19 February 2007

A Brief History of Chateaubriand

"Why didn't you include some history of Chateaubriand?" asked a reader who does not post comments but happens to sit next to me at work.

"Uh, because I forgot," I said. That's the truth. Ideas and information don't seem to stay too long in my brain these days. Stress overload?

Chateaubriand, like London Broil, is not a cut of meat, according to some sources. It is a way of cooking a thick cut of beef tenderloin. Other sources, like Wikipedia, to which I can never successfully provide a precise link, refer to it as a cut.

Does it matter? I think not. It tastes heavenly.

The dish was reportedly created for Francois René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), a statesman and writer. Born in St. Malo, he grew up in a castle in Normandy. He spent part of the French Revolution in the American Deep South, which ultimately influenced several of his novels. He is considered the father of French Romanticism.

The dish that bears his name may have been created by his chef, Montmireil, according to the Food Reference Website.

Here's what else the Web site says, "Sources differ on the other important details of this recipe. Most say it was originally cut from the thickest part of the beef tenderloin, but several state that it was originally cut from the sirloin. Some say it was one very thick cut of beef, seared on the outside and rare on the inside. It may or may not then have had the seared and charred ends cut off before serving. Others state that the thick steak (filet or sirloin) was cooked between two inferior steaks to enhance its flavor and juiciness. The inferior steaks were cooked until well charred, then discarded."

Another site, O Chef, asserts that Montmireil "placed his master's roast between two other cuts of tenderloin, burnt both the outside meats to a crisp, and threw them away, leaving the Vicomte's portion evenly pink through and through."

I must admit that while my Chateaubriand is never well done, it is rarely as pink as it should be in the middle.

There is some disagreement about how thick a real Chateaubriand must be. When I'm flush, mine is thick. When I buy a cheaper cut, it is not.

There is apparently some disagreement over the sauce. Was it originally Béarnaise or something made from white wine and shallots?

The traditional side dish is small potatoes, called chateau potatoes. They are cut into small shapes about the size of olives and then browned. Not a purist, I use the smallest potatoes I can find, or I cut larger potatoes in half. Even on my weekends, I do not have the time or patience to carve olive-sized potatoes. Also, the recipes often call for russet potatoes. We prefer Yukon Gold.

I must use shallots in the sauce, however. That is a hard and fast rule for me. I like the cross between onion and garlic taste they offer. Supposedly, they offer cancer-fighting compounds, too, another plus. While I usually roast either small or pearl onions alongside my Chateaubriand, I have used shallots, too, intensifying the shallot taste of this wonderful dish.

18 February 2007

Chateaubriand with Herbes de Provence and Cognac-Dijon Mustard Sauce

I was a teenager the first time I watched by father prepare Chateaubriand for two. He explained that it was a very romantic dish so of course, I paid a good deal of attention to its preparation, imagining that some day I would make it for someone I loved.

What fascinated me was that there were really no prescribed vegetables to surround this very tasty tenderloin. My father told me it was a good opportunity to serve seasonal vegetables. If I recall correctly, his was made with small potatoes, onions, carrots and green beans. I have made this with broccoli and Brussels sprouts and would like some day to try it with root vegetables.

I now prepare it at least once a year for my husband. My father's recipe was in his head. Here is mine, adapted from one I found online somewhere years ago.

Chateaubriand for Two

  • 2 pounds trimmed tenderloin
  • 2-3 large cloves garlic, slivered
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 4 medium shallots, minced
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon dried herbs de Provence
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • freshly-ground pepper
  • Béarnaise sauce or one package Béarnaise sauce mix

Preheat oven to 450.

Cut 3/4-inch deep slits in the underside of the tenderloin. Fill these with minced garlic. Brush tenderloin with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Heat the third tablespoon along with one tablespoon butter in a heavy skillet. Brown meat on all four sides, using tongs to turn it over so that it browns evenly. This process takes about 4-5 minutes.

Once meat is browned, set it on the top rack of roasting pan (I use the one that came with my oven, for best results.) Surround it with the vegetables you are using and bake for about 30 minutes for medium rare meat.

While the meat is in the oven, place one tablespoon of butter and shallots in the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add broth, which will deglaze the pan. Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid by half before adding the Cognac, mustard and herbes de Provence. Whisk into butter. Season with pepper.

Prepare Béarnaise sauce from scratch or according to package directions. I use skim milk and Smart Balance.

Once the Béarnaise sauce is ready, add it to the shallot-Cognac sauce in the skillet and blend, whisking. As the sauce cools it will thicken.

Serve the tenderloin on an oval platter surrounded by vegetables. Cover the entire dish with sauce. There will be leftovers.

Note It's a good idea to check the vegetables and the meat, every 5 minutes or so, especially if you are including brocolli. Sunday I used pearl onions, Yukon gold potatoes, young green beans, baby carrots and button mushrooms. It changes every time I make it, as I try to keep the vegetables seasonal. We like to pair this with Cabernet Sauvignon, something a little oak-y.

I try not to add salt to my Chateaubriad, especially when I used a canned beef broth, which I do when I am pressed for time. I used a Béarnaise Sauce mix today, but if you have time it's nice to make your own. Here's Michael Ruhlman's recipe.

Our Valentine's Day celebration was a bit delayed, but we celebrated twice. Saturday night we enjoyed pomegranate martinis, beef risotto with sage, lobster bisque with saffron and curry, tenderloin with cherry sauce and whipped parsnips, and a heart-shaped flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-raspberry sauce and another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at our favorite restaurant.

A much simpler diet awaits us starting tomorrow.

13 February 2007

The Secret Ingredient

I had big plans for this week.

Tarte Tatin, Red Velvet Cupcakes and a heart-shaped cake in my new Williams-Sonoma pan were among them.

But real life — in the form of deadlines and special projects — has intervened. I have no time. What time I do have is spent curled up on the sofa or soaking in a warm tub of bubbles.

I was supposed to — per Glenna of A Fridge Full of Food — share my Secret Ingredient. Now it will have to wait.

Let's just say the Secret Ingredient is Love.

This week, isn't that enough?

10 February 2007

Onion Salad with Roquefort and Bacon

During my first semester at college, my roommate Vivienne and I talked about food incessantly and prepared food almost as often as we talked about it.

We were trying very hard to become gourmets or at least decent cooks, and we made lots of dishes with rice, mushrooms, leeks and garlic. The tiny Pullman kitchen in our apartment-style dorm got a real workout, and we were constantly scouring local markets for new culinary finds.

I must have come home for the holidays jabbering on and on about cooking because that Christmas Grandma Annie gave me not only the cheese basket I talked about on Feb. 5, but also my first cookbook.

It must have been a last-minute gift, for it was a cookbook culled from her own large collection and it had her name written inside: Mrs. H.J. Doran. This she covered up with a strip of paper that bore my name in capital letters, produced no doubt on her battered Underwood.

It was a first edition of “Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy Cookbook,” a small, handheld cookbook that now sells for up to $75in the online auctions.

By the time Annie gave it to me, many of the recipes were already outdated. But others were classics, and for years this was my only cookbook. I augmented it with a few French cookbooks that I picked up cheap at the used booksellers on Madison’s State Street.

A Meaning Beyond Recipes

I can tell which recipes I used again and again, for those pages are stained, and there I’ve jotted down notes and calorie counts. Among my favorites were Spanish Rice, Chicken-Rice Bake, Miroton of Sea Food, Chili Con Carne, Tuna-Broccoli Casserole, and Peanut Butter Cookies.

Of course, many of the recipes I did not make, believing as I did at the time that great meals come from the heart. I rarely used cookbooks for recipes, only inspiration.

The book must have meant something to me even in my callow youth, because at one point I wrote, “First cookbook, Christmas gift from Grandma” inside the cover.

It means so much more to me now.

It is an historical document of sorts, a primary source for understanding the way people ate in the 1950s, that time of unbridled optimism when convenience foods were viewed as miracles of progress.

The cookbook is also part of my grandmother, for it sat among her own collection for decades, unused, until she thought I needed it.

For more than 25 years, it has been among my equally vast collection of cookbooks and has held a place of honor there. I could not fathom giving it away, even though I have not used it in years.

But I opened it the other night and I don’t think I can accurately describe the wave of something — nostalgia? — that poured over me.

I felt good, I felt comforted, I felt wrapped in love and security.

Perhaps this humble gift was more than a cookbook, I thought. Perhaps it was — it is — part of me in a way other cookbooks, other books even will never be.

A Culinary Epiphany

Great food artfully prepared dazzles me and sweeps me off my feet. It is like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe for the first time.

Humble dishes nourish my soul in a way nothing else can. They are like an old friend, or a good and long marriage.

Here is one from the book that I think stands up across six decades, with a little tweaking. I lowered the salt and added bacon.

Onion-Roquefort Cheese Salad

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 ounces Roquefort cheese
  • 1/4 cup bacon, cut into small chunks or bits
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • dash sel de fleur
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash paprika
  • 4 sweet onions, thinly sliced or cubed

Blend all ingredients, save for onion. Pour over onion and chill. Serves six. This would be a great side for hamburgers.

Well Worth Checking Out: For a thoughtful treatise on seasonal food choices, please read the Feb. 1 post at Lucy's Kitchen Notebook.

Also, there are two blogs, one new and one not-so-new, I'd like to call your attention to: (1) Charles at Bi-Coastal Cook, which is new and out of Maryland; and (2) the not-so-new but oh-so-spot-on Molly at My Madeleine, who also writes about taste, memory and experience as well as food (thanks to Terry B of Blue Kitchen for the link. I will be adding these to my blog list later today.

Thanks to Chris L. at The French Journal and to Erika at Tummy Treasure for links and mentions of B-Day and thanks to ChrisB at Ms. Cellania for the link today.

As part of my desire to be kinder and gentler, I vow to be better at thanking people for links.

06 February 2007

Not Really French, Maybe Not Even Food, But it Worked for Me

A few weeks back, I came down with a bad case of stomach flu.

It crept up, as these things do, in the middle of the night. In my experience, the bug is usually gone by mid afternoon the following day, but this time, I was not so lucky. I called in sick and languished on the sofa all day, devoid of enthusiasm for anything. Around 3 p.m., I dragged myself into the kitchen to make tea, using my Yixing tea set, shown above.

I bought the set a few years ago in April. The sleek jade green teapot and cups were my gift to myself after an especially taxing and stressful winter. I use it for green tea only, this time making green tea with mint. It helped. I think the beauty of the tea set was soothing, too.

But what really made me feel better was supper. When my stomach is upset, I crave French toast, which some say is the American version of the French "pain Perdu," or lost bread. French toast and milk.

So my husband, who is nice about these things, made me French toast. He was tired, after a long day of meetings, and made it from what we had on hand. Which happened to be somehting no self-respecting foodie would admit to eating: Mrs. Karl's Bread.

For the unfamiliar, Mrs. Karl's in its blue-and-white check wrapper, is like Wonder Bread. You get the picture.

My husband and I differ on the issue of bread. I grew up in a household where it was baked regularly, by my father, or his mother. I love baking bread. I love kneading bread. I love the aroma and the taste of freshly baked bread.

I loath most of the stuff for sale at grocery stores.

But on this particular night, the French toast my husband made was the sweetest and most delicious supper I could have eaten. It settled my stomach. It made me feel cared for and loved.

The toast melted in my mouth. The butter was soft and, well, buttery. The syrup was sweet (Mrs. Butterworth, meet Mrs. Karl). I felt better after the first bite. Plus, it tasted like childhood.

Sometimes, the love with which a meal is prepared and served makes the most ordinary food taste good. That is one of the secrets of cooking from the heart, my reoccurring theme this month. (It also helped that I was feeling so lousy.)

When we were kids, mother would make beanburgers at the end of the week. We loved 'em, but as my brother once pointed out, they were probably served because they were cheap and it was the day before payday. Same principle.

(OK, food blog police: Come and get me. Just remember, Tanna, who recently made a delicious-looking onion-cheese bread with Bisquick, and I want kitchen privileges.)

Now, we've all had these meals. Maybe it was a quick bite from a street vendor after a bracing walk in winter. Maybe it was the time you and your best friend (or lover) bought sandwiches and ate them at a park in the middle of town or at the lighthouse. Maybe it was a meal mom cobbled together during hard times. Share?

05 February 2007

A Basket, Tomatoes and True Love

My first gifts of food were, not surprisingly, from my maternal grandmother.

I am speaking not of the Lady Baltimore cakes she made for our birthdays, but the first food gift for my home, the one that made me feel like a grownup. It was my first semester away at college, and Grandma Annie gave me a cheese sampler basket, probably from Wisconsin's own Figi's.

A humble gift, to be sure, but one that delighted me and started me on a lifelong passion for baskets. There was also a cookbook that Christmas, but that is for another post.

Recently I weeded down my basket collection to a mere dozen. Of course, the first basket stayed with me. As you can see, I filled it with cherry tomatoes for the photo above.

I will never let go of that basket.

Since I love tomatoes so much — and since Grandma Annie did, too — it is only right that I matched the basket with tomatoes.

On Jan. 30, I reviewed Laura Florand's delightful "Blame it on Paris," a book in which tomatoes (and other salad ingredients) have a minor but essential supporting role.

Let's put it this way: In Laura's book, tomatoes demonstrate the potential to stand between two people in love. Who knew?

But, I have a solution. A variation on a previous theme, you might say.

You can read about it at Laura's blog, starting Tuesday, Feb. 6.

04 February 2007

Gingery Pear Crisp with Salted Almond Topping

Tarte Tatin and Cherry Clafoutis not withstanding, pears are the fruit I have always associated with a true French kitchen.

When Grandma Annie wanted fruit, she usually chose a juicy pear. Her mother, Mémére, loved them, too. It took me years to develop a taste for pears, as I found them too metallic.

I like them now, and they are second only to apple desserts in my repertoire.

This dessert was created from odds and ends and leftovers on a winter night in 2007. It was better than I expected, and I've made it a time or two since

I've update the recipe a bit, as I no longer rely heavily on artificial sweeteners. I have also tried this with mixed nuts, with good results.

Here is my original recipe, updated:

Pear-Ginger Crisp with Salted Almond Topping
  • 6 D'Anjou pears, peeled and cut into small chunks
  • 1 tablespoon candied ginger, cut into small chunks
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup almonds, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cold cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • sea salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Chop the pears and candied ginger and combine with sweetener, cinnamon and vanilla extract in medium bowl. Toss to ensure each piece is well coated. Set aside.

Chop nuts, and blend with flour, butter and sugar. You may start out with a pastry tool, but I find there is nothing like plunging your hands into the mix until it is coarse and grainy.

Pour the fruit into a greased 8-by-8 inch baking pan. Press down with a spoon or spatula. Spread the crust mix evenly over the top; again tamping down. Sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until crust turns golden brown. Garnish with more candied ginger, if you like.

Note: The crust smelled so good while I was making it, and I sampled a fair amount before I put the crisp in the oven. I love the mix of sweet and salty.

The flavors here are subtle and delicate. That was my intention. I really did not want any single taste to overpower the others.

This light dessert passed the Ultimate Taste Test (that's when leftovers taste equally delicious), and I ate it for breakfast with a hunk of low-fat cheddar cheese.

01 February 2007

Chestnut Tagliatelle With Mushrooms

I'd never tasted London Broil until my husband, in the early days of our marriage, tossed together a quick meal of it with French fries on the side and deli cole slaw.

The meat was a surprise to me: I thought London Broil was something you made from scratch. Somehow I missed the fact that it can be purchased in a cute little spiral shapes in most meat departments.

London Broil is not a cut of meat, but a way of preparing either flank steak or top round roast. It can be a bit tough, since it's threaded with muscle, so marination is necessary. It is not London at all. In fact, it is a purely American invention, I am told.

You can certainly prepare your own London Broil, of course, and when you do, it looks different than those little meat department packages. But since at our house it's a meal reserved for nights of limited time and energy, we purchase it. I marinate it for several hours in red wine and olive oil with garlic and onion. I spread a bit of crushed garlic on top, along with a very small amount of mustard and some dried herbes de Provençe and stick it under the broiler, turning often. When the meat is finished, I top it with sel de fleur and freshly ground pepper.

One of these days, I will make it instead of buying it and then report back. Maybe during spring break, when I only have my day job to worry about.

Here's what accompanied our London Broil last night: Quick Chestnut Tagliatelle with Mushrooms.

  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2/3 cup low-sodium beef stock
  • 8 ounces button and crimini mushrooms, slice or quartered
  • 4 tablespoons red wine
  • 2 teaspoons tomato puree
  • 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • dash sel de fleur
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • 8 ounces chest tagliatelle
  • grated Parmesan cheese

Pour stock into heavy sauce pan. Add onions and garlic and cook until tender, 4-5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, wine, tomato purée and soy sauce. Cook under medium heat for about five minutes. Continue to boil until liquid is reduced by about half. Add chopped herbs, a dash of salt and pepper.

Toss with freshly cooked and drained tagliatelle and top with Parmesan cheese.

Note: The chestnut pasta offers a slightly sweet taste that contrasts nicely with the earthy mushrooms. You could certainly use other pastas.

The dish passed My Ultimate Test: It tasted better the next day.

P.S. Am I the only lazy slug who uses store-bought London Broil? Anybody else want to share techniques or marinades?

Chef James Haller: Cooking From the Heart

Welcome to February!

I like this month because it means we are closer to spring and up here on the Wisconsin tundra, we usually get a few warmer days. February is the month that my husband and I mark the anniversary of our first date and our engagement, which came just before Valentine's Day — by sheer coincidence, not planning.

So I thought I would concentrate on matters of the heart this month. What is cooking, if not a matter of the heart?

I asked Chef James Haller (see Jan. 5 post) to write a guest post to kick off the month. He kindly did so, in his usual graceful style. I have added a link to his site at the left, someting I should have done weeks ago. He is, as you can see, in a class by himself.

Cooking from the Heart
By James Haller

I've always thought that cooking for someone is one of the most loving
things you can do. The nourishment of the food, and the nourishment of
someone knowing they are "being cared for" make it truly a gesture of love.

A few years ago a friend was celebrating a birthday and wanted to have his family for dinner including seven children: the eldest aged six, the youngest age two.

For the birthday cake I made a chocolate Genoise cut into three layers and filled with a lavender mousse. I made a plain white, powdered sugar frosting for the cake. When dinner was over we cleared the table and I filled seven little pastry bags with different colored icing, handed them to the kids and said, "Okay, why don't you all decorate Uncle Jack's cake?" I showed them how to hold and squeeze the bags and with-in minutes the artful decoration was underway. The youngest, the two year old, had to stand on top of the table over the cake to have room. The event lasted for almost a half hour, a very long time to keep kids interested, and when they finished, the cake was truly lovely though I must admit it was a little abstract, a sort of multi-colored, very sweet Jackson Pollack.

But the enjoyment and the effort and the involvement of the kids to make Uncle Jack's cake beautiful was a gesture of love they still talk about.

Cooking has always been a passion for me, even before I ever thought I would become a chef. Part of that passion was a desire to see people enjoy what I had cooked for them. To hear the oohs and ahhs as they smelled the aromas of a wonderful chowder made from wild mushrooms and prosciutto, or a chicken breast stuffed with pears and duck breast in an orange and fig dressing, is the reason cooking continues to make me happy almost forty years since I first walked up to a stove professionally.

My whole approach to cooking has always been instinct, almost what you might think of as design. The dinner is designed with tastes rather than presentation, and although presentation is commendable, I feel the dinner is going into your stomach and not the Louvre. Never repeat an herb during a dinner, use cream only once, either in a soup or an entrée or maybe an
appetizer, don't repeat foodstuffs. Designing each taste so that it compliments the last and sets you up for the next is a constant effort to create a new taste. In the sixteen years I owned Blue Strawbery I never repeated a menu.

So it doesn't matter if you only make hamburgers, creamed chipped beef on
toast or a chateaubriand, this Valentines day set the table, light a couple
of candles, open a bottle of wine that you like, and as you're dishing out
the food lean over and whisper to that wonderful person, "I love cooking for

30 January 2007

Macaroni and Cheese with Gruyere and Gouda

Some days are just rough.

I really have very little complain about. Some of my blogger friends have dealt with loss lately, and so far, I have not, not yet, not this year. So I feel guilty complaining.

But it was a stressful day. For one thing, I had to spend a considerable amount of time in a conference room with my bosses and my husband’s bosses, who are working on a joint project.

Then I taught my class. I have a lively group of 18 and 19 year olds, who want to know why they can’t write newspaper stories using obscenities. Well, they can of course; I am no fan of censorship. But why do they want to? They have yet to learn that using four-letter words only destroys their credibility and dilutes their message. I had to learn the same lessons, of course.

I love them, I truly do. But some days they exhaust me.

Tuesday, I was too tired to stop at the grocery store and too tired to cook. My husband was too tired to take me to dinner.

Luckily, there is macaroni and cheese. I know what you’re thinking: I probably used a package and did my usual tweaking.

Readers, I made it from scratch. Undeterred by last week’s chocolate truffle failure, I turned again to my friends at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and borrowed one of their recipes. A couple of months ago, a lot of bloggers featured mac-cheese recipes so I knew there was a pool of good ideas out there, but I thought I'd give a MMB recipe another shot. I was not disappointed.

Easy Macaroni and Cheese

  • 2 cups Gruyere, shredded
  • 2 cups Gouda, shredded
  • 2 cups Mozzarella, shredded
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup cream
  • 1 pound macaroni
  • 1 cup Parmesan, freshly grated
  • dash red pepper seasoning

Cook pasta according to directions until al dente.

Add butter and cream. Sprinkle with Parmesan and brown slightly under the broiler. Sprinkle with red pepper seasoning.

29 January 2007

France: The Lot Valley in April

Often after a big meal, my husband and I walk. We find ourselves doing this around the holidays, especially, and on the few winter nights that are considered warm by Wisconsin standards.

We don’t do it nearly as much as we should, of course.

What always strikes me about our walks is how quiet it is, especially this time of year when sound travels differently.

There is something very satisfying about silence after a meal. It’s as though eating is a ritual that requires silence to be properly digested, or appreciated.

Maybe it is.

In the tiny Quercy village we visited in France, we walked one evening. There was a smattering of rain for two days, but on the second it cleared up at suppertime. After our meal, we trekked down to the village to toss our kitchen refuse bag in the poubelle near the church.

Save for a motorbike cutting through the spring evening, the land was silent. Everything seemed to be at rest.

Somehow the quiet accentuated the oldness of the place, the old stone fences and the old stone houses, some with dovecotes, others with towers, all with terra cotta-tiled roofs.

The sun, a bit wan after the rain, infused the buildings and the countryside with a warm glow, like a benediction.

A late April night has a certain smell that accompanies the silence, a fertile, waiting smell. There was a chill, too, for even a balmy night is accompanied by a certain coldness that rises as the sun lowers.

This was the last such night, for the next day, the weather turned, and for the next week or so, France enjoyed temperatures in the 80s.

That place, that moment in time, was a gift, unmatched by the usual touristy things people do when they travel.

There is no better way to know a place than to be there and listen to its silence.

28 January 2007

Patricia Wells' Fricasee of Chicken with White Wine, Capers and Olives

When I was a student at UW-Madison in the 1980s, everyone was talking about alumna Jane Brody, the New York Times writer who was making a name for herself writing cookbooks about healthy food.

I very much wanted to write about food, but was not sure how to start. I wrote my first “how-to” feature about baking bread, which at that time was one of the few things I knew how to do.

Somewhere along the line, I heard someone say, “Yes, Jane’s doing very well but there’s another grad over in Paris who is doing some interesting things with French cooking.”

That was Patricia Wells.

It took me a while to put two and two together — to connect the name Patricia Wells with the J-school alumna I'd heard about — but I have followed her career and cheered her many successes.

And I’ve made my share of Patricia’s recipes. I have never known one to fail.

Sunday we had Patricia’s Fricassee of Chicken with White Wine, Capers and Olives. It's from The Provence Cookbook, published in 2004. I did not have a whole chicken and did not feel like leaving the house to get one, so I used two chicken breasts and halved the recipe, which calls for tomatoes, onions, green olives and capers.

Here is the recipe (scroll down).

It's easy: Season the chicken and brown, then remove from the pan and soften the onions. You then add everything else and simmer over low heat for an hour. I served this with penne pasta flavored with butter, truffle breakings and a dash of grated Gruyere.

"Ah, the tastes!" my husband exclaimed after the first bite. "And the chicken is so tender."

I've said it before, you cannot go wrong following a Patricia Wells recipe.

26 January 2007

When a Recipe Flops

Buttery Bittersweet Mascarpone Truffles From Wisconsin

  • 4 ounces finest quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 ounces finest quality milk chocolate, chopped
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) mascarpone, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon liqueur
  • 1 cup finely ground pecans or walnuts

Place all ingredients — except nuts — in a double boiler or a small bowl or pan set over a deeper sauce pan. Warm over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture is thoroughly melted and smooth.

Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, quickly roll into medium balls and place on wax paper. Coat in cocoa powder, finely ground nuts or sugar. Refrigerate: These are soft truffles and must remain chilled to retain their shape.

In theory, that is. In practice, I was not so lucky. I must have done something wrong — gotten some water in my mix or something — because I ended up with sauce. Or dip. But since my theory is when life hands you dip, get chips, I found a way to rebound. When eaten with dipping pretzels, this truffle mix makes a dandy dip. And it's already got cheese in it.

Please Note: I take full responsibility for the failure. Milk Marketing Board recipes are highly reliable and I've never gone wrong with one. I think the arrival of my goodies in the middle of the truffle process distracted me.

25 January 2007

Country Blue Cheese-Pear Cake

I survey my refrigerator every day or so to see what’s left over, forgotten or likely to go to waste if I don’t use it soon.

Some would say it’s the old French frugality cropping up.

Grandma Annie did the same thing. I thought of her as I cobbled together a quick lunch today. And for some reason, I thought of Barb, perhaps because I sensed hers was a frugal existence.

It’s been years since I thought of her, the large, plain woman who lived two short blocks from Grandma Annie. I remember her as a quiet woman, either sad or wise, or perhaps both. She wore sensible dresses and sturdy shoes and was one of those people you see walking when others drive.

She was younger than my grandmother by 15 or 20 years, I think, but Annie seemed to watch out for her. If she baked cupcakes or cookies, she’d whip off her apron, grab her coat and say, “I’ll just take some down to Barb.” If Annie’s garden yielded more tomatoes than usual, she'd always give some to Barb.

Barb would do the same, less frequently. I do not recall Annie entering Barb’s house or Barb lingering in Annie’s sunny living room, but they kept in touch.

As I grew older, I understood that Barb’s handsome husband was a bit of a ne’er-do-well. He had a good job, I am told, but what he did with his money, I do not know. There were whispers, of course, there are always whispers; Annie was too polite to say. I knew better than to ask.

In my head I drew certain conclusions about Barb that I never voiced around my elders. I simply filed it all away.

Barb fascinated me. I knew she worked in the office of a big department store and she walked to work every morning and walked home every night surefooted in her big sturdy shoes. Not many of her generation worked outside the home, but Barb did so with quiet dignity that I admired even as a child.

She did what she had to do, and if she was troubled by it, she never said. She simply did.

I do not think my grandmother pitied her. Nor do I think Barb sought pity. But it was clear Annie respected Barb and thought of her when she had extras to give away.

Today, looking at the contents of my refrigerator, I was baffled until I stumbled upon on a site called Let’s Cook French, which featured the recipe from which this cake was adapted. It was an interesting experiment.

Blue Cheese and Pear Cake

  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup oil
  • ½ cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • dash salt
  • dash pepper
  • 1 ¼ cups blue cheese, crumbled
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
  • three pears, peeled and chopped

Preheat oven to 400. In large bowl, mix flour and baking powder. In smaller bowl, whisk eggs, oil, milk, salt and pepper. Pour into dry ingredients, and blend. Add the Gruyere and blend. Finally, add the pear, blue cheese and nuts.

The original recipe calls for the batter to be poured into a buttered and floured cake mold. I used a bundt pan.

Note: This is a most unusual cake. More savory than sweet, it strikes me as a brunch dish that could be served with a fruit salad or with a lettuce salad that includes fruit. It has a rustic, Old World taste, not unpleasant.

24 January 2007

Garlic on my Fingers and the Smell of the Kitchen

“You’ll know the answer to this question,” an unmarried male coworker said to me recently. “How do you get the smell of onion or garlic off your hands?”

The question smacked — make that smelled — of sexism, but I answered as best I could: Lemon, baking soda, salt, tomato sauce, stainless steel, alcohol-based cleanser. I gave him a variety of options.

But later that day, after peeling and chopping garlic, I sniffed my fingers. Why would I want to eliminate a fragrance that smells good. To me, anyway.

Isn’t olfactory sensation all part of the process of preparing and eating food?

I say it is. And with rare exceptions — the smell of deep frying or the smell of lobster in an unvented kitchen in winter, for example — it is welcome, at least in my kitchen.

While I have purchased my share of odor-masking and odor-eliminating candles, soaps, rubs, cleansers and potpourris, I now prefer a kitchen to smell like a kitchen.

“You can always tell a Swedish kitchen,” Grandma Annie used to say. “The coffee pot is always on and it’s always fresh.”

I thought about it and it was true. Friends and neighbors, Anna and Lillian were Swedish women married to French men. Their kitchens were redolent of freshly-perked coffee — most welcome on cold, winter afternoons.

And they almost always had fresh-from-the-oven coffee cake or rolls, too. Their kitchens were scrupulously clean and tidy, but oh, they smelled so good.

Some people’s kitchens had a certain piquant, almost sausage-y smell. I grew to like those, too.

In Annie’s kitchen, the aromas of vanilla and almond predominated, perhaps because she baked so much. When I want to evoke Annie’s kitchen today, all I do is open a bottle of almond extract. It is a powerful agent of time travel for me.

My mother’s kitchen smelled of cardamom and apples when I was a child. When I use cardamom, I am three years old again and playing in my mother’s sunny yellow kitchen.

More often than not, my own kitchen is filled with the odor of onions — and yes, some times garlic.

While I realize the smell of garlic might offend some people, I no longer worry about it on my hands after I’ve made sausage rustica or ratatouille.

There are, the way I see it, far too many other things to fuss about these days.

What does your kitchen smell like? What aromas bring you back to childhood or another time in your life?

21 January 2007

Chocolate Madeleines

Some time ago, I bought a madeleine pan, reasoning that such accouterments were essential in a French kitchen.

Besides, I love shells of any shape or form, and have a small collection scattered in bowls and baskets throughout my house.

I had good intentions. But I never actually made madeleines. The pan languished in my pie safe for several years.

Sunday was the day. I had a few free hours and we were being blanketed by a gentle snow — just the kind of afternoon for baking something containing chocolate.

Chocolate Madeleines
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate, shredded
  • ¾ stick unsalted butter, sliced
  • ½ teaspoon instant coffee
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a double boiler, adding the coffee when thoroughly melted. Stir frequently.

Beat eggs and sugar with a hand-held mixer on medium high. Continue until mixture thickens. You will know it is thick when strands of liquid fall from the beater as you raise it from the bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix flour and salt. Gradually add the egg-sugar mixture. Blend thoroughly.

Add the chocolate, blending carefully. Add the vanilla.

Now comes the messy part: Pouring the batter into the madeleine pan. I used a spoon. You might also try a measuring cup or pour the whole batter into a larger cup and then pour it into the shells. Each shell-shaped cavity should be only ¾ full.

Place the madeleine pan on a cookie sheet and bake until cookies are springy to the touch, 10-12 minutes.

This makes a very cake-like cookie, but one that is not terribly moist. Good for dipping in hot chocolate, I would say. The taste reminded me of the chocolate cookies my mother made on winter days when I was a kid.

20 January 2007

Lunch at Madame's

I have just come from another lovely and lingering lunch at Madame’s.

A former Parisian, Madame is a woman of great elegance and wit. A war bride, she married into an offshoot of my husband’s family more than 60 years ago.

She is petite, but imposing, with white hair styled into a classic chignon. She has remained a Frenchwoman to the core, never becoming a U.S. citizen. She makes annual trips to France, which I understand she financed for a time by buying and selling antiques.

To step inside her house is to land instantly in France. Everywhere are ancestral photos, stern women in leg-of-mutton sleeves and handsome men in the elegant haberdashery of another time.

Here and there in silver and gold frames are sketches of Mont St. Michel or Montmartre, Quimper plates or crystal vases. There are mementoes from this trip or that, gifts from friends and family heirlooms.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to Madame’s, you will find that the food is always good and the table, in a sunny corner of her living room, is beautifully set with dishes and silverware from France. There is always a bouquet of fresh flowers.

Today, the menu was foie gras tartlets for amuse bouche, followed by a savory onion soup and a plum pudding. Last year, there was galette des rois.

Often the food is influenced by the cuisine of Brittany where Madame spent her summers as a girl of some wealth and privilege.

That the food is good is a given. It is the conversation that stimulates.

Madame is well-read and well versed in international affairs. Her living room is a salon for progressive thought and conversation. More often than not the conversation here is books, politics and travel.

The food, of course, fuels the conversation. There is always a choice of coffee or tea, which of courses leads to more talk, lively talk and polite disagreements.

That is how it should be at the table.

Madame’s is a true French kitchen. And a French table.

And I always leave her house humming the Marseillaise.

19 January 2007

A Tin of Bon Bons

Some time, somehow in the years after Mémére's death this lovely tin came into my posession.

I do not know its provenance. I believe it once held bonbons, and quite probably came from Paris for one of her grandsons was living there when I was a child and he was generous and frequent with his gifts.

How Mémére loved pretty gifts from Paris!

Once the candy was gone, she used the tin to store hairpins. At night I would watch her seated at her dressing table, combing waste-length white hair. In the morning, she would pin it up again. I marveled at this routine.

The tin has been mine since I was in high school. I have kept it with me always, storing photographs in it and admiring its pattern. It smelled of talc and lavender and that tinny odor these containers acquire over time.

Mémére’s room smelled of lavender. Outside her window, there were lilac bushes and on breezy days in May, they, too, would perfume the tidy little blue-and-white room.

The pattern on Mémére's tin said "French" to me. In the flowered design were the colors she wore: Black, and violet and periwinkle, often with a touch of yellow. Together with hundreds of old photographs of women in dark dresses with lace colors and men with dark eyebrows and moustaches, the pattern in the tin formed my idea of what was French and what was not.

Of course, times have changed. Québec and France have changed. But I still treasure this little tin and the images and memories it continues to evoke.

Today, I stuck my nose into the tin. There was the faintest scent of lavender.

I have learned to accept and appreciate these things.

Update: I have since stumbled across this tin in antique shops. I am still not sure what it really held. I still treasure it.

17 January 2007

Blue Cheese Terrine with Spiced Walnuts

Like many people, when my father swore in French when he was only pretending to be angry.

“Sacrébleu,” sometimes shortened to "sacré," was a favorite. There were others that when translated should not be mentioned on a family blog.

There is some debate as to exactly what “sacrébleu” really means. Of course, literally translated, it means “sacred blue.” I've heard the phrase was once an oath, “By God,” and thus was originally “Sacré Dieu." But the word “bleu” was substituted to make the phrase less blasphemous.

Baloney. I think it has to do with cheese. Blue cheese. That stuff is so good it ought to be canonized. It is my favorite, or one of my many cheese favorites. I took an online quiz, "What Type of Cheese Are You?" and found that I am, of course, blue cheese. Was there ever any doubt? Mais, non.

Blue cheese is cow or goat cheese that has been allowed to get moldy, hence the streaks of blue or sometimes green. There are many varieties of blue cheese. Few are available this far north. Rosenborg’s Danish Blue is usually the best I can find locally. It is an acquired taste, and here in Cheddarland, I know many people who have not acquired it.

I had a rather copious amount of blue left over from New Years. Blue cheese grows more pungent with time: It is best eaten fresh (and at room temperature). So had I to find a way to use it.

Blue Cheese Terrine with Spiced Walnuts

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups walnuts
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 12 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
  • 2 1/2 ounces soft fresh goat cheese
  • 6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoons brandy
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped chives

Blend salt, cumin, cardamom and pepper in a medium bowl. Sauté walnuts in oil in a heavy skillet. Add sugar and continue sautéing until sugar turns light brown. Pour nuts and sugar into the seasoning bowl and set aside to cool. Toss so each nut is coated.

Chop chives and parsley. Blend in a small bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, allow cheese and butter to reach room temperature. Beat with an electric beater, if necessary, warming slightly in the microwave to making beating easier. When mixture is relatively smooth, mix in chopped onions and brandy.

Grease an 8.5 x 2.5 inch bread pan and line it with plastic wrap. Layer cheese mixture, followed by nuts and then spices. Repeat, until you have used up your ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Unmold onto platter, carefully peeling away the plastic wrap. Use a spatula to gently pry the plastic wrap away from the pan. Garnish brown sugar. Serve with pear slices, red grapes or dried apricots.

The recipe is adapted from the September 1996 issue of Bon Appétit and originated by Monique Barbeau of Fullers at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel & Towers. I found it on Epicurious.

This terrine turned out to be more time consuming than I like an appetizer to be. I swear I'll never to to make it again on a work night. I'm not sure I'll ever make it again, period, unless I've got a houseful of people who like blue cheese as much as I do.

A Blog to Visit: I find it hard resist a blog with the tagline "Good Food. Great Stories. I Swear" so I'm a regular over at Terry B's meticulous blog, Blue Kitchen. It's attractive, well-designed and professional in its approach. The recipes look good and the photos are dazzling — among the best I've seen in a food blog. Being a writer, I always notice the writing first and Terry's is top notch. Read why he chose the name Blue Kitchen. Read the list of music he listens to. You will be charmed.

15 January 2007

Red Peppers with Red Pepper Fettuccine

I’m not sure if it’s the French frugality gene or just the fact that I stash everything away for travel, but I don’t waste a penny these days.

As a result, more often than not what we eat is dictated by what is on sale at the grocery store. Recently, it has been red peppers. That’s fine with me, as they are usually rather pricey.

In fixing Sunday supper, I surveyed the contents of the refrigerator and found three red peppers, a handful of mushrooms and some leftovers diced tomatoes, the better part of a 14.5-ounce can.

This is what I came up with and it was a huge hit with my husband.

Roasted Red Peppers with Red Pepper Fettuccine

  • 3 medium red peppers
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 ¼ cups fire-roasted tomato sauce
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms

Preheat oven to 425. Cut the peppers from top to bottom, following the lines of the pepper. Trim the pieces into strips, cutting away any excess membrane. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes, checking frequently to ensure each piece is thoroughly roasted. The peppers will have black spots when you remove them from the oven. Set aside to cool.

You will have some small pieces of pepper left over. Don’t toss them out. Carefully trim them from the tops and bottoms of the pepper and chop them. Chop the onion, too, and sauté both pepper and onion until the onion turns yellow. Set aside.

Brown the Italian sausage in olive oil in a heavy and deep skillet, using a wooden spatula to break it apart. Add the garlic, then about five minutes later, add the diced tomatoes, followed by the onion and diced pepper and the bay leaf. Do not add the larger pieces of roasted pepper at this time.

Simmer for about 10 minutes before adding the prepared pasta sauce.

In a separate pan, brown the mushrooms in olive oil. Add these to the simmering sauce. Allow the sauce to cook on low for another 10-15 minutes before adding the roasted peppers. Remove the bay leaves.

Serve over red-pepper fettuccine. Grate mozzarella or Parmesan cheese on top, or toss on some cheese crumbles. I added a spicy blend of dried red-pepper flakes and garlic at just before serving.

“Sweet with a bite,” was my husband’s reaction. And it cost pennies.

14 January 2007

Lemony Green Tea Muffins

Sharing a street address with the ancient house of Isaac Laffémas is The Tea Caddy.

The tearoom has been there since 1928, the year lovely Square Viviani was developed. The Tea Caddy was opened by an English woman who, according to the tearoom Web site, “turned it into a little corner of England.”

Surely by now it is part and parcel of Paris.

The day we visited the area in 2005, I was so intent on taking a photo of my husband in the park, that I overlooked The Tea Caddy. It wasn’t until I read a novel with a pivotal scene in the tearoom that a respondent chord rang out in my brain. The novel was forgettable, but the tearoom was not. It was still there, buried in my subconscious. I am sure we will visit the area again in May.

I thought of that tearoom as I baked Lemony Green-Tea Muffins this gray Sunday afternoon.

  • 1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar or fructose
  • 1 tablespoon matcha or loose green tea, ground with mortar and pestle
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup lemon yogurt
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Place 12 muffin cups in muffin tin.

Blend flour, sugar, tea, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Whisk together yogurt, egg white, oil, lemon zest and lemon juice in another bowl. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients. When batter is blended, spoon into muffin cups. Bake 15-25 minutes, checking frequently. When muffins become firm and begin to brown, brush with butter. Allow to bake one more minute then remove from oven.

These muffins smelled heavenly when I took them from the oven. It’s a light aroma, sweet and herby.

The taste is layered, something I have not experienced in a muffin. First you taste the lemon, but there is a distinct aftertaste of tea. At first I thought I’d use lemon curd on these, but after sampling them, I chose unsalted butter so the taste would come through. This is a very complex little muffin.

Note: To ramp up the lemon taste, I used Celestial Seasoning’s Lemon Zinger Green Tea. But you could use any kind of green tea.

To read a delightful post on Paris tearooms, visit Carol at Paris Breakfasts.

Paris: The Blue Door

"So where is this door in Paris anyway?" asked a reader in an e-mail. "You never did tell us."

Back on Dec. 10, I featured a little quiz involving the photo at right. "A Sun-Dappeled Door in Paris," I called it. I said I would send a gift (the gift was a package of wild rice) to the first person who could identify the location of the door which was near a charming Paris park. Well, Paris is dotted with charming parks, so that wan't much of a clue.

Here's the story behind the door: It is located at 14 Rue St. Julien le Pauvre, just across the street from Square Viviani on the Left Bank within the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. As you are walking down the street toward Notre Dame, the door is on your left. It stands out for its beauty and its carving of a reclining woman holding the scales of justice.

According to Leonard Pitt's "Walks Through Paris," the door leads to a house once owned by Isaac Laffémas (1584-1687), chief of police under Cardinal Richelieu, who perhaps better known as "The Cardinal's Hangman." Laffémas' house dates back to the 14th century. Its cellars were used to house prisoners in 1783 when other prison cells were full.

What has this got to to with food, you ask? Not much, except Park René Viviani was very green the spring day we took photographs there, and the green of spring brings to mind many culinary options, one of which will be posted later today. There is a tea shop near St. Julien le Pauvre, so you can bet the recipe will involve tea.

Park René Viviani was created in 1928, on the site of former annexes of Hotel Dieu. To see the street as it looked like before the park was built, watch "The Temptress," a 1926 melodrama starring Greta Garbo.

12 January 2007

Honey-Dijon Dressing

I learned in France that my Welsh-Cornish-Irish husband is really French.*

For one thing, he drives like a Frenchman. Hairpin turns, treacherous mountain roads, busy roundabouts, clogged city streets — pft! No problem! Vroom! Vroom! He's in his element.

And he's got the Mustard Gene. We both do, but I come by it naturally.

We like all kinds of mustard. French mustard. French’s mustard. American mustard with obscure "gourmet" labels.

Grainy mustard. Mustard with nuts, courtesy of a blogger friend who somehow divined our fetish.

Honey Dijon. Grey Poupon (pardon me!). Mustard with horseradish. Mustard with cranberries. Hot mustard. Mild mustard. Brown mustard. Yellow mustard. Cognac mustard.

Oh, and mustard jars. I once bought a huge brown crock, not shown above (there was no room), because I liked the jar and the cute French guy named Louis who was selling it (grist for another post). It took me two years to eat it all; there was, quite literally, enough mustard there to slather on three month's worth of bread for the entire French Foreign Legion.

There are very few savory dishes a dab of mustard does not enhance. An herby mustard sauce is great on vegetables. And you cannot make deviled eggs without mustard. It adds a "tangy zip" no mere salad dressing can compete with.

I knew my husband liked mustard long ago. He was always buying it, just like I was. It was when I saw him behind the wheel in France that I put two and two together and came up with French.

The other day Terry B. from Blue Kitchen asked about dressing. Below is one of my favorites, given to me by a chef-friend who father was also a chef and of my own father's generation.

The chef who makes it did not give me the exact quantities, so I’ve kind of had to figure them out on my own. You may have to experiment, too. I often add a bit more of this and a bit more of that. Or sometimes I just mix it up and pray it works.

Honey Mustard Dressing for Tossed Salad

  • 1/2-cup buttermilk
  • 1/3-cup mayonnaise or tangy spread
  • 1 heaping tablespoon honey-Dijon with seeds
  • 2 teaspoons minced onion

Toss it in the blender, whisk it or use a beater.

This recipe should make enough for at least two salads. I usually make it fresh because it is so easy.

It is best showcased on a simple green salad with tomatoes, black olives, red onion and cucumber.

Note If you like mustard, too, you may also like the the world-famous Mustard Museum is located in Mount Horeb, Wis.

Internet sources for good mustard abound.

UPDATE: In 2013, both my husband and I had our DNA tests via 23-and-Me and Ancestry.com, respectively. He may well be more French than I am.

Chicken with Mustard Seed and Fennel

The summer after Grandma Annie died, I assigned myself the bittersweet task of sifting through her recipes.

They were mostly in the old back kitchen, filling a deep cheese box and several other vessels (including the casserole dish pictured above) to the brim. The recipes were clipped from the backs of rice boxes and soup cans, from the pages of McCall's and Woman's Day and Family Circle magazines. They were written on scraps of paper in Annie's scrawl and they were torn from the pages of spiral notebooks.

Annie's prodigious taste for sweets was evident, for many of the recipes were for layer cakes and cookies or bars and coffee cakes. I smiled when I saw certain types of recipes over and over again.

Lemon cakes, orange cakes, sugar cookies and apple strudel; date bars, brownies, cutout cookies and cinnamon rolls — these were the things Annie loved. She made them regularly, not just for special occasions like birthdays and funerals and the days she worked at the polls at the neighborhood schoolhouse a block away.

Also among the recipes were casseroles and soups and stews and sandwiches. There were fancy finger foods and chip dips and even her recipes for "beer junk," better known today as Chex mix. Jello salads, too, and yeast breads — recipes by the hundreds, many dating back to the 1930s.

Some were written in French, others in English. Many I am sure she never made. But they appealed to her, perhaps to her notion of a proper Sunday dinner or a tea for the ladies or a child's birthday party.

There were recipe books, too, the kind that grocery stores sometimes give away or the ones you could send away for, as long as you provided a box top or two. Annie had tons of those, and all over her house were little scraps of addresses she'd get from some TV program advertising a cookbook.

Annie could never resist a new recipe or cookbook. Fanny Farmer was one of her bibles. You can tell a lot about a person from their cookbooks. Look for the heavily-stained and dog-eared pages and you will know their tastes. Look for margin notes and recipes scribbled on back pages. Recipes are an important part of cultural and family history.

Recipes hold promise for us. When we see a something appealing in a magazine or on the back of a box of noodles or on someone else's blog, we see a dream, too — a sense of how meals ought to be served, how snacks ought to be eaten.

We see ourselves in a different way. Maybe we see ourselves as we wish we could be. Those of us who are hamburger may wish to be Chateaubriand. Or vice versa.

We imagine preparing a certain dish at a certain time. Perhaps we imagine apricot-stuffed French toast on a sunny Saturday or chocolate-mocha brownies on a blustery afternoon. When I think of sun slanting through a kitchen window in the late afternoon, I often think of butterscotch bars. Whether this is some sort of culinary memory that sticks to my brain or the result of a Joni Mitchell song, I cannot say.

When I stuffed a package of rice from the Camargue into my suitcase as we left France two years ago, I saw myself preparing it on a sunny day, a day that reminded me how the feel and look of France changes as the SNCF train whizzes southward.

A few days ago, when I started thinking about taste pairings, my imagination was fired up. I saw myself making certain dishes at certain times and I created a set of expectations for the mouth feel of new taste pairings.

Last night, I made another recipe from McCormick Spices' flavor forecast, this time pairing mustard seed with fennel.

Chicken with Mustard Seed and Fennel
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 8 chicken thighs (I used breasts)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped onion
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon parsley flakes

Toast the mustard and fennel seeds in a skillet for about two minutes. The fragrance will be exquisite. Remove them from the pan after about two minutes or crush with a mortar and pestle.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and brown in in olive oil until golden an all sides. Remove it from the pan. Brown the chopped onion in the pan, then add the tomatoes, wine, parsley and crushed seeds. Return the chicken to the pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan and cook over low heat for 14 minutes, stirring frequently. Uncover and simmer for another 15 minutes.

I served this with garlicky, oven-roasted potato wedges and olives. We liked it, but preferred Wednesday night's pistachio-ginger chicken. The tomatoes seemed to overwhelm the fennel and mustard seed. Perhaps next time — a bit more seed and a bit less tomato. I didn't have enough chicken so I cut the recipe in half — perhaps my "eyeballing" of some of the ingredients was not a good idea.

11 January 2007

Ginger-Pistachio Encrusted Chicken

Sweet with a bite: Ginger-Pistachio Encrusted Chicken

Until I began writing a weekly food column in late 2003, my flavor pairings were predictable and bland.

I liked classic dishes with some sort of twist, but I was never very adventurous in the kitchen. My husband is a culinary purist, for one thing, and he expects certain dishes to taste the way they always taste.

But food writers received feature packets from savvy agencies and McCormick Spices had one of the best. I looked forward to McCormick's annual flavor forecast, which taught me how to pair seemingly conflicting flavors to produce a fantastic burst of taste.

This dish pairs crystallized ginger with salted pistachios in a crunchy covering. A splash of honey-tangerine sauce adds a finishing touch.

Ginger-Pistachio Encrusted Chicken with Tangerine Sauce
  • 3/4 cup shelled salted pistachio nuts
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup tangerine or orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place pistachio nuts and ginger in a hand chopper or processor. Chop until thorough blended and place in a low shallow dish or plate

Dip chicken in egg whites and roll in pistachio-ginger mixture. Coat evenly. Place in shallow, foil-lined or greased oven dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked.

While the chicken is cooking, blend orange juice, honey and soy sauce. The recipes recommends pouring the sauce before serving. I thought it was a bit thin, so I poured in on the chicken about 5 minute or so before I removed it from the oven. The heat will thicken the sauce.

“Oh my,” said my husband. “This is good. Sweetness with bite.”

Plain Vichy carrots, cooked with just sugar and water, were the perfect side dish. For dessert: Baked pear, flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon, topped with roasted walnuts, and finished with a dollop of mascarpone cheese sweetened with orange honey.

It was, we agreed, the perfect mid-winter meal, with just a hint of spring.

09 January 2007

McCormick Spice Flavor Forecast 2007

Grandma Annie always had a filled candy jar, especially this time of year, when Christmas leftovers were plentiful. More often than not, her jar was packed with little red-and-white striped pillows stuffed with peppermint creme.

What I very soon discovered was that more goodies were tucked away behind the centerpiece on her dining room buffet: Salted peanuts.

At about age 6, I tried the two together — mint and nut — and a lifelong craving for salt and sugar combinations was born.

I still cannot resist an unusual combination. It need not be sweet and salty. Mustard is one of my favorites: When honey-mustard flavors became widely available in everything from pretzels to potato chips, I was ecstatic.

A recipe that features unconventional pairings is irresistible to me. Fortunately, they are all over the blogosphere.

In January, when McCormick Spices sends out its annual flavor forecast to food writers I am always intrigued.

This year the top 10 pairings are, according to McCormick:

• Clove and green apple
• Thyme and tangerine
• Tellicherry black pepper and berry
• Sea salt and smoked lavender
• Lavendar and honey
• Crystallized ginger and salted pistachio
• Cumin and apricot
• Toasted mustard and fennel seeds
• Wasabi and Maple
• Carmelized garlic and Riesling vinegar

Lavender and honey, of course, are old friends.

Clove and green apple I can imagine: A burst of fresh tempered by a bite. I dipped a dried apricot into cumin and was instantly transported to a Middle East bazaar.

Thyme and tangerine: A heady night in the Mediterranean. Mustard seed and fennel? Provence, sunny and sweet. Sea salt and smoked tea: Imagine this rubbed into a steak, grilled to perfection.

You can try these and the others in recipes offered by McCormick. (No, I am not paid by McCormick. But I do get a a lot of interesting food mail at my day job. The annual flavor forecast is my favorite.)

What's your favorite taste combination? Be bold — and unconventional. (I like apple jelly on soda crackers, another throwback to childhood.)

08 January 2007

Old Kitchen Stuff is Hot, Says Saveur Magazine

Finally. I'm in. Rather, my kitchen is.

According to the most recent issue of Saveur Magazine, used kitchen utensils are hot right now. They made Saveur's Top 100 list for 2007. People like to use the same spoons or bowls Mom or Grandma used, say the foodies at Saveur.

I knew that. Chances are, so did you. We like the cracks and the scratches and the mars and the imperfections. We can relate to them.

I have always wanted old stuff in my kitchen. Since I was a teenager, I've collected odds and ends from my grandmothers' kitchens. Grandma Annie's mixing bowls. Grandma Laura's big bread bowl. Old flour sifters and egg beaters. I went through a stage when I loved all that old red-and-green handled stuff. More recently, I've collected old crocks. They serve a purpose in my kitchen as cache pots for nuts or garlic or tea bags.

I think we find comfort and continuity in old things. Maybe a bit of luck, too. If I were making Laura's famous raisin-graham bread or Annie's Lady Baltimore cake, you can bet I'd do it in those old vessels. Just in case.

Besides, old things give a kitchen character. Believe me, my kitchen has plenty of character. Clutter, too.

What's old in your kitchen?

06 January 2007

The Sounds of Sunday

For two relatively short periods — once when I was a baby and again a few years later when money was tight — my parents lived with Grandma Annie and Memére in the old cedar-shingled house at the corner of Bellevue and Dunlap in the heart of Frenchtown.

We slept in the flat upstairs when I was a newborn but later moved to the rear wing of the long, narrow house.

I still dream of those back rooms. Along with the old kitchen, which I described in a previous post, there was a large bedroom and a much smaller one.

The room I slept in was close to the kitchen. Usually the smell of eggs or bacon frying woke me in the mornings.

Sometimes on rainy days, Annie would make pancakes or waffles with a fruity syrup. I will always associate the sweet tart aroma of associate blueberry syrup with the sound of rain beating relentlessly on windowpanes.

But it is Sunday mornings I recall the most clearly. Annie and her mother rose early for mass, and the sounds of their voices — arguing, as mothers and daughters do — woke me and kept me from falling back asleep.

Alone together, they spoke only French. I don’t recall their conversations. Perhaps Memére had misplaced her gloves. Maybe Annie was missing a hat pin.

I waited for them to leave, for the front door to slam so I could burrow back down under the covers for more sleep.

When they returned home, Annie would start breakfast. The sounds changed, coffee percolating, eggs breaking, juice pouring, toast popping.

When breakfast was finished, she would begin preparations for Sunday dinner. Pans rattled as she removed them from cupboards, the refrigerator door opened and closed.

Over dinner, there was much conversation, and everyone lingered long over dessert.

Sometimes in the afternoon, relatives from “up north” would visit and the living room would be noisy with the swooping cadences of French Canada.

Other times, the afternoons would be long and somnolent, with the only sounds — save for the turning of newspaper pages — coming from the mid-afternoon mail plane.

The rhythm of my life has changed considerably over the years. But the sound of two women arguing in French, the clatter of pans in the kitchen and the drone of a single-engine plane on a summer afternoon can instantly transport me to that other time.

And the smells, too, but that is another post.

05 January 2007

Kindness: The Essential Ingredient

Every once in a while you run across someone who restores your faith in humanity.

Chef James Haller is one of those people.

A few years back, I read his book, “Vie de France,” which chronicles a month he and a group of friends spent in the Loire Valley. Haller did the cooking, of course, and it struck me that he prepared food by instinct. No surprise, he’d been cooking professionally for a couple of decades, and is founder of the Blue Strawbery in Portsmouth, N.H.

He sounded like a good person. A nice person. Someone I’d want for a friend. He's won kudos for his inventive appraoch to cooking, too, and I borrowed from his approach and his book as I prepared food during a vacation in the Lot Valley two years ago.

Haller has also written a book called, “What to Eat When You Don’t Feel Like Eating,” which targets a neglected eating constituency: People with life threatening or even terminal illnesses.

So when a friend and co-worker was diagnosed with cancer, I thought of James Haller. I e-mailed him and we arranged a telephone interview.

Turns out he’d written another book, this one aimed at men with prostate cancer. It’s called “Simply Wonderful Food.”

It also turns out that he’s every bit as nice as he sounds in print. He's been volunteering his services to the hospice movement, cooking for sick people for years.

For seriously ill people, Haller recommends comforting foods that are packed with Vitamins A and C. Leafy greens and just about anything orange.

He pays attention to color, texture, taste and nutritional value. He often adds mint to counteract the metallic taste chemotherapy patients experience.

Haller suggests prostate cancer patients eat foods that are easy to digest. Treatment wreaks havoc with the digestive system, he notes.

We can prepare all the time-consuming fancy food we want, French or otherwise, but, as they say, it might not amount to a hill of beans if we forget the most important ingredient: Kindness.

It seems to me that James Haller figured that out long ago. Read more about him here.

03 January 2007

Tomato Soup with Lemon and Herbes de Provence

One cold winter day in 2007 I came home from work late morning, displaying all the symptoms of approaching upper respiratory ailment. I intended to make chicken soup and take a nap.

I didn't make chicken soup at all. Instead I made a very tomato-y soup with a dash of orange rind and lots of thyme. It was inspired by a similar recipe at Epicurious, adapted to my taste buds and to the ingredients I had on hand.

Tomato Soup 
  • 4 cups chicken, turkey or vegetable stock
  • 1 can Italian-style diced tomatoes
  • 1 large celery rib, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 strips of fresh orange zest, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
  • dash red pepper flakes
  • one bay leaf
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • additional water as needed
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • dash or two herbes de Provence to taste

Options: Rice, chicken, a dash of fennel seeds. The original recipe calls for saffron, but I had none.

Cook onions, celery, garlic, orange zest and pepper flakes in olive oil for about five minutes in a stock pot. Add soup stock, tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaf. Bring to a low boil, then simmer uncovered. Taste frequently and add water as needed. You may need to add some sugar at this point. After about a 40 minutes, remove bay leaf and add parsley and herbes de Provence.

I also tossed in some leftover cherry tomatoes, chopping them to a paste first.

This soup tastes as though it would cure a cold. Really.

01 January 2007

Grandma Annie's Back Kitchen

Setting my cranberry upside-down cake on the cupboard in the “back room” to cool the other day, I was reminded of Grandma Annie’s back room.

It had been a kitchen once, in one of the mid-19th century structure’s many incarnations. But when I was a child, it was used mostly for storage.

When I was a child, it contained a massive red cupboard, filled with kitchen items Annie used only once or twice a year. Old bean crocks sat cheek by jowl with glass jars of beans or rice. An old tin colander, ancient wooden spoons, a bowl of cookie cutters and other kitchen miscellany filled the shelves.

The back room also held an enamel-topped table piled with boxes of canning jars and bins of apples or baskets of potatoes.

Annie used this room as a second pantry, a sort of keeping room. She dried herbs in that room, something that intrigued me when I was a child, and because it was unheated in winter and cool in summer, she also set baked goods there when they needed to cool.

The room was connected to the kitchen by a hallway, and the hallway ran along the side of the house. It was part of the house, and yet not part of the house.

The keeping room led directly to Annie’s vast backyard. In summer, she’d open the back door and the hall door and the cross-ventilation kept her old house cool on the hottest July days.

Usually by August, the old treadle sewing machine Annie kept in the room would be pressed into service, as she altered our clothing for the school year or sewed aprons and tablecloths from brightly-colored cotton.

My own back room serves a similar purpose. Here is a collection of mismatched cupboards and bins and shelves that hold gardening supplies, bird feed, canned goods and cookbooks.

It was once part of the kitchen, but the people who “remodeled” our 1896-home in the 1970s, split the room into two.

I spend more time in my back room than Annie did in hers. It’s a cozy place, with a patterned rug and a comfortable chair. In summer, when the crickets sing, it is my favorite room in the house.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake

I’ve made it a New Year’s resolution to explore at least one new blog a week. I fell behind on this during the fall, and only recently began to catch up.
It is such fun to explore different approaches, different eating habits and different philosophies. Different is the operative word here. I have never understood why there is so little tolerance for differences in this world.
Back to the topic at hand: Exploring other blogs. One I stumbled upon a few weeks ago was Kitchenography, out of Baltimore, a city where my husband once lived (and still loves). The day I visited, the site's owner, Julie, who also loves Baltimore, had made a cranberry upside-down cake, which she found in a book called "The Best American Recipes of 2001-2002."
I couldn't get that cake out of my head, the jewel tones of the cranberries, the hint of tart and sweet and rich layers of flavor. I wanted to make it for Christmas. I got too busy. Perhaps for our anniversary? Forget it, still occupied. So finally, I made it for our New Year's Eve feed.
The verdict: It has an old-fashioned taste. It's something you might find in a magazine like "Early American Life." It paired well with the bubbly. And it's perfect for the holidays: The cake is rich and moist, the cranberries are tart and the cinnamon imparts a mysterious, spicy taste. I should mention that I used fructose, brown sugar Splenda and low-fat sour cream.
So thank you, Julie, for introducing me to this delight. I look forward to reading more on Kitchenography in 2007.