Showing posts with label childhood memories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label childhood memories. Show all posts

22 February 2014

Chicken with Apples and Calvados


Chicken was a Sunday dish when I was growing up, and a firmly-planted tradition in Grandma Annie's kitchen. This post was updated from 2007:

In college, I devoured young women's magazines, and somewhere along the way clipped an extensive article about Normandy. The accompanying photos of lace curtained windows, baskets of apples and bottles of Calvados formed my ideas of what a French kitchen should be, and I saved them for years.

15 February 2014

New! Sweet Bell Pepper Pizza with Cipillini Onions, Chevre, Black Olives and, yes, Meatloaf


My beloved Grandma Annie was incredibly hip for a grandmother born in 1888. She knew how much we kids loved pizza and often made it for us, using a package that included crust mix, a small can of tomato sauce and a packet of parmesan cheese. Toppings were improvised: usually hamburger, tomatoes and onions.

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.





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. 

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.


24 February 2008

Fruit for Sick People

I have been waiting for a springlike day to show you these lovely raspberries from a vendor on Rue Cler.

I am told it was about as springlike as we can expect today - with temps in the 20s - but I cannot say for sure as I came down with the flu everyone else has.

When I am sick, I want only fruit. This probably stems from childhood when I was given comforting things like apricot nectar and bananas when I was bedridden. Tea and toast were another sickbed standard.

"Eat light, you'll feel alright," my mother would chirp, bringing me a tray. There was usually some embellishment on the tray, like a canned pear with raisin eyes and a cherry mouth. I felt cared for and secure and on the mend.

I had major surgery once, and went without solids from Wednesday to Saturday. My first meal was a small box of Cheerios. They were like some sort of manna to my hungry palate. I have loved them ever since, though they were never childhood favorites.

Chicken noodle soup still works, though I buy the low-sodium stuff now and it's not the same.

My husband provides the same loving care my parents did, but now I worry that he will catch whatever I have.

This time around, I've been living on a totally decadent but simple treat: Ice cream in orange juice. I could blend it and make a smoothie, but I just dump the scoop of ice cream in the glass of orange juice so it's more like a float. I know it is not healthy, but it soothes my sore throat and banishes my fever.

What's your favorite sick time antidote?

24 December 2007

Christmas Eves to Remember


Here in Wisconsin, we are hunkered down once again for a quiet Christmas Eve at home. Tomorrow there will be some travel here and there, but for tonight, we are home.

For the past 18 years, our Christmas Eves have been quiet affairs. During my growing up years, our rituals on this night changed and shifted and morphed. When Mémere was living but approaching 90, the activities focused on the family home where she lived with Grandma Annie and Aunt Patsy, two widows and a spinster. But we all converged on the house on Christmas Eve for wine and tourtiere and other seasonal treats and libations.

After Mémere died, the action shifted to my parents' house. On Christmas Eve and again on Christmas Day, that was where friends and relatives met to watch us play with our dolls, dump trucks, toy theaters and board games. As we grew older, Christmas Eves became quieter affairs; I always sang with my choir at an agonisingly protracted midnight mass.

But in the 1980s, in the decade or so following Grandma Annie's death, we began once again, meeting at the old house in Frenchtown on Christmas Eve. At first, the gatherings were quiet affairs, often just a few of us seating round the kitchen table, with cheese and sausage and the highballs Annie loved, listening to tinny Christmas music from a radio. As we children acquired spouses and as other friends and relatives were widowed, the events became larger and grander, with dozens of different desserts and cookies as well as cheeses and sausages and dips and spreads and chips and breads.

The year my husband and I married - 1989 - was the largest such event, with nearly 20 people in and out, all bearing gifts and bottles. It was the last, too, because the following year began a series of deaths that decimated our family ranks.

Today, we are a spread-out family, with members in Illinois, California and Texas as well as Michigan and Wisconsin. Our lives are busy, and some years, not everyone makes it back to the Midwest. I live here, just a few miles from the old house; so does my sister.

Every Christmas Eve, I drive past Grandma Annie's house. In my heart I salute it, for those many years of Christmas Eves and wonderful memories of the old kitchen. As I said in an earlier post, I am so happy that Denise, its new mistress, is an ardent cook and baker. The light hand on her shoulder is merely my lovely Grandma Annie showing her approval.

Cherish the ones you love tonight.

I will.

About the photo: That was the view from my kitchen door about 4:15 p.m. last night. It is just that color now as I post this.

22 August 2007

Paris: A Still Life by an Open Window


I am always intrigued with the composition of food in photographs and paintings.

This fascination goes back to childhood, when I spent winter Sunday afternoons armed with a bag of oranges and my parents' coffee table books, which usually focused on travel and history.

One book of black-and-white photos combined both, and in it was a feature on Colonial Williamsburg. There was a photo of fresh on a windowsill warmed by the lambent late-afternoon sun that always intrigued me.

They were root vegetables, I believe, and it seemed to me that they were waiting to be prepared for some deep and rich and earthy-tasting supper dish.

Poring over these books gave me a taste for home decorating or “shelter” books, especially those involving kitchens. I am always interested in the choice of food props. Bread, onions and artichokes? Berries, cheese and lemonade? Who decides? How do they decide? Do they look at kitchen color and come up with a contrast?

I remember looking hungrily at a fall table decorated with bittersweet. Atop the table were pewter tankards, probably filled with hard cider, a loaf of rustic bread, a hunk or two of cheese, and a bowl of apples.

It seemed like a fine fall meal to me.

When I was 16 years old, we piled into the car with Grandma Annie on an October afternoon and visited my grandfather’s sister, Annie’s sister-in-law, who lived on an 1870s-era farmstead 30 miles into the country.

Before we left, Frances prepared an impromptu meal of ham, cheese, rolls, applesauce and cold milk. This humble meal has remained a favorite of mine on busy fall weekends.

In Paris, we had a kitchen window that looked out on an airshaft. Just before 5:30 p.m., the light was right for food photography. I shot this photo of a baguette and some aromatic Pont L’Eveque cheese with a bottle of wine after a long afternoon in the Marais. I like the way the shadows add depth to the food.

It tasted wonderful, too.

21 December 2006

Kitchen Tools: Annie's Pie Crimper

December darkness came quickly and stealthily to Old Frenchtown, sneaking around the corners of the ancient weather-beaten barns and sheds.

Only the shops on Dunlap Avenue were bright with red and green lights — the shops and the little IGA store located just north of Grandma Annie’s back yard.

Often we went home with Annie in the evenings for a comforting supper in her bright kitchen. The house was cold and dark when we entered, but soon the furnace would roar on and Annie would walk toward the back of the house, shedding her dark coat and hat as she went and neatly stashing them in her closet before turning on the kitchen light.

She’d ignite the gas oven with a tiny poof! and light the burner under the kettle. Always, there was tea to be made and bread to be sliced and pickles to be placed on a cut-glass, leaf-shaped plate.

There would be ham or chicken or turkey and vegetable soup, for Annie’s suppers were simple but homey affairs. Always there was dessert, served with a twinkle in her eye, because of course, it was her favorite.

Annie’s sweet tooth was legendary in family lore.

In the years before she married my handsome Irish grandfather, Annie worked as a seamstress for one of the many French Canadian dressmakers who had shops downtown. On her first payday, she walked past a candy shop on the way home — and promptly spent all her earnings on sweets.

As an adult, Annie loved to bake cakes and cupcakes and pies. The latter is something she shared with my father, her son-in-law. Pies were his specialty, when he wasn’t cooking dinner.

Especially at Christmas, my father made pies for people: Librarians, elderly ladies living alone, old family friends. He rose early on Christmas Eve and made a variety, from fruit pies to cream pies. By 9 a.m., he’d have the car loaded with pies for delivery.

This year, there will be no exchanges of lavish gifts. Instead, I asked my mother for Annie’s pie crimper.

Really, that is all I need.

06 December 2006

Cranberry-Orange Scones

When December sunsets produced a gloriously striated sky of pink and lavender and salmon, Grandma Annie always said that Santa Claus was making christmas cookies.

We believed that charming myth: It made the already dazzling winter sunsets all the more spectacular and fired our imaginations. What wonders — edible and otherwise — would we encounter come Christmas?

It doesn't matter that Grandma's story was just that, a story to amuse children. It was enchanting!

It was cold and gray today and there was no sun to set. I made scones to ward off the cold draft that rolls under the kitchen door. The rear wing of our old Victorian house on a hill has three doors, and ample opportunities for the cold to slip through, no matter how hard I try to keep it out.

A baking project helps greatly, and scones can be made with ingredients that won't necessarily send fat to the hips, cholesterol to the arteries and blood sugar soaring to new heights.

Low-Fat Cranberry-Orange Scones


  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 4 tablespoons fructose
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 5 tablespoons chilled Smart Balance, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 6 tablespoons light half and half
  • 1 large egg (or two egg whites), beaten
  • 2 tablespoons grated orange zest or 1/2 teaspoon orange oil


Preheat oven to 400. Sift dry ingredients in large bowl; cut in Smart Balance (or other low-fat butter substitute). Rub together until dough is grainy. Add cranberries (today, when I saw I did not have enough dry cranberries, I chopped some fresh and added another teaspoon of fructose).

In a separate bowl, blend the half and half, the egg or egg whites and the orange zest. Add this to the dry mix and stir until the dough is blended. Knead lightly while in the bowl.

I use an eight-section scone pan. But you can also make small rounds or wedges and bake them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until tops of scones are golden.

The scones are best eaten hot with orange marmalade. They are not as dense and dry as other scones.

Scones, of course, are not French. But the French take great pride in the success of their baked goods (and why not?) and scones are easy to make and make well.

It really doesn't matter what you bake or make on a dreary December day. But puttering around the kitchen helps drive the cold away, if only in your mind.

Postscript: Oh zut! WhenI was formulating this post in my mind, I was going to provide a link to My Kitchen in Half Cups, because Tanna was the one who inspired me to bake with cranberries, instead of freeze them. These scones would be great with Tanna's cranberry curd, too.

17 September 2006

Steak Provencal with Roasted Potatoes

When I was growing up, Saturday night was steak night. Wisconsin was filled with steakhouses, many located on the outskirts of town, some in old farmhouses, others in former roadhouses. The classic meal was a thick, juicy steak with baked potato and sour cream, preceded by an iceberg-lettuce salad and maybe a cheese tray.

My father was well-known in this corner of the world for his steaks. He just knew how to do them. They were brown on the outside, pink on the inside, tender and flavorful. Growing up, I preferred chicken or fish: There was just too much steak around!

During college, I ate little meat, preferring to explore vegan fare. Then I married a man who is a steak lover.

I began to take pride in my own steaks. My standard way of preparing them was with a garlic-and-herb rub. But recently I discovered a recipe for Steak Provençal that I really love. It pairs well with roasted potatoes from Patricia Wells, Wisconsin native and fellow UW-Madison journalism alum.

Steak Provençal for Two

Marinade


  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 4 small green onions, sliced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoons lemon zest
  • Dash herbes de Provence
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Sea salt


Marinate your favorite cuts of meat for 2-4 hours in the refrigerator. If the price is right, I prefer filet mignon. But select tenderloin is fine.

Remove from marinade. Broil until fully cooked, turned steaks frequently to ensure they lie flat and are fully cooked. When finished, add ground pepper and add a dash of sea salt.

Roasted Potatoes


  • 1 dozen small new potatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt


Preheat oven to 425. Wash but do not peel the potatoes. Cut them in half and coat with olive oil. Place flat side down in a greased pan and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, until the potatoes have turned a golden brown. Sprinkle with sea salt.

I usually serve this meal with a tomato salad and roasted or sautéed peppers and a not-too-tannic red wine.