13 November 2008

C'est Fromage! A Visit to Madison's Fromagination

Walking from my conference to my hotel each night, I passed an inviting little shop I'd wanted to explore last summer. I ran out of time then, but this week I'd pass the shop just before closing time. So, unabashed cheesehead that I am, I dodged inside drawn by the warm glow of possibilities.

The shop is Fromagination at 12 South Carroll Street. (I should note that the photo above was taken in France; I forgot my camera this trip.)

Fromagination is chock full of artisan cheese from Wisconsin's famous cheesemakers. Not wanting to make a choice, I purchased five "orphans," small wrapped odds and ends of cheese I will bring home to my husband for our Saturday night finger food tradition.

I found the staff friendly and knowledgeable, and they did not laugh as I oohed and ahed my way around the shop. Somehow, a bag of crackers and a fruit confit found their way into my bag, along with some candy for my sweet-toothed husband back home.

I have a difficult time restraining myself in food shops.

Moreover, I have still more difficult time passing by a food shop at the end of the day. There is something enticing about their cozy light against the darkening night and something enchanting about the practice of shopping for the evening meal on the way home. There's a comforting bit of serendipity involved in finding supper in a random way, of cobbling together a meal of what is available.

It's what I used to do on those long ago evenings when I lived here.

It makes me feel good to do it when I am back in town.

09 November 2008

Sweet Things

For a few days I am back in Madison, playing student again as I did only five months ago. During the day, I'll be concentrating on learning the role I can play in helping the economy, at least on a local basis.

I swear I lose 10 years every time I revisit this wonderful small but remarkably diverse city. I feel young again, walking the same streets I walked as a student, revisiting my old haunts. Was it only 20-odd years ago?

For many of my years here, I lived a few blocks off State Street. During the years I did not, I used that trendy little thoroughfare to reach my downtown office. My standard practice was to pop into a State Street bakery for a croissant or a brioche. Those were, of course, the days when I could comfortably eat sweets without assuming the girth of an entire Panzer division (is anyone out there familiar with just how large that would be?).

The photo above was taken in France. If I look hard enough this week, I'm sure I'll locate a bakery with comparable offerings. (Oh, how I miss the Ovens of Brittany on State Street!)

The test will be whether I can resist them or not. Save for a chocolate mousse-y thing, cream puffs, tarte tatin and a Jesuite, I was pretty good in France. For every whim I gave in to there was at least one more that I resisted.

How about you?

08 November 2008

Low-Carb, Crustless Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

Crustless Chocolate-Pumpkin Pie

 The act of coming home is the greatest small joy I know. So it has been since I was a child.

When we lived on Main Street all those decades ago, I would often come home at 3:15 on Indian Summer afternoons to find my mother hanging laundry to dry in our vast backyard, or removing a batch of cookies from the oven in the sunny yellow kitchen.

She was young and vigorous and full of life then. I so vividly remember finding her in the back yard on a particular balmy fall afternoon, romping with my baby brother on a blanket. We have photographs of that afternoon, and it remains memorable to me because my mother had been to the drugstore down the street and the market, and had returned with a pumpkin, a bag of chocolate, and two eye masks, one black and one turquoise.

“Halloween is coming, and we’re getting ready,” she told me, and I was delighted. At six, I was just developing an idea of the yearly round and what it meant as the seasons shifted and were marked with rituals and celebrations.

On this day and others like it, the inside front door of our home would remain open, letting in the cool autumn air as the sun slipped down into the west and the shadows of dusk set in. I can still hear the sound of early-evening traffic outside, and the clanging of pots and pans as my mother prepared supper. Our Craftsman bungalow was small and cozy and no room was any great distance from another. I still like this proximity in a home.

These days, I return home much later, and my routine is different: Get the mail, check the e-mail and phone messages, change into jeans, and think about supper. In cool seasons, I turn up the furnace, and in warm weather, I open the windows.

One thing has not changed: I want a snack to tide me over until supper, which is eaten rather late at our house, at least by American standards.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways to pair pumpkin with chocolate. Since it’s gray and blustery today; I don’t want to go out. So I used what I had on hand to make this crustless, low-carb Chocolate Pumpkin Pie.
  • 1/2 cup baking mix
  • 2/3 cup sugar 
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • dash pumpkin pie spice
  • dash salt
  • ½ cup melted unsweetened chocolate, cooled, or chocolate syrup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2/3 cup canned pumpkin
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Pre-heat oven to 350. Blend dry ingredients in large bowl and set aside. In a second bowl, blend chocolate syrup or melted chocolate with sour cream, pumpkin, eggs and vanilla. Gradually fold into dry mix. When mixture is smooth, pour into greased pie plate or square baking dish and bake for 45 minutes until the pie is firm, but not hard. Chill before topping with cream cheese frosting.

A day later, the dessert is firm and flavorful, and tastes richer than it did a few hours after I made it. You may have to adjust the sugar, depending upon our preference. I like a dessert that is not too sweet.

02 November 2008

Paris on a Budget

We've decided we probably won't make it back to France in calendar 2009. For one thing, we've got some home repairs and upgrades next year, and for another, I feel a bit guilty spending the money.

But we will return for at least a week sometime in the next 18 months. We know how to do Paris on a very small budget.

When my husband and I look back on our trips, the moments we cherish most are those that cost us very little in the way of financial outlay.

On a warm spring May Day four years ago, our favorite moment came when we fed pigeons in Place Paul Langevin in the Latin Quarter. I had a half-bag of cashews in my purse, and we enjoy teasing the ubiquitous critters while children played nearby in the sun-dappled little square not far from the Pantheon.

In 2007, an afternoon in Musee Carnavalet on a rainy afternoon and a visit to Square Georges Cain provided us with an equally low-cost and enjoyable moment on our last day in Paris.

We've found great pleasure simply exploring and lingering in the many gardens in Paris. We even enjoyed a wet walk along the Seine one Sunday afternoon when buses were infrequent.

Recently we found pure joy in the Places des Vosges (above), just watching children play.

You can enjoy Paris on very little money indeed, I assured a reader who recently e-mailed me.

We've all got favorite tips, but here are a few of mine.

• Choose a value hotel. They abound in Paris. I find hotels on Tripadvisor, and have yet to go wrong that way. Expect a small room. You can adjust for a few days or even a week. You'll do a lot of walking as soon as you step outside the hotel.

• Make sure you have a mini bar in the room. Mini bar prices are often very reasonable when compared to those in snack shops and cafés. Your body clock will be off, and you may get hungry at odd hours.

• Fill up at the hotel breakfast, if it is reasonably priced, or buy a croissant from a bakery.

• If you will be in Paris for a week, rent a studio apartment. Most have microwaves and many have stovetops. Some even have ovens and all have coffeemakers. In 2007, we ate well for two weeks with just a stovetop and microwave.

• Shop for food basics at Ed l'Epicier, FranPrix or LeaderPrice. I found prices had gone up a bit from 2007, but they were still reasonable.

• Buy a carnet and use it to ride the Paris bus system. You will see a lot, observe real Parisians close up and not have to worry too much about pick pockets on the Metro. You can use public transport to get to and from Charles de Gaulle airport.

• Check out the city's free museums and sites. We thoroughly enjoyed Carnavalet and the Crypts. There are other freebies to enjoy.

• Walk. Explore hidden spaces. In my book, they - not the well-known monuments and open spaces which teem with tourists - are the true essence of Paris.

• Consider cafés and cafeterias located in one of the city's train stations. I found Le Train Bleu a bit steep, so we ate at the cafeteria just below and enjoyed a pretty darned good meal for a fraction of the cost of the fancy lady upstairs.

• Looking for entertainment? We chanced upon a string ensemble on Oct. 4 at the Place des Vosges (below). The music was sweeter than anything I'd pay for - it was spirited and spontaneous.

I'd love to hear your favorite tips for traveling anywhere and not spending a bundle.

18 October 2008

France: The Market in Old Cahors

Today I visited the farm market in my town to buy a pumpkin and some organic tomatoes. We have two local markets, running a total of three mornings and one afternoon a week, June through October. One of them is located in a designated market area, which offers a small covered stall. The other is sited along the water, a wonderful place even when the bay breezes are cool.

I lingered for an hour, talking to the vendors and catching up with friends and acquaintances. Because the market also offers space to non-food vendors, I often purchase quilted items, soaps, rag rugs or other locally made crafts. Today a "garage sale" element was added, so there were many other items available. Several of our local non-profit organizations also raise money by selling cider, hot chocolate, brats and hotdogs and candy.

I did not bring my camera, but I remembered it three weeks ago when we visited the Wednesday and Saturday markets in old Cahors, at the foot of the cathedral of St. Etienne. Food vendors set up shop in the cathedral square, while non-food vendors arrange their goods along streets that shoot off or even snake off to the west of the church.

I thought you might enjoy these photos from one of our visits. Aren't those grapes enticing?

I love the spice vendor. The colors and the aromas transport me to the spice countries.

Can you see why I was so tempted by these Jesuites from Lou Boulbil's stall?

The market is a prime source for these darling little rounds of cabecou.

You can also find Provencal fabrics, blankets and mats. Did I mention jewelry, woven market baskets and kitchenware?

Throughout the world, open-air markets are such a wonderful, time-honored source of good food and other intriguing sites and smells, and sometimes even sounds. There may be nothing I love more than an outdoor market.

13 October 2008

Jesuites and Other Pastries

I entered a building I have not entered in decades today. Never mind the circumstances. I had to steel myself to do it as my departure from there was a sad one.

I was a child then, and I did not understand the circumstances. I only knew something was amiss, and I was a study in abject misery. "I want to go home," I kept saying to my mother, though I did not understand the concept of home. I only knew I wanted safety.

As an adult, I frequently feel the need to find a safe harbor, and the same phrase enters my mind. It coursed through my thoughts again and again when we were away. The news on television was grim, and my French is utilitarian enough to understand and become somewhat alarmed. By day we had the beauty of the French countryside to distract us, but by night we often hunkered down by the television, listening and watching disturbing reports about the American economy.

I found myself reaching for soft, comforting sweets, Like the creamy puffs above or the Jesuite below.

Called Jesuites because they were once coated with chocolate (which would have resembled the long cassock of the Jesuit priest), the pastry triangles are filled with frangipane. Jesuites are a staple of the patisserie.

In France, I was drawn to pastries as I have never been drawn before. Slowly savoring my Jesuite, I felt like a the naughty Catholic schoolgirl I once was, and perhaps will forever be.

But sometimes you just need a little comfort...

10 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Makeshift Tarte Tatin and A Visit to Le Vinois

I like a man who knows his way around the kitchen.

When I was young and dating, I thought this was endearing. Sexy even. I married my husband because of his Beef Stroganoff. Never mind that he sometimes forgets a key ingredient, like sour cream. I mean, he's my guy and sharing a meal with him is a gift.

I like a chef who knows his way around apples. Jean-Claude Voisin of Le Vinois in Caillac, just to the northwest of Cahors, knows his apples.

Last January, I told you about Jean-Claude's visit to my city and the wonderful meals he prepared here. One of them included a trio of apple desserts. I believe I went into frenzies of ecstasy over that. But I liked everything that came out of his kitchen. I believe I may have embarrassed myself online with my raves.

So I was looking forward to seeing Jean-Claude on his home turf when we spent 16 days in France recently. Unfortunately, both my husband and I came down with head colds and had to delay our visit a bit. It was nearly our last day in the Lot when we finally made it up to Le Vinois, Jean-Claude's sleek-and-chic restaurant/inn, and meet his lovely wife, Elizabeth.

We were not disappointed with our meal. Our amuse bouche included two small and slender glasses of a cream appetizer soup and salmon with avocado. Our next course was ravioli pockets in a garlic sauce. Our main dish was a duck confit with whipped potatoes and a cabbage leaf stuffed with vegetables and folded to look like a large Brussels sprout.

"Best duck I ever had," said my husband.

Our dessert was a moist and crustless tarte tatin with a lemony-tang and a zig-zag of banana-y sauce spiked with ginger that tasted like the inside of my mother's spice drawer smelled when I was a little girl. The ice cream was light and fruity and topped with two toffee crisps.

By the time the dessert came along, my husband and I were nearly rolling on the floor with ecstasy.

Next came another unexpected treat: A small jar - yes, I said jar - of applesauce topped with a crust of rich chocolate. Then we had a lovely visit with Jean-Claude.

Local ingredients with a touch of classic style meet exotic accents and creative combinations: That's how I would describe Jean-Claude's culinary approach, though he may disagree. It is all presented with artistic flair in a contemporary ambience that is the perfect foil for the food.

I can recommend Le Vinois without reservations. But you had better make reservations. Elizabeth Voisin, who may answer the phone, is happy to speak with you in English, if you prefer.

We hope to return, this time spending a night or two in the inn. Caillac is a lovely little village with a 12th century church, a cafe and a spa. It is about 20 minutes from Cahors, and is perhaps best reached from Mercues or Pradines.

Le Vinois (Jean-Claude and Elizabeth Voisin)
Le Bourg
46140 Caillac
05-65-30-53-60
www.levinois.com

The night before, I'd made my own version of tarte tatin, using what I had on hand: Two Granny Smith apples and a bit of pie crust. It was pretty rustic, but tasted fine. I would never have thought of using Granny Smith apples back home, but they were perfect sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

08 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Fig-Walnut Tarte with Cognac


It was summer when we arrived just four days ago but it feels like autumn now. The days are sunny and mild but the nights are cool and today we turned on the radiators.

As I walk across the lawn to the pool now, wine-dark leaves crunch underfoot and the dry ones scuttle across the cement tiles that surround the pool and hold the variety of wrought-iron chairs and tables and chaises. I sit out here in a sweater and a book, but I barely read. I am distracted by the hang gliders over Douelle – 10 of them one day! – the jets streaming out of Toulouse and the song of the autumn birds. The cuckoos are gone now, but the magpies are cackling and now and then I hear a whip-poor-will or a nightingale.

The figs on the northeastern side of the fig tree are ripening and I have picked a dozen or so for fig tarte.

Fig Walnut Tarte

your favorite recipe for pie crust
10-16 ripe figs, halved from top to bottom
¼ cup Armagnac, Cognac or Calvados
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 tablespoons brown sugar
¾-1 cup walnuts
dash sea salt

Prepare your pie crust as usual (I used a pate brisée mix from Carrefour and it was pretty good). Place in a round tarte pan or pie plate. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Note that this is a tarte and thus needs only a bottom crust.

Drizzle figs with Cognac, brown sugar and 1/2 of melted butter. Place open side up in pan. Sprinkle walnuts on top and drizle with the remainder of the butter and a dash of sea salt.

Bake tarte for about 55 minutes on lower shelf in oven for 40-50 minutes. Watch carefully to ensure walnuts do not turn too dark.

It was rich and rustic and tasted of the terroir. The one touch I would add would have been whipped cream topping and some orange zest for an accent.

07 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Green Onion Dressing on Bitter Greens, Chicken with Rosemary


It makes me happy to putter around the kitchen and use whatever ingredients I have on hand to come up with a makeshift meal.

I find a sense of contentment in this task and find it more fulfilling than having a recipe to follow and the most costly ingredients. Perhaps this makes me a peasant in the kitchen. So be it.

On hand were truffle oil, some very fresh green onions and some seasonings. The sun was shining, the birds were chattering and the village church bells were ringing. I set to work.

I chopped three onions and set them aside. I poured a small amount of truffle oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar into one of those little French yogurt jars. I added the onions, and set the dressing aside for an hour or two, then added a dash of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. I used this on some bitter greens for a simple salad.

I snipped rosemary from the herb garden. Even at noon, the breeze smelled of wood fires. This adds a bit of magic to the whole process.

I sliced onions and put them in the bottom of a buttered casserole dish, layering rosemary, chicken breasts and small red potatoes. Another layer of rosemary, some sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and they went into a preheated oven.

It was a simple meal, and we washed it down with an inexpensive white table wine.

06 October 2008

France: The Black Wine of Cahors

The first thing I noticed was the smell; the aroma of Chez Bateau, the pleasant mix of must and wood smoke. It filled my nostrils and bade me welcome as we entered the house.

We were home. Not our home, of course, but a home we are privileged to call ours for a fortnight.

Outside the door was the oily aroma of herbs from the wild tangle of garden. I remembered this from last time.

I stood by the pool and looked out over the valley and the vineyards and heard the cooing of doves.

This was what I came for.

The air is always fresh here. Today, the day after our arrival, the air is again filled with sunshine and conifers and the faint smell of autumn on the rise.

The leaves are beginning to turn here, but most of the summer flowers are still in full bloom. The hydrangea are stunning, a blend of coral and pale chartreuse; only the roses are fading.

There is a breeze today, and it moans low in the trees and shrubs that dot the meadow running down to the grapevines.

We saw a falcon pirouette against the sky, and in the woods below the vineyards we could hear the frenzied barking of hunting dogs chasing some unfortunate prey.

Yes, this is home. A sensual but spiritual home. Such a vast array of riches to savor.

Among them are the three bottles of the famous black wine of Cahors that were waiting for us when we arrived. The first thing we did was take the Mini Cooper down to the supermarché for provisions to get us through the weekend. The second thing was to open a bottle and take it out to the pool so we could look out over the vineyards, woods and valley while we savored its rich, dark promise.

The wine (which must be 70 percent Malbec grape) is fruity and tannic and - depending on its age - a little bit tart. It has been historically considered easy on the stomach. According to its pedigree, Cahors wine was offered at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. Its history is inextricably linked to that of the meandering Lot River. Its vineyards have been wiped out - or nearly wiped out - twice.

It is - like Chez Bateau and the country around it - pure magic.

20 September 2008

Paris: In September

Bonjour from Paris!

Our plane from Detroit landed earlier than usual and no luggage was misplaced or sent to Cairo, so we were tucked into our shuttle bus and whisked away at noon. Thankfully, the desk clerk at our hotel found us a room and were were able to nap, shower, and be on our way by 3:30 p.m., just in time to enjoy a balmy and golden September afternoon.

I have always wanted to come here in September.

We are near Gare de Lyon and the Bastille, and so far have meandered through our favorite St. Paul Village and the Place de Vosges. We've explored a few new areas, and found places I want to revisit.

We contemplated a dozen different eating places before choosing a small cafe in the shadow of the Gare de Lyon clock. We ordered salads, a bottle of deep rosé from the Midi. The waiter was engaging enough to allow us to share a piece of apple tarte for dessert without telling us this was not done in Paris (I am certain it is not. Perhaps I read that somewhere.)

We are here. We are happy. We are off on the train today. Our journey will cut pleasant swath through the Loire, the Berry and skirt the Massif Centrale. On to Cahors!

Oh, Paris. Je t'aime.

16 September 2008

The Well-Stocked French Kitchen

The first thing we will do at Chez Bateau is check the larder, and then drive down the south side of the causse to the nearest supermarche for provisions.

Chez Bateau's sunny little kitchen is well-stocked and we will likely find staples like pasta, rice, coffee, tomato sauce and olive oil. We will also find a cupboard that is completely stocked with essential kitchen tools and utensils. We will take our time cooking, and if the weather is fine, dine out by the pool overlooking the vineyards.

In Paris last year, we made do with a few cutting boards, a bread knife, a steak knife, a colander, skillet and sauce pan. Not so at Chez Bateau!

"How would you stock a French kitchen?" a reader asked me last winter. I thought about that for a while, then came up with my list of French kitchen essentials. These few items would do, I think, and keep my kitchen from becoming too cluttered

Pots and pans: A skillet, a sauté pan, sauce pan, roasting pan and stock pot.

Utensils: A good set of knives, a large whip, a small whip, a strainer.

Tools: Corkscrew, herb scissors, mortar and pestle, pastry bag, pie weights.

Miscellaneous containers: Large bread bowl, two smaller bowls, colander, souffle dish, tarte pan or pie plate.

Nice to have: A banneton, a French bread pan, an egg basket, a copper bowl for egg whites.

There are many, many other "essential tools," but these are the ones I have found to be the most useful and have collected over the past several years. Each time I go to Paris, I vow to find a mortar and pestle, which is the only item missing from my list.

With these tools, I can prepare the soups, salads, soufflés and stews that remain my favorite French dishes. And I can make baguettes and boules when the baking urge strikes. Did I mention tarte tatin?

What's missing from the list? I want to hear from you!

13 September 2008

Manuka Honey-Drenched Whole Grain French Toast with Walnuts

It is gray and damp in Wisconsin today, but we were outdoors early to clean out the nest boxes, fill the bird feeders, take down the wind chimes and move the copper birdbath inside. We stashed garden tools and pots in the horse barn.

I attended to the compost pile, adding vegetable scraps from the crisper, and plucked the remainder of the cherry tomatoes from the potted plant on the deck. Walking down into the garden, I noticed a small toad making its hip-hoppity way to a hiding place under the spreading yew. We take delight in these small creatures and happily share a yard with them.

Working outdoors on a cool morning helped us work up a hunger. It was obvious we needed a hearty breakfast.

Still bent on cleaning out the larder before we take off, I came up with this healthy concoction:

Whole Grain French Toast with Walnuts and Manuka Honey


  • 4 slices dense whole grain bread
  • 2 organic eggs
  • 1/4 cup vanilla soy milk
  • pinch sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • dash cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons Manuka honey
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • your favorite maple syrup, optional


Coat walnuts in 1 teaspoon butter, dash sea salt and 1 teaspoon brown sugar. Roast at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes, tossing frequently. While nuts are roasting, beat eggs, soy milk, sea salt, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, cinnamon in broad flat bowl. Immerse bread in egg mixture and soak for 3-4 minutes to ensure bread is thoroughly coated. Melt remainder of butter in skillet. Add soaked bread and cook over medium heat for 4-5 minutes until browned on both sides. Midway through cooking, add Manuka honey, which is reputed to have beneficial qualities. Remove French toast from skillet and place on plates, topping with walnuts and syrup.

Thanks to Fiona in New Zealand for the honey!

08 September 2008

Caramel Apples: The Sweet Rituals of Fall

I heard gunshots this morning, an early sign of the approaching season.

Every September they begin (It's always hunting season in Wisconsin, it seems), just about the time I am tumbling out of bed and shuffling downstairs for the strong and hot cup of coffee that will nudge me into the shower and eventually propel me out the door. I am no fan of guns, but these shots remind me of the welcome rhythms of the season (and in any case, they are coming from the other side of the river or perhaps the wetland a quarter mile away, known in the old days as Hunter's Slough).

There are other seasonal markers to appreciate: The smell of woodsmoke at night, the pumpkin stands along the highway, the skeins of geese that fly overhead at dusk, our sudden preference for red wine and hearty stews and soups. And caramel apples in the grocery store. We have made our own a time or two, but it has become tradition for me buy the first one of the season as an offering to my husband.

I bring it home and present it to him with a small bit of ceremony, a smile, a slight bow, a kiss. It might be silly of me, it might not be, but it is a ritual I enjoy and I think he does, too. We are adults with all too many responsibilities, but our relationship is based on a million silly little gestures, too. I like them, all of them. They, too, are part of life's rhythms.

Caramel apples, succotash, pumpkin pie, apple cider: The first taste of each in the fall is a marker of sorts, an essential rituals that provides us with a measure of security and sweetness.

It is early in the season yet, and there is much ahead to savor and appreciate.

What is your first culinary ritual of the fall?

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?

07 April 2008

Key Lime Chicken






When I drive down Roosevelt Road at dusk, I roll the windows of my car down so I can hear the chorus of spring peepers and bullfrogs and other night creatures. No matter how cold, no matter how rainy, I want to hear this song, this celebration of my favorite season.

When I was a child, I'd sit on our back steps on April nights, one ear cocked for the sound of robins, the other taking in the sounds of post-supper cleanup in the kitchen and the boys playing baseball in Olson's empty lot three doors away. The clatter of pots and pans, the thwack of the bat against the ball: These were the sounds of spring evenings.

The smell of earth, newly released from winter's grasp was sensual, fertile, waiting. The color of the sky was azure turning to salmon.

I loved it. And the warmer days that followed.

Saturday was such a day, with everyone turned out with rakes and brooms and yard waste bins.

On these days, I seek certain food: seafood, tomatoes, citrus fruits. Like key limes.

Key Lime Chicken

  • 3-4 boneless chicken breasts
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon key lime peel, grated
  • 2 tablespoon key lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger, ground
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 orange, sliced
In small bowl, combine lime peel, lime juice, ginger, and red pepper. Set aside.

Rinse chicken; pat dry. Brown chicken and garlic in a skillet with margarine, turning chicken frequently to ensure even browning and cooking.

Slice oranges while chicken is browning. Add lime juice mixture and orange slices to skillet. Cook for 3-4 minutes until chicken is thoroughly cooked.

I served this with a small green salad, rice and mango chutney. Green beans are another side dish that would pair well with this chicken.


This was adapted from a recipe I found on Everyday Health.

06 April 2008

Banana-stuffed French Toast with Cashews

If the temperature is 60 and the skies are blue, it better be a Saturday.

And it was. To celebrate, we had French toast for breakfast.

My husband, ever the purist, prefers his plain with no frills. Oh, maybe a dash of cinnamon in the batter.

I have grown especially fond of stuffed French toast. I have been experimenting for the past year or so, with varying results.

Normally, I would suggest using a home-baked or bakery whole-grain bread, but I was too hungry to shop for some yesterday.

Banana-Stuffed French Toast with Cream Cheese and Cashews

  • 2 slices whole grain bread, cinnamon with raisin would be perfect, lightly toasted
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon low-fat milk
  • Dash sugar
  • Dash cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon Smart Balance (or butter)
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup low-fat cream cheese
  • dash sugar
  • 1/2 banana, sliced
  • handful of cashews

Blend cream cheese with sugar and set aside.

Whip eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla in a shallow bowl. Soak the lightly toasted bread just long enough to coat each side and slightly permeate the bread. While bread is soaking, melt butter in large skillet. Brown soaked bread in pan, turning frequently to ensure thorough toasting.

Transfer browned toast to plate. Smear one slice with cream cheese and top with sliced bananas. Then top with the second slice. Add butter or butter substitute, if you like, and top with cashews. I also added a tablespoon of low-sugar maple syrup.

It was a good start to a busy day.

The variations of stuffed French Toast are endless. Anyone know of a savory version out there?

24 March 2008

Rich Chicken Soup with Roasted Asparagus, Mushrooms and Shallots


I dreamed of my father last night. In the dream he was strong and whole - and living happily in the south of France.

Perhaps he is.

People who have heard me relating my vivid dreams often ask me, "What did you eat before you went to bed?" and of course, I tell them nothing, because late-night snacks are not part of of my diet.

But a good supper - and we tend to eat later - is essential. I am often hungriest at night, when we hunker down in our cozy snuggery with books and magazines and DVDs and a remote control at hand.

Last night, after our wonderful roasted chicken, I made a rich golden stock from the carcass. All day I imagined how it would be, simmering away on the stove, filled with the vegetables of late winter into spring.

Shallots and mushrooms I had on hand; asparagus I found at the supermarket - yes, it's beginning to show up there!

I sautéed the shallots and mushrooms while I roasted the asparagus, just enough to impart that delicate flavor roasting provides.

Added together, the vegetables gave the soup a sweet and dark and bosky flavor, like a forest in spring. I paired it with a slice of whole grain bread from a rustic loaf from the bakery.

Chicken Soup with Roasted Asparagus, Mushrooms and Shallots

  • 10-12 stalks of asparagus
  • 3-4 medium shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3-5 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 1 cup chicken, dark and white meat, cubed
  • grated pepper and fleur de sel to taste
  • pinch of your favorite herbs 

Wash the asparagus, breaking off the tough bottoms of the stalks. Coat with a tablespoon or less of olive oil and roast until the stalks just begin to turn brown at the edges. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, slice shallots and mushrooms. Place in a deep sauce pan and sauté in a tablespoon of olive oil until the shallots and mushrooms begin to turn golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside.

Empty chicken stock into saucepan (I like to chill it first so I can remove the congealed fat). Bring to a boil, then lower heat and allow to simmer, adding more water if necessary. Lower the heat and add the vegetables and the cubed chicken. Check the soup and season to suit your tastes. Allow to simmer about 5 minutes longer on low heat.

I kept the seasonings simple because I wanted the flavors to remain true. But I'd recommend a pinch of fresh parsley flakes. You may also add a bay leaf to the soup while it simmers.

Update: I have made this with fresh thyme, and also with a dash of herbes de Provence.

23 March 2008

Poulet Provencal (Roasted Chicken with Tomatoes and Olives)

They say it is spring, although you would not know it here in Wisconsin. I may hear cardinals and mourning doves in the morning, but what I see is snow and more snow, although patches of brownish-green grass have finally begun to show through here and there.

Easter began blustery with flurries and I had no idea what we'd eat for dinner. We are both still recovering from longish bouts with the flu and worse yet, suffering from acute cases of cabin fever.

Searching for a new way to make grilled tomatoes, I stumbled upon this wonderful recipe at Epicurious. Then I noticed it was from the March Gourmet, which for some reason I have two issues of - a good thing, because I can never get enough of this fabulous variation on chicken from the South of France. The recipe calls for all my favorites: tomatoes, garlic, onion, olives, herbes de Provence and fennel seeds. Did I mention chicken?

I added some potatoes to the vegetable mix to please my husband, and I stuffed a quartered lemon inside for additional moisture. These two ideas came from the readers comments on the Epicurious site.

This was possibly the best Easter meal I have ever made. I knew I did not want ham this year, and by happy coincidence, I'd picked up the chicken yesterday.

March was a trying month for me, with several big projects and an auto accident to cope with (I'm fine and my car is fixed already). But a good meal, some scented candles and bouquet of daffodils cheer me today.

Better days lie ahead. I am planning three trips, one for work and two for pleasure. Soon I'll be able to walk outside and enjoy warmer temperatures. Maybe.

11 March 2008

Paris: Historic Photos

On this chilly Wisconsin night, it does not take much effort to mentally transport myself to Paris on a spring afternoon.

All I need is a photograph to fire my imagination. I am easily seduced by a shadow on the grass, a hint of breeze, a warm sun and children in a park.

This particular park is Le Jardin des Plantes and it looks familiar to me. No surprise, because I have spent a fair amount of time in that area. The photograph that transports me is a simple portrait of street life in 1935, of mothers, perhaps nannies, and a boy with a ball and a blond girl in a pastel dress and a baby buggy.

In 10 years which of them will have escaped harm and which will have not? For Le Jardin des Plantes is near that sad little school on Rue Buffon that broke my heart on a spring day 70-years later.

The simple black-and-white photograph of an ordinary spring day caught me. It makes me wonder about the exact tint of the sky, the time of day, the weight of the air, the sound from off camera. Who are these people and where did they go after they left this little square of time?

If you like to be intrigued by photos and if you love Paris, you will want Rebecca Schall’s Historic Photos of Paris on your coffee table.

The book is filled with many photos that were unfamiliar to me. Some were blurred. All suggested a story. The great flood of 1910. The man with the push cart. The little girl with the pigeons. The women defiantly pedaling a velo-taxi during the Occupation. Josephine Baker. Marlon Brando arriving at Orly. Adoph Hitler and his thugs. The liberation of Paris.

Here is Paris, warts and all. The text makes no effort to romanticize, to sugar coat. The photos, many from the Roger Viollet Agency, show a cross section of Paris life and people and icons. Paris at work and Paris at play. Paris at war and Paris at peace.

The book is the perfect accompaniment to my growing collection of Eugene Atget. I love the Paris of this book.

I was asked by the book’s publisher (Turner Publishing Co.), to do a review, and was provided with a review copy. I have been asked to review books or videos before, but have not done so.

But Paris has my heart. She always will. I made an exception.

24 February 2008

Fruit for Sick People

I have been waiting for a springlike day to show you these lovely raspberries from a vendor on Rue Cler.

I am told it was about as springlike as we can expect today - with temps in the 20s - but I cannot say for sure as I came down with the flu everyone else has.

When I am sick, I want only fruit. This probably stems from childhood when I was given comforting things like apricot nectar and bananas when I was bedridden. Tea and toast were another sickbed standard.

"Eat light, you'll feel alright," my mother would chirp, bringing me a tray. There was usually some embellishment on the tray, like a canned pear with raisin eyes and a cherry mouth. I felt cared for and secure and on the mend.

I had major surgery once, and went without solids from Wednesday to Saturday. My first meal was a small box of Cheerios. They were like some sort of manna to my hungry palate. I have loved them ever since, though they were never childhood favorites.

Chicken noodle soup still works, though I buy the low-sodium stuff now and it's not the same.

My husband provides the same loving care my parents did, but now I worry that he will catch whatever I have.

This time around, I've been living on a totally decadent but simple treat: Ice cream in orange juice. I could blend it and make a smoothie, but I just dump the scoop of ice cream in the glass of orange juice so it's more like a float. I know it is not healthy, but it soothes my sore throat and banishes my fever.

What's your favorite sick time antidote?

17 February 2008

Kalyn's Chicken and Barley Soup

What began as an ice storm tinkling against roofs and windows early this morning turned into a full fledged blizzard by noon. By suppertime, a civil defense alert was issued warning us to stay off the streets.

As if. We can barely get our back door open.

It is soup making weather here in Wisconsin. I made Kalyn's Chicken and Barley Soup, because I had all the ingredients and it helps me live up to my goal of eating good carbs and more grains this year. I had a small amount of stewed tomatoes on hand and in those went, giving the soup a tangier taste.

I paired it with pita chips, cheese and cole slaw, because that's what we had on hand.

Tomorrow, everything will be delayed at least two hours while we dig out from under the last onslaught. This is getting old!

What did you cook on Sunday?

04 February 2008

Green Grapes with Walnuts in a Sour Cream Dressing


In winter we eat our share of of hearty and savory dishes and we begin to crave fruit in no time.

Topping fresh strawberries and blueberries with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of brown sugar makes an easy and elegant summer dessert and it's a favorite on our menu.

But never thought about pairing green grapes with sour cream. My sister introduced me to this a few years ago, and has also become a staple at our house.

You will need
  • 2 large bunches green grapes, washed, with stems removed
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Blend sour cream and cream cheese. Add grapes. Toss. Top with brown sugar and walnuts.

I've lately taken to dropping a few grains of sea salt on top for contrast.

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.