06 February 2014

Red Lettuce Salad With Blue Cheese

Since renaming this blog several months ago, I have spent hours revamping my blog format and resizing photos. Only two months ago I was ready to throw in the towel completely, mentally hanging a big Do Not Resuscitate sign on it. But something stopped me.

I am not ready to let go. So many of my blogger friends from 2006 are no longer blogging and I miss them. Their comments and e-mails got me through a time of transition, while offering suggestions and encouragement. So I'm not ready to stop blogging.

Instead I began curating, as they say today - I call it editing - my own archives, deleting hastily written or ill-conceived posts - surely there is more to come, or should I say go? - and evaluating posts that were effective, or just plain delicious. This is one that originally ran in 2007.

I still make this salad several times a year. It's so tasty, and a great foil for any savory meal. And colorful: The pomegranate arils, which provide such sweet bursts of flavor, look like little rubies tucked away amidst the lettuce. But now I think I want it. Our menu has been heavy lately, lots of stews and casseroles and one-dish meals. All very savory, I might add.

This fresh salad is a perfect light dish for this time of year, a pleasant way to put the gastronomic excesses of the holidays and winter far behind you. It is delicious with any meal, or by itself.

Red Salad with Blue Cheese
  • small head of red lettuce
  • 1 small red onion, chopped or sliced
  • 3/4 cup pomegranate arils (or dried cranberries)
  • 1/2 cup roasted pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1/3 cup blue cheese
  • Pomegranate or raspberry balsamic vinegar for dressing
Tear up the lettuce. Slice the onions. Grab a handful of cranberries or pomegranate arils. Roast pecans in the oven. Toss it all together. Add some blue cheese crumbles. Drizzle on the dressing.

I make this for holiday potlucks and its always a hit. The blue cheese can be optional; I never add it until the last minute, once I'm sure everyone at the potluck eats it. You can add butter and brown sugar to your pecans for roasting. Frankly, you can toss in whatever you have on hand.

Note: Want to peel a pomegranate? Here's how.

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05 February 2014

Apricot-Walnut French Toast

Apricot-Walnut French Toast

I am fairly conservative with money, preferring to save what I can for travel. I never buy anything not on sale and in the past year, I've become a thrifter, haunting second-hand stores for clothing made when clothing was well made, and buying it for a few dollars.

When it comes to grocery shopping, I look around for the best deals. I have been known to clip coupons, read weekly circulars, shop at several different stores and use leftovers - or pop unused portions in the freezer.

All this careful frugality goes out the window when I am in or near a patisserie or baker's market stall in France.

I buy more than my husband and I can eat, just because I want to try it. Financiers, tarte tatin, Jesuits, brioche, olive bread, pain au chocolate and more. I cannot resist. I am helpless. Weak.

Fortunately, I know what to do with leftovers. French toasts and bread pudding are an excellent way to use up what we cannot eat. French people buy bread daily for a reason: It grows hard in a day or two, unlike the bread we buy so carefully sliced and wrapper.

Apricot-Walnut French Toast for Two

For the bread
  • 6 slices apricot or cinnamon-raisin bread (I used apricot bread with raisins)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup cream or whole milk
  • tablespoon brown sugar
  • teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash cinnamon
  • pinch salt
  • butter to melt in skillet
For the sauce:
  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves (something I always buy in France, but you can use honey)
  • tablespoon melted butter
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, chopped*
Beat eggs, cream or milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in large bowl. Soak bread until it is thoroughly moist, but not falling apart. Butter skillet; use medium heat to melt butter. Place in skillet, continuing to use medium heat, and brown on both sides, carefully turning over frequently with a spatula.

While bread is turning golden brown, heat preserves in a small saucepan over a low burner. Add butter and walnuts.

Remove bread from skillet and smother in apricot-walnut sauce. This is delicious when served with vanilla yogurt and apricot nectar. I have also paired it with cream cheese, which I consider breakfast food, and maple sausage.

*As I recall, I could not find a nut grinder in the kitchen we were renting, so I skipped this step.


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04 February 2014

How to Make Frozen Brussels Sprouts Taste Good

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrots
At the beginning of every winter we stock up on essentials, like coffee, paper products, laundry detergent and kitchen staples. Wisconsin weather is fickle, and it's more likely to turn bad than good. Some days it is just too much of a hassle to run errands. That is the beauty of early retirement: Going outside in winter only when it is an absolute necessity.

We also fill our freezer with vegetables and fish. My vegetable list is topped by Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli. I replenish my stock mid-winter, and hasten to clean it out by June. I think my semi-annual Clean Out the Fridge Month, which comes in spring and lasts longer than four weeks, is my favorite time of year. It is a creative time, when much experimentation takes place in my kitchen. I also spend less on groceries during that period!

Frozen vegetables are supposed to be a better nutritional value than fresh vegetables that have traveled hundreds of miles to supermarkets, so I always have plenty on hand from September to May.

I love the earthy taste of Brussels sprouts, and I don't think I have ever had a dish made with them that was not good. My soup and warm salad recipes are repeat performers. They are best made with fresh Brussels sprouts.

So what can you do to dress up a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts? Here is my favorite dish, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrots.
  • 1 bag of baby Brussels sprouts (about 32 ounces)
  • 4-5 medium carrots, parboiled and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
  • salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Clean, parboil and slice the carrots. Set aside.

Spray a low baking dish or low casserole dish with oil (you could actually skip this step). Empty the bag of Brussels sprouts directly into the dish (or into a separate bowl), add the carrots, and drizzle with oil. Season. I added some Mural of Flavor from Penzeys, one of my new acquisitions, which blends shallots, onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, basil, coriander, lemon peel, citric acid, black pepper, chives, green peppercorns, dill weed, and orange peel. I think thyme and a dash of lemon peel would be a an equally perfect addition.

Roast for about 30-40 minutes, or until sprouts cook through and begin to brown.

The result is sweet, earthy and nutty and the perfect side dish for a meal featuring pork. If you have time, caramelized shallots would be a wonderful topping.

Coming up: How to make a bag of frozen carrots taste good.

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03 February 2014

Cauliflower Soup with Lime


I am in the process of reviewing all posts on my blog for relevancy and repetition. A blog that is about to mark its 8th birthday (June 11) simply needs updating, no matter how many minor facelifts it has had. I pondered throwing in the towel completely but could not bear to do so. I have put too much into this project, which started as an attempt to educate myself about blogging so I could teach my students - college freshmen and sophomores - how to write a news blog. Besides, I no longer have a real job, and I can now give this blog the time and thought I think it deserves. In reviewing early posts, I found a few that merited reposting or updating. This is one of them. From early 2007:

When I was four years old I refused to eat white food.

I drank milk if I could not see it, which meant I had a covered cup with a cartoon character's face on top. The straw was inserted in its mouth.

Mashed potatoes? Only if I could not see them. Bread had to be toasted golden brown and slathered with peanut butter or cinnamon so no trace of white could be seen. I am not certain if my parents resorted to blindfolding me for meals, but they may well have done that.

Today I eat white foods in moderation. I've learned, like everyone else, that brightly colored foods are higher in nutrients. You can imagine how delighted I was to discover that colored cauliflower has finally made it northern Wisconsin. Of course, I had to buy some. What a great way to get kids to eat!

The first thing I made was a purple-and-green cauliflower salad with carrots and red peppers. I topped it with my Honey Dijon Dressing (see Jan. 13 post) and sprinkled a few bacon bits and some chopped cashews on top. Pretty good for a slapdash sort of thing.

Then I went upmarket, stumbling across this Lime-y Cauliflower Soup on Epicurious.
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups cauliflower, chopped
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup half and half
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Roast the cumin seed in a small dry skillet over medium heat until it is fragrant. Once it has been roasted, place it in a mortar and pestle or in a wax paper bag and crush it until in becomes a coarse powder. Note: I could not find cumin seed, so I roasted cumin powder.

Cook the onion in butter in a small but sturdy saucepan over medium heat until the onion is softened, but not caramelized. Add cauliflower, broth and water and simmer until cauliflower is tender. (Watch it carefully as adding more water than the recipe calls for will result in a thin soup. )

Next, puree small batches of the mixture in a blender, until the contents of the pan are liquid and creamy. Add the half and half and lime juice; stir. (At this point, I added just a dash of fleur de sel.) Sprinkle on cumin.

Note: This is a delicate soup well suited to a cold winter day in Wisconsin when thoughts of spring are inevitable. It would pair well with an equally delicate white table wine and a light meal of chicken and rice. It is also a perfect lunch soup.

To my palate, cumin has citrus-y undertones and is a good mate for lime.

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01 February 2014

Fig-and-Walnut Tart with Cognac


It was so much fun to gather windfall figs from the yard.

I'm reposting this original recipe because this dessert is really exceptional and very rich. It's exactly the kind of dessert to serve in winter. 

France, The Lot, Fall, 2008 - It was late September, and we left the house* each day at mid-morning, ready to explore the meandering river country, driving up into mountain villages and down into vineyards: Montcuq, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Luzech, Albas, Douelle, Catus and up into the still-green Dordogne to visit lovely LaRoque Gageac. And every day, into Cahors, sometimes taking the dizzy-ingly high bridge that sneaks up on you as you snake around the city.

Nights were dark and still, and mornings so cold you could see your breath. We'd eat a hearty breakfast, load the market baskets into the Mini and drive off to enjoy the warm heart of the autumn days. We'd return to our tiny village by late afternoon, my husband to a nap, and me to the kitchen and the yard to ponder supper.

I loved this time of day, when we could hear the rush of traffic climbing the hairpin turns of the road beside the gorge: Workers returning from the city to the village, where the air was fragrant with grapes and woodsmoke. There was excitement, too; the grape harvest was near.

The figs on the tree in the yard that sloped toward the vineyards were ripe and falling; I picked a basket of them and paired them with the ubiquitous walnuts of the Quercy. A smidgeon of cognac and voila! Truly the richest dessert I have ever tasted.

Here is what you will need to make my very simple Fig-Walnut Tart:
  • 1 pie crust
  • 10-16 ripe figs, halved from top to bottom
  • ¼ cup Cognac 
  • 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 5 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 cup walnuts, broken
  • dash orange zest (about a teaspoon)
  • dash sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your pie crust as usual; originally, I used a pate brisée (pie crust) mix from Carrefour, a somewhat upscale French supermarket. Place in a round tart pan or pie plate.

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

Bake tart on lower shelf in oven for 40-50 minutes. Watch carefully to ensure walnuts do not get too dark. Allow to cool a bit before serving with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Since I made this in France, and have not replicated it in the US, I recommend checking it frequently during cooking time.

It was rich and rustic; softness and crunch with deep dark hints of pleasure. How satisfying to create a dessert this good from fruit plucked from your own backyard, even a rented backyard!

One of the reasons I have not recreated this dish is that I have not found a source for fresh figs. Plums or apricots would be a good substitute; you may have to adjust the amount of sugar used.

*Readers can rent the house we stayed at here.

PostScript: What about this take on figs? Yum!

29 January 2014

What to do with Old and Outdated Spices and Herbs

Bulk herbs and spices from the market in old Cahors, France.
On a particularly frigid afternoon earlier in January, I finally cleaned out my spice cupboard.

I'm not sure why I put this chore off for so long, as it is not especially unpleasant. I probably had at least 100 jars of varying sizes, most dating back to my early days of blogging. Experts say purchased ground spices are only good for a year or two (their volatile oils begin to dissipate after grinding), and recommend you purchase whole spices instead, grinding them on an as-needed basis.

I have often ignored this advice, but I won't in the future. Retiring early has forced me to think twice about unnecessary purchases (did we really need four jars of peppercorns?).

To grind spices, I usually use a mortar and pestle, but there are many spice grinders on the market. If you have a coffee grinder, that can also be used to grind spices.

Cleaning out a spice cabinet is a half-day job in my kitchen. But I was highly motivated to do the job in order to justify buying some new, salt-free mixes from Penzeys, a Wisconsin vender I have been using for more than 20 years.

I emptied out at least 50 percent of my spice collection, recycling most of the bottles, and only tossing out the mixes that contained salt.

I don't like wasting anything.

What can you do with old spices, past their expiration dates and no longer fragrant and flavorful? Plenty, as it turns out.

Use them as carpet refresher. Here's a simple recipe I used and it really made my house smell good, much like herbs de Provence:
  • 2 tablespoons culinary lavender
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon ground thyme
  • 1 tablespoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 cup dried peppermint tea leaves
Combine in a small jar or bowl; shake to blend.

I used the mix on the carpet in our TV room, which gets a lot of traffic. It reminded me of the essential oils used by massage therapists to create a relaxing ambiance. I made more, and will use it whenever I vacuum.

I also made some squirrel repellent, which I use near the bird feeders in our back yard. Squirrels don't like hot spices, but birds ignore them.

I blended:
  • 3 tablespoons cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons dried red peppers
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
I used it on and around our feeders and have not observed squirrels chasing birds away for several weeks now. It made the back yard between the kitchen window and the horse barn smell wonderful.

I also use old spices - but nothing containing salt - in my compost, along with coffee grounds and tea leaves.

Discarded herbs and spices may also be used in candle making or soap making, or in tea dyes and other organic dyes. See this link for some additional ideas.

Here is a handy chart for determining how long you can keep spices before they "go bad" or are less potent. Here's another one that includes flavor packets and extracts.

Now that my cupboard is clean, I find I am using spices and herbs more frequently in my cooking.

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25 January 2014

Boeuf Bourguignon



For about a ten-year period, winter in Wisconsin held off until the end of January, and was usually gone by the end of March. Several years, we had 70-degree days in mid-March. There was usually a spring blizzard or two, but the snow never stayed around long.

It seems 2013 was an exception. Spring didn't make an appearance until early April, and winter checked in just after Thanksgiving. We began eating heartier fare earlier in the season. Of course, I've gained a few pounds. But being retired gives me more time to exercise and prepare my own meals. No more grabbing lunch on the go.

Early retirement has also allowed us to experiment more in the kitchen (and shop around for bargains). We began 2014 with Boeuf Bourguignon, a particular favorite of my husband.

On our first visit to Paris nearly a decade ago, we ordered Beef Bourguinon at an over-priced bistro near Notre Dame Cathedral. It was delicious and, we thought, well worth the cost.

It's not a quick dish to prepare, thanks to the pearl onions, but it is easy. We took our inspiration from this cookbook.

Beef Bourguignon

  • 2 pounds round of beef, cubed
  • 2-2 slice bacon
  • 4 good-sized carrots, sliced
  • 3 dozen pearl onions, peeled 
  • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic (about two small cloves)
  • generous handful fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup Cognac
  • 1 bottle good red wine (we used Merlot)


For the seal:

  • 1 cup flour and enough water to make a paste


Pre-heat oven to 200 225 degrees.

Line a small stockpot or cocotte (make sure it has a cover) with bacon grease and carrots, onions, mushrooms, thyme and garlic. Add the meat, and continue to layer until all ingredients have been used. Don't forget to salt and pepper each layer to your individual taste (for me, that's easy on the salt). Top with bacon strips.

Pour in the cognac and wine. Make a paste of flour and water and seal the pot lid to keep steam from escaping. Place the stockpot or cocotte in the oven and cook for six hours. Do not remove the lid during cooking.

When the lid is removed, a wonderful, savory aroma is released. Serve with egg noodles and a green salad. A chewy baguette is a nice addition for those who are not watching carbohydrate intake.

This was such a hit, it's on the menu for tomorrow.

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