15 November 2014

Vegetable Side Dishes, Part Two

Sautéed Apples and Carrots with Roasted Pecans
We have no real Thanksgiving traditions at our house. Last year was a big family event, with everyone bringing a specialty. One year the entire family went out for dinner. A few times we've traveled on that weekend, enjoying wonderful dinners at urban restaurants in other cities, with just a few family members joining us.

But somehow the humble little dinners we've had alone are my favorites. This year, because of my recent back injury, that's what we'll do: An unfussy dinner at home.

One thing I do like on my table each November: Green beans.

Here's my favorite option:

Green Beans Amandine with Shallots: This dish works best with fresh green beans, but frozen will do in a pinch. It pairs well with everything, from turkey to ham, from beef to fish.

I love shallots with green beans. The mild flavors compliment each other. Add something else, something a little richer, maybe and you've got a dish that happily accompanies turkey with all the trimmings:
Green Beans with Shallots and Pancetta.

A full turkey or ham dinner demands the addition of a tart or sweet side dish, too. Cranberry sauce, or even applesauce are contenders. But this dish, along with green beans, is really a spectacular option: Sweet, tart and nutty:

Sautéed Apples and Carrots with Roasted Pecans. I love this. I think it's the best thing I've ever done with apples. It's easy, too, and like the green bean dishes above, you can make it ahead of time and reheat it. In my experiences, most dishes improve after the flavors have time to marry.

14 November 2014

For a Frugal Thanksgiving: Vegetable Side Dishes, Part One

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrots
For the past seven weeks, I've been dealing with some back issues that have made mobility painful. I'm on the mend, but the process is slow.

I miss cooking. I've been getting by with bagged salads, cereals and easy-to-make sandwiches plus the contents of my freezer's soup stash and my husband's cooking.

I miss puttering around in the kitchen. The organization, the prep, the chopping and slicing and dicing. I'm hoping to be back in full action in two weeks, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Some people insist on tradition, serving the same menu year after year. That would drive me crazy. I like to mix it up a little, try something new. Each Thanksgiving and each Christmas is different. One year we had chateaubriand. Last year we had coq au vin. No final decision on this year yet, but it's safe to say we will have one or two vegetable side dishes.

Roasted Cauliflower with Gruyere and Cheddar Cheese
Our choices may be one of the following:

Sautéed Fresh Corn with Onions: I've been making a roasted version using frozen kernels that is almost as good.

Maple Roasted Carrots with Onions and Thyme: This is a classic at my house, but I'm the only one who eats it. I now use fresh carrots. When I took this photo, I was cleaning out the freezer, so I used an emergency ration.

Roasted Carrots with Brown Sugar and Thyme: This is one of my favorite carrot dishes. It takes the recipe above and kicks it up a notch.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Carrots: I prefer fresh vegetables, but if you're pinched for time, this recipe makes frozen Brussels sprouts taste really good. I paired mine with fresh carrots.

Roasted Cauliflower with Gruyere and Cheddar Cheese: This pairs well with ham and sweet potatoes. A side salad of Brussels sprouts rounds out the meal. Corn bread is a nice addition.

More frugal side dish options to follow.

24 August 2014

Sunday in Frenchtown: Farm Market Vegetables

At Grandma Annie's, Sunday dinner fare was almost always the same: Roasted chicken with potatoes and whatever vegetables were in season.

Vegetables were prepared simply: Boiled and served with butter, salt and pepper.

Save for the addition of herbs and sautéed almonds or walnuts, that is often the best way to prepare them today. At least once a season, I serve vegetables with nothing to detract from their earthy flavor.

22 August 2014

Season of the Witch Finger Grape

Witch Finger Grapes
I've had a hankering for chicken salad with onions, walnuts and grapes. Served chilled, it's one of my favorite summer salads. A dash of cinnamon and thyme adds layers of taste. It's great served with popovers or even muffins.

I ran across these odd-shaped grapes at the supermarket yesterday and the sample I tried from the woman who was promoting them was juicy and sweet - and seedless.

These elongated grapes are hybrids, as you've probably guessed, a hand-pollinated marriage of American cultivar developed by the University of Arkansas Division Of Agriculture and a Mediterranean variety. They are grown in Bakersfield, Cal., and sold at farm markets in California and distributed to supermarkets nationwide. That didn't stop me from buying them: I eat local about 75 percent of the time in summer, anyway. And this hasn't been the best growing season, as local farmers will tell you. Plus, you can't find grapes at local farm markets.

Speaking of summer, apparently that's the only time you can buy Witch's Finger grapes. Too bad, because they would be a healthy treat for a kids' Halloween party, given their resemblance to an old hag's wizened claw.

Here's how I used mine:
  • 1 chilled roasted chicken breast, white meat cut into chunks
  • 1 medium sweet onion
  • 2 cups Witch's Finger, or other seedless red grape
  • 1 Tablespoon green pepper, minced
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (or Tablespoon fresh, chopped)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Combine chicken, onion and grapes. Add mayo and walnuts. Blend. Add seasonings. Serves two.

You can substitute any kind of seedless grape, red or green, and almonds instead of walnuts. Optional additions include celery, chevre, or even blue cheese.

21 August 2014

Throwback Thursday: Bleu d'Auvergne Cheese

Bleu d'Auvergne Cheese, Cahors 2008
A few weeks ago my husband and I had lunch at a local restaurant known for its views of the water and daily specials. We both chose a salad with apples, walnuts and dried cherries that sound good but was in reality overly sweet and well, a little wimpy.

We were disappointed.

A salad combining lettuce and fruit demands a bold counterpart like blue cheese or a savory pairing like bacon to bring out its full flavor.

Bleu d'Auvergne, a relatively new French cheese with roots in the 1850s, is robust and pungent, but creamier and less salty than other blue cheeses. As its name suggests, it originates in the Auvergne, a region of south central France just northeast of the Midi-Pyrnees. When I last visited the latter region, I purchased my first wedge (above).

I used my Bleu d'Auvergne in a salad of regional walnuts and apples, purchased at the market in Cahors. I served it with a main dish of chicken roasted with onions and rosemary and a glass of pear cider, although I understand it also mates well with the black wine of Cahors, which was also an option.

Learn more about Bleu d'Auvergne here and here. I buy it whenever I find it, which is not very often, sad to say, unless I happen to stumble upon a cheese shop that sells something other than Wisconsin cheese.

19 August 2014

Fresh, Fast and Frugal: Sautéed Corn with Onions

Sautéed Corn with Onions

One of the vendors at the farm market shared this simple recipe with me and I was eager to try it.

Sautéed Corn with Onions (serves 4)

  • 1 medium union, minced or chopped
  • 4 ears of corn, kernels removed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon cooking oil
  • salt and pepper

Once the corn has been husked and washed, remove the kernels using a knife or a tool like this or this, and set aside.

Chop or mince a fresh onion. Melt butter and oil in a shallow pan over medium heat. Add onion and toss until it begins to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Next add corn and sauté for another 3-4 minutes. Season.

The vendor told me to add cream toward the end if my corn was less than fresh. But there was no need to; I'll try that another time.

I loved the way my kitchen smelled as I was preparing this side dish. I'd serve it with fresh-caught whitefish, or maybe with steaks from the grill.

I never knew how delicious sautéed corn could be! It has a roasted flavor, which I think suits this lovely golden season of waning summer. The days are dwindling down, but this simple side dish will carry us into September.

17 August 2014

Meatless Monday: Julia Child's Grated Zucchini with Shallots

Julia Child's Grated Zucchini with Shallots and Butter

Marking the anniversary of the birth of Julia McWilliams Child is almost a food blogging must-do, and late developer that I am, I am doing it a few days after her actual birthday, which was last Friday, Aug. 15.

I'm not sure how I stumbled across this recipe, probably on Facebook, but it sounded perfect for Sunday supper, always a laid-back meal at our house.

And it was. I've never tasted such delicious zucchini, a vegetable that falls into the "blank canvas" category for me, along with chicken, pasta, potatoes and eggplant. In other words, zucchini is a mild tasting food that can be prepared in a variety of ways.

I think Julia's method may well be the best. Ever.

Here's how I did it:
  • 3 small shallots, peeled and minced
  • 2 medium zucchinis, unpeeled and grated
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • sea salt and ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon Parmesan Cheese, grated

Simply brown the onions for 3-4 minutes in oil and butter over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini, and brown for another 4-6 minutes, lowering the heat slightly. Again, stir frequently.

I added a small amount of Parmesan at the end, simply because I wanted to recycle the nearly-empty container. The Food Network Recipe Link offers more variations. I'm going to try the added cream next time.

I served my - or rather Julia's - zucchini with a cobbled-together rotini, ham and tomato dish for an inexpensive but tasty end to the weekend.

16 August 2014

Sunday in Frenchtown: The Old House

My great-grandparents and their children, on the balcony.
Welcome to Frenchtown, tucked away along the river on the west side of town, home to many of my hometown's French Canadian immigrant families in the late 1800s.

The building above was likely built when the area was subdivided in 1863, and enlarged over the years. My grandparents moved in after their marriage in 1883, and raised their five surviving children, plus my great-grandmother's daughter from her first marriage, in the six-room flat above the store.

They took out numerous mortgages over the years, and it appears the structure was remodeled in about 1914. That was around the time my grandmother, a middle daughter, moved into the now-closed general store area with her husband and young daughters, my older aunts.

In 1930, the building was converted into a family home, and it received additional updates in 1960. The photo below was taken about 1954. At that time, the third generation, my grandmother's daughters and nieces were chatting on the front steps after Ascension Thursday mass, with Grandma Annie leaning against a pillar.

The old house in 1954, taken from the southeast side.

In the intervening years, the house became a focal point for holidays and family gatherings, most notably summer stays with Grandma Annie and Réveillon Open Houses on Christmas Eve. Finally in 2003 with Grandma Annie gone for more than two decades and a maiden aunt  living their alone, it was sold to a loving family who carefully gave the building its most massive rehab ever, converting a two-flat structure into a one-family home. My siblings and I couldn't be happier. The house has entered its third century under good stewardship. The owner tells me she feels friendly vibes there. That would be Grandma Annie and her parents; they loved that house.

I have my own house to love, also built in the 19th century, but I drive past the old house when I need a boost. It's sacred to me now, the simple clapboard structure.

15 August 2014

Sweating the Eggplant (How to Remove Bitterness)

First eggplant of the season

I am pleased as punch that I have harvested my first eggplant of the season, a purple-and-white striped variety which will probably find its way into roasted ratatouille by this time on Saturday.

It is likely I will have at least a half dozen more in about a month or so, if the weather holds and the critters stay away.

For me, eggplant is comfort food, not unlike mashed potatoes or rice. In fact, eggplant make a great substitute for those easy-on-the-tummy, but oh-so-carby side dishes. Somewhere, perhaps Milwaukee or Madison, I once tasted a classic Moussaka with eggplant that was quite literally, heaven on a plate.

This little baby is just the right size for a single-serving of ratatouille.

But first, it must sweat.

That is, I must cut it into fairly small pieces, salt it heavily, and allow the salt to do its job for about two hours, which is to remove moisture and hence, a great deal of eggplant's customary bitterness.

The eggplant will darken, but the moisture will be extracted. You can actually rinse it and then pat it try with a paper towel, or allow it to sit on a paper towel and air dry before using it in your ratatouille or other dish.

It's that easy. You can also place the salted eggplant in a colander, and place the colander in a larger dish and allow the moisture to drip out.

I have also added herbs de provence to my salt, and allowed the eggplant to absorb the taste. It seems I now have a surplus of my favorite herb mix, so I can use it liberally.

Looking forward to that ratatouille...

07 August 2014

Living in Wine Country

Grapes growing in Sonoma County, California.
I am about to experience a massive case of wanderlust, a condition that always strikes come mid-August, when hints of fall slip gently across Wisconsin.

But this year, no travel plans are on the horizon.

One of the greatest rewards of travel is tasting new dishes and sampling new wines. We've vacationed twice in France's wine country and I've made one quick trip to California's - fun, but not enough to satisfy me.

Fortunately, there are now wineries closer to home.

Three years ago, a savvy couple I know opened a winery near my home town, Forgotten Fire. Just recently they opened a second winery, Falling Water, about 25 miles away. Read about them and other regional wineries here.

Across the bay of Green Bay, beautiful Door County, which many call Wisconsin's version of Cape Cod, has acquired many wineries in recent years. Read about the Door County Wine Trail here.

I don't have any local winery photos to share, but at least, thanks to a few enterprising individuals, I can now say I live in wine country. It makes staying home a little easier to swallow.

Sonoma County is laid back but cordial.

At the Harvest Moon Winery in Sonoma County.

Grapes growing in Sonoma County.

A quiet place amidst the vineyards, near Santa Rosa.

28 July 2014

Meatless Monday: Blueberry Crisp with Salted Almond Topping

Here it is nearly the end of July and we've had only a handful of truly hot days here in northeastern Wisconsin. That means I've had plenty of opportunities to bake fruit crisps, hands down the favorite dessert at our house.

This year, my stepdaughter surprised me with the gift of a blueberry bush, and there is a small clutch of blueberries which should ripen in a few weeks. According to this account, I'm better off pinching back growth for the first few summers to encourage future growth, but we'll see what happens.

Blueberries remind me of Grandma Annie (check out her blueberry pudding) and my childhood, and I am always happy to have them on hand for cereal or for baking desserts like this one and the one featured today.

I don't work with recipes when I make this favorite dessert, which pairs blueberries with salted almonds. But I'be done my best to document the process below.

For the fruit:
  • 1-2 pints fresh blueberries, washed
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • splash lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • healthy dash cinnamon (optional)

For the topping:
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 5-6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2/3 cup salted almonds, roughly ground
  • pinch sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degres. Grease an 8-by-8-in baking pan.

After blueberries are washed and checked for stems, place them in the pan. Sprinkle with sugar and cornstarch or flour. Cinnamon is optional, but I think it adds depth. Set aside.

Pour flour, sugar and ground almonds into small bowl. Cut in pea-sized pieces of butter and a pinch of sea salt and blend until mixture has the consistency of streusel topping. Sprinkle evenly atop the blueberries. Add a pinch of sea salt to topping to both counter and enhance the sweetness.

Bake for about 40 minutes. Serve warm or chilled. My husband likes ice cream topping; I prefer yogurt. 

26 July 2014

Fast and Frugal: Creamy Lobster Soup for Two

Not a traditional bisque, but a fine lobster soup.

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon some affordable frozen lobster, enough for lobster rolls, which I did not photograph. Another time perhaps.

I wanted to use the shells in my compost, which has been depleted this summer with the planting of a small tree to replace the large, century-old maple we - sadly and with much procrastinating - were forced to remove three years ago.

But first, I made a delicious stock by boiling the shells in water, then extracting every morsel of lobster meat I could before placing the tasty broth, lobster bits and all, in the refrigerator. I then roasted the picked-over shells, which dried them out so I could either crush or grind them for my compost bin.*

The next day, I found myself with slightly less than two cups of broth, to which I added:
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste from a tube
  • 1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
  • 1 small potato, boiled and cubed
  • 1/4 cup corn kernels (from a bag of frozen corn - most economical)
  • 1 small carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 small celery stalk, finely chopped
  • healthy dash of Old Bay Seasoning
  • teaspoon chopped parsley
  • dash sea salt and freshly-ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream, room temperature
Place the stock in a medium-size sauce pan over medium heat and bring to a boil, adding tomato, carrot, celery. Bring to a second boil and lower heat, adding corn, potato and seasoning. Allow to simmer under low heat for about 20 minutes, adding room temperature cream before serving.

Taste frequently. I thought the soup had a bitter aftertaste, so I added a pinch of sugar, which seemed to enhance the flavor. I had no sherry in the house, but adding that to the soup is another option.

By strictest definition, I can't call this a bisque but it was a great Saturday night soup. Expect a repeat performance!

*Use the same two-step process before adding the shells of shrimp to your compost. And always buy wild-caught shrimp and lobster.

15 July 2014

Making Chicken Stock

At least 10 times a year, I roast a chicken, usually on Sundays. Chicken was the dish of choice nearly every Sunday at Grandma Annie's house in Frenchtown, and I associate the aroma with the sensation of putting on my play clothes after church.

I also buy four-packs of chicken breasts still on the bone, and can get at least 6 servings from them, making chicken salads or casseroles for the first few meals of the week.

Always I save the carcasses and the bones for making chicken stock, usually adding onions, a carrot, celery some garlic, parsley and herbs de Provence. In doing so, I feel rather virtuous because I am making such complete use of the chicken.

I freeze the broth for cold-weather soup making. Store-bought stocks are no match for it: It is rich and full-bodied and savory. Usually I chill it first and skim the congealed fat off the top before freezing, but sometimes I skip this step.

Chicken stock has many uses, in addition to soups like this and this:
  • It adds flavor to rice, pasta, quinoa and couscous.
  • It can make frozen vegetables taste almost fresh.
  • It provides a sauce base for many French dishes.
  • It really enhances the flavor of mashed potatoes.
  • It is essential for making gravy.
  • It can be used to add richness to a cream cheese and onion potato chip dip or cracker spread.

Here are links to other ideas for using chicken stock:

This blogger calls it liquid gold and I agree. And this one calls it free food.

Here are a few more ideas.

If you are tossing out your chicken bones and carcasses instead of making stock, you're missing a gold mine of flavor!

13 July 2014

Road Food: Essentials for the Suitcase

We never travel without this kit.

Sampling local specialties is the best - and certainly the tastiest - part of travel. One of the easiest ways to do this is to visit a farm market. With that in mind, my husband and I usually travel with two string bags, both purchased 30 years ago at Tellus Mater in Madison, Wis.

We routinely travel with a few other essential items, including two Opinel folding knives purchased from La Vaissellerie in Paris, and a corkscrew from The Main Course in Fish Creek, Wis.

A cutting board, two small plates and a few spoons and forks round out our traveling food kit. We look for hotel rooms with microwaves and refrigerators; a wet bar is a bonus. Checking out a few local restaurants is fun, but dining en suite is cost-effective and after a long day, relaxing.

We not only enjoy outdoor and indoor markets, but also local grocery stores, especially Italian markets, like Fraboni's, and cheese shops, like Fromagination, both in Madison, Wis.

Many locally-owned specialty shops offer sandwiches or deli fare; this option is usually affordable and offers some imaginative pairings. One of my favorite places for sandwiches in Wisconsin is the Fish Creek Market in Door County.

When traveling in France, we often buy a sandwiche jambon (ham sandwich) and share it. Desperate once on a stormy night, we stumbled upon a wonderful veggie sandwich at Boulangerie Versavel (never mind the brusque counter staff), near the Bastille in Paris. We cut it in half and enjoyed it in our minuscule but charming hotel room a half block away.

I suppose a Swiss Army knife and a cutting board would offer us the same convenience when we travel, but this is the approach we've taken. It has enabled us to eat like locals and save money for more travels.

03 July 2014

Fast and Frugal: Summer Ham Sandwich Spread

Ham, Hard-Boiled Egg and Pickle Spread

Summer Mondays - the traditional closing day in the restaurant business - were often picnic days when we were kids. Early in the morning, my father would gas up the old Ford and shop for snacks while my mother made sandwiches from Sunday leftovers.

Here's my take on her Ham, Hard-Boiled Egg and Pickle Spread, which is perfect for a Fourth of July weekend meal or snack:

  • 1/4 pound ham, cubed
  • 4 hardboiled eggs, chopped
  • 1/2 cup bread-and-butter pickles
  • 1-3 teaspoons minced onions
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise

Place ham, eggs and pickles in a food processor and grind to a paste. Add minced onions and mayo. (I tossed in some pickled carrots when I made it recently.) No need to add salt.

Chill before serving. Makes a great sandwich or cracker spread.

This is a tasty way to use up ham or chicken. I love it on whole-grain bread, and it can be use on home-made sub sandwiches, too.

30 June 2014

Meatless Monday: Cubed Cold Beets with Sour Cream, Dill and Chives

I love borscht. I've never made it, you understand, but I will some winter day when I am seeking comfort. It has provided comfort for me from the start, and has never disappointed me, even though our interactions have been few and far between.

29 June 2014

Kitchen Tools: Roll-Out Your Bottom Drawers

My Revere Ware is now within reach.

We live in an 1896 Victorian cross-gable house with numerous quirks, including a pint-sized powder room and an upstairs hallway shaped like the Big Dipper. There are many lovely features, too, including stained glass bay window insets and a beautiful carved front door.

My kitchen is not fancy, nor has in been renovated in years. That's the way I like it, having loved antiques since my teen years. Still, sometimes I yearn for a few "modern conveniences."

28 June 2014

Bread of the Month: Strawberry-Cream Cheese Braid

Strawberry-Cream Cheese Braid from Bay Bakers

In celebration of summer, this month's bread choice is soft and chewy and laced with strawberries. It needs no further embellishment save for perhaps some fresh, unsalted butter.

I didn't make it, but if you want to try your hand, here's one approach.

27 June 2014

Three-Cheese Potatoes Au Gratin

Three-Cheese Potatoes Au Gratin

It looks like a coolish summer ahead for those of us in northern Wisconsin. It was chilly enough to bake apple crisp the other day. We haven't taken quilts off the beds yet. We still have legions of mosquitos, of course, and July will surely bring a few sweltering days, but so far, it's been pleasantly temperate with good sleeping weather.

So there's no reason not to make scalloped potatoes. After flavoring my mashed potatoes with Boursin a while back, I started thinking about other ways to pair creamy cheese with spuds.

How to Make Store-Bought Croutons Taste Freshly Made

Store-bought croutons get a flavor boost from butter, garlic and herbs.

In a perfect world, nearly everything we consume would be fresh and homemade: Just-from-the-oven rolls at dinnertime, newly-caught fish in the frying pan, sun-ripened tomatoes still warm in your salad.

Most of us are lucky to enjoy one or two of these at a meal. More often than not, busy lives force us to rely on more than one purchased item at most mealtimes.

My eating habits have changed drastically since I began blogging eight years ago. I make much more from scratch. I have yet to make salad croutons from scratch; there is, however, a loaf of bread in my freezer awaiting this project experiment.

Following a late afternoon meeting this week, I scrambled together a supper salad of fresh broccoli and the remnants of a bag of farm-market mixed greens, plus some grated cheese and bacon bits. I scrounged around and found a half-bag of croutons in the cupboard.

(Pre-made croutons are a secondary staple in my kitchen. I can do without them, but when I remember, I buy a bag or two because I find a touch of carb adds staying power to a salad meal.)

Giving pre-made croutons a flavor boost is simple. You will need:

  • 1-2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1 teaspoon garlic or onion powder, or 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped or sliced onion
  • 3/4 cup pre-made croutons
  • dash herbes de Provence or parsley

Melt butter in a small-to-medium frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and onion and brown slightly. Toss in croutons, turning them over with a spatula or wooden spoon to coat all sides. Lower the heat and allow them to sit for about 5 minutes before adding them to your salad.

Voila! The result is delicious croutons that taste freshly made and are a bit chewier and denser than straight-from-the-bag croutons. You can even refresh stale croutons using this method, or by roasting them in a low-temp oven as you would walnuts.

26 June 2014

An Eighth Blogging Anniversary Slips Under the Radar

Nothing beats buying local at a farm market.

Where did June go?  We've been so busy with home improvement projects and yard sale preparation that one third of what we think of as summer has passed already, including this blog's eighth anniversary on June 11.

How could I not have noticed?

I was writing tomorrow's post when it hit me. It was the summer of 2006, my last really quiet summer, that I tentatively tested the waters with this post.

My blog had a different name then, one I began to regret about five years ago. It took another four years to come up with a name that better described my kitchen and my culinary efforts. I'm not a really fancy cook, although I love making French country dishes.

My approach is pretty frugal; I try to eat well and healthily without wasting anything; it fits in best with the idea of Frenchtown, the sections of Upper Midwest and New England area communities that drew French Canadian immigrants in the latter decades of the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries. Close-knit and working-class, residents of those neighborhoods often shared food and produce from their gardens. That's the neighborhood in which I (very proudly) grew up.

I've learned so much from blogging. Here is just a smattering:

  • Food bloggers are generous and helpful. You make friends when you blog.
  • Fresh really does taste best.
  • Eating locally is important. It really is good to know where your food is grown or produced.
  • Once you start making your own soup, you will never buy canned soup again.
  • Sea salt is incredible.
  • Less is more. Keep it simple.
  • Be you on your blog. Find your voice. That's not as easy as it sounds.

There's much more, and after I post this it will come to me. That's how it works. Another thing I've learned.

Happy Anniversary to A Frenchtown Kitchen!

Fast and Frugal: Roasted Cauliflower with Gruyere and Cheddar Cheese

Roasted Cauliflower with Gruyere and Cheddar Cheese

It takes a while for most of us to acknowledge the fact that comfort food - food that feels soft on the palate and tummy - need not be bad for you.

Pasta, mashed potatoes, white rice, ice cream and other soft, creamy foods may certainly be enjoyed in small quantities, but when the need for comfort food aries, there are many other vegetables that fill the bill, including roasted cauliflower. 

I'd be lying if I said I didn't require something comforting at least three times a week. Crunchy foods have their place as a stress reliever, but true comfort requires foods that, well, that melt in your mouth and sooth your stomach.

Cauliflower does it for me. Especially roasted cauliflower.

Because it is white, cauliflower suggests pairing with a green vegetable, too, so it a way it encourages additional vegetable consumption. There is something visually wrong about pairing a white meat like chicken or fish with a white vegetable, without something to break up the pale plate. I like it with green beans. Or carrots.

The other night, I had a salmon filet with leftover green beans amandine and Roasted Cauliflower with Gruyere and Cheddar Cheese.

  • 1 head cauliflower, broken into small pieces
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2/3 cup grated, low-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated gruyere cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • dash sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease a shallow casserole dish. Place cauliflower pieces in dish and drizzle with olive oil. Grate cheeses and toss with cauliflower. Add nutmeg. Bake for 45-50 minutes. Season before serving.

And that's it. Makes two large or four small servings.

Granted gruyere cheese is not cheap, but you use so little that there is enough left over for more recipes. 

Roasted cauliflower, like chicken and potatoes, is a "blank canvas" dish that can be prepared is endless ways. The addition of roasted red pepper or black olives really takes it over the top.

25 June 2014

Kitchen Tools: Nutmeg Graters

My traditional nutmeg grinder, and my new one, a little blue puff fish.

The year we rented an apartment in Paris was the year I learned that one does not need cabinets and drawers full of gadgets to cook delicious meals. The kitchen in our apartment was half the size of my own and was stocked with only the basics. Still we ate well, thanks to the availability of fresh produce at the markets on Rue Cler.

Our Paris kitchen was stocked with a nutmeg grinder and a small jar of whole nutmegs, and when I made apple crisp, I made it with freshly ground nutmeg. It was wonderfully layered in flavor, but I'm not sure it that was a function of the nutmeg, or because my husband and I were eating it in Paris. Both, I suspect.

At any rate, when we came home I dug up an old-fashioned nutmeg grater at a flea market, cleaned it, which took a great deal of patience, and have been using it ever since. But recently I found this cunning little little puffer-fish-shaped nutmeg grater at Tellus Mater on State Street in Madison, Wis., the city I think of as my second hometown. It reminds me of this tool, which is attractive as well as useful.

I like this nutmeg plane and this charming little video, which makes it look so easy: no knuckle grazing.

Nutmeg pairs well with apple, pumpkin and squash dishes as well as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage dishes. (However tasty nutmeg is, apparently it has a somewhat dark history.)

Like mace, nutmeg is a product of the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans), a large evergreen which grows in the Spice Islands, also known as the Moluccas, in Indonesia. Nutmeg is the kernel of the seed, while mace is the leathery flesh of surrounding it (its composition compares to the apricot). Mace is milder and more expensive.

Read more about nutmeg here and here.

There are many different nutmeg grinders on the market, from this updated classic to this more elaborate model.

Then there is this one, which is almost a work of art.

Wordless Wednesday: At the Menominee County Farm & Food Exchange

24 June 2014

Light and Lower-Carb: Graham Flour Muffins (Raisins Optional)

Graham Flour Muffins

My paternal grandmother, Laura LaBrie Diamond, was the antithesis of Grandma Annie.

While Annie wore plaid or checked house dresses at home, Laura sported capri pants and sleeveless blouses. Annie wore sensible brogans around the house; Laura slipped her feet into ballet flats. Annie wore pearls and navy blue with a demure cloth coat, while Laura wore diamonds and furs. Annie read women's magazines that focused on housekeeping while Laura subscribed to movie mags.

They were a fascinating contrast. I adored them both.

Both women were children of French Canadian immigrants, and both loved to bake. We remember Annie for her Lady Baltimore cakes and Laura for her raisin-graham bread.

23 June 2014

Meatless Monday: Cucumber Salad with Roasted Red Pepper and Feta Cheese

Cucumber Salad with Roasted Red Pepper and Feta Cheese

I read "Gone with the Wind" when I was 11 years old, renaming my recently-cast-off Barbie doll Scarlett, and constructing elaborate dresses using embroidery hoops in the skirts. I read and reread the book all that year, and once forced myself into sleep by mentally naming all the characters, major and minor.

A bookish, somewhat solitary child, I memorized entire passages, and lived the book as much as a young girl can in the second half of the 20th century. I recall asking my father (who read everything) to name his favorite part of the book, and I recall his reply verbatim, "When they were grubbing for food at Tara - that was my favorite."

Ever my father's daughter, I have to admit: I love that part of the book, too. I love being forced to do a lot with a little. I am always up for a challenge.

These days I grub for food in my own larder, and I am rarely disappointed in the outcome of my food pairings.

21 June 2014

Herbed Mashed Potatoes with Boursin

Herbed Mashed Potatoes with Boursin
It feels strange not to be planning a trip this year.

Instead of traveling, we are sticking close to home and working on our own turf. We have a 118-year-old carriage barn that needs some major attention. It's not a big barn - about the size of a garage - and it's rather charming, but it's old. I'd like to build a greenhouse on the back of it, but that might have to wait for another year. We'll see.

We're also involved in some inexpensive but time-consuming projects around the kitchen and other parts of the house. We're about a quarter through our to-do list: The book room is done, the new shower head is installed upstairs and the powder room has a new faucet. But when you have a house, especially a old house, the work is never done.

Traveling has made me extremely frugal around the house, especially in the kitchen. I keep thinking of the conversation I heard on Boulevard St. Michel two years ago. Two American women were talking about another family, when one said, "They live simply so they can travel more often."

That's become my credo. So when I splurged on but did not finish a small package of Boursin, and then noticed I had some redskin potatoes to use up, I tried something new. New for us, that is.

20 June 2014

What to Do with Eggshells: Feed Your Garden

Eggshells soaking in water.
Life has gotten in the way of blogging lately. I have new admiration for those who manage to post something daily, even weekly.

Life is not allowed to get in the way of eating, however. I just haven't had time to eat anything blogworthy.

What I have been eating: Eggs. I've been eating baked, over easy and sunny-side-up eggs for breakfast about four times a week.

And they have been delicious. For the most part, I buy them organic from a jovial and friendly farmer named Jeff and his wife, Jo. I can taste the difference.

I can't bear to waste eggshells, however, so I follow Grandma Annie's practice of soaking the eggshells in water that I can use to keep my indoor plants moist and give them a dose of calcium. After a few days, the water begins to smell a bit eggy, if you know what I mean. And you do.