30 March 2009

No More Winter!

Just when we think winter has lost its icy grip, it comes back in a sneak attack.

There's nothing sneaky about the snow and sleet we are due to get tomorrow, though. We are prepared for it. Meanwhile, I've been stocking up on spring jackets in pinks and yellows and scarfs in flighty floral patterns.

I crave spring.

The photo above is deceiving. It was late September near Montcuq, when we took a detour and ended up on a little road along the causses. This charming scene, a bit out of focus, captured me.

I hope you like it.

15 February 2009

Baked Pears with Calvados and Mascarpone Cheese

For Grandma Annie, a fresh, juicy pear was the ultimate treat.

It took me rather a long time to appreciate pears. I found the taste a bit metallic and far too subtle on my young palate. Give me an orange instead, later an apple. That was then. This is now.

I was an adult before I began to savor the pear, which I now realize is a more sophisticated and shapelier cousin of of the apple.

A few years back, as we settled into autumn in the southwest of France, I bought two bottles of cider, pear and apple. Pear was sweet and light, while the apple was vinegar-y and heavy to my American-bred palate. I tossed it out.

Baked Pear with Calvados and Mascarpone Cheese (serves four)

  • 2 Red Bartlett pears
  • 1/4 cup Calvados
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the cheese topping:
  • 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
  • dash vanilla extract
  • pinch sugar
  • 2 tablespoons roasted walnuts


Halve the pears, cutting from the top down, and hollow out the center. A grapefruit spoon or a sturdy melon baller is perfect for this task. Set aside.

Melt butter and sugar, add the Calvados and a pinch of cinnamon. Pour over the pears and allow them to absorb the liquid for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 375. Place the pears cut side up in a buttered baking dish. Drizzle the remaining liquid over the pears, allowing it to pool in the center of the pear halves. Bake for 30-40 minutes until pears are softer, but still firm.

While pears are baking, blend mascarpone with vanilla and sugar.

Remove pears from oven. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stuff center of pears with mascarpone cheese. Top with roasted walnuts.

The taste is subtle, the sensation on the tongue is crisp, creamy and crunchy.

05 February 2009

A Humble Little Cafe

I want to own a humble little restaurant. A café, really, with only a few tables and a small menu. Unpretentious, with a daily special and a friendly waiter.

There was such a café in our town once, owned by a local foodie who grew up in the restaurant business. There were probably five tables inside, and a small terrace in back, overlooking the water. it changed hands a couple of times. One owner put two tables on the street and three more on the terrace.

One day my husband and I, waiting on a Friday afternoon for our friends at the bookstore, bought lemonades near closing time. We went out into the terrace, and much to our surprise, watched the owner as he locked the door. No matter, the tiny terrace was open on the water side and we simply made our way down to the path along the shore. We found this all very charming and a bit amusing.

(The photo above is not a café, but a table outside an antique store in St. Paul Village in the Marais. This seems to be common in the village, which I imagine to be its own little community.)

I want to own a place that makes customers feel they are treating themselves while spending very little money. It can be done.

In these bad times, we can't give up on the good ones. We need them. My community has seen many layoffs recently; some are temporary. Some may not be. The number now is likely to be in the hundreds. I don't know for sure.

What I do know is that we still need sustenance. And sometimes we don't feel like cooking. So we need an affordable treat. That is getting harder to find.

Our spirits need sustenance, too. That can mean many different things. It certainly can mean a good meal in a humble little café.

What do you think?

01 February 2009

Roasted Asparagus and Red Pepper Salad with Chevre and Bacon

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" and "Shop locally - check your pantry" are two phrases I've been hearing a lot of lately.

Except for the doing without, I'm pretty good at being frugal. If someone would have told me even a few years ago that the penurious years of college and the early stages of my career would train me for the rest of my life, I might have been shocked. But I'm closer to retirement than college now, and I'm wondering just what the future holds. We're lucky for now. For now.

So I continue to save scraps of this and that for future soups and stews. My freezer is filled with odds and ends, that make for some pretty interesting and sometimes inspired meal pairings.

Sunday night, we had four red peppers and a bunch of asparagus in the crisper. We wanted a light meal. My husband was feeling flu-ish and I was sure I was next.

Roasted Asparagus and Red Pepper Salad with Chevre and Bacon
  • 3-4 red peppers, washed and trimmed into strips.
  • 10-15 asparagus spears, washed and trimmed
  • 1-2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 medium shallots, cut into thin slices
  • 2 tablespoons chevre
  • 1 tablespoon bacon bits

Pre heat oven to 425. Coat peppers and asparagus and roast them until they begin to turn brown along the edges. You may want to give the red peppers a 10-minute head start. While the vegetables are roasting, brown the shallots in olive oil in a small skillet until they turn transparent and golden. Once the vegetables are roasted, allow to cool for 3 minutes and layer them on a salad plate, sprinkling chevre and bacon bits. Season with fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper.

I added this dressing

This salad would be great with a sausage-based dish or with herbed chicken.

31 January 2009

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts

Some tastes just work together. Which ingredients should be paired with other ingredients is a matter of individual taste.

For me there are some basic rules for pairings in a recipe.
  • The flavors must have something in common.
  • The flavors must balance each other.
  • There must be a counterpoint, a foil.
Brie-en-croute is a favorite dessert we tried a few years back when my husband's incessant channel surfing stopped for five minutes while Emeril Lagassé was kicking it up a notch. Emeril's version, which paired walnuts with brie and brown sugar in a pastry shell, sounded tasty. I flew to the computer (this was long before we had a laptop and an iPad) to locate the site and print out the recipe.

Brie is creamy and earthy and comforting. Bland with a tang. To my palate, a creamy chocolate with a hint of salt seemed a good match for it. See what you think:

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts
  • 1 package pre-made puff pastry or similar product, thawed
  • 1 8-ounce round of brie cheese
  • 1 large or 2-3 small pieces of high quality milk or dark chocolate
  • 1/4 cup coarsely-chopped walnuts
  • egg wash
  • flour for dusting work surface

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to form a round shape, about the size of a pie crust.

Place the round of brie in the middle of the circle. Press the chocolate down into the brie. Fold the puff pastry up so that it encloses the brie, smoothing down seams and trimming off excess dough. (Save the excess and use cookie cutters to create shapes for decoration.) Top with walnuts.

Place ball of filled dough on a parchment lined baking sheet. Coat with egg wash. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until pastry turns golden brown.

My pastry was too cake-y, not flaky enough. But the taste was heavenly. It would even better with homemade pastry dough.

My chocolate was from Jean-Paul Hevin.


28 January 2009

Onion Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin

I love potato chips and dip. It is one treat I refuse to give up, so I consume it in small quantities. I prefer to make my own dips, and enjoy experimenting.

This passion has its roots in the Saturday nights of my childhood when my mother and her younger sister would open a bag of chips and dip them into a blend of cream cheese, onions and ketchup while sipping Coca Cola. I still love this basic dip. (My mother loves chips and dip so much, we used to call her The Big Dipper.)

Onions and cream cheese are obviously essential. Fresh onions are best, but minced work, too.

In 2005, my husband and I discovered Brett's Olive-Flavored potato chips on a trip to France. We never found them in the U.S.

For that matter, we have never found them again in France. We've searched high and low. But along the way, we've sampled tomato-and-garlic, rotisserie chicken, and red-pepper chips.

Within the past decade, flavored chips have popped up in the U.S., too and we enjoy sampling them. But nothing beats old-fashioned - and plain - potato chops. We always opt for reduced fat.

This dip, which I first made on a visit to France, is excellent with any type of chip:

Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin (serves two)
  • 1 cup creme fraiche (or half cream cheese and sour creme)
  • 1/3 cup boursin with garlic and herbs (or Alouette or similar brand)
  • 1 scant tablespoon mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon (at least) chopped sweet onions
  • dash pepper

Simply blend ingredients and allow flavors to marry for several hours in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.

This is my favorite chip dip ever. Creme fraîche is not always easy to find locally, but I do stumble across it from time to time at larger supermarkets. You can make your own, too.

I have also made a simple dip by blending aioli with creme fraîche. A trip to a French grocery store is never complete until we've checked the potato chip offerings.




26 January 2009

Cheddar-Cheese-Beer Dip Just in Time for the Super Bowl

Cheese and beer are two mainstays of the Wisconsin diet.

So it's no wonder that local grocery stores sell cheddar-and-beer dip for pretzels or potato chips this time of year. I succumbed to the lure of this deli delicacy at two different supermarkets. It was a hit.

I'd tasted it before at holiday potlucks, but since we rarely have beer in the house (my husband prefers scotch), I'd never actually made it.

So it was time to learn. Luckily, I had two cans of beer left from last summer's beer bread trials (more on this in the future).

Cheddar Cheese-Beer Dip

1 eight-ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup beer
1 teaspoon minced onions
dash garlic salt
dash paprika

Blend first three ingredients in bowl. Add onions and garlic salt (I have made this with one minced garlic clove) and blend again. Sprinkle top with paprika.

There are numerous variations to this. A teaspoon of mayo or ketchup adds an extra zing. A pinch of seasoning salt does, too. There's another version made with ranch dressing mix.

Since the holidays ended, we've gone back to our more conservative eating habits. On cold nights (there don't seem to be any other kind this time of year), we've been having popcorn, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of that garlic salt and even cheddar cheese.