Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eggplant, Semi-Improvised

Good lord, it's not like there's nothing going on around here, but this book project is just taking up all my time and at the end of three hours of putting this proposal together, with all the minute detail-work that entails, and watching it grow to 40,000 words (2/3 of the size of a normal book) and knowing it's just an outline, for heaven's sakes, I really don't feel witty enough to sit down and write an entertaining blog-post about life in Montpellier. Not that I've experienced much of it, since I spend the days sitting here at the desk alternately staring at columns of data and the screen and the courtyard outside, where new tenants appear to be doing heavy renovation. Fortunately, 15 years in Berlin inured me to the sound of construction, but banging and shouting doesn't really make writing any easier.

Fortunately, though, the markets are filling up with great stuff -- I just had some yellow peaches that were so good I can't remember the last time I had any that were so tasty -- and among the things that are coming in are our old friends the solenaceae, that family of New World plants that have made themselves a nice home in southern Europe, and includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. That last one is something people look at and often wonder what to do with, and I'm no exception. I've already covered ratatouille, that local favorite, when I got a bunch of beautiful ivory-colored eggplants and made White Rat. But there's another recipe I've been playing around with, and it came from a guy who uses the handle almanac on the Well, the amazing online community that may or may not just have gotten killed yesterday by its owner, Salon. (I'll have more on that, probably, on my other blog on Wednesday).

Anyway, this guy posted a recipe a year or so ago and I've been messing with it ever since, and, as you'll see, have aspects as yet un-messed-with. But last week I was at the market, saw some actual real live non-greenhouse-looking eggplants, the season's first, and said aha! Time to make Penne al'Almanache! Yes, it's sort of a distant relative of pasta alla Norma, but it's got a couple of things that make it different. Anyway, here'w what you need to make it:

Actually, not all of this counts, but you've got, sort of going clockwise, the eggplants, not the parsley, but the plant next to it which is the Provençal small-leaf basil (although you can use the more common kind -- I just had this lying around), Balsamic vinegar, canned tomatoes, garlic, onion, oregano, and salt.

Now, I'm of two minds about salting and sweating eggplant. A lot of varieties don't need it, and it's hard to tell unless you know just what variety you have on hand whether you need to do this or not. What it does is pull out some bitterness from the eggplant, although I have yet to get any eggplant I considered too bitter. I decided to do it here so I could illustrate it for you. You cut the eggplant into cubes, throw it in a colander, sprinkle it with salt, and toss it, then add a little more salt. Then you let it sit for an hour.

An hour later:

Big deal, huh? Now, I've done this and come away with nice puddles down there, so I figure that was a variety that really needed to be salted. This one, well, that's an hour that didn't need to happen. So I now washed the eggplant to dissolve all the salt on it and then put it in a dishcloth and wrung out the water.

Again, I've had eggplants just drip brown water, but in this case, nothing much. Anyway, I've had the oven on to 400º F/200ºC and so now I take the squeezed cubes, put them in a metal bowl with some olive oil, toss them well, and stick them on a baking sheet. Forty minutes later, the eggplant's ready to rock.

Back it goes into the bowl.

Okay, now it's time to make the sauce. Heat some olive oil, and toss in some very thinly-sliced onions. Stir them around until they get soft and somewhat yellow, then add four cloves of well-minced garlic, and stir-fry that until it's fragrant. Then (aha! A trick!) add some oregano, rubbing it in with your hand, and stir it quickly in the oil. This will make the oregano flavor deeper, as it extracts some of the flavorful oil from the dried herb.

Then hit the mixture with a healthy splash of Balsamic...

...and add your canned tomatoes (plus about 1/4 can or a bit more of water, if your canned tomatoes are as dense as mine are) and basil...

...stir it all together well, lower the heat and cook for an hour. Taste it for salt at the end: enough salt usually escapes the rinsing that you don't need to add any, but this time a tiny bit more actually was necessary.

Not a quick sauce at all, especially if you count the salting and baking of the eggplant. But worth it? Damn right.

This time I just did the regular throw some Parmesan on it and eat it thing. But there's another way I have yet to explore, which is to get some mozzarella and mix that in the hot pasta and sauce mixture and let it melt. The shredded mozzarella you can get in the States to make pizza out of is, oddly enough, better for this than the fresh mozz we get here, although if you can remember to get that up to room temperature and cut it in small pieces, that'll work, too. (It also helps to drain it on paper towels to get the water content down so you don't sog the sauce out too much).

So there we go. You can envy me access to these great eggplants (and the two kilos of what Americans call "heirloom" tomatoes and we just call tomates that I just brought home from a tomato fair near my house run by the amazing Eric le Tomatologue) and I'll envy you a place to live that's big enough that you don't have to eat a foot and a half away from the cooling oven you roasted the eggplants in. But, once again, this didn't cost much, and it's yet another wonderful addition to the Broke-Not-Poor repertoire.

Now I'm beginning to mess around with sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and lemons, so stay tuned. And yes, I really will give you an update as to what's going on around here before too very long, I hope!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Midsummer Miette

No, I haven't disappeared. I've been involved in mounting a huge project -- on spec, of course -- which means that I've been waking up, having breakfast, and then sitting down to write for two or three hours each day. There's no end in sight yet, although it will, trust me, end. Then I'll pack it all together, send it to my agent, and hope this time I've got an idea he can sell.

Along the way, there's been very little paying work, a lot of hungry evenings, and hardly any leaving the house. Not good, that not leaving the house. But, if this thing's ever going to get done, necessary. And writing 2000 words a day can wear you out.

Where I sit, though, I get to hear what's going on outside. Not just upstairs, where, now that the windows are open, Madame Merde can be heard in full cry, as can her kids, also crying when they're not making other noise. The oldest has taken to throwing stuff out the window, resulting in two broken windows in the apartments across the way and a lot of toys scattered in the courtyard where they're collected by the kids of the violin-makers. As for the baby, I'm wondering if her second word (she already says "Maman") will be merde, dépêche, or arrête, all repeated endlessly each day.

So without leaving the house, I got to hear Montpellier take the Champions' League title, which, if I'm not mistaken, means they represent France in the international competition. The roaring and the post-game noise was astounding. There's something about football songs, anyway, that unnerves me. Americans don't sing. (Imagine, for a second, what the Dallas Cowboys song would be). The first time I heard a football song, I was walking back to my hotel in Brussels and a tavern I passed was in full roar. Visions of Nazis came to my psyche. Then I realized I was in Brussels, for heaven's sake. There could hardly have been a safer place at that point in history. And then I heard them in Germany.

The next weekend was the Pride Parade, now known as the Diversity Parade, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade (in English!). I have no idea why the name was changed, other than now it can be called Parade de Diversité and safely back in French, although I understand it's not just about gender identification any more. At any rate, I was dreading that, but the Big Event was evidently not on the Place de la Comédie this year, so hurray, no bad disco music.

But nights have been getting loud as the students drink and yell, the windows have been open, it's been getting warmer outside, and a sign of summer appeared the other day.

The geckos are back. Actually, unless they do that skin-color-changing thing that anoles do, there were two on this particular afternoon. One was running up the pipe, and when my computer printer turned on, it scampered off. Later, this one, much lighter, appeared and hung out.

I'm not sure what happened next, because it got dark and I was elsewhere, but that evening, I turned on the light in the bathroom and a large waterbug ran and hid. Last year, I had maybe two geckos in the house. (I say "maybe" because who can tell them apart?) One was in the office here, and the other I saw darting around the plumbing by the toilet. Both windows are open a lot, so there are lots of chances for dinner to fly in for an enterprising gecko. They're supposed to be good luck. Exactly what I need.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Peas Be With You

Oh, don't worry: I thought for a long while before posting that as the title. So many bad puns, so little time. But actually, it's the "so little time" that impelled me to post this today. Around here, fresh green pea season is almost over, and, although some people don't get it, this is one of my favorite vegetables and I'm always looking for new things to do with the short season when perfect peas are in the market. Thing is, frozen peas are almost as good, and a lot of the recipes I see mandate using them instead. But the gap between "almost" and "fresh" is just big enough that I celebrate pea season.

So this year, I did some paglio e fiena ("hay and straw," where you're supposed to use equal portions of red and green pasta to support a cream sauce with shallots and peas and ham and Parmesan) and a superb mattar paneer (peas with pan-fried Indian cheese), and...I still had some left over. So when I stumbled on this recipe, I told myself a) it couldn't be that good and b) it was so simple and cheap I still had to try it. Well, one out of two isn't bad, so the third time I made it I grabbed the camera, knowing that it's still pea season in parts of the U.S., and if it's not you can use frozen. Not as good, I don't think, but I may well try this later in the year.

Anyway, here's what you need to make it.

Clockwise from the peas, we have the peas (well-thawed and with as much water as possible removed if you're using frozen), some parsley, pepper, olive oil, tuna in olive oil, and butter. The potatoes in the bowl to the rear aren't part of this.

You start by heating some olive oil, and then melting an equal amount of butter in it.

Then you add your peas.

Lower the heat and cover, so they partially sauté, partially steam. This will take a couple of minutes, no more. If in doubt, eat one to judge the texture.

Next, add the tuna. Break it up if you need to.

You should, by the way, have your pasta water boiling right about now. You should use a broad, flat pasta, like fettuccine or what I used, tagilatelle.

Anyway, when the sauce is cooked and the tuna's warm, throw in another couple of tablespoons of butter, some parsley and a little pepper...

...stir it around, add your pasta and stir it again, and there you are. I told you it was simple! It had just never occurred to me that this is a kind of deconstruction of that bane of my childhood, tuna-noodle casserole, stripped down to the good parts.

Oh, and no cheese: there's tuna in there, remember.

And if the evening's warm enough, a nice rosé goes real well with this. A Languedoc, of course!

Monday, June 4, 2012

History On My Doorstep

A couple of months ago, a guy came into the (now-departed) English Corner Shop and announced he was leaving town. He'd been a regular customer, and was saying good-bye. "Yeah, they've covered up the dig and now the tram-line's going in." As it developed, he was an urban archaeologist from England who'd been part of the team excavating by the Babotte before the tram dug the area up. "We found a lot of information about where the roads had previously been," he told me, "and some information about what went on in the neighborhood there, such as what kinds of trades had been practiced and so on. No sexy artifacts, I'm afraid, but the town's learned a lot about its history, which is what they pay us for."

At that point, I remembered that there was a "parc archéologique" on the other side of town from the Corner Shop, and, although I'd walked through it a few times, I'd never stopped to figure out just what had been excavated, although I knew that the tram-station excavations for the Corum stop in 1999 had unearthed it all. So today, realizing that I was missing the historical journeys with E and J while E's leg healed (he was getting muscle cramps which made it difficult to drive), there was a hunk of local history just down the street that I could easily take a look at.

Actually, there was a lot of stuff. The most important to the history of the town itself was the Porte du Pila St. Gely, built between the 14th and 15th centuries, which was one of the most important gates to what was then a walled city.

This is a reconstruction, but you can see the wooden drawbridge. The roads from Nimes converged nearby, and this was the checkpoint you had to pass to get into the city. The gate itself had two paths, one for wide vehicles like carts, the other for pedestrians, which you can sort of see here.

I was actually trying to get the foundation there, but that's the wide track over across from the narrow track, where I was shooting from.

Here it is from the other side, once you're in.

That's the Corum, the opera-house/convention center in the background.

And, once you were in, you could rest at the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, established by Gui de Montpellier in the 12th century.

Gui (1168-1208) was probably the brother of the local ruler, Guilhem VIII (1156-1202), whose palace stood near where the Palais de Justice is now, over by the Peyroux. Gui, for his part, wasn't ever going to be the big cheese, so, as younger brothers did in those days, he became a monk and founded the Order of the Holy Spirit, and went to Rome to lobby for its recognition by the Vatican. He succeeded, and this hospital was an important stop on the pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain. Like all the hospitals along that route, it had a medical function, of course, but was also a place of rest, and the brothers of the Holy Spirit presumably could take care of spiritual matters for you. It was one of several in town, but the only one which has a bit of it surviving: above shows the rough outline of its chapel, another thing the tram excavations uncovered.

Outside the city walls was where the dangerous stuff took place. Montpellier was famous for its pottery for a long time, and in fact there's an exhibition dealing with that at both the Musée Fabre and the museum down at Lattera at the moment, for those who are interested -- and you can now get to the latter by tram. Excavation for the tram came up with the foundations of four pottery kilns, and they're right at the foot of the stairs leading from the Esplanade.

That's three of 'em; not sure where the other one is. On display behind filthy windows on the handicapped elevator's shaft are some pieces of local pottery. They didn't photograph too well, but this one's an excellent example:

Across the tracks is something I'd looked at forever without realizing that it was more than a neat illusion. Here it is from the Esplanade.

And from across the street.

It's a piece by an artist named Betka Siruckova called "The Carnival of the Animals," and as such is a nice play on words: it stands at the entrance to the Beaux Arts neighborhood, so called because it's where the École des Beaux Arts is. But it wasn't always called that: this was the slaughterhouse district, and Siruckova's paying homage to the various kinds of animals slaughtered there as well as punning on the word "carnival," which comes from the Latin carne vale, "farewell to meat," which is what the carnivals of the days before Lent are all about. At any rate, it must have been a good place for the slaughterhouses, because the stream called the Verdanson passes in front of this building, and it was easy enough to build sewers in the middle of the street and let the offal and blood drain into it.

There's surprisingly little history here organized as well as this particular little spot, and a lot of it needs interpretation that the locals aren't providing. Just the other day, a reader made a wonderful comment on an old post I totally blew (read the comments and you'll see what I mean, although I do want to thank Olivier for his diplomacy!) which alerted me to the fact that the medical school here was largely run by Protestants, something I'm going to have to chase down now.

Not that I don't want to get out in the countryside and clamber around looking for Romans and ruined monasteries and all, but sometimes this stuff really is right in your back yard.
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