Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

****

Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassone.

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassonne.

Adjacent to our hotel in Carcassonne stood the 12th Century Basilica of St. Nazaire, bristling with gargoyles. We had a few minutes to spare, so Jeff opened the heavy wooden door and we entered. Inside, dwarfed by towering stone columns, a nun with a broom worked quietly, her footsteps echoing faintly in the stillness. We moved up the dim nave, past the burnished pews, into the enormous transept bright with morning sunshine streaming through the tall stained-glass windows of the choir. Now we could hear music, a soft solemn hymn that seemed to emerge from the stone and surround us. Rosettes glowed like colossal jewels in either end of the transept. We stood silent, listening, and I thought again how fortunate we were.

The sunlight was an omen. After a week of near-constant cloud cover, we were headed east to Provence under blue sky. The weather wasn’t warm but, for a nice change, it wasn’t wet. I lit a candle, slipped some euros into the receptacle, and we were off.

Destination: Arles. Distance: 223 kilometers. That meant a few hours of quality Jumpy time, with a stop or two along the way.

We’d become comfortable with our seating arrangement: Zandra and I in back; Bob and Dorothy sharing the middle row with one of the brothers; the other brother co-piloting up front. The van was equipped with a navigation device, but the chirpy female avatar entombed therein had been deemed untrustworthy, so at Dorothy’s suggestion we named her Marilyn. (Dorothy joked that she owned a ditzy gadget of the same name back home in Alabama.)

This is what happens when you travel with a master sommelier.

This is what happens when you travel with a sommelier.

Sitting in the rear gave Zandra and I time to discuss and take notes, which was critical to remembering. We marveled at the over-the-top nature of this adventure, with its unbelievable food and wine, and the astonishing fact that we were traveling with a sommelier. In addition, we had met a host of other memorable specialists and authorities. Some that stood out:

●     Our own private archeologist guided us through the caves of Périgord. Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, an expert in prehistoric cave art in the region, shared her theories on the ancient artists who reverently and skillfully represented themselves and the world around them.

●     The exuberant walnut-mill owner with the grand pot belly and string of one-liners who demonstrated the centuries-old process for pressing oil from the fragrant nuts.

●     The proprietress of an organic foie gras farm who led us on a private tour. Her dedication to and respect for the animals in her charge was evident in the treatment they received.

●     The many local guides who so passionately introduced us to their cities and towns.

●     Numerous winemakers who shared the varied methods of their craft and enticed us to taste the fermented fruits of their labor.

Of all the people we had encountered, not a single one could have been more friendly or hospitable. And we were only halfway through the itinerary.

Chez François – Sète

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

The Setup: On the drive to Arles we crested a rise and there lay the Mediterranean Sea with its promise of les fruits de mer, which had come up in conversation during many a meat-heavy meal. (Bob and Dorothy live on the Gulf Coast; they know their way around an oyster.) Immediately we detoured into the the seaside town of Sète.

A wrong-way turn onto a one-way street prompted a honk and a curse or two from competing motorists, but Kelly ignored the commotion long enough to get a recommendation from an amused bystander. We backed out of our traffic predicament and headed to the waterfront, to the acclaimed Chez François, located on one of the quais.

After wedging the Jumpy into a tight underground parking space we ascended into the misty seaside sunshine. At Chez François, we pulled a few tables together on the tented sidewalk, inhaled the sea air and looked over the brief, fish-focused menu.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

The Feast: We started, of course, with wine. Kelly suggested a light, crisp Picpoul to complement the briny freshness of the oysters. Jeff ordered pastis, which arrived with a carafe of water. A mixture of the two produced the cloudy, anise-spiced milk of Provence, cure-all for whatever ails — hangover, malaise, gray skies, sweltering days. Soon our seafood binge appeared: platters of plump oysters, bowls of pleasantly chewy sea escargot, pots brimming with mussels, and a tomato-rich fish soup, all of which contrasted delightfully with the duck-centric menus we’d grown accustomed to.

Most Memorable: Crisp sea air, sunshine and beautiful, briny oysters. What more need be said?

The Market Picnic – Arles

Market lettuce in Arles.

Market lettuce in Arles.

The Setup: Mention Arles, in France or elsewhere, and people rave about the market. “Not to be missed,” they say. If you’re anywhere near Arles on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it’s impossible to miss. It’s enormous and unavoidable, lining both sides of the Boulevard des Lices for several blocks and spilling into the side streets.

We made the five-minute walk from our hotel, the enchanting L’Hôtel Particulier, past tables piled with clothing and other dry goods, into the teeming, chaotic gantlet of food stands. Fish of every stripe lay bright-eyed and glistening in cases of crushed ice, and shiny squid shared stall space with pyramids of mussels and oysters. Yard-wide paella pans cradled steaming saffron-tinted shrimp and rice. Shoppers jostled one another to sample morsels of cheese, while tiny grandmothers weaved through the throng, their shopping bags bulging, little dogs trailing with noses to the ground.

Olives of every color.

Olives of every color.

Just-roasted chickens.

Just-roasted chickens.

There were fat sausages, and salami with powdery rinds; head and haunch and every other cut of lamb and pork; skinned splayed rabbits; vats of olives, green and brown and black, displayed alongside tubs of cornichon and pickled garlic cloves; bushel baskets of beautiful lettuces, tomatoes, onions, fennel; knobby carrots with soil clinging to them.

Bread stands smelled of warm yeast. There were nuts and fruit and pizza and smoked fish and a food cart selling egg rolls and noodles. Tall multi-rotisserie glass-cased ovens churned with succulent golden chickens, a dozen at a time, their drippings seasoning potatoes and tomatoes roasting below. The aroma was intoxicating. Would it be odd, I wondered, if I loitered here next to the poulet rôti for the next 30 minutes?

A pair of live piglets in a pushcart snuffled the hands of cooing admirers — not for sale, these two. Their owner was peddling hard candy to bankroll a long, healthy life for what apparently were pets. A scam? Perhaps. But it was worth the euros to feel those little suction-cup snouts on the palm of my hand.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

We wandered, chatted with vendors, snapped photos, and bought delicious treats until our next appointment: a walkabout of Arles hosted by a willowy  Arlesienne — yet another expert! In the course of the tour, she led us to the hospital where Van Gogh convalesced after the unfortunate disagreement with his ear, to the cafe that was the subject of one of his famous paintings, and to the ancient Roman amphitheater. Afterward, we returned to the hotel and met up with some new arrivals. Zandra’s brother Brett and his family, Amy and Aiden, had flown in from England for the second half of the trip. Also joining us was Jack Dancy, co-founder of Trufflepig, the company responsible for orchestrating our awesome adventure. Jack and Dorothy had planned the itinerary, and when it became clear our growing group would need a second vehicle, he volunteered to accompany us at the midpoint. An energetic young Brit with a knack for conversation and a whip-smart sense of humor, Jack was a delightful addition.

Fromage.

The nearly liquid Mont D’Or Fromage.

The Feast: In a small rustic overflow dining room just off the hotel courtyard, we made a banquet of our market haul — fresh bread, salami, green and black olive tapenade, delectable rotisserie chicken, several cheeses, smoked fish, olives, pickled garlic, a few desserts and of course wine, some of it from Kelly’s personal cellar.

Most Memorable: That chicken haunts me to this day, but the pickled garlic was a clear winner too. Compared to the pickled garlic we’ve found in the States, the Provençal version has a milder bite and a mouthwatering savory acidity. Slightly crunchy and highly addictive, these exquisite morsels have obsessed us since we arrived home. Half the battle may be the garlic itself — the grocery-store bulbs here tend to yield too pungent a garlic flavor after pickling, but we keep trying. The meal was a reminder that often the simplest ingredients make the most memorable occasions.

La Chassagnette – Arles

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

The Setup: Our final night in Arles. We drove into the countryside to a lovely restaurant owned by friends of Kelly’s. Reminiscent of a French country home, La Chassagnette features a spacious dining room furnished with sturdy wooden tables and sideboards and brightly painted murals. One grand table was arranged for our large family-and-friends gathering.

The Feast: Chef Armand Arnal welcomed us and explained the restaurant’s concept: everything local and seasonal, vegetables and herbs from the surrounding gardens, no butter or cream. Zandra and I exchanged a doubtful wink. No butter? Not possible. The vegetables we’d encountered on the trip had been slathered in it. But when the beautiful family-style dishes appeared, it was clear our skepticism was premature. This was fresh, clean food prepared simply so the flavors of the products shone. Among the first courses, bright herbal soup that was the very definition of green both in color and flavor; a frisee salad with crispy fried pumpkin seeds; beet and eel salad with wilted greens. For the main courses, a few at the table had lamb while the majority ordered sea bass baked in a salt crust, uncaked and served tableside. For dessert: airy souffle with passionfruit ice cream.

Most Memorable: A delicious meal made even more memorable by the hospitality of the house and the cooking of Chef Arnal. Coincidentally, this Nov. 10 dinner fell on the 20th anniversary of my first date with Jeff. A nice way to celebrate.

Picnic at Anthony’s house – L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge

Sidewalk cafe tables at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Sidewalk cafe tables at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

The Setup: The day dawned bright and sunny as we packed our vehicles and headed east to L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, a charming village characterized by its canals and its location on the Sourge river. It was Sunday, market day. Kelly and Jack offered to forage for lunch while the rest of us explored. The plan was to picnic in a park, but when we reunited later we learned that Kelly had bumped into a buddy who happened to live nearby (not surprising given that Kelly seems to have friends everywhere). Anthony, also in the wine industry and apparently sympathetic to our lack of stemware, had invited us to have lunch at his home. Perfect! The 11 of us unloaded our supplies and made introductions as Anthony pulled tables together and set out plates, silver and, most important, wine glasses. We met his friend Ani, a petite Frenchwoman with a robust laugh, and staged our picnic on his sunny patio.

Picnic fare at Anthony's house.

Picnic fare at Anthony’s house.

The Feast: The fare was similar to the previous day’s lunch: garlic, olives, chicken, bread, cheese, salami. Pizza for young Aiden. Ani contributed little crocks of pork rillettes, creamy in texture and almost floral in flavor and aroma. I detected Provençal lavender in each bite. We sipped Tavel, faces tipped toward the sunlight, and feasted, one delicious bite after another, with our hosts.

Most Memorable: The warmth and generosity of strangers. On short notice, Anthony invited nearly a dozen visitors into his home as if we were old friends. His and Ani’s hospitality made this one of the most memorable meals of the trip, and the best picnic of my life.

View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.

Dinner photoAll things in moderation.

Wise counsel, unless you find yourself traveling through France in November, when the chill whets the appetite for hearty food and rich wine, and temptation lurks around every corner. Food and drink abound. Moderation usually is absent from the menu.

So how to summarize two weeks of gluttony? On a side trip out of Sarlat, we visited La Combe aux Oies, a family-owned organic goose farm and small-batch foie gras producer. There we made the acquaintance of a gaggle of astonishingly handsome geese undergoing the stage of the foie gras process known as the “gavage,” the 15- to 18-day tube feeding that enlarges the animal’s liver in preparation for harvest. In those plump birds we recognized ourselves, except that the force-feeding we endured was tube-free and wholly self-induced. Afterward, “gavage” was our mealtime exclamation, and the foie goose, which gives its all for sustenance and pleasure, became the emblem of our journey.

Photo by James Walton

Keeping watch at La Combe aux Oies.

And an improbable journey it was: that rare convergence of adventurous, generous, often hilarious travel companions and an itinerary bursting with gorgeous landscapes, knowledgeable guides, historic sites, memorable characters and, of course, unforgettable meals.

A couple of caveats: The posts that follow represent the most memorable meals and moments of our trip, with a few exceptions. Because of an untimely cold, I missed three knockout dinners. And of the feasts I did attend, the astonishing amount of food seven people can order makes it nearly impossible to recount everything, though I try to describe as much as possible.

Voila le gavage.

La Brasserie Bordelaise – Bordeaux

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

 The Setup: The six of us arrived in Bordeaux on an overcast Friday afternoon, our luggage intact and our dispositions only slightly worse for the journey — we were a little tired and a lot thirsty. Kelly Mc Aulliffe, wine expert, translator, guide, chauffeur and fearless ringleader, retrieved us from the airport and ferried us into the the city to the Regent Grand Hotel. Our rooms were not available yet, so Kelly — a French-trained American sommelier who lives and works in France, a rarity — herded us out into the crowded cobblestone streets in search of a bottle and a bite to eat. Muddled as we were by jetlag, it was all he could do to keep us assembled, but after a short search he found a table for seven at Brasserie Bordelaise. We squeezed ourselves in alongside a table on which reclined an entire cured leg of pig from which the wait staff was shaving and serving thin slices, and l’hédonisme officially began.

The Feast: Not wanting to spoil dinner, we ordered a few “light” snacks, highlights of which were a delicately sweet, tangy steak tartare, and ribbons of the aforementioned jambon Bellota pata negra, salty and so tender they nearly dissolved in the mouth. It was at Brasserie Bordelaise that Monsieur Professeur Mc Auliffe’s wine instruction commenced in the form of a bright Sancerre, a Pouilly-Fuisse and then a Vouvray. We sipped, compared, contrasted, nibbled and chatted away two or three hours before the fog of weariness began to close in.

Most Memorable: The tartare was the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been craving it ever since, but it’s the ham that haunts us still. It was a perfect way to ease into our trip.

La Tupina – Bordeaux

Jumpy

Le royal ride.

 The Setup: After a much-needed nap, we all piled into the Jumpy — the sporty Citroen nine-seater that would be our carriage for the next two weeks — and Kelly drove through the evening drizzle to La Tupina, a renowned bistro tucked down one of the side streets off the Garonne River esplanade. Inside, we were greeted by a bright display of autumn vegetables and the heady aroma of offal and other delectables sizzling in the hearth where much of the cooking is done. The establishment appeared to have once been a residence, giving it a rustic hominess. Our large round table in the corner of the dining room (nee living room?) accommodated us and the conversation nicely.

La Tupina

Coddled egg, foie gras.

The Feast: I started with coddled egg and foie gras served in a petite cocotte with a side of toast. Light and decadent all at once. For the table, Dorothy splurged on caviar, a festive opening to our first dinner in France. James and Zandra started with duck carpaccio. For entrees, Jeff and Bob had the house specialty: tripe with ceps (porcino mushrooms), a rich stew served tableside from a Dutch oven. I had a simple but perfectly pink duck breast topped with lardons, and a side of duck-fat fries.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

More wine, of course, with a focus on reds, and Kelly expounded on the art and science of wine tasting (and here we thought we were already experts). First consider the color and the depth of color; swirl the wine and stuff your nose inside the glass for a good whiff, trying to pull out the characteristics (floral? fruity? earthy? mineral? animal?). Taste the wine — is it fruity? Acidic? Minerally? Assess its texture and its length. Then go through the process again. And again. More wine, more food, more talk, and by the end we were bursting — a recurring theme.

Most Memorable: Well, first, the food. That coddled egg and foie gras, to be specific. But aside from the food, the best thing about La Tupina was our lovely and gracious server, a petite French twentysomething with a sweet disposition and a future in wine stewardship. She, as much as the meal, made this a memorable evening.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – Bordeaux

The Setup: The following morning, a gray, drizzly day of wine tasting began with a tour of a beautiful chateau, our first. Our host at Smith Haut Lafitte began by describing the surrounding vineyards from an upper deck of the complex, then led us down to the aging room, with its stacks and rows of oak barrels and the now-familiar aroma, a heady, damp mixture of wine and wood. Deeper into the chateau we went, to the fermentation room with its gargantuan oak vats, and on through another, larger barrel-aging chamber, before ascending to the ground floor. We toured the cooperage, the workshop where the wine barrels are made, where the oak is carefully chosen and cut into planks before being banded and fired. As wine ages in the barrels, the oak imparts its characteristics of toast and vanilla, flavors whose intensity depends on the length of time in the container, how long a barrel is fired and whether it’s new or being reused.

Barrels

Smith Haut Lafitte’s massive aging cave.

It was fascinating to learn about the many components of viticulture and winemaking — the soil, the weather conditions, the yeasts, new barrels vs. used barrels, the methods of pigeage — that is, pushing down into the juice the sturdy “cap” of grape skins and other solids that rise to the surface during fermentation (or, alternatively, pumping the juice over the cap). The solids impart tannins.

The morning culminated with a tasting. After a sample or two or three in the bright tasting room, the guide pressed a button. A James Bond-worthy trapdoor hummed as it opened in the floor to reveal a staircase descending to an underground cellar and tasting room, where we finished the tour.

Tasting room

Hidden tasting room.

Lamb Terrine

Lamb terrine and eggplant puree.

 The Feast: Lunch followed at the estate’s homey restaurant near a crackling fireplace: frothy pumpkin soup; tender lamb terrine accompanied by a reduced jus and pureed eggplant; roasted hake over mashed potatoes; flaky white sea bream filet over tender leeks and a butter wine sauce. Paradis.

 Most Memorable: Lunch was delicious, especially that lamb terrine, but it was the 007-style hidden tasting room that stole the afternoon.

Enchiladas Suizas

Enchiladas Suizas with Spanish-style barley.

We are lucky to be prepping for a trip to western and southern France soon, and in doing so we are immersing ourselves in all things French: beautiful wines, delicious cheeses and of course the language. Having had only a year of French classes way back in high school, I’ve been practicing with some nifty software I bought, but I’ll be damned if my Spanish doesn’t keep intruding like a jealous friend I’ve been ignoring.

Le bâtiment, c’est près d’ici?
Sí, está muy cerca. Sólo tres minutos, más o menos.

Bah!

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, while our heads have been in Provence, our Sunday dinner menus have been on a little south-of-the-border tour recently. We should be priming our palates by cooking coq au vin or cassoulet, but instead we’re drawn to delicious frijol con puerco and enchiladas Suizas. (At least Switzerland is next to France.) A recent Saveur magazine — the Mexico issue — is partially to blame; that and we have a soft spot in our hearts for Mexico and its food.

Heating tomatoes and habaneros

Tomatoes and peppers for the magic sauce.

frijol con puerco

Frijoles con puerco, aka pork and beans.

A week ago Sunday we bought a pork shoulder and made the black bean stew, a richly flavorful dish augmented by a zesty puree of tomatoes and onions that tastes very similar to Thomas Keller’s soffritto, except with a snap of habanero that lingers on the tongue. The frijol dish is simple: browned cubes of pork, garlic, onions and black beans, all stewed together. (It’s especially simple since we used canned black beans.) The magical sauce I mentioned is made by blistering a pound of Roma tomatoes and habaneros in a hot pan, then transferring them along with half a cup of white onion and a couple of cloves of garlic to the Vitamix to puree. Afterward, the puree is fried in a quarter-cup of canola oil until slightly reduced. I can’t stress it enough: This is a marvelous sauce that serves as a soffritto would, bringing beautiful flavor and a bit of heat to just about any dish.

Chicken enchiladas in the pan

Delicious enchiladas. A whole pan.

Last Sunday, tempted again by Mexico and by the fact that it’s tomatillo season, we launched into enchiladas Suizas. This too is a simple recipe once you get past the basic prep. The ingredients list calls for three cups of shredded chicken, expedited by the availability of grocery store rotisserie birds. Somewhat labor-intensive is the charring of the tomatillos (husks removed) under the broiler and then, without losing any juices, removing the thin skin to reveal the gelatinous membranes within. (Hint, do this part over the blender, ’cause that’s where they’re going.) There they are joined by two poblano and two serrano peppers (also blackened and peeled), 3/4 cup of sour cream, a cup of boiling water, garlic, cumin and cilantro, then blended until smooth. Mix a cup of the enchilada sauce with the shredded chicken and you’re ready to assemble.

The earthy bitterness of the tomatillos and peppers with that hint of cilantro make for a light-tasting, refreshing sauce, so different from red enchilada sauces prevalent in many restaurants, and definitely more intense than the mild, creamy enchiladas Suizas I’ve encountered. Once the prep work is done, this is an easy-to-assemble meal that would be ideal for make-ahead entertaining.

France, you are a flirtatious distraction for us these days, and we cannot wait for our upcoming date. But deep down, our first love is Mexico. Ahora y siempre.

Bulgogi lettuce wraps

Marinated chicken and beef in the foreground, with the all-important Sriracha.

With the recent heat wave seemingly behind us, this Sunday’s dinner called for something light and easy. Jeff came across this bulgogi marinade recipe a few months ago, and it’s the third time he’s made it. Based on the popular Korean dish, this recipe comes from Mark Bittman and calls for beef. We’d done it with chicken one time and with beef another, and last night — what the hell — we did a twofer: round steak and chicken thighs.

On top of that, an afternoon trip to the farmer’s market brought an unexpected find for this time of year — baby artichokes. Unable to resist, even while knowing they had no cultural fit with our lettuce wraps, we grabbed a bag. And indeed, dinner would be a grab bag of a meal. Two very different, but very compelling components, and either would make for delicious and easy entertaining. (Just probably not on the same night.)

Bulgogi Marinade

1 bunch scallions

8 – 10 garlic cloves, peeled

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 to 3 pounds chicken or beef.

Put all the ingredients except the meat in the Vitamix, and blend until smooth. Add water as needed (Jeff used about 1/2 a cup).

Reserve about 1/2 cup of the marinade to use as a sauce. It’s tremendous. You’ll want to put it on everything.

Pour the remaining marinade over your choice of meat and mix to coat. (Bittman slices his beef before marinating, but we feel that complicates the grilling. We cooked the meat pieces whole and sliced them later.) Marinate for up to two hours before cooking on a hot, hot grill.

Slice the meat thinly and serve with butter lettuce leaves, the reserved sauce, sambal (or Sriracha if you are out of sambal like we, sadly,

Baby artichokes with garlic and mint

Baby artichokes with garlic and mint.

were).

And now for something completely different ..I adapted this recipe from Mario Batali’s cookbook Simple Italian Food – Recipes from My Two Villages.

Baby Artichokes With Mint and Garlic

12 baby artichokes with stems intact

6 or 7 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed with the side of a knife

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup mint leaves

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried red chile flakes

Salt and pepper

Remove the tough outer leaves from the artichokes and shave the stems. Cut larger ones in half lengthwise and place in acidulated water.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and the garlic until it is just golden. Drain the artichokes and place them in the pan stirring to coat with oil and garlic. Add the red chile flakes and a splash of wine and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, adding a little more wine along the way to braise the artichokes and keep the garlic from getting too brown. Season with salt and pepper, and about halfway through, add the torn mint leaves.  Serve warm as a side dish, or as we did, as a first course. This would also be delicious tossed with fresh pasta.

Minizo ramen

Happiness on a stick.

Minizo. Thanks for meeting me tonight. I know I shouldn’t … we shouldn’t. But the attraction is too great. It shouldn’t feel right — hot soup and steaming dumplings on a sun-baked August evening — but when that twilight breeze brushes my legs, well I can’t explain it. It just is right. It can’t be helped.

Stumpings

Tri-colored beauties.

You know I find you irresistible: your fresh handmade noodles boiled to order; the pinch of sprouts in the bottom of the bowl, awaiting the hot bath of broth; that soft-boiled egg, melting into the soup; the thinly sliced pork. Yes, I noticed it all. How could I not? All this cool confidence and yet you’re playful enough to display the plastic Godzilla on the counter. I’m feeling faint. Is it getting hotter? Or is it just me?

Stumplings, right next door, does not make this affair any easier. If I’m waiting, waiting for handmade noodles cooked to order, how can I resist handmade steamed dumplings? Yes, I am weak, but I am not ashamed. I am in love. It can’t be helped.

Eleni’s in Sellwood

August 18, 2012

Eleni's grilled calamari

Eleni’s grilled calamari. It’s a crime not to dip bread in that sauce.

One hundred degrees in Portland. The pets are wilting. The plants are panting. It’s too hot to breathe.

Our house lacks AC, so the only respite involves getting out, and on blistering nights like last Thursday, nothing beckons more than fresh, bright flavors and simple ingredients. In our minds, that means one place, so off to Eleni’s in Sellwood we went.

James and Zandra introduced us to Eleni’s long before we moved here, and we’ve been around the classic Greek menu a few times now, sampling appetizers, salads, pastas and mains. Decision-making impaired by the heat, we took the one-of-everything approach and assembled a feast of shared appetizers and a few larger plates mixed in: rice-filled dolmathes; giant lima beans sauteed with red peppers and onion; a generous triangle of spanakopita; moussaka thick with bechamel; flaky pan-seared halibut; a lamb gyro; plump tiger prawns sauteed with a zesty sherry sauce; and a bright Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, olives and feta in a light balsamic dressing.

But there’s one dish that brings us back repeatedly: marinated, grilled calamari finished with lemon juice and fruity olive oil. We always get two orders — truthfully, we could get four or five and not have enough. So simple, fresh and cooked to perfection, it transports you to a taverna on a Greek hillside overlooking the Mediterranean.

To put it plainly, we love Eleni’s, and the grilled calamari has no match in town. That we don’t hear much buzz about Eleni’s strikes us as odd because the food is consistently strong and the service is warm and prompt. But for now, it is our under-the-radar gem and the ideal destination no matter the temperature outside.

Tomato sandwich

J + R + T = Love.

Some couples have their song. (“This is our song! We danced to it at our wedding.”)

Some couples have a place. (“We are going back to Cabo in the spring. It’s where we met!!”)

Jeff and I, we have a sandwich.

Ok, to be fair, it’s a sandwich and a side. So it’s really a meal. Our meal is the tomato sandwich and “dry” ramen.

Of course I’d had BLTs before, and everyone knows how I feel about ramen, but this combination is special. Early in our relationship, Jeff introduced me to this glorious partnership, which he and his brother had perfected during their college years. The sandwich requires juicy, sweet, still-warm-from-the-sun, vine-ripened tomatoes, which are so plentiful in Salt Lake. It’s not worth making if you don’t have this component (and I’ve griped about the lack of decent tomatoes since leaving Utah).

The focus on the tomato makes this sandwich different from a BLT, where bacon steals the show. This is a T sandwich all the way, and the other ingredients are supporting cast: Two pieces of toasted wheat bread, one topped with a leaf or two of lettuce (I like either iceberg or butter lettuce). The other piece of bread has a slather of mayo and Dijon mustard. Call in the tomato. It should be plump, sweet and juicy, not like the anemic grainy flavorless imposters you find in the supermarket. At home we grew Early Girls and Beefsteak, and both made lovely sandwiches. Lay two, three or four thick slices on the lettuce. Grind a little black pepper over the tomato and put a couple not-too-thick slices of cheddar on top. The other piece of bread sits on top of the cheese. (You’ll notice the cheese and the lettuce insulate the bread from all the juices from the tomato. Ingenious, I know.)

While one of us assembled sandwiches, the other started a little pot of water on the stove for the ramen, which is drained and dressed with a dash of rice wine vinegar, a drizzle of soy sauce, several good shakes of Tabasco, half the flavor packet and five or six grinds of pepper.

Sandwich and ramen

Beautiful.

Sandwich on the plate. Ramen on the plate. Nothing could be more beautiful.

During the summer in Salt Lake when the tomatoes were bountiful, Jeff and I would eat tomato sandwiches for lunch at least a couple times a week. We even considered serving it at our wedding, only half-jokingly, before we decided that Log Haven likely would not tolerate Top Ramen in their kitchen.

Every once is a great while we come across the rare tomato that is sandwich-worthy, like the ones Jeff found last week. We pounced and went through the delicious summer ritual of so many years ago. Hunched over our plates, tomato juice dripping down our chins, we thanked our lucky stars that we don’t have a song or a place. We have a sandwich.