20 December 2009

Enter the Season

I liked this photo so much, I wanted to include a version of it in my holiday greeting.

The run up to Christmas is here. This holiday means different things to different people. To me it is a season of introspection, followed by an opportunity for renewal. There is a spiritual element for me, but it may not align with the traditional notions. I believe the meaning behind the symbols of this season are what should resonate in hearts.

Generosity, humility, innocence, kindness are what we should carry with us as we move into the future, or the next phase.

May you enjoy good food, good people and good thoughts as you enter this season.

14 November 2009

The Best of FKIA: Warm Brussels Sprout Salad for Thanksgiving Dinner

I've never been a fan of green bean casserole at Thanksgiving, although for some reason unfathomable to me, it has become a seasonal classic. I'll pass on it this year and make the following dish, which I discovered two years ago.

I buy Brussels sprouts each week; along with broccoli and red pepper they are staples in my crisper. Shallots are also something I almost always keep on hand.

Warm Brussels Sprout and Shallot Salad with Pecans
  • 16-20 large Brussels sprouts
  • 3-4 large shallots
  • tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • tablespoon unsalted butter
  • dash freshly ground pepper
  • dash fleur de sel
Wash and trim Brussels sprouts, removing outer leaves and base. Cut into thin slices. Drizzle with olive oil, toss, and place in a skillet or sauté pan. Brown slightly over medium heat until sprouts are just a bit limp. Remove from pan and set aside, covering to keep warm. Peel and slice shallots; using the same pan, brown shallots slightly in butter. Add pecans. Toss shallots and pecans with Brussels sprouts, adding a dash of fleur de sel and pepper.

I served this with a warm bacon dressing. A cranberry vinaigrette would be nice, too, or a mustard-y oil and vinegar blend.


30 September 2009

Chicago: Paris on Lake Michigan

I had forgotten how much I love downtown Chicago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 September 2009

Papaya and Shrimp



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

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

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

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

25 August 2009

One-Dish Dinners as Nights Grow Colder

Part of me longs to be a sophisticated woman of the world, but another part of me is rather proud of my humble roots in a community that is largely blue collar and prides itself on being down-to-earth. Dollar stores thrive here and so do restaurants that offer down-home cooking. Most people here would rather drink beer than wine. If you grew up here, chances are you grew up eating casseroles.

As the daughter of a chef, I grew up in both worlds. Some nights I'd come home to lobster and other nights, we'd scarf down casseroles. Some meals were elaborate affairs: Italian night, French night, Chinese night, even Titanic night. Picnics in winter, on the floor of the living room. Made-from-scratch pizza on Saturday nights, with leftover sloppy-joe meat on top.

My husband grew up eating casseroles and meat-and-potato meals. His mother worked as a bookkeeper, and the way he tells it, meals were easy to prepare and vegetable were from cans.

There's nothing we enjoy more than a meal in a really good restaurant, whether it's a fancy French place or a steakhouse. We like meals at home just as well, and more often than not in fall and winter, that means a one-dish meal. Our favorite is browned Italian sausage, often cut with ground chuck, stewed tomatoes, onions and roasted red peppers with some sort of pasta. There's usually a dash of thyme and a dash of herbes de Provence. The meal is often accompanied by an easy salad of mixed greens and a humble merlot.

When I was a kid, my mother made a ground-beef-and-potato casserole with cream of chicken soup and onions. I can't think of a better comfort food! I love this stuff.

We often need comfort as the summer makes its slow slide into fall. While I am usually content to be home at nights during the winter months, this time of year I don't look forward to the long dark time ahead. It's dark enough at 8 p.m. now. We turn the lights on early these days, and we are sleeping under comforters and quilts. I feel out of place wearing whites and linens.

I feel a craving for hearty dishes already. Think I'll make that casserole tomorrow.

What about you?

07 August 2009

Night Noise

At night our neighborhood takes on a completely different persona.

It is no longer the leafy, hilly grid of late-19th century streets where people walk their dogs and their children, using the street, not the sidewalk as a walking path because not all the blocks have sidewalks. The mix of professors, teachers, bankers, laborers and health care workers who live in the houses here are sleeping (or like me, they are trying to).

But someone walks the streets dragging things around. And someone else yells things into a bullhorn.

The dragger first: For nearly a decade, on odd nights all year round, I hear the rattle of something that might be a wagon or cart being dragged or pulled down the street. It starts to the south and moves north toward the river. It is loud enough to wake me, and sometimes it takes a while for me to realize it is what I've come to think of as The Night Noise that has interrupted my precious sleep.

Someone is moving things at a time when they are likely to be unnoticed. Or, as I once suspected, perhaps someone is scavenging for things.

I cannot jump out of bed and rush to the window. Well, I could - were I lucid enough - but the cedar trees block my view. By the time I am awake enough to comprehend that The Night Noise is back, whatever is making the noise has traveled farther north and is out of view.

The Bullhorn is something else entirely. We have heard it all year round and at all times of evening or early morning. There was a time when I thought it was coming from a large mill located up the river, but the words projected by the bullhorn are not words that would be said over a public address system, if you get my drift.

I've asked neighbors about it. Apparently, my husband and I are the only ones who have heard it and it was only last year, or perhaps the summer before, when my husband finally heard The Bullhorn for himself.

Living as I once did in a series of urban apartments, I have heard many odd and alarming sounds at night. But these noises baffle me, and I won't be happy until I discover their source.

Tired as I am after a night of sleeplessness last night, I did see "Julie and Julia" tonight. It's been a long time since a movie has engaged me that much, even though I knew the outcome. See it, if you have not.

The photo is from May 2007: Rue de Monttessuy, 7th arr., Paris.

05 July 2009

The Twists and Turns of Side Streets and Dark Alleys

I have never stayed on the main road for too long. The little side streets, the tangents of life are too intriguing.

In my career I sidetracked for a long time, which ultimately helped put me on the main road again with more horsepower and sharper vision.

But sometimes there are places I'd rather not explore. Some of those places are dark lanes in old Cahors, just feet from the lively and friendly market place, which teems with life and flavor and the more guttural accent of the Midi Pyrenees. (Some friends had a close call near here a few years back. We are vigilant.)

So I took photographs instead, and found this one intriguing with its rosy hues.

Not much time to cook just now.

02 May 2009

Roasted Chicken on Sundays

Every season has moments of enchantment that occur at when you least expect them.

Last night, I had to present an award at a spring banquet. While I knew I would be in good company, it was Friday and I was tired and I wasn't especially looking forward to a long night in a chair at a dinner table.

Fortunately for me, the dinner took place at an attractive venue with a view of sea grass and bay on one side and gently rolling hills on the other. My chair faced the bay and while I waited for my turn at the podium, I watched a pair of fishing boats trawl the bay in the sunset. The rays of the setting sun fired the boats and I was able to see that the fishermen were dragging nets. Somehow this fired my imagination, too. My body was inside but my spirit was out on the cool bay, feeling the wind in my hair.

When I finally got to the podium, I looked up in the other direction to see a perfect ball-of-orange sun setting in a deep-teal-and-indigo sky. I could barely concentrate on my lines, so brilliant was the sun.

I sat down at my table again. Now the boats were lighted by torches of some sort. I watched them drift out of sight when it grew dark and the event ended. I stepped outside to my car, surrounded by the welcome spring chorus of tree frogs and even loons and made the 11-mile trip into town.

Sometimes these small things make for a magical evening. It has happened time and time again in my life, and it always grounds me and gentles me after a period of stress.

On the way home, I notice more people on bicycles than I have in the past, something I suspect is spurred by the economy. I like that. We are embracing simpler things, out of necessity, perhaps, but perhaps we will carry these new habits forward into better times. A few weeks ago, amidst an April shower, I saw a man on a bike carrying a bouquet of spring flowers. I can only imagine the utter devotion that might inspire an older man to ride a bike to a flower shop or grocery store in the rain. Someone is very much loved, I hope.

We continue to find much to celebrate in this crazy world.

On Sunday I will roast chicken, rubbing it with herbs de Provence and surrounding it with whatever strikes my fancy. Usually it is onions, carrots and new potatoes coat in olive oil. The herb-y aroma will pervade my house.

The weekend. Life is good.

What about you? What signs have you read lately?

28 April 2009

Baked Brie with Cherries and Pecans

I was attracted to this idea (a recipe contest using Brie cheese) because of my paternal grandmother's maiden name, La Brie. I thought I could come up with some cute approach.

But the truth is, if someone along the St. Lawrence River, circa 1700, had not begun calling a guy named Migneault by the name LaBrie, she might have been Laura Migneault. I suppose the moniker was a reflection of the Migneault's roots in Melun, a cheesemaking city south of Paris - an ancient version of Cheesehead (as we Badgers are often called). "Dit" names, as they are known to every genealogist with a French Canadian heritage, can also reflect an occupation. Perhaps I am descended from cheesemakers.

I was running out of cute when I realized I had to turn in my recipe and photo by tomorrow.

My first couple of ideas flopped. I was desperate. But not out of ideas. A few years ago, my husband and I caught Emeril Lagasse's baked brie show on the Food Network. We've been enjoying that treat ever since, usually around the holidays.

What about baked dip? I scrounged around the cupboard and found dried cherries, a staple, and a bag of pecans. Here's what I came up with:

Baked Brie Dip with Dried Cherries and Pecans
  • 1 package Brie Cheese, trimmed and cubed
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • dash fleur de sel
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 teaspoons dried cherries

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat. Add chunks of brie and stir until melted and blended. Stir in brown sugar and fleur de sel, gradually adding pecans and cherries. Place in a small ramekin and bake for 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.

The result is a slightly sweet cheesy spread for crackers with the merest hint of salt.

I'm tasting this on thin slices of whole wheat beer bread, slightly toasted.

Note: In the interests of transparency, I must disclose that I was invited to join this contest. The cheese was provided by Ile de France. I have no hopes of winning, but it was fun!

15 April 2009

Left Bank or Right Bank?

My friend Frank the Francophile, an irreverent Irishman, keeps me supplied with travel stories about France I might have missed (and usually have). He has a master's degree in French, and takes great pleasure in correcting me. He enjoys it so much, I am sure he was a Parisian shopkeeper in a past life.

Anyway, Frank pointed me to a copy of this story, which compares the right and left banks of Paris. Thank goodness this is not something we have to choose between. I mean, even if you were lucky enough to live in Paris, you could live on one bank and hang out on another.

Each visitor to Paris finds his or her own city; Paris, after all, is a highly individualized experience. But I am curious are you right bank or left bank?

On our first visit, we took a liking to the area sandwiched between Avenue Rapp and Avenue de la Bourdonnais, literally at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, we rented a small flat there and enjoyed the daily round first hand, not merely as flaneurs. We even made friends with the lovely lady at Magda Traiteur. I feel very comfortable here.

I am quite enamored with the neighborhood near St. Sulpice, and would like to rent a flat there some day. I was not enchanted with Montparnasse, and found more smokers there than any other area in Paris. Really.

I like the warren of streets in the Latin Quartier, just north of the Pantheon. Something draws me there. My husband likes Tolbiac, and I would like to spend some time in the 14th someday.

I love the Left Bank.

But, oh, my passion for the grittiness of Rue St. Antoine (and Rue de Rivoli, for that matter) is well documented here. I found beauty at the Jardin des Halles, perhaps sensing the spirits of the vendors of the old marketplace. My husband likes the raw energy of Rue de la Roquette; I have to agree. Last fall, we spent a fair amount of time - just off the plane and without our bearings - wandering around the area just north of the Bastille. I really like that quartier, too.

We visit Village St. Paul again and again and we especially love the staff at The Red Wheelbarrow bookshop. We enjoy our fellow customers, too.

A few years ago, our Paris shuttle driver took us on streets we'd never visited just north of the Champs Elysees. It felt elegant to me.

We once made brief foray into Auteuil, which I once read was the part of Paris most like Provence. Must try that out soon.

I love the Right Bank.

Did I mention the islands?

What about you? Come lurkers and Francophiles and tell me what part of Paris - which bank or which island - resonates with you?

10 April 2009

Fish Fries, Fishing, Sea Food and Markets in Paris

Spring is finally upon us. I think I said that a month ago. This time I mean it. About a week ago I began drooling over photographs and memories of Paris in April.

So I knew it was spring. Besides, it's Easter weekend, and that generally signals winter's certain departure. Yes, even the year spring was late (April 28) and we woke up to a thin cover of snow. Yup, even then.

For me, the first balmy days are usually accompanied by a fierce desire for sea food or fish. Here in Catholic Wisconsin, Friday fish fries are hugely popular all year round. Each restaurant has a slightly different take, but most serve fried fish with French fries, cole slaw, baked beans and rye bread.

When I was a child, it was hard to find certain types of fish or sea food in our area, but with a father in the restaurant business, that was no problem at our house. I never knew what I would come home to on Fridays: Lobster boiling or clams steaming. At noon, we had fish sticks and French fries with green peas.

I love the open-air fish markets of Paris, the gritty, briny bins of muscles or clams that make me want to cook them up with some garlicky white sauce and a bottle of well-matched white wine. But I am just as happy scarfing down a fish fry at the local family restaurant with its glorious view of the water, the brownish seagrasses glinting golden in the setting sun, and the string of glittering lights from across the bay.

And so I did tonight, and then we drove home along the river where hundreds of fishermen (and women) lined the shore or stood in shallow water in pursuit of smelt or sturgeon or whatever fish are running right now. I felt a little frisson of delight to see dozens of men in waders near the old scaling gap, and thought of my Irish great grandfather, a scaler in the lumber days, a lithe brown-haired man with nine lives. I saw bonfires lining the shores of the islands, and sensed the carnival atmosphere. It was almost like the old days, when smelt ran by the thousands and there really was a carnival with a smelt queen and smelt wrestling.

And then I remembered that some of the fishermen might be fishing out of necessity, not out of love for the sport, or for the damp spring night setting in on the eve of a holiday weekend, a spiritual holiday, but a time for family and celebrating just the same. I felt a bit sad, but not for long. We are blessed to have the river and the bay and the lovely night.

I hope you are blessed on this weekend.

30 March 2009

No More Winter!

Just when we think winter has lost its icy grip, it comes back in a sneak attack.

There's nothing sneaky about the snow and sleet we are due to get tomorrow, though. We are prepared for it. Meanwhile, I've been stocking up on spring jackets in pinks and yellows and scarfs in flighty floral patterns.

I crave spring.

The photo above is deceiving. It was late September near Montcuq, when we took a detour and ended up on a little road along the causses. This charming scene, a bit out of focus, captured me.

I hope you like it.

15 February 2009

Baked Pears with Calvados and Mascarpone Cheese

For Grandma Annie, a fresh, juicy pear was the ultimate treat.

It took me rather a long time to appreciate pears. I found the taste a bit metallic and far too subtle on my young palate. Give me an orange instead, later an apple. That was then. This is now.

I was an adult before I began to savor the pear, which I now realize is a more sophisticated and shapelier cousin of of the apple.

A few years back, as we settled into autumn in the southwest of France, I bought two bottles of cider, pear and apple. Pear was sweet and light, while the apple was vinegar-y and heavy to my American-bred palate. I tossed it out.

Baked Pear with Calvados and Mascarpone Cheese (serves four)

  • 2 Red Bartlett pears
  • 1/4 cup Calvados
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the cheese topping:
  • 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
  • dash vanilla extract
  • pinch sugar
  • 2 tablespoons roasted walnuts


Halve the pears, cutting from the top down, and hollow out the center. A grapefruit spoon or a sturdy melon baller is perfect for this task. Set aside.

Melt butter and sugar, add the Calvados and a pinch of cinnamon. Pour over the pears and allow them to absorb the liquid for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 375. Place the pears cut side up in a buttered baking dish. Drizzle the remaining liquid over the pears, allowing it to pool in the center of the pear halves. Bake for 30-40 minutes until pears are softer, but still firm.

While pears are baking, blend mascarpone with vanilla and sugar.

Remove pears from oven. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stuff center of pears with mascarpone cheese. Top with roasted walnuts.

The taste is subtle, the sensation on the tongue is crisp, creamy and crunchy.

05 February 2009

A Humble Little Cafe

I want to own a humble little restaurant. A café, really, with only a few tables and a small menu. Unpretentious, with a daily special and a friendly waiter.

There was such a café in our town once, owned by a local foodie who grew up in the restaurant business. There were probably five tables inside, and a small terrace in back, overlooking the water. it changed hands a couple of times. One owner put two tables on the street and three more on the terrace.

One day my husband and I, waiting on a Friday afternoon for our friends at the bookstore, bought lemonades near closing time. We went out into the terrace, and much to our surprise, watched the owner as he locked the door. No matter, the tiny terrace was open on the water side and we simply made our way down to the path along the shore. We found this all very charming and a bit amusing.

(The photo above is not a café, but a table outside an antique store in St. Paul Village in the Marais. This seems to be common in the village, which I imagine to be its own little community.)

I want to own a place that makes customers feel they are treating themselves while spending very little money. It can be done.

In these bad times, we can't give up on the good ones. We need them. My community has seen many layoffs recently; some are temporary. Some may not be. The number now is likely to be in the hundreds. I don't know for sure.

What I do know is that we still need sustenance. And sometimes we don't feel like cooking. So we need an affordable treat. That is getting harder to find.

Our spirits need sustenance, too. That can mean many different things. It certainly can mean a good meal in a humble little café.

What do you think?

01 February 2009

Roasted Asparagus and Red Pepper Salad with Chevre and Bacon

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" and "Shop locally - check your pantry" are two phrases I've been hearing a lot of lately.

Except for the doing without, I'm pretty good at being frugal. If someone would have told me even a few years ago that the penurious years of college and the early stages of my career would train me for the rest of my life, I might have been shocked. But I'm closer to retirement than college now, and I'm wondering just what the future holds. We're lucky for now. For now.

So I continue to save scraps of this and that for future soups and stews. My freezer is filled with odds and ends, that make for some pretty interesting and sometimes inspired meal pairings.

Sunday night, we had four red peppers and a bunch of asparagus in the crisper. We wanted a light meal. My husband was feeling flu-ish and I was sure I was next.

Roasted Asparagus and Red Pepper Salad with Chevre and Bacon
  • 3-4 red peppers, washed and trimmed into strips.
  • 10-15 asparagus spears, washed and trimmed
  • 1-2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 medium shallots, cut into thin slices
  • 2 tablespoons chevre
  • 1 tablespoon bacon bits

Pre heat oven to 425. Coat peppers and asparagus and roast them until they begin to turn brown along the edges. You may want to give the red peppers a 10-minute head start. While the vegetables are roasting, brown the shallots in olive oil in a small skillet until they turn transparent and golden. Once the vegetables are roasted, allow to cool for 3 minutes and layer them on a salad plate, sprinkling chevre and bacon bits. Season with fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper.

I added this dressing

This salad would be great with a sausage-based dish or with herbed chicken.

31 January 2009

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts

Some tastes just work together. Which ingredients should be paired with other ingredients is a matter of individual taste.

For me there are some basic rules for pairings in a recipe.
  • The flavors must have something in common.
  • The flavors must balance each other.
  • There must be a counterpoint, a foil.
Brie-en-croute is a favorite dessert we tried a few years back when my husband's incessant channel surfing stopped for five minutes while Emeril Lagassé was kicking it up a notch. Emeril's version, which paired walnuts with brie and brown sugar in a pastry shell, sounded tasty. I flew to the computer (this was long before we had a laptop and an iPad) to locate the site and print out the recipe.

Brie is creamy and earthy and comforting. Bland with a tang. To my palate, a creamy chocolate with a hint of salt seemed a good match for it. See what you think:

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts
  • 1 package pre-made puff pastry or similar product, thawed
  • 1 8-ounce round of brie cheese
  • 1 large or 2-3 small pieces of high quality milk or dark chocolate
  • 1/4 cup coarsely-chopped walnuts
  • egg wash
  • flour for dusting work surface

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to form a round shape, about the size of a pie crust.

Place the round of brie in the middle of the circle. Press the chocolate down into the brie. Fold the puff pastry up so that it encloses the brie, smoothing down seams and trimming off excess dough. (Save the excess and use cookie cutters to create shapes for decoration.) Top with walnuts.

Place ball of filled dough on a parchment lined baking sheet. Coat with egg wash. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until pastry turns golden brown.

My pastry was too cake-y, not flaky enough. But the taste was heavenly. It would even better with homemade pastry dough.

My chocolate was from Jean-Paul Hevin.


28 January 2009

Onion Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin

I love potato chips and dip. It is one treat I refuse to give up, so I consume it in small quantities. I prefer to make my own dips, and enjoy experimenting.

This passion has its roots in the Saturday nights of my childhood when my mother and her younger sister would open a bag of chips and dip them into a blend of cream cheese, onions and ketchup while sipping Coca Cola. I still love this basic dip. (My mother loves chips and dip so much, we used to call her The Big Dipper.)

Onions and cream cheese are obviously essential. Fresh onions are best, but minced work, too.

In 2005, my husband and I discovered Brett's Olive-Flavored potato chips on a trip to France. We never found them in the U.S.

For that matter, we have never found them again in France. We've searched high and low. But along the way, we've sampled tomato-and-garlic, rotisserie chicken, and red-pepper chips.

Within the past decade, flavored chips have popped up in the U.S., too and we enjoy sampling them. But nothing beats old-fashioned - and plain - potato chops. We always opt for reduced fat.

This dip, which I first made on a visit to France, is excellent with any type of chip:

Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin (serves two)
  • 1 cup creme fraiche (or half cream cheese and sour creme)
  • 1/3 cup boursin with garlic and herbs (or Alouette or similar brand)
  • 1 scant tablespoon mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon (at least) chopped sweet onions
  • dash pepper

Simply blend ingredients and allow flavors to marry for several hours in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.

This is my favorite chip dip ever. Creme fraîche is not always easy to find locally, but I do stumble across it from time to time at larger supermarkets. You can make your own, too.

I have also made a simple dip by blending aioli with creme fraîche. A trip to a French grocery store is never complete until we've checked the potato chip offerings.




26 January 2009

Cheddar-Cheese-Beer Dip Just in Time for the Super Bowl

Cheese and beer are two mainstays of the Wisconsin diet.

So it's no wonder that local grocery stores sell cheddar-and-beer dip for pretzels or potato chips this time of year. I succumbed to the lure of this deli delicacy at two different supermarkets. It was a hit.

I'd tasted it before at holiday potlucks, but since we rarely have beer in the house (my husband prefers scotch), I'd never actually made it.

So it was time to learn. Luckily, I had two cans of beer left from last summer's beer bread trials (more on this in the future).

Cheddar Cheese-Beer Dip

1 eight-ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup beer
1 teaspoon minced onions
dash garlic salt
dash paprika

Blend first three ingredients in bowl. Add onions and garlic salt (I have made this with one minced garlic clove) and blend again. Sprinkle top with paprika.

There are numerous variations to this. A teaspoon of mayo or ketchup adds an extra zing. A pinch of seasoning salt does, too. There's another version made with ranch dressing mix.

Since the holidays ended, we've gone back to our more conservative eating habits. On cold nights (there don't seem to be any other kind this time of year), we've been having popcorn, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of that garlic salt and even cheddar cheese.

18 January 2009

Apricot-Walnut French Toast and a Visit to Albas

Entering Albas on the Lot River from the south.
Growing up in Frenchtown (which felt like home to us in a way our neighborhood on the other side of town did not), we felt closest to our French roots on Sundays. Perhaps it was the crow of the neighbor's rooster at sunrise, or the chatter of old folks in French after mass, or the long family meal at midday, or the feeling of lassitude that came over us in the afternoon.

In France, I find that feeling again, in the quiet of a rural afternoon. Sundays are nearly always the time for a late breakfast, a brief nap and a drive in the country.

One sunny Sunday last September, we set out to follow the meandering River Lot as it made its lazy way west.

First we conquered Douelle with its narrow streets. We have experienced Douelle often enough to know that Sundays are quiet there and we don't have to hold our breaths or cross our fingers or pray that we do not meet any traffic from the opposite direction.

We breezed through and set out for a more open road that took us past prosperous vineyards. Here the land looked more like Wisconsin, save for the houses and barns. We wound our way through Luzech, charmed by the feel of it. The wine country is prosperous, and Luzech seemed so. We stopped along the river, and took photos at the river's edge.

It was Albas that caught my imagination, with its narrow winding streets and its welcoming view. The sight of a village clinging to a cliff above a river is not something I see in my everyday life. My husband stopped the car at a small lookout over the river so I could take the photo above.

Fortunately our hearty breakfast kept us fueled as we explored the Lot River valley to the west of Cahors that afternoon. So many twists and turns!

Apricot-Walnut French Toast is a good use for stale bread.
Apricot-Walnut French Toast

  • 6 slices apricot or cinnamon-raisin bread
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup cream or milk
  • tablespoon brown sugar
  • teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash cinnamon
  • pinch salt

For the sauce:
  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves
  • tablespoon melted butter
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
Beat eggs, cream or milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in large bowl. Soak bread until it is thoroughly moist, but not falling apart. Place in buttered skillet and brown.

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

Remove bread from skillet and smother in apricot-walnut sauce. This is delicious when served with vanilla yogurt and apricot nectar.

Like any other French toast recipe, this one is a good way to use up bread that is growing stale. Since I cannot resist buying bread while in France, French toast or pain perdu is a pretty typical breakfast for us when we travel.

13 January 2009

France: A Visit to La-Roque-Gageac

We are snuggled under down throws here in Northern Wisconsin tonight, waiting for The Big Chill of 2009, due later this week. They say it could reach a frigid 35 below.

We have mittens, gloves, scarves, Yak Trax, Cuddle Duds, Stormy Kroners, woolen balaclavas, leg warmers, long johns and flannel pajamas to keep us warm and safe no matter where we are and what we are doing. The larder is full, and I'll bake chicken tomorrow and try my hand at cabbage-and-sausage soup later this week. I still have some Calvados left. We are ready so Mother Nature, bring it on!

Would that we lived in a micro climate. La-Roque-Gageac, nestled under a cliff in the Dordogne, is such a place, by our experience about 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. While autumn was slowly coloring most of the Lot Valley, at the end of September to the north the Dordogne remained as green as mid-summer. Our trip up there, which involved a dizzying zig-zag drive past goose farms and through small crossroads, was like a trip into the recent past.

Because of the terrain, our 30-mile trip down and then up the mountain took more than an hour. It was after 2 p.m. by the time we finally found La-Roque-Gageac, after taking a wrong turn that sent us hurtling through corn fields toward a foie gras farm behind the cliffs. With help from the Garmin (is that woman inside dictatorial or what?), we crawled down a narrow back road and finally found ourselves there, under the cliffs at last, growing cranky in our search for a parking place.


La-Roque-Gageac was just as I imagined it would be, if a bit more tourist-y than I had hoped. We ordered cassis and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cones and wandered the main street, a line of cafes and hotels and gift shops highlighting the patés and walnuts and confits of the Dordogne.


We found a place to sit and watch the excursion boat traffic on the river, shedding our jackets as we warmed ourselves in the sun. The boats are gabares, the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the Dordogne. We were tempted to take an excursion, but the trips seemed a bit long, and we'd only put enough euros in the meter for a 90-minute visit.

Inhabited since pre-historic times, La-Roque-Gageac lies under troglodytic forts, which you can visit (although we did not). About 50 years ago, portions of the cliff face fell, killing some village residents. Today, there are exotic gardens tucked away under the cliff, behind the face La-Roque shows visitors, and these intrigued me. Stairways climb up behind buildings to lovely secret places. This is after all, one of the "most beautiful villages" in France.

Too soon and we were on our way back into the green hills and the mountainsides, heading south this time forward into autumn. It seemed odd to drive north to experience a nearly-Mediterranean climate when to the south the days were crisp with the scent of woodsmoke in the air.

But there is always a surreal quality to our too-short time in France.

And always it is tinged with bittersweet.

10 January 2009

The Demise of Magazines

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I would come home at night, bone-weary and mentally exhausted, to find a stack of newly-arrived magazines waiting for my perusal. Victoria, Country Living, Country Home and others were dubbed "lifestyle, shelter or women's magazines," but to me and I suspect many others (and not only women!) they offered escape, inspiration and relaxation.

A red barn surrounded by countryside, a basket of flowers, an old maple bed dressed in lace and soft comforters drew us into the photographs and sent us to attics or antique stores or sheds in search of the perfect props to create that magic in our own lives. Some of the magazines - like Country Living - were born of a renewed interest in our collective past, spurred by America's bicentennial in 1976. I've always been a history buff, a genealogist and a lover of antiques and casual style, so these publications were a boon to my imagination - and my stress level.

I learned yesterday that Country Home is folding. Last week, I read that Cottage Living, a relative newcomer, will stop publication. Victoria magazine, the gracious and genteel creation of a thoughtful editor named Nancy Lindemeyer, folded in 2003 (when I need it most!) and came back last year, a pale shadow of its former literary self, published by another company that just doesn't seem to understand that the presentation must come from broad base of cultural knowledge that perhaps can only be possible with an editorial staff of a certain age and education level.

What will I read at night?

Oh, we've got hundreds of books on our shelves and two lovely libraries to serve us. I've purchased dozens of lovely coffee table books over the years. But the experience of turning a new page to some unexpected loveliness will be gone. I will still have Country Living to sooth me, but that too is a mere copy of its cozy self, the self that it was when the late Jo Northrup wrote "Simple Country Pleasures" (shades of Gladys Taber and Faith Baldwin!) and Bo Niles was on the editorial staff. (Read the magazines long enough and the editors and writers become your friends.)

I'll get by.

I think there is an upside to this. These publications, lovely as the were in their heyday of about 15 years ago, are similar to the glossy, high-fashion mags in that they often create unrealistic expectations of what our lives and homes should be like. I like fresh flowers in my office, but I'm afraid that they only make an appearance in my home two or three times a year. And my kitchen cupboards are never tidy, nor are my countertops. My coffee table and some of the chairs in my dining room are piled high with - what else? - magazines.

Maybe without these pretty friends to page through, I can come up with some lifestyle ideas of my own. Maybe, just maybe, my home will begin to reflect me, not some style editor's idea of who I should be.

Now to be fair, these magazines and others like them are descriptive rather than prescriptive. But really, don't you think they raise the bar just a little too high for the average person? I think they might.

Still, I will miss them. And - perhaps perversely - I miss the person I was when they meant so much to me at the end of a bad day: Eager, bright-eyed and looking for new ideas.