28 August 2008

Mediterranean Vegetable Soup with Lentils

Puttering around in the kitchen listening to crickets and cicadas while I cut, chop, baste and stir is heavenly for me. This time of year brings me a deep satisfaction somehow, as the pace of life begins to quicken again. I have this sense of something about to happen.

It also saddens me, because another summer (so precious to us northerners!) is on the wane.

When I was a teenager, my mother and I often took walks together after dark this time of year. It was a chance for me to share my hopes for the school year ahead and my dreams for a time beyond school. We'd often choose a neighborhood to the northeast of Frenchtown, where the houses, built after 1915, were mostly shingled bungalows or 1920's-style cottages. Catching a glimpse of someone else's evening through an unshuttered window captured my imagination, and it is an image that has stayed with me for many years.

These days I sit on my side porch, or my newly-built (but yet unpainted) front porch and watch the street lights create pools of light in the evening. Occasionally, I will see a dog walker or jogger. My house is more than 110 years old now, and I often wonder about others who have sat on that porch watching night fall in years past. Did they feel the mix of contentment and sadness I feel this time of year?

Sunday was a day for sunshine and crickets, nightfall and porch sitting.

Our dinner of chicken, tomatoes and peppers was simple but comforting. The best part was the juice from the bottom of the roasting pan. I knew when I caught its aroma (and sneaked a spoonful) that I would be making soup Sunday night.

Easy Mediterranean Vegetable Soup with Lentils

  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/3 cup lentils
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, Italian style
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini, chopped
  • dash freshly-ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel


Place olive oil, butter and onion in skillet; brown slightly. Add chicken stock, water and lentils. Bring to a boil and lower heat, simmering for about 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, adding zucchini as carrots begin to soften. Simmer at least 20 minutes longer, adding salt and pepper.

I expect to get at least four meals out of this. My husband is not a vegetable soup fan, but even he admitted this smelled heavenly while simmering.

I used Lentils de Puy, purchased last year in Paris. Wonderful! I'll have to pick up another bag next month at Carrefour or Leclerc.

The soup lasted all week. I paired it with goat cheese and roasted pepper on crusty rolls.

07 August 2008

My Personal Wine History and a Visit to Sonoma County

About nine years ago, my husband suggested we create a wine tasting data base to record our adventures and our preferences. It seemed like a good idea, as many of my favorite magazines were starting to publish wine columns and our "want to try" list was getting longer and longer.

We never had the time - or never took the time - and we never purchased a wine program or did anything formal about it. But it was the start of something. An awareness perhaps. And we've had fun ever since.

My own adventures with wine started as a toddler. Yes. That's what I said. While the grownups enjoyed wine with their meals, I was given a wine glass filled with water and enough wine to add flavor - and pique my interest. I don't think it did any harm; in fact, it was probably useful. Early on, I saw wine as a meal accompaniment and not something to be consumed in large quantities in order to achieve an altered state.

But I've been here, too.

These days, my husband and I often drink a glass or two before and during dinner. We enjoy the complexity of wine, and we like to experiment with pairings and we talk about building a wine cave like the one my brother built. We've got the perfect place for it, but we've got a lot of other priorities, too.

We're not especially educated and we've not snobbish. In the last month or two, we've tasted Two Buck Chuck (now three bucks) as well as some pricier wines. As for bubbly, we like everything from the occasional supermarket offering to the bottle of Dom Perignon that is awaiting just the right celebratory event.

Recently at dinner we ordered a meritage blend from California's Central Coast that was layered and rich, with a plummy introduction and a cherry-vanilla finish. Next month, we'll enjoy the black wine of Cahors as we look out over our own (for two weeks, anyway) private vineyard.

I recently spend several days in Sonoma County, tasting, learning and observing. The variety before me was awesome, as they say, but in the true sense of the word. Thanks to A for her wine tour and to E, F and M for their companionship.

I'll be back, Sonoma...

What's your wine story?

20 May 2008

Patricia and Walter Wells: They've Always had Paris...and a Good Deal More


It might have been Bill Ragsdale who told me about Patricia Wells all those years ago.

Wilmot Ragsdale - Rags, as he was affectionately known - was a rather legendary journalism professor at UW-Madison. I never took one of his classes, but I had a drink with him once at a friend's celebration. S., my friend, had finished defending her master's thesis and a rather large group of us celebrated over wine and spaghetti at an Italian restaurant near the sprawling campus.

In the early 80s, Jane Brody, a prominent journalism-school alumna, was all the buzz, but someone - was it Rags or his friend and colleague Hartley E. Howe, who was one of my professors? - said there was another J-school grad who had just begin to write about food in Paris.

I was envious. I was studying French in those days, after a long hiatus, and I was struggling. I was also struggling financially, trying to hold body and soul together by writing news releases, crunching numbers for one historian and running errands for another.

Learning and writing about food in Paris sounded like a dream to me, but it was reality for Patricia Wells, a fellow Wisconsinite, and her handsome husband Walter, also a journalist.

Imagine how delighted I was to learn a few weeks back, that the couple had written a book together, "We've Always Have Paris...and Provence."

Patricia begins her acknowledgments quoting Bill Ragsdale. "Be bold," he used to say, and he said it to Patricia, too. I, too, have kept those words in mind and they've propelled me forward often.

Walter and Patricia alternate writing passages, and so their story is told in two voices, with two perspectives.

I like these people - and not just because they are or have been fellow journalists. They have high standards and they've worked hard. Their life has not always run smoothly, but it has been good - very good. I've learned a lot about Paris and Provence from them over this chilly Wisconsin weekend, and a good deal about myself and where I want to go in the future. As role models, Patricia and Walter Wells are good ones to have.

Read this book. Try the recipes. (Of course, there are recipes!) If you like food and you like France, it is necessary.


Note: The photo above was taken outside a Paris restaurant on Rue de Monttessuy a year ago. It bears no relationship to Patricia or Walter Wells, except that it was taken near a restaurant recommended by Patricia. The restaurant is Au Bon Accueil. On our first night in the quartier a year ago, a small jazz band seranaded someone at the restaurant. We were charmed.

07 May 2008

Growing and Drying Herbs

I bought my first small pots of herbs yesterday: Cilantro, Rosemary, Sage and Basil.

It gave me great pleasure to do so. I was on my noon hour, which is usually non-existent or much less than an hour, when my soul needed sustenance.

Bringing the plants up to my nose, I breathed deeply and fully. Is there any sweeter aroma than the first herbs of the season?

I love the soapy aroma of cilantro and the licorice-like flavor of basil. Sage has a calming affect on me and rosemary is probably my favorite of all.

Even before I knew the scents and names of herbs, I knew they were magical. I am not referring to their medicinal or even mystical properties, mind you, but to something I saw Grandma Annie do when I was about eight years old.

Someone had given her a bunch of parsley, which she tied and hung to dry in her back kitchen.

I loved that room, the big red cabinet, the battered old table, the ancient treadle sewing machine and the pleasant jumble of pots and pans and crocks and cheese boxes. Down a short hall from the warm kitchen, it was a cool place for just-from-the-oven pies and cookies.

The wallpaper, probably from around 1920, was a yellowed cream with green and red flowers. The plaster underneath it was crumbling and I have since come to believe this was the original wing of the old house, very possibly dating from 1863.

It was always a little mysterious, shut away as it was from the daily traffic of the old house in Frenchtown.

I knew somehow that the drying herbs imbued it with some sort of magic. They remained hanging from a nail for months, and were eventually joined by other herbs.

Annie used the room mostly for storage, only spending time there when she sewed, which she did with fierce concentration. This she did in August, pumping her foot to the rhythm of crickets and cicadas.

But I knew the room was magic, and I often lingered there. It seemed to calm me, to soothe me in some way I could not grasp as a child.

Today I have my own back room, with a large computer desk, an old cabinet and some book shelves. It is a catch all for pots and pans and cheese boxes and crocks. When we were doing major work on the front part of the house, living out of town and commuting on weekends, this was the room we lived in at the end of the day. It is my favorite place in late summer, when the crickets are singing.

29 April 2008

Paris: A Visit to Galerie Vivienne

Five years ago I sat in a hospital cafeteria while my husband, a relatively young man, had bypass and carotid artery surgery on the same day.

I was terrified, and had taken some medication to dull the terror. To keep my mind off the ordeal, I read - or tried to read - the then-current issue of "Paris Notes."

We so often recall so vividly the details of life-defining moments, and this was one for me: I was reading about Paris' indoor shopping galleries and wondering if I would ever visit one. It seemed unlikely at the time.

With each visit to Paris, I have learned more and seen more and experienced more. Finally, last year I visited Galerie Vivienne just north of the Palais Royal. We stumbled upon it, actually, in our search for Le Grand Colbert.

This L-shaped shopping area was built in the 1820s, but their popularity waned once the big department stores emerged.

For me, there is something elegant and indulgent about shopping at such a place. I imagine buying frothy lingerie, heady perfume, a slim volume of 19th century poetry.


I have yet to shop extensively in Paris, except for food and trinkets to bring home to family and friends. But when I am missing Paris and feeling empty because of it, I have a local shop that gentles and soothes me. It is a large boutique located on the lower floor of a big old-fashioned department store that has been restored and made into apartments.

Here I find silk scarves and beaded purses and textured jackets and glitzy necklaces cheek-by-jowl with Tiffany-style lamps and furniture from Asia and India and rich leather jewelry cabinets and the most delicate china. I try to visit once a month or so and I am always amazed at how the inventory turns over.

Recently I bought a silk scarf from Paris there, and knowing where it came from soothed me on a bad day.

A bit like a visit to lovely Galerie Vivienne.

Now that I've found this enchanting place, my next goal is a enjoy a meal at one of the galerie tenants, A Priori Thé, a restaurant savvy enough to serve desserts in half portions. Why can't more restaurants do this?

22 April 2008

Paris: The Jardin des Plantes

Last spring, we came upon this winged creature in the Jardin des Plantes, and since he is made completely of recycled materials, he makes a good photo for Earth Day.

Each year, I take small steps toward becoming greener. I recycle books, plastic bags, cans, jars, bottles - as do most of us. We never use styrofoam, and we try not to overdo paper towels. We've learned to cut down on our driving, and my husband prefers to bicycle to work in the summer. We compost. We try to use what we have instead of buying new. We try to buy locally and fresh, with no additional packaging.

But there is so much more we can do.

I am appalled at the wasteful packaging that runs rampant in the health and beauty industry; my goal for the next year is not to buy products that use lots of plastic molding.

I was encouraged recently when I found paper bowls that were made from corn, potatoes and limestone.

I've found one of the best ways to be green is to have the Frugal French Gene.

How about you? Got any tips for me?

12 April 2008

Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Almond-Stuffed Olives


When I looked outside Saturday morning and saw December instead of April, I was surprised but not disheartened. When it is cold and blustery outside, there are plenty of antidotes inside.

Start by lighting a scented candle. My favorites for days like this evoke the Mediterranean. In the dining room are eucalyptus and herbes de Provence, while the kitchen candle is apricot.

Next plan your menu for the day. Tomatoes and roasted peppers are what I prefer when the weather is gray. Perhaps some cheese. Voila! The basis for a roasted pepper salad.

1-12 cherry tomatoes, slightly roasted
3 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 red bell peppers,
2 garlic cloves
10-12 chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese
olives (mine were green and stuffed with almonds)
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
dash sel de fleur
dash pepper, freshly ground

Toss the the cherry tomatoes and toss them in one teaspoon olive oil. Roast at medium heat in a small oven until they are just soft; chill. Next, cut the red peppers into strips and chop the garlic. Toss peppers and garlic in a bowl and coat with the remainder of the olive oil. Roast at 425 for about 15-20 minutes until the peppers begin to turn black along the edges and the garlic turns brown. Place in a large bowl and set aside to chill.

Once roasted ingredients are chilled, toss with cheese and olives. Add parsley (and basil, if you have any fresh on hand; I did not). Cover and chill for two hours. Season after you taste test.

This is a sweet salad! I served it with London Broil that had been rubbed with herbes de Provence and garlic.

Just making it cheered me immensely. Preparing the countertop, chopping the garlic, and roasting the peppers gave me a purpose.

There is nothing quite like puttering about in the kitchen, is there?