Sunday, 29 April 2012

French bread

You know all those stereotypes about France? Well some of them are true. Take, for example, the notion that the French eat a lot of long, thin bread with every meal.

What it is, basically:
The term we anglophones are familiar with, baguette, is a broad-sweeping word. The word basically describes a loaf of bread which is long and thin in shape, probably marked with shallow, short, diagonal scores on the top. The ends can be either tapered to a point or, more usually, gently rounded. It tends to be carried by chaps in blue and white stripey jumpers.
Isn't it annoying when stereotypes need a little more explaining? It is certainly possible to go into a boulangerie (baker's), ask for "Une baguette, s'il vous plaît", and be served with an item resembling the above loaf. But try this, and you'll get a run-of-the-mill stick of bread made with uninteresting flour, and not much flavour. It'll serve purposes such as housing flavoursome sandwich fillings, or mopping up soup plates, vinaigrettes, and the like. But there's a whole range of more exciting and tasty things than the generic baguette...

Knowing your stuff:
Don't buy a baguette in a French supermarket. Really, don't. You may as well munch on the cardboard box your cornflakes come in. Go to a proper boulangerie. There's bound to be one nearby, wherever you are in France¹. Before you stride up to the counter and ask, in your best French accent, for a generic baguette, stop and take a look. Behind the display cabinet full of dairy-packed chocolaty treats and tartines, there's a rack of similar but not quite identical-looking baguettes, isn't there²?
Take a good look. Even from this distance, you can see the differing shades of brown, flax, taupe, sand, gold, yellow, ochre, beige, even a greyish-looking one. You can see differences in width, length, shape, pattern, and over all size. Grains are visible in some and not in others. Some are well-done whereas some are paler-looking. Be brave and be precise. Point, if you have to. I believe this period of experimentation is essential if you're to feel really at ease with the baguette.
Make sure you buy and eat you baguette as fresh as possible. The bread is not baked to last. It exists because it believes that most of its purchasers will be able to buy it at least once a day, probably twice. The fact that most baguettes contain no fat at all means that they cannot be kept the way that standard non-French loaves can. Eat on the day of purchase, or pay the price in dental care.

A slightly more scientific approach:
Each of these variations on the basic notion of the baguette has its merits: after all, there's a reason the bakers offer more than just a baguette. Most vary in the make-up of the dough. Baguettes made with wholemeal flour (blé complet) are slightly darker in appearance. You can buy baguettes made with several different grains and seeds (aux céréales, or something similar, depending on the bakery), which have a nuttier flavour. Sourdough (pain au levain) is always delicious thanks to its slightly acidic tang.
Let me tell you about my personal favourite. It calls itself a pain de tradition française, or a tradition, and its make-up is governed by a law brought in in 1993. A tradition cannot have been frozen at any point, and it cannot contain anything other than flour, water, salt, and yeast. This is a very nice law, since it means that all traditions are vegan. None of that eggy wash that can be stuck on a generic baguette.

France is not nearly so self-assured as the (other) stereotype would make out, but she does take pleasure in her great culinary traditions. It's not like the heritage is undeserved, after all. In this case, the harking back to the good old days has glorious results. The tradition is a bread you just can't help squeezing. I'm reminded of an old advert for Dime bars when I come into contact with one of these loaves. The croûte - the crust - is generous, and will tear the roof of your mouth away if you're not careful. The mie - the crumb - is tender in the extreme, riddled with air-pockets, and slightly iridescent. Enough dribbling...

How they make it happen:
A real baguette should be kneaded for a long time, and slowly. Then the dough should be left to sit for forty-five minutes to an hour, to relax, and to begin rising. Real French bakers bake their baguettes on the stone floor of an oven, which is seen as the traditional method. 300g of dough are needed to make the archetypal French baguette, although you'll find variation on this. No French bakery worth its weight in ... dough will be willing to disclose the precise ingredients it uses for any of its recipes.

¹Except possibly at Eurodisney. I haven't been. Let me know.
²If there isn't, get out now: this is not a proper bakery.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Apéro à gogo

Apéro might be the thing I like best about France. Honestly, tell an English girl that she's allowed - nay, encouraged - to eat crisps and drink beer at 7pm, and you'll make her fall in love with wherever it is that this thing goes on.

An apéro (nobody worth their salted peanuts says apéritif) can be as simple as a beer and some crisps, or a glass of white wine and some olives, or a kir and some cashews. It's more fun if you turn it into an apéro dînatoire though: an all-evening affair with various different drinks and bits to pick at.

Here are some ideas:

Get yourself some puff pastry. It comes in rounds here, which is very helpful for making little savoury croissants with it. See recipe here. Filling suggestions:

- Tempeh bacon crumbles and marinated artichokes.
- Sun-dried tomatoes and pesto (not too much pesto or they get a bit greasy).
- Tofutti cream cheese and chopped olives.
- Tofutti cream cheese and mushrooms cooked with garlic and thyme.

vegan aperitif

Spice your own nuts. These are almonds toasted in a little olive oil, then hit with sugar, salt, paprika, cumin, and black pepper.

spiced almonds recipe

Everyone loves a big pan of popcorn. A cheaper and more delicious food cannot exist. Here flavoured with salt, thyme, and red pepper flakes.


Edamame make a nice addition. Here they're tossed with red pepper flakes, sea salt, and garlic sprinkles. And we have some wasabi peas, olives, and, of course, crisps on the side.

vegan aperitif

Monday, 16 April 2012

TLC from a TLT

It is a half-truth universally acknowledged that all vegans secretly crave bacon. Only a half-truth because, personally, I remember bacon always tasting extremely disappointing. It smelled so good, it tasted so... so-so.

My tempeh bacon recipe grew out of this one in the fabulous Vegan with a Vengeance, which you should buy. I've made a few changes over the years. Here's what I do:

1. In a fully sealable Tupperware-type box, fork together 4 Tbsp soya sauce, 1 Tbsp cider vinegar, 1 Tbsp tomato purée, 1 Tbsp sesame oil, 1/2 tsp liquid smoke*, a sprinkling garlic powder, a good slug hot sauce.

2. Crumble in your block of tempeh. Mix to coat, and leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer. Shake the box around occasionally to spread the flavours round. The fact that I crumble rather than slice the tempeh helps with this too.

3. Heat 1 Tbsp vegetable oil in a frying pan. Tip your tempeh in, marinade and all. Fry, stirring often, on a medium heat until the tempeh bacon crumbles are darker and crispy bits appear.

Today I was nursing a hangover which I acquired at a gig on a pirate ship moored on the Seine. So of course I made TLTs.

Toasted bread, baby spinach, posh semi-dry tomatoes, and sauerkraut. I bloody love sauerkraut.

These smoky crumbles are great eaten other ways too - add them to a basic tomato pasta sauce, stuff them in a breakfast burrito with rice, salsa, and avocado, tip them straight into your mouth from the pan...

* I have kind American friends who return from trips to the US with liquid smoke for me. Maybe they sell it in the American food shops here. Not sure. I'm a lucky girl.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

If you're feeling sinister, have a salad for dinner, sir

After a weekend of debauchery such as the Easter weekend we've just crawled out of, it has to be salad.

98% of French people expect vegans to eat salad day in, day out. Utterly untrue. In fact, the majority of French restaurants don't even offer a vegan salad. The best you can usually do is ask for something sans oeufs or sans fromage or sans jambon, sans oeufs, sans emmental et sans mayo s'il vous plaît as the case may be. You're generally left with salade verte and not much else, and so feel an obligation to order a plate of chips to go with it. Otherwise you'd waste away, see.

At home it's a different story, and salads can be a pretty delicious and restorative affair:

Plus, there's precious little cooking involved in salads, so even the most jittery-handed can rustle one up in no time. Just make sure you put stuff you love in it. This guy has baby spinach, a mix of alfalfa and mustard sprouts, radishes, sauerkraut, and asparagus which I quickly griddled with a tiny bit of olive oil in a super hot pan.

The dressing is also very important. Here I just whisked (well... forked) together some tahini, miso, mustard, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and pepper in a mug. That's got to be good for you, right?

Spring salads: helping you rise from the dead at Easter.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A Vegan in Brazil

Turns out you can be a super happy vegan in Brazil. While the others eat deep-fried prawns, you eat this:

Pastels: deep-fried envelopes of yum. These were 'pizza' flavour originally, until my lovely Portuguese-ish-speaking colleague asked for them without the mozzarella. So pockets of tomato and oregano it was:

vegan pastels

First Brazilian meal. You know how the word 'buffet' has horrible connotations? Turns out it can be done well, and they do it super well in Brazil. Brown rice, beetroot/carrot/lettuce salad with vegan feijao, okra, and soya mince doo-dah:

vegan brazil

 And it turns out that caipirinhas don't really exist. You get caipiras instead. Size isn't everything, but it does help:

 Most of our meals came from a couple of buffet places nearby. This is my plate the day I went to pick the buffet lunch up. Rice and feijao, chickpeas, broccoli, salad with basil dressing, grated carrots, slightly odd bulgour and gherkin salad, lime from the tree above our heads. Hot sauce not pictured.

brazil vegan

The worst thing I've ever half-eaten. I do hate to criticise, sarky sod that I am, but this was genuinely bad. Super-sweet hotdog bun filled with mash, sweetcorn, peas, and raw onions. Topped with crisps. You're shitting me, right?

 Another good buffet lunch: rice, feijao, crazy peppery rocket salad, veg:

vegan in brazil

 When we ate out, my meals looked a lot like this. With chips or aipim frito (fried cassava/yuca) on the side. Eating salad feels right in the sunshine, though. Especially when you get hearts of palm and crazy hairy leaves into the bargain:

vegan salad brazil

And here comes the point when I realised that maybe, just maybe, those things on that papaya tree in the garden were green papayas. And maybe, just maybe, they could be turned into a green papaya salad.

1: Choose your fruit:

2: Chop it the fuck up, Thai-stylee (peel, slice in half, slice finely length-wise, shave off the top in a shreddy manner):

vegan green papaya salad
3: Make it (no recipe, sorry. Soya sauce, sugar, chili, lime, peanuts - that kind of thing to taste). Feel a bit proud about the board of pedagogical material you created in the foreground. Think that maybe you should go to a proper hairdresser one of these days instead of DIYing it, given that long tendril there:
4. Present it to your lovely colleague, with a smile: 

Et basta. Foetus lime included for size comparison:

green papaya salad

And something sweet: banana pastels. Sprinkled with sugar. I want more, right now:

sweet vegan pastels