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Before we begin, if you’re squeamish about your meat or have a moral aversion to what butchers do you may want to avoid this entry.

 

Sunday, I finally had my quail. We ordered them on Thursday and being super excited I planned and dreamed the rest of the week for what I was going to stuff them with and prepare as a side to these little birds. Saturday night I was ready. I instructed the husband as to what I needed at the market when he went to pick them up the next day. I went for my morning Sunday run and when I came home, I walked in the door and said, “Les cailles?

“Yup,” the husband said.

Quail or caille are very little birds of mostly bones and a meat that is somewhere between white and dark. Each one was under 200 grams. They were delivered all tied up with their little limbs packed close to their bodies. I took them out of their wrappings and cut away the string and then I saw something shocking.

Heads.

 I called to the husband, “My cailles still have heads on them.” I should have expected it. We hadn’t specified to the butcher to prepare the birds for me before we picked them up. But it was unexpected and very alarming. Not only did they have their heads, but this also meant that my quail also still had all their little organs inside, fully attached.

 

Have you ever prepared a turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas? Did it have it’s head? Never in my life have I had to clean out a turkey, quail, or any bird, let alone decapitate one. Of course, you can buy a turkey that hasn’t been – shall we say – emptied, but usually the organs are detached from the body and wrapped up separated for use or for discarding. I stared down at the little heads, thankfully, their eyes didn’t seem to be staring back.

 I grabbed my very big meat knife. Took a deep breath. Then another deep breath. And then – Off with their heads!

 

And out with their organs. It was disturbing. But I feel like I’ve hit a milestone in my amateur chef-ness. I have decapitated an already dead animal.

With that out of the way, I had to prepare my stuffing. I kept it simple and traditional for the first time around. Mushrooms in cream with garlic onions and some herbs.

Roasted Quail with Creamy Mushroom Stuffing

  • 2 quail of about 200 grams each
  • 350 grams wild mushrooms (cèpe, girolles, morels, chanterelles etc)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 celery ribs
  • 75 ml heavy cream (or about 4 tablespoons)
  • olive oil
  • chicken broth or stock
  • sage
  • thyme

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Clean your quail out of any organs. Set aside.

I really recommend yellow onion here as the yellow onion has a buttery scent and attack when it first hits your tongue – perfect for this type of stuffing. Mince your onion, garlic, celery. In a heated frying pan with a little bit of oil, cook over medium heat until the onions and garlic are fragrant, a minute or two. Add your mushrooms. I used frozen mushrooms which took about 10 minutes to cook and mix with the rest of the veggies. Add your heavy cream and herbs and mix until everything is warmed and fragrant. Salt and pepper to taste.

Keep warm but set aside while you prepare the quail.

Prepare a medium size casserole dish for roasting your quail the way you would roast a turkey. I simply put a little chicken broth at the bottom. No more than ¼ cup. Rub a little olive oil, salt and pepper into the quail.

Stuff the birds full of the stuffing and wrap up so that the stuffing can’t fall out while baking. I tied the legs of my quail together, but didn’t go any further than that because I didn’t have a needle to sew them shut. Careful when you stuff your quail because they are slippery from the oil and easy to squeeze – stuffing falls out everywhere if you squeeze too hard. This isn’t your typical stuffing either. There’s no bread, obviously, and though the cream will thicken as it sits, it doesn’t stick like traditional stuffing. So take care when you fill your birds.

With a basting brush, rub stock over the birds and then put in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes until bird is fully cooked and the skin is golden brown. Baste every 5-8 minutes or so for optimal moisture. Remember that these are birds just like chicken or turkey, but they do tend to have a bit of extra tenderness to them.

Serve immediately with extra stuffing. I added a handful of chopped walnuts to the stuffing.

As a side we had sweet potato “hash browns” which I’m only calling hash-browns because I cooked them in a pan with onion, garlic, and parsely instead of roasting them. They added a colorful and comforting texture to the plate as well as having a sweet taste that off-set the savory quail.

So how were they, the birds? Perfect. Quail, when roasted right have a moist, tender flesh with a buttery flavor. It’s not like the dark meat of the turkey – softer, lighter, a bit more wild, which went perfect with the wild mushrooms and cream.

Don’t like quail? No problem.

Strawberries have arrived! We had a very warm winter and with it came an early spring and the first strawberries are here. We had them for dessert sprinkled with lemon juice and tiny sprinkling of sugar and basil. Light, fresh and sweet. And no heads in sight.

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I know that I promised you quail. Stuffed quail to be exact. But due to a glitch with our butcher’s bird supplier, the quail won’t be coming until Sunday. Apparently, when he ordered caille (French for quail) that some how translated to canard (duck) and the delivery last Saturday included two ducks instead of two quail. I love duck, but I didn’t need two of them. This weekend, he promised us, he’d go pick up the quail personally. We’ll see. I think he knew I was so disappointed.

In the meantime, I give you a Français-Sud Américain blend for lunch. Red Bean Plantain Empanadas with Tomato Mozzarella Salad.

I’d been thinking about empanadas for some time. They just sounded fun. Simple – only a few ingredients are in the filling. Hot – baked in the oven. With a crust. I love crunchy crusts. I’m a pie-without-the-pie-filling kind of girl. It’s weird.

Why red beans you ask? Well, I have looked EVERYWHERE – in fact in every market and grocery I go to, I still look – and I cannot find black beans anywhere. If you live in Provence and know of a place that sells black beans let me know. Or, if you’re feeling generous and live in the States, I haven’t lost anything in the mail yet.

There are many different recipes out there for empanada dough. But I was feeling lazy and simply bought two pâte brisée, which are close enough. That’s the French twist to these I guess.

Red Bean Plantain Empanadas

(Makes 8 LARGE Empanadas)

  • 1 can red beans – drained
  • 1 plantain
  • 1/3 red onion finely chopped
  • 1 – 2 cloves of garlic
  • ½ tsp of chili powder or to taste (I have super hot chili powder so I have to scale it back a lot)
  • ½ tomato finely chopped.

Slice up your plantain. In a heated frying pan with a little bit of oil, sautée your onion, garlic, and plantain until softish – about 8 minutes. Lower heat. Add beans, tomato, and chili powder. Cook until heated, then remove from heat immediately. Mix and mash up the plantains a bit. This is really just a texture thing and to get a good blend of plantain-bean in your filling. It’s entirely unnecessary.

Roll out your dough.

Here’s where I decided to forget the half-moon shape and just go for ease in presentation. I scooped a generous portion of the bean-plantain mixture onto one of the dough circles in about 7 portions.

Then I laid the other dough on top of it. Used a big coffee mug to mark out my empanadas. Cut the excess away and used it to make one final empanada.

Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 180°C or until golden brown.

You might want to add a little more oil to your filling before making your empanadas for some extra moisture. Or add cream or cheese if you’re like the husband and can’t imagine having something that doesn’t have meat and cheese in it:

“Mexican food has cheese!” He cried. Apparently, he’s the authority despite never having eaten Mexican food until he met me.

“They’re not Mexican,” I told him. “They’re from South America. Some say Peru, some say Argentina.” Actually, I looked it up and they’re originally from Moorish Spain and Portugal.

“Oh,” he said. But I could still hear the unspoken cries of “CHEESE!!!” going around in his head.

Serve your Empanads with something light. Because these babies are deceptively heavy. Tomato salad is a good choice. Simple, fresh, and so colorful.

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1/3 red onion
  • 1 avocado
  • 1/2 can corn
  • 1/2 ball of mozzarella
  • Salsa verde or dressing of choice (lemon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard)

Chop all ingredients. Put into a bowl. Mix. Season with salt and pepper. Add a little salsa verde. Mix. Serve.

What is so fabulous about this lunch is that it’s so few ingredients and easy to prepare. Other than putting the empanadas together, it takes little time (around 30 minutes) and there was no stress involved, the way stuffing a quail might be stressful.

Definitely Thursday lunch comfort food. The type of thing you eat on a day off and then lie on the couch after with a cup of coffee trying not to fall asleep, so you type up a blog entry about your lunch that includes a myriad of run-on sentences because you’re so excited about how well your empanadas and tomato salad worked out and how the textures and flavors binded so wonderfully together and yet it was so SIMPLE.

I need more simplicity in my life. But that’s something for another day. Sorry about the run-on sentences and the quail. Here’s hoping Sunday won’t disappoint!

Sometimes it’s the little things in France that give me pause. For instance, binders here have four rings, not 3 or 5. And they open separately. The two on top are connected, but not connected to the two on the bottom. You have to snap open both if you want to remove or add a page. It’s convenient so that papers aren’t falling out everywhere when you open up the rings, but I always forget. I start wondering why the paper is resisting movement and then I remember, “Oh yeah, French binder.”

At one of the companies where I teach outcenter, there are horses behind the office. No one really knows what they’re doing there. I’ve asked, because I can see them from the window. Once in a while I see someone come and feed them, but most days they just stare into the office window watching me teach. Today, one of them wouldn’t stop whinnying. Perhaps it knew I was carrying a batch of cookies with me to take into the school.

Not all of these cookies were the same. Two dozen had been colored green for the St. Patrick’s Day party we are having today. The other two were my own personal cookies. Ones I threw together and into the oven an hour before going to work.

I didn’t have eggs, but I was craving cookies. Could I make a good “vegan cookie” with what I had in my kitchen? I’d never made a successful vegan cookie before, but then again, I’d never taken the vegan cookie thing seriously.

But I turned on my Kindle and started flipping through Veganomicon until I found her Chewy Chocolate Raspberry Cookies. Instead of butter and eggs to hold the cookie together they use canola oil (no shock there) and raspberry preserves (shocking!).

What an amazing idea. Preserves for flavoring and binding a cookie. I didn’t have raspberry confiture in the house, but I did have confiture de citron – lemon that is, and decided to do what I could to satisfy my cookie craving without eating the cookies I had promised for work, or being late for class.

And while I don’t think these are quite vegan, they come as close as I’ll ever get.

(Almost) Vegan White Chocolate Lemon Cookies

Adapted from Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

  • ½ cup of lemon preserves or confiture de citron
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ cup canola oil
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (all purpose is fine too)
  • ½ cup cake flour or farine fluide*
  • ¾ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • White chocolate chips, about 50-60 grams

*I’ve been experimenting with baking cookies with farine fluide, which has a consistency close to cake flour. It’s not necessary and 1 ½ cups of all purpose flour would work fine, not to mention was the original recipe.

 

Combine your wet ingredients: sugar, preserves, vanilla, and oil in a large mixing bowl. Stir together with a spoon or fork.

Once blended add your baking soda, then salt. Sift together your two flours and add to the wet batter a third at a time, mixing together with a fork.

The last third you make have to finish by hand, kneading and mixing together until you get a homogenous dough.

Add your white chocolate chips and mix together.

Roll into small balls, place on a lined cookie sheet and press down a little until you get small discs.

Bake at 180°C for 10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Serve.

I’m pretty sure it’s the white chocolate that cancels out the “vegan-ness” of these cookies. There’s milk in there after all. But whatever. I made “vegan” cookies in 20 minutes and made it to work.

The texture is there. Chewy: check. Soft: check. Lemony: check. Honestly, olive oil would have been a fabulous replacement for the canola – and I’ll be remembering that for next time. A really excellent cookie that doesn’t leave me lacking in the cookie comfort department. Everything that a cookie needs to be, they are. Even the husband liked them and didn’t say anything about their lack of eggs and butter. He said, – and I quote – “They were good, I taste lemon.”

Get ready for this weekend. I’m stuffing and roasting quail.

Today was the first day of the year that it was warm enough to eat on the balcony. I didn’t make anything special for it as it was “leftover day,” trying to get rid of all the random stuff in our fridge to make way for more leftovers. I wish that I could portion things properly – like pasta. I know that I can make food and freeze it, but I have this thing about microwaves…

But I digress.

I had my lunch, which was roasted vegetables, tomato, homemade hummus, a slice of Itchebai cheese, and a hunk of crusty bread. Tomato soup. Crystal Light, courtesy of la famille who toted 6 packs of the stuff across the Atlantic at my request. Definitely a leftover day.

What is Itchebai cheese you ask? Well, it is French. Think cheddar with a Swiss twist.

This Christmas someone gave us a box set of small cookbooks on classic French cuisine by Larousse. What is Larousse? Obviously you’ve never had to buy a French dictionary. I was interested in making some sort of fruity pastry for dessert today and turned to the dessert volume for inspiration.

I’ve seen clafoutis in boulangeries here, in the pastry section, looking rather cake-like and fruity. Normally they are done with prunes or cherries. I had neither in the house, but I do have a package of frozen berries and pineapple. The husband is not a fan of fruits rouges.

While, the ones I saw in the shops looked like cake – clafoutis is rather like a flan that has been thickened with flour. Deceptively cake looking, but not cake like. Though I had seen it, I had never tasted, nor baked it, but there’s a first time for everything and if I’m going to live in France and study French cuisine, I better start cooking.

Clafoutis aux (Fruits Rouges ou Ananas)

Adapted from A l’heure du dessert, Larousse:

  • 150 grams berries*
  • 150 grams pineapple chunks*
  • 3 eggs
  • 70 grams powdered sugar
  • 200 ml milk
  • 30 grams flour

*as I mentioned above, cherries or prunes are the most common fruits added to clafoutis, but use any fruit you like. It’s all good.

Preheat your oven to 180°C. If you want to serve this in individual portions break out the ramkins, otherwise find a small size cake tin for four.

If you’re using frozen fruit; which is what I did, you might want to defrost them now. In the meantime, whisk your eggs together in a good size mixing bowl. Add the flour and sugar and whisk again until incorporated. Add the milk and mix until you have a nice, smooth, and fluid batter.

Put your fruit in the bottom of your cake tin or ramkin. There’s no need to grease them.

Pour the batter on top of the fruit.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Let cool and serve.

The original recipe supposedly serves 4. I halved it, but used three eggs instead of two, and it still served four. I guess I like smaller desserts than the editors of Larousse.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, when the egg batter pushed its way down to the bottom of the pot and forced the fruit to the surface, which created a layered effect I wasn’t expecting.

While I don’t love flan, and clafoutis is not your typical rich, buttery, creamy, French pastry, this was something I could eat again. Not too sweet, comforting, mixed with the tart berry.

Next time I see one in the local bakery I’ll buy it to see how I compare to the professionals, but for now this French classic has won me over with it’s ease and adaptability if nothing else. I sound like an advertisement. Dinner’s just about ready so it must be the hunger talking…

In Nice there are three local street foods you should sample:

  • Socca
  • Légumes farcis
  • Beignet de Cébettes

Socca is a niçoise classic, outdoing the salade niçoise or bouillabaisse which actually comes from Marseille. Made of chickpea flour mixed with water and olive oil and cooked in a wood burning oven like pizza dough, then portioned out on small paper plates to waiting customers. It’s total street food. Salty, a little greasy, fabulous. If you’re in the Var it’s called cade.

Légumes farci is something you’ve seen: simply stuffed vegetables. Usually they are stuffed with beef and bread crumbs and broiled in an oven. You can use onion, zucchini, pepper – all featured in this photo – or eggplant and tomatoes.

Fried scallion lumps. Honestly, I don’t know what else to call them. In French they are called beignet des cébettes. They are scallions chopped and mixed with a thick bread batter then deep fried. I guess some people would called them tempura scallions. Beignet are very common for all vegetables, but the onion are a classic. Onion rings, anyone?

But if you want something a bit sweet, a bit more upscale. Go to Amorino near Place Massena for chocolat chaud or better yet, ice cream.

All natural, all simple, all subtle, creamy and wonderful with a chantilly that is more cream than sugar and so worth it.

Visit the Modern Art Museum. Even if you don’t like modern art there are some cool exhibits. One of a dress made entirely of bottles. I will wear it at my first book signing.

If you’re like the husband and can’t stand the art, race through it to get to the top floor, where you’re rewarded with an excellent view:

Then there’s Carnival. Which takes place every year at the end of February going into March. Parade with devil floats included.

There is always more. There is shopping – of which I did in abundance – I can’t help it, they have a Fossil store. There are plenty of museums, archaeological sites, and landmarks. Nice is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the oldest in France and has a rich history which I will not repeat here so as not to bore you to death.

So in this short overview, I say, “Visit Nice.”

I spent a long long time trying to decide where we should eat on our last night in Nice. At first, I wanted Italian, then I wanted traditional French, then I wanted Indian, then I wanted Italian again. There was a brief moment of looking at Japanese restaurants, then back to Italian. Everyone else was of no help. No one wanted to make a decision.

Originally, I had planned for an Italian place that the husband had told me he had liked when he lived in Nice. Except that was 10 years ago and the current reviews – the most current being in 2011 – were very, very mixed. I got nervous and started looking for other places to eat.

At first, I was going to ask them to choose between Italian and whatever else I could find but in the end I just decided for them. Everyone met in the lobby at 7:30 and I asked my mom and sister “Have you ever eaten Lebanese?”

“Not really,” they said.

“Well, that’s what we’re having.”

And off we went to Ya Habibi.

Though the restaurant was only 500 meters from our hotel, I forgot to bring the address and consequently it took us more than 500 meters to find. No matter, we got there. Dinner was decided in moments – a Grand Mezze for four. The perfect treat for two who don’t know Lebanese and for the other two who just love a good mezze.

5 cold entrées and 6 warm entrées with fresh pita bread. It’s as simple as that.

Mezze is pretty standard. Hummus is par for the course along with taboule, babaganoush and grilled caviar d’aubergine. But our favorite of the night was the mehamara – a roasted red pepper spread with garlic, onion and grenadine. Sweet and spicy perfectly blended. We could have eaten that all night.

The six warm entrées were also pretty standard. Samboussi, falafel, roukak, moussaka, arayess lahme, and kebbé with grilled mushrooms.

The samboussi and roukak are fried dumplings the first of meat, the second of cheese. Crunchy and soft, no need for any dipping sauce – they were well seasoned.

 

I really loved the arayess lahme. A pita stuffed with meat and spices. It must have had some mild cream or cheese in it, because it had a creamy texture and was so delightful.

 

The moussaka was missing the meat. This was stated in the menu. But it was not missing flavor. We sat around the table trying to figure out how they cooked the eggplant. The flavor was perfect with soft flesh and a crunchy skin. I thought they steamed it. The husband is convinced roasting went on. Who knows?

 

We drank a wonderful Lebanese red wine, that was mostly syrah and cabernet grapes. It had a fruity aroma but a bitter, acidic taste and the two combined to create a complex enjoyable flavor that made me want to buy a bottle to take home.

 

Though dinner was simple, it was perfect. Good portion sizes, we were not left wanting. Every dish with a wonderful blend of spices. I have nothing but good things to say about my choice of Ya Hababi for our last dinner in Nice. A lovely treat for the pallet when you’re craving something a little different.

By now, my mom and sister have returned to Boston. We’re all going on a diet, but with happy memories full of good food and time spent together. It’s never enough but it will have to do until the husband and I can get ourselves to the States.

I make the same stupid joke every time I visit this city. Nice is nice. I can’t help it.

More than being nice, Nice is a wonderful city. All white and bright colors, bustling people, twisty streets and deadly drivers. Everything you might think of when you think of continental western Europe in general. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

Carnival is in full swing here. The husband and I had no idea when we made plans to visit with my family. If we had, we probably would have planned for that – but as it is, we got a glimpse of the end of the nightly parade.

In Nice, like much of costal Provence, the local flavor is all about the seafood. However, I’m terrified of ordering seafood at restaurants because of my allergy and my sister wasn’t in the mood for it. Nonetheless, we found ourselves at Restaurant les Pecheurs to at least SEE the seafood if not eat it.

 

The inside of the restaurant is set up to lightly remind you of the sea and the fishing boats that sail it. But it’s understated. There is a small fish tank in one wall, two portholes, slatted wood ceilings, blue walls. There’s no tacky netting hanging from anywhere nor any ugly mounted fish – fake or otherwise – you’re just reminded this is a fish restaurant.

I ordered a creameaux de courge, or winter squash cream cooked with girolles mushrooms and set with one croquant de foie gras and volaille. This was a subtle dish. Very soft in texture and flavor and consequently, very comforting.

The husband was the only one of our party to have a fish based meal. His entrée was scallops on a bed of lentils with a spicy carrot ice cream on the side. I have a husband who loves to help me with my restaurant reviews and he described these scallops as very tender and soft but full of flavor being cooking in port as they were. The lentils were well spiced and the dish was complimented perfectly by the carrot ice cream.

For my main course, I ordered a duo de volaille – which is just two cuts of poultry – cooked with seasonal vegetables tandoori style. Served with coconut rice and a little cappucino de courgette (zucchini).

This again was a subtle and soft dish. For me, it lacked a bit of flavor. I enjoyed it – the vegetables were well cooked being both crunchy and soft, the poultry tender, but the tandoori lacked spice. Not that I wanted something to burn my face off like I would at an Indian restaurant, but the dish lacked oomf and instead was a bit too creamy and soft for me. The rice on the other hand was incredibly flavorful, the coconut very present and really an excellent side to dip into the tandoori sauce.

The husband had prawns served with the same coconut rice as well as the courgette cappucino and a crumble of sweet potato. His assessment of the two sides were that they were a bit strange for the main part of the plat, but for all that, pretty tasty. I agree about the cappucino.

His prawns were light and well seasoned but after the first course, which had been a wow moment for him, that it too was lacking in just a touch of flavor. Satisfying, but missing an extra zest.

The sister made up for our lack of restraint by ordering only a main course (and dessert) and had risotto cooked in a creamy chorizo sauce served with wild mushrooms and margret de canard. She felt that she couldn’t taste the chorizo, she could smell it, which added a mouthwatering pre-taste element. The duck was well-cooked, tender and tasty and the risotto with a perfect creaminess.

A moment to appreciate the plating. Everything was wonderfully presented, a bit on the modern side but again, like the decor, not overblown. The service was much the same, with a friendly, welcoming staff and a waitress trained to explain every aspect of the dish.

We also saw –courtesy of the other patrons in the restaurant – that if you order a fancy fish – such as sole – for two, they bring the raw, pre-cooked, whole fish to your table to present it to you, in order that you can approve of it’s freshness and quality.

For dessert, I chose a French classic : an apple tart, cooked upside down and flipped over when plated served with vanilla ice cream and a dab of caramel sauce. This was wonderful, again warm and soft, but what I loved was that it wasn’t too sweet. The plate let the sweet and tartness of the apples do most of the work and the pastry crust underneath was almost savory, it was such a nice buttery contrast to the fruit.

The husband and sister, who both have a thing for litchi, chose the same dessert. Charlotte de litchi served with a verine of litchi and red fruit. As I couldn’t resist tasting a bit of the litchi cream, I can safely say that this was a well done dessert. The lady fingers that make up the bones of the charlotte were very sweet, the cream light and full of the fruit. You knew you were eating litchi. The verine was served in a fruit vinegar sauce, which was acidic but contrasted well with the sweetness of the fresh fruit and the sweetness of the cake.

At times, we did find les Pecheurs lacking in a bit of flavor, but this is a gem of a restaurant in a city that boasts about it’s cuisine while at the same time catering to tourists. Let’s face it, in a tourist town, you’re never quite sure of what you’re going to get. Here we found ourselves satisfied. The prices are correct and the portions are good, even for the seafood which can often be quite expensive,  we had nothing to complain about. My menu – for instance – was 29 Euros.

All in all, though it’s slightly out of the way- about a 30 minute walk from the Promenade des Anglais and Vieux Nice, it was worth it. And there’s something for everyone – even for those people who like to go to seafood restaurants to order everything but fish.

One of the best things about having my family here is that I get to cook for people other than myself and the husband. Don’t get me wrong, I like cooking for myself and the husband, but we will eat pretty much anything. Tonight, in fact we just ate out of the fridge. Cold soup, cold cuts, cold lemon slices, cold red bean brownie. It was a light dinner, recovering from a HUGE lunch, but we were still standing up in front of the fridge, eating with the door open.

La classe.

There are some things out there that I like to call gourmet comfort food. Pasta – regular pasta with fresh tomatoes and onion and garlic – that’s comfort food. Cappellini is my favorite. This is pasta that is comfort food with a zing. Fresh, homemade ravioli with peas, smoked and diced ham, garlic, basil, Parmesan and a hint of lemon.

The original recipe comes from Joy the Baker. I cut back on the olive oil, added the ham, ignored the tomatoes, etc. The modifications are key for me, but she gets the credit for leading the way.

The above photo is how I test the pan to see if it’s hot enough. I could always, I don’t know, wait patiently until I know it’s hot enough, but there’s no fun in that.

I added about 150g of lardons fumés which I can only translate as smoked diced ham. I’m not exactly sure of what it is other than you usually cook it à poêle and it can be a little greasy. The salt and smokey flavors of this particular ham add a layer of flavor to the peas, basil and garlic. I wouldn’t call it a depth, because there’s nothing deep about it – it’s right there: Bam! Salty, smokey ham! But then the freshness of the vegetables kicks in and leaves you feeling light and refreshed.

So it has that comfort element mixed into something with a delicate base.

Putting together ravioli can be done alone, but it’s so much more fun, or at least more efficient with help.

I like to call this one 6 hands, 24 ravioli. Mom was taking the photos. Some days I wish we had more workspace.

The husband is the king of making ravoli look good. At least he works with what he has. I can do the base – the dough, the filling – but don’t ask me to plate it pretty.

Not only is it fun to cook for others, but we worked together. We made a mess of the kitchen – flour everywhere, but that’s par for the course with pasta. We had a general good time. Or at least I did; I hope everyone else did. I don’t usually get all sentimental but there’s little better than comfort food with a twist. But sharing it with your family makes it extra special.

The family has arrived. By that I mean my mother and sister. They, and the husband, pretty much constitute my intimate family. I have cousins, aunts, uncles, a grandmother, in-laws as we all do, but I’m bad about keeping in touch with them.

That’s neither here nor there I guess because France is a long way away from the US and I’m the only one who went back to the old continent.

It’s also vacation for me. At first, I was going to be nice and work and make my students happy. Then I realized that my family had spent thousands of dollars to come and visit me and the least I could was tell my students to take a hike for 10 days. This, to no one’s surprise, leaves all of us with more time to explore, eat, and cook.

On the menu for the week:

  • Sunday lunch at Table du Vigneron
  • Three days, two nights in Nice with a quick trip to Monaco
  • Plenty of restaurants in Nice
  • A visit to the Puyricard factory (see previous entry on Valentine’s day)
  • A dinner with the in-laws featuring Filet mignon de Pork – Wellington style, chocolate and lemon tart
  • Homemade pea pesto ravioli
  • and anything else I feel like cooking up

Yesterday had it’s own introductory meal. My sister and mom have both been to France before, several times each. Nevertheless, we had to do something classic for them. The husband and I went through a myriad of options including Cassoulet -too fattening and heavy, Raclette -we don’t have a raclette set, Lamb -we couldn’t decide what to do with lamb, Boar -not the right season. The husband wanted cheese. This is nothing new. He always wants cheese.

So we went with a mont d’or. Mild, creamy, brie-like cheese with white wine baked in the oven for 30 minutes.

Serve with potatoes, vegetables, ham, and fresh baked bread.

We had two Mont d’or because one is never enough. Everyone ate their fill and then some.

Today, we broke out the sugar and made fudge.

My mom is the Queen of Fudge. No joke. She makes the best fudge of so many different flavors, always perfect, smooth, soft, fondant. Last year she tried to send me some for the holidays, when she normally makes it but it arrived two months late and was hard and moldy – completely ruined. This time we had an action plan. She brought the ingredients and made the fudge here.

Lots of sugar – at least a kilo.

A jar of fluff.

I think the reason why my mom’s fudge is so good isn’t the ingredients, but the fact that – as she says “I like stirring.” And if you’ve ever made fudge, you’ll know how much stirring it takes.

Stirring.

And then came the butterscotch. Why make chocolate when you can have butterscotch with chocolate on top?

This was a group effort. One to stir, one to add the butterscotch chips and one to take photographs.

Pouring it into the pans and adding the chocolate was also a group effort.

As was licking out the pot in the end. We love our fudge.

This is just a taste of what the week is going to bring. We’re all loosening our belts and enjoying a vacation together.

It’s Valentine’s Day! That means lots of red and pink and a little bit of purple to add that extra touch of pain to the eyes.

Let’s face it. St. Valentine’s Day is not the most aesthetic of holidays. Pink, red, AND purple? Unnecessary.

It is interesting to note that there are several Saint Valentine’s, most of whom were martyrs for the Catholic faith. The one who’s considered the original – who supposedly died on February 14th – well we know nothing about him except his name and the day he was torn to bits by lions or whatever.

It wasn’t until the tradition of courtly love appeared on the scene of the late middle ages, originating in southwestern France, that people began to associate St. Valentine with romance; for reasons completely unknown to me. I do however know a little bit about the troubadours of medieval France. They’re music is and was entirely enchanting. At least for medieval buffs like me. Here’s a taste:

I’m doing my medieval music professor proud.

Somehow, these lovely songs and the idea of striving for unattainable perfection in love got lost in perfume, candlelight dinners, and Hallmark. And being groped by greasy men. This could be a past-time for me here in France, if I wasn’t already married. Thank god for the husband.

But, all is forgiven. All is forgiven because of the chocolate.

And the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted is from la Chocolaterie de Puyricard.

Named after the tiny village where it is made, these beauties are hand-crafted, artisan chocolates. Puyricard (pronounced pu-ree-car) is located just northwest of Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite cities in Provence. The factory, if you can call it that, is a tiny organization, made up 40 people, many of them family where chocolate is tradition and life.

They are recognizable in France by their elegant yellow facades, which despite being bright yellow with brown lettering, really are – as I said – elegant. Inside is an atmosphere dedicated to the beauty of the chocolate. Lavenders, browns, yellows, colors that accents the dark and milk chocolates (Puyricard very rarely works with white) that are placed like works of art around the shop.

And I happen to pass by one everyday on my way to work.

The women inside are smartly dressed and know every flavor in the store. They know the essences, the subtleties, the liquors. They will give you a taste if you can’t make up your mind and need a bit of persuasion. And they wrap everything into a beautiful package that always matches the season.

Even if it is Valentine’s themed – I can’t hate this.

Their most famous, and one of my favorites is their palet d’or and palet d’argent. Two truffles of dark chocolate with a ganache of dark chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean inside. On the outside, hand placed are small leaves of silver and gold. For show, of course, but there is something beautiful and so inviting about the glint of the metal on the silky chocolate surface.

This year, I have a new love, that I sampled in their store. A dark chocolate square truffle with a simple, unadorned smooth outer shell. Inside is dark chocolate ganache peppered literally with black pepper and a hint of mint. It is a very understated taste, discernible only if you take the time to taste it slowly and let the flavors melt on your tongue. But if you do – every millimeter of this tiny square is worth it.

Puyricard isn’t cheap. A box of 250 grams – about 20-25 chocolates is 21Euros. Keep in mind however that these are hand-made chocolates, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – you can visit the factory. They use only the finest ingredients, the purest cacao, and there are NO PRESERVATIVES. So if you happen to be in the United States and decide to splurge and order some, they will Fed-Ex your chocolates to you in order that they arrive as fresh as possible.

Or you can come to Provence and visit the factory yourself. This is the only photo I have of my visit. I don’t know why I only have half the building. It’s a pretty half.

Another beauty to their truffle collection is their lichee ganache. Dark chocolate outside, milk chocolate interior infused with a strong lichee liquor. Graceful and so smooth, a perfect fruity taste mixed with the most delicate of milk chocolates. I was impressed as I wasn’t sure how lichee would go with the taste of chocolate, but I had to try their new flavor.

A truly amazing chocolaterie, the three others that are on the same street as the Puyricard in Toulon, simply can’t hold a candle to the perfect caress of this soft, flavorful chocolate as it melts on the tongue.

Next time you want to treat yourself, check out their website. Even if you don’t order anything, their chocolates are a feast for the eyes alone.