30 November 2008

Creamy Brussels Sprout Soup with Shallots and Roasted Potatoes

I lived in a tiny studio apartment my last years of college. Fortunately, the cramped quarters had a good-sized refrigerator and stove so I could cook real meals. I made use of everything in those days, and I still do, but once in a while, I forget I've got something on hand and it goes to waste.

Not anymore. Some of my favorite grocery store staples - low-fat cream cheese, for example - have nearly doubled in price in the last year.

The mortgage was paid long ago and my economic situation is vastly improved over 23 years ago. But somehow it seems wrong to let anything go to waste when it costs so dearly and so many people are without ample food.

I had about three cups of sautéed Brussels sprouts left over from Thanksgiving dinner, some shallots and a half-cup or so of roasted potatoes. These, I thought, would provide the basis for Brussels sprouts soup. I have become enamored of the tiny bowls of soup served by chefs these days and was determined to create something comparable.

Creamy Brussels Sprouts Soup with Shallots and Roasted Potatoes


  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 3 cups Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed, outer leaves removed, sliced in half
  • 2 large shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 5 cups chicken broth*
  • 1/2 cup previously roasted potatoes
  • 1 small onion, peel and chopped
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel
  • dash nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup half-and-half or cream


Pour olive oil into a large skillet, adding butter. Sauté the sprouts and shallots for 8-10 minutes under medium heat, stirring frequently. Add one cup of broth, bring to a boil and cover, lowering heat. Add onions. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until broth is reduced. Carefully transfer to stockpot, adding potatoes and remainder of broth. Cook under low heat for another 10 minutes, adding nutmeg and salt and pepper (taste frequently; I used about 8 spoons). Turn off heat and allow to cool 15 minutes. Then transfer soup to food process or blender. Puree. (I pureed one half, set it aside and then pureed the other half). Return to stock pot and add cream, re-heating under low heat.

*My soup broth was half chicken broth, half bouillon from garlic-and-olive-oil cubes I bought at FranPrix last year. I always add what ever cheese rind I have on hand, and discard before pureeing.

I recommend grating cheese on top and adding croutons before serving. I did not do that as I was too anxious to try the soup. It was soothing, always a good thing on the tail end of a long weekend.

What did you do with leftovers this weekend?

28 November 2008

Chive Crackers with Brie and Chestnut Butter

Under normal circumstances, I am suspicious of food items that purport to be created to be "paired with" another food item. Having worked for an advertising agency (and being a fan of "Mad Men"), I know this is a marketing gimmick. It works, though.

These chive crackers (green, yet!) grabbed my attention.  "For Brie cheese," said the box.

Brie is one of those acquired tastes for me. It was not part of my diet growing up, and even when I went off to college, Camembert on a baguette slice was the cocktail party food of choice.

I could not get into Brie. Maybe there is a reason for that.

My father's maternal line, as far as I can determine, came from Melun, a city south of Paris that is know for its Brie cheese. The family name in the U.S. is LaBrie, which is one of those "dit" names that started out as something else, but got changed upon arrival in the New World, or perhaps soon after.

Family history records are not very extensive on my father's side, but it looks like the orginal name was Migneault or or some variation thereof, and became LaBrie somewhere on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the orginal immigrant was a cheesemaker who acquired a nickname. Or perhaps, he was not a cheesemaker. Maybe he acquired a nickname that referred to his geographic roots, not his occupation - as in cheesehead.

Whatever. It's a lovely name, and I like the fact that it is feminine, although Brie is actually masculine. Brie is a feminine cheese, if you ask me, mild, earthy and comforting.

Brie is especially goos when paired with something sweet. The chive crackers were perfect, but I thought they needed something more. So I scrounged around in the pantry and found a jar of Bonne Mamam chestnut spread. I plopped a dollop of that atop the schmear of Brie that sat atop the chive cracker.

I was a little nervous as I slipped it into my mouth. But, oh, the taste! If France can be reduced into a cracker with two toppings, this was it. I was immediately transported back to Montcuq and its chestnut trees. Or Paris.

Merde! This is good, I told my husband.

And he agreed.


27 November 2008

Bread Pudding with Four Cheeses and Herbes de Provence

A festive day calls for a festive breakfast.

And a little ingenuity. I had a half boule of Italian bread from LaBrea Bakery and a cheese drawer that was filled to the brim. Did I mention a raving hunger?

I knew it would be a long time until the big dinner. Our menu included pork tenderloin with a cranberry glaze, herb-y oven-baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts with shallots and roasted walnuts - not terribly time-consuming, but not simple either. (I took lots of pictures but in the mad rush had my camera on the wrong setting. I look forward to seeing what you ate!)

You already know what pleasure I get from using what is on hand. Here's what I came up with:

Four Cheese Bread Pudding with Herbes de Provence
  • 1 half boule of Italian or country-style bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups two-percent milk
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup gouda cheese, broken into chunks
  • 1/3 cup Asiago or Parmesan, grated
  • 2/3 cup swiss cheese
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced onion
  • 1 Tablespoon herbes de Provence
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • pinch fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 375. Place bread chunks in large bowl. Beat eggs and milk in smaller bowl; pour into large bowl and set aside for five minutes. Once bread has absorbed the liquid, fold in cheese, onion, herbes and seasonings. Transfer to buttered casserole dish and place in oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until top turns golden brown. Cool 10 minutes.

Four cheeses are essential for this dish. The cheddar is the base. The creamier cheeses balance the bite of sharp cheddar and the Asiago or Parmesan provides the accent. You can use any combination of cheeses for variety.

24 November 2008

Cold Weather Breakfast, Part I: Tartines

I am a creature of routine. Each morning I stagger from bed, somehow manage to find my way to the kitchen, brew a cup of coffee and settle down with my laptop to read the morning papers, from Madison to San Francisco and several points in between. It takes me a good hour before I am awake enough to want breakfast.

But when I do it is a hardy breakfast I want.

More often than not, it is a tartine, an open faced sandwich loaded with some sort of egg, perhaps some cheese, a bit of sausage and perhaps a tomato, washed down with a small glass of milk and a small glass or orange juice. My goal is to get protein, a little fat, some fruit, and some whole grains.

I woke this morning to a fine layer of snow, not a bit unusual for this time of year. My breakfast was sourdough bread with a slick of butter and a thick slice of cheddar, broiled until the cheese was forming a shiny skin on top. That's when I know it's ready. I added a dollop of applesauce as a side.

You cannot go wrong with tartines. Another favorite is a bagel with salmon cream cheese, a tomato, some thin slivers of red onion and a few capers. I paid a whopping $15 for such a similar breakfast in the San Francisco Airport this summer. I like my own version much better.

This time of year, breakfast is really important to me. One year, not long after college, I baked bran muffins the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The next day they were hard as rocks. I was too poor to discard them, so I broke them into pieces (it took some work) and poured milk over them, creating a cereal of sorts. The milk softened the muffins and they made for a pretty good breakfast - possibly one of the best I've had (of my own creation, anyway).

Eating frugally often means being creative, and sometimes a little desperate.

What about you? What do you eat for breakfast? Have you ever salvaged a disaster as I did with my muffins? Tell us about it!

I'm truly curious.

22 November 2008

Blue Cheese

My cupboards and refrigerator are filled with items that were not part of Grandma Annie's kitchen, although my father bought them from time to time. Among those items are three staples: Red peppers, black olives and blue cheese.

The diet of my youth was relatively bland: Meat and potatoes mostly, accented by salads, side vegetables and bread.

My mother avoided many of the foods my father liked, and so never served them to me and my siblings. Mushrooms are among them. She still wonders why we all love them, and assumes its a generational thing. Perhaps it is.

Garlic, my mother often reminds me, was something odd and foreign and exotic. I have this idea that World War II played a key role in brining garlic to small-town America. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've eaten garlic, ya know?

Many of my acquired tastes were acquired when I cooked with my first college roommate, the American-born daughter of French parents, and explored Chicago restaurants with an early boyfriend (Steven, are you still a foodie?).

I learned to love Greek food, Yugoslavian wine and German beer, thanks to these and other college friends. We fancied ourselves gourmets and gourmands, cooking together, tring to outdo each other and exploring new ethnic restaurants. While our peers were expanding their record collections, we were buying small kitchen utensils that made exotic meal preparation easier along with mustards, jams, and exotic rice mixes.

Along the way, I also acquired a passion for red peppers (well documented on this blog) and black olives (a must for any tuna salad).

One of my favorite foods is blue cheese. I've used it in sweet dishes but mostly I enjoy it in salads.

At a recent tasting when a restaurant owner I knew was trying out a prospective chef, I tasted a simple salad of blue cheese, roasted walnuts and Granny Smith apple with an apple vinaigrette. It was really wonderful and elegant.

I bought some blue d'Auvergne in France and made a similar salad. This particular blue, made in the Massif Central area is creamier (and to my palate, gentler) than the typical blue cheese found in American supermarkets. I loved its subtle taste, and felt it better suited to warmer weather dishes (blue cheese is usually reserved for cold weather, at least in my life).

It's one more taste I have acquired. But I am curious. What tastes are new to your palate?

20 November 2008

Leave Takings and a Low-Sodium Soup Base

In recent weeks I've said a lot about the act of coming home, but I've said little about the sad process of leaving a place you love.

On days before departures - departures from France, usually - I feel jittery and empty and I take comfort in small household tasks. On our last night in the Lot Valley, I cobbled together a pot of soup, using a few leftover onions, a cube of chicken bouillon and mozzarella cheese. And lots of water, because the bouillon was salty (we drank water all night long, it seemed). I much prefer my old standby recipe or this cheesy variation I made last year in Paris.

I made garlic toast from the heel of a baguette and we ate the rest of my tarte tatin. We dragged out our last meal in the cozy yellow kitchen, and then walked out to the pool in the dusk to say our goodbyes to the big field and the vineyard and hills beyond it. (The day before, we had finally taken the road that wended its way up there, a one lane road, narrow and twisty like most mountain roads in France, praying we would not meet another vehicle.)

Then we tidied up the kitchen for the last time, and called it an early night. I was torn, wanting to stay and wanting to leave. Fortunately, two days in Paris lie ahead. And then we left all over again.

Leaving home for a trip is exciting. Leaving home and leaving my husband behind, as I did two weeks ago, tears me up until my car turns the corner toward the highway. Then I begin to relish my adventure and my alone-ness. I miss him terribly, of course, and I am always happy to come home again.

For those homecomings, I keep containers of soup base in the freezer, so I can create a quick pot of soup even when je suis fatigué.

My Favorite Low-Sodium Soup Base


  • 2 large potatoes, washed and sliced
  • 4 carrots, cut into chunks
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 1 apple, quartered
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 10 cups cold water


Combine all ingredients in large stockpot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-60 minutes. Strain and discard solids. Makes eight cups. I split in half and freeze it if I'm not ready to make soup.

What soup would comfort you tonight?

16 November 2008

Stuffed Cheese Sandwiches with Roasted Red Pepper

In her later years, Grandma Annie seldom traveled but when she did, it was often to come to the aid of her oldest daughter who underwent a series of surgeries at mid-life. During those extended trips, my mother (a younger daughter) would haul us across the river to Annie's house in Frenchtown to "check things." These trips usually took place after school and they always seemed to be on gray November days.

We'd enter the cold, empty house, the day's mail in our hands, and quickly turn up the furnace. While my mother checked every room in the deep, narrow house, we children would huddle in the living room waiting for the heat to kick in. The furnace provided a gentle, lulling sound, a sort of comforting white noise that still soothes me today. I would eagerly sift through Annie's mail for the latest women's magazine so I could read the fiction. Those were the days before stories about orgasm and geriatric sex replaced quality short stories or novellas.

While the house was empty without Annie, her spirit always seemed to remain there as it lingered for many years after her death. Late afternoon, that time of deepening darkness, was a cozy time at the old house with the incandescent lights providing a yellow glow.

When Annie was in residence, this was the time she retreated to the kitchen to make soup, salad and sandwiches for the evening meal. I did this yesterday, as night fell, preparing a quick meal of cheese sandwiches and cole slaw. As always, Annie was with me, whispering those memories in my ear. I wonder what she would think of my concoctions?

Stuffed Cheese Sandwiches with Roasted Red Pepper, Tomato and Basil

  • 8 slices of roasted red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 thick slices of sourdough or Italian bread
  • 2 thicks slices of gouda or sharp cheddar cheese
  • 4-6 slices tomato
  • 4-8 basil leaves
  • butter


Coat the pepper slices with olive oil and roast in a 450-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Set aside. Butter the bread lightly on all four sides, then layer with cheese, pepper, tomato and basil leaves. Melt butter in a skillet, and toast the sandwiches until both sides are golden brown.

Next time, I'll layer the sandwiches with sautéed onion slices for extra flavor.

I served this with cole slaw to which I added chopped cranberries and grated Granny Smith apple. I think an olive medley would have been a better choice.