21 December 2008

A Norman Winter: An Apple-y Drink for Dark Days of Winter


From 2008: It began snowing at 9 p.m. last night and did not let up until late morning today. My husband moved the cars, took the snowblower out of the horse barn and began lugging it up and down the hill to create a path around the house, while clearing the driveway and the sidewalk. He took the blower, new last winter, down the street, too, helping our neighbors as they have often helped us.

He needed a stiff drink when he came inside, or so I reasoned. I've been itching since October to create something made from the bottle of Calvados we bought in Paris in 2007 and the cider we always keep on hand during the last three months of the year.

I have some Norman blood, and have always had a weakness for cider, apples and anything related. I was happy to find both pear and apple cider available in the Lot during the two weeks we were there recently (was it three months ago already?) and managed to imbibe a bottle each, along with the legendary dark wine of the area.

When my husband came in from the cold, stomping the snow off his boots, I handed him a newly-concocted drink I call a Norman Winter.

Here's my recipe for a Norman Winter:
  • 5 ounces Calvados or apple brandy
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • generous splash lemon-lime soda or non-alcoholic sparkling cider
  • splash of lime juice
  • 4-5 ice cubes
Pour all the ingredients over ice. Garnish with an apple slice or slip a few slices into the drink. Marashino cherries would be a nice contrast.




20 December 2008

Baked Beans with Ground Beef



I drove through Frenchtown at sunset the other day, toward the western sky and its layers of lavender, salmon and pink. Grandma Annie's house, now owned by a family who lives it and cares for it, was ablaze with lights. My heart lurched and then leaped with pleasure.

We believe the old house has its origins in 1863, the year the lot was parceled out to someone named Deroucher, or perhaps shortly thereafter. Now it is sturdily standing in its third century. The kitchen, always the heart of the house, is filled with spacious cabinets and a frieze of grapevines. It is warm and welcoming. How Grandma Annie would love it!

Annie's second daughter Jane, left at age 20, eloping with a theater usher in those headlong days before World War II. Like her mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters, Jane was an excellent cook and baker who favored simple down-to-earth fare. In later years, she came home to the old house, a widow now. About 18 years ago she died there in the same bed and room our Mémere died in. (I dream of that room often. It is now a sunny, two-story stairwell.)

On cold winter nights, Jane often made a dish with baked beans, ground beef, onions, ketchup, mustard and a dash of brown sugar. I do not know the exact measurements, but I tried the casserole recently, and enjoy it reheated for several nights during a brutal cold snap.

I used:

  • 2 medium cans of baked beans with onions
  • 1/2 pound ground beef, browned
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar


I combined all the ingredients and baked in a preheated, 30-degree oven for about 45 minutes. It's best served with coleslaw and cornbread, but I had only bread sticks on hand that week.

I like these homey dishes when the weather turns brutal, as it has here in Wisconsin.

05 December 2008

Chicken Soup with Cider-Glazed Vegetables

Now when I return home from work at dusk, my neighborhood smells of woodsmoke. This scenario never fails to invoke Grandma Annie, who kept a "burn barrel" in her backyard, as did many of her neighbors in those pre-recycling days. I never got too close to the barrels, but I am imaging they were filled with old newspapers and egg cartons and other materials that we recycle today.

The burn barrels may have been dangerous and harmful to our air quality, but they filled the neighborhood with a pungent aroma that I liked as a child. Today wood-burning stoves and fireplaces fill my neighborhood with the same pleasant, smoky aroma that never fails to bring me back 40 years or so.

Back then, when Grandma Annie had to step out to her neighborhood store before suppertime, she would return with that aroma clinging to her coat and hair, until the smells of the evening meal began to permeate the house in Frenchtown. A particular night when Annie donned her black coat and slipped across the way to the Sobieski's store has stayed with me all these years.

She went there to buy chicken, as I recall. Annie always used matches to rid the chicken of any remained fuzz that clung to its pinky skin. Soon the odor of sulfur filled the kitchen. It was quickly replaced by the aroma of roasting chicken.

When I roast a chicken, I am usually thinking ahead to the soup I will make from the chicken carcass. I knew Tuesday that my Wednesday night meal would be a soup of roasted vegetables.

And so it was. Wednesday night, Into the stock pot went the carcass, along with remaining shallots, garlic and thyme and about five cups of water.

While the stock was simmering, I cleaned and trimmed one large potato, four medium carrots, one parsnip and three shallots. I coated these in olive oil and roasted theme in a pre-heated, 425-degree oven until they began to turn golden.

I removed them from the oven and transferred them to a large saucepan containing melted butter and about two cups of apple cider. I brought the pan to a mild boil, and then lowered the heat until the apple cider was reduced and absorbed by the vegetables.

Then I added the broth, straining it first. Next came chicken, salt, pepper and chopped thyme. I added some freshly roasted garlic - about four cloves - to balance the sweet taste. This I allowed to simmer for about 15 minutes.

Some buttered rolls, a hunk of Gouda and a mild white table wine were all I needed to complete the meal.

My soup was savory, sweet and herby.

02 December 2008

Roasted Chicken with Pears, Shallots, and Thyme

We woke to a thin dusting of snow yesterday, enough to make the roads slippery and require a quick shoveling.

Later in the yard of the brick Georgian across the parking lot from my office, I saw a huge flock of starlings, gleaning odd bits of food from the snow-covered yard and roosting in the trees, chattering away. I love their chatter on late autumn afternoons as it signals a turn of season.

There are other signs, too, many from the bird world, like the whistling swans I saw along the shore last week, and the skeins of Canada geese that continue to crisscross our leaden skies. The berries on our bushes have begun to turn red and the grasses along the bay and river are brown, a warm contrast to the cool grays of the sky and water.

It's really lovely out there. But cold.

At night we cook comforting meals. I roatsed my own bird tonight, and the aroma was wonderful. I found the recipe in the current issue of Body + Soul magazine: Chicken with Pears, Shallots and Thyme.

Since I followed it to the letter, and it's not posted on the magazine's Web site yet, I will simply tell you that it is a chicken stuffed with five sprigs of thyme, one lemon, three cloves of garlic and then roasted with three Anjou pears and eight shallots in a very hot oven. The aroma is heavenly while it is cooking, very seasonal. I love an autumn or winter meal roasting late into the night, filling the house with its aromas, wrapping around us with the promises of tastes to come.

My husband and I put read-and-green place mats on our dining table and enjoyed this dish by itself: Chicken in its glorious juices, along with tender shallots and almost-creamy pears. The roasting removes that metallic taste pears often have, and replaces it with a mellow sweetness.

With this dish, no sides are needed. But a green salad would have been a nice first course.

I saved every leftover morsel, and tomorrow I will make soup or stew. I should think something with root vegetables would be in order.

I can't wait...

Ok, here's the basic recipe: Rub a whole chicken with coarse sea salt and pepper, and stuff with three peeled garlic gloves, a quartered lemon and five sprigs of thyme. Roast at 450-475 for 15 minutes, then surround with 8 halved shallots and three quartered and cored pears. Add a few more thyme sprigs. Roast for another 40 minutes or so.

30 November 2008

Creamy Brussels Sprout Soup with Shallots and Roasted Potatoes

I lived in a tiny studio apartment my last years of college. Fortunately, the cramped quarters had a good-sized refrigerator and stove so I could cook real meals. I made use of everything in those days, and I still do, but once in a while, I forget I've got something on hand and it goes to waste.

Not anymore. Some of my favorite grocery store staples - low-fat cream cheese, for example - have nearly doubled in price in the last year.

The mortgage was paid long ago and my economic situation is vastly improved over 23 years ago. But somehow it seems wrong to let anything go to waste when it costs so dearly and so many people are without ample food.

I had about three cups of sautéed Brussels sprouts left over from Thanksgiving dinner, some shallots and a half-cup or so of roasted potatoes. These, I thought, would provide the basis for Brussels sprouts soup. I have become enamored of the tiny bowls of soup served by chefs these days and was determined to create something comparable.

Creamy Brussels Sprouts Soup with Shallots and Roasted Potatoes


  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 3 cups Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed, outer leaves removed, sliced in half
  • 2 large shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 5 cups chicken broth*
  • 1/2 cup previously roasted potatoes
  • 1 small onion, peel and chopped
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel
  • dash nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup half-and-half or cream


Pour olive oil into a large skillet, adding butter. Sauté the sprouts and shallots for 8-10 minutes under medium heat, stirring frequently. Add one cup of broth, bring to a boil and cover, lowering heat. Add onions. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until broth is reduced. Carefully transfer to stockpot, adding potatoes and remainder of broth. Cook under low heat for another 10 minutes, adding nutmeg and salt and pepper (taste frequently; I used about 8 spoons). Turn off heat and allow to cool 15 minutes. Then transfer soup to food process or blender. Puree. (I pureed one half, set it aside and then pureed the other half). Return to stock pot and add cream, re-heating under low heat.

*My soup broth was half chicken broth, half bouillon from garlic-and-olive-oil cubes I bought at FranPrix last year. I always add what ever cheese rind I have on hand, and discard before pureeing.

I recommend grating cheese on top and adding croutons before serving. I did not do that as I was too anxious to try the soup. It was soothing, always a good thing on the tail end of a long weekend.

What did you do with leftovers this weekend?

28 November 2008

Chive Crackers with Brie and Chestnut Butter

Under normal circumstances, I am suspicious of food items that purport to be created to be "paired with" another food item. Having worked for an advertising agency (and being a fan of "Mad Men"), I know this is a marketing gimmick. It works, though.

These chive crackers (green, yet!) grabbed my attention.  "For Brie cheese," said the box.

Brie is one of those acquired tastes for me. It was not part of my diet growing up, and even when I went off to college, Camembert on a baguette slice was the cocktail party food of choice.

I could not get into Brie. Maybe there is a reason for that.

My father's maternal line, as far as I can determine, came from Melun, a city south of Paris that is know for its Brie cheese. The family name in the U.S. is LaBrie, which is one of those "dit" names that started out as something else, but got changed upon arrival in the New World, or perhaps soon after.

Family history records are not very extensive on my father's side, but it looks like the orginal name was Migneault or or some variation thereof, and became LaBrie somewhere on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the orginal immigrant was a cheesemaker who acquired a nickname. Or perhaps, he was not a cheesemaker. Maybe he acquired a nickname that referred to his geographic roots, not his occupation - as in cheesehead.

Whatever. It's a lovely name, and I like the fact that it is feminine, although Brie is actually masculine. Brie is a feminine cheese, if you ask me, mild, earthy and comforting.

Brie is especially goos when paired with something sweet. The chive crackers were perfect, but I thought they needed something more. So I scrounged around in the pantry and found a jar of Bonne Mamam chestnut spread. I plopped a dollop of that atop the schmear of Brie that sat atop the chive cracker.

I was a little nervous as I slipped it into my mouth. But, oh, the taste! If France can be reduced into a cracker with two toppings, this was it. I was immediately transported back to Montcuq and its chestnut trees. Or Paris.

Merde! This is good, I told my husband.

And he agreed.


27 November 2008

Bread Pudding with Four Cheeses and Herbes de Provence

A festive day calls for a festive breakfast.

And a little ingenuity. I had a half boule of Italian bread from LaBrea Bakery and a cheese drawer that was filled to the brim. Did I mention a raving hunger?

I knew it would be a long time until the big dinner. Our menu included pork tenderloin with a cranberry glaze, herb-y oven-baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts with shallots and roasted walnuts - not terribly time-consuming, but not simple either. (I took lots of pictures but in the mad rush had my camera on the wrong setting. I look forward to seeing what you ate!)

You already know what pleasure I get from using what is on hand. Here's what I came up with:

Four Cheese Bread Pudding with Herbes de Provence
  • 1 half boule of Italian or country-style bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups two-percent milk
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup gouda cheese, broken into chunks
  • 1/3 cup Asiago or Parmesan, grated
  • 2/3 cup swiss cheese
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced onion
  • 1 Tablespoon herbes de Provence
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • pinch fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 375. Place bread chunks in large bowl. Beat eggs and milk in smaller bowl; pour into large bowl and set aside for five minutes. Once bread has absorbed the liquid, fold in cheese, onion, herbes and seasonings. Transfer to buttered casserole dish and place in oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until top turns golden brown. Cool 10 minutes.

Four cheeses are essential for this dish. The cheddar is the base. The creamier cheeses balance the bite of sharp cheddar and the Asiago or Parmesan provides the accent. You can use any combination of cheeses for variety.

24 November 2008

Cold Weather Breakfast, Part I: Tartines

I am a creature of routine. Each morning I stagger from bed, somehow manage to find my way to the kitchen, brew a cup of coffee and settle down with my laptop to read the morning papers, from Madison to San Francisco and several points in between. It takes me a good hour before I am awake enough to want breakfast.

But when I do it is a hardy breakfast I want.

More often than not, it is a tartine, an open faced sandwich loaded with some sort of egg, perhaps some cheese, a bit of sausage and perhaps a tomato, washed down with a small glass of milk and a small glass or orange juice. My goal is to get protein, a little fat, some fruit, and some whole grains.

I woke this morning to a fine layer of snow, not a bit unusual for this time of year. My breakfast was sourdough bread with a slick of butter and a thick slice of cheddar, broiled until the cheese was forming a shiny skin on top. That's when I know it's ready. I added a dollop of applesauce as a side.

You cannot go wrong with tartines. Another favorite is a bagel with salmon cream cheese, a tomato, some thin slivers of red onion and a few capers. I paid a whopping $15 for such a similar breakfast in the San Francisco Airport this summer. I like my own version much better.

This time of year, breakfast is really important to me. One year, not long after college, I baked bran muffins the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The next day they were hard as rocks. I was too poor to discard them, so I broke them into pieces (it took some work) and poured milk over them, creating a cereal of sorts. The milk softened the muffins and they made for a pretty good breakfast - possibly one of the best I've had (of my own creation, anyway).

Eating frugally often means being creative, and sometimes a little desperate.

What about you? What do you eat for breakfast? Have you ever salvaged a disaster as I did with my muffins? Tell us about it!

I'm truly curious.

22 November 2008

Blue Cheese

My cupboards and refrigerator are filled with items that were not part of Grandma Annie's kitchen, although my father bought them from time to time. Among those items are three staples: Red peppers, black olives and blue cheese.

The diet of my youth was relatively bland: Meat and potatoes mostly, accented by salads, side vegetables and bread.

My mother avoided many of the foods my father liked, and so never served them to me and my siblings. Mushrooms are among them. She still wonders why we all love them, and assumes its a generational thing. Perhaps it is.

Garlic, my mother often reminds me, was something odd and foreign and exotic. I have this idea that World War II played a key role in brining garlic to small-town America. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've eaten garlic, ya know?

Many of my acquired tastes were acquired when I cooked with my first college roommate, the American-born daughter of French parents, and explored Chicago restaurants with an early boyfriend (Steven, are you still a foodie?).

I learned to love Greek food, Yugoslavian wine and German beer, thanks to these and other college friends. We fancied ourselves gourmets and gourmands, cooking together, tring to outdo each other and exploring new ethnic restaurants. While our peers were expanding their record collections, we were buying small kitchen utensils that made exotic meal preparation easier along with mustards, jams, and exotic rice mixes.

Along the way, I also acquired a passion for red peppers (well documented on this blog) and black olives (a must for any tuna salad).

One of my favorite foods is blue cheese. I've used it in sweet dishes but mostly I enjoy it in salads.

At a recent tasting when a restaurant owner I knew was trying out a prospective chef, I tasted a simple salad of blue cheese, roasted walnuts and Granny Smith apple with an apple vinaigrette. It was really wonderful and elegant.

I bought some blue d'Auvergne in France and made a similar salad. This particular blue, made in the Massif Central area is creamier (and to my palate, gentler) than the typical blue cheese found in American supermarkets. I loved its subtle taste, and felt it better suited to warmer weather dishes (blue cheese is usually reserved for cold weather, at least in my life).

It's one more taste I have acquired. But I am curious. What tastes are new to your palate?

20 November 2008

Leave Takings and a Low-Sodium Soup Base

In recent weeks I've said a lot about the act of coming home, but I've said little about the sad process of leaving a place you love.

On days before departures - departures from France, usually - I feel jittery and empty and I take comfort in small household tasks. On our last night in the Lot Valley, I cobbled together a pot of soup, using a few leftover onions, a cube of chicken bouillon and mozzarella cheese. And lots of water, because the bouillon was salty (we drank water all night long, it seemed). I much prefer my old standby recipe or this cheesy variation I made last year in Paris.

I made garlic toast from the heel of a baguette and we ate the rest of my tarte tatin. We dragged out our last meal in the cozy yellow kitchen, and then walked out to the pool in the dusk to say our goodbyes to the big field and the vineyard and hills beyond it. (The day before, we had finally taken the road that wended its way up there, a one lane road, narrow and twisty like most mountain roads in France, praying we would not meet another vehicle.)

Then we tidied up the kitchen for the last time, and called it an early night. I was torn, wanting to stay and wanting to leave. Fortunately, two days in Paris lie ahead. And then we left all over again.

Leaving home for a trip is exciting. Leaving home and leaving my husband behind, as I did two weeks ago, tears me up until my car turns the corner toward the highway. Then I begin to relish my adventure and my alone-ness. I miss him terribly, of course, and I am always happy to come home again.

For those homecomings, I keep containers of soup base in the freezer, so I can create a quick pot of soup even when je suis fatigué.

My Favorite Low-Sodium Soup Base


  • 2 large potatoes, washed and sliced
  • 4 carrots, cut into chunks
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 1 apple, quartered
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 10 cups cold water


Combine all ingredients in large stockpot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-60 minutes. Strain and discard solids. Makes eight cups. I split in half and freeze it if I'm not ready to make soup.

What soup would comfort you tonight?

16 November 2008

Stuffed Cheese Sandwiches with Roasted Red Pepper

In her later years, Grandma Annie seldom traveled but when she did, it was often to come to the aid of her oldest daughter who underwent a series of surgeries at mid-life. During those extended trips, my mother (a younger daughter) would haul us across the river to Annie's house in Frenchtown to "check things." These trips usually took place after school and they always seemed to be on gray November days.

We'd enter the cold, empty house, the day's mail in our hands, and quickly turn up the furnace. While my mother checked every room in the deep, narrow house, we children would huddle in the living room waiting for the heat to kick in. The furnace provided a gentle, lulling sound, a sort of comforting white noise that still soothes me today. I would eagerly sift through Annie's mail for the latest women's magazine so I could read the fiction. Those were the days before stories about orgasm and geriatric sex replaced quality short stories or novellas.

While the house was empty without Annie, her spirit always seemed to remain there as it lingered for many years after her death. Late afternoon, that time of deepening darkness, was a cozy time at the old house with the incandescent lights providing a yellow glow.

When Annie was in residence, this was the time she retreated to the kitchen to make soup, salad and sandwiches for the evening meal. I did this yesterday, as night fell, preparing a quick meal of cheese sandwiches and cole slaw. As always, Annie was with me, whispering those memories in my ear. I wonder what she would think of my concoctions?

Stuffed Cheese Sandwiches with Roasted Red Pepper, Tomato and Basil

  • 8 slices of roasted red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 thick slices of sourdough or Italian bread
  • 2 thicks slices of gouda or sharp cheddar cheese
  • 4-6 slices tomato
  • 4-8 basil leaves
  • butter


Coat the pepper slices with olive oil and roast in a 450-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Set aside. Butter the bread lightly on all four sides, then layer with cheese, pepper, tomato and basil leaves. Melt butter in a skillet, and toast the sandwiches until both sides are golden brown.

Next time, I'll layer the sandwiches with sautéed onion slices for extra flavor.

I served this with cole slaw to which I added chopped cranberries and grated Granny Smith apple. I think an olive medley would have been a better choice.

15 November 2008

France: The Chestnut Trees of Montcuq

At 4 p.m. today, the sky turned deep blue and the low-hanging sun shone amber on the nearly-bare branches. The park is littered with brown leaves now, and the colors of scarlet and persimmon are but a memory. The glorious foliage of fall is all too fleeting.

But I love the mellow sun and the gray days of November. Each month seems to have its colors, and the colors of November are the colors of metals, of steel gray skies, pewter afternoons, bronze sunsets and copper leaves.

Fall comes early to chestnut trees, and by the end of September, the chestnut tree in our side yard, so glorious with its candles of white in June, is nearly bare while the lawn is layered with brown leaves. We've been told the chestnut is not suited to our cold climate, but it has been in the yard forever and it will stay forever as far as my husband and I are concerned. We have found it rather ironic that since we have been making nearly annual pilgrimages to France, the tree has seemed healthier. The half a dozen blooms of years past have multiplied in early summer, and the tree keeps its leaves later in the fall.

It's as if our chestnut knows it has to perform, now that we've seen its cousins in Paris.

The chestnut trees in Montcuq, an old hillside town about a half hour southwest of Cahors lose their leaves early, it seems. While area south of the Lot River was nearly all green in late September, Montcuq's chestnut leaves had fallen to the ground. They crunched under our feet as we walked down the sloping boulevard near the center of town.

It was noon and the shops were shuttered. Save for three or four rather seedy characters lounging about the café, we were alone. One young woman, probably a worker at a nearby business, sat at a table with her lunch and read a book. I felt drawn to her; she reminded me of myself, a sometimes loner with a book.

We took a dozen or so photographs, preferring not to linger. Montcuq (make sure you pronounce the final "q" or you will be saying, "my derriere") is a lovely little town, but it made me sad on this particular Friday. We made our way home by the backroads, and had a late lunch of cheese, saucisson, olives, and bread.

I felt a sense of contentment that day, as I did this afternoon when the sky turned metallic. Despite the challenges ahead, life can be good. Cherish these moments.

Want to roast chestnuts for the holidays? Here's how!

13 November 2008

C'est Fromage! A Visit to Madison's Fromagination

Walking from my conference to my hotel each night, I passed an inviting little shop I'd wanted to explore last summer. I ran out of time then, but this week I'd pass the shop just before closing time. So, unabashed cheesehead that I am, I dodged inside drawn by the warm glow of possibilities.

The shop is Fromagination at 12 South Carroll Street. (I should note that the photo above was taken in France; I forgot my camera this trip.)

Fromagination is chock full of artisan cheese from Wisconsin's famous cheesemakers. Not wanting to make a choice, I purchased five "orphans," small wrapped odds and ends of cheese I will bring home to my husband for our Saturday night finger food tradition.

I found the staff friendly and knowledgeable, and they did not laugh as I oohed and ahed my way around the shop. Somehow, a bag of crackers and a fruit confit found their way into my bag, along with some candy for my sweet-toothed husband back home.

I have a difficult time restraining myself in food shops.

Moreover, I have still more difficult time passing by a food shop at the end of the day. There is something enticing about their cozy light against the darkening night and something enchanting about the practice of shopping for the evening meal on the way home. There's a comforting bit of serendipity involved in finding supper in a random way, of cobbling together a meal of what is available.

It's what I used to do on those long ago evenings when I lived here.

It makes me feel good to do it when I am back in town.

09 November 2008

Sweet Things

For a few days I am back in Madison, playing student again as I did only five months ago. During the day, I'll be concentrating on learning the role I can play in helping the economy, at least on a local basis.

I swear I lose 10 years every time I revisit this wonderful small but remarkably diverse city. I feel young again, walking the same streets I walked as a student, revisiting my old haunts. Was it only 20-odd years ago?

For many of my years here, I lived a few blocks off State Street. During the years I did not, I used that trendy little thoroughfare to reach my downtown office. My standard practice was to pop into a State Street bakery for a croissant or a brioche. Those were, of course, the days when I could comfortably eat sweets without assuming the girth of an entire Panzer division (is anyone out there familiar with just how large that would be?).

The photo above was taken in France. If I look hard enough this week, I'm sure I'll locate a bakery with comparable offerings. (Oh, how I miss the Ovens of Brittany on State Street!)

The test will be whether I can resist them or not. Save for a chocolate mousse-y thing, cream puffs, tarte tatin and a Jesuite, I was pretty good in France. For every whim I gave in to there was at least one more that I resisted.

How about you?

08 November 2008

Low-Carb, Crustless Chocolate Pumpkin Pie

Crustless Chocolate-Pumpkin Pie

 The act of coming home is the greatest small joy I know. So it has been since I was a child.

When we lived on Main Street all those decades ago, I would often come home at 3:15 on Indian Summer afternoons to find my mother hanging laundry to dry in our vast backyard, or removing a batch of cookies from the oven in the sunny yellow kitchen.

She was young and vigorous and full of life then. I so vividly remember finding her in the back yard on a particular balmy fall afternoon, romping with my baby brother on a blanket. We have photographs of that afternoon, and it remains memorable to me because my mother had been to the drugstore down the street and the market, and had returned with a pumpkin, a bag of chocolate, and two eye masks, one black and one turquoise.

“Halloween is coming, and we’re getting ready,” she told me, and I was delighted. At six, I was just developing an idea of the yearly round and what it meant as the seasons shifted and were marked with rituals and celebrations.

On this day and others like it, the inside front door of our home would remain open, letting in the cool autumn air as the sun slipped down into the west and the shadows of dusk set in. I can still hear the sound of early-evening traffic outside, and the clanging of pots and pans as my mother prepared supper. Our Craftsman bungalow was small and cozy and no room was any great distance from another. I still like this proximity in a home.

These days, I return home much later, and my routine is different: Get the mail, check the e-mail and phone messages, change into jeans, and think about supper. In cool seasons, I turn up the furnace, and in warm weather, I open the windows.

One thing has not changed: I want a snack to tide me over until supper, which is eaten rather late at our house, at least by American standards.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways to pair pumpkin with chocolate. Since it’s gray and blustery today; I don’t want to go out. So I used what I had on hand to make this crustless, low-carb Chocolate Pumpkin Pie.
  • 1/2 cup baking mix
  • 2/3 cup sugar 
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • dash pumpkin pie spice
  • dash salt
  • ½ cup melted unsweetened chocolate, cooled, or chocolate syrup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2/3 cup canned pumpkin
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Pre-heat oven to 350. Blend dry ingredients in large bowl and set aside. In a second bowl, blend chocolate syrup or melted chocolate with sour cream, pumpkin, eggs and vanilla. Gradually fold into dry mix. When mixture is smooth, pour into greased pie plate or square baking dish and bake for 45 minutes until the pie is firm, but not hard. Chill before topping with cream cheese frosting.

A day later, the dessert is firm and flavorful, and tastes richer than it did a few hours after I made it. You may have to adjust the sugar, depending upon our preference. I like a dessert that is not too sweet.

02 November 2008

Paris on a Budget

We've decided we probably won't make it back to France in calendar 2009. For one thing, we've got some home repairs and upgrades next year, and for another, I feel a bit guilty spending the money.

But we will return for at least a week sometime in the next 18 months. We know how to do Paris on a very small budget.

When my husband and I look back on our trips, the moments we cherish most are those that cost us very little in the way of financial outlay.

On a warm spring May Day four years ago, our favorite moment came when we fed pigeons in Place Paul Langevin in the Latin Quarter. I had a half-bag of cashews in my purse, and we enjoy teasing the ubiquitous critters while children played nearby in the sun-dappled little square not far from the Pantheon.

In 2007, an afternoon in Musee Carnavalet on a rainy afternoon and a visit to Square Georges Cain provided us with an equally low-cost and enjoyable moment on our last day in Paris.

We've found great pleasure simply exploring and lingering in the many gardens in Paris. We even enjoyed a wet walk along the Seine one Sunday afternoon when buses were infrequent.

Recently we found pure joy in the Places des Vosges (above), just watching children play.

You can enjoy Paris on very little money indeed, I assured a reader who recently e-mailed me.

We've all got favorite tips, but here are a few of mine.

• Choose a value hotel. They abound in Paris. I find hotels on Tripadvisor, and have yet to go wrong that way. Expect a small room. You can adjust for a few days or even a week. You'll do a lot of walking as soon as you step outside the hotel.

• Make sure you have a mini bar in the room. Mini bar prices are often very reasonable when compared to those in snack shops and cafés. Your body clock will be off, and you may get hungry at odd hours.

• Fill up at the hotel breakfast, if it is reasonably priced, or buy a croissant from a bakery.

• If you will be in Paris for a week, rent a studio apartment. Most have microwaves and many have stovetops. Some even have ovens and all have coffeemakers. In 2007, we ate well for two weeks with just a stovetop and microwave.

• Shop for food basics at Ed l'Epicier, FranPrix or LeaderPrice. I found prices had gone up a bit from 2007, but they were still reasonable.

• Buy a carnet and use it to ride the Paris bus system. You will see a lot, observe real Parisians close up and not have to worry too much about pick pockets on the Metro. You can use public transport to get to and from Charles de Gaulle airport.

• Check out the city's free museums and sites. We thoroughly enjoyed Carnavalet and the Crypts. There are other freebies to enjoy.

• Walk. Explore hidden spaces. In my book, they - not the well-known monuments and open spaces which teem with tourists - are the true essence of Paris.

• Consider cafés and cafeterias located in one of the city's train stations. I found Le Train Bleu a bit steep, so we ate at the cafeteria just below and enjoyed a pretty darned good meal for a fraction of the cost of the fancy lady upstairs.

• Looking for entertainment? We chanced upon a string ensemble on Oct. 4 at the Place des Vosges (below). The music was sweeter than anything I'd pay for - it was spirited and spontaneous.

I'd love to hear your favorite tips for traveling anywhere and not spending a bundle.

18 October 2008

France: The Market in Old Cahors

Today I visited the farm market in my town to buy a pumpkin and some organic tomatoes. We have two local markets, running a total of three mornings and one afternoon a week, June through October. One of them is located in a designated market area, which offers a small covered stall. The other is sited along the water, a wonderful place even when the bay breezes are cool.

I lingered for an hour, talking to the vendors and catching up with friends and acquaintances. Because the market also offers space to non-food vendors, I often purchase quilted items, soaps, rag rugs or other locally made crafts. Today a "garage sale" element was added, so there were many other items available. Several of our local non-profit organizations also raise money by selling cider, hot chocolate, brats and hotdogs and candy.

I did not bring my camera, but I remembered it three weeks ago when we visited the Wednesday and Saturday markets in old Cahors, at the foot of the cathedral of St. Etienne. Food vendors set up shop in the cathedral square, while non-food vendors arrange their goods along streets that shoot off or even snake off to the west of the church.

I thought you might enjoy these photos from one of our visits. Aren't those grapes enticing?

I love the spice vendor. The colors and the aromas transport me to the spice countries.

Can you see why I was so tempted by these Jesuites from Lou Boulbil's stall?

The market is a prime source for these darling little rounds of cabecou.

You can also find Provencal fabrics, blankets and mats. Did I mention jewelry, woven market baskets and kitchenware?

Throughout the world, open-air markets are such a wonderful, time-honored source of good food and other intriguing sites and smells, and sometimes even sounds. There may be nothing I love more than an outdoor market.

13 October 2008

Jesuites and Other Pastries

I entered a building I have not entered in decades today. Never mind the circumstances. I had to steel myself to do it as my departure from there was a sad one.

I was a child then, and I did not understand the circumstances. I only knew something was amiss, and I was a study in abject misery. "I want to go home," I kept saying to my mother, though I did not understand the concept of home. I only knew I wanted safety.

As an adult, I frequently feel the need to find a safe harbor, and the same phrase enters my mind. It coursed through my thoughts again and again when we were away. The news on television was grim, and my French is utilitarian enough to understand and become somewhat alarmed. By day we had the beauty of the French countryside to distract us, but by night we often hunkered down by the television, listening and watching disturbing reports about the American economy.

I found myself reaching for soft, comforting sweets, Like the creamy puffs above or the Jesuite below.

Called Jesuites because they were once coated with chocolate (which would have resembled the long cassock of the Jesuit priest), the pastry triangles are filled with frangipane. Jesuites are a staple of the patisserie.

In France, I was drawn to pastries as I have never been drawn before. Slowly savoring my Jesuite, I felt like a the naughty Catholic schoolgirl I once was, and perhaps will forever be.

But sometimes you just need a little comfort...

10 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Makeshift Tarte Tatin and A Visit to Le Vinois

I like a man who knows his way around the kitchen.

When I was young and dating, I thought this was endearing. Sexy even. I married my husband because of his Beef Stroganoff. Never mind that he sometimes forgets a key ingredient, like sour cream. I mean, he's my guy and sharing a meal with him is a gift.

I like a chef who knows his way around apples. Jean-Claude Voisin of Le Vinois in Caillac, just to the northwest of Cahors, knows his apples.

Last January, I told you about Jean-Claude's visit to my city and the wonderful meals he prepared here. One of them included a trio of apple desserts. I believe I went into frenzies of ecstasy over that. But I liked everything that came out of his kitchen. I believe I may have embarrassed myself online with my raves.

So I was looking forward to seeing Jean-Claude on his home turf when we spent 16 days in France recently. Unfortunately, both my husband and I came down with head colds and had to delay our visit a bit. It was nearly our last day in the Lot when we finally made it up to Le Vinois, Jean-Claude's sleek-and-chic restaurant/inn, and meet his lovely wife, Elizabeth.

We were not disappointed with our meal. Our amuse bouche included two small and slender glasses of a cream appetizer soup and salmon with avocado. Our next course was ravioli pockets in a garlic sauce. Our main dish was a duck confit with whipped potatoes and a cabbage leaf stuffed with vegetables and folded to look like a large Brussels sprout.

"Best duck I ever had," said my husband.

Our dessert was a moist and crustless tarte tatin with a lemony-tang and a zig-zag of banana-y sauce spiked with ginger that tasted like the inside of my mother's spice drawer smelled when I was a little girl. The ice cream was light and fruity and topped with two toffee crisps.

By the time the dessert came along, my husband and I were nearly rolling on the floor with ecstasy.

Next came another unexpected treat: A small jar - yes, I said jar - of applesauce topped with a crust of rich chocolate. Then we had a lovely visit with Jean-Claude.

Local ingredients with a touch of classic style meet exotic accents and creative combinations: That's how I would describe Jean-Claude's culinary approach, though he may disagree. It is all presented with artistic flair in a contemporary ambience that is the perfect foil for the food.

I can recommend Le Vinois without reservations. But you had better make reservations. Elizabeth Voisin, who may answer the phone, is happy to speak with you in English, if you prefer.

We hope to return, this time spending a night or two in the inn. Caillac is a lovely little village with a 12th century church, a cafe and a spa. It is about 20 minutes from Cahors, and is perhaps best reached from Mercues or Pradines.

Le Vinois (Jean-Claude and Elizabeth Voisin)
Le Bourg
46140 Caillac
05-65-30-53-60
www.levinois.com

The night before, I'd made my own version of tarte tatin, using what I had on hand: Two Granny Smith apples and a bit of pie crust. It was pretty rustic, but tasted fine. I would never have thought of using Granny Smith apples back home, but they were perfect sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.

08 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Fig-Walnut Tarte with Cognac


It was summer when we arrived just four days ago but it feels like autumn now. The days are sunny and mild but the nights are cool and today we turned on the radiators.

As I walk across the lawn to the pool now, wine-dark leaves crunch underfoot and the dry ones scuttle across the cement tiles that surround the pool and hold the variety of wrought-iron chairs and tables and chaises. I sit out here in a sweater and a book, but I barely read. I am distracted by the hang gliders over Douelle – 10 of them one day! – the jets streaming out of Toulouse and the song of the autumn birds. The cuckoos are gone now, but the magpies are cackling and now and then I hear a whip-poor-will or a nightingale.

The figs on the northeastern side of the fig tree are ripening and I have picked a dozen or so for fig tarte.

Fig Walnut Tarte

your favorite recipe for pie crust
10-16 ripe figs, halved from top to bottom
¼ cup Armagnac, Cognac or Calvados
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 tablespoons brown sugar
¾-1 cup walnuts
dash sea salt

Prepare your pie crust as usual (I used a pate brisée mix from Carrefour and it was pretty good). Place in a round tarte pan or pie plate. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Note that this is a tarte and thus needs only a bottom crust.

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

Bake tarte for about 55 minutes on lower shelf in oven for 40-50 minutes. Watch carefully to ensure walnuts do not turn too dark.

It was rich and rustic and tasted of the terroir. The one touch I would add would have been whipped cream topping and some orange zest for an accent.

07 October 2008

Cooking in Cahors: Green Onion Dressing on Bitter Greens, Chicken with Rosemary


It makes me happy to putter around the kitchen and use whatever ingredients I have on hand to come up with a makeshift meal.

I find a sense of contentment in this task and find it more fulfilling than having a recipe to follow and the most costly ingredients. Perhaps this makes me a peasant in the kitchen. So be it.

On hand were truffle oil, some very fresh green onions and some seasonings. The sun was shining, the birds were chattering and the village church bells were ringing. I set to work.

I chopped three onions and set them aside. I poured a small amount of truffle oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar into one of those little French yogurt jars. I added the onions, and set the dressing aside for an hour or two, then added a dash of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. I used this on some bitter greens for a simple salad.

I snipped rosemary from the herb garden. Even at noon, the breeze smelled of wood fires. This adds a bit of magic to the whole process.

I sliced onions and put them in the bottom of a buttered casserole dish, layering rosemary, chicken breasts and small red potatoes. Another layer of rosemary, some sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and they went into a preheated oven.

It was a simple meal, and we washed it down with an inexpensive white table wine.

06 October 2008

France: The Black Wine of Cahors

The first thing I noticed was the smell; the aroma of Chez Bateau, the pleasant mix of must and wood smoke. It filled my nostrils and bade me welcome as we entered the house.

We were home. Not our home, of course, but a home we are privileged to call ours for a fortnight.

Outside the door was the oily aroma of herbs from the wild tangle of garden. I remembered this from last time.

I stood by the pool and looked out over the valley and the vineyards and heard the cooing of doves.

This was what I came for.

The air is always fresh here. Today, the day after our arrival, the air is again filled with sunshine and conifers and the faint smell of autumn on the rise.

The leaves are beginning to turn here, but most of the summer flowers are still in full bloom. The hydrangea are stunning, a blend of coral and pale chartreuse; only the roses are fading.

There is a breeze today, and it moans low in the trees and shrubs that dot the meadow running down to the grapevines.

We saw a falcon pirouette against the sky, and in the woods below the vineyards we could hear the frenzied barking of hunting dogs chasing some unfortunate prey.

Yes, this is home. A sensual but spiritual home. Such a vast array of riches to savor.

Among them are the three bottles of the famous black wine of Cahors that were waiting for us when we arrived. The first thing we did was take the Mini Cooper down to the supermarché for provisions to get us through the weekend. The second thing was to open a bottle and take it out to the pool so we could look out over the vineyards, woods and valley while we savored its rich, dark promise.

The wine (which must be 70 percent Malbec grape) is fruity and tannic and - depending on its age - a little bit tart. It has been historically considered easy on the stomach. According to its pedigree, Cahors wine was offered at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England. Its history is inextricably linked to that of the meandering Lot River. Its vineyards have been wiped out - or nearly wiped out - twice.

It is - like Chez Bateau and the country around it - pure magic.

20 September 2008

Paris: In September

Bonjour from Paris!

Our plane from Detroit landed earlier than usual and no luggage was misplaced or sent to Cairo, so we were tucked into our shuttle bus and whisked away at noon. Thankfully, the desk clerk at our hotel found us a room and were were able to nap, shower, and be on our way by 3:30 p.m., just in time to enjoy a balmy and golden September afternoon.

I have always wanted to come here in September.

We are near Gare de Lyon and the Bastille, and so far have meandered through our favorite St. Paul Village and the Place de Vosges. We've explored a few new areas, and found places I want to revisit.

We contemplated a dozen different eating places before choosing a small cafe in the shadow of the Gare de Lyon clock. We ordered salads, a bottle of deep rosé from the Midi. The waiter was engaging enough to allow us to share a piece of apple tarte for dessert without telling us this was not done in Paris (I am certain it is not. Perhaps I read that somewhere.)

We are here. We are happy. We are off on the train today. Our journey will cut pleasant swath through the Loire, the Berry and skirt the Massif Centrale. On to Cahors!

Oh, Paris. Je t'aime.

16 September 2008

The Well-Stocked French Kitchen

The first thing we will do at Chez Bateau is check the larder, and then drive down the south side of the causse to the nearest supermarche for provisions.

Chez Bateau's sunny little kitchen is well-stocked and we will likely find staples like pasta, rice, coffee, tomato sauce and olive oil. We will also find a cupboard that is completely stocked with essential kitchen tools and utensils. We will take our time cooking, and if the weather is fine, dine out by the pool overlooking the vineyards.

In Paris last year, we made do with a few cutting boards, a bread knife, a steak knife, a colander, skillet and sauce pan. Not so at Chez Bateau!

"How would you stock a French kitchen?" a reader asked me last winter. I thought about that for a while, then came up with my list of French kitchen essentials. These few items would do, I think, and keep my kitchen from becoming too cluttered

Pots and pans: A skillet, a sauté pan, sauce pan, roasting pan and stock pot.

Utensils: A good set of knives, a large whip, a small whip, a strainer.

Tools: Corkscrew, herb scissors, mortar and pestle, pastry bag, pie weights.

Miscellaneous containers: Large bread bowl, two smaller bowls, colander, souffle dish, tarte pan or pie plate.

Nice to have: A banneton, a French bread pan, an egg basket, a copper bowl for egg whites.

There are many, many other "essential tools," but these are the ones I have found to be the most useful and have collected over the past several years. Each time I go to Paris, I vow to find a mortar and pestle, which is the only item missing from my list.

With these tools, I can prepare the soups, salads, soufflés and stews that remain my favorite French dishes. And I can make baguettes and boules when the baking urge strikes. Did I mention tarte tatin?

What's missing from the list? I want to hear from you!

13 September 2008

Manuka Honey-Drenched Whole Grain French Toast with Walnuts

It is gray and damp in Wisconsin today, but we were outdoors early to clean out the nest boxes, fill the bird feeders, take down the wind chimes and move the copper birdbath inside. We stashed garden tools and pots in the horse barn.

I attended to the compost pile, adding vegetable scraps from the crisper, and plucked the remainder of the cherry tomatoes from the potted plant on the deck. Walking down into the garden, I noticed a small toad making its hip-hoppity way to a hiding place under the spreading yew. We take delight in these small creatures and happily share a yard with them.

Working outdoors on a cool morning helped us work up a hunger. It was obvious we needed a hearty breakfast.

Still bent on cleaning out the larder before we take off, I came up with this healthy concoction:

Whole Grain French Toast with Walnuts and Manuka Honey


  • 4 slices dense whole grain bread
  • 2 organic eggs
  • 1/4 cup vanilla soy milk
  • pinch sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • dash cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons Manuka honey
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • your favorite maple syrup, optional


Coat walnuts in 1 teaspoon butter, dash sea salt and 1 teaspoon brown sugar. Roast at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes, tossing frequently. While nuts are roasting, beat eggs, soy milk, sea salt, 1 teaspoon brown sugar, cinnamon in broad flat bowl. Immerse bread in egg mixture and soak for 3-4 minutes to ensure bread is thoroughly coated. Melt remainder of butter in skillet. Add soaked bread and cook over medium heat for 4-5 minutes until browned on both sides. Midway through cooking, add Manuka honey, which is reputed to have beneficial qualities. Remove French toast from skillet and place on plates, topping with walnuts and syrup.

Thanks to Fiona in New Zealand for the honey!

08 September 2008

Caramel Apples: The Sweet Rituals of Fall

I heard gunshots this morning, an early sign of the approaching season.

Every September they begin (It's always hunting season in Wisconsin, it seems), just about the time I am tumbling out of bed and shuffling downstairs for the strong and hot cup of coffee that will nudge me into the shower and eventually propel me out the door. I am no fan of guns, but these shots remind me of the welcome rhythms of the season (and in any case, they are coming from the other side of the river or perhaps the wetland a quarter mile away, known in the old days as Hunter's Slough).

There are other seasonal markers to appreciate: The smell of woodsmoke at night, the pumpkin stands along the highway, the skeins of geese that fly overhead at dusk, our sudden preference for red wine and hearty stews and soups. And caramel apples in the grocery store. We have made our own a time or two, but it has become tradition for me buy the first one of the season as an offering to my husband.

I bring it home and present it to him with a small bit of ceremony, a smile, a slight bow, a kiss. It might be silly of me, it might not be, but it is a ritual I enjoy and I think he does, too. We are adults with all too many responsibilities, but our relationship is based on a million silly little gestures, too. I like them, all of them. They, too, are part of life's rhythms.

Caramel apples, succotash, pumpkin pie, apple cider: The first taste of each in the fall is a marker of sorts, an essential rituals that provides us with a measure of security and sweetness.

It is early in the season yet, and there is much ahead to savor and appreciate.

What is your first culinary ritual of the fall?

28 August 2008

Mediterranean Vegetable Soup with Lentils

Puttering around in the kitchen listening to crickets and cicadas while I cut, chop, baste and stir is heavenly for me. This time of year brings me a deep satisfaction somehow, as the pace of life begins to quicken again. I have this sense of something about to happen.

It also saddens me, because another summer (so precious to us northerners!) is on the wane.

When I was a teenager, my mother and I often took walks together after dark this time of year. It was a chance for me to share my hopes for the school year ahead and my dreams for a time beyond school. We'd often choose a neighborhood to the northeast of Frenchtown, where the houses, built after 1915, were mostly shingled bungalows or 1920's-style cottages. Catching a glimpse of someone else's evening through an unshuttered window captured my imagination, and it is an image that has stayed with me for many years.

These days I sit on my side porch, or my newly-built (but yet unpainted) front porch and watch the street lights create pools of light in the evening. Occasionally, I will see a dog walker or jogger. My house is more than 110 years old now, and I often wonder about others who have sat on that porch watching night fall in years past. Did they feel the mix of contentment and sadness I feel this time of year?

Sunday was a day for sunshine and crickets, nightfall and porch sitting.

Our dinner of chicken, tomatoes and peppers was simple but comforting. The best part was the juice from the bottom of the roasting pan. I knew when I caught its aroma (and sneaked a spoonful) that I would be making soup Sunday night.

Easy Mediterranean Vegetable Soup with Lentils

  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/3 cup lentils
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, Italian style
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini, chopped
  • dash freshly-ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel


Place olive oil, butter and onion in skillet; brown slightly. Add chicken stock, water and lentils. Bring to a boil and lower heat, simmering for about 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, adding zucchini as carrots begin to soften. Simmer at least 20 minutes longer, adding salt and pepper.

I expect to get at least four meals out of this. My husband is not a vegetable soup fan, but even he admitted this smelled heavenly while simmering.

I used Lentils de Puy, purchased last year in Paris. Wonderful! I'll have to pick up another bag next month at Carrefour or Leclerc.

The soup lasted all week. I paired it with goat cheese and roasted pepper on crusty rolls.

07 August 2008

My Personal Wine History and a Visit to Sonoma County

About nine years ago, my husband suggested we create a wine tasting data base to record our adventures and our preferences. It seemed like a good idea, as many of my favorite magazines were starting to publish wine columns and our "want to try" list was getting longer and longer.

We never had the time - or never took the time - and we never purchased a wine program or did anything formal about it. But it was the start of something. An awareness perhaps. And we've had fun ever since.

My own adventures with wine started as a toddler. Yes. That's what I said. While the grownups enjoyed wine with their meals, I was given a wine glass filled with water and enough wine to add flavor - and pique my interest. I don't think it did any harm; in fact, it was probably useful. Early on, I saw wine as a meal accompaniment and not something to be consumed in large quantities in order to achieve an altered state.

But I've been here, too.

These days, my husband and I often drink a glass or two before and during dinner. We enjoy the complexity of wine, and we like to experiment with pairings and we talk about building a wine cave like the one my brother built. We've got the perfect place for it, but we've got a lot of other priorities, too.

We're not especially educated and we've not snobbish. In the last month or two, we've tasted Two Buck Chuck (now three bucks) as well as some pricier wines. As for bubbly, we like everything from the occasional supermarket offering to the bottle of Dom Perignon that is awaiting just the right celebratory event.

Recently at dinner we ordered a meritage blend from California's Central Coast that was layered and rich, with a plummy introduction and a cherry-vanilla finish. Next month, we'll enjoy the black wine of Cahors as we look out over our own (for two weeks, anyway) private vineyard.

I recently spend several days in Sonoma County, tasting, learning and observing. The variety before me was awesome, as they say, but in the true sense of the word. Thanks to A for her wine tour and to E, F and M for their companionship.

I'll be back, Sonoma...

What's your wine story?

20 May 2008

Patricia and Walter Wells: They've Always had Paris...and a Good Deal More


It might have been Bill Ragsdale who told me about Patricia Wells all those years ago.

Wilmot Ragsdale - Rags, as he was affectionately known - was a rather legendary journalism professor at UW-Madison. I never took one of his classes, but I had a drink with him once at a friend's celebration. S., my friend, had finished defending her master's thesis and a rather large group of us celebrated over wine and spaghetti at an Italian restaurant near the sprawling campus.

In the early 80s, Jane Brody, a prominent journalism-school alumna, was all the buzz, but someone - was it Rags or his friend and colleague Hartley E. Howe, who was one of my professors? - said there was another J-school grad who had just begin to write about food in Paris.

I was envious. I was studying French in those days, after a long hiatus, and I was struggling. I was also struggling financially, trying to hold body and soul together by writing news releases, crunching numbers for one historian and running errands for another.

Learning and writing about food in Paris sounded like a dream to me, but it was reality for Patricia Wells, a fellow Wisconsinite, and her handsome husband Walter, also a journalist.

Imagine how delighted I was to learn a few weeks back, that the couple had written a book together, "We've Always Have Paris...and Provence."

Patricia begins her acknowledgments quoting Bill Ragsdale. "Be bold," he used to say, and he said it to Patricia, too. I, too, have kept those words in mind and they've propelled me forward often.

Walter and Patricia alternate writing passages, and so their story is told in two voices, with two perspectives.

I like these people - and not just because they are or have been fellow journalists. They have high standards and they've worked hard. Their life has not always run smoothly, but it has been good - very good. I've learned a lot about Paris and Provence from them over this chilly Wisconsin weekend, and a good deal about myself and where I want to go in the future. As role models, Patricia and Walter Wells are good ones to have.

Read this book. Try the recipes. (Of course, there are recipes!) If you like food and you like France, it is necessary.


Note: The photo above was taken outside a Paris restaurant on Rue de Monttessuy a year ago. It bears no relationship to Patricia or Walter Wells, except that it was taken near a restaurant recommended by Patricia. The restaurant is Au Bon Accueil. On our first night in the quartier a year ago, a small jazz band seranaded someone at the restaurant. We were charmed.

07 May 2008

Growing and Drying Herbs

I bought my first small pots of herbs yesterday: Cilantro, Rosemary, Sage and Basil.

It gave me great pleasure to do so. I was on my noon hour, which is usually non-existent or much less than an hour, when my soul needed sustenance.

Bringing the plants up to my nose, I breathed deeply and fully. Is there any sweeter aroma than the first herbs of the season?

I love the soapy aroma of cilantro and the licorice-like flavor of basil. Sage has a calming affect on me and rosemary is probably my favorite of all.

Even before I knew the scents and names of herbs, I knew they were magical. I am not referring to their medicinal or even mystical properties, mind you, but to something I saw Grandma Annie do when I was about eight years old.

Someone had given her a bunch of parsley, which she tied and hung to dry in her back kitchen.

I loved that room, the big red cabinet, the battered old table, the ancient treadle sewing machine and the pleasant jumble of pots and pans and crocks and cheese boxes. Down a short hall from the warm kitchen, it was a cool place for just-from-the-oven pies and cookies.

The wallpaper, probably from around 1920, was a yellowed cream with green and red flowers. The plaster underneath it was crumbling and I have since come to believe this was the original wing of the old house, very possibly dating from 1863.

It was always a little mysterious, shut away as it was from the daily traffic of the old house in Frenchtown.

I knew somehow that the drying herbs imbued it with some sort of magic. They remained hanging from a nail for months, and were eventually joined by other herbs.

Annie used the room mostly for storage, only spending time there when she sewed, which she did with fierce concentration. This she did in August, pumping her foot to the rhythm of crickets and cicadas.

But I knew the room was magic, and I often lingered there. It seemed to calm me, to soothe me in some way I could not grasp as a child.

Today I have my own back room, with a large computer desk, an old cabinet and some book shelves. It is a catch all for pots and pans and cheese boxes and crocks. When we were doing major work on the front part of the house, living out of town and commuting on weekends, this was the room we lived in at the end of the day. It is my favorite place in late summer, when the crickets are singing.

29 April 2008

Paris: A Visit to Galerie Vivienne

Five years ago I sat in a hospital cafeteria while my husband, a relatively young man, had bypass and carotid artery surgery on the same day.

I was terrified, and had taken some medication to dull the terror. To keep my mind off the ordeal, I read - or tried to read - the then-current issue of "Paris Notes."

We so often recall so vividly the details of life-defining moments, and this was one for me: I was reading about Paris' indoor shopping galleries and wondering if I would ever visit one. It seemed unlikely at the time.

With each visit to Paris, I have learned more and seen more and experienced more. Finally, last year I visited Galerie Vivienne just north of the Palais Royal. We stumbled upon it, actually, in our search for Le Grand Colbert.

This L-shaped shopping area was built in the 1820s, but their popularity waned once the big department stores emerged.

For me, there is something elegant and indulgent about shopping at such a place. I imagine buying frothy lingerie, heady perfume, a slim volume of 19th century poetry.


I have yet to shop extensively in Paris, except for food and trinkets to bring home to family and friends. But when I am missing Paris and feeling empty because of it, I have a local shop that gentles and soothes me. It is a large boutique located on the lower floor of a big old-fashioned department store that has been restored and made into apartments.

Here I find silk scarves and beaded purses and textured jackets and glitzy necklaces cheek-by-jowl with Tiffany-style lamps and furniture from Asia and India and rich leather jewelry cabinets and the most delicate china. I try to visit once a month or so and I am always amazed at how the inventory turns over.

Recently I bought a silk scarf from Paris there, and knowing where it came from soothed me on a bad day.

A bit like a visit to lovely Galerie Vivienne.

Now that I've found this enchanting place, my next goal is a enjoy a meal at one of the galerie tenants, A Priori Thé, a restaurant savvy enough to serve desserts in half portions. Why can't more restaurants do this?

22 April 2008

Paris: The Jardin des Plantes

Last spring, we came upon this winged creature in the Jardin des Plantes, and since he is made completely of recycled materials, he makes a good photo for Earth Day.

Each year, I take small steps toward becoming greener. I recycle books, plastic bags, cans, jars, bottles - as do most of us. We never use styrofoam, and we try not to overdo paper towels. We've learned to cut down on our driving, and my husband prefers to bicycle to work in the summer. We compost. We try to use what we have instead of buying new. We try to buy locally and fresh, with no additional packaging.

But there is so much more we can do.

I am appalled at the wasteful packaging that runs rampant in the health and beauty industry; my goal for the next year is not to buy products that use lots of plastic molding.

I was encouraged recently when I found paper bowls that were made from corn, potatoes and limestone.

I've found one of the best ways to be green is to have the Frugal French Gene.

How about you? Got any tips for me?

12 April 2008

Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Almond-Stuffed Olives


When I looked outside Saturday morning and saw December instead of April, I was surprised but not disheartened. When it is cold and blustery outside, there are plenty of antidotes inside.

Start by lighting a scented candle. My favorites for days like this evoke the Mediterranean. In the dining room are eucalyptus and herbes de Provence, while the kitchen candle is apricot.

Next plan your menu for the day. Tomatoes and roasted peppers are what I prefer when the weather is gray. Perhaps some cheese. Voila! The basis for a roasted pepper salad.

1-12 cherry tomatoes, slightly roasted
3 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 red bell peppers,
2 garlic cloves
10-12 chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese
olives (mine were green and stuffed with almonds)
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
dash sel de fleur
dash pepper, freshly ground

Toss the the cherry tomatoes and toss them in one teaspoon olive oil. Roast at medium heat in a small oven until they are just soft; chill. Next, cut the red peppers into strips and chop the garlic. Toss peppers and garlic in a bowl and coat with the remainder of the olive oil. Roast at 425 for about 15-20 minutes until the peppers begin to turn black along the edges and the garlic turns brown. Place in a large bowl and set aside to chill.

Once roasted ingredients are chilled, toss with cheese and olives. Add parsley (and basil, if you have any fresh on hand; I did not). Cover and chill for two hours. Season after you taste test.

This is a sweet salad! I served it with London Broil that had been rubbed with herbes de Provence and garlic.

Just making it cheered me immensely. Preparing the countertop, chopping the garlic, and roasting the peppers gave me a purpose.

There is nothing quite like puttering about in the kitchen, is there?

07 April 2008

Key Lime Chicken






When I drive down Roosevelt Road at dusk, I roll the windows of my car down so I can hear the chorus of spring peepers and bullfrogs and other night creatures. No matter how cold, no matter how rainy, I want to hear this song, this celebration of my favorite season.

When I was a child, I'd sit on our back steps on April nights, one ear cocked for the sound of robins, the other taking in the sounds of post-supper cleanup in the kitchen and the boys playing baseball in Olson's empty lot three doors away. The clatter of pots and pans, the thwack of the bat against the ball: These were the sounds of spring evenings.

The smell of earth, newly released from winter's grasp was sensual, fertile, waiting. The color of the sky was azure turning to salmon.

I loved it. And the warmer days that followed.

Saturday was such a day, with everyone turned out with rakes and brooms and yard waste bins.

On these days, I seek certain food: seafood, tomatoes, citrus fruits. Like key limes.

Key Lime Chicken

  • 3-4 boneless chicken breasts
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon key lime peel, grated
  • 2 tablespoon key lime juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger, ground
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 orange, sliced
In small bowl, combine lime peel, lime juice, ginger, and red pepper. Set aside.

Rinse chicken; pat dry. Brown chicken and garlic in a skillet with margarine, turning chicken frequently to ensure even browning and cooking.

Slice oranges while chicken is browning. Add lime juice mixture and orange slices to skillet. Cook for 3-4 minutes until chicken is thoroughly cooked.

I served this with a small green salad, rice and mango chutney. Green beans are another side dish that would pair well with this chicken.


This was adapted from a recipe I found on Everyday Health.