30 December 2013

Coq au Vin: Frugal French at its Best

A dozen or so years ago, my husband and I discovered the joys of a quiet Christmas day, just the two of us, snacking, reading napping the day away.

I spend part of Christmas Eve preparing finger food, and we nosh on that until Christmas dinner, eaten about 5 or 6 p.m. is ready. Dinner is sometimes ham or chicken, sometimes even salmon (we're not overly fond of turkey).

I've made Chateaubriand a time or two but was looking for something different this year. My husband took the lead and pored through this cookbook, my father's favorite. Coq au vin was my husband's suggestion. We try to keep holiday meals - every meal, really - simple and prepare as much as we can in advance.

The recipe in my father's cookbook looked easy. Coq au vin can be as complicated as you want to make it. Here is a slow-cooker version I want to try.

But I draw the line at spending a whole lot of time in the kitchen on a holiday, especially when new books are always waiting under the tree for me.

As is often the case with old French cookbooks - any old cookbook - the instructions were brief. There was no ingredient list; that was buried within the pithy instructions.

Coq au Vin 
  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 4 slices bacon
  • brandy or
  • 4 large onions, quartered
  • 12 large button mushrooms
  • 2 gloves garlic, crushed
  • 8 ounces brandy
  • 4 large carrots, chopped (mine were slightly par boiled)
  • bouquet garni
  • 16 ounces red wine (I used this Cote du Rhone)
Brown the chicken in a skillet with butter and bacon. Add onions, mushrooms, carrots and garlic, adding brandy and setting the dish aflame. (Note: I add the last of my Calvados, purchased in Paris in 2007, and skipped the flames.) Next add the wine and the bouquet garni (you can make your own) and cook uncovered over medium heat for at least an hour, longer if the chicken does not seem fully cooked. Because the wine will color the chicken, you may want to have a meat thermometer on hand; chicken must be cooked to 165 degrees.

The original recipe called for setting aside blood from the chicken to use as a thickener. I used cornstarch, with moderate success.

We were pleased with the results. The chicken was moist and tender, and the vegetables pleasantly sweet and wine soaked. The dish really tasted of rural France, I thought.

Coq au vin is an excellent rustic dish that needs little embellishment, even on Christmas. Some people love a holiday dinner table that is quite literally - to use a cliché - groaning under the weight of four vegetables and three starches along with numerous side dishes, all supporting ham, turkey, beef or even all three. Not to mention several desserts.

I prefer a simple approach. Coq au vin, which includes mushrooms and onions and often carrots as well as chicken and wine, is a complete meal. All it needs is a crusty baguette and a green salad with tomatoes and olives. And a good wine for drinking.

And that is what we had for Christmas dinner.

I forgot about dessert. But sometime around 5 p.m., before setting the table, I ventured out on our side porch to plug in the lighted wreath. There on the garden bench was a small box containing melt-in-your-mouth fudge. I know who the fudge was from, and I thank this dear friend, for he provided our Christmas dessert.

We had plenty of food left over. The day after Christmas, I cut up about a cup of chicken, prepared some pasta, and made a small casserole with leftover Alfredo sauce, carrots, mushrooms and some peas. Topped with cheese and crouton crumbs, it was a humble and unpretentious meal - which is how coq au vin began, too.

That night I made chicken paté with another chicken breast, adding one hard-boiled egg, mushrooms, minced red onion, parsley, grainy French mustard, sea salt and a bit of mayo. Great with a baguette.

Finally, I tossed all the leftovers in a pot and made soup stock, adding ham, lentils, and leftover cold potatoes. This I froze for the cold winter nights ahead.

For there will surely be many of those nights. Winter has come early to the Upper Midwest.

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11 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Tourtiere for a French Canadian Christmas

From 2006:

A decade ago, when I started writing a weekly food feature for a local newspaper, my first topic was tourtiére, the French Canadian meat pie that is an integral part of Christmas Eve. I wanted to personalize the assignment with a nod to my culinary heritage.

I don’t recall a single Christmas Eve without meat pie. My grandmother made it, then my aunts. Now I make it, though I will admit to skipping a few Christmases when time was scarce.

Traditionally, tourtiére is served following midnight or Christmas Eve Mass. My great-grandmother, whom we all called Mémere, washed it down with Champagne. Grandma Annie liked it with Mogen David (likely preceded by her Seven-Up and brandy “highball”). I like a nice Cabernet or a Shiraz with hints of berries and spices.

There are many different versions of tourtiére. Our family tradition is just fresh-fround pork, onions and seasoning. I have two recipe cards, one in my mother's tidy backhand and the other in Jane's slap-dash printing. They just called it "French Meat Pie."

Tourtiére a la Plourde-Laurin Famille

Three pounds ground meat: I like a combination of fresh ground pork and ground chuck
One large onion, minced
Dash nutmeg
Dash allspice
Dash freshly-ground pepper
Dash sea salt
1-2 eggs
1/3 cup cracker crumbs, a hefty pinch of flour or cornstarch

Prepare your crust. Again, I used this pate brisée recipe from Lucy's Kitchen Notebook.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown the meat and onion in a large skillet. Season with pepper and spices. Set aside; you can make this ahead and keep it refrigerated.

Pat your bottom crust into a greased pie plate. Before adding the meat, blend in an egg or two, depending upon the size of your pie. I also add the salt and thickener at the last minute. The eggs keep the pie from crumbling, too.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. I use an egg wash on the crust.

You may serve tourtiére warm or cold. It pairs well with a vegetable side dish, like green beans, carrots or Brussel sprouts and a salad that has a dash of sweetness, such as a pear-blue cheese salad, or perhaps one with apples or cranberries. Cole slaw and applesauce offer a more casual alternative. I treat meat pie as I would a pasty, which my husband's Cornish ancestors ate.

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09 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Pain au Chocolat Pudding with Cranberries

Cranberries, not apples, are Wisconsin's No. 1 fruit crop, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers' group, and these tangy red nuggets are responsible for creating 3,400 jobs in the Badger State. This year, they are especially plentiful, and in fact, more than half of the world's cranberry supply comes from Wisconsin. 

This heavenly concoction of cranberries and chocolate is my all-time favorite posts. From 2006:

In the 1990s, I worked in advertising and public relations in a larger city. One of my jobs each fall was to write copy for a small bakery that specialized in Christmas desserts and cheesecakes.

The owner, a San Francisco native who knew her sweets, offered fabulous fruit-and-chocolate combinations laced with rum and bourbon and dappled with nuts: Dark chocolate and pumpkin, bittersweet chocolate with cherry, milk chocolate and raspberry and many, many more.

Unusual flavor pairings were not as common as they are today. I was not only intrigued by the imaginative flavor marriages, I began to crave sweets. Usually, I succumbed, at least once. Fortunately, the bakery offered dessert by the slice.

It's that time of year again. I had a lot of hard French rolls from LaBrea Bakery in my freezer and a bag of cranberries and I wanted to use them up. I adapted this dessert from Epicurious. The original calls for six cups of torn-up croissants.

Pain Au Chocolate Pudding with Cranberries
  • 6 cups stale bread, rolls or croissants, cut into bite-size cubes
  • 1-2 cups milk, depending on how hard the rolls are
  • 5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate baking chips
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh or unthawed frozen cranberries
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar or fructose
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into bits
  • pinch sea salt
If bread or rolls are hard, soak them in milk for about an hour.

While rolls are soaking, butter a shallow baking dish or casserole dish and chop cranberries.

Once the rolls have softened, break them into small pieces and arrange half in one layer in baking dish. Layer with chocolate and then cranberries. Top with remaining rolls, shiny side up.

Blend eggs, sugar, milk, cream, vanilla, and salt and pour slowly and evenly over bread. Dot pudding with butter bits and sprinke with salt. Chill for at least an hour.

Bake for about 45-50 minutes, until top is golden brown and bubbly.

Note: If sugar and calories are not an issue for you, serve this with a hot sauce made of heavy cream and chocolate or concoct one on your own. I think an orange-chocolate sauce would be nice.

The pudding is sweet, but the cranberries provide balance for the chocolate.

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07 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Why is the Classic Daiquiri so Hard to Find in the Upper Midwest?

A recent spate of Facebook postings about "classic" drinks got me thinking about how frustrated I am whenever I order a daiquiri. I rarely drink them in winter, but I might. I might. 

So why not share a true classic with you, just in time for the holidays. Because lime is great anytime of year.

From 2008:

My mother always told me the daiquiri was the classic ladylike drink for summer.

I took that to heart, and for years the daiquiri was my favorite summer drink. It fell out of fashion for a year or so when I favored rum and coke and receded some years later when I discovered sangria.

But like an old friend, the daiquiri keeps coming back and no birthday is complete for me without a daiquiri.

Only I've found the classic daiquiri is getting hard to find. These days when you order one, you are generally asked what flavor.

Classic, please, I respond. The bartender stares at me.

"I want a plain daiquiri. You know, one made with lime," I say.

The bartender consults with a coworker and eventually I get something approximating a classic daiquiri. Often it misses the mark.

The Purist's Daiquiri

• 1 1/2 oz light rum
• Juice of 1/2 lime
• 1 tsp powdered sugar

Pour ingredients into a shaker filled with ice. Shake. Strain. Pour.

It doesn't get any easier.

Yeas ago, a boyfriend asked me if I wanted a banana daiquiri. No thanks, I said. I tried a strawberry daiquiri once. Never again.

Thank goodness I married a purist.

Postscript (2013): Two years ago I finally had my second strawberry daiquiri. It was spring and I was feeling open minded. Not bad, but no classic.

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05 December 2013

A Visit to the Market in Old Québec City

We marked the start of autumn this year with a short visit to Québec City.

We climbed Cap Diamant, and then rode the funicular a great deal. It is a great deal: For just a few dollars you can save your legs and get a wonderful view of the harbor and the St. Lawrence River. But that's another post.

A highlight of our week was a visit to the Old Port Market in the lower town.

We always book hotels with mini bars so we can have a small refrigerator in our room. This allows us to try local cheese, sausage and other perishable specialties and saves money on meals out.

We always buy apples, or some other fruit, too.

There is obviously a French gene for food presentation. Look at these pretty leeks all in a row!

When I saw these glossy eggplants and peppers, I immediately wanted to make ratatouille.

We walked to the market early in the morning, and were on our way to the upper town by 9:30 a.m. for more sightseeing and fresh air. Thus the market was uncrowded. But a few people had the same idea we did.

There is no better way to shop local than to visit a farm market when you travel.

Since my father's family is from the Québec area, I kept wondering if any of the growers were distant cousins.

I love visiting the countries of my ancestors.

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27 November 2013

A Week of Thanksgiving

For the past five days my sister and I - plus our surviving brother, who has driven up from Illinois - have worked to prepare our mother's house for sale. She has not lived there for more than two years, since we moved her to an assisted living facility better equipped than we are to deal with the later stages of Alzheimer's Disease.

The home is a plainer version of my own gable-and-wing Victorian, L-shaped instead of T-shaped, with a screened-porch made for lazy summer afternoons and sultry summer nights. In late fall, it is cozy, and even as we have packed box after box and bag after bag for delivery to St. Vincent de Paul or Goodwill or the garbage collectors, we have - at least I have - found the experience mostly pleasant. It has taken us forever, it seems, as we started gradually a year ago, held four yard sales in summer and early fall, and each taken the items that mean something to us.

And there are many items there, as the house has been in my father's family since the 1930s, in the heart of the old cattle trader's neighborhood, three blocks each from church and synagogue. Only a few more blocks and you are in the old downtown, only a block from a busy street; you can hear sirens at night and train whistles in the wee hours of the morning.

My grandparents lived there for more than 30 years, my parents for 10 together and then my mother for 30 more years as a widow. It is the house to which we four children returned from college, from which we all married, and at which we celebrated many years of holidays.

The house contains china and glassware from grandmothers and aunts, my Grandfather Herb's college accounting books and my Grandfather Harry's railroad watch, my mother's 1940s fashions and hatboxes from the years she modeled, books and homework assignments from four children, odd bits of furniture from every side of the family and so much more.

Baby clothes, hairless dolls, old games, mismatched gloves, silver, old crocks and many many books; skies, golf clubs, basketball schedules, broken tennis rackets and old striped beach towels - these and thousands of other items complicate the job. It is easy to linger over each piece - and remember.

I have taken it upon myself to accumulate at least 10 boxes of old photos and letters, some going back to the Civil War. I will sort through them and make sure everyone gets a share.

Sorting through and discarding or rerouting old things brings laughter and tears - that's a given. It is especially sad that many of the items we are handling belonged to my brother who died three months ago; I will send them to his children.

Our task is 80 percent complete. Tomorrow we gather at my sister's house only a few blocks away for a day of rest and celebration - and dinner. Our celebration - being together, being able to do things for our mother (though she does not remember who we are) and completing a long, arduous task - will include this recipe.

I am exceeding grateful for many things this year; I have been most fortunate. But tomorrow I will be grateful for having had this tough but lovely week to spend with my siblings and our respective spouses. Here's to you!

14 October 2013

A New Name

I had high hopes seven years ago when I began blogging. I thought I'd experiment with French classics and explore my French and French Canadian culinary roots, talk a bit about my beloved Grandma Annie, and help the college freshman and sophomores I was teaching learn about blogging.

The name I chose was "French Kitchen in America," for that was what I was attempting to create. Our mortgage was paid off, and my husband and I were enjoying traveling to France, exploring Paris and the southwest of France, where we knew someone with a marvelous country home we could rent. I had visions of exploring new food while in France, and recreating the recipes in my own kitchen.

If I'd known what I was doing I'd have started my culinary adventures closer to home. A smaller start with less grandiose plans would have been the wisest course of action and easier for me to maintain when life got complicated.

In fact, my blog became a reflection of my life, which has changed dramatically since June 2006. I quit teaching and writing for a living, took a new job from which I retired last year. It's been nearly a year since my last food post.

I have been eating, of course, and eating rather well, but food has taken a bit of a back seat to my other projects, which include looking after my mother, who is 90 years old and has Alzheimer's Disease. She is in an assisted living facility, and I try to visit 2-3 times a week. I'm her laundry lady and the woman who does her makeup. I love to see her smile and make her laugh. I share these goals with my younger sister.

My sister and I have been attempting to clear her home so we can get it on the market. During the course of that we have learned much about our family and each other. Most of us go through this process, and I recommend it as part of life's more difficult but certainly rewarding activities.

Also during the course of this process, we unexpectedly lost one of my two brothers. If you have lost a sibling, you will understand the layers of this particular type of grief.

You may also understand my particular need for comfort food at this time. Coupled with the onset of cold weather here on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, it is especially fierce. I will need to get back to the gym soon.

I will need to get back to the kitchen soon, too. I miss it. Right now it's just a room I pass through from time to time. Yes, we still eat meals but more often than not, it is my husband who does the cooking. Or it's a grilled cheese sandwich.

Lots of recipes and cookbooks turned up in my mother's pantry, and in an old kitchen table with a drawer that we just sold to a local antique dealer. I hope to make some of them and share the results with you in the next year. We've also encountered some of Grandma Annie's favorites, most of which I no longer consume, but which I will happily share with you.

The blog's new name reflects the neighborhood where my grandmother and mother grew up, the west end of my hometown. More commonly known as "The West End," the neighborhood has its roots in the decades after the Civil War, when French Canadian families left their rocky, Quebec ribbon farms for the promise of prosperity in the textile mills of New England and the lumber towns of the Upper Great Lakes region.

I was lucky to know the West End in the 50s and 60s, when grandparents still spoke French at home and neighbors - often related by bloodlines or Quebec village origins - shared the bounty of backyard gardens.

I dedicate this post to my mother and my late brother (above, with me, in a backyard in Frenchtown), and as always, Grandma Annie.

14 June 2013

Ephraim, Wis., in Shoulder Season

Just 17 miles across the bay from my kitchen, the village of Ephraim in Wisconsin's Door County is a charming enclave of white clapboard houses and churches, galleries, eateries, fudge shops and harborside parks.

Door County is a peninsula - an island, really - that juts northeastward, separating the bay of Green Bay from the waters of much larger Lake Michigan. It is known for its cherry orchards and farm markets and for its lovely harbors and resorts - and its villages.

When I first discovered Door County as a teenager - in those days, many teens from my town found summer jobs as waitresses and busboys - I was intrigued by the colorful place names north of bustling Sturgeon Bay: Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Gills Rock, Northport, Baileys Harbor, Jacksonport and Institute.

Perhaps the most picturesque of Door County's villages is Ephraim, sandwiched between bluff and shore, just north Fish Creek and south of Sister Bay. With its harbor on the bay and its pristine white cottages and shops spilling down the hillside, Ephraim - the name means "doubly fruitful" - feels like a touch of New England in Northeast Wisconsin.

Settle by Moravians in 1853, Ephraim's population of 300 celebrates Fyr Bal, the Swedish welcome to summer, every June with bonfires along the shore and a celebratory spirit throughout the village. Ephraim is a dry community, and my observation is that it is the most family-oriented of Door County's villages.

Because of its long-time popularity as a vacation spot for urban midwesterners, Door County is crowded in summer. Finding a lunch spot in mid-July can be next to impossible. We prefer to visit in shoulder season - spring or fall - when traffic is light and resort rates are low. The photo above was shot mid-week in mid-May, a relatively sleepy time on the Door peninsula.

Door County offers opportunities for boating, golf, shopping, eating and gallery hopping. Especially in summer, cultural opportunities abound. You can see a play, attend a concert, watch a potter at work, or take a course in watercolor or weaving - and much more.

We like to visit galleries and play mini golf. Trying new restaurants - everything from outdoor bistros to traditional supper clubs - is essential, but we also pack a hamper of picnic foods. Visiting Door County farm markets, which offer a plethora of cherry products, is a must. In the past dozen years, a number of wineries have opened on the peninsula, and their tasting rooms are worth a visit.

In spring there is a palpable sense of excitement as the peninsula gears up for the busy summer season. In fall, the wind down begins as the marinas empty of boats, summer staff goes off to school and shops begin to clear their shelves of summer merchandise. It's a bittersweet season but still lovely, especially when the leaves are at peak color in early October.

12 June 2013

An Old-Fashioned Staple: Hattie's Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Although it's nearly the middle of June, warmer weather has only recently arrived in northeast Wisconsin. Temperatures have climbed as high as the low 80s, but evenings and mornings are still cool.

Our ancient rhubarb patches are flourishing, although a bit later than usual, and I have already made two rhubarb desserts and frozen two quarts for fall and winter baking. I will do this as long as the patches produce rhubarb, and give some away, too.

Rhubarb is a cottage-garden staple, an old-fashioned vegetable that conjures up visions of picket fences, weathered barns, climbing roses and cool summer kitchens. It is excellent on its own, or combined with apples or strawberries, and we've enjoyed it in everything from pies and muffins to cakes and crisps. 

Since we have two patches, we freeze a good deal of what we harvest for winter desserts. I plan to try it in savory dishes, too, which will be a first for us. I like this idea as well.

Rhubarb information, history and more recipes may be found here

Two days ago, I made a simple rhubarb-strawberry crisp that yielded six servings. 

For the filling
  • 7 stalks of rhubarb, washed and sliced or diced
  • 15 large strawberries, sliced or diced
  • dash lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of sugar

For the topping
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 cup old-fashioned oatmeal, dry
  • 1/2 to 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • roughly 1/2 stick of butter
  • dash sea salt
Once the rhubarb is washed and sliced, place it in a bowl, add about 1/4 cup sugar - enough to lightly coat the rhubarb - and allow to chill overnight in the refrigerator, covered.

When you are ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the chilled rhubarb (you may have to remove some liquid, but do not rewash the rhubarb) with the strawberries, lemon juice and sugar. Place in a greased 8-by-8-inch baking pan.

Use the topping ingredients to make a crumbly topping, as you would with any other crisp. Spread this atop the rhubarb-strawberry mixture. At this point, I sprinkle a small amount of sea salt on the topping to mitigate any overly-sweet taste. 

Bake for one hour, or until crispy top is golden brown. 

This basic crisp recipe can be used with just about any fruit, and I've experimented with it since I first laid my hands on it while a graduate student at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis. It originated with a lovely lady named Clarice, who worked in the continuing education office, and who made it with apples and raisins (another favorite dessert at our house).

I think of the recipe as Hattie's Rhubarb Crisp, because I think the rhubarb was planted about 70 years ago by a woman with that name for whom our 1896 Victorian was a retirement home. Sadly, Hattie's husband died not long after the couple moved here from the country, and then Hattie took in boarders, female students from the nearby county normal school, to make ends meet. She also raised chickens and had a grape arbor on the sunny side of the house. 

I've thought of her a great deal this spring, although we never met, as my husband and I removed layers of wallpaper from our second-floor book room, one of the rooms Hattie rented out to coeds. We got down to the circa-1940 wall paper, removed that, and then patched and re-plastered the entire room. Before and after photos will show up in a later post. Meanwhile, I am rather proud of my prowess with a trowel.

The patch below is the smaller of the two, and is located on the sunny west side of our old horse barn.