a trail. An aura of mystery always surrounds these cars parked in unexpected locations. What are these people up to? Who knows, maybe this is a famed mushroom picking spot the locals stubbornly refuse to give away? Or perhaps they are innocent picnickers? Eventually we venture in through a tunnel of mossy stones and silver cobwebs on the left, and a quasi-precipice on the right, taking a zigzagging path down to the water.

The Auvergne Lignon river | Infinite bellyFern | Infinite belly

A lone figure perched on a rock surrounded by the gently foaming current holds out a fishing rod. Behind him the bridge arches over the water, revealing a stone house with smoke slowly billowing out of a chimney. It turns out we live in a fisherman’s paradise. The river that passes by our house is not just any river but the Lignon, a hot-spot for wild Fario trout. A friend who owns a restaurant here (more on that to come) told me he once met a Japanese fishing enthusiast who had come to our region in search of the famed fish, with its delicate flesh and mouthwatering taste. He even took years of French classes for the sole purpose of this trip!

Adelaide at the Lignon | Infinite belly

Verre à pied

I myself haven’t fished in years, the last time being while living in northeastern Brazil. I tried fly fishing in Bahia with a local friend who didn’t know exactly what he was doing, and neither did I, so we ended up catching no fish. But we had beer. Two fishermen in a small boat drifted by us. The sun was bright and the boats swayed, revealing heaps and heaps of shrimp under green nets. We exchanged beer cans for a bucket of shrimp, which was more than enough to make a sumptuous moqueca, a typical Bahian seafood stew, cooked with locally-produced palm oil. That was the saving grace of my one and only fishing experience. Maybe I’ll stop by that old-fashioned fishing shop displaying rods and reels in the town-center of Yssingeaux later this week…

Provençal sauce vierge | Infinite belly

Brocante vintage store | Infinite belly

Spider web & vintage wheel | Infinite belly

The hills are steep, descending a ravine going away from the bridge, looking over a green, gaping mouth crowned with stones — some shaped by the water and others by man. It is always cooler down by the river where the water meets air. We observe patterns of foam covering pools of still water — parallel half circles, vectors in all directions, amorphous blobs dotting the tableau — creating an effect akin to a Van Gogh night sky or beard. A hummingbird whizzes by close to the water, dipping its beak for a split second and disappearing in the distance. The morning cold is gone and the midday warmth makes me crave tomatoes. We make a Provençal sauce vierge, using ripe tomatoes from the end of the summer with lots of Portuguese olive oil, garlic, basil and parsley.

The Auvergne Lignon river | Infinite belly

As we prepared the trout (alas, market-bought), we found ourselves humming Pretty in Pink, by The National — probably a result of free association with the pale pink flesh of our trout fillets. And with Pretty in Pink in my head, so many other images follow. Music often marks a period of one’s life, and for me The National is the beginning of living with Adélaïde in Paris, a set table on a weekday morning for butter and honey tartines and breakfast tea, long Sunday afternoons listening to French public radio, cooking and reading…

Adelaide at the Lignon river | Infinite belly

Provençal tomato sauce vierge | Infinite belly

Couverts trois vertical


Pan-seared pink trout & Provençal sauve vierge | Serves 2


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Worn-out tin plates, by the bunch

RECIPES:   SPICY AVOCADO TARTINES   |   SPICY MISO VINAIGRETTE   |   TABASCO DRESSING

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Last Saturday, Adélaïde and I went to the local Salvation Army store by Le Puy-en-Velay. We got there ten minutes before opening and there was already a crowd building up outside. You really see all kinds of people gathered there – retirees from the region, the Français de souche, but also families of recent immigrants; we hear a range of languages from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It’s fascinating because that’s the kind of diversity one imagines only in big cities, yet here we are in a mainly rural region.

Everyone is busy digging for treasures to be found in this giant warehouse. Strolling through the aisles you see all kinds of rustic vintage kitchenware, furniture, electronics, you name it: postwar modernist kitchens, wooden bed frames, skinny Peugeot bicycles, a Karajan record next to a Julio Iglesias record next to a 80s French pop hits record… You can be sure we never leave empty-handed.

Vintage farm table - Infinite belly

Spicy miso vinaigrette & avocado - Infinite belly

This time we found a set of tin plates straight out of a 1950’s work site, when the workers would bring their own gamelles or lunchboxes. They are super light, resistant to heat, and come in all shapes and sizes. Perfect for that quick, no frills improvised meal. You can easily picture this at a construction site fifty years ago, full of brawny mustachioed workers, maybe Portuguese and Italian immigrants along with local Frenchmen, holding it with one hand and serving themselves with the other. They are full of little bumps, scratch marks and uneven surfaces that give them a distinct charm. Somehow they gain a new type of accidental beauty that was unconceivable when they were originally made, just to be simple and durable.

Vintage tin plates - Infinite belly

Vintage tin plates - Infinite belly

These are the plates we used to serve our avocado tartines with a couple of spicy (but very different) sauces. The miso really sizzles at the tip of your tongue and slowly takes over your palate with a tangy umami aftertaste, while the Tabasco punches in right away with full fiery flavor, and somehow you can’t help but want more. The spicy miso, or karamiso, comes from a Japanese goods store in Lyon called Satsuki. A few months ago, we were so obsessed with cooking Japanese food that we would sometimes drive all the way to Lyon and back (over 3 hours return) to urgently restock on supplies.

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Spicy Tabasco dressing & avocado - Infinite belly

Frise


Spicy avocado tartines, two ways | Serves 2


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Black forest of dreams

RECIPE:   BLACK FOREST CAKE

Black forest cake | Infinite belly

Auvergne is wild. Night creatures scuttle from the edge of the woods across the road as we drive at 5am to a nearby forest for mushroom foraging. Hedgehogs, snakes and cats make occasional appearances. The cows are still asleep on the fields. The sky is slowly shifting, lifting its dark mantle of night to reveal pockets of orange and pink. I try hard to keep my eyes on the road.

Auvergne black forest | Infinite belly

The morning radio talk show interviews a fashionable French actor. I turn the sound off and lower the windows as it gets warmer and the day begins. Looking up, hawks circle over a field, ready to swoop down on unsuspecting mice. Walking in the woods, we spot a fox in the distance, silently slipping away. The air is damp and fresh. Still, no mushrooms. Even with all of this wild life, I’ve never felt in danger while wandering deep in the forest (as long as I have some good rubber boots on).

Adelaide in the forest | Infinite belly

Rubber boots in a stream | Infinite belly
Depending on the place in which we live or grow up, we have different relationships to the forest. In Brazil, I used to go on road trips to the beach with my family via the Serra do Mar, a mountain range covered in lush Atlantic forest (the most biodiverse in the world). I would stare out of my window as we passed by this majestic, seemingly impenetrable jungle, where the vegetation was so thick you could barely see past the edge of the road. During long traffic jams at night, I would imagine all kinds of beasts roaming about this mysterious place (lions, tigers, and bears!), and shudder at the thought of finding myself alone and struggling to survive. Nature could feel like a dangerous place, an “unfinished, pre-historic world” where one could perish if not prepared.

So many books and movies I love have illustrated this more eloquently. I think especially of Werner Herzog’s films and travels in the Amazon, narrated in Les Blank’s movie Burden of Dreams. In the jungle, “even the stars are a mess”, we get overwhelmed and disoriented from our cardinal points; we end up embarking on a wild quest to pull a boat over a mountain as in Fitzcarraldo, or go mad like Claus Kinsky with the monkeys in Aguirre. Wandering in the woods here, on the other hand, makes me think of the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault tales; nature feels like it’s both gentle and mysterious.

Magical Auvergne forest | Infinite belly

Heart shape in the forest | Infinite belly

Cloves in the forest | Infinite belly

The nice thing about mushroom foraging – in other words, staring at the ground for hours – is that even if you don’t find any, it forces you to look at the micro-forest – the tiny things that form the surface of the ground, like drops of dew on fallen branches, snails of all sizes, iridescent copper beetles, a winding staircase of tiny mushrooms on a tree trunk, the variety of colors and textures in each and every square inch.

Auvergne micro-forest | Infinite belly

Cloves & mushrooms | Infinite belly

Colorful beetle | Infinite belly

Time goes by in a different way, and before you know it, it’s 11am and we head back home to cook lunch. With a bucket of wild berries just picked, tomorrow’s breakfast is ready, along with some fresh faisselle cheese from the market. Our clothes smell like pine and my whole body feels like it’s been exercising even though I was never short of breath. The day has just started.

Adelaide picking berries | Infinite belly

Auvergne forest | Infinite belly

Basket in a forest | Infinite belly

Ruban

Black forest cake chocolate decoration | Infinite belly


Timeless black forest cake | Serves 6-8


Continue reading “Black forest of dreams”

Flowers will be pies

RECIPE:   FRENCH APPLE PIE

French apple pie | Infinite belly

When Adélaïde started her pastry classes, the first thing she was taught was how to make a good pie crust. A beautiful golden color, crunchy at first, then crumbling in your mouth, enhancing and magnifying the fruits without sticking to the palate. The crust is the pie’s soul. If you want to make a good pie, make your own crust. It doesn’t take much time and is infinitely more rewarding than the ready-made ones. All you have to remember is that you need to progressively incorporate the butter into the flour and the other dry ingredients (almond powder, powdered sugar and salt) before adding the egg. In French, this is called sablage: the flour and the butter have to turn into sand and darken into a rich yellow shade.Perfect pie crust | Infinite belly

It’s been apple season here these past weeks and one of the fruit trees in our garden has been getting heavier and heavier under the weight of dozens of green and reddish sweet globes. We had to relieve it of its embarrassing offspring. So we decided to bake a traditional apple tart, French style. Any pastry shop here sells these. It started out as a misty morning but eventually, as we were ready to fill up our basket, the sky had cleared up, brightening the garden and its century-old stone walls.

Basket in our garden | Infinite belly

Apple tree in our garden | Infinite belly

Not so long ago in the spring, we used to watch our cats climb up this tree as we picked some of its branches to make beautiful bouquets. Adélaïde once told me she couldn’t help but feel a little sad for those flowers that would never become apples. Now as we eat this apple pie, it reminds me of the fact that it is a little bit like biting into a bunch of flowers.

Apple-tree flower bouquet | Infinite belly

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French apple pie | Serves 6


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Big volcanoes, tiny pulses

RECIPE:   SLOW-COOKED LE PUY GREEN LENTILS, SAUSAGE & BACON

Le Puy green lentils with Auvergne sausage & bacon | Infinite belly

My first google search of Auvergne generated hundreds of green images: sprawling, grassy fields climbing oddly shaped hills I later found out were extinct volcanoes; Le Puy-en-Velay, a village with a Roman cathedral and a statue of the Virgin towering on top of a sugarloaf mountain, or “suc” as they call it here, reminding me of a long lost medieval ancestor of Rio de Janeiro, sleeping in the foggy mountains of central France. With its important concentration of volcanoes, Auvergne is one of the places that gave birth to the continent of Europe. Millions of years of eruptions and convulsions formed this land. That’s why I see Auvergne as a place of beginnings, origins, where an epic story of a continent – and later a civilization – began.

Le Puy-en-Velay (puy is an old Provençal word, today referring to a volcanic hill) happens to be one of the starting points in the Camino de Santiago. Every summer, pilgrims flock to this town to begin epic foot journeys towards Spain. Many punctuate their journey with a hearty lentil meal. Lentils are an integral part of the Velay’s terroir. The oldest recorded lentil cultivation in the region dates to 1643, when they were known as lanthiles, but their history probably goes back to much earlier in the Roman era. Today, the “Le Puy green lentils” are an A.O.P. (Appellation d’Origine Protégée / Protected Designation of Origin), meaning they are considered cultural property of the region, and must go through a strict certification process in order to be labeled “Le Puy green lentils”. Just as Champagne has to come from the Champagne region, Bordeaux wine from the Bordeaux region, Le Puy green lentils only come from Le Puy.
Old stone houses in Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, France | Infinite belly

André & Adélaïde in Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, France | Infinite belly
Credits: Jean-Philippe Doho

Old door in Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, France | Infinite belly

Lentils are an edible pulse, a legume rich in fiber, protein and iron. Once known as “the poor man’s caviar”, they are today the pride of Auvergne and lentilles vertes au petit salé, (lentils with sausage) is this region’s signature dish. We find it a great example of slow cooking and slow eating. Tasty and healthy, it perpetuates a certain kind of tradition, in which a dish is shared by many and made in large quantities so that it lasts several days and feeds several mouths. Like the gratin dauphinois (potato gratin), this course only gets better as you reheat it.

Le Puy green lentils | Infinite bellyAs we prepared this dish, Adélaïde actually told me that back in her childhood, she and her grandmother used to lay a few lentils on a wet cotton pad on a small plate to watch them grow over the next few days. Slowly, stems would sprout out of each lentil and grow into a tiny, tender green forest. They used it to decorate the nativity scene at home for Christmas time.
Ingredients for Le Puy green lentils recipe | Infinite belly

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Slow-cooked Le Puy green lentils, Auvergne sausage
& streaky bacon | Serves 4


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Beginnings

RECIPES:   GRILLED PORK CHOPS   |   SAUTÉED CUMIN CARROTS   |   GARLIC POTATO PURÉE

The beginning of the beginning was set in Bahia, Brazil, land of happiness and sunshine. Until I decided to move back to France, “land of turtlenecks and pastries”. I had studied there for a few months, had been dreaming of coming back, and didn’t question my grandmother when she encouraged me to go for it. And so I began my “career” of bachelor home cooking, in a small chambre de bonne (maid’s chamber) in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, close to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Small” – it was a tiny, barely livable space with a twin bed, a desk, a 1970’s electric stove, my guitar, and a sink. What redeemed the rent was the neighborhood, with its variety of cafés, restaurants, and shops on rue du Cherche-Midi, and a nice view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the horizon.

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As a young intern with a limited budget, I discovered the local farmers’ markets as a way to get amazing fresh produce, which led to eating healthy (getting a break from the good ol’ 4 euro sandwich grec’s) and cheap. Not to be a hater, but very different from what I grew up with in L.A., going to get a Pastrami sandwich in what used to be a farmer’s market but is now a mall  – although those are good, to be fair. During my time in Paris, I spent quite a few Sunday mornings in different markets around town. Some, being located in pricy areas like the boulevard Raspail, offer more varieties of foie gras and expensive mushrooms, but others, like the Bastille market, or the Saint-Ouen one, are also a great spot to flanner (wander) and exchange recipes with other market-goers. An old lady was once delighted to tell me how to make veal paupiettes with tomato rice.

Green peppers on local market | Infinite bellyEggplants on local market | Infinite belly

With more markets than I had shirts, I could not resist the temptation of getting fresh pasta, girolles, and veggies to grill in my pitiful but charming Ratatouillesque hole-in-the-wall. I don’t have any food pictures from that era, and even if I did, I’m not sure I would post them. Let’s just say it was a period of apprenticeship. I had to look up YouTube videos on how to cut an onion, how to cook rice, etc… But after a few botched attempts (cooking for myself made for less embarrassment at failure), I began making things that actually tasted good. And the desire to write about this and share recipes and post pictures comes from the fact that making your own food is so much better in so many ways – dietary, ethically, lifestyle, politically – and is not that hard to do.

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Later on, living with Adélaïde, who’d always cooked around her parents and her indefatigable grandmother, made me enjoy preparing and sharing meals even more. As we started out cooking together in our first apartment’s 16 squared foot kitchenette, we could barely stand without risking to stab each other. If I wanted to open the fridge door, she had to go to the living-room. Making dinner for a couple of friends required advanced engineering skills. So when we moved into this house and got a kitchen that’s almost the size of our old place, our desire to cook and experiment new recipes exploded.

Grilled pork chops, garlic purée & sautéed cumin carrots | Infinite belly

Wild flowers | Infinite belly


Grilled pork chops, garlic potato purée
& sautéed cumin carrots | Serves 2


Continue reading “Beginnings”