08 February 2014

Sweet Onion-Leek Soup with Truffle Butter and Thyme


We are lucky to have not one but two winter farm markets here, but I am counting the days until the summer market opens. Recently I revisited this soup from 2012, inspired by what I found at the market that year.

I've had the farm market habit since the days when I lived within walking distance of the Dane County Farm Market in Madison, Wis.

I'd leave my apartment for the market's opening, make one turn around Capital Square, and head home, both arms full. I'd eat breakfast, and go back around 9 a.m., returning home again loaded down with produce, baked goods, herbs and more. In those days, I could eat for about $20-30 a week.

I like the sense of community a farm market generates. I see the same shoppers every week, and there's lots of bantering back and forth between shoppers and growers. 

The following sweet onion soup recipe was made from two varieties of Immerfrost Farm sweet onions and leeks, garlic, thyme from my own garden, bay leaves from another vendor, and topped with cheese from a regional cheese factory. Only the broth and the black-truffle butter (a splurge) were not locally produced.

Sweet Onion-Leek Soup with Truffle Butter and Thyme
  • 10-12 small sweet onions, sliced
  • 3 medium leeks, sliced (tender white and green parts)
  • 2 small cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2-3 Tablespoons truffle butter
  • 1 32-ounce package free-range chicken broth, or homemade stock*
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • dash herbes de Provence
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1-2 Tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • thickening agent 

You could choose to start by making a roux with flour and butter. (I often forget this step and use this method. I find that a cheese rind often does the trick, too.)

Prepare onions and leaks and brown in oil and truffle butter stock pot over medium heat until transparent and slightly brown. Stir frequently. Add broth, herbs, and bay leaves. Allow to nearly reach boiling point, then simmer for about 40 minutes or more over very low heat. Add fresh thyme about midway through the simmering process. Remove bay leaves before serving. Season to taste.

Serve with grated or flaked cheese; I used flaked Parmesan. but Gruyere would be perfect, too.

Light, sweet, subtle: I served it with hard French rolls. It's also great with a ham sandwich.

*This is much better with homemade stock. I save juice from just about everything, including slow cooker chicken and pork chops. Add water, chill overnight, and skim off the fat. I use this strategy with broth made from a chicken carcass, too.

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07 February 2014

Maple-Roasted Carrots with Onions and Thyme

How to make a bag of frozen carrots taste delicious.

So what happens to those bags of frozen vegetables in the back of the freezer?

I can't bring myself to throw them out without making an effort to do something with them: my frugal French genes makes in hard for me to waste things.

I found a bag of carrots the other day.  I couldn't bear to throw it out, even if the contents tasted like freezer. (Freezer is not a taste. It is not sweet, sour, salty, savory, bitter, freezer, etc.)

I saved those carrots. And then savored them. It was like eating dessert.

Here's what you need to make Maple-Roasted Carrots with Onions and Thyme from a bag of frozen carrots. Of course, fresh would be better.

  • 1 13-ounce bag of frozen carrots
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1 large or 2 small sweet onions (I used cipollini onions, of course)
  • 2 Tablespoons, fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • dash sea salt
  • 2 Tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400.

If there is any ice on the carrots, rinse them in cold water and allow to dry in a colander or on a paper towel. Once they are dry, place them in a large saucepan and cover with broth; allow them to partially cook (bring to a boil, then remove from heat). I used vegetable broth and tossed in a stick of cinnamon. (Refrigerate or freeze the broth for another use.)

Drain the carrots, and toss with olive oil, maple syrup and chopped thyme. Add salt. Place on a lined cookie sheet or in a shallow baking dish on an upper - but not the top - oven shelf. Allow carrots to further cook and brown - at least 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them: All ovens cook differently.

While carrots are browning, caramelize onions in a small sauté pan with butter. When both carrots and onions are browned, toss and serve.

Simple and fast, this side dish taste is also sweet and salty - and I love that. Pair it with pork or chicken and a green salad.

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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!