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Vegetable Casserole

On a hot Saturday at the beginning of this month, our friends L. and D. invited us to the “Hoes Down Harvest Festival”, an annual celebration organized by Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, Northern California. The day started with a very promising drive, less and less constructions, more and more ocher and green landscapes… Then we encountered an unfortunate Casino in the middle of where-it-should-not-be, and then more gorgeous views of the valley’s fertile, colorful and welcoming land.

Two hours later, we turned into a small dirt road that lead to an afternoon of tasty discoveries, hopeful learning about the success of a sustainable organic farm, and joyful play with Loulou. We got to taste delicious, wholesome foods, quench our thirst with locally brewed beer and kombucha – one of the best I have ever had- and to dance. We took a tour with one of the four owners of the farm. He explained how, with care, imagination and collective efforts, the land and our health can be preserved. Phew, finally a positive approach on the subject ! And of course all that in the midst of fun activities, crafts and games.

No wonder National Geographic described the farm’s children area as “the best in the state” : it not only offered a wide variety of choices for our little one - painting, zip-lining, hay riding, apple bobbing and many more – but it was also thoughtfully organized to keep the little and big kids engaged and curious. In a few hours, Loulou got to pet small and bigger animals, play with clay, climb a mountain of hay, waive a flower crown, milk a pretend cow, launch gigantic bubbles, hang her paintings among dozens of other young artists’ creations. She could even refresh in a creek and start over again.

A day like that inspires you to cook earthy, wholesome meals. Meals that preserve and reveal the natural flavors and colors of the ingredients. I learned the following recipe from my friend S., a very generous person, a great cook. There isn’t really a recipe per se. It is just about vegetables and condiments. And that’s it.

Pick a few colorful vegetables and cut them in big chunks. Pour one or two tablespoons of olive oil, add some “fleur de sel” or any other type of coarse salt, some pepper, finely chopped garlic, and toss the ingredients until the condiments are well mixed in.

Let them soften and golden in the oven for about 30 minutes at 375 F (you can either use little casseroles like I did, or just toss the vegetables on a rectangular baking pan). I like to add some fresh cilantro or chervil on top when cooked. Et voilà.

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Sweet times and a chocolate dessert

Simple and intriguing. Sweet, bitter, solid, liquid, dark, light, brown and white. Earliest usage discovered so far : since 1100 BC in Honduras, only since the 16th century in Europe. It has been utilized as a medicine, a drink, solid food, and as a currency.

Surely you have guessed by now that I am writing about chocolate. Oh do I love chocolate in every form! Chocolate bars, chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse, chocolate fondant, chocolate souffle, hot chocolate drinks…what did I forget? If anything, my favorite restaurants are the ones where the chocolate dessert is at its best. By the way, if there is a chocolate dessert on the menu, I will order that first and make sure everything else is light enough not to spoil my appetite.

As most chocolate aficionados, I have tried dozens of recipes. If you are looking for sources of inspiration, you might like these two books : “The Essence of Chocolate” and “Chocolate desserts by Pierre Herme”. My favorite chocolate dessert recipes are those which mix crunchy and gooey textures and which are best eaten lukewarm.

Here is a “chocolate fondant” or “chocolate lava cake” recipe that I love to share because it is so easy to make and so rewarding. The most important thing here is timing. Once you know how much time it needs to be baked, at what temperature, and in what mold, your fondant will always be perfect.

I have tried two versions of it : just chocolate, or chocolate and a seasonal fruit. It worked really well with figs. What would be your choice of fruit?You can always change your mind and decide that half of the ramequins will have figs on them and half will be traditional chocolate lava cakes.If I was to ask myself how inspiration comes for a meal or a dish, nine times out of ten the response would be “memories”. For this chocolate dessert what first came to mind was an other type of lava formation and this Summer’s sweet moments spent with family.

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Banana and Apricot Sorbets

Bananas – everyone in this household relishes them. In fact, we hardly ever come back from our weekly grocery shopping without having a cluster in our bags.  So we decided to educate ourselves and “googled” the word banana. Here are some interesting facts we gathered :

  • The word “banana is derived from the Arab word “banan” which means finger.
  • Bananas were first found in the region of Malaysia. It was Alexander the Great who brought bananas back with him to the western world.
  • They contain Vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6 and fiber.
  • Bananas also contain three natural sugars, sucrose, fructose and glucose along with fiber. A banana thus gives an instant and substantial boost of energy.
  • They are harvested green because they keep ripening even after they are picked.

With all this in mind, we were even more motivated to start our afternoon ritual of cooking together with one of our favorite desserts this summer : banana sorbets. It is unctuous, fresh, keeps the fresh fruit’s taste almost unchanged. Perfect ending for a substantial meal. Of course, if you are up for a more sweets, you can always add some chocolate, honey, berry treats. Banana sorbet is the perfect occasion to let your imagination flow.

Making these sorbets was so fast and easy that we had plenty of time left to whip up another similar dessert. Our next favorite flavor is apricot. Since we are at the peak of apricot season – and it lasts about a month each year! – those orange little jewels are so ripe and sweet these days that we barely need half the amount of sugar to prepare our frozen treats. It is also a good occasion to freeze some for our winter cravings… The principle for making sorbets is fairly simple : we make a fruit puree  (with fresh bananas, and roasted apricots) and add some sugar and fruit juice. Then the ice cream machine does the rest.

As for eating : while the adults in this family like them well frozen, some smaller more sensitive teeth prefer them to melt a little.

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Peach, Prune and Ginger Clafoutis

Cherries are among my very favorite fruits in summer. Something about their crunchiness, their color, their smell, and also the fact that you can eat them straight one after the other, in oblivious bliss, until you discover the mountain of pits lying on the plate. I tend to buy humongous amounts of these juicy jewels each time I go to the market. I gorge on them raw and I use the rest to bake. As it turns out, there are now two of us in this home who share the same passion for cherries.

As I was preparing to bake a cherry “clafoutis”, which is a classic French dessert, I started leafing through various recipes in my books. The bowl of cherries was sitting next to me and Loulou, who was drawing a “portrait” of her papa. Long story short, the cherries were gone before I knew it and my cherry clafoutis plans disappeared with the fruit. That’s when the plums and peaches lying in the basket drew my attention. Time to be creative and come up with a variation on the traditional recipe!

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Chocolate Pear Cake

Tomorrow is C.’s birthday. Chocolate – we can’t go wrong, warmth, magnesium …a little sugar, but high cocoa percentage. Loulou is helping, “maman je peux t’aider?” (can I help you maman?) she says as soon as she sees the chocolate chip jar on the table? Of course you can taste some, we have to make sure we are using the proper ingredients. Approval. “Can I have some more please?” this time in English. That is the beauty of expatriation. Your children speak more languages than you, with a better accent. They can correct you even at two.

A couple of pears are sitting on the counter top. They remind me of my favorite pastry at the boulangerie across the street from my parent’s place. They sell the most exquisite chocolate-pear tart. Pear, chocolate, chocolate, pear. Feels like we are on the right track. As we are looking into one of my favorite pastry books, we come across the “delice de chocolat”, a moist chocolate cake, to eat lukewarm, to serve with an apricot sauce. Getting closer.

Instead of the apricot, why not pears, apricots are still a little sour these days? Also, we tried a gluten-free version of the recipe.

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