30 November 2006

A Recipe for...Water

I have always been finicky about my drinking water. I began filtering it years ago and quickly discovered the difference. It tastes better, smoother somehow. It only stands to reason that quality water is best for cooking.

Each December, I vow to drink more water in the new year. It’s easier to keep that resolution now that I’ve given up soda and high-carbohydrate fruit juices.

I dress my water up with mint or lemon balm in summer. All year long, I use citrus fruits to flavor my drinks.

Lemon is a must for water goblets when you want to set an elegant table. I read somewhere that it helps mitigate the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels, if consumed during a meal. I am not certain if that’s true — I tend to question anything that simple and convenient — but it is true that a wedge of lemon gives a touch of panache to a simple glass of water.

Of course, you can purchase flavored water everywhere these days. But it’s so much better when fresh, and flavored with fresh juice instead of extracts and chemicals. Once you begin to drink your water this way, the bottled stuff tastes flat and stale.

Like many travelers, my husband and I carry water bottles everywhere. We always travel with string bags, too; in Paris, my husband kept his water bottle and a piece of fruit in his bag, looped around his belt. It sustained us, even when we got lost in the jumble of streets just east of the Pantheon on an unseasonably warm May Day weekend.

We stopped to refill our bottles at the famous Wallace Fountains that are scattered around Paris. I’ll send two packets of Door County Coffee (brew it with high-quality water) to the first Francophile foodie, blogger or anyone else who can identify the location of the fountain in the photo (street name, please!). This woman jumped out of a cab to fill two large bottles and we snapped away.

26 November 2006

Brandy Baked Pears

Since mid-October when it became evident I had purchased too many apples during the waning days of the local farm market, we have been feasting on baked apples laced with brown sugar and cinnamon and stuffed with raisins and walnuts.

It was time to upgrade to a pear.

As much as I love apples, pears have a certain je ne sais quois that apples lack — a subtle sophistication in both form and taste.

We loved this recipe:

Brandy Baked Pears

  • 6 firm pears
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup pear brandy

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Peel and halve the pears. Use a melon-baller or apple corer to remove the core. Pour brown sugar into bowl or flat baking pan; coat pears with sugar.

Melt butter in shallow baking dish in microwave or oven. Add the pears, spooning some of the butter on top. Add water to the baking dish, and bake until pears become tender and sugar and butter begins to carmelize. Remove from oven, add brandy to pear dish and allow to sit for 2-5 minutes. Keep spooning juices over the pears.

For topping, I mixed mascarpone cheese with brandy and some of the juices. You can also mix 1/4 cup chilled heavy cream that has been whipped until soft peaks form with one teaspoon of brandy.

We added roasted walnuts and a shake of cinnamon to the pears before serving.

20 November 2006

Salad with Cranberries, Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Maple-Fig Dressing

I needed a salad. I did not think the standard tossed salad would do.

Driven by a bottle of Maple Grove Farms Maple-Fig Dressing, this is what I came up with: A mix of bitter, sweet and earthy flavors.

Salad with Cranberries, Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Maple-Fig Dressing

3 cups green leaf lettuce, washed and torn
1/2 cup walnuts, sautéed in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon
1/3 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons goat cheese with herbs
3-4 thin slices sweet yellow onion
maple-fig dressing

First sauté the walnuts in about 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, tablespoon brown sugar and a dash of cinnamon. Toast under low heat — 200 degrees — in a toaster oven for about 20 minutes. Dry on paper towels.

While the walnuts are roasting, use the same pan to lightly brown thin slices of onion. Drain onions on paper towel.

Toss onions and walnuts with lettuce. Add cranberries and goat cheese. Splash with dressing — a little goes a long way.

It happened that the goat cheese I had on hand was flavored with basil and garlic so I had my doubts. But it worked. IN fact, I think it would be bland without the extra boost of flavor.

The recipe above made salads for three people.

Sorry to do two salad posts in three days, but I'm eating lightly (yeah, right) in preparation for Thursday.

19 November 2006

Warm Chocolate Bread Pudding with Cognac and Cointreau

Chocolate Bread Pudding, from 2006

Funny how traditions start: For me, this is a chocolate time of year. It began one Thanksgiving when I was stuck in Madison, with a weekend job and an anthropology paper due Monday.

The paper was a critique of Laurence Wylie's "A Village in the Vaucluse," a look at rural Provence around 1950. But on Thanksgiving Day, after consuming a chicken dinner for one (I had no invitations that year, but that suited me fine), I spent the long afternoon reading Colette's "Claudine."

And at dusk, I ate a hastily-thrown together chocolate soufflé. Somehow, Colette makes me crave chocolate. So does November, when darkness comes early bringing with it a chill and on windy nights, the sound of dead leaves scuttling across the pavement.

So tonight, with my mom coming for supper, we had chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It has a layered taste, not unlike wine. Fresh out of the oven, the pudding offered an aftertaste of ripe olives, my husband thought. Warmed over, it tasted very decadent.

Chocolate Bread Pudding with Cognac and Cointreau
  • 4 cups stale French or Italian bread
  • 4 large eggs
  • one cup sugar 
  • 1/2-cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup baking cocoa
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup cognac
  • 1/4 cup cointreau
  • 1 - 1 2/2 cups quality semi-sweet chocolate pieces

If the bread is very dry, soak it in two percent milk.  While bread is soaking, combine all other ingredients in a large bowl. Add the bread to the bowl and allow the entire mix to stand for a while, even overnight in the refrigerator, if you like.

Pour into greased casserole or large soufflé dish. I used two medium-sized ramekins and four small ones. Bake in a preheated, 325 oven until puddings are slightly firm —— about 30 minutes (but check frequently).

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and top candied orange peel. I served mine plain, and they were fine.

When I lived in Green Bay a decade or so ago, my friends and I used to go to a wonderful downtown restaurant called "La Bonne Femme," where the dessert menu included a deep chocolate cream dish. On November days, that was always what I wanted.

17 November 2006

The Art of Living: Cider and Santas on a Cold Afternoon

Enjoying life (and food and wine) is inextricably linked to so many other sensual experiences.

I’m not talking about sex here.

Sight and smell and sound are all part of the experience. Why else do we fuss so over dishes, table linens, centerpieces, candles and dinner music?

I don’t imagine many of you will disagree.

So that’s why I wanted to share this afternoon with you. In addition to my weekly food column, I write a feature about working people. On Thanksgiving weekend, I usually feature someone associated with the holidays.

This year, I revisited an artist who makes wonderful, whimsical papiér maché figures. She is best known locally for her Santas.

Her farm is about 15 miles out of town to the north, where pine forest closes in on farm field. She and her husband live in an old log cabin that was long ago combined with a farm house to create a home that is full of odd-shaped rooms and nooks and crannies and comfortable old furniture covered in fabrics you can no longer find. Comfort is the key word here, old comfort, nothing too new and overstuffed.

An old granary serves as her studio. It is filled with dancing frogs and flying pigs and trees with faces and just about any creature that can be molded of papiér maché wrapped around a dried gourd or piece of driftwood. In her world, pumpkins dance and turtles ride piggyback atop one another.

Her Santas I leave for you to judge. But aren’t they exquisite?

I had looked forward to this visit all week. I was not disappointed. We sat around a space heater in her studio, and sipped mulled cider and nibbled on apple kringle to a background of soft Celtic music. We talked art, not food. (But that didn’t matter. It was an enchanting afternoon and whetted my appetite for more — more time to enjoy the worlds of art and nature. What better place to do that than in my own kitchen?)

Outside the studio, the air was fragrant with wood smoke. Chickens cackled and lambs bleated. Crows flew overhead and I could hear a downy woodpecker somewhere. Leaves crunched underfoot. The wine-dark smell of old leaves is gone now, but it has left behind a scent of winter on the rise.

If all goes well tomorrow, I’ll spend the afternoon in my own kitchen, with a scented candle burning and jazz tunes playing. Outside, the air will smell of wood smoke, too, for my neighbor Jerry likes a good fire on cold days. Crows will caw overhead and I may see a few late-season Canada geese flying south. I can't recreate the feel of this afternoon, but it's Saturday — my day — and nothing is going to stop me from enjoying life.

24 October 2006

Herbes de Provence

My French Kitchen in America is almost never without an ample supply of herbes de Provence, even if I have to make them myself.

The basis for herbes de Provence are rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. Other additions are usually marjoram, basil, summer savory and fennel. I like it best when culinary lavender is included.

Now that I live in a small town, this blend is difficult to find locally. I usually buy a jar whenever I visit a Penzeys outlet, usually in Madison, or buy them online.

Fortunately, they are available from Esprit du Sel, blended with sea salt for about $8 at a local supermarket. In this form, I use them to flavor and draw moisture from cut-up eggplant before making ratatouille. Herbes de Provence make a great rub for summer grilling. Lately, I've run across recipes for turkey using herbes de Provence. Since my husband wants ham for Thanksgiving, I'll have to find another way to work them into the menu.

When I blend my own herbes, I use this mix:

  • 1 Tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon marjoram
  • 1 Tablespoon dried summer savory
  • 1/2 Tablespoon rosemary

To taste:
lavender buds
fennel seeds
dried sage

Note: Yesterday, our three-year-old iMac refused to boot. We are taking it to the nearest Apple repair shop tomorrow, which means an out-of-town trip. I'll be able to shop at a larger supermarket and visit some specialty shops.

How will I survive what is likely to be a two-week period without a home computer? Yikes!

21 October 2006

Potage a l'Oignon (Onion Soup)

“They’re very sweet,” said the farmer, rearranging the golden onions in the white basket. “But I won’t be here after this week. . .”

So of course, I bought them. There were only three farm market vendors braving yesterday’s chill and I noticed prices were up. No matter. The fresh produce is still a bargain, compared to the older stuff you find at the supermarket.

I loaded up on onions, thinking the weather was perfect for onion soup, usually Saturday night fare at our house.

This version was sweeter than usual. It could have been dessert. Oh, but it was wonderful.

Sweet Onion Soup for Two

  • 3 of the sweetest onions you can find, peeled and sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 Tablespoon flour
  • 2 cups beef bouillon
  • 2 cups chicken bouillon
  • ¼ cup warm milk
  • Dash ground pepper
  • Dash sea salt
  • Dash herbes de Provence

After you’ve sliced the onions, brown them slightly in butter in a heavy stockpot or skillet. Add flour and brown, until the onions turn golden.

Add hot beef and chicken bouillon and allow the soup to come to a boil. Lower the heat and allow it to simmer for 20 minutes.

Next, add the milk and allow it to simmer a bit longer. Add pepper, salt and herbes. My husband prefers his without cheese, but I usually do a blend of Mozzarella and Parmesan.

Sometimes I add croutons that have been sautéed in butter and garlic. Tonight: simple French dinner rolls.