19 January 2008

Paris: From My Grandmother's Desk

Allow me to tell you about the mysteries of my grandmother’s desk. Indulge me. I am leading somewhere with this one.

To Paris, in fact.

It all began when I was a child, seven years old maybe. Old enough to read. Young enough to venture where I should not go with no qualms.

On Sundays, after that big midday meal of chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans that went on interminably, the grownups would move drowsily to the living room, grab their favorite part of the paper and drift into somnolence.

I would delve into the deep drawers of my Grandma Annie’s desk. Oh, the intrigue there! Old letters and postcards and programs from concerts and plays and church events. Holy cards and prayer books and recipes scribbled on the back of envelopes. Old leather bookmarks and bottles of glue with orange rubber tops and photographs of women garbed in high-necked dresses with leg-of-mutton sleeves and men with handlebar moustaches, all of them dark-eyed and dark-haired and looking squarely into the camera with stern faces

Each item fascinated me and gave me a sense of what? Family? Roots? Place?

This was the ephemera of my grandmother’s life, and it acquired a certain mystique for me, while it also shaped my notion of the past.

The desk had a certain smell, too: A flat, old, paper-y smell.

For decades the sherry flat-topped desk with its two pedestals of drawers remained in the living room of Annie’s house, the house her father bought in 1883.

Lamentably, the house was sold four years ago. Happily, it was sold to people who care about old houses and who have brought it into the 21st century.

The desk remains in the possession of my Aunt Pat, who lives now in a modern apartment only a few blocks away.
It still holds secrets, apparently.

One of them was a tattered book of black-and-white postcards of Paris, which my aunt gave us earlier this year upon our return from that storied city. Most of the cards have been torn from the book; those that remain suggest – from the look of automobiles in the street shots and the clothing of pedestrians – that the book was produced in the 1930s, in the years just before the Nazi Occupation.

These are bittersweet images then, images of a Paris gone forever, a Paris humbled and brought to her knees, a Paris not yet beautified by Andre Malraux and his exterior cleaning program: The buildings and monuments are soot-blackened with age.

These and other images formed the Paris of my young dreams. Gritty, a little seedy, but still elegant.

Who gave this booklet to Annie or her mother, Memere? Someone who knew what Paris meant to them. Paris, the mother of cities in the far-off motherland.

Neither woman ever traveled to France. Memere was born in Quebec, Annie in Michigan. But Paris drew them all the same.

I wonder about this book of postcards. But I am not overly eager to solve the mystery of its provenance.

I know this: At some time my young hands must have held the book, my eager fingers rifling through its pages.

And it must have touched me and formed my views of Paris. And forged my dreams.

17 January 2008

Red Pepper and Chickpea Dip


The No. 1 topic here in Northern Wisconsin these days is, of course, the Green Bay Packers-New York Giants game set for Sunday on the soon-to-be frozen tundra.

It’s been 11 years since Green Bay went to the Superbowl, and everyone is excited that this might be the year the Pack returns. I hope so, too. I loved that game in 1997 when a beaming Bret Favre made that long victory run. You gotta love the guy.

I normally don’t go in for much Packers hoopla. Or any football stuff. (But for several years, I worked with the organization – not for it, but with it – and I will say this: There are some mighty nice people in the team’s front office.)

But I am not and never will be someone who understands football, no matter how my husband or brothers or ex-boyfriends try to help me. The first time I saw a ref throw a yellow flag on the ground I thought he was just having a fit.

But I do enjoy the snack preparations. I mean, what is football without snacks?

Given my penchant for anything made with roasted red peppers and my 2008 quest to eat healthier, I will probably make this wonderful Roasted Red Pepper and Chick Pea Dip.You will notice it is really not much different from the other red-pepper dips I favor. It just seems healthier, thanks to the chick peas.

  • 1 8-ounce container low-fat cream cheese
  • 1 16-ounce can of chickpeas, drained
  • 1 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/tablespoon aioli
  • 2 teaspoons minced onions
  • dash lemon juice
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel

Set the cream cheese out so that it is at room temperature. While you are waiting, puree the chickpeas and the red peppers. Blend them into the cream cheese with a beater. Add mayonnaise, minced onions and aioli. (It’s a good idea to taste it now – you may want to add a dash of hot sauce or horseradish to sort of pump up the volume, so to speak.). Add lemon juice, salt and pepper, and allow the flavors to marry for several hours or overnight. Serve with vegetable chips or raw vegetables.

Bakeries and delis at local grocery stores will offer green-and-gold pasta, bread, cakes and special cuts of cheese and sausage for tailgaters at Lambeau Field and those of us who prefer to warm our frostbitten fingers around a big-screen TV.

Go Pack.

12 January 2008

Chef Jean-Claude Voisin of Le Vinois, Caillac

It is 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and I am never going to eat again.

I have found culinary nirvana.

Jean-Claude Voisin is in town. But not for long, sadly, only two more weeks. Voisin is chef and owner with his wife of Le Vinois in Caillac, just north of Douelle in the Lot Valley. He is guest chef at my neighborhood restaurant, which - happily - is a place of warm welcomes, fine wine and exquisite food.

J-C is also a wizard. He knows how to marry tastes and textures in a way that preserves the taste of the food, sometimes finding a foil or a balance, other times playing matchmaker with flavor.

A few days ago, I tasted duck a l'orange in a sauce that was a dream of orange, of course, but of something more, something rich and sweet and deep. It was paired with thin slices of potatoes baked in cream, not cheese, that allowed the true flavors of earthy potato and mild, sweet cream to merge, then separate - a sort of pas des deux of flavors.

The dessert was two swirls of mousse, chocolate and vanilla, topped with a spiral of hard, dark chocolate set at a rakish angle and neighbored with a paper-thin fan of pineapple and a sweet pineapple-y sauce.

Alas, I have no photos. You will have to take my word that this dessert was good, and surprising, as desserts should be, and that it lured me back for more.

I was prepared on Saturday, and in the candlelit restaurant, I captured Jean Claude's artistry on my little Nikon CoolPix camera.

Last night, a snowy Saturday night with the Packers on their way to the NFC championship game, dinner was later than usual in my part of the world. We sipped a crisp and happy Viognier, while my husband ordered chicken encrusted with gingerbread and served with a medley of root vegetable strips. I chose salmon with potatoes topped with pistachios and paired with thin strips of carrot and zucchini swirled around one perfectly tart and scarlet cherry tomato.

Did I mention the first course? A thick, soupy "coffee" of butternut squash and chestnut topped with a stick of bacon surrounded by delicate pastry. Comfort food, my favorite!

Dessert this time was a trio of apple confections: A moist and spicy terrine, a crisp smoky French toast slice and green apple sorbét with a fan of fresh apple slices.

The food of Jean-Claude Voisin is presented with imagination and verve. It offers me a dream of the possibilities that exist in my own kitchen, and that recalls the seemingly careless but always artful way my father dropped a slice of this and a fluff of that on a plate to create a canvas of color and texture.

Such grace! Such flavor!

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.