Food & Recipes, Life

Sancerre Vineyards and a Taste of Tradition

Last weekend we escaped. Escaped Paris for the countryside surrounding R.’s grandparents’ farmhouse. They live in the Sancerre region in the center of France. It is a beautiful place and I was especially excited to get there at this time of year when the vineyards are being harvested and the light is golden. I could spend weeks exploring and taking photographs out there. “Tell me when you want to stop.” R. said as we took off in the car to climb the hills and enjoy the views. I tried not to tell him to stop every few feet. It seems I could photograph vineyards all day.

Last year we made a visit at the end of October and the leaves had burst into reds, oranges, and golds and not many grapes were left after the harvest but we were early this year and everything was wearing a vibrant green and thick clumps of grapes clung on the vines. The rolling landscape is blanketed with that green everywhere you look. No slope seems too small for planting. It is a rich landscape.

The garden and farmyard back in the grandparents’ village are rich too and we are fed abundantly from their production when we visit. “Pace yourself.” I warned my parents on their first visit. But you have to experience it to believe me. R.’s grandmother cooks traditional French meals that she prepared in years past for all the workers on the farm when it was still in operation. A starter, soup or vegetable salad,  main dish, often a roast, a green salad, cheese, fruit, dessert – this is how it goes and it is all so good that it’s very hard to be sage (wise) and not take too much from each course. I often joke to R. that he’ll have to roll me home.

While he doesn’t run a farm anymore, R.’s grandfather keeps three garden plots in the backyard and spread around town. He grows tomatoes and lettuce, potatoes and chard, squashes, including some American varieties from their trips to New England, zucchini and leeks. Leeks which are left in the ground through the winter, pulled up when needed in the kitchen, and tied to a stake with string to dangle in the stream and defrost. I love that.

On this trip, we had a traditional starter with lunch on Sunday and I would have been happy with only that: Leeks Vinaigrette. It’s a perfect and simple little meal with a dressing of local walnut oil and minced shallots and parsley. Served with hard-boiled eggs, it is a filling lunch. When we got home I called R.’s grandmother and asked her, “How do you make poireau vinaigrette?” “It’s so simple,” she said “and good isn’t it? I just had some for lunch.” So here is the recipe, so you can have a taste of French country meals, the flavor of our visits to the Sancerre region, for lunch, too.

Leeks Vinaigrette

serves 4

5 medium sized leeks, dark greens trimmed

1 shallot, minced

1 handful curly parsley, chopped

4 hard-boiled eggs

1 small handful chives, chopped

6 tbsp. walnut oil

6 tbsp. sunflower oil

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

1. Fill a big pasta pot with water and bring to a boil. Salt the water. To prepare the leeks: slice the root end off very close to the roots. If you cut too much off, the individual leaves will not stay together but will all separate. Cut each leek in half lengthwise and then each half in half again. If you have tiny leeks, you can simply cut them in half and not bother quartering them. Rinse them thoroughly under cold running water making sure to get all the grit out from between the outermost leaves.

2. Once the water has come to a boil, put the leeks in the water bending them gently to fit inside the pot. Allow to gently boil for 30 to 40 minutes until they are tender throughout. Remove them from the water and let them drain and cool throughly in a colander.

3. Slice the hard-boiled eggs in half and arrange them on a plate then sprinkle with the chopped chives.

4. To make the vinaigrette, combine the walnut and sunflower oils, the vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste in a small jar, cover with a lid, and shake well to emulsify.

5.  Serve the leeks warm or at room temperature sprinkled with the shallot and parsley and with the eggs on the side. You may have leftover vinaigrette but that is never a bad thing.

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Food & Recipes

Spiced Apple and Quinoa Muffins for the First Weekend Mornings of Fall

When the air starts to cool down, I start to imagine being able to use the oven again. Our little counter top model throws out a lot of heat and I usually avoid it if I can in the summer. But now, now I want muffins. The perfect weekend breakfast. At least one of them. And I had the perfect excuse when, as often lately, I found myself with just a little bit of cooked quinoa left over after a meal that needed to be used up. (I am starting to think R. may be addicted to quinoa but I’m not going to complain about that!) I thought of those first crisp apples we had sitting on the counter and the idea of the nutty quinoa with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg spiced apple sounded like quintessential autumn.

First I tried a recipe I found online for plain quinoa muffins. I had high hopes and the batter was yummy, but once they were out of the oven and I had patiently let them cool, they were too dense and chewy, even dry. I guess I’m spoiled for muffins, they must be moist and delicate and light. So I scrapped that recipe but I didn’t have to wait too long to have more leftover quinoa from a weekend lunch to try again. This time, I knew there was no need to search far afield and I went right back to our family’s favorite muffins. I played a little here and there and adjusted a bit to add the quinoa and the fragrant spiced apples but the base of a good baking recipe is something you hold onto and don’t mess around with too much.

And they were just what I wanted. They could have come right out of my childhood mornings at the kitchen table eating blueberry muffins and looking out the window at the bright colors of the maple tree that always turned early and the Atlantic beyond that. Except they have a new flavor, maybe one for the fall mornings of our young married life. Mornings where people are rolling their grocery caddies down below, on the way to the market, and Albert is curled up in a crate by the kitchen window, never far from us, and Romain says, “Un peu de classique?” (some classical music?). Maybe these muffins will be part of the flavor of those memories. In any case, they will certainly be a part of the flavor of the coming cooler months.

Spiced Apple & Quinoa Muffins

makes 10 muffins

1 1/2 cups peeled, cored, and diced apple

6 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/8 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1 cup cooked and cooled quinoa

1/4 cup milk

1 1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup chopped walnuts or hazelnuts (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C. Heat 2 tbsp. of the butter over medium low heat in a sauté pan. Add the apples, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and stir to coat the apple pieces. Cook until the apple is softened, about 5 minutes, resisting the urge to stir too often so the pieces don’t break down. Once they are soft but not mushy, remove from the pan and let cool completely.
  2. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar using an electric mixer until light and creamy. Add the egg, and beat until very pale and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, salt, and baking powder to combine.
  3. Fold the apples and quinoa into the butter mixture. Add half the flour and fold until just combined. Do the same with half the milk. Repeat until all the milk and flour has been just worked into the batter. Do not over-mix!
  4. Grease a muffin tin or line it with muffin papers. Divide the batter into the tin filling to just below the rim. Top each muffin with chopped walnuts and bake in the oven until golden and a tester comes out dry when inserted in the center of a muffin, about 25 minutes.
  5. When they are done, let cool in the tin for 5 minutes and then remove the muffins to a cooling rack (or devour them all instantly).

enjoy!

A.

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