04 June 2007

Rainy Day Rhubarb Pie

It's been a rainy spring.

“Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” Grandma Annie always asked on rainy days this time of year.

Saturday my husband wasn’t taking any chances. He picked, cleaned and chopped several pounds of rhubarb from our two ancient rhubarb patches.

Sunday he made rhubarb pie, one of his favorites. Using a store-bought crust, he managed to make the best rhubarb pie I’ve ever tasted.

“Not too tart, not too sweet,” we agreed as we eagerly dug into the pie about two hours after he removed it from the oven.

My husband does not follow a recipe.

“And I don’t measure,” he says. Ah, true cooking from the heart.

Rhubarb Pie

  • 5 cups rhubarb, chopped into cubes
  • 2 cups sugar
  • two eggs
  • pie crust, your own or pre-made

Place rhubarb in large bowl and pour sugar over it. Mix with spoon, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Prepare pie crust and place in greased pan. Mix one whole egg and the yoke from a second with the rhubarb and pour into bottom crust. Top with second crust, venting it so stream can escape.

Place in pre-heated 400-degree oven, baking for about 40 minutes. After about 25 minutes, brush top with egg white and sprinkle with sugar, returning to oven. Allow pie to cool for 1-2 hours. Serve with French vanilla ice cream.

29 May 2007

Paris: Food Shopping On Rue Cler

Shopping on Rue Cler is everything it is reputed to be: A medley of aromas and a cacophony of sounds.

It is a rich experience.

Most of the vendors are friendly, some sing as they work, others unabashedly hawk their products. They tease one another but are respectful with customers.

French merchants keep careful track of their customers’ place in line, and try to wait on them in the order in which they have queued.

The fresh produce is perfection, and must fresher and tastier than anything I’ve found in my town. The cheese is aromatic, so is the fish and seafood.

We took a liking to fresh sausage on our last trip and have gone through several kilograms of it (back to lean meat when we get home). The hard salami is equally tasty, and we became regular customers at both Davoli and Roger.

Rue Cler has both a LeaderPrice and a FranPrix for basics like paper towels, toilet paper and items that come in jars. There is another supermarket around the corner on Avenue de la Motte Piquet.

I like French supermarkets. For one thing, the products are about half the cost of similar items at home, even when you translate euros into dollars.

Secondly, the house brands are generally high quality, something you do not necessarily find in the U.S., not in my town where choices are limited.

I like the mix of businesses on Rue Cler.

What I don’t like is the long trek over several busy streets, especially after a day (or even before) of walking around. After a week, it became a chore to drag the little cart over cobblestones. Perhaps we just have not acquired the knack.

We were happy to find larger FranPrix on Avenue de la Bourdonnais. It is a straight shot from our flat.

There are also several traituers nearby, one that sells Asian food and another that specializes in Mediterranean food. Our block has several Italian restaurants and two bakeries. When your feet are tired (which is always the case in Paris) and you are too hungry to cook, there is always a sandwiche jambonto purchase for just a few euros. You can add cheese, onions, tomatoes and pickles if you larder is well stocked.

Really, eating in Paris need not be expensive, if you cook most of your meals yourself.

I am not suggesting you abandon the experience of sitting in a café. It is the best way to people watch in a city that is rich in everything, including people.

Cooking in Paris: Onion-Cheese Soup

In 2007, we rented an apartment in Paris to save money on food. It was as simple as that.

Besides, I thought cooking in Paris might be a heady experience. I was right.

Part of that is due to the bottle of wine my husband opens about 7 p.m. as I head for the kitchen. The other part is the cheese.

I’ve been saving cheese rinds for nearly a week now, with the idea of making some sort of cheese-y soup to go with baguettes from area bakeries.

I opened my cheese rind bag the other day. Here’s what I had: Rind from Comte and St. Paulin cheeses, purchased at FranPrix and Leader Price, respectively.

(My game plan was to try budget-priced cheeses to see if I liked them before purchasing higher-priced versions from a fromagerie. Being from Wisconsin, I can live on cheese, so buying a lot of it presents no problems.)

I bought the creamy St. Paulin on a whim, because St. Paulin-Louiseville is the area of Canada where my great-grandmother, called Mémere, was born and raised.

Then at an Ed store in the 18th (an upscale Ed, more or less), I found a chevre from the Poitou-Charentes area, where Memere’s ancestors originated. It, too, had a rind.

I melted the rinds in a saucepan over low heat, first adding about a tablespoon of unsalted butter and then about 1/3 cup cream.

This is the result of that experiment, made with what I had on hand:

Three-Cheese Onion Soup
  • about 1 cup cheese rinds from Comte, St. Paulin and chevre
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/3 cup cream
  • 3-4 sweet onions, sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • dash extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ tablespoon butter
  • 2 onion-garlic bouillon cubes
  • 2-3 cups hot water
  • 2 teaspoons Provencal sauce
  • dash herbes de Provence
Chop cheese rinds into small pieces and set aside. Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add cheese and cream. Maintain medium-low heat until cheese is melted.

Meanwhile, slice onions and mince garlic; combine with olive oil and butter in medium stockpot. Heat water and drop in soup cubes; stir until cubes melt.

When onions have begun to turn golden brown, add water and herbes. Cook over medium heat for about five minutes. Add melted cheese and allow flavors to marry over medium heat for about 15 minutes. You may want to fish out any large pieces of rind still left.

Serve with salad and a baguette. (You may not be able to find Provençal sauce locally. Same with the bouillon cubes. Vegetable bouillon and tomato sauce would do.)

I made this with budget-priced cheeses, and it was fantastic. I think it was the best soup I’ve ever made (she said modestly).

We paired it with a rosé from Provence. Maybe not the perfect choice but not bad at all.

Honestly, you cannot go wrong with food here.

22 May 2007

Cooking in Paris: French Toast with Nicoise Lemon and Vanilla Syrup

2207: After nearly five days in Paris, I hold fast to my theory that food tastes better here.

It is not a cockamamie theory. The explanation is simple. The French value good food. Good food needs the best ingredients. And that is what you find here. (At a far better price than in Wisconsin, I might add.)

We took the little cart to Rue Cler on Saturday and made the rounds. Salami from Davoli La Maison Du Jambon. Pork sausage from Boucherie Roger. Pont d’Eveque cheese from La Fermette. Fresh produce from Les Quartres Saison and necessities from Leader Price and FranPrix.

Even the cheapest items were a good value. My husband found a serviceable bottle of Bordeaux for fewer than two euros. We bought a pricier bottle of white Bordeaux from Magda Traiteur on Rue de Monttessuy last night.

To date, in my American kitchen in France (our flat is owned by an American), I have made salami sandwiches, salads, grilled cheese-and-sausage sandwiches, sausage and peppers and sausage and fettuccini — simple fare, to be sure. It all tasted better here.

Maybe you need to be very relaxed to make good food. I think that’s part of the equation. But the other part is that the ingredients are the best I can afford.

I feel better cooking here, even though the kitchen is smaller (and not very conducive to good food photos).

But I am not telling you anything you don’t already know if you have cooked in Paris.

And if you haven’t, you must. You really must. It is much more economical and certainly healthier on both figure and wallet than eating out all the time.

French Toast with Nicoise Lemon and Vanilla Syrup
  • 8 thick slices day-old baguette
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 1/8 teaspoon sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon sweet butter
  • ¼ cup vanilla syrup
Whip together eggs, cream, sugar, salt and lemon zest. Soak baguette slices for about 2 minutes. Lightly toast in skillet until golden brown. Serve with syrup; top with more lemon zest and powdered sugar, if you have some (I did not).

The second photo is taken from Rue de General Camou, in front of the American Library in Paris.

As Elouise put it, “I absolutely adore Paris!”

19 May 2007

Eating in Paris: Embarrassing Travel Moments

Jet lagged, lacking proper sleep, at 8:30 p.m. on the day we landed in Paris, we could not figure out how to get past the inner lobby door of our apartment building. We remembered the digicode, and successfully opened the outer door, but we’d forgotten that the inner door opened with the little plastic wand on our key chain.

(Never mind that this is how we open doors at the university where I teach journalism. On our first night in Paris we simply could not think.)

After numerous attempts at using the front digicode to enter the inner door, I said I’d go out in search of help. What kind of help, I had no idea. But I went to a café around the corner where the maitre d’ (or perhaps the owner) seemed friendly when I passed by earlier in the evening. He listened and went in search of someone who knew someone in the building. By some divine intervention, a waiter did know someone. He called his friend and the friend came downstairs to show my exhausted husband how to get inside.

Meanwhile, I found some friendly American women to talk to. It’s true, the 7th is filled with Americans. On our first night in town, that was comforting indeed.

The following night, we went to the café for an early supper. Simple but filling bistro fare, a bottle of wine we liked and crème brulee for my husband and profiteroles for me.

The waiter was all smiles and gave us extra attention. The maitre d’ inquired about our visit, and it was well worth the 60 euros we spent there.

There may be fancier places to eat in this neighborhood. But we were treated kindly at this one.

Au revoir until Tuesday.

13 May 2007

Fleur de Sel: From the Ile de Re to the Camargue

High on my list of things to bring home from Paris is fleur de sel.

Yes, I can find it locally, or I can pay a fortune for it online.

But buying it in Paris will no doubt be more economical and the jar or box will be a long-lasting reminder of our trip.

(Can you hear me knocking on wood and praying here. Last time, absolutely nothing went wrong. No lost luggage, no missed trains. A panhandler or two, but no incidents. Please, please let that be the case with this trip.)

I like the fact that much of the salt I find locally comes from the Ile de Re, which is near LaRochelle, birthplace of some of my French ancestors.

I also like when it originates in the Camargue, a place I have never visited, but plan to do so someday (armed with a good deal of organic mosquito repellent).

Fleur de sel, as everyone reading this already knows, is best added at the final moment in the food preparation process. When combined with herbes de Provence, it is an excellent means of both flavoring and wringing excess liquid from aubergines.

It is best used sparingly, too. That way each grain is a gift, an enhancement of flavor.

Do you use sea salt? Where do you find it?

29 April 2007

Chicken Stuffed With Sun-Dried Tomatoes: Shopping in Your Own Pantry

The same so-called financial experts who tell you to shop with a list also tell you to shop your own pantry before heading out to the store.

If you are a list maker, too, this is not a bad idea because it keeps you from buying a duplicate of something you already have. My husband declines to do this, usually, with is why we have so many jars of mustard and pickles in our fridge.

For the past several months, we've been cooking a whole chicken every Sunday, eating chicken salads for Monday and Tuesday, and making a fabulous chicken stock for the freezer.

Surverying the cupboard and the refrigerator, I found a large sweet onion, plenty of garlic and a half bag of sun-dried tomatoes. I bought fresh rosemary and thyme at the store and we had a moist and tangy chicken with a layered taste that hinted of a sunny slope in the Vaucluse, perhaps.

The tomatoes, garlic and onions were stuffed inside the chicken; the herbs were placed under the skin and under the chicken. Then I rubbed the skin with a garlic-tomato bread spread and seasoned it with herbes de provence and pepper. Sel de fleuer from the Carmargue was added near the end of the roasting cycle.

We served it with roasted red and green peppers, a staple at our house, and Kalamata olives. We paired it with a Johannesburg Riesling left over from the lemon-baked salmon we had the night before.

In our eagerness to eat, I neglected to take photos, but both meals were excellent.

Do you shop your pantry first? If you did that right now, what would you find that could be stuffed into a chicken for a dish that was uniquely yours?

22 April 2007

Cleaning out the Fridge: Breaded Shrimp with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Garlic and Black Olives

Cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer the other day, I found a package of frozen, breaded shrimp my husband sneaked in the house a few weeks ago.

"Are you going to eat these before we go on vacation?" I asked.

"They have to be deep fried, and you won't let me do that," he responded.

Looking closely at the package I saw (A) the price, and (B) that they could be pan fried. I may never be a world-class cook, but if there is a way to salvage something and not waste it, I'll find it.

Whenever there is a hint of summer in the air, I want two things: Seafood and spicy food. So Friday night seemed like a good time to experiment with both.

What I came up with was Breaded Shrimp with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Garlic and Black Olives.
  • 1 package frozen breaded shrimp
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup sliced black olives
  • 1-2 teaspoons dried basil
  • Dash lemon juice
  • Dash sel de fleur
  • Dash freshly ground pepper
Pan fry the shrimp according to package directions and set aside, covered. Brown garlic, then add sun-dried tomatoes and black olives. Sauté for 5-8 minutes, adding shrimp for the last two minutes. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Like most of my self-concocted meals, this one is a work in progress. It would be ideal, we both agreed, to make this with fresh, un-breaded shrimp. But we got rid of the frozen shrimp, used up a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and rescued a lemon from the crisper. So: mission accomplished.

Wine: I would pair this with something light and fruity, maybe with green apple undertones.

18 April 2007

Cheddar and Sun-dried Tomato Muffins

Sometimes you cannot get a recipe out of your head. It was that way with these muffins. I kept thinking about them, then obsessing about them, and the longer I refrained from making them, the more they - uh - ate away at me.

But then I am a fool for anything made with sun-dried tomato and basil. And I like beer bread, although it's not something I eat often.

Still I had to make this one. It's from the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

Cheddar and Sun-dried Tomato Muffins, Made with Ale and Basil

  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dried basil leaves
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cups pale ale beer
  • 1 ½ cup shredded mild cheddar cheese
  • 6 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes in oil, diced
  • 3 tablespoons reserved oil from jar of sun-dried tomatoes

Preheat oven to 375 F. Coat a 12-muffin tin or two 6-muffin tins with baking spray.

Blend flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and basil leaves. Set aside. In a second bowl, combine eggs, ale, cheese, tomatoes and oil. Fold this into dry mixture.

Fill muffin cups about 2/3 full. Bake for 22 minutes.

Hmmm. Not bad. A little dry. But I'd either try paper muffin cups or use butter and flour to coat my muffin tins because I could not remove these from the pan without breaking them.

I'd also use a sharp cheddar next time and increase the amount of basil.

This recipe has potential.

15 April 2007

Fricassée de Poulet a l'Ail et l'Ail Confit

Fricassée de Poulet a l'Ail et l'Ail Confit

I should have made this last night. Instead I made another recipe, misreading a step, and well, coming up with something that had it's good points, but needs tweaking.

The recipe below is from Patricia Wells' "The Provence Cookbook."

Fricassee of Chicken with Garlic and Sweet Garlic Confit
  • 1 fresh chicken, cut into 8 pieces
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 20 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • 1 1/2 cups white wine (Viognier is recommended)
  • sweet garlic confit

Make the confit first. Peel cloves from four heads of garlic (not as bad as it sounds!). Cook the garlic in a saucepan covered with two cups of milk. Bring to a simmer and drain. Return garlic to saucepan and cover with two more cups of milk. Cook over medium heat until garlic is soft. Drain and refrigerate. You can make this ahead of time.

Now for the fricassee: Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and butter in a heavy skillet. Brown the chicken, about five minutes on each side. If you use eight pieces, you can do this in batches. I used four breasts, so I was able to do it all at once. When chicken is turning golden, remove and set aside.

Add the garlic cloves to the fat. Reduce heat and add the chicken. Cover and cook for at least 20 minutes, turning the chicken with tongs for even browning and cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan, cover with foil and set aside.

Drain skillet of fat, keeping the garlic cloves in the skillet. Add the wine and the garlic confit. This will deglaze the pan. Cook, uncovered, making a purée from the garlic and wine. Pour the purée over your chicken and serve.

I served it with roasted peppers and the rest of the Viognier, some very heady wine.

This is classic chicken. It tasted the way chicken ought to taste. Tomorrow I'll make a chicken salad with hard-boiled eggs and olives.

The wine We used Pepperwood Grove Viognier, which tastes of melon and peach with an unusual vanilla-custard finish. My husband tasted pear, I tasted lemon.

09 April 2007

Cabbage with Pork Chops and a Recipe for Cole Slaw

My family was never big on cooked cabbage, except perhaps when my father wanted corned beef and cabbage.

I discovered how good it could be while I was in college. What's college for if not to discover new ideas, tastes and directions?

Recently we needed a quick supper and I found one in Ships of The Great Lakes Cookbook, the subject of a recent Cookbook Spotlight hosted by The Sour Dough and Weekend Cookbook Challenge.

Braised Pork Chops with Cabbage

  • 2 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 4 thick pork chops
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 medium head cabbage, cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 2 teaspoons beef bouillon granules
  • 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat oil in heavy skillet. Brown pork chops over medium heat, about 4 minutes each side. Add onion and cabbage. Mix remaining ingredients in small bowl and add to pan. Cover and cook for about 35 minutes.

The pork chops were tender. The cabbage was tasty, and even better the next day and the day after that. I will make this again, and serve it with green beans and cinnamon applesauce.

Cabbage is rapidly becoming a favorite vegetable in my kitchen. Every two weeks, sometimes every week, I make two small batches of cole slaw.

My Mother's Cole Slaw

  • 2 cups grated cabbage
  • 3/4 cup grated carrot
  • 1/3 cup grated green pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced onion
  • 3/4 cups mayonnaise
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash sel de fleur
  • dash paprika for color

I've tasted some great apple slaws recently, but this one remains my standard. Even when dad's a chef, there's nothing like mom's food!

08 April 2007

An Easter Basket

Among the old things I cherish is my father's childhood Easter basket, above.

I usually keep it filled with small terra cotta pots, but at Easter I use it for chocolate eggs. We're foregoing the chocolate this year (oh, the pain of it all), but I wanted to share the basket with you today.

We are not religious in any traditional way at our house, but I like to think we are deeply spiritual.

It is important to us to respect and honor other people's differences, whatever they might be.

Really, that's all I wanted to say. I hope those sentiments are one of the threads that run through this blog.

On the subject of my father, I have enjoyed making recipes from the "Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbook," provided to me for review by Creative Characters Publishing. Although the recipes were not from any of the ships he sailed on, I felt his spirit guide me as I chopped and sliced and baked and braised. I will feature another recipe in a day or so.

For links to other bloggers who participated in the cookbook review, please visit The Sour Dough and Weekend Cookbook Challenge.

Apricot-Pistachio Crisp: A Dessert in Progress

Saturday has always been pizza night in my family and it’s a tradition my husband and I have continued.

When I was a child, my mother made her pizzas from scratch, using leftovers for toppings. Meatloaf, sloppy joe mix and even wieners were used and we kids loved it. It was pizza!

We invited my mother for pizza on Saturday. It was a busy day with errands, laundry, housework and my 30-minute stint reading Easter stories to a group of children at the local mall.

Yes, we used store-bought pizzas and enhanced them with additional tomatoes, peppers, olives and sausage. I made a Caesar salad and we cracked open a bottle of shiraz.

It was a simple meal, to be sure, but that does not matter. What matters was that we all sat down together and enjoyed each other’s company.

I’m not here to write about pizzas. I’m talking dessert today.

My mother has a sweet tooth. When she is a guest at my house, my practice is to make a low-carb dessert and send most of it home with her.

I surveyed by cupboards and came up with this makeshift dessert, which I consider a work in progress. It was pretty good, but it needs more.

Apricot-Pistachio Crisp

  • 2 cups dried apricots, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon white flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 15-ounce can apricots in light syrup
  • 1/3 cup sugar-free apricot spread
  • ½ cup syrup from canned apricots
  • 1 cup pistachios, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped salted mixed nuts, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons oat or whole-wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat chopped apricots in flour, cinnamon and fructose (see photo above). Set aside. Drain, reserving liquid. Chop or even puree canned apricots. Pour into bowl of dried apricots and toss.

Empty this mix into greased bar pan. Blend apricot spread with 1/cup apricot syrup and spread over dried-canned apricot mix. My thought was that this would help bind apricots.

Mix chopped nuts, flour and fructose. Cut in Smart Balance or butter and blend with nut mix. Spread atop apricots. Bake for 30 minutes or until topping turns golden.

The Verdict? Not bad. It was even better the next day. But it needs something else: More cinnamon and perhaps a dash of ground cloves, perhaps. The topping should have included oatmeal, to make it lighter. And I think next time I will up the amount of pistachios and reduce the other nuts (I used pecans, walnuts and cashews).

Your suggestions are welcome. This is very much a work in progress.

02 April 2007

Curried Turkey Salad with Dried Apricots and Cashews

The marauding bands of wild turkeys are at it again.

Every spring, they venture into town, harassing motorists and delighting — or scaring — kids. And then people call me.

Am I the turkey patrol or something?

Apparently I am. A few years ago my town was plagued by wild turkeys. OK, by five turkeys. But people were scared. Very scared. And they called me.

Finally, around April Fool’s Day, I wrote a story about them. The turkeys, I mean. It took all of 20 minutes to write and it was done with tongue in cheek. Oh, it was factual, but it was also funny.

Then the wire service picked it up. A version of it ran on the front page of nearly every major newspaper in the country. “A Current Affair” called. Someone claims they saw the story on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

(Thankfully, it did not run under my byline or I would be known as Turkey Woman.)

My little town acquired a reputation for fearing turkeys. And it was all my fault.

The turkeys are back. And the calls are coming in again.

I like turkeys. Every once in a while, I find one in my yard.

Recently, I found a bag of white turkey meat in my freezer, a left over from Christmas. I surveyed my pantry, which is never as full as Lydia’s, and came up with this cold salad.

Curried Turkey Salad With Cashews and Apricots

  • 2 cups turkey, cut into chunks
  • 3/4 cup celery, chopped
  • ½ cup dried apricots, chopped
  • ½ cup sweet onion, chopped
  • ½ cup cashews or almonds
  • 2 teaspoons curry
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • dash cumin
  • dash sea salt

1 cup light mayonnaise
1/3 cup sugar-free apricot jam

Toss the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Blend the mayonnaise and the jam and drizzle over the salad.

Not bad for one of my slapdash meals. I like a hint of curry; you may want to add more for a bit more bite.

It was good the next day, too. I ate it for breakfast.

27 March 2007

A Salmon Supper on a Spring Night

It’s a cool and somewhat damp spring night here in northern Wisconsin. The birds are loud, continuing to jockey for position in the neighborhood. The daylilies are coming up and the snow is completely gone.

Inland, that is. Along the shore, it’s not. The “ice shoves” — those big piles of ice that move slowly towards the shore in March and April — are advancing. They look like fat, lumpy armies of white, coming to get us.

The Great Lakes shipping season is beginning. According to Boatnerd, the site for all things relating to Great Lakes shipping, the Soo Locks were set to open last weekend.

When my father worked on the Peter Reiss, this was a sad time of year for me. He would leave us to join the freighter, flying off to Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. It was tough for a few days, until my mother, my little brother and I fell back into our warmer season routine.

I was restless those first few days. I am restless now, counting down the days until my husband and I can begin our renewed explorations of Paris. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying posts from Terri from Island Writer, Chris from The French Journal — who were in Paris recently — and Carol from Paris Breakfasts, who is there now.

The pace at work these days is fast and furious, and I am happy to come home and make an easy supper. Two nights ago, I made a simple salmon wrapped in foil, another recipe from the “Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbook” from Creative Characters Publishing Group, which was supplied to several bloggers for review.

Just a filet of salmon, some lemon slices, freshly ground pepper and sel de fleur from the Ile of Ré. I added a dash of paprika, too. Bake it in an oven preheated to 350 degrees for about 20-30 minutes, even less.

Anything that takes under 40 minutes to prepare on a weeknight is welcome at our house. Sometimes I think simple recipes are the most ingenious.

Update! Tanna from My Kitchen In Half Cups has posted a dessert recipe from "Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbook." She's got a photo of the book, which I do not have, mostly because I've enjoyed the book so much it's gotten a bit dog-eared. There's also a tasty treat from Sara at I Like to Cook.

25 March 2007

Rosemary-Garlic Roasted Chicken

When my father graduated from high school in 1941, he found work with the Reiss Steamship Co., as a deckhand on the A.M. Byers, a self-unloading freighter on the Great Lakes.

The Japanese had not yet bombed Pearl Harbor, but most people knew it was only a matter of time until the United States went to war.

So it was a time between for my father, who dreamed of other things, possibly a career in history or journalism.

The war intervened, of course, and he joined the Army and went off with the 4th Infantry’s combat engineers unit to land at Utah Beach and forge his way into France and Germany.

He got into the restaurant business after the war ended, but years later, as a young father, went off to “work on the lakes” again, this time as second cook on the Peter Reiss, another self-unloading coal freighter. That must have been a lonely time for my father. I missed him terribly, and recall the day I played my 45 of "The Poor People of Paris" over and over again because it had been a gift from him.

Working on the lakes meant being away from your family from late March until December. But the pay and the benefits were excellent. Winter homecomings were something we began looking forward to in fall, when the first of the boxes from fancy Detroit department stores began to arrive.

So when Mary aka Breadchick from The Sour Dough contacted me about reviewing “Ships of the Great Lakes Cookbook” for a Cookbook Spotlight Event, I agreed, seeing an easy fit with this blog.

The book’s publisher, Creative Characters Publishing Group, supplied the cookbook. I will be featuring several recipes from the book over the next few weeks as the 2007 shipping season gets underway.

Since my husband is a boat designer by profession, I saw a fit there, too.

The book is full of good food but many of the recipes are designed to feed a crowd; I generally cook for no more than four people at a time. This would be a good cookbook for anyone who cooks down-home food for large church or school groups or special events. It's perfect for a restaurant chef, too,someone looking to create unpretentious, but still stylish menus.

Today was the first Sunday of spring and we invited my mother for dinner. I prepared a Rosemary-Garlic Roasted Chicken that was tasty and melted in our mouths. I have never tasted such tender chicken. I served it with roast pepper-and-zucchini medley.

Rosemary-Garlic Roasted Chicken
  • 1 5-6 pound roasting chicken
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary, chopped
  • 8 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 8 medium red onions, peeled and cut into pieces
  • 2 whole garlic heads
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 450. Remove and discard giblets and chicken neck. Rinse chicken under cold water and pat dry. Loosen skin from breast and drumsticks by inserting fingers and gently pushing between the skin and the meat. Place chopped rosemary and crushed garlic under skin. Lift the wing tips up and over the back, tucking under the chicken.

Place chicken breast side up in broiler pan. Trim ends of onions and remove papery skins from garlic. Do not peel or separate cloves. Brush onions and garlic with oil and arrange around chicken. I tucked in some rosemary, too.

Bake at 450 for 30 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees and bake for another hour and 15 minutes or until chicken reaches 180 degrees.

We loved it and will do it again soon. This particular recipe is from the M.V. Paul R. Tregurtha, a coal boat. John R. Duning is head cook.

But first, a few more recipes from the Great Lakes. What next? There's everything from Lobster Bisque to Rotini with Fresh Tomatoes, Basil and Parmesan.

21 March 2007

A Mystery, a Memento and a Spring Salad

Among my father’s mementoes of World War II is a yellowed and tattered calling card.

My mother always believed it held the names of the people with whom my father might have stayed while in Paris in August 1944; it certainly must have been a couple he befriended, as he was friendly and charming as a young man.

The last time my husband and I went to Paris, my mother could not put her hands on the card and did not recall the address. But my niece has a WWII project and together they were rifling through the family archives.

The card reads “Mme. and Mr. Pierre Harel.” It gives their address as 23, Avenue Foch in Vincennes-Seine.

Thanks to Google maps, I found such an address near (but not in) Vincennes, one in Paris and about five other Avenue Fochs in Ile de France.

I will never know, unless I chance upon a 1944 phone book, which one it was.

I do know that American writer Henry Adams stayed at 23 Avenue Foch in Paris. (Thanks to Google, I know that.)

But I don’t know who the Harels were or what the card means. (The card is pictured above set against one of my father’s toques, in a box for a quarter century now, still neatly starched but growing fragile.)

I was pondering this mystery as I prepared a simple salad today. It was cool and damp outside and I could hear the lilting songs of finches and other birds as I worked. Spring!

It’s mid-week and I’m trying not to overspend on groceries. So tossing something together from odds and ends was my intention. I made a Caesar Salad from leftover red leaf Romaine and butter lettuce and then topped it with roasted asparagus.

Very simple, very springy. I ate it with a hunk of jack cheese rolled in chives and dill.

My father once told me you could make a meal of anything if you were inventive. He could do that, and his hands were deft as he invented something for us.

"You will never be hungry if you learn this," he told me.

Once when his combat engineer unit was hungry, they scrounged for dried vegetables in a barn, somewhere in France perhaps or in Germany. My father liked to retell those stories and relished the challenge of making a meal from very little.

19 March 2007

Chicken Salad with Oranges and Olives

From 2007: When I was a kid, Sunday afternoons in winter were dedicated to plopping myself down on the couch in the den (the room in which the television and bookcases were located) with several oranges and a good book.

I read voraciously and ate just as heartily. Especially oranges in winter. I could not get enough of them.

I crave oranges. So when I found this little salad with oranges and olives, it sounded perfect. The original recipe, from the collection at Epicurious calls for canned tuna. But I roasted a whole chicken on Sunday and I thought I'd prefer it my way.

Chicken Salad With Oranges, Olives and Red Peppers

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 3 seedless oranges, peel and white pith removed
  • 1 small red onion, halved, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 boneless and skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
  • 1/4 cup chopped pimiento-stuffed green olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 8 cups mixed salad greens
  • 1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Parsley (optional)

Blend oil, vinegar and garlic in large bowl. Peel and slice oranges, removing membranes. Toss into bowl, adding other ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with almonds.

I've learned to love the contrast and balance of olives with citrus. I added a dash of red pepper to give this salad a bit more bite.

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18 March 2007

Suppertime at Grandma Annie's: A Light Approach and Plenty of Raw Vegetables

March is a funny month in Wisconsin. You never know about the weather. Will it be winter or spring?

But there comes a time, about mid-month, when the weather turns toward warm and the birds of spring are back to battle for position with the birds of winter. The juncos stick around a while longer, and the cardinals become aggressive as they guard their turf. The finches trill merrily at all hours of the day, and the red wing blackbirds cling to reeds and tall grass and join the song with a raspier trill.

Jerry, my neighbor, continues to burn wood, filling the air with that pungent aroma I remember from childhood. Dusk and the gathering night draw us inside to putter about in the warm kitchen.

My kitchen is small, not an eat-in kitchen at all, not like Grandma Annie's. Hers was truly the heart of the home, the comfort zone, the place we all felt secure and loved.

She was not an exotic cook at all. It is Grandma Annie from whom I derive my notion that it is not what you make but how you make it, and her meals were always made with love for the process, for the food and for the people who would eat it.

Annie and Mémere subscribed to the theory that large meals should be eaten early in the day, and light meals at night. So evening meals, which we called supper, were usually soup, salad and cold meat sandwiches.

Annie would set out plates of chicken or ham or turkey and various cheeses along with spreads and pickle or tomato slices. She adopted the "build your own sandwich" approach long ago.

Always on her table was a plate of raw carrots, celery and radishes. As a result, I prefer sandwiches eaten with these crudités.

I bought the radishes above because they still held dirt from the ground in which they were planted. That allowed me to cling to the idea that they were very fresh.

The radishes are very lovely and piquant, and they reminded me of a shiva with their root stems pointing this way and that.

11 March 2007

Every Photo Tells a Story, But Some Photos Make Me Cry

Paging through a magazine about life in France, I was again struck by the way some photographs resonate with me.

They trigger something in my brain, some reflex that picks up the feel of the air and the quality of light and transports me somehow, if only for a quick second.

It must be some atavistic pull, because it only happens with photos taken in France. And it began happening long before I traveled there.

A somnolent village in the noonday sun, an early-morning street in Paris, twisted lanes in ancient cities, apple orchards in Normandy and the skyline of Old Menton: Each of these scenes and others pull me in and infuse with with something — what? — some sort of genetic memory, perhaps?

These short flashes of something are both welcome and bittersweet. Circumstances often force us to live our lives not quite as we would prefer to live them. We do our best, we try to make the right decisions. But often, we spend much of our time yearning for what might have been, had circumstances been different, had our wisdom not been such a hard-won victory.

The photo that touches me the most deeply has nothing whatsoever to do with sun-warmed red tiles or stormy skies over wheat fields painted by Monet.

It is this photo, the famous one of a man weeping as the Nazis marched into Paris in 1940. It is one that is used always when this heinous event is shown in documentaries.

This photo of this well-dressed man, perhaps a banker or civil servant, is the face of recognition, the realization of what the fall of France meant. There is more than grief on his face.

I struggle with photos of someone's agony. But this one tells a story, and one that people who are quick to criticise the France of 1940 ought to grasp. Too often they don't.

This gentleman knew what it meant and what it would mean to France and her dignity. He weeps for more than the thought of occupation, I suspect. He weeps, perhaps, for the world.

I tried to find out about him online, but was unsuccessful. Who was he? Did he survive the Occupation? Did he go on to live a peaceful life when the war ended?

I wonder. I hope for the best.

I know one thing, if I want to make myself cry I look at the photo. Perversely, sometimes I do just that: I never want to forget.

Two favorite fellow bloggers are heading to France this week, and I want to wish them bon voyage et bon chance.

07 March 2007

Mushroom Soup with Thyme

French novelist Janine Boissard helped me through college.

Not that she is aware of this act of kindness. But her books — none of them long but all of them lovely — created a pleasant diversion for me on weekends.

She wrote a series of books about the daughters in a family with ties to Normandy; I felt an affinity for them because I had relatives with the same surname. She also wrote other novels, too, and many times they were gentle feminist stories about women achieving some sort of independence or reaching some sort of decision.

I recall one book in which a woman’s husband leaves her for another woman, a younger one, of course. She drives through the rain into Normandy to spend time with her father, and they feast on a rustic meal that included mushrooms. It may have been soup or it may have been a mushroom omelet. No matter; it was comforting. I liked that scene.

I had that comfort in mind tonight when I made such a soup, using that leftover rind of Parmesan and some thyme to give it body and depth. Creaminess and warmth were what I craved.

Rustic Mushroom Soup with Thyme

  • 10 ounces mushrooms
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups chicken or turkey broth
  • ½ cup dry white wine or sherry
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • dash pepper
  • dash sel de fleur

Brush mushrooms clean with damp towel; quarter and set aside.

Melt half of butter in heavy stockpot. Add onions and heat until onions become transparent. Add mushrooms and the rest of the butter and stir until mushrooms begin to darken and cook. Add stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for an hour.

After an hour of simmering, allow the soup to cool. Working in batches, transfer mushrooms and most of the onions to a blender and purée, holding the blender top down. Return the purée to the stockpot, add wine and allow to simmer for another hour. At this point, I added my rind of Parmesan cheese and the thyme and left it in long enough for some flavor and texture to be released. I removed it after about 20 minutes.

Just before serving, I also added ¼ cup of half and half, to give my soup some creaminess.

Note: Tasty and layered, if less full-bodied than I would have liked. It was inspired by an Anthony Bourdain recipe. He says it's better the next day. Let's hear it for leftovers!

05 March 2007

France: On a Train Going South

I knew I was French before I knew what it meant to be American, thanks to my grandmothers who spoke French at home. But my love affair with France began in the pages of books.

It was a gift from my father, Kay Thompson’s “Elouise in Paris,” that ignited my early passion for Paris.

(In fact, I rather patterned my behavior after Elouise’s own mischievous antics, something my father encouraged, even rigging a toy telephone hookup between my tiny bedroom and the kitchen so I could call “room service.”)

My attraction for points south of Paris began long before Peter Mayle even considered moving to Provence.

It started with a box of used paperback books. I was 14.

“Here, you’ll like this one,” my father said, as he handed me a copy of Dorothy McArdle’s suspense-cum-romance novel, “The Dark Enchantment,” set in a perched village in the Alpes-Maritimes.

He was right. I was hooked.

Words like “Languedoc,” “Provence,” and “the Midi” soon began to conjure up images of sun-warmed aubergines and deep rich wine and mysterious olive groves.

So as the train inched out of Gare d’Austerlitz for the southwest of France, there arose inside of me a sort of breathless anticipation.

Paris is lovely and layered and enchanting. But it is the south that resonates with me in a deeper, more atavistic way.

As the train made its way through banlieu and brickyard, my excitement grew. Somewhere south of Chateauroux, I sense a subtle change, a shifting of the light to be sure, but an insouciance, a spirit I could not define.

But I knew we were heading south on a train that cut a swath through the green heart of France. I could feel the south, sense its allure, smell its perfume.

At Limoges, I noticed the passengers who boarded looked like they could be my relatives, not surprising since the branch of family I most resemble originates in not-so-distant Poitiers.

Somewhere — perhaps Limoges — we saw old cars from the legendary Le Mistral rusting away on a sidetrack.

At Brive-la-Gaillarde (Brive, the strapping woman), the south was palpable. Red tiled roofs on sunny yellow and tan buildings. Place names ending in “ac.”

The Lonely Planet called Cahors “a sunny southern backwater.” It was sunny and southern, certainly, but no backwater in my book.

It could have been Aix. Plane trees and bougainvilla. There was a festive holiday feeling, one that continued as Gérard drove us up into the hills. Vineyard after vineyard. Pink and tan houses with dogs in the yard. Lilacs and juniper and a hint of sea breeze in the air, in this place midway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

At the house, we unpacked and settled in chaises at the pool, surrounded by olive trees in deep pots. We drank the sunshine and the rich dark wine of Cahors.

Vacation? Home.

01 March 2007

Garlicky Artichoke Dip

Garlic and Artichoke Dip

It was on one of my parents’ Italian nights that I was first introduced to garlic. I was thoroughly turned off. Of course, I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time.

My mother recalls she wasn’t too fond of it, either. It was something she and her contemporaries associated with ethnic neighborhoods in large cities. I am sure its pungent odor offended their small-town sensibilities.

In fact, my parents were born into a world where garlic was looked upon as inferior (sound familiar?). But as the world grew smaller, garlic’s benefits were discovered and extolled.

The older I get, the more I like garlic. And the more garlic I eat. I find there is very little that I do not add garlic to these days. I do not believe it has aphrodisiacal qualities. Well, maybe I do, but that’s another story.

What I do know is that when consumed in any form it is delicious. And it is a mainstay of my favorite type of food, which is Mediterranean.

A nice garlicky artichoke dip was in order, I thought, on a recent stormy night.

And so I made one. A very healthy one, too. As is my habit, I made it from items already on hand. It's too nasty out there to run to the grocery store.

Warm Artichoke Dip with Garlic and Red Peppers
  • 1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts
  • 2 small cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup roasted red pepper, chopped (can be from a jar)
Drain the artichokes and pulverize them in a blender. Set aside. Place the minced garlic in a small sauce pan and sauté until golden brown. Add artichokes, cheeses and dressing. Add the red peppers last. Transfer dip to small baking dish and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Don't bake too long, or the cheese will separate.

Garlic at the farm market

28 February 2007

Winter Along the Bay and Patchwork Quilts

When this is how it looks outside, your thoughts turn to hearty food — and that's what I've got on the menu for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, I wanted to call your attention to a new site that brings together "a patchwork quilt" of women bloggers, 100 BloggingBabes. As it happens, a post from this blog is today's feature.

I like the quilt analogy a lot. One of my first important gifts from Grandma Annie was a 1930s-era Sunbonnet Sue quilt, with lilac as its predominant color. I treasured that quilt for years, until I gave it to my niece Molly on the the day she was baptized. I am a firm believer in passing such gifts along in your lifetime. We are only caretakers, not owners, of family legacies.

I do not have ready access to a photo of the quilt. Instead, I share today one of the reasons we like quilts so much: Cold weather. Every bed in my house has at least one quilt. In winter, sometimes two are piled on. So, yes, they keep us warm and comfortable.

But also, quilts are a way of preserving those odd bits of material and memory and a way of paying forward. We've all heard the saying, "When life gives you scraps, make a quilt." Yes, it may be a bit corny, but it reflects my approach to life and often, to cooking.

Finally, quilts have always represented a way for women to bond. Mémére had a quilting frame (long gone, alas!) set up in her sunny living room and I am told that in the 1930s and 1940s, she and her friends often sat there in the afternoons, making warmth from remnants.

How I wish I could have watched them.

27 February 2007

Warm Salmon and Asparagus Salad

Although I vowed to experiment with chicken in 2007, I am getting a bit bored already. I've had chicken with pistachios, cashews, capers, tomatoes and red peppers since the beginning of the year.

It's Lent and seafood beckons. Looking for something light, I made my version of Kalyn's Warm Salmon and Asparagus Salad from the fabulous archives at Kalyn's Kitchen.

The recipe calls for smoked paprika, which I did not have. Otherwise, I followed the recipe to the letter, adding my own touches: Roasted red pepper and sautéed almonds.

My friends, this is among the best salads I have ever tasted. Roasted asparagus, which I have made before, has an almost nutty aroma and flavor.

I've been a fan of both salmon and asparagus for a long time, and have made asparagus as a side dish for salmon many times. This trumps anything I have done in the past.

P.S. Thanks again to Kalyn who has helped me out many times, the link should now work.

25 February 2007

Spicy Chicken Breasts With Ratatouille Vegetables in a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Winter has finally come to my corner of the Upper Midwest. It hit around 3 a.m. on Sunday morning and has been going full force. Schools are closed, kids are inside and the only sound you hear is the cacophony of snowblowers and the occasional freight train trundling through town. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to work from home are doing that.

After Blowing Us Out Round One on Sunday, my husband made chili. Hot stuff. I made something similarly spicy cobbled together from what was on hand and in the larder: Chicken Breasts with Ratatouille Vegetables in a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce.

It's a fricassee kind of dish, served with strips of eggplant, peppers and zucchini. Since I'm off carbs for two weeks, I had to make up for that sacrifice with protein and heat.

For the Chicken

  • 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • dash sel de fleur
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with roasted red pepper
  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers from a jar
  • 1/2 cup salt-free chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme

Toss seasonings and chicken in a plastic bag to coat. Then, use a heavy skillet to lightly brown chicken in olive oil. When chicken is barely golden brown, remove it from pan; set aside. Add onion and garlic and brown lightly, adding a little more olive oil, if necessary. Cook for about three minutes. Pour in tomatoes and water. Add red pepper. You may chop this into small pieces, or even mince it. Return the chicken to the skillet and cook for about 30-45 minutes under low heat. Since I was using dried thyme, I added it midway through the cooking process.

I always use a meat thermometer to check chicken prepared this way, or any way, for that matter.

I kept checking the sauce and adding more spices. There is no prescribed amount, really; it's whatever you can tolerate.

For the Vegetables

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 2 peppers, green and red
  • 1 medium zucchini
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • fleur de sel

While the chicken was cooking, the vegetables were roasting in a 450-degree oven. These I prepared earlier in the day, working with the eggplant first, cutting it into strips, but not peeling it. I sprinkled it with sel de fleur and let it sit for about an hour to remove water. I almost always use a mix of salt and herbes de Provence (above). The peppers and the zucchini were also cut in strips. I drizzled the vegetables with olive oil before putting them in the oven.

I timed it so the vegetables and chicken were done at the same time. Usually, I get the timing all messed up, and one thing ends up being cold or overcooked.

Having nothing else to do (well, nothing else I had to do), enabled me to get it just right.

Let's hear it for snow days.

24 February 2007

Brussels Sprouts with Shallots, Mushrooms and Thyme

For me there is something immensely pleasurable about preparing a meal as night begins to fall, especially as the clouds gather outside and the wind howls. There is no place I'd rather be than in my own kitchen.

So I was thoroughly enjoying myself Saturday about 6 p.m. as I marinated steak for broiling and sliced tomatoes for a simple side salad with black olives and an herb-peppered chevre.

The long-predicted storm had not arrived (it finally hit at 3 a.m.), and as I chopped and sliced and seasoned I kept an eye on the sky.

I’ve sworn off simple carbohydrates for a while, and thus have forced my husband to do so, too, at least on weekends. Without potatoes, rice or pasta, I’m paying more attention to side dishes. It seemed a while since we’d had Brussels sprouts, and I found a recipe on Epicurious that intrigued me.

As usual, I modified it quite a bit to suit my diet and my time constraints.

Brussels Sprouts with Shallots, Mushrooms and Thyme

For Brussels sprouts

  • 3 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
  • dash sel de fleur

For shallots

  • 1/2 lb large shallots (about 6), cut lengthwise
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

For mushrooms

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 lb mixed fresh mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • dash salt
  • dash freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425. Trim sprouts, douse with oil, sprinkle with garlic and salt. Toss. Arrange in one layer in a shallow baking pan and place in pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes, checking and turning frequently to ensure even roasting and no burning.

While the Brussels sprouts are roasting, sauté the shallots in oil and butter until they are soft to the touch and are beginning to turn golden brown. Remove from the pan and drain.

Using the same pan, add more butter and the mushrooms, sautéing until the mushrooms turn golden brown. Add the thyme about midway through; season at the end. The whole process takes about 15-20 minutes.

Finally, mix all three ingredients and serve.

Note: The original recipe calls for a white wine glaze. This was a pared-down version: I used Smart Balance in place of butter. I also used olive oil as sparingly as I could.

It was wonderful: Both sweet and herby, the tastes of the early spring woods. We will definitely do Brussels sprouts this way again.

My husband thought the vegetables were so good that he was unbothered by the mess I made of the steak. It was tough and tasteless!

21 February 2007

Lenten Sacrifice, Memere's Candy Jar and Billy Gumbo

Growing up Catholic, we took Lent seriously and were encouraged to give something up. Usually it was candy.

Nowadays that doesn't bother me in the least, but it was a difficult sacrifice for a child. My resolve rarely lasted a week. I'd be fine the first three days, and would feel highly virtuous, a feeling I like more now than I did then.

But within two days of Ash Wednesday, I craved sugar with an intensity that made my teeth chatter, and I usually found some way to sneak red licorice or chocolate into my mouth. (Giving up red meat would have been a far easier sacrifice back then, as I loathed the stuff and resorted to all sorts of ingenious ways of avoiding it.)

The entire family (except my father) was sacrifice-prone for the dreary weeks leading up to Easter. Candy jars would go unfilled until Holy Saturday when no one could wait any longer and the deprivation generally ended.

My father ignored such things, as he ignored religion. But he relished the culinary customs of Catholicism. On Shrove Tuesday, he'd prepare some fatty dish and hum "Jambalaya" under his breath, always deliberately mishearing the lyrics so he could ask, "Who's this Billy Gumbo fellow, anyway?"

During Lent, he'd order lobster and clams and shrimp, having some of it flown in from the East Coast (a huge extravagance in those days). It was for the restaurant, of course, but we enjoyed it, too: Lobster with chive-y butter, clam chowder, oysters, scallops, shrimp - oh my!

For school-day lunches, there were fish sticks and French fries and macaroni-and-cheese.

Today I try to give something up, not for religious reasons (I stopped practicing when I got it right), but because it feels good.

Note: The candy dish belonged to Mémére. I noticed today that it has a few small splashes of red paint on it, same as Annie's pressed glass goblets (Sept. 25, 2006).

19 February 2007

A Brief History of Chateaubriand

"Why didn't you include some history of Chateaubriand?" asked a reader who does not post comments but happens to sit next to me at work.

"Uh, because I forgot," I said. That's the truth. Ideas and information don't seem to stay too long in my brain these days. Stress overload?

Chateaubriand, like London Broil, is not a cut of meat, according to some sources. It is a way of cooking a thick cut of beef tenderloin. Other sources, like Wikipedia, to which I can never successfully provide a precise link, refer to it as a cut.

Does it matter? I think not. It tastes heavenly.

The dish was reportedly created for Francois René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), a statesman and writer. Born in St. Malo, he grew up in a castle in Normandy. He spent part of the French Revolution in the American Deep South, which ultimately influenced several of his novels. He is considered the father of French Romanticism.

The dish that bears his name may have been created by his chef, Montmireil, according to the Food Reference Website.

Here's what else the Web site says, "Sources differ on the other important details of this recipe. Most say it was originally cut from the thickest part of the beef tenderloin, but several state that it was originally cut from the sirloin. Some say it was one very thick cut of beef, seared on the outside and rare on the inside. It may or may not then have had the seared and charred ends cut off before serving. Others state that the thick steak (filet or sirloin) was cooked between two inferior steaks to enhance its flavor and juiciness. The inferior steaks were cooked until well charred, then discarded."

Another site, O Chef, asserts that Montmireil "placed his master's roast between two other cuts of tenderloin, burnt both the outside meats to a crisp, and threw them away, leaving the Vicomte's portion evenly pink through and through."

I must admit that while my Chateaubriand is never well done, it is rarely as pink as it should be in the middle.

There is some disagreement about how thick a real Chateaubriand must be. When I'm flush, mine is thick. When I buy a cheaper cut, it is not.

There is apparently some disagreement over the sauce. Was it originally Béarnaise or something made from white wine and shallots?

The traditional side dish is small potatoes, called chateau potatoes. They are cut into small shapes about the size of olives and then browned. Not a purist, I use the smallest potatoes I can find, or I cut larger potatoes in half. Even on my weekends, I do not have the time or patience to carve olive-sized potatoes. Also, the recipes often call for russet potatoes. We prefer Yukon Gold.

I must use shallots in the sauce, however. That is a hard and fast rule for me. I like the cross between onion and garlic taste they offer. Supposedly, they offer cancer-fighting compounds, too, another plus. While I usually roast either small or pearl onions alongside my Chateaubriand, I have used shallots, too, intensifying the shallot taste of this wonderful dish.

18 February 2007

Chateaubriand with Herbes de Provence and Cognac-Dijon Mustard Sauce

I was a teenager the first time I watched by father prepare Chateaubriand for two. He explained that it was a very romantic dish so of course, I paid a good deal of attention to its preparation, imagining that some day I would make it for someone I loved.

What fascinated me was that there were really no prescribed vegetables to surround this very tasty tenderloin. My father told me it was a good opportunity to serve seasonal vegetables. If I recall correctly, his was made with small potatoes, onions, carrots and green beans. I have made this with broccoli and Brussels sprouts and would like some day to try it with root vegetables.

I now prepare it at least once a year for my husband. My father's recipe was in his head. Here is mine, adapted from one I found online somewhere years ago.

Chateaubriand for Two

  • 2 pounds trimmed tenderloin
  • 2-3 large cloves garlic, slivered
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 4 medium shallots, minced
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon dried herbs de Provence
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • freshly-ground pepper
  • Béarnaise sauce or one package Béarnaise sauce mix

Preheat oven to 450.

Cut 3/4-inch deep slits in the underside of the tenderloin. Fill these with minced garlic. Brush tenderloin with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Heat the third tablespoon along with one tablespoon butter in a heavy skillet. Brown meat on all four sides, using tongs to turn it over so that it browns evenly. This process takes about 4-5 minutes.

Once meat is browned, set it on the top rack of roasting pan (I use the one that came with my oven, for best results.) Surround it with the vegetables you are using and bake for about 30 minutes for medium rare meat.

While the meat is in the oven, place one tablespoon of butter and shallots in the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add broth, which will deglaze the pan. Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid by half before adding the Cognac, mustard and herbes de Provence. Whisk into butter. Season with pepper.

Prepare Béarnaise sauce from scratch or according to package directions. I use skim milk and Smart Balance.

Once the Béarnaise sauce is ready, add it to the shallot-Cognac sauce in the skillet and blend, whisking. As the sauce cools it will thicken.

Serve the tenderloin on an oval platter surrounded by vegetables. Cover the entire dish with sauce. There will be leftovers.

Note It's a good idea to check the vegetables and the meat, every 5 minutes or so, especially if you are including brocolli. Sunday I used pearl onions, Yukon gold potatoes, young green beans, baby carrots and button mushrooms. It changes every time I make it, as I try to keep the vegetables seasonal. We like to pair this with Cabernet Sauvignon, something a little oak-y.

I try not to add salt to my Chateaubriad, especially when I used a canned beef broth, which I do when I am pressed for time. I used a Béarnaise Sauce mix today, but if you have time it's nice to make your own. Here's Michael Ruhlman's recipe.

Our Valentine's Day celebration was a bit delayed, but we celebrated twice. Saturday night we enjoyed pomegranate martinis, beef risotto with sage, lobster bisque with saffron and curry, tenderloin with cherry sauce and whipped parsnips, and a heart-shaped flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-raspberry sauce and another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at our favorite restaurant.

A much simpler diet awaits us starting tomorrow.

13 February 2007

The Secret Ingredient

I had big plans for this week.

Tarte Tatin, Red Velvet Cupcakes and a heart-shaped cake in my new Williams-Sonoma pan were among them.

But real life — in the form of deadlines and special projects — has intervened. I have no time. What time I do have is spent curled up on the sofa or soaking in a warm tub of bubbles.

I was supposed to — per Glenna of A Fridge Full of Food — share my Secret Ingredient. Now it will have to wait.

Let's just say the Secret Ingredient is Love.

This week, isn't that enough?

10 February 2007

Onion Salad with Roquefort and Bacon

During my first semester at college, my roommate Vivienne and I talked about food incessantly and prepared food almost as often as we talked about it.

We were trying very hard to become gourmets or at least decent cooks, and we made lots of dishes with rice, mushrooms, leeks and garlic. The tiny Pullman kitchen in our apartment-style dorm got a real workout, and we were constantly scouring local markets for new culinary finds.

I must have come home for the holidays jabbering on and on about cooking because that Christmas Grandma Annie gave me not only the cheese basket I talked about on Feb. 5, but also my first cookbook.

It must have been a last-minute gift, for it was a cookbook culled from her own large collection and it had her name written inside: Mrs. H.J. Doran. This she covered up with a strip of paper that bore my name in capital letters, produced no doubt on her battered Underwood.

It was a first edition of “Betty Crocker’s Good and Easy Cookbook,” a small, handheld cookbook that now sells for up to $75in the online auctions.

By the time Annie gave it to me, many of the recipes were already outdated. But others were classics, and for years this was my only cookbook. I augmented it with a few French cookbooks that I picked up cheap at the used booksellers on Madison’s State Street.

A Meaning Beyond Recipes

I can tell which recipes I used again and again, for those pages are stained, and there I’ve jotted down notes and calorie counts. Among my favorites were Spanish Rice, Chicken-Rice Bake, Miroton of Sea Food, Chili Con Carne, Tuna-Broccoli Casserole, and Peanut Butter Cookies.

Of course, many of the recipes I did not make, believing as I did at the time that great meals come from the heart. I rarely used cookbooks for recipes, only inspiration.

The book must have meant something to me even in my callow youth, because at one point I wrote, “First cookbook, Christmas gift from Grandma” inside the cover.

It means so much more to me now.

It is an historical document of sorts, a primary source for understanding the way people ate in the 1950s, that time of unbridled optimism when convenience foods were viewed as miracles of progress.

The cookbook is also part of my grandmother, for it sat among her own collection for decades, unused, until she thought I needed it.

For more than 25 years, it has been among my equally vast collection of cookbooks and has held a place of honor there. I could not fathom giving it away, even though I have not used it in years.

But I opened it the other night and I don’t think I can accurately describe the wave of something — nostalgia? — that poured over me.

I felt good, I felt comforted, I felt wrapped in love and security.

Perhaps this humble gift was more than a cookbook, I thought. Perhaps it was — it is — part of me in a way other cookbooks, other books even will never be.

A Culinary Epiphany

Great food artfully prepared dazzles me and sweeps me off my feet. It is like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe for the first time.

Humble dishes nourish my soul in a way nothing else can. They are like an old friend, or a good and long marriage.

Here is one from the book that I think stands up across six decades, with a little tweaking. I lowered the salt and added bacon.

Onion-Roquefort Cheese Salad

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3 ounces Roquefort cheese
  • 1/4 cup bacon, cut into small chunks or bits
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • dash sel de fleur
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash paprika
  • 4 sweet onions, thinly sliced or cubed

Blend all ingredients, save for onion. Pour over onion and chill. Serves six. This would be a great side for hamburgers.

Well Worth Checking Out: For a thoughtful treatise on seasonal food choices, please read the Feb. 1 post at Lucy's Kitchen Notebook.

Also, there are two blogs, one new and one not-so-new, I'd like to call your attention to: (1) Charles at Bi-Coastal Cook, which is new and out of Maryland; and (2) the not-so-new but oh-so-spot-on Molly at My Madeleine, who also writes about taste, memory and experience as well as food (thanks to Terry B of Blue Kitchen for the link. I will be adding these to my blog list later today.

Thanks to Chris L. at The French Journal and to Erika at Tummy Treasure for links and mentions of B-Day and thanks to ChrisB at Ms. Cellania for the link today.

As part of my desire to be kinder and gentler, I vow to be better at thanking people for links.

06 February 2007

Not Really French, Maybe Not Even Food, But it Worked for Me

A few weeks back, I came down with a bad case of stomach flu.

It crept up, as these things do, in the middle of the night. In my experience, the bug is usually gone by mid afternoon the following day, but this time, I was not so lucky. I called in sick and languished on the sofa all day, devoid of enthusiasm for anything. Around 3 p.m., I dragged myself into the kitchen to make tea, using my Yixing tea set, shown above.

I bought the set a few years ago in April. The sleek jade green teapot and cups were my gift to myself after an especially taxing and stressful winter. I use it for green tea only, this time making green tea with mint. It helped. I think the beauty of the tea set was soothing, too.

But what really made me feel better was supper. When my stomach is upset, I crave French toast, which some say is the American version of the French "pain Perdu," or lost bread. French toast and milk.

So my husband, who is nice about these things, made me French toast. He was tired, after a long day of meetings, and made it from what we had on hand. Which happened to be somehting no self-respecting foodie would admit to eating: Mrs. Karl's Bread.

For the unfamiliar, Mrs. Karl's in its blue-and-white check wrapper, is like Wonder Bread. You get the picture.

My husband and I differ on the issue of bread. I grew up in a household where it was baked regularly, by my father, or his mother. I love baking bread. I love kneading bread. I love the aroma and the taste of freshly baked bread.

I loath most of the stuff for sale at grocery stores.

But on this particular night, the French toast my husband made was the sweetest and most delicious supper I could have eaten. It settled my stomach. It made me feel cared for and loved.

The toast melted in my mouth. The butter was soft and, well, buttery. The syrup was sweet (Mrs. Butterworth, meet Mrs. Karl). I felt better after the first bite. Plus, it tasted like childhood.

Sometimes, the love with which a meal is prepared and served makes the most ordinary food taste good. That is one of the secrets of cooking from the heart, my reoccurring theme this month. (It also helped that I was feeling so lousy.)

When we were kids, mother would make beanburgers at the end of the week. We loved 'em, but as my brother once pointed out, they were probably served because they were cheap and it was the day before payday. Same principle.

(OK, food blog police: Come and get me. Just remember, Tanna, who recently made a delicious-looking onion-cheese bread with Bisquick, and I want kitchen privileges.)

Now, we've all had these meals. Maybe it was a quick bite from a street vendor after a bracing walk in winter. Maybe it was the time you and your best friend (or lover) bought sandwiches and ate them at a park in the middle of town or at the lighthouse. Maybe it was a meal mom cobbled together during hard times. Share?

05 February 2007

A Basket, Tomatoes and True Love

My first gifts of food were, not surprisingly, from my maternal grandmother.

I am speaking not of the Lady Baltimore cakes she made for our birthdays, but the first food gift for my home, the one that made me feel like a grownup. It was my first semester away at college, and Grandma Annie gave me a cheese sampler basket, probably from Wisconsin's own Figi's.

A humble gift, to be sure, but one that delighted me and started me on a lifelong passion for baskets. There was also a cookbook that Christmas, but that is for another post.

Recently I weeded down my basket collection to a mere dozen. Of course, the first basket stayed with me. As you can see, I filled it with cherry tomatoes for the photo above.

I will never let go of that basket.

Since I love tomatoes so much — and since Grandma Annie did, too — it is only right that I matched the basket with tomatoes.

On Jan. 30, I reviewed Laura Florand's delightful "Blame it on Paris," a book in which tomatoes (and other salad ingredients) have a minor but essential supporting role.

Let's put it this way: In Laura's book, tomatoes demonstrate the potential to stand between two people in love. Who knew?

But, I have a solution. A variation on a previous theme, you might say.

You can read about it at Laura's blog, starting Tuesday, Feb. 6.