I only realized how much my two-burner, ovenless, toasterless, and spare kitchen was slowly killing me in France after spending Sunday morning at the stove for about an hour. Making hollandaise sauce for the first time ever, poaching and frying eggs, and toasting up the English muffins might all have been possible in my mini-kitchen, but it certainly wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.
Category Archives: Basic Ingredients
The more idyllic the scenery, the harder it is for me to take pictures. That was the case this week when I visited one of my fellow teachers in Hennezel, France. It’s home to less than 450 people and completely surrounded by woods, but somehow cozy anyway. My host’s husband is a forestier; something like a woodsman or a forest ranger, who spends most of his days walking through the woods choosing the best trees to cut down while allowing the forest to prosper. Their house is a “maison forestière” heated entirely by wood with vegetable patches against the lean-to, and blossoming pear trees and lilac bushes.
This year I found out that in Spain, Christmas isn’t as much a holiday as a two-week festivus. I like this plan, and pretended it was still Christmas until Jan. 6, the days the three kings supposedly came to offer their gifts to Jesus.
As last Friday was Epiphany, complete with King’s cake, I figured it was time to put the last of the roasted chesnuts to bed. If you’ve never had roasted chestnuts, they have a surprisingly sweet, meaty taste, and I didn’t want to just throw them into oatmeal or on salad.
Lesson learned: if you are going to a food event, especially a food event in France, don’t skip lunch so you have room to taste. There will be champagne tasting, and wine tasting and beer tasting, and it will be a hazardous walk home!
Last Sunday was the Salon de la Gourmandise (just what it sounds like) up on the mountaintop in Epinal. For 3€, I’d be a damn fool to not go and see if I could find some local specialties and try some new foods. Lorraine is best known for a few different products, and none of them are quiche Lorraine:
“But what can you cook without an oven? Pasta and rice? I can’t fry EVERYTHING!”
Ever since I arrived in France, I keep hearing the same complaint from the other teaching assistants. They have no idea how to cook anything with a stovetop alone. Color me bemused! Yes, it takes a lot more effort to make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, but there are so many delicious meals you can make with just a couple of pots and pans. Italian sausage and peppers! Chana Masala! Sharp Stovetop Mac-N-Cheese! And much, much more.
Eventually I will stop talking about Spain, but today is not that day. Spain is not exactly known for its wondrous cheeses, but it is known for Manchego. And while I love me some gooey French cheeses, I was glad to swap them for some cured, sharp Spanish products for a few days.
Manchego, a sheep’s cheese.
Made by: I don’t have the wrapper! I fail. Purchased at Mulas in Salamanca.
Hails from: Manchego is famously from La Mancha, but this one was from Castille.
Background: Manchego is often a softer cheese. This one was cured for slightly longer (around 6 months), giving it a firmer texture and a slight bite.
Can I eat the rind? Sorry, not a good plan.
Serve it with: olives, sausages, Spanish membrillo (quince paste) as appetizers or part of dinner. It would also be amazing on salads, or on small sandwiches. I’m not sure I’d try to throw it in any cooked cheese dishes.
Last night we had a conversation over dinner about France being the classic, revered old-world haute cuisine, but no longer the top of the heap. The new giant, in my (Spanish) host’s opinion, is Spain. Clearly there’s some bias there, but I have to say that I am wowed, and am learning a lot in a very short time.
Last night’s dinner was at home, and simple. Rioja, salad, sliced bread, cheeses and dried meats. This was referred to as “cold cuts,” though I’ve never seen anything less like a cold cut in my life. And they key ingredient is the ham.
I’m in Salamanca, the Castille region, which is known for producing the very best ham in a ham country. In the market of about 20 booths, 12 to 15 sell dried meats, and all of those sell the iconic jamón ibérico legs that look about like a caveman club, and can cost up to 300 euros. The reason for the price? First of all, it lasts for months. Second of all, these black pigs are carefully raised, fed almost exclusively the acorns that grow in the region, and they run around happily in a field until killing time. The jam is then dried and cured for months or years.
It’s amazing. Not salty, not honey ham or slimy, not dry like sausage or chewy like jerky. It’s tender and has a robust flavor, and would pair as well with a fancy tapas dish as it did with our coffee table picnic. I don’t even EAT ham in the United States. This ham is so good that you can sign up for classes to learn how to cut it properly, but you’ll have to shell out 400 euros to do it.
Sadly, I cannot transport this magical treat to all my friends in the States. What I DO suggest is having a ham party worth spending $200 to ship some ham for a bunch of people. Or if you’re in New York, you can buy it at shops like Murray’s Real Salami and try it at the table at tapas joints like Pata Negra, another name for jamon iberico. Full rumor list here.