isolate, connect & create challenge

Two best friends, Katherine, artist in Florida and Wendy, biochemist foodie in France d​ecided to create a global challenge to connect in these times of social distancing. 

This is something you can do with your family, kids, friends, anyone!  ANY AGE!  

We invite YOU to join the 30 days of isolation, connection & creation challenge.

The RULES: For 30 days follow the prompt list and create an image! Use a crayon, pencil, pen, sharpie, ipad, maxipad, paper mache or clay, – or whatever!!! 

Take a photo of your masterpiece post the photo with #isolateconnectcreate

Let the spontaneous smiles begin!

…and here are your prompts.

Keeping Thanksgiving

Embracing my expat self- I have almost always hosted a Thanksgiving dinner, no matter where I have lived.  Germany was a bit challenging to get a whole turkey, (“…are you sure you don’t want us to cut it up for you?  …will it even fit in your oven?”). In the UK I just had to find a place to get an ‘early’ turkey since it is standard for an English Christmas feast, and the same for France, just a matter of ordering in time.

I am finally (after oh, nearly 20 years of living as an expat) coming to terms with the whole expat thing.  My initial feelings were integrate integrate integrate and avoid leaning in too much to the expat community. Through time I have realised expat is part of who I am and I have a great opportunity know to be part of multiple communities, expat and French. So, I not so guiltily fall back on quesadillas as my emergency fast food, but tend to eat more ‘French’ on a day to day basis.

This year Thanksgiving was a bit of a nod to that with a fusion menu.

  • Roast Turkey
  • Gravy (pimped with dried ceps, just trust me,do it!)
  • Mashed potatoes (a la Joël Robuchon, with more butter than I would admit to)
  • Poule ‘verte’ (a French stuffed cabbage, recipe from the inspiring Kate Hill)
  • Roast Parsnips (my husband is English)
  • Basque Christmas chutney (red wine-soaked prunes, figs and raisins, recipe from Marti Buckley’s beautiful Basque Country, delicious!)
La poule verte, reaady for the oven

This year’s pudding was provided by my lovely English expat friend Jo, a maple pumpkin cheesecake with maple ice cream and salted caramel (as decadent and delicious as you think).

And a final flourish with some pumpkin spice canelés (adapted from the fab Saveur basic canelé recipe)

I am now fully launched into feasting season… bring on the turkey, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts…and foie gras, truffles, oysters and Mont d’Or cheese!

When walnut trees go bad, or, that explains the rubbish tomatoes

I was fairly baffled by how poor my tomato crop was this year- I put it down to multiple heat waves, not pruning the tomatoes enough and possibly choosing the wrong varieties for the location…last year I had x2 tomato plants in pots next to the front door that didn’t receive much attention and they easily gave 10x the crop as my x6 plants in the potager.  How could I have messed up so much? 

I didn’t.

It was the walnut tree.

It is a big ‘ol tree

Apparently walnut trees have a nasty habit of producing a chemical called juglone.  Tomatoes (and potatoes, peppers and aubergines…there goes the ratatouille!) apparently hate this chemical and don’t grow well at all in the vicinity of a walnut tree.  Guess where we put the potager?

So I have a choice.  Find a new place to plant my favourite garden vegetables…or cut down the tree.  Don’t worry – the tree is beautiful – even if it is killing my tomatoes and gives lousy walnuts (apparently old walnut trees are pretty but not very productive…just destructive!).

Looks like I will have a second ‘potager’ of pots on the terrace and in between the scraggly roses (which apparently like tomatoes?!) in the flower beds by the front door.

On the upside- that leaves a lot of room for plants that don’t give a shit about juglone- which looks to be: onions, beetroot, squash (yeah, I already knew that), melon, carrots, parsnips, beans, corn, leeks…and also currants . I’ve been meaning to get a couple black currant plants anyhow, I hear the leaves make a nice tea.

Autumnal assessment

And voila- summer over, equinox blew by and here we are in autumn! 

Right now that means a freezer full of goat, a potager that just won’t stop producing chard and courgettes, and now a nice little pile of pumpkins.  I still can’t find the secret chicken nest- so only 1-2 eggs a day.  Aaaaand I think the goats have had enough with the milking and I am getting less and less each day (not bad though- it has been pretty good for a full year now!).  Time to arrange their ‘date’ with the buck to ‘refresh’.

In addition to gearing up for a lot of goat-based meals (bring on #goatober), autumn is looking to be a reflective time for me, to catch my breath from what feels like a whirlwind summer, and cooler days mean I can linger in the hot kitchen a bit more.

I’ll be tucking in to these and getting some autumn cooking inspiration

…and it looks like Dom has raided the village fig tree again…so, time for some fig jam.

Potager year one: hmmmmm

Harvest time! Sort of. Not the most abundant potager harvest this season- and that isn’t just because I am being greedy, which I probably am, but a couple other reasons as well:

  1. Unusually hot dry summer (most people we know with a veg patch are grumbling)
  2. Hey – it is the first year…we are bound to make mistakes (and we did)

Now- I was drawing on my experience with a small vegetable garden years ago in Austin, Texas…which I thought was kind of the same climate (but even hotter) – however, we did get frequent crazy afternoon thunderstorms in Austin, and I did only regularly grow tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.  So there is limited real ‘transfer’ of knowledge there.

What are some things have I learned this year?

  • Weeds grow fast – I might want to think about a ground cover in between plants (d’oh)
  • Tomatoes need a bit more attention- a little more pruning might be in order
  • Tomatoes get big (and unruly) – sorry about that aubergines, I’ll give you more space next time!
  • I love tomatoes – no, I didn’t learn that, but damn a fresh grown tomato is delicious, I want more!  Oh yeah- chickens also love tomatoes, and weirdly Lupo (the husky) also loves tomatoes…I caught him sneaking among the tomato plants this morning.  So, I have competition
  • Courgettes are monsters- the plants take over, grow a lot larger than I thought, and I  swear – you turn your back for one day and suddenly you have mutant courgettes the size of your leg!
  • Carrots took way too long, and were a bit disappointing (probably the weather as well as the ground)- think I’ll go with more beetroot next year.
  • I have no idea how to grow ‘flower spouts’ (or brussels sprouts for that matter).  They are now just weird giant stalks with no sprouts.  Hmmmmm.
  • Mange tout don’t like extreme heat (and ended up way too fibrous, not very tout mange-able)

Now- if we can just find the new secret nest of the chickens – I could cook up a courgette frittata.  In the meantime it will be courgette gratin, stir fry, chutney, cake, or, hmm can you make courgette ice cream?!

…and then there were three. Sentimentality in smallholding.

We have had a fairly emotional week.  We returned from our trip to see family in England to find our little fragile White Ears had passed away, peacefully while napping in the pasture.  He was always very small and we had to hand feed him to be sure he got enough to eat, so we got quite attached to his sweet little greetings every day.

Today, the two remaining boys had their ‘one bad day’. We found someone to help us with the ‘dispatch’ and the initial butchering, he was considerate and quick. I made my sad good-byes this morning.  We never gave them names and I tried to keep from getting attached- but they have been with us a bit longer than intended (let me just say – big learning curve for us, butchering goats in France is not a common thing).  I don’t regret it – we gave them a very good life, and this is the practicality of what we are doing here.

Some quick thinking on Dom’s part made our freezer into a temporary butcher block, finally a use for those ugly old doors. Unfortunately, because of timing I really couldn’t do the butchering but I did watch and talked through the process with our very efficient and fast butcher. He processed the two carcasses in a matter of minutes. I’ll do the ‘fine’ butchering as we use everything up.

The remaining ladies, Ella, Aretha and Odette now have a bit more space to fill…and should be looking forward to a hot date with a buck in a couple months.  Spring – we start the cycle all over again.

Canicule (heatwave) cooking

Recent hot weather has inspired a bit of chilled food ‘cooking’.  Mostly in experiential stages and just throwing things together.

My go to hot weather meal is a gazpacho….I just use what I have on hand- with tomato, cucumber (remove seeds and skin), red onion, olive oil and sherry vinegar as a base…then maybe a green or red pepper, or some celery (with leaves) or a chili…blend it all up, add some crustless stale white bread and a bit of salt, let it sit about 10 minutes, blend again.  Chill a few hours, maybe top with a few croutons (using up your stale bread) a drizzle of good olive oil, and eat!

I recently whipped up a melon version using the amazing perfumed Quercy melons we have here:

  • ½ melon
  • ½ long cucumber
  • 1/2 clove garlic
  • 1 small shallot
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Salt
  • Olive oil

…blend, chill and eat. Maybe top with a bit of fresh goats cheese or some shredded dried ham (Jambon Bayonne, Iberico or prosciutto).

Another recent ‘canicule’ inspiration was based on a ‘verrine’  from a tapas restaurant in Toulouse ( , aubergine, tomato and goats cheese. 

Aubergine: chop in to relatively big cubes, toss in salt and olive oil put in a pan and roast for 45 min at 200c.  Puree with a spoonful of thick yoghurt and a dollop of tahini.

Tomato: x3 tomatoes, quarter, toss in olive oil with a clove of shaved garlic, roast for 45 min at 200c (conveniently same as the aubergine!): roughly puree, and if you have sundried tomatoes in oil lying around, toss a couple of those in when you puree

Goats cheese: I used my fresh homemade goats cheese, but any soft goats cheese will do.  A few heaping spoonfuls mixed with some pesto, voila! If you are feeling gourmet you could whip it up with some milk or cream

Layer each ‘puree’ up in a glass (I use old mustard jars, which here in France often don’t have screw top lids and are a perfect size for is sort of thing): aubergine on the bottom, tomato, then top with goats cheese.  Chill a couple hours then impress your friends and enjoy.

A summer taste of home: bread and butter pickles

A number of people have asked for my recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles so I thought I would share – it was given to me by an American friend who lives in Clun which is a village on the Welsh border in Shropshire (thank you Linda!). 

Apart from a little bit of patience it is dead easy and I make at least one batch every summer.  Now that I have my own cucumber plants (three varieties- Russian, long slim and cornichon) slowly taking over their corner of the potager- I suspect I will be making a quite a few batches of pickles this summer.  Let me know if you have any recipes to share.  

For these pickles I have been using the Russian variety – which also look like they would make good big fat dill pickles.  I have a mandoline to slice them and use the crinkle cut – as it reminds me of summer BBQs in the States, with a big jar of pickle slices to put on your likely overcooked hamburger (but tasted great).

Recipe from Linda (American measure- I have made some suggested adaptations to metric)

approx  4 cups pickles

5 1/2 cup [1 1/2 lb./700g] thinly sliced pickling cucumbers [the firmer the better!]
1 1/2 TBSP  (24g) kosher salt
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onion [white onion pref.]
1 cup  (200g) granulated sugar
1 cup (250mL) white vinegar
1/2 cup (125mL)  apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup (50g) brown sugar packed (muscovado sugar)
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp celery seeds
1/8 tsp ground turmeric

1. Combine cucumbers and salt in a large shallow bowl; cover and chill 1 1/2 hours. Move cucumbers into a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Drain well and return cucumbers to bowl. Add onion.

2. Combine sugar and remaining ingredients in a saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. pour hot vinegar mixture over cucumber mixture; let stand at room temp 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours. Store in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 2 weeks. 

Tips: Don’t cut the cucumbers too thin. They want to be crunchy! Also you don’t need to wait 24 hours to tuck in!

Striving for…imperfection (and an aside on oily fish)

Living in France has taught me that perfection isn’t always the best goal.  A slightly wonky stone wall is beautiful and wouldn’t look right of someone came and straightened it up (shore it up, yes that is OK, you don’t want it falling on anyone!).

I don’t mean that you settle for less or just accept mediocre…it is more about recognising the value of imperfection….and then (on a short philosophical detour here, bear with me) applying that to your broader view of life.

It is a hard lesson for me, and I fight it all the time. When Dom and I first moved in to the house here I started making lists…never ending lists of what was wrong, what needed to be changed and when we needed to change/fix it (in my mind it was usually, “now”). 

About a year ago we were invited to our friends Laurence and Jo’s house for apéro (a supremely fabulous thing here in France which more often than not includes very tasty food).  Their house is beautiful, warm, classy, welcoming…with high ceilings, lots of wood and manages to retain amazing old features while still feeling ‘modern’.  It isn’t a huge home, but it is lovely and inviting.  While nibbling away on some of the amazing treats Jo had whipped up I was lamenting how we weren’t going to be able to finish all the renovations in the immediate future and we were facing reprioritising a lot of work. 

OK, a little aside here.  I don’t like oily fish.   I want to like it- I appreciate the beauty of the fish, and the health value and when I see gorgeous little tapas with a glistening filet of sardine – I get it, I want to like it. But somehow my mouth is wired in such a way I find the flavour way too intense.  I used to think if I just kept trying it I would finally like it (kind of like avocados and asparagus when I was young, hated them, now I can’t get enough) but no, no matter how much I try, my mouth rejects oily fish.  Anyhow, anchovies in particular are a difficulty (ask Dom who tried to ‘sneak’ some anchovy oil on a salad once…didn’t end well).  I always have anchovies in the fridge, I appreciate what they add to a dish – in small portions – they work in roast lamb or a rich winter meat sauce…or something with lots (and I mean lots) of capers…anyhow…one of Jo’s treats was anchovies that had been sandwiched between two sage leaves, then battered and fried.  I figured I would be a polite guest and try one.  I did.  It was good.  I was shocked.  I still don’t like anchovies, but something magical happens when they join up with sage and hot oil.

Back to my non-anchovy revelation.   Jo responded that my stymied renovations were probably a very good thing…she told me she and Laurence had been working on their home for 25 years to get it where it is, applying their evolving ideas of what worked best and their evolving selves as they lived longer in France (they used to live in London).  She noted I would likely have very different views on what to do with spaces in the house after living in it for a while and I should relax about living within a ‘project’ that would be ever-changing.   

She is so right, ideas of what I’d like to do have already radically changed (and again, getting briefly philosophical), not just with the living space around me- but with myself in that living space. I look around and realise some of the imperfections are good things and I try to stop thinking too much about the end result and just enjoy the journey of living in an old, funky, unpredictable home. 

I’m still making lists, and I am still frequently annoyed with the bathroom next to my office, and the plastic primary-coloured door handles some idiot put on a lot of the doors (what were they thinking, the house was built 200 years ago, yellow and green plastic, really?!?!)…buuuut the terrace is great and it is hard to get stressed sitting on it looking out at the gorgeous countryside I am so lucky to live in.

Jar collecting

Before we moved to France I used to keep jars in the anticipation I would find time/supplies to make delicious jam to share with my friends and neighbours.  The usual scenario was:

  1. Make one batch of something each year
  2. Get really motivated and excited and collect jars until they were spilling all over the floor of my small galley kitchen in North London
  3. Realise I wasn’t going to make anything very soon and recycle said jars
  4. Suddenly get a crate of apples or blackberries…then scramble around try to find jars!

Now, I do have a big stock of jars, spilling all over the floor…but the difference is I actually use them on a regular basis (that said, I probably have a few too many and should probably do a sort/recycling run).  Total mea culpa….I am still learning.  While I can say most of my jams taste fine, I clearly need to learn patience as a few of them aren’t as set as they should be, so a bit more compote-y than jam-y.  Like I said, I am learning. 

My latest ‘thing’ is moving in to cordials and shrubs (and my tried and true goats milk caramel – Cajeta!).  With summer imminent it is time to stock up for sipping chilled drinks on the terrace….and you can only drink so much rose. 😉

My latest effort is a celebration of Rhubarb, with a rhubarb ginger cordial and rhubarb -strawberry compote which is great on yoghurt! (recipe from the fabulous David Lebovitz, replacing the Kirsch with the local aperitif – Quercy des Iles).  Only mistake/new find was grabbing the jar of chestnut honey instead of the acacia for the cordial….I realised once it was all bubbling away (chestnut honey has a strong distinct perfume), but it turns out it works well with the ginger and rhubarb and makes for a pleasantly perfume-y coridal.  Phew.

I have a range of different types of basil, some lemongrass and physalis sprouting on my terrace…so I see some interesting combos coming out later in the summer.  Oh yes, and some blackberries from last year in the freezer I need to use up—hmmm, a blackberry and bay shrub maybe?