30 September 2009

Chicago: Paris on Lake Michigan

I had forgotten how much I love downtown Chicago.

After all, it had been years. I've driven though and changed planes there, but it had been years since I'd truly been there. Once upon a time, it was a city I played in, tooling around town with S., my Winnetka friend, and spending afternoons at the Art Institute or in the park. He was a student at Northwestern then, and in those days I learned the drive between suburb and city by heart.

My husband has roots in Chicago as well, in the same North Shore suburbs. Chicago was the city he learned to love as a kid. After 20 years of marriage, this was our first stay together in Chicago.

Oh, sweet. it was sweet. Nothing can come between me and my Paris, but I found traces of Paris in Chicago. The caf├ęs, mostly lined with broad planters, giving diners a bit of privacy. The tall, fashionably dressed women. The water taxis and excursion boats on the river. And finally, the parks and gardens.

This garden to the west of the old Water Tower reminded me of Paris, perhaps because it is across from a French restaurant I will certainly try on our next trip.

Our hotel was surrounded by steak houses, of course, and the aroma from 5 to 10 p.m. each night was tantalizing.

Having Chicago a half-day's drive away just might tide me over until Paris.

06 September 2009

Papaya and Shrimp



There were more than 200 photos on my camera today and it took about 40 minutes to download them all.

The photo above is the papaya I bought during a heat spell. Now that is food porn! The photo below is how I served it: With cucumbers, cooked shrimp, green onions and a ready-made fig-curry dressing.

I grow herbs in pots on our deck, which faces the west and gets plenty of sun. It's easy to step outside and snip fresh herbs for whatever salad I am preparing. Potato salad is like chicken, a blank canvas that gets its personality from whatever you make it with, as long as you include potatoes. I have made potato salad with capers, bacon, ham, shrimp, radishes and - always - cucumbers.

Last night we ate out, celebrating the difficult installation of a new window in our laundry room/potting shed area. We both had tenderloin. It was heavenly. What a way to end summer!

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!