30 July 2012

Why I am Still Enthusiastic About Blogging, BlogHer and So Much More

I've always been rather coy about my location and my identity. But after six years of blogging and after a gradual loosening of my self-imposed identity rules, I am ready to break free and participate more fully in the world of blogging. (I'm even hanging out at BlogHer again and entering a competition for a conference swag bag, which you can do right here.)

My name is Mary Johns, but nieces and nephews have always called me Mimi. I guess it's easier for a two-year old to say. Since my mother once suggested this would be a better nickname for me than the one given to me by my father, which was BooBoo, I've always felt an affinity for the name. We have a thing for double syllable nicknames in my family: BooBoo/Mimi, Bobo, Gigi, and PeeWee are my siblings.

All my life I've worked in publications and public relations, taught journalism and wrote for a newspaper (where I did a weekly food column for about three years). About five years ago I took a job leading a non-profit organizations, and in two months I will be happily retired. Rewired, I'm calling it, as I have lots of personal and community projects on my docket, including working with one of our local farm markers markets and helping preserve an historical building. I may even get paid for doing some writing again.

I'm coming out of the kitchen, so to speak, because earlier this summer, I created two new blogs that I hope will enable me to continue to promote my community, which is located about 50 miles north of Green Bay, Wis., (and we all know what Green Bay is famous for, don't we?) on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, and its food sources.

Our two-city, two-state community is in transition. We suffered greatly in late 2008 and early 2009: Unemployment was as high as 13-14 percent on either side of the state line. But thanks in part to expansion at the local shipyard and at other local industries, our economy is holding its own and has begun a slow and steady upward trajectory. We have many newcomers and much potential for many more newcomers. That's why I want to promote my community online.

In recent years, I've looked at my two home towns through new eyes. We are located on the bay of Green Bay, as well as the Menominee River. We have instant access to water, parks, waterfalls, legendary fishing and sailing. Yet we have remained authentic. There's not a lot of terribly cutesy for pretentious stuff here. But we are pretty cool sometimes.

I've seen an increase in young entrepreneurs who operate restaurants, a winery, photography studios, shops and service businesses. On any given summer night, you'll find a free concert, skateboarders, kayakers, sailboaters, bicyclists and others out and about, enjoying our location and the sense of community that I think has increased in recent years.

Frankly, it's easy to promote this community. Please take some time to read more about it on Marinette Menominee Daily Photo and Marinette Menominee Eat Local. The first blog is intended to give outsiders a taste of life here while the second is aims to build awareness for local farm markets and farm stands. Both are works in progress.

Currently, I am taking photos with a Nikon Cool Pix S4, which has traveled in my purse for more than six years now. Once I've got more time on my hands, I'll experiment with our Canon Digital Rebel, which should improve the quality of my photos. My husband, himself a former photographer and filmmaker, is retiring too, and I'll get him to make a photographer out of me yet!

28 July 2012

From the French Quarter: Bananas Foster

One balmy spring day I attended a reception on the front terrace of a fabled resort. White tents sheltered guests from an exceptionally bright sun, drinks flowed generously, and appetizers were tasty and varied. A disc jockey played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald tunes. But the undisputed star of the show was Bananas Foster.

The classic dessert was born the same year I was (look it up!). Bananas Foster sounds like a moniker for a flashy gangster from a 1930s movie. It is flashy, and it usually includes elements of showmanship. Think of it as a very decadent take on the more common Banana Split.

Bananas Foster is a lot more fun.

This rather posh dessert was created at Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans by Chef Paul Blange, and named for a patron, Richard Foster, a civic and business leader and friend of restaurant owner Owen Brennan.

Here's what you need to make it:
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 ounces banana liqueur
  • 4 bananas
  • 2 ounces dark rum
  • vanilla ice cream

Here's how you make it:

Prepare bananas by peeling and then cutting in half lengthwise and then in half crosswise so you have four equal quarters. Set aside. (It's helpful to make this dish with a partner.)

In a skillet over low heat, combine butter, sugar and cinnamon until butter dissolves, stirring constantly to prevent mixture from burning.

Add banana liqueur and bananas, cooking until bananas soften and begin to turn golden brown. Add rum, turning skillet slightly so rum ignites. After flames subside, remove four pieces of banana for each serving. Place in dish and add ice cream. Serves 2-4.

Bananas Foster is as much a production as it is a dessert. The flambé performance is often done tableside.

How could I not love a dessert that shares a birth year with me? You could say we share an ethnic heritage as well: Brennan's was founded by an Irishman in the French quarter.

According to this link, Brennans, which re-opened in 2010 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, uses 35,000 pounds of bananas each year to make this legendary and very rich dessert.

23 July 2012

Red Celery Salad with Bacon, Apples, Cranberries and Pecans

New produces comes slowly to the Northern Hinterlands. It was only six years ago that I bought golden beets for the first time. Red celery, which made a splash in 2010, is now available locally. I bought mine from Immerfrost Farm, located about 30 miles to the north.

Red celery is crunchier and more flavorful than its common green counterpart, at least to my taste buds. I immediately began thinking of crunchy pairings: A tart apple, some roasted pecans. Next came contrast - chewiness - in the form of dried cranberries (although cherries would work just as well).

Something was still missing: Some additional chewy ingredient that would add salt and sweet. I think I found it in bacon. Try it, and tell me what you think.

Red Celery Salad
  • 1 bunch red celery, washed and chopped
  • 1 small tart or sweet apple, chopped (I used Jazz, but what about Granny Smith?)
  • 1/3 cup roasted pecans, sugared
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries or cherries
  • 1/5 cup bacon bits (best if fresh, but packaged will do)
  • Dash sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar

  • One half cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • Dash cinnamon
Toss celery with apple, nuts, cranberries and bacon. Season with enough salt to provide contrast to the sweetness of the brown sugar.

I'd serve this with pork or turkey. It could easily become a Thanksgiving side dish. I'd certainly prefer this crunchy option to green beans with cream-of-mushroom soup!

21 July 2012

Simply Good: Grandma Annie and Our Chopped Vegetable Routine

For the very reasons described in my last post, I associate the slow shift from high summer into late summer/early fall with Grandma Annie.

The chorus of crickets, the flocking of birds, the lowered angle of the sun, the warm days and cooler nights: This is how my grandmother speaks to me now.

The busy mornings, the lazy afternoons, the many kindnesses and the boundless generosity of spirit - that describes her life and her character.

Annie left school to be a dress-maker, a fact that sometimes embarrassed my mother. Yet she was an avid reader, with a keen interest in politics and current events. The fact that she subscribed to every woman's domestic magazine on the market is surely one of the reasons I have always loved writing feature stories about home and food, because when I was visiting Annie, I gobbled up those magazines, absorbing everything from short stories to Faith Baldwin's column to recipes for Beef Stroganoff.

Annie read two newspapers every day, the Milwaukee Journal and our local daily. On Sundays, she read the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal. It took all afternoon, from 1:45 p.m. when the lash dinner dish was dried and put away to about 5:30 p.m. when she set the table for supper. It should come as no surprise that I became a journalist.

While Annie's outlook on life contained fewer shades of gray than my own, she was accepting of the foibles of others, and rarely, if ever, passed judgment on anyone. I can't think of anyone she disliked, with the possible exception of the Republican Party in general.

Sadly as an adult, I've run across many women who are the antithesis of Annie: Shrill, grasping, envious of another's success, dishonest, capricious and calculating. I feel bad for their children and grandchildren.

Annie never held a job after she left her dressmaking position to marry my handsome Irish grandfather, other than poll worker and newspaper stringer (the society editor knew Annie had a finger on the pulse of Frenchtown). She was never a CEO, a board of directors president, or dean of a college. But she had more knowledge of human kindness in her little finger than any person who has ever touched my life.

It is no wonder why her grandchildren revere her memory, and why my mother, in the throes of Alzheimer's Disease, misses her most of all.

On days when the world seems to have gone crazy, I take comfort in my memories of the safety and security Grandma Annie provided for her family.

My husband and I have tried to create our own comforting rituals, including preparing humble meals together. One culinary ritual that we turn to in summer is chopped vegetables.

It all started many years ago when we began married life in a five-room apartment. We needed a kitchen strategy for hot days, as we had little cross ventilation (and I've never been fond of air conditioning). We'd poke around farm stands and markets for long-lasting vegetables like onions, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and celery and have a chopping marathon when we returned home. Each vegetable was placed in a separate container in the refrigerator.

It was so hot last weekend that we opted for the chopped vegetable routine. 

As usual, we made sure we had a variety of enhancements and condiments like sour cream, cream cheese, chevre, olives and tomatoes (which get mushy after a day or so) on hand, too. My husband grilled fried beef; my preference is stir-fried shrimp or chicken.

Over the next few days, the vegetables - and the protein source - were added to salads, wraps and stir fries. What remained after three days went into the freezer for use in a winter soup or stew.

Of this, Annie would surely approve. 

19 July 2012

Grandma Annie's Blueberry Pudding with Raspberries

About the time I turned 10 years old, I began spending a week or so every summer with Grandma Annie. It was usually in August, when harvest was at its peak.

Growers who brought their produce to the nearby IGA store also stopped to visit Annie, using her side door to peddle peas, beans, tomatoes, corn and berries. If it was fresh, Annie bought it, and planned her menu around the best of the season.

On damp or cool days, Annie baked, and no summer was complete without at least one blueberry pudding.

Although I think this pudding tastes better cold, I could rarely wait for it to cool off, once Annie removed it from the oven. And truth be told, neither could she.

While this dessert (oh, what the heck, I've had it for breakfast) was always called blueberry pudding, Annie often added raspberries or strawberries. Made no difference: It was still delicious. Annie's use of fresh ingredients gave it a deep, old-fashioned flavor that I relished then and still do today.

In my teenage years, my parents moved from our little Main Street enclave to a similar neighborhood across town, less than a mile from Annie's house. Come late July, it was a thrill for me when Annie summoned me to her house so she could share her blueberry pudding with us. I loved the walk from our house to Annie's: A half block down busy Broadway, turn left at the convent and walk until you cross the tracks by the boiler works, then continue west until you reach the heart of Frenchtown.

Thanks to Annie, I love all manner of blueberry desserts. To me they are the true heart of summer, layered and rich and sweet. And fleeting. Because Annie never used blueberries from a can. Blueberry pudding was only to be savored in late July and August.

I made some last night with raspberries and blueberries. We're on the downward side of summer now: I heard the electric buzz of cicadas last week.

15 July 2012

Grilled Pork Chops with a Rich Coffee Rub and Potato Salad With Goat Cheese, Olives and Red Peppers

It is, as I recall, an unwritten rule that bloggers are not to pour out their hearts online.

But allow me to say this: Watching a parent succumb to Alzheimer's Disease is heart-breaking. The tears, the anxiety, the little scraps of paper in her pockets as I empty them to do her laundry takes a piece of my heart every day.

I speak of course of my mother who was just beginning to show hints of frailty when I began this blog six years ago. The last three years have been a challenge as my sister and I tried to balance her needs with the demands of children, spouses and jobs.  Just over a year ago, we moved my mother to an assisted living facility. Her neighbors there are the parents of my friends and former coworkers. The staff is kind and caring, but my mother is lonely and confused. She is no longer able to make friends. She can barely marshall the resources to sit and try to remember the past, which is becoming dimmer now, dimmer than it was even six months ago. Sometimes she knows me, sometimes she forgets my father, but always, she wants her mother.

We children do what we must do, because that is what is needed, and no one complains. She dried our tears and tied our shoes and much much more, and we do that we must. It's part of the circle of life.

Once I leave my job at the end of September, I will also begin the sad and arduous task of preparing her house for sale, and while I share this with three siblings, it will be an emotional undertaking, for this was the house my father lived in as a young man in those heady days after World War II. My parents bought this house with my father's GI loan and let my father's parents live in the house while they rented other houses in other parts of town. It is in the old cattle trader's neighborhood near the original town center, a historical detail that is lost to all but my generation.

Life is, well, life and therefore not always easy.

My husband, as good husbands are, is a source of comfort.

The times we spend at home after a demanding day have become extremely precious this past year, and cooking together is now a pressure valve. Mr. FKIA handles the meat, mostly, while I organize the salads and side dishes.

Saturday night I used a coffee rub on two very thick and juicy pork chops which Mr FKIA placed on the grill. The ingredients include coffee, brown sugar, sea salt, paprika, black pepper, garlic, onion, sugar and coriander.

The lone accompaniment was a red-skin potato salad with Greek olives, goat cheese and roasted red peppers. For this you need:

  • 10 small new potatoes 
  • 10-12 Greek olives, chopped or sliced
  • 1 small red pepper, roasted and chopped
  • at least 1 tablespoon unseasoned chèvre, crumbled
  • 2-3 green onions, white and green parts chopped
  • dash sea salt
  • generous dash herbes de Provence or Mediterranean herbs (a generous dash)
  • about 2/3 cup of dressing, mayonnaise or mayonnaise blended with yogurt or sour cream
Wash the potatoes and place in a good-sized pot or saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from heat after about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside in cool water while you are preparing the other ingredients. (Feel free to use red peppers from a jar on a hot day; I did not, and I paid for it!) Once the potatoes are cool, toss in the other ingredients in a large bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

The salad was a gamble. (I had already tested the rub on a barbecued chicken we had on the Fourth of July.) The salad's tanginess and sweetness were a perfect foil for the rich dark flavor of the chops.

I've sad it before, potato salad is like chicken: It's a blank canvas and you can dress it up or down many ways. Some people prefer the classic, but I like to think of potato salad as an entire category of food.

Here are several other versions I like:

No matter how you prepare it, potato salad is a summer taste to be savored.

13 July 2012

Smoked Chicken Sausage with Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables

For many years, we've shopped mostly at the largest super market in town, owned by an Italian family who appreciates good food and keeps the merchandise fresh in every sense of the word by constantly adding new products. A few years back, you heard me rave about the market's olive bar. Two years ago, both locations were updated. Wine stores and a fresh meat-and-fish department were added. I love shopping there. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable.

But about 15 years ago, an Aldi's opened on the south side of town, and last summer, Walmart expanded and offered a supermarket. I enjoy these markets, too, because they offer brands and products the Italian market does not carry. Aldi's, in particular, reminds me of shopping at LeClerc or Carrefour in France. And why not spread my grocery money around?

I have to admit, I don't make too many forays away from the Italian market, but the other day, I had to run to Walmart for a non-food item, and I moseyed around the food area.

Here's what I stumbled upon: Smoked Mozzarella Chicken Sausage with Artichokes and Garlic. Sounded interesting, and the sodium level wasn't too bad.

Reader, I bought a package.

I allowed the package of sausage to sit in the refrigerator for a day or two while I pondered approaches. Meanwhile, I bought:

  • One red pepper
  • One small eggplant
  • One very small zucchini

I got to work. I roasted thinly sliced strips of red pepper and small, square chunks of zucchini, first drizzling them with olive oil and Mediterranean seasoning. While these vegetables were roasting in a 400-degrree oven, I chopped a small sweet onion and grated half the zucchini. While the onion was caramelizing over medium heat, I prepared two small servings of low-carb Dreamfields spaghetti and set them aside. I sliced two of the four sausages.

I added the sausage to the onions and tossed in the grated zucchini. When sausage was thoroughly heated and slightly browned and the vegetables in the oven were lightly roasted, I put the spaghetti on two small dinner plates, topped it with the sausage-onion-zucchini mix and then added the roasted vegetables and finally, sprinkled the dish with Parmesan cheese.

Roasted eggplant and zucchini are comfort foods for me, and red pepper adds that certain something to just about every dish with a Mediterranean influence. I was very careful with seasonings, because I did not want to overwhelm the already strong sausage flavor. This was a team effort, not a battle of tastes.

Because this was also an experiment, I did not add garlic, but when I make this again, I will use a small clove before caramelizing the onion. I will also toss in some fresh basil, about the time I add the grated zucchini to the onion-sausage pan. There's no tomato in my version, but next time I will add some small chunks of fresh tomato before sprinkling on the Parmesan. My approach was to pair roasted with fresh or nearly-fresh vegetables here.

So, here's what you need:
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt 
  • Mediterranean Spices
  • Red Pepper
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Sweet Onion
  • Sausage, your choice, but I'm sticking to this one
  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Black Olives for garnish, optional
  • Spaghetti, or the pasta of your choice

I will make this again, no doubt. It's a nice summer-into-fall fish. This year, my garden includes peppers, tomato, eggplant and zucchini. but I'm not holding out hope for a large harvest.

12 July 2012

Paris: Three Waiters Waiting in Place Dauphine

My next food post will have to wait, because Mr. FKIA mistakenly tossed some of the fixings away.

These things happen. I was only mildly irritated. Life's too short to be upset about small things that can be fixed.

Some people do.

But patience is something I've learned.

I had to snap the photo above quickly because I was afraid one of the waiters would separate from the group. I like the symmetry of three (or five) of anything. It was taken on a lovely Sunday in May in Paris. The restaurant was about to open.

Last night we ate at a casual, family restaurant along the shore, and I had a pulled pork sandwich. It was wonderful! The pork was topped with coleslaw. I love coleslaw!

This recipe from Kalyn sounds wonderful, too! Note that it is made with a slow cooker, so patience is required. The guacamole serves the same purpose as the cole slaw. Different tastes, different textures alway appeal to me.

Here's another slow cooker recipe from Christine that looks appealing. In my book, Christine is the Queen of Taste Pairings.

09 July 2012

Grandma Annie's Kitchen Door

On warm summer days, Grandma Annie's kitchen was breezy and cool, thanks to a complex but purely accidental system of cross breezes from east and and west. The new exterior door that opened into the remodeled pantry and the adjacent "back bedroom" windows allowed the easterly breezes to enter the room while the lone kitchen window and the window and exterior door off the back hallway provided access for westerly winds.

Annie's house, which probably has it roots in 1863 when the neighborhood was developed, grew  higgledy-piggledy over the last decades of the 19th century, serving once as a general store with an owner's flat above and later, when Annie's father (known to longtime readers as Pépere) renovated the structure in 1930, a stately, two-flat house with little setback from Dunlap Avenue and Bellevue Street where they intersect in the heart of Frenchtown. Annie lived most of her adult life in the downstairs flat, but spent her childhood living upstairs.

The hallway that ran along one side of the downstairs flat included an exterior door that allowed us to enter and exit on Bellevue Street. The egg man and the man who sold peas and beans used this door. The hallway was cold and mostly unused in winter, except for vegetable storage. It connected Annie's heart-of-the-house kitchen with the back room, a sort of keeping room where my grandmother stored extra pots and pans in a large red bead-and-board cabinet, surely built by Pépere, as well as her sewing machine, her cheese box full of old recipes and her herb-drying rack.

The door between the kitchen and hallway was a heavy, 19th century model with two windows, painted a dark brown on one side and creamy white on the other. When the family who bought the house from my aunt nine years ago gutted the interior - bringing the structure into its third century and creating a comfortable one-family home - they gave the door to my sister. She uses it as garden art.

I think it looks charming in her garden, don't you? It's like having Grandma Annie with us.

Annie's sewing machine is now in my sister's living room, while Pépere's garden cabinet is part of mine. Once I've cleaned it out, I promise it will make its way into a post here.

In the upstairs flat, where my grandparents reared Annie and her siblings, Pépere built an early version of kitchen cabinet, with a flour or vegetable bin, utensil drawers and other conveniences that rival today's fashionable and efficient kitchens. I wish I had taken a photo of this kitchen before the house was sold.

No matter, for that kitchen lives on in my memories, too.

08 July 2012

A Taste of Catalonia: Escalivada

The heat spell broke Friday night with a mild thunderstorm and a refreshing rain, and Saturday we woke up to a rejuvenating coolness. Thankfully, the day was never hot enough to be uncomfortable, so we gathered in my sister's back yard in there heart of town for a girls' night. My brother, visiting from Illinois, left for his class reunion, but my brother-in-law gamely stuck around for a Catalan treat: Escalivada, prepared by Anna, the family's summer exchange student, a truly delightful and self possessed young lady.

We grownups sipped a plummy, jammy Michigan rose wine while Anna coated with olive oil and then roasted one very large eggplant and 4-5 red peppers - smaller, she note, than in her country - along with a huge, sweet onion wrapped in foil, carefully turning the vegetables for even cooking. Once the vegetables were thoroughly roasted, she allowed them to cool a bit before carefully peeling them.

Anna sliced tomatoes in half the long way while my brother-in-law toasted slices of bread on the grill. Once the bread was toasted, Anna instructed us to rub it with tomatoes, making sure to soak the bread with tomato juice. Next, we piled the bread high with the eggplant, which was almost a spread-like consistency, and then the peeled peppers. Next came onions, anchovies and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese, plus a dash of sea salt.

The result was an open-faced sandwich. Here is a more detailed set of instructions, basically the same approach as Anna's. Read more here.

There are apparently other approaches, including using garlic instead of onion. We ate our escalivada with a refreshing green salad.

It reminded me so much of the ratatouille I will be making soon. The farm stands are up! Our warm spring has brought an early harvest.

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01 July 2012

A Simple Chèvre, Chive and Green Onion Dip

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I braved the high-summer crowds to spend the Fourth of July holiday on Wisconsin's Door County Peninsula. With its harbor towns and fishing villages, farmlands and cherry orchards, Door County was and still is the perfect place for that uniquely American holiday.

We browsed the antique stores and quilt shops, buying fudge for dessert and carved shorebirds for our collection. In the evenings we'd drive up into the hills behind the quaint village of Ephraim, where the air was filled with woodsmoke and birdsong.

One night we saw a group of people on a picnic, with tables set up in the sunken foundations of an old farmhouse. I was certain these were the descendants of the original homesteaders, returning to the daily seat to mark Independence Day.

My ancestors were not among the Scandinavians and Belgians who settled Door County; they were among the Irish and French Canadians who settled 17 miles across the Bay of Green Bay. But they too marked the Fourth of July with gatherings at the home of my grandmother in Frenchtown, which with its old barn, garden and ample yard, felt rural, even though it was a block from the neighborhood's commercial center.

Fourth of July at Grandma Annie's will always conjure memories of berry pies, fresh vegetables, grilled chicken and potato chips (all washed down with Coca Cola).

Potato chips are a family weakness. We love them. We love them plain and we love them with dip. So as you must know by now, I love experimenting with dip.

For this holiday's dip, I took a look in my refrigerator and another look in my garden. This is what I came up with:

Chèvre, Chive and Green Onion Dip

  • 1 four-ounce log of chevre, softened
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese, softened
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chives, chopped
  • dash honey-dijon or grainy mustard (optional)
  • dash sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Blend the first three ingredients in a small bowl and allow to soften at room temperature. I used multiple blade herb scissors to chop the chives and the green portion of the onions. Have a bowl of chips at the ready so you can taste test as you go along. The mustard is purely a matter of taste. So are the seasonings. Allow the flavors to marry before serving.

The dip should be rustic - that is, coarse, not smooth. Serve it with fresh green pepper strips, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, bagel chips and of course, potato chips.