Friday, October 30, 2009

All voluptuous curves

I could start off by telling you about the molasses cookies...or wait, maybe it's time for my dad's favorite scones on the planet...but no. It's that time of year again, and there's only one recipe that fits the bill.

You see, here in Ann Arbor, fall has arrived. And with it, the gorgeous, luxuriant colors of changing leaves and that crisp feeling in the air that makes you tighten your scarf and pull on some slippers each morning. I remember reading an article my mom sent along years ago, describing fall as the Sophia Loren of seasons, all voluptuous curves and colors. Here in Ann Arbor, the description fits.

Oh, fall, how I have missed you.

Fall means school supplies and football games, tailgating and dark beer, sweaters and apples. But most of all, fall means pumpkins.

My mom has been making pumpkin bread for as long as I can remember. I once bought her a pumpkin-shaped mold, hoping it would entice her to bake up just one more batch before the season was over. I can't count the number of mornings I feasted on the stuff, equally good eaten cold out of the fridge or warmed up with a bit of butter slathered on top.

This recipe is a family treasure, and one I encourage you to make today, tomorrow and as long as you need a bit of fall spice in your life.

Pumpkin Bread

3 1/3 cups flour
3 cups sugar
2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp nutmeg (freshly grated, preferably)
3 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger

2/3 cups water
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
2 cups roasted pumpkin or canned pumpkin puree (you can also use acorn squash here, as I often do)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl.

Combine the water, oil, eggs and roasted pumpkin in the blender and blend to mix well.

Add the wet blender mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. Line two large loaf pans with aluminum foil (alternately, butter them well), then divide the batter even between them.

Bake for approximately one hour, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Serves at least 1.

Note: This keeps very well wrapped in aluminum foil in the fridge.

Friday, October 2, 2009

At the end of the day

Anyone still out there?

If you are, then let me just take this moment to apologize profusely for my long, unexpected and rather extended absence from this space. I've missed it, and all my free time to do it, come to think of it.

Let's just say law school happened, shall we?

I am now one month in, and I can honestly say that I've never had so much schoolwork to do in my entire life. All I want to do at the end of the day is pop open a beer and fall into my reading chair. I've also never felt guiltier about doing anything other than schoolwork, which is a condition I have to remedy. So last week I threw a cocktail party, and I've got big pumpkin bread/farmer's market plans for this weekend.

I'm slowly working my way back into the normal swing of things. I just need a few more baked goods under my belt, and with the weather acting as it is right now, that shouldn't be a problem. There's nothing like cool, rainy days to make me gravitate towards the warmth of the oven.

I'll see you all back here very soon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Still in limbo

Where does time go these days?

I have to let you know that I am STILL in limbo, but will finally be finishing up the moving process to Ann Arbor late this week. It's hard to believe, but the chips are finally falling into place and I will be starting school in the all too near future.

In terms of this blog, I think it's actually a good thing. I have no idea what the light will be like there, or when I'll find my camera cord so that I can unload some actual food photos on you all. But at least things will be settled and I'll definitely have opportunities for procrastination-driven blog posts.

I've been cooking a decent amount these past few weeks, and have even made friends (I hope) with a phenomenal lettuce farmer at the Chicago City Market, which is never a bad thing. Most of what I've been cooking revolves around salads and blanched green beans tossed with halved cherry tomatoes in a sherry vinaigrette (Thanks SmittenKitchen!). This stuff tastes so good without anything being done to it!

A friend came to visit a few weekends ago and we had a fabulous time sailing, capsizing and spending the rest of the day cooking in the kitchen. Biscuits, granola and garlic scape pesto were the results. I have the best friends, don't I?

The garlic scape pesto was AMAZING, but since they're out of season at the moment, I can't make another batch and properly measure this time. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until next summer.

In the meantime, I can direct you over to SmittenKitchen's lovely write-up about that addicting green bean and tomato salad I mentioned above and hope that will hold you over until I can finally finish moving and begin unpacking.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

At the tail end

My last night in Paris was spent with my old host family at their gorgeous home in the bottom of the 15th. And by home, I meant house, a beautiful one wrapped around a stone-lined courtyard with one tall leafy tree, perfect for outdoor picnics and dinner parties. Since I stayed with the family during the fall semester, I didn't get to experience many of those, but my host mom had the outdoor table and flowering potted plants set out when I arrived at 8h for dinner.

After a lovely meal, where she gently corrected my table setting technique and encouraged me to have seconds and thirds, we all sat around outside chatting, while the boys (3 of them) slowly disappeared one by one--there were girls waiting for them somewhere outside the dark green front gate.

After the last had disappeared, I realized I'd better head out too, if I was going to catch the last bus back to the apartment where I was staying. I felt out of sorts on the bus ride home, a cocktail of contemplation and reflection. So I did the only thing that I could think of.

I went straight back to the apartment, turned on my computer and went pretend shopping on Amazon...except I actually ordered a couple of things. Two cookbooks to be exact: Farmhouse Cookbook and French Farmhouse Cookbook, both by my former chef Susan Herrmann Loomis. I know, I know, I am SO predictable.

I figured that I needed a way to help make the transition back to the States, and besides, these are really good cookbooks. Okay, I'll stop justifying my purchases now. Instead, let me pass along a recipe from one of them. It's a luscious, moist, lightly spiced cake flecked with tart squares of rhubarb. We're at the tail end of the season now, so hurry up and get to the farmer's market so you won't have to wait a whole year to enjoy it!

Rhubarb Cake
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

2 cups diced fresh rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups plus 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 7 x 12-inch glass baking dish (or other non-reactive baking dish, as the rhubarb can react with some metals).

Combine the diced rhubarb and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a small bowl, stir and set aside.

Mix the butter with the remaining 1 1/4 cups sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and almost fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well.

Sift the flour, baking soda and spices together into a medium-sized bowl or piece of parchment paper.

Combine the yogurt and buttermilk in a small bowl.

Add the dry ingredients in thirds to the butter mixture, alternating with buttermilk/yogurt mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the rhubarb and sugar mixture. The batter will be fairly thick at this point.

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake until the cake is golden and puffy and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Yields about 16 small pieces.

Note: Because of the yogurt in this cake, the top will get progressively softer the longer you keep it. Not a bad thing, believe me, but something to keep in mind.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Baking improv

I love following recipes.

I do, I admit it. That feeling of flipping through a cookbook's pages, searching for that one recipe to catch your eye, when everything falls into place and you have (nearly) all of the ingredients on hand. You find yourself fervently hoping that this recipe will be another one to keep marked, to file away into your "Must Make Again" folder, not one of those meh dishes that are always so disappointing.

One of those recipes, the good kind, I mean, landed in my lap via Miss Molly, and comes courtesy of the magnificent Edna Lewis. In fact, I've directed you to this recipe before, and if you haven't already made it, then I suggest you hop to it immediately!

While I am a devoted recipe follower (except with S&P measurements. Who measures that? Those are more guidelines anyway, right?), but I do love to make things up when it comes to cooking pasta or stir-frying or things like that. I'm willing and happy to throw different spices in, play around, because with cooking, you can taste and adjust and readjust and then readjust some more. Now, baking, on the other hand...well, you kind of have one shot and then that's it.

Which is why I ALWAYS follow the recipe when I bake. I do not adjust, I try not to substitute (unless we're talking nuts or dried fruit), I follow orders. There is nothing, and I mean nothing more disappointing than a mediocre baked good.

So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when I felt that irresistible pull towards the kitchen, saw my hands reach for flour, sugar and butter and started clicking through my favorite food blogs for some baking inspiration. I wanted something simple and homey and I immediately thought of the Busy Day Cake. However, I didn't have any whole milk on hand, and not even enough skim to make up the difference. I did have yogurt, and that started the wheels a-turning. I remembered a favorite yogurt cake and, with my fingers irresistibly reaching for the eggs and vanilla, decided that I needed to take my first step towards baking independence.

So I subbed in the yogurt for the milk, and since I was feeling outrageous, subbed in some demerera sugar for a quarter of the total amount of sugar called for. Ooooh, shocking, I know. Who knows what I'll do next.

Of course, I would love to be able to regale you with a magnificent success story of my delicious and highly improved cake. And, while the cake is actually quite good, an ideal afternoon tea accompaniment...I think I need a bit more work in the baking improv department. The coarse, cornmeal texture that I so loved in the original was nowhere to be found (could have something to do with me having to cream the butter and sugar by hand), though the flavors were still quite lovely.

Perhaps a cozy sitdown with Harold McGee's treatise is in order, accompanied, of course, by a piece of cake and a cup of tea.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The people at home

Well, I'll be.

Somehow, I find myself with just a week and a half left before I fly back to the States. I'm not quite sure how that happened, but I will say that this is the first time in my life that I've felt almost ready to go home. You see, I miss my family, friends and boyfriend rather desperately.

I've never been the type to get homesick. People always ask me that question, since I've been lucky enough to have multiple experiences in foreign countries for months at a time, but the truth is, I'm quite happy traveling and living other places. Granted, I've never been gone for more than 4 months at a time, so that feeling would probably change if my stays were longer, but as it stands, I'm happy as a clam when abroad.

Except for one little thing: the people at home.

I wish that there was a way that I could just transport everyone here, so that I could still go to my favorite marchés, but share them with everyone. I mean, who wants to leave a place where you have weekly markets filled with fraises des bois, live animals and gorgeous produce pulled out of the ground the day before?

And, of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg of good things here. I'm not even going to get started on the cheese shops or Hervé's wine selection (our wine guru based in Honfleur). There are no words.

I hope to spend a few days in Paris before my flight to pick up some last minutes gifts (aka chocolate) and a bit of wandering, as well as a final stop at Rose Bakery (sigh...). I'm planning to pick up some macarons from Pierre Hermé to get me through the flight--let's hope they don't get too crushed on their way through security.

I'll try to post again before I head out, but the way my schedule's been going, I make no promises. However, I can promise MANY more recipes come July.

Sorry for such sporadic updates these past few months. If you have hung in there, thank you!!!

See you on the flip side.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Come and gone

Another class has come and gone.

Come to think of it, so has another pair of flats. Unfortunately, these were my favorites, and I'm rather puzzled as to how I managed to wear a hole in them after two months. And there's a rather large hole starting in my other pair, which is really disconcerting. Are cobblestones really that hard on your shoes?!?

Last weekend I took a quick and MUCH needed trip out to see Merrill in Rennes. The weekend consisted of cooking a gorgeous asparagus tart, drinking the best sparking rosé I've ever tasted and sitting with my feet propped up under a shady tree in the park, spitting cherry pits behind me as I read some P.G. Wodehouse.

In other words, it was perfect. Thank you so much, my dear.

My time here is rapidly coming to an end, much more rapidly than I could ever have imagined. I have my first catering gig, a 3-day class, lots of recipe editing, 2 days of classes in Paris and a pyjama party for F before I go.

I'm also hoping to fit in a visit to Bistro Paul Bert with Merrill, a morning rummaging through the Louviers citywide garage sale (foire à tout) and a few days wandering around Paris before I go.

How strange to have to start figuring out if/what I should ship home (books, I'm looking at you), what will stay to donate to The Red Cross and what will fit in my bags. And then, of course, there's all that planning I should be doing to prep for law school which I am happily but pointedly ignoring for as long as possible.

If you're looking for a great new recipe to try or a new book to read, and even if you're not, I would encourage you to drop whatever you're doing and head to the bookstore to buy this book immediately. The unbelievably lovely Molly sent me a copy last week and I devoured it within a day. I smiled, cried, wished helplessly that I had such talent and was generally besotted.

Oh, and in case you feel overwhelmed at the number of great recipes it includes, I can personally attest to the "Winning Hearts and Minds" Cake. I've made it any number of times and it's one of my absolute favorites.

Oh, and the pickled grapes are incredible, as well. I'm just saying.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday morning song

I am a firm believer in lazy Sunday mornings.

I realize that this is probably because for the past few years, lazy Sundays have not existed for me. Especially during my time in San Francisco, I was working nearly every Sunday for at least a few hours, and oftentimes much longer than that.

During my last year of college, Sunday was the one day of the week when I didn't work or have multiple dance classes (only one class on Sundays, you see, and that was the rehearsal when I was the choreographer). My Sundays that year were comprised of quality time in my school's dark room in the mornings and early afternoons before dance rehearsal around dusk. Then I'd head home to have some dinner and study. They were lovely days, though a bit too filled and scheduled to be my ideal.

Every other Sunday here in Louviers, I am cleaning, doing mise en place and then helping Susan serve the students their Welcome Dinner while hanging out with F. Not the lazy Sunday of my dreams, but we've been really good about going for bike rides and swims these past few weeks as the weather has warmed up, so I'm not complaining.

Today, however, well, today is my kind of Sunday. I got up, tidied the kitchen a bit and hung some laundry out on the line before heading to the bakery for a brioche to dunk every so delicately in my morning milky tea. I then curled up on the couch and read for an hour in perfect silence.

Mornings like this one don't come nearly often enough.

But I love them when they do.

I don't have a recipe for you today, but I would steer you in the direction of the link Molly put up recently on rhubarb compote. Except that I would tell you to take some direction from this lovely lady and leave out the orange liquor and throw in a touch of pure vanilla extract. It's heavenly.

Now go enjoy your Sunday.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

On school and simplicity

Cooking school provides opportunities where entire evenings are completely devoted to making three different cookie doughs, rolling them out into logs, wrapping them in parchment paper and slipping them neatly into plastic bags to be refrigerated, then later frozen. Those white logs sitting side by side in the refrigerator are more than enough to make a girl feel proud.

And of course, a half log snuck out of line, sliced up and baked, yielding midnight black sablés to be eaten in between batches with a glass of wine...well that's one of life's best and simplest pleasures.

I've been thinking a lot about how I eat recently (that probably comes as no great surprise), and I've discovered that simpler things really do satisfy me.

I had a phenomenal dinner last night that consisted of steamed asparagus, tossed with olive oil and thinly sliced, quickly blanched, spring onions. The whole mess was then showered with grated aged goat cheese and left alone for about 10 minutes for the cheese to melt slowly over the still-warm asparagus and onions. Then we took it outside with some cut up bread and ate to our heart's content, enjoying the mild weather, view of the church and the great company.

That's the kind of dinner I want to eat all the time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Its perfect complement

My my, but it has been awhile.

Unfortunately, I seem to be saying that rather frequently in this space as of late, but this job has been keeping me quite busy. We just finished up a wonderful 3-day class here in Louviers and starting tomorrow we have three classes in two days in Paris.

The week before, my mother came to visit and help celebrate my birthday, and we had a lot of fun. From a degustation in a tiny underground cave to navigating French highways in a stick shift van to drinking a white Languedoc while watching My Fair Lady...well, we did it up right.

We took trips to Rouen and Honfleur, and had many a walk around Louviers, which was showing off by flowering blooms everywhere.

We also managed to do quite a bit of cooking together, with my mother discovering the wonders of pre-roasted beets in salads and broiled mackerel with tangy lime/soy vinaigrettes. I think I also may have created a fellow addict to a phenomenal Turkish yogurt that I get at a little Kosher grocery store in town. That stuff is like yogurt crack.

And as it happens, its perfect complement is my grandmother's famous rhubarb crunch recipe, which we prepared mid-week.

I say famous, because this is one of my favorite desserts of all time, and was a staple in my house growing up. So...I suppose it's famous only in the Douglas household, but it really should be in yours as well.

Rhubarb Crunch
Adapted from Agnes Douglas

1 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, cut into rough cubes
3/4 cup oats
4 cups fresh rhubarb, any leaves removed, chopped into 1 inch pieces
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 Tbs. cornstarch
1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9' X 9' glass pan with butter.

Place the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and oats into a medium mixing bowl. Use your hands to toss and mix them together. Add the butter pieces and use your fingers to thoroughly incorporate the butter into the oat mixture. To do this, you'll want to squish the butter cubes and dry ingredients between your fingers, rolling them a bit until you no longer have any large butter chunks.

Place the sugar, water, cornstarch and vanilla into a medium saucepan and warm over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved and the sauce has begun to thicken up.

Press half of the oat and butter mixture into the bottom of the pan. Top with the cut rhubarb slices, then drizzle the sugar water over the rhubarb. Layer the remaining half of the oat and butter mixture on top, taking care to evenly cover the rhubarb underneath.

Bake for 1 hour, or until bubbling around the edges.

Serves 2 throughout an entire week. Under normal circumstances, serves 12-16.

Note: You want to try this fresh out of the oven with some vanilla ice cream. Trust me on this one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Snippets and snapshots

I'm not sure how I missed my lesson on steamed vegetables, but I am more than making up for lost time, let me tell you.

I remember reading somewhere that the French steam their vegetables more than lots of other cultures. Please don't ask me where, as I have been reading snippets and snapshots of so many different books and cookbooks scattered around the house that my head is feeling a tad bit spin-y at the moment.

Everything fell into place, however, when Susan and I picked up a bouquet of asparagus for the first time at the market last week (from Baptiste, of course).

We had said goodbye to our guests (a small class of three Dutch women in for the weekend) then immediately retreated to our bedrooms for a nap, much to Susan's daughter's (herein referred to as "F") dismay. After I woke up, F and I headed to the hyperChampion to pick up some supplies and give Dusty a bit of a walk.

When we came back, Susan had woken up and put out some gorgeous rust-colored sun-dried tomatoes and some basil-scented goat cheese for dipping, as well as a towering platter of freshly steamed asparagus, accompanied by Piment d'Espelette Fleur de Sel.

Following Susan's lead, I dipped the asparagus ends into the spicy salt and bit in.

Oh, there's nothing like that first taste of honest to goodness spring produce. I love celery root and cabbage as much as (maybe even more than) the next person, but I need seasonal changes to keep me from overdosing on them. Spring vegetables are not only wonderful in their own right, but in the promise of summer stone fruit and berries that they bring with them.

Instead of a firm recipe, I'm going to do a quick tutorial on steaming today. Maybe none of you need it, but I certainly did when I was assigned to steam some beets the other day for lunch (so delicious!).

You'll need a vegetable steamer basket and a large saucepan for this operation. Fill the bottom of the saucepan with a half inch or so of water, then put in the steamer basket to make sure the water isn't coming over the top-you want the water level just below the steamer basket, so add or remove water as necessary. Take out the basket and bring the water to a boil, then carefully return the basket to the pan.

If you're doing a vegetable that steams quickly such as asparagus, then leave the heat up high and dump your asparagus in. Just make sure to snap the ends off of the asparagus (yes, you have to do it individually, and don't worry--the asparagus will snap where it needs to, naturally separating the woody stalk) before putting it in. Steam for just a few minutes, until the asparagus is tender but not limp.

For a sturdy vegetable like beets, you'll follow the same general operation as above with a few notable exceptions.

First of all, peel and cube your beets or sweet potatoes or what have you. Set up the pot, as above, but once the water comes to a boil, lower the heat a bit to medium or medium-high. Put in your cubed vegetables, then cover. These vegetables will take quite a while to steam, anywhere from 30-50 minutes, but you'll need to check the water level every 10 minutes or so, adding more as necessary to ensure that you're not burning the basket and pan (I find that a Pyrex liquid measuring cup is really handy here). The vegetables are done when you can stick a sharp knife in the middle of a cube and feel no resistance.

Beets are especially good done this way when when you toss them with a bit of sherry vinegar, salt and pepper.

P.S. I apologize for my lack of actual food pictures in recent posts. Working in the kitchen constantly has not been conducive to snapping photos all the time. I'll work on making up for it in the coming weeks!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Missed the boat

I want to let you all know up front that this will be a bit of a short post. I just got done with a cooking class from the weekend and am still recovering, even after an hour nap today!


I just don't understand why we're so afraid of desserts in the States.

No, wait, I take that back.

I guess what I don't understand is how we could be so scared to have a dessert on a regular basis. I do it here, and have not suffered any ill effects. It's a puzzle, part of the French paradox maybe...or maybe it's just because we've missed the compote boat.

One of the things that Alice Waters continually preaches is how lovely a perfect fresh piece of fruit is--the ideal dessert, really. Sometimes, however, some of us don't have access to that lovely piece of perfect fruit, or, let's be honest, we get sick of plain fruit and want a little spice in our life.

That brings us to this lovely apple compote I've made a couple of times over the past few weeks. It's the end of the apple season here in Louviers, so I'm gobbling up as many apples as possible, in any form I can think of.

A compote is essentially cooked down fruit, as far as I can tell. Some versions tell you to cook the fruit in a sugar syrup, and you can absolutely do that if you like, but here in France, a compote is kind of a sister to applesauce. It is eaten hot and cold, brought in as a base for a buttery tart and very happily married with flaky pastry for chaussons aux pommes.

Sometimes simplicity is best, and that means tossing cubed, peeled apples into a pot with sugar and some vanilla and calling it dessert.

Apple Compote
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

6 medium-sized firm apples, such as Cox's Pippin
2 Tbs. butter
1/2 Tbs. grapeseed or canola oil
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 tsp. (vanilla) sugar
Freshly grated nutmeg
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice (optional-add in before serving if you've got less of a sweet tooth)

Peel, core and cube the apples.

Melt the butter and oil together over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Once melted, add the apple cubes and stir. Add the vanilla and nutmeg, stir and turn down the heat to medium-low.

Stir periodically until the apples are soft, about 20 minutes. Use a potato masher to mash about half of the apples in the saucepan (you want to leave some big chunks for texture), stir again and serve.

Serves 2-3.

This is great all on its own, and I encourage you to mix it up with other spices such as cinnamon or a touch of pepper. This would also be lovely with ice cream, I imagine, maybe vanilla or cinnamon.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


I have a new best friend and her name is Dusty.

Dusty and I have been getting along splendidly during the past week and a half while I've been house-sitting for Susan and looking after her daughter. A few times a week we go on runs, always interspersed with short stops if Dusty find something particularly luscious to sniff or needs to, shall we say, mark her territory.

Otherwise, I try to make sure that we get in two walks a day.

At the beginning, I always had her on a leash, my head filled with visions of screeching tires and honking cars. I quickly noticed that Dusty had a habit of going off around town on her own, and found out that the leash was, in fact, a new thing for her. Dusty has incredibly good common sense, and is quite at ease in town, weaving in and out of traffic and looking both ways before crossing the street (I swear, I have seen her do it!).

Do I still get uneasy about it? Absolutely.

But if she was on a leash all of the time, I'd never have the chance to be taken on a walk by her. Which is what happens at least once a day.

Dusty will trot ahead of me, maybe 20 feet or so, investigating corners and doorways, periodically looking back at me to make sure I'm following her. If I ever decide to turn down a certain street or turn around to head back home, I just have to wait for her to glance back again, which she does every 45 seconds or so, motion to her with a quick nod, and head in the new direction. She will immediately join me, galloping out front so that she will again be leading the charge.

During the time when I'm working at my desk in my room, she can be found at least half the time on the floor near me, waiting for me to finish so that we can go on another walk.

Dusty always comes to the market with us, though she's probably the only dog there not on a leash. Like I said, she's quite the city dog, and people seem to know her well, and not mind too much if she slips back behind the stalls to try and find a scrap of something or other.

Myself, I've been spending my market time waiting patiently in line for my current addiction: endives.

I've seared them and topped them with an olive-oil fried egg for a light lunch on a cold and rainy day (of which there have been quite a lot this past week). But my current favorite way is sliced and tossed in a salad with roasted beets.

Did you know that until recently, you could never find raw beets at the markets here? Everyone always bought them pre-roasted to save themselves the trouble of roasting at home.

I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the roasted beet that Baptiste slipped into my bag last week. He suggested cubing it and tossing it with a simple vinaigrette, and while that sounded lovely, I took it one step further by combining it with fresh apples, cheese and nuts...oh, and one of his gorgeous endives.

This salad is ideally suited to variations. In the past three days I've had it in as many different ways: once with beets, pears and comté, another day with beet, endive and apple, and the third day using the recipe below. Note that this is a rough outline, and I encourage you to play with proportions and ingredients.

Beet and Endive Salad

1 medium to large endive
1 1/2-inch thick slice of peeled, roasted beet*
1 medium apple (I've been using Jonagold or Cox's Orange Pippin)
1 1/2-inch thick hunk of parmesan (I'd guess around 1 oz)
Handful of pumpkin seeds
1 tsp. sherry vinegar
3 tsp. good olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Remove any yellowing leaves from your endive and slice the very end of the stem off. Thinly slice the endive horizontally into slices about 1/4 inch thick.

Cube the beet and parmesan into bite-size pieces (about 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch).

Peel, core and cube the apple into bite-size pieces.

Combine the endive, beet, parmesan, apple and pumpkin seeds in a bowl and toss to mix. Add the sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper and toss again to thoroughly combine. Don't worry if your salad starts to get a little pink--which it will, thanks to the beet--just enjoy eating pink food!

Enjoy with some good bread and maybe a glass of dry white wine like a Sancerre or Pinot Blanc.

Serves 1

*If you need to roast the beet yourself, do as follows:
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Cut off your beet tops, leaving about 1/2 an inch of the stem still attached to the beet root, and reserve (they're fabulous sautéed in just a bit of olive oil). Scrub the beets and place them in a baking pan. Add enough water to come up the sides of the pan 1/4 inch. Cover the pan tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and roast until the beets are easily pierced through with a knife. This can take anywhere from 40 minutes and beyond, depending on the size of your beets. Once cooled, use your thumb to nudge off the beet skin and discard.
Oh, and wear an apron! Beet juice can stain your hands and your cutting board, but don't let it stain your shirt!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the cake

Periodically--it seems to be about once a month--Susan hosts a friendly neighborhood wine tasting at her home.

For the event last week, I gathered about 14 stools around the kitchen island, put out lots of silver and 32 plates (one plate each for the shepherd's pie, salad and cheese and the others for dessert) with a nice blue trim and searched out the four boxes of tasting glasses in the back prep kitchen.

I was downstairs tidying up the kitchen when Baptiste walked in, his black curls bouncing everywhere, loaded up with a huge bag of his very tasty mache. I finished unloading the dishwasher after a friendly two kiss greeting, and he got to work washing the mache in the zinc vegetable sink.

Baptiste is one of my favorite farmers at the weekly market. His vegetables are incredible, usually arriving about a week earlier than anyone else and always tasty. We split our vegetable shopping between his stand and another run by an adorable older couple. But our endive? Those, we always buy from Baptiste.

Just a few weeks ago, while Susan was spending her week teaching in Paris and I was holding down the fort at home with the animals (except for two days of classes, when I took the train in to assist), I ate up our supply of four endive in salads inspired by this recipe. When she returned, we went to the Saturday market as usual and I was surprised that Susan didn't pick up any more endive. I figured maybe the season was over, or maybe she wasn't as much of a fan as I was, but I didn't say anything, not having had my coffee and croissant yet.

Days later, I heard my name called from the kitchen, and I went downstairs. There was Susan, visibly heartbroken at the idea that she wouldn't be able to eat any of Baptiste's endive until she returned home from her trip to the states weeks later. I couldn't decide whether to laugh or crawl under the kitchen island. I don't think she could either.

That night at the wine tasting, after finishing with the dishwasher, I came to take over washing duties from Baptiste, and he politely but firmly nudged me out of the way and continued his work. That, of course, didn't bother me a bit, until I happened to glance down at the mache floating in the sink.

On my first or second day here, Susan had shown me the proper way to wash and serve mache (bought at Baptiste's stand, bien sur). It takes anywhere between 5 and 7 washings, depending on how dirty it is, which can take quite a while, but you can't skimp for fear of allowing a single piece of grit to slip past your guard and onto an unsuspecting diner's plate.

She had also stressed that mache should be left in the little florets it grows in, so you can imagine my shock and horror when I saw that Baptiste, while washing his mache, had cut off all of the leaves from every floret, leaving them all swimming individually in the sink.

Knowing that there was nothing I could do to save the already massacred mache at this point, I casually mentioned Susan's theory of leaving the mache whole to Baptiste, who grinned at me, shrugged, then commented that seeing as it was his mache and he didn't care, neither should anyone else.

I knew someone else wasn't going to have quite the same point of view, and rushed upstairs to warn Susan so that she wouldn't faint at the sight of those desolate mache leaves.

Earlier that day I had baked and iced a cake for dessert. We had a glutton of carrots on hand, so Susan decided that I should try a carrot cake, a version from her delightfully stained and dog-eared copy of her own Farmhouse Cookbook.

This is not the fluffy, cream cheese frosting-swirled carrot cake of your youth, however. This is a down-home, thick, almost fruit cake-esque cake, full of warm spices and walnuts.

And did I mention that I topped it with a caramel frosting?

Whoa. I mean, the cake was good, though it probably would've been better if left to sit for a few days and have the flavors meld and marry a bit more, but that frosting was out of this world.

Imagine a (slightly) salted butter caramel melted all over a dense, nutty cake and you'll be getting warmer.

It was all I could do not to get out a spoon and eat the entire pan full myself, and it must be said that I was not overly pleased when Susan called in her daughter to help me lick the spoon after I had finished frosting the cake. I'm good at sharing, really I am, just not when there's caramel frosting to be finished.

I imagine that this would go equally well with white or chocolate cakes. Because of its thickness, I also think it'd be great on any kind of pound cake or spiced bundt cake. Come to think of it, I can't really imagine it not going well with anything, even an ice cream sundae.

Caramel Frosting
Adapted from Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrmann Loomis

1 stick (8Tbs) unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 Tbs. milk
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. confectioners' sugar*
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add in the brown sugar and reduce the heat to low. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon until the sugar melts and is fully incorporated, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the milk, then raise the heat to medium. Continue stirring until the mixture just comes to a boil, then remove the pan from heat and cool slightly.

Once the mixture is lukewarm, whisk in the confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup at a time. Fully incorporate each portion of sugar before adding in the next one. At this point, the frosting shoud be smooth and free of lumps.

Whisk in the vanilla extract, then spread the frosting immediately over your cake.

Yields 1 cup, just enough for the top of a 10-inch bundt cake, with pretty drips down the side.

*If you run out of confectioners' sugar or just don't have any on hand, grind up your regular sugar to a very fine dust in a coffee grinder (clean it first!). You can add a touch of cornstarch as well, but I didn't this time, and the frosting was still unbelieveable. Just remember to measure the sugar after it's been ground, not before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The way you do the things you do

I was intimidated.

I had just arrived a few days earlier, and now was the first time that Susan had asked me to do any sort of cooking with her, side by side.

There I was, supposed to be an assistant in the cooking class, but I'd already observed that most of my techniques need to be changed, tweaked or reinvented. At least I was humble enough to admit it. That's a start, right?

It's been a bit difficult to change the way I do certain, basic things. For example, my mise en place...well, it sucks, to be quite frank. I have always been one of those people who chops up the mushrooms furiously while the tomato sauce is bubbling away on the stove, trying desperately to finish them before the sauce has reduced too much.

It's the same way with baking. I never put things out in little bowls beforehand, channeling Julia Child. Those were, in my mind, just a few more bowls to wash, and living without a dishwasher last year in San Francisco made me quite frugal in the dish dirtying department.

However, I see the logic of it all, and am trying to force myself to get everything out and ready before I begin any step at all.

It's difficult, but I'm working on it.

Oh, and just so you know, if you do do mise en place correctly, and put out a vinegar for whatever recipe you're using, be sure to cover it with a plate or something. Vinegar evaporates slowly, and if you don't use it within the first few minutes off putting it out, you'll end up with less than you thought. Crazy, eh?

I have learned that when you blanch things, you should put them in ice water just until they are cool, then immediately spread them out on a towel to dry. Otherwise, you'll end up with waterlogged vegetables.

This is a certain curved paring knife with which I have fallen in love. Nothing better for peeling apples, shallots, garlic, what have you. Oh, and while we're at it, take out the little green thing in the garlic. Not because it's necessarily bitter, but because there's a noticeable textural difference.

Hmm...what else? I've learned that one or two small cookies with your post-lunch coffee is always a good idea.

There should be music playing when you're cooking, but there MUST be music playing when you're cleaning up.

Speaking of clean-up, your knives should be washed and dried immediately after use. No soaking in the sink or any of that. They will last much longer if you treat them well.

Tea tastes better when you drink it out of a bowl in the wee small hours of the morning.

As you can see, I feel like a sponge, just absorbing anything and everything that I can. I mean, I only have four months here, and there's so much to learn.

Susan and I recently had a phenomenal lunch that I have to write you about, even though we ate it so fast that taking a picture didn't even cross my mind until hours later. It's main component is fava beans, which are in season at the moment, so get on this recipe as soon as possible!

The recipe is simple, in the Italian tradition of letting your ingredients really shine through. This translates as such: buy/use the BEST ingredients you can find!

The recipe below is going to be a pretty rough outline, as I'm trusting you to taste and judge how much of each you want to put in.

Fava Bean Salad

3-4 big handfuls of fava bean pods
2 oz. hard sheep's milk cheese, such as Abbaye de Belloc or a young Manchego (you want something hard and firm, but still quite young, say 18 months max)
good olive oil
2-3 sprigs fresh savory (thyme could probably substitute here)
fleur de sel or good sea salt

Bring a medium saucepan full of water to boil.

Strip the fava beans out of their pods, then add the beans to the boiling water. Allow to boil for about one minute, then drain and place in a bowl.

Once cool enough to handle, use your fingernail or a small pairing knife to cut a slit through the outer layer of the fava bean (it's light green), then use your fingers to gently unwrap the bright green bean inside. Repeat with the remaining favas.

Cut the cheese into bite-size squares, about 1/2 inch X 1/2 inch. Strip the leaves off of the savory or thyme, taking care not to include any of the woody stem.

Toss the fava beans and cheese together with the savory in a medium-sized bowl. Add enough olive oil to come to 3/4 of the way up the mixture.

Combine well. Sprinkle fleur de sel on top of each plate before serving.

Serves 2.

*Make sure you serve this with plenty of good, crusty bread. You'll want it to soak up that beautiful olive oil you used.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mise en place

I have to apologize for my recent absence in this space. (Sorry!)

You see, it has taken a lot longer to get my internet up and running here in Louviers than I could have possibly expected. It also took a few rather emotionally-trying phone calls with some rude "customer service" people at a particular French company that shall remain nameless, and which resulted in absolutely nothing.

Thank goodness for sweet American computer experts who are only a phone call away in Paris.

Now that I'm back online, I will of course, be filling you in on how I've been spending my time thus far (Paris, macarons and vinaigrettes, oh my!). I thought it might be fun, though, to send along a few pictures and a broad overview first, then share more details later. I hope you won't mind.

Paris, never know where to begin there, do you? The city is just too good, and it's hard to be articulate when I have such an utter devotion.

For the time being, suffice it to say that I received some great recommendations from this lady and this book. I followed Clotilde's chocolate recommendations, as well as some found here, which led me to heavenly tablettes filled with candied apricots and almonds from Jean-Charles Rochoux and an insanely smooth 85% chocolate tablette from Pierre Marcolini. Oh, and a chocolate-basil ganache!

And did I mention some of the best duck I've ever had at this lovely restaurant?

Oh, and my first Ispaphan.

After a week in Paris wandering around old and new haunts, I headed to Rennes to visit my lovely friend Merrill who's working there as a language assistant, or was until the entire country started to strike. Either way, she is lucky to live within two minutes of a fabulous bakery with an amazing buckwheat baguette and a wine store with an adorable owner who has a gift for picking out tasty bottles for under 10 euros.

Oh, and in case I forget to mention it later, I really missed rillettes and Reblochon. Huge thanks to Merrill for providing them!

After a lovely long weekend in Rennes, I managed to get myself to Louviers with my two heavy bags in tow. I should thank the incredibly nice strangers in the Métro and on the trains who helped me with my bags. Just picked them up and started up the staircases without a word.

The house is lovely, old and full of staircases and light blue windows. Oh, and the exposed beams, persnickety Aga stove and stunning butcher block island don't hurt the ambiance either. There are heaving bookshelves everywhere, giving me plenty to keep myself busy when I'm not looking after my young charge or working on mise-en-place or recipes for class.

I had my first official cooking class as an assistant yesterday, and it was even more fun than I expected. And I had high expectations, mind you. Filleting my first mackerel, putting together the mise-en-place, setting the table, being a gopher--it didn't matter what it was, I learned something doing it.

So far, it's kind of like living in a fairytale, albeit a fairy tale with an ornery stove that decided to go out yesterday morning. Eh, c'est la vie. Besides, I have blankets and a beautiful green stove to cook at and dance around.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

One kick right after another

Okay, we all need to eat lunch every day, don't we?

Of course we do, but if you're anything like me, you could quickly get into a rut of having a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with strawberry jam and lettuce EVERY single day for months on end.  Not that there's anything wrong with said sandwich, but even people who like repetition can get bored after 3 solid months of the same lunch.  Believe me, I know. 

I lived the above scenario when I was working for a summer in New York City a few years ago at a business magazine.  As a lowly intern, I obviously couldn't afford to eat out every day, and with all of the work I had to do, I wouldn't have had time anyway, so packing my own lunch was the only option I saw.

With this recipe, I hope to introduce some variety into your workweek, or at the very least a delicious lunch or dinner to put together when you're not eating greasy hash browns on the weekend or have gotten home really late after work and want something quick and healthy.

Chicken laap (I've also heard it referred to as larp, but that makes me think of lard and that doesn't really conjure up the healthy delicious salad as well as I'd like) is a dish I first encountered on my SE Asia trip.  As I previously noted, I fell immediately in love with the strong flavors and crunchy textures on my trip, and have since made it for family and friends to critical (okay, maybe a stretch here) acclaim.

I first developed a crush on the fish laap that was available all over Laos, but once I headed to my cooking class in Luang Prabang and tried chicken laap...well, it blossomed into a long-term love affair.

It's quick (depending on the speed of your chopping skills), easy, healthy as all get out, incredibly delicious (the flavors take turns giving your taste buds one kick right after another) oh, and did I mention easy?  It's also easily adaptable to whatever spices you've got on hand, so no excuses about having to run to the grocery store allowed!

All you do is mince up some chicken and throw it in a skillet with a bit of water.  While that's cooking, you mince up some shallots, garlic, lemongrass, arugula, etc., then toss the whole thing together with a bit of fish sauce and chili.  Dump it out onto a plate, add some big crinkly lettuce leaves and/or cucumber slices and top them with your salad mixture, then eat away.  

Just remember to bring some napkins, oh, and to eat this at least a few feet away from your computer.  I'm not sure I want to know what fish sauce does to a keyboard.

Chicken Laap
Adapted from Tamnak Lao Cooking School

2 large skinless boneless chicken breasts (about 400 gms), minced*
2 medium limes or lemons
4 Tbs. hot water
2 green onions, thinly sliced
4 shallots, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch cilantro/coriander, finely chopped
4 lemongrass stalks, white part only, thinly sliced
2 handfuls arugula leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. rice powder, optional**
2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. fish sauce

Juice the lemons or limes.

Place a large saute pan over medium heat and add half of the lemon/lime juice and the minced chicken. Stir frequently until the chicken is cooked through and the liquid has been absorbed, adding a bit of water if necessary.
Remove from heat and place in a large mixing bowl.
Add the green onions, shallot, garlic, cilantro, lemongrass and arugula to the bowl and mix well.
Add the salt, rice powder (if using), chili powder and fish sauce and stir to combine thoroughly.
Taste for seasoning. I often add a bit more fish sauce and lime juice at this point. Keep in mind "hot, sour, salty, sweet" when tasting, and add a bit more as necessary.

Serves 2 as a main dish.

*Place the chicken breasts on a large cutting board, then start chopping away with a chef's knife in each hand. Not only is this fun (just be careful not to get too overzealous!), but you'll find the chicken minced before you know it.

**Rice powder can be purchased at Asian supermarkets or easily made at home. To be honest, I just leave it out, and can't tell that much of a difference, but you're welcome to try it if you're not as lazy as I am: Toast raw rice until golden in a saute pan. Throw it into a blender/food processor and process until you get a fine powder. Store in an airtight glass jar.

Note: I have made this without many of the ingredients, such as arugula and lemongrass, thrown ginger into the mix, and never been disappointed. Play around with it: it's hard to go wrong.

P.S.  I am currently staying in Rennes with a good friend for a few days until I head to Louviers to begin working on Monday.  I had a lovely time in Paris last week, full of drop dead gorgeous food, and I promise to tell you a bit more about it soon--once I get settled!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For your consideration

Today is the day before I leave for Paris.

(Insert copious swearing here)

Okay, now that that's over with, let's get to the good stuff.

I'm not sure what kind of internet access I'm going to have for the first few weeks I'm there, but I didn't want to leave you guys completely defenseless. To that end, I have thrown together some links below to keep you all occupied and well-fed until I'm back online.

Besides, I've been cooking up a storm this past week and I want to share the fruits of my labor. I've been calling it my "Greatest Hits" week, and while it may not be a Beatles or Rolling Stones album, it's been pretty damn tasty, I must say.

In the savory corner, we've got slow-roasted tomatoes that we tossed with farfalle and a nubbin or two of goat cheese, my first but certainly not last foray into oven-roasted shrimp and broccoli, a glorious smothered cabbage and rice soup/risotto, an old favorite in the form of chickpeas and roasted butternut squash (make sure to really stir your tahini beforehand!), my new favorite "30 minute" meal and a lovely tangy pasta topped with a recent obsession: an olive-oil fried egg.

Also for your consideration, I offer the following sweet delights: a cake for busy days from Edna Lewis and an insanely easy apple tart.

I've even thrown together a couple of things to get Jimmy through the rest of the week without having to eat Subway twice a day.

Oh, and I also have this cooling on the stove as we speak.

See you back in this space soon!

P.S. I hope this answers some of your questions as to how I've been keeping busy while Jimmy studies day and night. ;)