Chocolate and Zucchini

I wanted to point you toward a truly rewarding blog today, a most excellent blog, a blog guaranteed not to make you feel despairing of, or disgusted with, the damned human race. It's the creation of Clotilde Desoulier, and she calls it Chocolate and Zucchini. If you enjoy food (not necessarily a sure assumption, I've actually met some unfortunate souls who do not), then you will like her blog.

Now, much as I enjoy a fine meal, I almost never frequent the dauntingly numerous food blogs. They tend to be oriented more towards producers of fine food than consumers, if you take my meaning. Or at least, such has been my experience.

In simple fact, they intimidate me. You see, I'm not really a very good cook. Bit more of an eater actually, second breakfasts and such being more in my line. For me, the recipe part of a blog posting might just as well be decorative calligraphy.

This may appear to be off topic, but as Max Beerbohm has so sagely pointed out, mankind can be (roughly) divided into two categories...

In practice, no, there cannot be any absolute division of mankind into my two categories, hosts and guests. But psychologically a guest does not cease to be a guest when he gives a dinner, nor is a host not a host when he accepts one.

The amount of entertaining that a guest need do is a matter wholly for his own conscience. He will soon find that he does not receive less hospitality for offering little; and he would not receive less if he offered none. The amount received by him depends wholly on the degree of his agreeableness.

Pride makes an occasional host of him; but he does not shine in that capacity. Nor do hosts want him to assay it. If they accept an invitation from him, they do so only because they wish not to hurt his feelings. As guests they are fish out of water.

So count me as one of life's guests. Which perhaps helps to explain why I enjoy Chocolate and Zucchini so much. Miss Desoulier makes me feel like a welcome guest, one who perhaps just happened to drop in for a minute or two, but with whom she's perfectly happy to share her latest doings.

Did I mention that she's a very fine amateur photographer? Look, here's her gallery. Semi-random excerpts here, here, here, here, here and here. Judge for yourself. If you should see anything that looks especially delicious, you need merely click on it to reach the relevant posting. Here's an example...

[Green Tea Cat's Tongues]

Langues de chat are classic French cookies that fall into the category of petits fours secs (dry petits fours, as opposed to miniature versions of pastries with buttercream, pastry cream, etc). They used to be a frequent accompaniment to ice-cream in restaurants, in rotation with cigarettes russes, but I haven't seen that done for a while -- gavottes seem to have taken their place.

"Cat's tongues" are oval buttery cookies, with a blonde center and lightly browned edges. The packaged versions one can find at French grocery stores are crunchy all over and quite decent, but the homemade langue de chat offers a nice change of texture, with its thin crispy rims and tender, slightly chewy heart.

Langues de chat are very simple to make, and a great use for leftover egg whites. I usually flavor them with vanilla -- delicious with a warm apricot compote -- but the other day, when my mother asked if I could bring something to nibble on with tea after dinner at their house, I decided it was high time I used the small package of matcha that had been waiting around in my baking treasure box for months, and was beginning to feel just a little dejected.

I was unsure of how much matcha I should use, so I just added a teaspoon and a half and hoped for the best. As it turns out, this was just the right amount for the earthy green tea notes to come through, without giving the impression that you had just swallowed a spoonful of tea leaves -- if you've ever tried that, you know it's not too pleasant an experience. The flavor was lovely in an adult kind of way, the cookies an interesting shade of olive green, and we liked them so much that I baked a second batch for us the next day.

A little history, a little domesticity. A winning combination. Do click through for the accompanying picture. It's tres cute, and her photographs are a large part of her blog's appeal. If I couldn't ogle her numerous delightful creations, all I would be left with are her deftly tasty verbal sketches. Here's another...

Tartines have been a fairly trendy lunch fare in Parisian restaurants for a while. Originally, "tartine" means a slice of bread, toasted or not, with something spread on it, usually eaten for breakfast : butter (tartine beurrée), jam (tartine de confiture), cheese (tartine de fromage)...

For a few years now, the concept of tartine has been recycled into an easy but delicious main dish : one or two slices of bread on which ingredients are laid, creating a sort of open-faced sandwich. It's interesting to note that this is a flashback to the Middle Ages, when slices of bread were used in lieu of plates!

This simple idea can lead to an infinite number of variations. But it is a very open concept that should be used with care, and one has to make sure the combination of ingredients is sound. Whipping up a tartine using all the miscellaneous leftovers in the fridge can work wonders. Or not.

Incidentally, that last excerpt was my introduction to Chocolate and Zucchini. I found it by happy accident. Sometimes internet serendipity can be a wonderful thing. Here is one of my absolute favorites of her postings, excerpted at considerable length. You may have to scroll down a bit on her page...

And today, let me introduce you to one of the quirky wonders of old-school French charcuterie: the Oeuf en Gelée.

It's a simple preparation, really: a fresh egg, expertly poached into a plump oval, nested in an amber casing of veal aspic, and supported by a few benevolent companions -- here, a strip of cooked ham, a bit of chopped parsley, a small piece of tomato and a slice of cornichon.

I am well aware that this may not seem like such a compelling idea, and may even put off more than one aspic-shy eater. I myself turned my nose up at these eggs for years, dismissing them as an obsolete oddity, quite literally congealed in time.

But that was before I actually tasted them (and before I realized you can't just decide you don't like something before you've even tried it). Maxence had been a long-time fan -- it was always a treat when his mother got him one for lunch -- and when we started living and food-shopping together in Paris, he persuaded me to give them a chance. I was pleasantly surprised, and quick to join him in his devotion.

First, there is the simple joy of freeing the egg from its thin plastic mold, running a knife around the aspic, squeezing the supple sides of the cup, and plopping its contents onto your plate. Secondly, you get to cut through the whole thing with your fork, rupturing the yolk and forming a golden puddle that just begs to be dabbed with a piece of fresh baguette. And then, as you eat your way through the egg, each bite reveals clean and fresh flavors, the glistening smoothness of the aspic responding marvellously well to the rich velvet of the yolk.

Step inside any charcuterie, throw a sweeping glance at the selection, and you will quickly spot the disciplined formation of oeufs en gelée, neatly lined up on a refrigerated shelf. Each shop will have its own shapes and formulas -- this one has dill and a sparkling sprinkle of pink peppercorns -- and chances are you will also be able to choose from different models. A popular variation features smoked salmon, but I largely prefer the more humble ham version.

Doesn't she write beautifully? Yet, there's an unassuming quality to her prose that is very pleasant and disarming. One never feels condescended to. And as for the Oeuf en Gelée itself? My, oh my. It almost doesn't look like food at all, does it? You might reasonably mistake it for an industrial artifact of the distant future, or perhaps one of those plastic jewel boxes that ladies watches were once sold in. I love her blog.

And now I find out that her father is an absolutely huge Jack Vance fan, as am I. In fact, he is responsible for translating The Blue World into French. Truly an accomplished family!

There are quite a few other things I'd like to say about Chocolate and Zucchini. Sadly, time presses. Let's leave them for another day and give them the care they deserve.

In lieu of my own thoughts, I will leave you with those of Miss Desoulier, a tasty dessert if you will...

A lot can be learned about your cooking self by considering what you eat when you're on your own. I have friends who are just not hungry when they're alone, who (gasp!) forget to eat, who don't consider it a real meal if there's no dining companion, or who just eat a Kinder Surprise, build the little toy and call it dinner -- and I'm not making this up.

What's most surprising to me is that some of them are great cooks, but somehow they don't find it worth the effort to use their talents if it's just for their own benefit. I say, you should treat yourself as if you were your own guest.

I certainly understand the desire to keep things simple when no one's looking -- and I'm not saying you should prepare multiple courses and whip out votive candles, although it's a nice thought -- but to me, dinner alone shouldn't be expedited as if it were a chore. Instead, I see it as a unique opportunity to eat exactly what I please and how I want to eat it, comfortable in my delicious solitude. And in my world, this often means eating from a bowl, on the couch, while watching Desperate Housewives.

posted by Justin on 07.09.06 at 12:28 PM


What a taste-tempting treat!


Eric Scheie   ·  July 9, 2006 4:17 PM

What an homage to this woman of your dreams! The little quiches that I used to bring to work for you could never compare with the stuff this tartine cooks up! xoxoxoxo

Justin Case's Former Personal Secretary   ·  July 9, 2006 7:51 PM

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