Life is like riding a bicycle — in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.
~Albert Einstein

Never have these meant to be autobiographical musings, despite the medium. Hopefully it’s never read as self indulgent, indiscreet, insipid, smudge free, egocentric OMG! Zuckerbergish gibberish run amok. That social mediacrity with identity-indifferent-track-and-sell-persona greed as the true intent — razing individual privacy and autonomy with impunity.  Instead, these thoughts are meant as mere reflections, sometimes gentle and other times sharp edged, on food and culture.

Compared to previous years, I have been remiss with Tour de France coverage.   This year’s edition began in Liège, Belgium, swept toward northern Normandie then swung back to northeast region of Lorraine.  The peloton then  streaked southward down the eastern border of France through the Vosges, the Jura, the Alpes to the Mediterranean and then back westward toward the  Pyrénées when the riders finally turn north toward  Paris and the ChampsÉlysées.  Today was a relatively flat étape (stage), with one stage 3 and two stage 4 “little” climbs, that runs 158 km from Samatan to Pau in southwest France which just precedes a showdown in the Pyrénées.  In all, the riders cover 3,947 kilometers (2,452.55 miles) over three weeks this year — already 42 riders have retired.  Makes my lungs burn and my legs weary just typing.

While much of the Tour’s majesty and quirks have been noted in previous posts, a couple were brought to my attention from earlier stages.  Ahead of the riders on the course is a publicity caravan of advertising vehicles (le caravan publicitaire) while behind the peloton is a snarl of mulit-hued team little cars laden with components, parts, tools, equipment, bikes, spares, bottles, computers, radios, the directeur sportif (team manager), and the like.   Titanium, carbon fiber, and high tensile steel alloys galore.  Within this circus are officials’ vehicles, motorcycle cops, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.  Ballet and mayhem meet.

A sticky bottle is when a cyclist receives a water bottle from inside the team car with both parties grasping the vessel as long as possible, towing the rider and giving a little pedal-less boost to launch his return to the peloton while saving precious energy.  A magic spanner usually occurs when a rider has just had a mechanical issue, a wheel change or outright crashed. Once again, while  being assisted, riders latch onto the mechanic or car which accelerates, slingshotting the rider back into the peloton.  Similarly, attending to minor medical needs like spraying a topical antibiotic on a rider while he  holds onto a speeding car is also rather common during races.

Article 7 of the Tour’s rules, entitled Race Offences sternly reads:  “(S)lipstreaming or being pulled along by a motor vehicle, whether from the front, back or side as well as any grasping-hold of the bicycle or vehicle is forbidden under all circumstances.”   As with most sports however, team tactics sometimes delve into gray to achieve those little boosts with an eye on that sometimes elusive, collective goal of victory.  Just a little help from their friends.

Other times though, the game is not worth the candle.  This year’s Giro d’Italia race jury pulled several sprinters from the race during its penultimate stage for holding onto team cars.   The incident happened on the 20th stage, the Giro’s  “queen stage,” which boasts five climbs, making it an exceptionally difficult stage for sprinters .   A jury communiqué called it a fatto grave or “serious fault.”

This distinctly French plate seemed à propos

POTATO, TURNIP & GREEN BEAN SALAD

1 lb medium Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
1 lb medium turnips, washed, with roots and tops trimmed
Sea salt
2 bay leaves
2 large thyme sprigs

3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed to a paste
1 T high quality anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and chopped
1 1/2 T fine capers, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 t Dijon mustard
4 T champagne or sherry vinegar
1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lb fresh green beans (preferably haricots verts), ends trimmed off
4 large eggs, room temperature
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 T parsley leaves, roughly chopped
2 T basil, roughly chopped

Bring a large pot of cold water with potatoes, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduced heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the potatoes are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

Bring another large pot of cold water with turnips, bay leaf and thyme sprig to a boil and salt generously. Reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the turnips are firm but easily pierced with a paring knife, about 15-20 minutes. Remove, drain and let cool some.

While the potatoes and turnips are cooking, prepare a vinaigrette. In a medium glass bowl, whisk together the garlic, anchovy, capers, mustard and wine vinegar. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking vigorously. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and whisk again before dressing.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and gently slice into pieces about 1/3″ thick. Likewise, peel and gently cut the turnips into 1/3″ slices. Put the slices in a large glass bowl, season lightly with salt and pepper and add half the vinaigrette. Using your hands, gently coat the potatoes and turnips with the vinaigrette, taking care not to break them. Set aside.

Put the green beans in a pot of boiling, salted water and simmer until just tender and crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a colander, then cool under running cold water and pat dry. Promptly plunge into ice cold water for a brief moment to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain and dry on cloth or paper towel or the beans will become soggy. Set aside.

Gently place the eggs in a saucepan and add enough cold water to liberally cover the eggs. Bring to a boil over high and then immediately remove from heat and cover until done, about 12 minutes. Uncover and flush with cool running water and then briefly place in an ice bath to cease cooking. Dry promptly on paper towels and peel. Set aside.

To assemble: season the beans with salt and pepper, then dress lightly with with vinaigrette. Combine the dressed beans, potatoes and turnips, using hands to toss, and arrange on a platter or large flat bowl. Cut the eggs lengthwise, drizzle lightly with vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper. Arrange eggs over the top and sprinkle with chopped parsley and basil.

Serve standing alone or with grilled, sautéed, or roasted meat, poultry or fish.

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Le Tour & Turnip Soup

July 3, 2011

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
~H.G. Wells

Please excuse my exuberance, but it’s that time of year again.

Yesterday was the grand départ of this year’s ever epic Tour de France —3,430.5 grueling kilometres (2,131.6 mi) over three weeks. Customarily, the Tour has begun with a prologue stage where riders raced solely against the clock. In a break with tradition, the organizers opened with a road stage on the Atlantic seaboard which proved fairly flat but closed with an undulating finish and a brief, yet deceptively arduous, climb. A route which favored riders who can unleash rapid, potent bursts of uphill acceleration.

The supple grace, suffering, precision and outright speed of the team trial was held today…a precise race against the clock, and a reminder to even the most casual observers that the Tour de France is a team sport. Sheer beauty on wheels.

The Tour’s field now heads into Bretagne (Brittany), an almost mystical region defined by the sea and perched on the northwest tip of France. Bretagne stands apart from the rest of France, its peninsular thumb jutting into the blue, separating the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. The modern administrative region roughly silhouettes the historic province, and is now comprised of the départements of Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan.

Although inhabited by peoples as early as 8,000 BCE and conquered by Romans who occupied the region for several centuries, Brittany’s true birth was forged during the Dark Ages. Then, waves of Irish, Welsh and English immigrants (Bretons) “invaded” and profoundly altered the character of the peninsula, which became Bretagne. They spread their own brand of religion as well as a fiercely insular, sometimes resentful, spirit. A wary sensitivity about their environs. This ruggedly independent attitude is reinforced by landscape—a land which boasts a staggering 1,700 miles of contorted coastline characterized by windswept cliffs, capes, islands, and rocky ports, many with ominous sounding names. While the seascapes tend to be dramatic, the landscapes inland are more mellow. The interior lies on the Argoat plateau (wood country) where small farm plots are surrounded by hedgerows, a patchwork known as the bocage.

The sea’s and land’s bounties are jealously guarded yet so copiously displayed at local markets. A cornucopia of varied flat fish, oysters, sea urchins, scallops, mussels, whelks, langoustines, crevettes, lobsters and crabs rest on ice. Other stalls brim with produce grown on the Argoat farmlands: cauliflower, onions, peas, turnips, cabbages, white beans, and the omnipresent Breton artichokes. Also displayed are lamb raised on nearby salt marshes, along with prized chickens, geese, regional sausages and various offal. Farmers sell fresh milk and the region’s esteemed butter, apples from the Argoat orchards, strawberries from Plougastel, and famed new potatoes from the inland sandy flats.

POTAGE AUX NAVETS BLANCS (TURNIP SOUP)

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

5 medium white turnips (about 2 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
1 medium russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ slices
5 C+ chicken broth

1 3/4 C whole milk
1/4 C whipping cream
Grating of nutmeg

1 turnip, peeled, cut into small matchstick julienne

Fresh fennel fronds, chopped

Melt butter in heavy large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks and onion and sauté until onion is translucent, about 10-12 minutes. Add turnips and potato and sauté 2 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes.

Purée soup in processor or blender in batches until very smooth, then return to Dutch oven. Add milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook julienned turnips in pot of boiling salted water until just tender yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more broth if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with turnip strips and chopped fresh fennel.

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
~G.K. Chesterton

Nestled in the Haute Savoie region is the scenic canal-laced town of Annecy which borders one of the most striking pure azure lakes of Europe with the Aravis and Bauges alpine foothills framing the backdrop. The waters simply stun. A university town, Annecy is also renowned for its cultural landscape with the International Animated Film Festival held each June.

Yesterday, Lac d’Annecy was the site of the second individual and final time trial (TT) of the Tour. In the Contre-Le-Montre, sometimes called the “Race of Truth,” the riders have an individual staggered start and compete solely against the clock without the drafting benefits of the peloton.

Haut-Savoyard cuisine includes a hallowed house denizen, gratin dauphinois—that velvety, sumptuous potato au gratin which is savored hot that night and/or cold for lunch the next day. (See Obama Fare — Gratin Dauphinois). An au gratin treatment with leeks is likewise luscious.

LEEKS AU GRATIN

Preheat oven to 375 F

10 leeks, rinsed thoroughly, roots trimmed, white and green parts cut into 2″ pieces and then quartered
1/2 lb bacon, cut into 2″ pieces
1 C chicken or vegetable stock
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Pinch of dried thyme
2 T unsalted butter
2 T all purpose flour
1 C whole milk
1 egg yolk
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1 T Emmenthal cheese, grated
1 T Gruyère cheese, grated

Sauté the bacon in a heavy skillet until browned. Pour off some of the rendered fat and then add the leeks, stock, salt, pepper and thyme. Cover tightly and cook until the leeks are tender and the stock has evaporated, about 25 minutes.

Make a béchamel—over medium heat, melt the butter in a medium saucepan, stir in the flour until smooth, add the milk and cook while constantly whisking. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil and cook for 5 minutes. In a bowl, mix the egg yolk and cream together, then whisk them into the sauce. Add to the leek mixture, stirring constantly.

Pour the entire mixture into a shallow glass baking dish, sprinkle with the cheese, and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.