25 August 2009

One-Dish Dinners as Nights Grow Colder

Part of me longs to be a sophisticated woman of the world, but another part of me is rather proud of my humble roots in a community that is largely blue collar and prides itself on being down-to-earth. Dollar stores thrive here and so do restaurants that offer down-home cooking. Most people here would rather drink beer than wine. If you grew up here, chances are you grew up eating casseroles.

As the daughter of a chef, I grew up in both worlds. Some nights I'd come home to lobster and other nights, we'd scarf down casseroles. Some meals were elaborate affairs: Italian night, French night, Chinese night, even Titanic night. Picnics in winter, on the floor of the living room. Made-from-scratch pizza on Saturday nights, with leftover sloppy-joe meat on top.

My husband grew up eating casseroles and meat-and-potato meals. His mother worked as a bookkeeper, and the way he tells it, meals were easy to prepare and vegetable were from cans.

There's nothing we enjoy more than a meal in a really good restaurant, whether it's a fancy French place or a steakhouse. We like meals at home just as well, and more often than not in fall and winter, that means a one-dish meal. Our favorite is browned Italian sausage, often cut with ground chuck, stewed tomatoes, onions and roasted red peppers with some sort of pasta. There's usually a dash of thyme and a dash of herbes de Provence. The meal is often accompanied by an easy salad of mixed greens and a humble merlot.

When I was a kid, my mother made a ground-beef-and-potato casserole with cream of chicken soup and onions. I can't think of a better comfort food! I love this stuff.

We often need comfort as the summer makes its slow slide into fall. While I am usually content to be home at nights during the winter months, this time of year I don't look forward to the long dark time ahead. It's dark enough at 8 p.m. now. We turn the lights on early these days, and we are sleeping under comforters and quilts. I feel out of place wearing whites and linens.

I feel a craving for hearty dishes already. Think I'll make that casserole tomorrow.

What about you?

07 August 2009

Night Noise

At night our neighborhood takes on a completely different persona.

It is no longer the leafy, hilly grid of late-19th century streets where people walk their dogs and their children, using the street, not the sidewalk as a walking path because not all the blocks have sidewalks. The mix of professors, teachers, bankers, laborers and health care workers who live in the houses here are sleeping (or like me, they are trying to).

But someone walks the streets dragging things around. And someone else yells things into a bullhorn.

The dragger first: For nearly a decade, on odd nights all year round, I hear the rattle of something that might be a wagon or cart being dragged or pulled down the street. It starts to the south and moves north toward the river. It is loud enough to wake me, and sometimes it takes a while for me to realize it is what I've come to think of as The Night Noise that has interrupted my precious sleep.

Someone is moving things at a time when they are likely to be unnoticed. Or, as I once suspected, perhaps someone is scavenging for things.

I cannot jump out of bed and rush to the window. Well, I could - were I lucid enough - but the cedar trees block my view. By the time I am awake enough to comprehend that The Night Noise is back, whatever is making the noise has traveled farther north and is out of view.

The Bullhorn is something else entirely. We have heard it all year round and at all times of evening or early morning. There was a time when I thought it was coming from a large mill located up the river, but the words projected by the bullhorn are not words that would be said over a public address system, if you get my drift.

I've asked neighbors about it. Apparently, my husband and I are the only ones who have heard it and it was only last year, or perhaps the summer before, when my husband finally heard The Bullhorn for himself.

Living as I once did in a series of urban apartments, I have heard many odd and alarming sounds at night. But these noises baffle me, and I won't be happy until I discover their source.

Tired as I am after a night of sleeplessness last night, I did see "Julie and Julia" tonight. It's been a long time since a movie has engaged me that much, even though I knew the outcome. See it, if you have not.

The photo is from May 2007: Rue de Monttessuy, 7th arr., Paris.

05 July 2009

The Twists and Turns of Side Streets and Dark Alleys

I have never stayed on the main road for too long. The little side streets, the tangents of life are too intriguing.

In my career I sidetracked for a long time, which ultimately helped put me on the main road again with more horsepower and sharper vision.

But sometimes there are places I'd rather not explore. Some of those places are dark lanes in old Cahors, just feet from the lively and friendly market place, which teems with life and flavor and the more guttural accent of the Midi Pyrenees. (Some friends had a close call near here a few years back. We are vigilant.)

So I took photographs instead, and found this one intriguing with its rosy hues.

Not much time to cook just now.

02 May 2009

Roasted Chicken on Sundays

Every season has moments of enchantment that occur at when you least expect them.

Last night, I had to present an award at a spring banquet. While I knew I would be in good company, it was Friday and I was tired and I wasn't especially looking forward to a long night in a chair at a dinner table.

Fortunately for me, the dinner took place at an attractive venue with a view of sea grass and bay on one side and gently rolling hills on the other. My chair faced the bay and while I waited for my turn at the podium, I watched a pair of fishing boats trawl the bay in the sunset. The rays of the setting sun fired the boats and I was able to see that the fishermen were dragging nets. Somehow this fired my imagination, too. My body was inside but my spirit was out on the cool bay, feeling the wind in my hair.

When I finally got to the podium, I looked up in the other direction to see a perfect ball-of-orange sun setting in a deep-teal-and-indigo sky. I could barely concentrate on my lines, so brilliant was the sun.

I sat down at my table again. Now the boats were lighted by torches of some sort. I watched them drift out of sight when it grew dark and the event ended. I stepped outside to my car, surrounded by the welcome spring chorus of tree frogs and even loons and made the 11-mile trip into town.

Sometimes these small things make for a magical evening. It has happened time and time again in my life, and it always grounds me and gentles me after a period of stress.

On the way home, I notice more people on bicycles than I have in the past, something I suspect is spurred by the economy. I like that. We are embracing simpler things, out of necessity, perhaps, but perhaps we will carry these new habits forward into better times. A few weeks ago, amidst an April shower, I saw a man on a bike carrying a bouquet of spring flowers. I can only imagine the utter devotion that might inspire an older man to ride a bike to a flower shop or grocery store in the rain. Someone is very much loved, I hope.

We continue to find much to celebrate in this crazy world.

On Sunday I will roast chicken, rubbing it with herbs de Provence and surrounding it with whatever strikes my fancy. Usually it is onions, carrots and new potatoes coat in olive oil. The herb-y aroma will pervade my house.

The weekend. Life is good.

What about you? What signs have you read lately?

28 April 2009

Baked Brie with Cherries and Pecans

I was attracted to this idea (a recipe contest using Brie cheese) because of my paternal grandmother's maiden name, La Brie. I thought I could come up with some cute approach.

But the truth is, if someone along the St. Lawrence River, circa 1700, had not begun calling a guy named Migneault by the name LaBrie, she might have been Laura Migneault. I suppose the moniker was a reflection of the Migneault's roots in Melun, a cheesemaking city south of Paris - an ancient version of Cheesehead (as we Badgers are often called). "Dit" names, as they are known to every genealogist with a French Canadian heritage, can also reflect an occupation. Perhaps I am descended from cheesemakers.

I was running out of cute when I realized I had to turn in my recipe and photo by tomorrow.

My first couple of ideas flopped. I was desperate. But not out of ideas. A few years ago, my husband and I caught Emeril Lagasse's baked brie show on the Food Network. We've been enjoying that treat ever since, usually around the holidays.

What about baked dip? I scrounged around the cupboard and found dried cherries, a staple, and a bag of pecans. Here's what I came up with:

Baked Brie Dip with Dried Cherries and Pecans
  • 1 package Brie Cheese, trimmed and cubed
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • dash fleur de sel
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 teaspoons dried cherries

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat. Add chunks of brie and stir until melted and blended. Stir in brown sugar and fleur de sel, gradually adding pecans and cherries. Place in a small ramekin and bake for 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

The result is a slightly sweet cheesy spread for crackers with the merest hint of salt.

I'm tasting this on thin slices of whole wheat beer bread, slightly toasted.

Note: In the interests of transparency, I must disclose that I was invited to join this contest. The cheese was provided by Ile de France. I have no hopes of winning, but it was fun!

15 April 2009

Left Bank or Right Bank?

My friend Frank the Francophile, an irreverent Irishman, keeps me supplied with travel stories about France I might have missed (and usually have). He has a master's degree in French, and takes great pleasure in correcting me. He enjoys it so much, I am sure he was a Parisian shopkeeper in a past life.

Anyway, Frank pointed me to a copy of this story, which compares the right and left banks of Paris. Thank goodness this is not something we have to choose between. I mean, even if you were lucky enough to live in Paris, you could live on one bank and hang out on another.

Each visitor to Paris finds his or her own city; Paris, after all, is a highly individualized experience. But I am curious are you right bank or left bank?

On our first visit, we took a liking to the area sandwiched between Avenue Rapp and Avenue de la Bourdonnais, literally at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, we rented a small flat there and enjoyed the daily round first hand, not merely as flaneurs. We even made friends with the lovely lady at Magda Traiteur. I feel very comfortable here.

I am quite enamored with the neighborhood near St. Sulpice, and would like to rent a flat there some day. I was not enchanted with Montparnasse, and found more smokers there than any other area in Paris. Really.

I like the warren of streets in the Latin Quartier, just north of the Pantheon. Something draws me there. My husband likes Tolbiac, and I would like to spend some time in the 14th someday.

I love the Left Bank.

But, oh, my passion for the grittiness of Rue St. Antoine (and Rue de Rivoli, for that matter) is well documented here. I found beauty at the Jardin des Halles, perhaps sensing the spirits of the vendors of the old marketplace. My husband likes the raw energy of Rue de la Roquette; I have to agree. Last fall, we spent a fair amount of time - just off the plane and without our bearings - wandering around the area just north of the Bastille. I really like that quartier, too.

We visit Village St. Paul again and again and we especially love the staff at The Red Wheelbarrow bookshop. We enjoy our fellow customers, too.

A few years ago, our Paris shuttle driver took us on streets we'd never visited just north of the Champs Elysees. It felt elegant to me.

We once made brief foray into Auteuil, which I once read was the part of Paris most like Provence. Must try that out soon.

I love the Right Bank.

Did I mention the islands?

What about you? Come lurkers and Francophiles and tell me what part of Paris - which bank or which island - resonates with you?

10 April 2009

Fish Fries, Fishing, Sea Food and Markets in Paris

Spring is finally upon us. I think I said that a month ago. This time I mean it. About a week ago I began drooling over photographs and memories of Paris in April.

So I knew it was spring. Besides, it's Easter weekend, and that generally signals winter's certain departure. Yes, even the year spring was late (April 28) and we woke up to a thin cover of snow. Yup, even then.

For me, the first balmy days are usually accompanied by a fierce desire for sea food or fish. Here in Catholic Wisconsin, Friday fish fries are hugely popular all year round. Each restaurant has a slightly different take, but most serve fried fish with French fries, cole slaw, baked beans and rye bread.

When I was a child, it was hard to find certain types of fish or sea food in our area, but with a father in the restaurant business, that was no problem at our house. I never knew what I would come home to on Fridays: Lobster boiling or clams steaming. At noon, we had fish sticks and French fries with green peas.

I love the open-air fish markets of Paris, the gritty, briny bins of muscles or clams that make me want to cook them up with some garlicky white sauce and a bottle of well-matched white wine. But I am just as happy scarfing down a fish fry at the local family restaurant with its glorious view of the water, the brownish seagrasses glinting golden in the setting sun, and the string of glittering lights from across the bay.

And so I did tonight, and then we drove home along the river where hundreds of fishermen (and women) lined the shore or stood in shallow water in pursuit of smelt or sturgeon or whatever fish are running right now. I felt a little frisson of delight to see dozens of men in waders near the old scaling gap, and thought of my Irish great grandfather, a scaler in the lumber days, a lithe brown-haired man with nine lives. I saw bonfires lining the shores of the islands, and sensed the carnival atmosphere. It was almost like the old days, when smelt ran by the thousands and there really was a carnival with a smelt queen and smelt wrestling.

And then I remembered that some of the fishermen might be fishing out of necessity, not out of love for the sport, or for the damp spring night setting in on the eve of a holiday weekend, a spiritual holiday, but a time for family and celebrating just the same. I felt a bit sad, but not for long. We are blessed to have the river and the bay and the lovely night.

I hope you are blessed on this weekend.