Thursday, 27 March 2008

Birthday Parcels, good enough to eat!

Last night we cooked a meal to celebrate one of our guest Fiona's 21st birthday. We cooked:

Twice baked parmesan soufflées

Filo parcels of chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and thyme

Raspberry Pavlova

Everything was greated with reassuring oooohs, (especially the Pavlova, which was getting on for half a metre in diameter!) and all was polished off to everybody's delight.

The filo parcels are fun to make.

For each parcel you'll need to pieces of flattened out chicken breast about 8-10cm across. Flatten chicken breasts buy spreading them on a solid board, laying a piece of cling film over the top of them, and then bashing them flat with a meat mallet (or similar club-like implement such as a wooden rolling pin). Then cut them into 2 or 3 suitably sized pieces depending on the original size of the fillet and the size to which it bashes out.

The chicken breasts need to be part-cooked before being baked in the parcels as filo pastry cooks very quickly. I poached them (to keep the chicken good and moist) in a broth of water, rosé wine - white would work just as well, a large, smashed clove of garlic, a good hand-full of fresh sage leaves, four bay leaves and salt. I brought the broth to the boil and then switched it off, allowing it to steep while I bashed out the chicken breasts.

When I was ready to go, I brought the broth back to the boil and then placed half a dozen chicken pieces at a time into it and put a lid over the pan. It took a minute or two for the broth to come back to the boil, by which time the chicken was poached through. So I fished out the chicken and repeated the process with the remaining batches until all my chicken bits were poached.

All of this, I did earlier in the day. I put all the chicken pieces in a pyrex bowl and, once it had cooled, covered them with the strained broth to keep them moist and to put maximum flavour into the chicken.

At the same time as preparing the chicken, I also prepared the tomato stuffing that completed the parcels. I fried finely chopped onions, with roughly chopped sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms, a good bunch of time leaves and salt an pepper. As the mix softened and started to catch, I loosened the mixture with a glug of balsamic vinegar followed by a generous couple of glasses of wine. This continued to cook until all the liquid was absorbed, but the mixture remained moist. This, again, was then placed in a bowl and covered ready for later.

Variations which we might try in the future - using black olives instead of mushrooms, swapping thyme for fennel seeds, including roughly crumbled feta cheese (a good veggie version too?)

Fiona's a vegetarian, so a veggie version was prepared for her. In a heavy-bottomed pan, I dry fried a tablespoonful of pine nuts. To them, I then added around half a cupful of the tomato stuffing mix and a splash of water (as the pan was very hot and I didn't want the mix to stick). I then stirred in a tablespoonful of arborio rice and let the mix cook a little. I then added a little water and stirred it in, allowed the mix to boil until all the liquid was absorbed and then repeatedly added a little more water and boiled until absorbed, until the rice was soft. Effectively, I made a risotto without much rice in it. This too was made in advance.

In the evening, the oven went on at about 7 (the twice baked soufflées needed to go in for their second baking too) at around 180º. It then took about 40 minutes to make ten parcels. For each, you need two sheets of filo, cut in half. The first filo sheet is laid on a clean surface in roughly brushed with a little melted bitter, the second then laid at a right angle over the first. Again brush with melted butter and repeat for layers 3 and 4, this time laid diagonally to the first two layers. In the centre of this filo flower, place a chicken piece followed by a spoonful of tomato stuffing as a kind of sandwich filling, and then complete the sandwich with another piece of chicken.

Then brush a little more butter around the exposed filo and draw it up to envelope the chicken/tomato filling. Scrunch it together in a kind of rough 'bunch' at the top of the parcel. Brush on a little more butter (this sounds like a lot of butter, but it's really only smeared on) and then place on a well greased baking sheet.

Cook for between 20 and 30 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden.

I cooked a little extra stuffing (enough for about another tablespoon each). To this I added a tin of tomatoes that I first blitzed in the food processor. I then heated this through to make a sauce to accompany the parcels, which were also served with broccoli, green beans and chive mashed potatoes.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Café Society

The thing that everybody's crazy for at the moment in France is macaroons. I photographed these in Marseille last Monday.

This shop offered 24 flavours - and here's me reflected in the macaroon menu.

The thing is to buy a box and take them when you go to visit friends. Just like taking chocolates. But quite often they don't make it past your favourite café...

Sunday, 23 March 2008

A Matter of Gilt

This week saw the raising of our new mirror. And it was quite a job!

Our friend Raymond bought it for us from a guy who was making some new furniture for Raymond's shop. (So we got it at 'trade'.)

It came in unpainted pine, and with a slight (deliberate) battered feel for a 'salvaged' look. So the first job was for Lindsay to paint it and 'gild' it. It's done with a gesso undercoat - a nice, thick primer that smoothed out a lot of the rough edges in the original carpentry - followed by rubbing on a gold wax.

And then we had to put the thing up! It's over 2 metres (around 8 feet) tall and needs two to shift it. It didn't help that we'd decided to mount it above a staircase either.

Raymond and Arnaud came round and helped us move it through the house, before (using a stair ladder and a plank) we moved it onto the shelf that I'd already put up to take it. Then Raymond held the mirror while I bolted it into the wall at the top. Easy! (With the slight exception that I managed to fall backwards of the stairs in the process - just a few bruises, fortunately.)

Anyway - it's quite a statement, heh?

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Down by the Sea

It's only 45 minutes from our house to the Mediterranean at its closest and Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is generally where we head for.  In the height of summer it can get pretty busy, but in the winter, you share the beach with only a handful of other people (and horses).

We went down a few weeks ago with John and Ruth.  The sun was low in the sky, creating some fantastic shadows.

A few guys were out fishing (strenuous stuff)...

... and they weren't the only ones with fishing on their minds.

Les-Saintes-Maries is the principal coastal town of the Camargue - the marshy area in the Rhone's delta famous for its flamingoes and white horses.  It's a great beach for drift wood.

The beach features a wooden bar/café in the summer months, built on wooden piles.  In the winter they take the café down, leaving just the piles...

The piles and their shadows created fantastic graphic patterns...

... as did the sun through the fences placed along the beach to stop the sand blowing away in the winter winds.

And then along came a group of riders, on those famous white horses.

As the afternoon drew to a close, a fantastic light show was laid on for us.

This is Ruth and Lindsay walking back towards Les-Saintes-Maries.

That's the tower of Les-Saintes-Maries' medieval fortified church on the horizon.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Windows of Provence (2)

St-Remy-de-Provence - more accurately this should be titled 'Window Frames of Provence (1)'