Feast Your Eyes: Chocolat (2001)

A great foodie movie for this time of year (Winter, or pre-spring for some of us) is Chocolat, based on the foodie novel by Joanne Harris.

This year Ash Wednesday falls very close to Valentine’s Day. For those of us who grew up Christian (especially Roman Catholic), it was an obvious choice to give up candy or chocolate for Lent. So some years, that lovely heart-shaped box someone got you on Valentines met a premature end–it went in the trash, or stored and forgotten in the family freezer.  In 2 months time new chocolate arrived with Easter. ‘Oh well. Really, this tangent relates to the film…

Chocolat tells the story of Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk, who move frequently around France in the 1950s. Vianne is a very talented candymaker and baker with French and Native American roots. She learned her craft from her indigenous mother.

Vianne opens a chocolate shop the first week of Lent, much to the chagrin of the town’s pious, conservative and traditional mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Reynaud sees himself as a moral compass for his town, responsible for keeping bad influences out, and Vianne is no exception. This film also features Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, Lena Olin, Carrie Ann Moss, and Johnny Depp. That’s all I will tell you, because anything more is a spoiler.

One of Vianne’s specialties is authentic Mexican hot chocolate, which includes chili peppers and whipped cream.

If it is too much to resist making your own, the recipe appears in My French Kitchen, a recipe book created by Fran Warde in collaboration with Joanne Harris.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joanne Harris is really good at creating stories of intrigue and mystery with a rich food angle. Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine, and Coastliners were also written by her in the last decade (2000s).

NOTE TO THE AUTHOR: When I read about family rivalries and food all centered in one town, I think the South is a natural fit to follow tales about France and England. Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, and New Orleans are all very old and possessed with ghosts—Joanne, you’ll love them!

Advertisements

What is…a beignet?

It’s a ‘must-devour’ if you go to New Orleans, Louisiana, but what exactly is a beignet?

Beignet (bain-yay is how I hear it most often) means fried dough or fritter. As you might have guessed, it is a fried yeast-containing doughnut, deep fried in cottonseed oil. Once it has cooled off a little, it is sprinkled with powdered or confectioners’ sugar. It is most often eaten in the morning with a cup of coffee. Restaurants serve them in groups of three.

Unlike other American ring-style doughnuts, it is not round and has no hole in the middle.

One of the most famous places to get beignets in NOLA is Cafe du Monde. Other eateries, like Cafe Beignet, also sell them. For those of us who aren’t in NOLA, there’s a video demo on how to cook beignets at the Cafe du Monde website. Some grocery chains, like Piggly Wiggly, even carry chicory coffee and beignet mix made by Cafe du Monde.

As they say in NOLA at Mardi Gras–laissez le bon temps rouler (layzay lee bohn timps rool-ay is how it is pronounced) = let the good times roll!

UPDATE: On a related note, in Michigan, they enjoy pączki (paunch-key), plum jelly-filled fried pastry that originate from Poland. The Polish have eaten these since the Middle Ages, and French cooks brought it to them. While many Americans would think its just a jelly doughnut, native eaters say it has a richer taste and regular old jelly doughnuts are bland by comparison.

In Poland individual paczek are eaten “Fat Thursday” the final Thursday before Ash Wednesday. But in the States, this was moved to Fat Tuesday. In the States, naturally other fruit jellies, or confitures, have been used in packzi. I really enjoyed reading Kitchen Chick’s blog on this food tradition, click her blog name to visit yourself.

What is…a courgette?

A courgette is the French term for what we Americans call a zucchini. It is a dark green vegetable speckled with white spots on its skin. It is a cylindrical summer squash. While it looks like a dry version of a cucumber, the two are not related.

The term courgette is most often used in the UK, Ireland, France, New Zealand, South Africa, and Kenya. The term zucchini is used in the US, Australia, and Italy. The term used varies greatly on the peoples who live in your area, and any American or European influence that may have been present in its history.

In produce markets, “courgette” may be used interchangeably with zucchini. If the market has a vast and varied selection of vegetables, the courgette may refer to an immature or “baby” zucchini sold alongside the full grown zucchini.

Many squashes originate in the Americas, however, the zucchini is an exception. It was developed in northern Italy and then brought over by immigrants in the late 1900s.

What is…a beignet?

It’s a ‘must-devour’ if you go to New Orleans, Louisiana, but what exactly is a beignet?

Beignet (bain-yay is how I hear it most often) means fried dough or fritter. As you might have guessed, it is a fried yeast-containing doughnut, deep fried in cottonseed oil. Once it has cooled off a little, it is sprinkled with powdered or confectioners’ sugar. It is most often eaten in the morning with a cup of coffee. Restaurants serve them in groups of three.

Unlike other American ring-style doughnuts, it is not round and has no hole in the middle.

One of the most famous places to get beignets in NOLA is Cafe du Monde. Other eateries, like Cafe Beignet, also sell them. For those of us who aren’t in NOLA, there’s a video demo on how to cook beignets at the Cafe du Monde website. Some grocery chains, like Piggly Wiggly, even carry chicory coffee and beignet mix made by Cafe du Monde.

As they say in NOLA at Mardi Gras–laissez le bon temps rouler (layzay lee bohn timps rool-ay is how it is pronounced) = let the good times roll!

UPDATE: On a related note, in Michigan, they enjoy pączki (paunch-key), plum jelly-filled fried pastry that originate from Poland. The Polish have eaten these since the Middle Ages, and French cooks brought it to them. While many Americans would think its just a jelly doughnut, native eaters say it has a richer taste and regular old jelly doughnuts are bland by comparison.

In Poland individual paczek are eaten “Fat Thursday” the final Thursday before Ash Wednesday. But in the States, this was moved to Fat Tuesday. In the States, naturally other fruit jellies, or confitures, have been used in packzi. I really enjoyed reading Kitchen Chick’s blog on this food tradition, click her blog name to visit yourself.

Banana Cardamom Kookys

Did your Valentine plan flop?

‘Did it not arrive on time?

‘Did it not get the desired reaction?

Well here’s a rainy day, valentine-do-over kooky recipe for the last month of winter: Banana Cardamom Kookys.

In the past, I’ve taken regular pancake mix, and added cardamom and sliced bananas right before pouring them into the frying pan. It adds a beachy look and taste to the ordinary flapjack. This week I realized  I could try kookys using this same trick.

For the kookys, mashed banana and cardamom would be in the batter, but a couple of oval slices of banana would be on top as well. If I could locate baby bananas, which are less than half the length and width of regular bananas, it would be even better for topping the kookys.

**the recipe below does not use alternative flour (aka gluten-free, vegetarian, or both), but I’ve listed the amounts of what I did use so substitutions can be made easily.**

Banana Cardamom Kookys

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix together the following ingredients–wet first, then dry. Add the flour last.

2/3 cup butter, softened and diced.

1/8 cup molasses

2 regular size mashed bananas

Bananas--regular_and_baby

1 egg

2 tablespoons cardamom spice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cup bread flour

black walnuts, crumbled (optional)

1 or more baby bananas, sliced diagonally and soaked in lemon juice.

Baby_bananas_sliced

I used a greased coffee spoon to place the dough on the cookie sheet. I placed the bananas diagonally on the kooky, slightly crossing over each other at the bottom to make a heart shape.

Closeup_of_cookie_before_baking
Cookies_set_up_for_baking

Once all 12 were decorated, I baked these for 12 minutes. I placed them on a cooling rack for another 10 minutes. Repeat these steps for remaining dough; I baked 16 cookies in all.

Cookies_after_baking
image

Alternatively, you can make banana chips, then place these on the warm cookies with a dab of honey so they stick to one another.

What is…Cream of Tartar vs. Tartar Sauce?

Language clash events just happen sometimes. They happen quite often in English. Scientific words get shortened, similarly spelled words invade from other languages, and they get shortened. The next thing you know you have a homographical, homophonical nightmare: words spelled the same, said the same, but aren’t the same.

‘Say what?

Tartar_and_tartar

Cream of tartar, or potassium bitartrate, is a white powder used in food preparation. It is called “tartar’ because it is an acid salt separated from tartaric acid, which is a bi-product of winemaking. Tartaric acid is found in nature in grapes, bananas, and tamarinds.  Cream of tartar is found in the baking aisle of most major chain grocery stores, shelved with the spices, though it is not a spice.

Cream of tartar is more like a leavening agent. For example, you add just a pinch to stiffen meringue (aka whipped egg whites) after the whipping is complete. This is so the egg whites don’t melt back into their previous transparent jelly-like state.

Tartar sauce, meanwhile, has a different association. There is no cream of tartar or tartaric acid in Tartar sauce.

While creamy in color and taste, this is due to mayonnaise, its chief ingredient. Tartar sauce also includes pickles (aka gherkins), capers, white wine vinegar, oil, lemon juice, and parsley or tarragon.  In the US, this sauce is most frequently served on the side of cooked fish filets, nuggets, sandwiches, and its namesake dish, steak tartare. This “tartare” is how we have “Tartar sauce”.

Steak tartare is minced up cow or horse meat served raw, with a raw egg on top, rye bread beneath, and garnished with capers and tartar sauce. “Tartare” is a French word meaning “messengers and warriors on horseback”. “Tartars” (aka “Tatars” is the more universal term on the web these days) currently live in the Russian Federation and surrounding countries, they have North African, Mongol and Turkish roots. They were a nomadic people for centuries.

I cannot locate online proof that Tataric peoples ate this food or made this sauce; it is more likely that a French chef wanted to mentally link some manner of nomadic ruffians with this simple dish of eggs and meat in the eyes of the consumer. See, even then marketing was everything.This dish is also called “steak a la americaine”, and it is listed in French gastronomy books from the early 20th century. Who knows when the French started making it, but I would guess the 1800s at the latest. Why? ‘Note the events that followed…

The Straight Dope hints that when steak tartare was introduced in Hamburg, (the famous port city in northern Germany), they cooked it more and made it their own, and renamed it the “Hamburger”. Some time passes, Germans immigrate to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the largest ethnic groups ever to do so. Fast forward to today, and not surprisingly, one of the hallmarks of American food is a “hamburger”, anywhere you go in this country.

These days it takes a brave soul to eat raw meat, as steak tartare was originally prepared, for fear of food poisoning. I do find interesting though is that tartar sauce contains vinegar. Vinegar and citrus fruit juice, when put on raw meat, denatures it, making it appear cooked. This doesn’t kill all the bacteria, but I would think it helps. In its description of steak tartare and raw meat dishes around the world, Wikipedia notes that local tastes dictate different animal meats are used, but it is fairly universal to use acidic marinades, hot peppers, mustard oil, ground fennel, grains, and olive oil to prepare that meat. These preparations make the food palatable, but I have to think there’s more to the story than that.

For any nomadic peoples, I would bet fresh kills, vinegar, vodka or wine, brined or pickled vegetables, and most of all, fire helped avoid some foodborne illness in nomadic food preparation. If there isn’t a book, perhaps there should be.  It’s possible Sandor Katz has beat me to it. For those that don’t know, Katz, aka Sandorkraut, is a self-made expert of fermented food and its history. Click his name to check out his books and website.