06 January 2008

Red Pepper and Shrimp Dip

I've just come from a reception for a new chef that featured some lovely finger foods, including red caviar and goat cheese on toast rounds and stuffed Brussels sprouts.

The finger foods that emerge from my own kitchen are always a bit more rustic, and I rarely plan for them. They happen organically and are made from whatever it is I have on hand at the time.

Recently, I scrambled together a dip that my palate was very enthusiastic about, especially the second day. I served it with toasted bagel chips (the photo above does not do it justice). It has enough of a kick so that it also pairs well with bland vegetables like celery and cauliflower.

Red Pepper Shrimp Dip
  • 8 ounces low fat cream cheese at room temperature
  • 3-4 roasted red peppers, from a jar
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 can shrimp, drained
  • 1 teaspoon horseradish
  • 2 teaspoons aioli
  • 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise
  • dash freshly-ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel

Place the softened cream cheese in a mixing bowl. Use a blender or food processor to turn the red peppers into pulp. Add to the cream cheese and blend. Chop the onions, then the shrimp. Toss those into the dip and blend. To deepen and enhance the dip, add horseradish, aioli and mayonnaise. Add pepper and fleur de sel, using a hand blender to keep it smooth. Allow it to chill for an hour or two before serving.

You can certainly add more horseradish to punch up the flavor. I will next time. I often add a dash of lemon juice, but I am not sure I did this time.

25 December 2007

Warm Brussels Sprout and Shallot Salad with Pecans

Like most people I know, I look upon the end of the year as the beginning of a new one. The Christmas presents are barely opened when I begin making plans for all the projects I will finally get around to doing in the year ahead.

This year, the purchase of a new piece of furniture necessitated a bit of cleaning
and reorganizing - which meant I had to sit around paging through the 100 or so magazines piled in corners of the living and dining room. That was how I stumbled across a recipe for warm Brussels Sprout Salad, which inspired the following dish.

I buy Brussels sprouts each week; along with broccoli and red pepper; they are staples in my crisper. Shallots are also something I keep on hand.

Warm Brussels Sprout and Shallot Salad with Pecans
  • 16-20 large Brussels sprouts
  • 3-4 large shallots
  • tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • tablespoon unsalted butter
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel
Wash and trim Brussels sprouts, removing outer leaves and base. Cut into thin slices. Drizzle with olive oil, toss, and place in a skillet or sauté pan. Brown slightly over medium heat until sprouts are just a bit limp. Remove from pan and set aside, covering to keep warm. Peel and slice shallots; using the same pan, brown shallots slightly in butter. Add pecans. Toss shallots and pecans with Brussels sprouts, adding a dash of fleur de sel and pepper.

I served this with a warm bacon dressing. A cranberry vinaigrette would be nice, too, or a mustard-y oil and vinegar blend.

This was the first course of our Christmas dinner, and it was a hit. We followed it with a big juicy ham rubbed with cinnamon and ground cloves and glazed with a cinnamon-y honey-and-apple-jelly blend and a side dishes of roasted root vegetables and candied sweet potatoes.

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 December 2007

The Faraway: A Drink with Cranberry and Orange Juice

Each Christmas brings with it some lovely moments. For us - my husband and me - those moments usually involve impromptu shopping trips, lunches, snacks or other celebratory events we indulge in because (1) 'tis the season, and (2) we have time off from work.

On Friday we celebrated with a long lunch at a local inn, an old mansion perched above the river. Our table overlooked not the water but a back garden and carriage house. It has been gray and foggy here the past few days and that is typical for our part of Wisconsin when the weather is not cold. So to me, such days are part and parcel of Christmas and they lend an aura of mystery to the older neighborhood we call home.

Anyway, the mushroom ravioli was wonderful. There were gingerbread and chocolate torte for dessert.

Today, we attended a book signing at an independent bookstore in a nearby city. A friend has written a meticulously researched book of essays on a moment in local history and we wanted to cheer him on. So did quite a few others, and we were happy to see that. The wine flowed and the finger foods were lovely. Later it was good to come out of the fog and settle in for the duration of Saturday.

These simple events will become part of my bank of holiday memories.

Tonight, I'll make a pitcher of what has become our favorite seasonal libation, thanks to Christine of Christine Cooks. We'll light candles, turn on the tree lights and enjoy the simplicity of an early winter night at home.

12 December 2007

Cranberry-Citrus Punch for Parties

Having worked late last night, I managed to sneak home while it was still light out today so I could tramp through the snow to the west side of the house where the Japanese Barberry and American Bittersweet grow rampant, along with a mystery vine that threatens to take over the entire southwest portion of the yard. I shot the photo above and some others that may appear in a later post.

It was mighty cold, but the sun was setting and it was lovely anyway. This morning while dressing for work, I heard and then saw a large male cardinal in the cedar tree, just a yard or so from where I stood. Magnificent.

Since red is my signature color, I consider this a sign of good luck. Unfortunately, I have no photograph.

Speaking of red, if you need a great recipe for a non-alcoholic punch this year, try the one below. I did not get a photo of the punch, either, but I will tell you that it drew rave reviews and second and third helpings.

Ruby Red Christmas Punch

  • 1 two-liter bottle ginger ale
  • 1 48-ounce bottle cranberry juice cocktail
  • 1 12-ounce pre-made canned lemonade
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • thin slices of orange, lemon and lime to float on top

Chill the ingredients and blend in punch bowl. I make ice in a round gelatin mold, studding it with maraschino cherries.

I don't have all the ingredients just now, but I am contemplating cobbling together some sort of pink drink tonight with what I do have. 'Tis the season.

Two things that are becoming holiday rituals for food bloggers:

The Menu For Hope project, which raises money to feed the hungry, and the Food Blog Awards, which recognize excellence in food blogging.

Of the former, I will say this: There are so many cool items to be raffled off, I am having a hard time figuring out how to spend my money.

Of the latter, I was surprised but pleased to see that at least one of the blogs that made the short list was eclectic (not strictly food) and that several of my favorites are getting the attention they deserve. Feeding the soul is as important as feeding the body, by my way of thinking, and I like to see deserving people get recognition.

Thanks to Abby for her faith in me.

09 December 2007

Fast and Frugal: Rustic Cauliflower Soup

Rustic Cauliflower Soup with St. Paulin Cheese

Across from Square George Cain, a lovely little park tucked behind Musee Carnavalet, is the Swedish Cafe, part of the Swedish Cultural Center on Rue Payenne.

At mid afternoon, when we visited the museum and the park, the little cafe was deserted and this captivated me, and fired my imagination. I saw the buggy and imagined a young Swedish mother, the wife of a minor diplomat perhaps, visiting with her child. The daily special, said the menu board, was cauliflower soup and I longed for a cup, and a rest in this little sanctuary. But we had shopping and packing to do, and thus a bus to catch. I shot a hasty photo.

The cafe at the Swedish Cultural Center, Paris
It is is cold in Wisconsin today, and I am inside with my own bowl of cauliflower soup, this one made with St. Paulin cheese, which I find easily in France and sometimes locally.

Rustic Cauliflower Soup
  • 1 medium cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 cups chicken stock*
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup St. Paulin cheese, in chunks
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • pinch fleur de sel

*I make chicken stock using the carcass of a rotisserie chicken, some onion skins and peels, some thyme, and one garlic clove.

Using a large sauce pan or smaller stock pot, cook the cauliflower in 1 cup of the chicken stock until tender. Allow it to cool, drain and then reserve the liquid. Run it through a blender to get a slight puree.

In another saucepan, soften the onion in butter. Add the cauliflower puree, then add flour and milk. Allow the mix to boil and thicken. Then, turning the heat down, add the cheese until the cheese melts. Taste before adding seasoning.

Cauliflower soup does not need much embellishment to satisfy and provide a sense of comfort. I often add a dash of fresh thyme, or even a tiny pinch of orange rind.

This was fine and comforting as it was, with just a few small garlic croutons floating on top.

04 December 2007

Paris: Through Eugene Atget's Lens

On a sunny morning in May we set out to discover the Paris of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) at the old Biblotheque Nationale, just behind the Palais Royale.

Atget, a seaman and actor turned photographer, is known for his Paris street scenes, of tradesmen and merchants, of tipped pushcarts and bulging barrels, of haberdashers and fishmongers. Atget took more than 10,000 photos of Paris life, not for art but for income.

He left behind a legacy for today's Paris lovers, who yearn to see their city as it once was.

Old Paris leaps from these photographs of everyday life. Look at one - any one - long enough and you can feel and smell and hear the color and the cacophony of street life. Gaze into one of his misty photos old overgrown parks and you can feel the damp on your face and hear the cries of birds of prey. You can sense the bosky aroma of untended woods. You are there.

I'd heard about the exhibit, but it was not until we saw a photo of one of our favorite little Left Bank corners (just outside the ancient church of St. Julien le Pauvre) at Musée d'Orsay that we decided to go to the show. I thought my husband, a trained photographer and filmmaker, would enjoy it, and he did.

The photo at the top is one of Atget's, looking west Rue des Ursins on Ile de la Cité to the north of Notre Dame. One of my photos of the same area is just above: I am looking east.

I consider it an honor to walk - even for a short time - in Atget's footsteps with my camera.