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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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Fresh ratatouille-inspired “verrines”

Once again, our trip to the produce market was a very inspiring one. Colorful displays, friendly staff sampling fruit, the sight and scent of fresh flowers, what a wonderful place to feel energized and inspired. As we stopped by one of the vegetable stands, we could not help but notice the large variety of eggplants available to us. They are very different from on another in size, color and shape.

Almost every single variety ended in our cart so that Loulou and I would be able to decide which would be most suitable for our dish. Chinese and Japanese eggplants have thinner skins and more delicate flavors. The Globe and Italian eggplants vary in sizes but are fairly similar in taste – firmer skin and flesh. Finally the Rosa Bianca, also know as the heirloom italian eggplant, has a creamy flesh and softer skin than the Italian and Globe.

My friend C. recently asked me about a recipes with eggplants. “I like eggplant in meals a lot, but don’t know how to prepare it myself”. Here is a second recipe for her, inspired from the French “ratatouille”.

Classic ratatouille is a warm dish, with eggplants, zucchini, red bell pepper, onion and tomatoes. In most of the classic ratatouille recipes that I know, vegetables are stir fried separately, then combined, and cooked together for about 30 minutes.

In these “verrines”, I decided not to use pepper and to layer the other vegetables in glasses. Another difference with the classic ratatouille is that the tomato and zucchini remain raw so that a spoonful of the “verrine” will mix crunchy and creamy textures.

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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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Those meals that feel like home – eggplant, red bell pepper and parmesan shavings “tartine”

“A yearning for the past, often in an idealized form” is the definition that wikipedia provides for the word “nostalgia”. For me, it is very much associated with tasting, smelling or preparing food.

Nostalgia tastes like an eggplant and red bell pepper spread on a slice of bred accompanied with a salty cheese and a salad.  A bite of that sunny melange and I think countryside, foggy mornings, jogging in our village, and sunflower fields.

For the eternal expatriate that I am, those kind of meals are more than just comfort foods, they represent constants in a childhood spent traveling from a place to an other, from a culture to an other. They made me feel at home no matter where we were and how far from our roots we had gone.

This dish can be served as an appetizer as well as the main course for lunch – you would just need to adjust the size of the slice of bread to your appetite. It is very easy to make, does not require any other tools than a frying pan, a knife and a cutting board. I served it with a salad – greens, steamed small potatoes, Kalamata olives – seasoned with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fleur de sel and pepper.

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Red and Yellow Bell Pepper Tartare, a French and Macedonian fusion dish

– pronounced “peeh-per”- means pepper in Macedonian. Piper is to Macedonian cuisine what corn is to a 4th of July meal, a must. It is central to every aspect of cooking, used as the main piece on the plate, as a side dish as well as a spice. Dozens of varieties flavor the local life, each particular piper having its own use. Round peppers with four lobes are used for stuffing, long green peppers for frying in a pan, firm short green or yellow ones are pickled, the long flat and sweet or diabolically hot ones are roasted and prepared with garlic, oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. Finally, and historically  the most important, are the peppers grown for spice.

In our family, the smell of pepper immediately triggers memories of our trips to the farmers’ markets, of our grand-father biking home with a huge bag of green yellow and read shapes dangling over his shoulder, of our grand-mother cooking lovingly and caning delicious spreads for the winter.

It also reminds me teenage years, when every summer was spent traveling through this wonderful country, swimming in the mountain lakes, strolling through colorful and lively streets, visiting small churches, relishing delicious honey bought from small producers…

Summer-Ohrid Lake-piper, a delightful recurring trilogy.

About this dish : it is a combination between the macedonian memories and the French flavors that I grew up with. Macedonian piper meets goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

The preparation goes very easily once the peppers are roasted and pealed. The easiest is to prepare them twenty four hours in advance. The rest takes about 10 minutes.

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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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Zucchini and Goat cheese Millefeuille

As we can finally feel some warmth, fresh dishes start to become more appealing. My first step was to look inside our refrigerator searching for fruits and vegetables that shout “refreshing“. Fresh herbs, zucchini squash…how about something sweet and zesty to add to that, maybe a tad tangy too…yes, a green apple will do. Don’t forget le fromage (cheese), preferably fresh as well…and I was ready to let my imagination flow.

This is my process most of the time. I think of a mood, I think sensation, and then open my fridge for inspiration. Then I look at Loulou to confirm my intuition – always making sure that I choose something she might like, something healthy too. We are very fortunate to leave next to a great produce market and if the fridge is empty, the produce is at hand just steps away.

For this recipe you will need a few tools like aluminum rings and a mandolin. But once everything is on the table, the next steps go really fast.

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