21 December 2008

A Norman Winter: An Apple-y Drink for Dark Days of Winter


From 2008: It began snowing at 9 p.m. last night and did not let up until late morning today. My husband moved the cars, took the snowblower out of the horse barn and began lugging it up and down the hill to create a path around the house, while clearing the driveway and the sidewalk. He took the blower, new last winter, down the street, too, helping our neighbors as they have often helped us.

He needed a stiff drink when he came inside, or so I reasoned. I've been itching since October to create something made from the bottle of Calvados we bought in Paris in 2007 and the cider we always keep on hand during the last three months of the year.

I have some Norman blood, and have always had a weakness for cider, apples and anything related. I was happy to find both pear and apple cider available in the Lot during the two weeks we were there recently (was it three months ago already?) and managed to imbibe a bottle each, along with the legendary dark wine of the area.

When my husband came in from the cold, stomping the snow off his boots, I handed him a newly-concocted drink I call a Norman Winter.

Here's my recipe for a Norman Winter:
  • 5 ounces Calvados or apple brandy
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • generous splash lemon-lime soda or non-alcoholic sparkling cider
  • splash of lime juice
  • 4-5 ice cubes
Pour all the ingredients over ice. Garnish with an apple slice or slip a few slices into the drink. Marashino cherries would be a nice contrast.




20 December 2008

Baked Beans with Ground Beef



I drove through Frenchtown at sunset the other day, toward the western sky and its layers of lavender, salmon and pink. Grandma Annie's house, now owned by a family who lives it and cares for it, was ablaze with lights. My heart lurched and then leaped with pleasure.

We believe the old house has its origins in 1863, the year the lot was parceled out to someone named Deroucher, or perhaps shortly thereafter. Now it is sturdily standing in its third century. The kitchen, always the heart of the house, is filled with spacious cabinets and a frieze of grapevines. It is warm and welcoming. How Grandma Annie would love it!

Annie's second daughter Jane, left at age 20, eloping with a theater usher in those headlong days before World War II. Like her mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters, Jane was an excellent cook and baker who favored simple down-to-earth fare. In later years, she came home to the old house, a widow now. About 18 years ago she died there in the same bed and room our Mémere died in. (I dream of that room often. It is now a sunny, two-story stairwell.)

On cold winter nights, Jane often made a dish with baked beans, ground beef, onions, ketchup, mustard and a dash of brown sugar. I do not know the exact measurements, but I tried the casserole recently, and enjoy it reheated for several nights during a brutal cold snap.

I used:

  • 2 medium cans of baked beans with onions
  • 1/2 pound ground beef, browned
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar


I combined all the ingredients and baked in a preheated, 30-degree oven for about 45 minutes. It's best served with coleslaw and cornbread, but I had only bread sticks on hand that week.

I like these homey dishes when the weather turns brutal, as it has here in Wisconsin.

05 December 2008

Chicken Soup with Cider-Glazed Vegetables

Now when I return home from work at dusk, my neighborhood smells of woodsmoke. This scenario never fails to invoke Grandma Annie, who kept a "burn barrel" in her backyard, as did many of her neighbors in those pre-recycling days. I never got too close to the barrels, but I am imaging they were filled with old newspapers and egg cartons and other materials that we recycle today.

The burn barrels may have been dangerous and harmful to our air quality, but they filled the neighborhood with a pungent aroma that I liked as a child. Today wood-burning stoves and fireplaces fill my neighborhood with the same pleasant, smoky aroma that never fails to bring me back 40 years or so.

Back then, when Grandma Annie had to step out to her neighborhood store before suppertime, she would return with that aroma clinging to her coat and hair, until the smells of the evening meal began to permeate the house in Frenchtown. A particular night when Annie donned her black coat and slipped across the way to the Sobieski's store has stayed with me all these years.

She went there to buy chicken, as I recall. Annie always used matches to rid the chicken of any remained fuzz that clung to its pinky skin. Soon the odor of sulfur filled the kitchen. It was quickly replaced by the aroma of roasting chicken.

When I roast a chicken, I am usually thinking ahead to the soup I will make from the chicken carcass. I knew Tuesday that my Wednesday night meal would be a soup of roasted vegetables.

And so it was. Wednesday night, Into the stock pot went the carcass, along with remaining shallots, garlic and thyme and about five cups of water.

While the stock was simmering, I cleaned and trimmed one large potato, four medium carrots, one parsnip and three shallots. I coated these in olive oil and roasted theme in a pre-heated, 425-degree oven until they began to turn golden.

I removed them from the oven and transferred them to a large saucepan containing melted butter and about two cups of apple cider. I brought the pan to a mild boil, and then lowered the heat until the apple cider was reduced and absorbed by the vegetables.

Then I added the broth, straining it first. Next came chicken, salt, pepper and chopped thyme. I added some freshly roasted garlic - about four cloves - to balance the sweet taste. This I allowed to simmer for about 15 minutes.

Some buttered rolls, a hunk of Gouda and a mild white table wine were all I needed to complete the meal.

My soup was savory, sweet and herby.

02 December 2008

Roasted Chicken with Pears, Shallots, and Thyme

We woke to a thin dusting of snow yesterday, enough to make the roads slippery and require a quick shoveling.

Later in the yard of the brick Georgian across the parking lot from my office, I saw a huge flock of starlings, gleaning odd bits of food from the snow-covered yard and roosting in the trees, chattering away. I love their chatter on late autumn afternoons as it signals a turn of season.

There are other signs, too, many from the bird world, like the whistling swans I saw along the shore last week, and the skeins of Canada geese that continue to crisscross our leaden skies. The berries on our bushes have begun to turn red and the grasses along the bay and river are brown, a warm contrast to the cool grays of the sky and water.

It's really lovely out there. But cold.

At night we cook comforting meals. I roatsed my own bird tonight, and the aroma was wonderful. I found the recipe in the current issue of Body + Soul magazine: Chicken with Pears, Shallots and Thyme.

Since I followed it to the letter, and it's not posted on the magazine's Web site yet, I will simply tell you that it is a chicken stuffed with five sprigs of thyme, one lemon, three cloves of garlic and then roasted with three Anjou pears and eight shallots in a very hot oven. The aroma is heavenly while it is cooking, very seasonal. I love an autumn or winter meal roasting late into the night, filling the house with its aromas, wrapping around us with the promises of tastes to come.

My husband and I put read-and-green place mats on our dining table and enjoyed this dish by itself: Chicken in its glorious juices, along with tender shallots and almost-creamy pears. The roasting removes that metallic taste pears often have, and replaces it with a mellow sweetness.

With this dish, no sides are needed. But a green salad would have been a nice first course.

I saved every leftover morsel, and tomorrow I will make soup or stew. I should think something with root vegetables would be in order.

I can't wait...

Ok, here's the basic recipe: Rub a whole chicken with coarse sea salt and pepper, and stuff with three peeled garlic gloves, a quartered lemon and five sprigs of thyme. Roast at 450-475 for 15 minutes, then surround with 8 halved shallots and three quartered and cored pears. Add a few more thyme sprigs. Roast for another 40 minutes or so.

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.