Sunday, January 31, 2010

tomato soup

As a kid, I was never too fussy about cream of tomato soup. The stuff that came out of a can seemed sweet and I never understood the appeal of it. Now that I'm older, I have an appreciation for homemade tomato soup. Here's a recipe that I made the other day. The original recipe that I got from a website seemed heavy on the milk and light on the tomatoes, so I changed the proportions a bit and added a few extra things, like curry paste, tomato paste and a bouillon cube. The thing I learned is the secret of the baking soda: added to the tomatoes, it keeps the milk from curdling.

cream of tomato soup
2 tablespoons butter
1 chopped onion
2-3 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk (you can do it with less)
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar (to counter the acidity)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cans diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ tsp mild curry paste
1 bouillon cube
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a medium to large pot. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the onion is softened but not browned. Sprinkle the flour over the butter mixture and continue to stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk and continue to cook and stir until slightly thickened. Stir the baking soda into the tomatoes (it will fizz). Add the tomatoes to the milk (it might froth up a bit) Add bouillon cube, tomato paste, curry paste, sugar and bay leaf and bring just to a simmer. Add extra water if necessary. Remove from the heat and put through a strainer or mix with an immersion hand blender. Taste and correct seasonings with salt and pepper. For the ultimate in comfort, serve with a grilled cheese sandwich. Yum!
Just a quick note about curry paste:  I find it really handy to have around and I add small amounts to pasta sauces and other hearty soups to give them a bit of depth. Just a 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon is usually enough for a big pot of whatever you're cooking.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

a job!

I suppose I should mention that I have found some work! I will be teaching English for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in their Language Learning Centre in Angers. Classes will mostly be one-on-one and will either take place at the centre or at people's place of work. Most of my students will be adults who need English for their job, but there are students from all sectors, including retirees and vocational students. The only downside is that there is no guarantee of hours per week, but I think that with a little patience it will work into something stable. I'm thankful to have found some work and it's nice to know that we don't have to move for the time being. (Now I just need to brush up on my grammar!)


Just before New Year's Eve, we drove north to the English Channel to spend a few days with Jean-Marc's brother. He lives in Mers-les-Bains, a seaside resort town that is straight out of the late 19th century. The town is filled with tall brick houses that have colourful woodwork and are rented out primarily as holiday homes. Since it was the dead of winter, the houses were mostly empty, but it wasn't hard to imagine what it might be like in the summer. We rang in the new year with a delicious seafood dinner, champagne and a tarte normande (almond/apple tart), and worked off our meal the following day on an energetic walk up and down the cliffside hills to the next town. On the way back we could see a storm coming across the Channel. We thought it was rain, but when it hit the coast we realized it was snow. Luckily we didn't have that much further to go!

Monday, January 11, 2010

apple tart

When we were invited to a dinner party with friends last weekend, we offered to bring dessert. I made a carrot cake and Jean-Marc made an apple tart. He's very good at cooking and baking, and tarts are one of his specialties. With this tart, he tried something new: he put a layer of homemade applesauce on the crust before adding the sliced apples. The applesauce was made earlier in the week from apples from a friend's orchard. It was a good addition to the pie and I would recommend trying it!

apple tart

crust (see the alternative crust down below)
1 3/4 cups flour (200g)
1/2 cup of butter (125g)
pinch of salt (if butter is not salted)
1-2 tablespoons of cold water

6-8 medium apples
applesauce (optional)
1 egg, beaten
cinnamon & sugar for sprinkling

For the crust, cut the butter into little chunks and mix it into the flour and salt (if using) with either a knife, pastry cutter or your fingers. Once the mixture resembles a coarse meal, add the water one tablespoon at a time. You may need more or less water, depending on the temperature and the weather, so add a little, mix a lot and then see if you need to add some more. Too much water will make the crust hard. Knead the dough until it holds together. More folding and smearing with your palms will create more of a flaky pastry. Set aside to rest.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. (190 degrees C.) and grease your pie pan. (I don't grease the pan, but Jean-Marc swears by it.) Peel and cut the apples into slices - each quarter apple should give you at least 4 slices.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a circle about an inch larger than your pie pan. Flip the dough into the pan and tuck in the edges. Spread a little applesauce along the bottom of the crust (1/4" deep) and begin to place the apple slices vertically around the edge of the pie. Start placing the rest of the slices horizontally around the pie until you have at least three layers. Take the beaten egg and brush it all over the top of the pie and then sprinkle the whole thing with a little cinnamon and sugar. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the crust and the apples are brown (our oven was a little too hot, so it got very dark brown!).

Additional Note:
I just made this tart again and this time I switched up the crust ingredients to make it slightly sweeter.  It turned out really well!

alternative crust ingredients
1 1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon water

As for the carrot cake, it's the third one I've made since I've been here and I'm still trying to figure out the best recipe. It was good, but I feel there are some changes to make.

the nine hour dinner party

This past weekend we were invited to an annual dinner party in Jean-Marc's home town with all his childhood friends. Normally it happens before Christmas but, since there was a lot of flu going around in December, it got moved to the new year. We were asked to arrive sometime after 4pm, when Epiphany galettes would be served (a puff pastry pie with almond paste filling) and a king and queen would be crowned. Traditionally a "fêve" (nowadays a porcelain figurine) is hidden inside the pie and whoever gets it in their slice, gets the crown. So we arrived around 5pm and sat down for some galette and bubbly. This was the beginning of our evening and it continued until 2:30 am. We spent over 9 hours around the table, eating various courses and discussing everything from politics to local gossip and, of course, food.  Here is a rundown of our meal.

5:00 pm - galette with sparkling wine
7:00 pm - choice of cider or rosé w/grapefruit syrup
9:00 pm - pumpkin soup with croutons
10:00 pm - pork roast and pommes dauphines
10:45 pm - green beans fried with garlic
11:30 pm - cheese course
12:15 am - dessert (we brought apple tart and carrot cake)
1:00 am - coffee/tea with chocolate and mandarin oranges
2:30 am - we went home

I should mention that there were 19 of us, including 8 kids ranging in age from 6 to 14. The kids were awake the whole time and I remember the 6 year-old girls playing twister at 2:00 am. There is definitely a different attitude towards kids' bedtimes here!