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31 December 2009

CONIGLIO IN UMIDO: Rabbit Stew

It’s the season for gibier, or wild game here in Belgium. In the supermarket at this time, we have an amazing choice: wild boar, doe, wild buck, pheasant, pigeon, duck, guinea fowl, reebock, marcassin (baby boar), hare, and rabbit. During the holidays, game is on everyone’s menu. I will admit that I haven’t yet tackled boar or venison. Rabbit, though, is something that we eat from time to time.


In truth, we don’t eat that much meat. When we do, it’s usually something lighter, like poultry or pork. Rabbit fits nicely into that category. It’s a light meat, with more flavor than chicken. Slow cooked like it is here, it turns into a lovely stew. Perfect for a winter night.


This is another recipe that I have from my cooking class in Siena. In Italy they eat rabbit often, and have many ways of preparing it. This is probably one of the simplest. As usual with Italian recipes, the quantities here are suggestions, as are the ingredients. Feel free to substitute what herbs that you have for those used here.


In the course of a normal Italian meal, the sauce from this would be served over pasta for a first course. The meat would then be served as a second course with some vegetables. We just serve it as a stew.



Coniglio in Umido


1 rabbit, cut into pieces

100 g / 4 oz dried tomatoes, chopped

100 g / 3/4 cup sliced olives

40 g / 1/4 cup seasoned flour

2 Tablespoons olive oil, approx.

1 onion chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 sprig rosemary, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon thyme

125 ml / 1/2 cup white wine

1 can chopped tomatoes


  • Soak tomato pieces in boiling water to soften. Soak olives in cold water to remove some of the salt.
  • Heat the olive oil in a deep stew pot.
  • Dip the rabbit pieces in flour, brown in oil over med high heat. You’ll probably have to do them in batches.
  • When the rabbit pieces are brown, remove them and add the onion and garlic to the oil, (add a little more oil if you need to) and cook over medium heat till translucent. Add the celery, the rosemary and the thyme and cook for a few more minutes.
  • Add the wine, and cook till the wine is almost evaporated. Stir continually while this is happening.
  • Add the rabbit back to the pan, pour over the can of tomatoes, the olives, and the dried tomatoes with their liquid. Add enough water to half cover the rabbit.
  • Cover and cook over medium heat for about an hour. Stir from time to time to ensure that the rabbit doesn’t stick. Check the liquid and add more water if necessary. At the end of an hour, it there’s too much water left, leave the cover off and let it reduce.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.



NOTES:

  • You can do this in the oven if you have a big enough baking pan. Just put it all in the pan at the point where it says “cover and cook” above.
  • Chicken can always be substituted for the rabbit, of course.
  • Chopped fennel is a nice addition--it can go in with the celery. Or instead of the celery.
  • We served this with some good crusty bread and a fresh green salad.
  • I have also served this with boiled potatoes.





28 December 2009

NUTS! A tale of two bloggers



Several months ago I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t find good pecans here in Belgium. Shortly thereafter I got an email from Mardi at Eat, Live, Travel, Write, offering to send me pecans in exchange for a certain type of Belgian Chocolate--Manons by Neuhaus. A good deal, I think!


At the time, I was traveling a lot, and when I got home Mardi was traveling. Last week, though, she was in Paris, a couple of hours from us by train. Now, some people might say that it was nuts to go to Paris just for some pecans. HA! I say they have never had really good pecans.


Last week the day finally arrived to make the grand exchange.


We arranged to meet at Angelina’s, on the Rue de Rivoli, at 3 pm. Dan and I bought tickets for the train which would get us to Paris in time to also do a little shopping and maybe have lunch with some friends.


Normally, it's an easy thing to do: train from our town at 7:30 am, Thalys (fast train) from Liege at 8:40, arrive in Paris at 11. Return by 6 pm train to Liege, home by 9 pm. But the day we had arranged to go there was snow and ice. The Thalys left Liege an hour late, and arrived in Paris TWO hours late! We missed lunch.


Did we care? Nope. Paris at Christmas is wonderful. The City of Lights puts on her special party clothes for Christmas. We walked around the Louvre and all the way up the Rue de Rivoli. We got to Angelina’s in time for hot chocolate with Mardi and her husband Neil and her friend Alicia. We weren't sure we'd be able to get home that night, but HECK - we were in Paris! Spending the night in Paris isn't too awful. Except for the no clean underwear thing. But we didn't care. We knew it would be ok whatever happened. A lot of people might say it was nuts to make a trip like that in that kind of weather. I say they must not be pecan lovers.



Over some pretty wicked hot chocolate, we made the big exchange: I brought Mardi her beloved Manons, along with some double truffles and a few pralines from La Maison Saive. For Neil and Alicia there were more chocolates, and cookie towers too!


I love Christmas!

Left to right: Mardi, Neil, Alicia, and Dan.


Mardi brought me my beloved pecans, as well as some maple syrup and some totally wicked vinegar. PLUS some lavender caramels. The only problem with those is that Dan knows about them--I have to share.


Isn’t it a blast to meet someone IRL that you know from the internet? This day was no exception. We had a great time with Mardi and Neil and Alicia, and before we knew it, it was time to go. Why, you’re wondering? Did we think our train would be on time? A lot of people might say that it was nuts to think our train might be on time. Hmm. I’d have to agree with them on that.


On our way back to the Metro we passed by Louvre, took some more photos, and made it back to the Gare du Nord in plenty of time for our train. Even if it had been on time we’d have been there in plenty of time. We’ll pass blessedly over the return trip by saying that the only good part was that by the time we got to our town that night the station was closed, so we didn’t have to pay for parking!


A lot of people might say that this day was too difficult, that the trains should have been on time, that the weather was no excuse. A lot of people on our trains WERE saying that, and a good deal more. To them I say:



Thank you, Mardi!



26 December 2009

UV FILTER: A cautionary tale

When I bought my new camera, the first thing that I did was to buy a UV filter for it. Yeah, I know that it makes the skies bluer and the clouds whiter, but let’s face it, I don’t really take that many photos of skies. Or clouds. No, I bought it to protect my lens.


I know that it may seem like a waste of 30 €, but for me it’s worth it. Here’s why: if your new fancy-pants camera falls off the tripod because you didn’t secure it properly, it will surely fall right on its heavy zoom lens. If you have a UV filter on it and if you’re veryvery lucky, the 30 € UV filter will be broken instead of the much-more-expensive zoom lens.




A word to the wise...

24 December 2009

BEST WISHES



In
this
season
of star light
and candle light
when hope lights up
all our lives, we gather to
decorate
a tree






Each ornament is a shining reminder that happiness comes one thought, one action, one day at a time.


Best wishes for happiness from our house to yours.

20 December 2009

Minestrone and Two Winners!



TODAY’S THE DAY! TODAY’S THE DAY! Today is the day when we choose the winners of the Double Truffles. According to random.org, the two winners are numbers 13 and 33. That’s Maria at Two Peas and Their Pod and Kate at Kate in the Kitchen. I’ll need your addresses--email me at Kate(underscore)and(underscore)Dan AT yahoo.com, and I’ll get the goodies in the post after Christmas. The post office is a madhouse right now!


I don’t know about you, but right now I’m tired of rich food. I want something a little lighter, fresher, full of vegetables and simple goodness. Minestrone fits the bill perfectly.


Like much of my favorite Italian cooking, minestrone is very flexible - it takes advantage of what’s available when you make it. At its most basic, it’s vegetable soup. Made right, it’s a revelation. This is a dish that is different every time I make it--because what I have to use is different every time.


This soup starts with the ‘aromatics’--onion, carrot, celery. In Italian, these are called ‘gli odori’. Now, normally I love the Italian names of things--they’re just so musical and evocative. But in this case I prefer the English name, because ‘odori’ sounds too much like old gym shoes. Actually, in our house we normally call them ‘the usual suspects’. In any case, they fill the house with a wonderful smell, which presages the flavor of this soup.


I think minestrone needs some pasta in it--not too much, but a little bit. Because this makes more soup than we can eat at one time, I don’t put the pasta in the soup until I serve it, so that it doesn’t turn to mush. You can use any kind of small pasta. I had some tiny squares I found in Italy, but you can use orzo or even vermicelli that’s been broken into tiny pieces. If you leave the pasta out, the recipe is gluten free.


Most recipes also call for chopped cabbage or cavolo nero, which is a very dark kale-type cabbage that grows in Italy. It’s only good after a frost, so it’s really a winter vegetable. We don’t have it here, but I did have a chinese cabbage, so I used that. I don’t really like boiled cabbage too much, so I didn’t add it to the soup either. I put it in the bowl and poured the soup over it. I did the same with the green onions to preserve their sharp flavor and crunch.


This recipe came from my cooking course in Siena. In Italy they throw the rind from parmesan into the soup pot. It adds a richness to the soup, and gives some gooey melted cheese pieces that are like the cheesy croutons on top of French onion soup. I sometimes forget to keep them, but this time I had a couple so I threw them in too.


Minestrone

Enough for 6-8

1 T butter or olive oil

1 large onion

1 leek

3 medium carrots

2 stalks celery, including greens

1 bell pepper (I used a red one, for color)

2 medium potatoes

1/4 celery root

2-3 medium tomatoes

125 g / 1/4 pound small pasta

3-4 kale or cabbage leaves

1 spring onion

a good handful of grated parmesan

salt and pepper


  • Put the butter or olive oil in a large soup pot over medium low heat.
  • Cut the onion in half, remove the peel, and slice it thin. Add to the soup pot.
  • Cut the dark top off the leek, cut it in half, and clean it under running water. Slice it thin across the grain (giving you little semi-circles) and add it to the soup pot. Stir the pot.
  • Cut the carrots into small cubes and add them to the soup pot. Stir the pot.
  • Cut the celery across the stalks, including the greens. Add to the soup pot. Stir the pot.
  • Chop the bell pepper into small cubes and add to the pot. You know what comes next.
  • Chop the potatoes into small cubes and add to the pot. Stir it. By now all the onions and leek should be well sweated.
  • Chop the celery root into small cubes and add to the pot. Stir it.
  • At this point add water. I use boiling water, but it probably doesn’t matter. You want enough to come 8-10 cm / 3-4 inches above the vegetables.
  • Chop the tomatoes into cubes and add to the pot. Yes, stir it again. Add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
  • Leave this to simmer for about an hour and a half. Adjust salt to taste.
  • To serve, boil the pasta and drain it. Chop the cabbage and the spring onion.
  • Put some pasta in the bowls, along with some chopped cabbage and spring onions. Pour the soup over, and top with some fresh grated parmesan and pepper.


NOTES:

  • Of course, you can adjust the veggies any way you like. I think it has to have celery, carrots, onions and potatoes. It’s good enough with just those, but add whatever you have to it.
  • I never peel my potatoes or carrots. I buy organic ones and scrub them well. I like the peel!
  • Celery root, on the other hand, has to be peeled. It’s a wonderful winter vegetable. We use it in salads, and add it cooked to mashed potatoes. It brings a light celery flavor to everything.
  • In the summer you can use zucchini / courgette or any kind of squash in this. In the winter parsnips or turnips are good. Feel free to play with this recipe.
  • We ate this with some good bread and cheeses.


18 December 2009

Cookie Towers: Chocolate Pepper Cookies


Today I have the Christmas Factory in full swing. This year, I’m making cards and cookies. We’re giving our neighbors cookie towers, with two or three different kinds of cookies. Don’t tell them!


The light cookies here are the Italian Almond Cookies I posted in August, and the dark ones are chocolate pepper cookies. I found this recipe in an old Martha Stewart Christmas book from 1989. I changed it a little, of course. What I love about this recipe is that it’s not too sweet, but still intensely chocolate. On the heels of chocolate week, what’s better than that?


In addition to Christmas presents, these cookies make perfect ice cream sandwiches. Fill them with some veryvery good vanilla gelato and you’ll be transported back to childhood, but with a more sophisticated, adult flavor.


In this recipe you’ll find ground black pepper. Yep, black pepper. But wait, it gets worse. You’ll also find cayenne pepper. Yep. Cayenne. These two peppers enhance the deep chocolate flavor of this cookie. Trust me on this. It really makes a difference. For the black pepper, I grind it from my pepper mill and then grind it more in a mortar and pestle. You want it really really fine.


There’s a lot of cocoa in this. I probably don’t have to say that it should be the best that you can find. My cookies are really as black as they look in these photos!




Chocolate Pepper Cookies

adapted from Martha Stewart’s Christmas


350 g / 1 1/2 cups softened butter

450 g / 1 3/4 cups sugar

2 large eggs

525 g / 3 cups all purpose flour

200 g / 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 tsp salt

3/4 tsp freshly, finely ground black pepper

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp ground cinnamon


  • Sift together the flour, cocoa, salt and spices.
  • Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture, mixing it well. Shape into a flat rectangle and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  • Preheat oven to 160 C / 350 F.
  • Working with 1/4 of the dough at a time (leaving the rest in the refrigerator), roll very thin and cut into the shapes you want. Transfer to baking sheets lined with baking parchment or silicone mats. Martha says that you can re-roll the dough once more. I re-rolled it until it was used up, but I didn't add much more flour while I was rolling (see note, below)
  • Bake 10 - 12 minutes or until crisp. (Here’s my favorite part of this recipe) Don’t let them darken. (SNORT! Could they BE any darker??) Transfer carefully to racks to cool.


NOTES:

  • In order to roll this dough out uniformly thin, I used the same trick I use for the almond cookies: I put two long bamboo skewers on either side of the dough and roll the dough between them.
  • This dough gets a little sticky as you work with it, and you don’t want to add too much more flour as you’re rolling it. Not only because adding more flour as you work the dough will make the cookies tough; but also because the white flour will show against the dark cookie! To solve this problem, I rolled the dough between two sheets of cling film which I had lightly floured (to get the flour to stick you have to roll the dough once to transfer a little of the butter from the dough to the cling film). From time to time you have to pull the cling film up from the dough, add a tiny bit of flour to the cling film, turn it over and do the same thing to the other side. When the cookies are cut, you can simply lift the cling film and peel them off like stickers. Voila!

14 December 2009

Chocolate Week Continued: Behind the Scenes




This is a continuation of Chocolate week, which began with a giveaway and continued with a visit to a chocolate shop here. Today we’re going to go behind the scenes in that chocolate shop--La Maison Saive.








When you walk into this chocolate shop, you are immediately struck by the wonderful smell of chocolate. Next is the friendly smile of whoever’s working in the shop that day. Most often it’s Florence, Christophe’s wife. If it’s very busy, it may be his mother. If it’s not busy at all, it may be Christophe who comes from the atelier to help you choose your chocolates.



From the shop you can get a glimpse of the atelier. The part closest to you looks like a kitchen you might see in anyone’s house. Oven, cooktop, sink, fridge. And because it’s a very busy season right now, lots of notes and orders on the cabinets!








But if you walk back there you see immediately that it’s not a normal kitchen. You see this, which stands about 4 1/2 feet tall.















Then you see this, and you know you're in the right place:





This is called a cuve, and Christophe has nine of them. Each one holds from 25 to 40 litres of melted chocolate. There are dark, milk, and white cuves, as well as cuves for sugar-free chocolate. The cuves serve to temper the chocolate and to keep it at the right temperature for working. They provide a vat of chocolate for dipping and a ‘fountain’ for covering things with chocolate. It’s here that a lot of the work of making the pralines takes place.


Before anything can be made, though, the chocolate has to be tempered. If it’s not tempered, it won’t be shiny, and there’s a risk that the cocoa butter will leach out, making the chocolate grey. It may also look greasy or dull. Eww. As long as we’re on this subject, I’ve learned that you should NEVER put chocolate in the fridge, especially if it’s softened by being in a warm place. If you do that, you’ll get chocolate that’s dull and grey. That’s because the cocoa butter starts to separate from the chocolate when it’s warm, and cooling it down just solidifies that white cocoa butter, making the chocolate look nasty. It’s still edible, but not very pretty.


Ok, back to the story. To temper the chocolate, they fill the cuve with chocolate and melt it slowly. They bring it up to a temperature of 42 degrees C (107.6 F). Then they take it out of the cuve and pour it onto the adjacent work surface, where they cool it down. Then they put it back into the cuve and bring it to 32 degrees C (89.6 F). At that point they can work with for 4-5 hours before they have to do it all again.

To make a molded chocolate, they begin with these molds. Christophe estimates that he has around 1500 of them, in different shapes. Each one holds 21 normal pralines. To form the shell you see here that will be filled with a flavored ganache or a cream, the mold is put under the fountain part of the cuve, filled up with chocolate, and then emptied.



Here you see Christophe filling a mold for hollow tennis ball shapes. The large spatula in his hand is for scraping the top and the sides of the mold after it’s filled and emptied. In the background you can see a tray of truffles he was working on before he stopped to fill this mold for me.




Here you see him emptying the mold back into the cuve. Before the mold is emptied, it’s put on that little shelf you see attached to the cuve, and shaken gently to dislodge any air bubbles that may have gotten into the chocolate before it hardens. After it’s emptied, there’s a shell of chocolate that has hardened inside the mold, which is left to cool completely. For large hollow items, they may make two or three layers of chocolate shell before they put them together.




For pralines, it's the same process. The shells might be filled with a flavored ganache, a caramel, or cream filling. In every case the process is the same. The filling is made in the kitchen area, put into large pastry bags, and each shell is filled by hand. The molds are set aside to cool.




When they’re completely cool, they’re run under the fountain again to seal them, the mold is scraped again, and then set aside to cool. The finished chocolates are then turned out like ice cubes. They’re ready to eat!


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million words. To see some short videos of the process I described above, go to Christophe’s website HERE. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s in French--the videos have no sound, and will make this process very clear. To see them, click on the link, wait till the word “Bienvenue” shows up, and click on that. Then at the top click on the piece of chocolate that says “Nos Coulisses”. This will take you to a page with several videos:

Préparation fourrage--making a ganache. This is the basis for many of the fillings and also for the truffles. Basically, it’s a mixture of cream and chocolate and whatever flavors he wants to use.


Fourrage--Filling the molds with the ganache. Behind, a cuve that’s cleaned and shut down. I can’t help but admire the work here with a pastry bag.


Finition--Closing the molded chocolates--you can see the finishing of the molded shapes as well as the cups which are dipped one-by-one into the cuve.


Démoulage--Unmolding the chocolates, which are then stored in a cool store room next to the shop until they’re needed to replace the stock that has been sold.


Massepain--Marzipan cutting. In this video you see Jonathan, the former apprentice. When I asked Sophie, the current apprentice, what was the hardest part of her job, she said working with the marzipan. It has to be kneaded by hand, and it’s apparently very hard to do.


Dressage--Making truffles, later to be dipped in chocolate in the cuve. Another chance to admire his pastry bag work. After the truffles have been left to dry, they’re threaded four at a time onto a fork, dipped into the cuve chocolate, and pushed off the fork into either cocoa or powdered sugar. (dipping truffles) The white spots you see here and on Sophie’s hands are the powdered sugar that these truffles will be rolled in after they get their chocolate shell.


Enrobage--Covering things with chocolate. Here, orange peel. Also marzipan and (sometimes) pâte de fruit.



The day I was taking photos, Sophie was putting candied orange peel into this machine, which has a long conveyer belt at the other end. Christophe was waiting at the other end to put them into a box to send to the shop at the front. They cooled and hardened as they moved down the line. I couldn’t help thinking of that wonderful scene with Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory.









So now you know how artisanale chocolates are made. When I think of the work that goes into each one, I am amazed that they are so affordable!

11 December 2009

Chocolate Week Continued: The Chocolate Shop

Chocolate. When you talk about Belgium, most people think of chocolate. They don’t think that Brussels is the capital of Europe, they don’t think that the new President of the EU is Belgian. They think chocolate. They don’t think that Belgium has the oldest spa and the oldest casino in Europe. They don’t think about the Formula 1 circuit. Nope, it’s chocolate. They don’t think about fries, which were invented here. They don’t think about the bazillion different beers brewed here. Nope, nope, nope--they think chocolate. Me too!


Chocolate is an important part of life in Belgium. Belgians have said for years that chocolate was good for you. Now we know that it's true: chocolate lowers cholesterol and keeps us happy. Chocolate is serious business here. Every year, the grand chocolate houses create new chocolates. When the crown Prince and Princess have another child, chocolates are created to celebrate. Needless to say, buying a box of chocolates is a very different experience here than in the US.


First, you have to know that there are different ‘grades’ of Belgian chocolate. The international industrial chocolate brands are what has brought Belgian Chocolates their reputation, and they’re an important part of the chocolate story here. But Belgians rarely buy them. Then there are the smaller industrial brands, generally available all over Belgium and perhaps in neighboring countries, but not overseas. Those are, in my opinion, a step above the international industrials. But they’re still industrial grade chocolates. That is to say, they’re made by machines.


The chocolates prized by Belgians are those that are made by hand, the artisanale chocolates. With some notable exceptions, these are only available in the region where they’re made, often only available in one shop. In one town. Everybody has his or her favorite chocolatier, and I’m no exception.








This is our favorite chocolate shop, La Maison Saive.









It was opened 11 years ago by Christophe Saive, who’s the maitre chocolatier. Christophe is always smiling, always in a good mood. (I probably would be too if I worked around chocolate all the time). When you go into his shop--or any artisanale chocolate shop in Belgium--you’re confronted by a wide range of chocolates, or pralines. (in Belgium, a praline is a filled chocolate--it has nothing to do with the pecan confections that you can buy in New Orleans.)




In Christophe's shop you’ll see more than 80 different kinds of pralines, made with dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, sugar-free chocolate, single-source chocolate. You’ll also see chocolate bars, chocolate spread, cocoa, liqueur filled chocolates, chocolate covered cherries and orange peel, pâtes de fruit, marzipan, marrons glacées. The choice is staggering. What you won’t see is boxes filled with chocolates. Nope. Each and every one is created at the time you buy it.


You choose the box size and form, and then choose what you want to go in it. The vendeuse then puts on a white cotton glove and carefully places each chocolate in the box. When the box is full, it’s closed up and finished with a bow. Each box. Every box. Made personally to your specifications.



Christophe makes around 8 TONS of chocolate each year. Ninety percent of that is pralines, which weigh between 10 and 15 grams each. That’s more than (lemesee....carry the two....divided by....) 575,000 individual chocolates. Each one made by hand. In the workshop (atelier) Christophe works with Sophie, his apprentice. In the front of the shop there’s Florence, his wife. In the busy seasons (like now) his parents help out--his dad in the atelier and his mom in the shop while Florence packs the Christmas orders for corporate customers. It’s a real family business.


Like the big chocolate houses, Christophe creates a new praline each year. In the past, he’s introduced us to pralines with lavender, rose, licorice, allspice, as well as some surprising ones: beer, cumin, tomato (it IS a fruit!), balsamic vinegar, and (oh, yes!) cardamom. Cardamom was my favorite until this year. This year, Christophe brought us truffled truffles. Oh, my.



Continuing chocolate week, in my next post I’ll show you how these chocolates are made. Meanwhile, don’t forget the double truffle giveaway --there’s still time to enter!