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a blog about hope


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Happy Pi or Pie Day!

photo (25) Note:  When I was in Grand Cayman last March, I made this pie on Pi Day.  Stranded this weekend (no hate mail, please) in my favorite place on Pie Day, without a functioning laptop, I’m republishing that same post.  Sorry to be redundant, but typing on this iPhone is a real pain.  By the way, I made Key Lime Pie earlier this week in Paradise for The Daughter and her beau but didn’t think to photograph it.  You’ll just have to take my word for it; it was delicious.  Hope it brings a breath of the tropics to your snowy day!

I am nearly useless at two things, pie crust and math, but even I know what pi means. It’s how I learned to make circle dance skirts.  In honor of Pi Day (3.14.15) and National Pie Day (1.23.16), I am sharing my recipe for the only credible pie that I can make.  Oh, I make a great pumpkin pie (with freshly ground black pepper) using pre-made crust.  I make a great apple tart using Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry (aka Grease City) or phyllo dough.

I actually receive requests for my Key Lime Pie.  I have seen grown men swoon over it, so I added it to my list of accomplishments in my online dating profiles.  I can make it in my sleep.

When I first had it, back in the 70s in the Florida Keys, I was told that the recipe was on the Borden’s Sweetened Condensed Milk can.  I also learned that if it was green, it was bogus.  Of course, I couldn’t leave it alone and improved on it.  I added almonds to the crust and whipped egg whites to the filling to lighten the custard.

While I have made it in drafty sailboat ovens, in triplicate, and in too many vacation condos to count, the best that I ever made was in the 1980s, when my late mother-in-law and her husband moved to Naples, Florida and had a Key Lime tree in their backyard. Key limes are smaller and more bitter than Persian limes, which makes them the perfect foil for the sweetness of the meringue.  It takes an entire bag of Key limes (and squeezing) to make 1/2 cup of juice, but the flavor is the best.  I would rather use a bottled brand of Key lime juice (such as Nellie and Joe’s) than Persian limes and never “Real Lime.”

About five years ago, in Key Largo, for dessert, I had an amazing “Key Lime Cocktail” with graham cracker crumbs around the rim.  I’m still trying to perfect that recipe and will let you know when I’m successful.  Practice, after all, makes perfect.

In a deep dish pie plate, combine:

1-1/2 cup crushed graham crackers

2 Tblsps. melted butter

2 Tblsps. granulated sugar

¼ cup crushed sliced almonds

Press crust on the bottom and up the sides of the pan.  Refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Meringue:

4 egg whites (more, if you like a lot of meringue)

¼ tsp cream of tartar (omit, if using a copper lined bowl)

2 Tblsps. granulated sugar

In a glass, grease-free bowl, whip egg whites and ¼ tsp of cream of tartar until foamy.  Add sugar and whip until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.

Filling Ingredients:

4 egg yolks

¼ tsp grated lime peel (green portion only)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup Key lime juice

In a separate bowl, beat eggs until lemon-yellow.  Stir in lime peel and condensed milk until blended.  Thoroughly mix in lime juice until blended.  Fold ½ cup of the beaten egg whites into the custard mixture and pour into chilled crust.

Bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until filling just starts to brown around edges.  Remove pie from oven and increase heat to 500°.

Pile remaining meringue over filling completely, and bake until peaks are golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Note:  If you won’t be serving the pie for several hours and do not want to see the meringue “weep”, you can refrigerate the “un-meringued” pie, covered, until needed.  Just before serving, cover with meringue and brown in hot oven.

 

 


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Grandma’s Pancakes

Pancakes doggieOne of my most treasured possessions is a well-seasoned cast iron skillet that I inherited from my maternal grandmother, aka The Kentucky Grandmother.  In its 70+ years, it’s seen her fried chicken and fried green tomatoes and fried pork chops, as well as my fried roast beef hash and my not-fried shrimp etouffé.  It’s seen a lot of cornbread, as well as the lightest pancakes with the crispiest edges.  You can see this humble pan holding fancier fare, like Caramelized Salmon and Blackened Prime Rib in this blog.

The Daughter asked for her own well-seasoned cast iron skillet for her birthday.  Together, we chose an American-made skillet for $12.00 at T.J. Maxx.  I told her that I would start the seasoning job, but that a really smoothly coated skillet comes from years of use.  I was fortunate to receive Grandma’s, but, for a wedding present, a friend gave us a new cast iron skillet containing a Pineapple-upside-down Cake[i], which is almost quite-right after 43 years of use.

Pancakes butter

Buttering Grandma’s skillet. The Daughter’s new skillet has a convenient second handle.

I started by wiping it with oil and heating it overnight in the oven at 300°.  I’ve been cooking everything in that pan since I bought it; bacon, potatoes, fish, hamburgers, and steak.  That’s right, I’ve been frying stuff that I have no business eating, but that’s what a good mother does for her child.  This morning, we’re going to make pancakes.

A treat of waking up at My Grandma’s house was smelling coffee percolating on the stove (remember that?) and coming downstairs to her lightweight pancakes with the crispy edges that only a hot skillet can produce.  I’m not talking crêpes.  I’m talking pancakes that she made from the traditional Aunt Jemima mix, doused with Log Cabin syrup.  Sure, anyone can buy the mix and pour it into a pan, but, after trial and error, I discovered how she achieved the light and crispy effect with extra milk and lots of butter.

In the opposite order of a usual recipe, I’m going to give you the technique first.  Be sure to turn on the exhaust fan, because there will be a lot of burning (ie, smoking) butter.

I always use two skillets, so I don’t spend all day making breakfast for other people and have no time to enjoy my own cooking.  Place them on the burners over medium-high heat and heat for two minutes.  Test the pan by placing one teaspoon of butter in the center of the skillet.  It should sizzle immediately and start to turn brown.  Run the butter over the entire bottom of the skillet, using more butter, if necessary, until thinly filmed.  To make pancakes, place another one teaspoon of butter in the center of the pan and immediately pour one cup of prepared batter into the center.  It will spread out into the butter, which gives you those crispy edges.

Pancakes edgeWhen the top of the pancake is covered in bubbles, lift one edge.  If it’s brown, carefully flip it over.  Because the batter is thin, it may run, so your results may not be picture perfect.  Because I don’t like fat pancakes, I also flatten them a little more with the turner before serving.

The first pancake is always a dud, which we call the “doggie” pancake and is always reserved for — well, nowadays — the BFF.

One day, I ran out of Aunt Jemima mix, got creative in the kitchen, and produced my own recipe, based on one from the classic Betty Crocker cookbook.  If you don’t count the copious amounts of butter in the pan, it’s mostly fat-free.    With the help of a little apple cider vinegar, I created the tang of buttermilk.  Now, it’s the only recipe that I use.

Pancakes finishedGrandma’s Pancakes

1 cup skim milk

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1 egg

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

Lots and lots of salted butter

Pure maple syrup (I like the really dark kind.)

Pancakes batterIn a blender or mixing bowl with a spout, whisk together the milk, vinegar, and egg.  Mix in the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until smooth.  The mixture should be the consistency of gravy.  If too thick, add a little milk.

[i] The Veterinarian wanted a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake for our wedding cake, which didn’t make any sense to My Mother, who, after all, was paying.


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Cooking fresco

Prodotti freschi

Prodotti freschi

Tomatoes are everywhere, stacked in beautiful piles at farm stands.

I always knew that we were in the dog days of summer when My Mother picked tomatoes from our suburban garden and lined them up on a windowsill to ripen.  She made BLT sandwiches, tomato sandwiches, and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions dressed with red wine vinegar, oil, a pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper.

Too bad I don’t like tomatoes.  I should clarify.  I don’t eat raw tomatoes.  I don’t like the acid or the texture.  I don’t eat soups or sauces made with tomatoes that haven’t been seeded or peeled.  When dining out, I even inspect marinara sauce and pizza for seeds and skins.  Actually, I never order marinara sauce in a restaurant.

Today, I want to talk about what I do with fresh tomatoes in tomato season.  Oh, I know what people like with their tomatoes.  Just because I’m plagued with Picky-Eater Syndrome doesn’t mean that I can’t figure out how food should taste (as usual, I realize that I’m not making sense to most of you).  For our church cook-out this Sunday, I’ll make a platter of sliced tomatoes drizzled with a best-quality olive oil and garnished with sliced or fresh mozzarella, salt and pepper, and fresh basil.   The Veterinarian liked his tomato salad with Vidalia onion, but raw onions are a fellowship-killer, if you know what I mean.

Blessed with wonderful friends and clients in our veterinary practice, we never had a shortage of seasonal produce.  Once I learned to peel and seed tomatoes efficiently, I turned them into soups (Julia Child’s “Potage Magali,” a Mediterranean tomato and rice) or salsa or jambalaya or traditional tomato sauce, which I froze in baggies.

photo 3 (1)Then, I discovered this wonderful pasta sauce which not only uses fresh tomatoes but also that other bounty of late summer, fresh basil.  Many, many years ago, I watched someone make this on television and scribbled down the recipe, and, like most everything that I cook, I adapted it to suit my picky taste.  I do remember that the tomatoes were to be seeded and peeled, so I’m not adapting that.  I call it “Penne Rigate alla Vodka with Basil and maybe Mushrooms.”

In researching this recipe, articles repeatedly mentioned that it was an “American” pasta dish, not authentically Italian.  Curious, I pulled out my American edition of the Italian classic cookbook “The Silver Spoon” (“Il cucchiaio d’argento”), and there it is on page 298.  Now, this was advertised by Phaidon, the publisher, as “The bible of authentic Italian cooking.“  If the online authorities are correct, the Italians have borrowed an Americanized Italian dish; the great Melting Pot is flowing east, across the Atlantic to the Old World. However, “The Silver Spoon” contains no recipe for that known New World creation, Fettucine al Fredo, so I question the online authorities.  But, really, who cares?

Each online recipe is different (some include bacon or oregano, almost none have fresh basil), so which is the “authentic American penne alla vodka”?  In the culinary world, where the word “fusion” gets attached to traditional cuisine to indicate a blending of cultural influences, perhaps this is “Italian Fusion.”  Cooking is all about improvisation, using what’s available, using your own preferences or dietary requirements, creating something out of nothing, like art.  As a picky eater, I’ve been creating culinary art as long as I have been cooking.  That’s why I always recommend that you start with recipes and adjust them until they taste right to you.  Yes, it’s trial and error, and you’re going to err — a lot, in the beginning, but cooking with a fresh eye is an art and incredibly satisfying.   I have so little control over the rest of my life, but, when I’m in my kitchen, or even cooking in someone else’s, I am the Mistress of my Domain, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

Penne Rigate alla Vodka with Basil and no mushrooms

Penne Rigate alla Vodka with Basil and no mushrooms

Penne Rigate alla Vodka with Basil and maybe Mushrooms

I should explain the name.  When I saw this made on television, the chef included mushrooms, which aren’t on this picky eater’s palate.  Thankfully, the Veterinarian and the Daughter weren’t even remotely as picky, so adding sautéed mushrooms gave the delicate sauce a little heft.  I imagine that you could also blend some of the cooked mushrooms into the sauce, but I wouldn’t eat that.

It isn’t difficult to peel tomatoes, but it’s a little trickier to seed them.  Bring a pan of water to boil and put in your washed tomatoes.  Return to a boil and simmer for three minutes.  Remove and plunge tomatoes into a bowl of icy water.  When cool, skins should slip off easily.  Cut the tomatoes in half and remove seeds and the stem end.  Measure tomatoes after peeling and seeding.

One last caveat:  Be sure to heat the sauce carefully after the vodka is added.  I once was gabbing with a friend on a flight and writing this recipe and my recipe for tortellini with prosciutto, peas, and fresh basil for her from memory.  Not paying attention, I wrote the ingredient “vodka” at the end and forgot to write “heat the vodka until the alcohol evaporates” in the directions.  My friend and her husband were overcome by the sauce in more ways than one.  By the way, this is the same veterinary spouse who ate my splintery cheesecake.  It’s a wonder she trusts any recipe that I give her!

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup chopped onions

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2½  cups peeled, seeded, and chopped meaty tomatoes (such as Roma/Plum, about 8-10)

1 cup packed fresh whole basil leaves (dried won’t do), reserving little sprigs for garnish

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ vodka

½ cup heavy cream

Parmesan, freshly grated

One pound of penne rigate (ridged), cooked

Optional:

½ pound sliced mushrooms, sautéed

Red pepper flakes

Directions:

In a 2-quart saucepan, heat butter and oil over medium-low heat until butter melts.  Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft.  Stir in tomatoes, cook for one minute; stir in whole basil leaves, salt, and pepper, and simmer for five minutes.

Remove from heat and add vodka.  Return to heat and simmer for two minutes or until alcohol evaporates.

with The Daughter as my sous chef

with The Daughter as my sous chef

Remove from heat and carefully spoon mixture into food processor or blender.  [Or use an immersion blender right in the pan.]  Add heavy cream and process just until blended but still chunky.  Return to pan over low heat.  Adjust salt and pepper to taste or add in optional red pepper flakes to taste.  Stir in optional mushrooms.  Heat through.

Spoon sauce over hot penne rigate in individual dishes, garnish with freshly grated Parmesan and with fresh basil sprigs.

Makes four servings, without the mushrooms; six with the mushrooms.

[Note:  If you don’t sauce all of the cooked pasta, let it cool and freeze in zippered bags.  When ready to use, bring 1-1/2 quarts of water to a boil and drop in the frozen pasta.  It will reheat in 3-5 minutes, and any freezer dehydration will reconstitute.]


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Dizzy for Daiquiris

Havana ClubIt seems I actually may get to Cuba before I die, since the U.S. has resumed diplomatic relations with the largest nation in the Caribbean.  I’ve always wanted to see the pristine beaches and the incredible rain forest, the Spanish colonial architecture and the old American cars.  Oh!  And I can’t wait to bring home the rum.

When most people think of Cuba, they think of angry guys with beards, cigars, Cuban sandwiches, and rum.  I buy Havana Club rum when I’m in Grand Cayman to mix with Coca-Cola and a squeeze of lime.  It’s dark and rich with a hint of molasses, and the seven-year old sipping blend is about as smooth as some single-malts I’ve had.

One of those pristine beaches, near Santiago, provided the name for my favorite summer heat-quencher, the Daiquiri.  I’m talking about real Daiquiris made with limes, not that sickly sweet stuff that comes out of a mega-blender like a Slurpee.  In the early 20th century, legend says, some American engineers with a lot of time on their hands came up with the perfect antidote to the oppressive tropical heat.  It became popular in Havana’s bars and nightclubs, attracting the attention of Ernest Hemingway, no less, who inspired a variation, with grapefruit juice and maraschino liquid, that bears his name.

How a simply elegant drink became synonymous with strawberries or bananas and an avalanche of crushed ice, I’ll never know.  Over the years, whenever I’ve asked for a “lime” Daiquiri at a beachfront bar, the bartender has looked at me like I was nuts, until one day on Key Biscayne.

We were on vacation in south Florida in July.  That may sound like torture to you, but our Maryland beaches are darn hot and humid in the summer and more expensive than a luxury hotel in Miami, where it’s the off-season.  As we were sitting at the deserted pool, I begged the Veterinarian to surprise me with something icy-cold from the bar.  He returned with a plastic cup full of the most heavenly Daiquiri I’d ever had.

“Look, I got you a real Daiquiri!”  he said, proudly.  “Hey, don’t drink it so fast.  You’re not getting another one.  I never would have ordered it had I known that it cost $15.”

“What?!”

“The rooms may be cheap here in the summer, but the bar drinks are pretty stiff in more ways than one.”

They were so irresistible that I think we splurged on one more during our week’s stay, but when we returned home, we experimented until we came up with the perfect replica.  You have my permission to adjust this to suit your own taste, but you can’t use anything other than fresh lime juice or white rum.  Frozen limeade is too sweet.  Bottled lime juice is too bitter. Dark rum is just ugly in the glass.  Corn syrup is too thick. I’ve tried to use artificial sweetener, which mixes well in the icy rum and lime, but the sugar syrup makes a smoother drink.  You can add more syrup, if you’d like a sweeter drink, but it cuts the all-important thirst-quenching properties.

¡Salud!

IMG_5722

Still life with lime

Daiquiri – makes one drink

2 ounces white rum

1 ounce simple sugar syrup (see recipe below)

Juice of one freshly-squeezed lime

Ice cubes (not crushed)

Measure rum and sugar syrup into shaker full of ice.  Squeeze in the juice of one lime.  Shake and serve over ice in tall glasses.  Garnish with lime wedge, if desired.

Simple Sugar Syrup

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup hot water

Don't you feel cooler already?

Don’t you feel cooler already?

Place sugar in small, heavy saucepan over medium heat.  Stir in hot water until sugar is dissolved, and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer mixture for 15 minutes.  Cover tightly with a lid and remove from heat.  Let sit until room temperature.  Pour into clean glass jar and store in refrigerator until ready to use.

[Note:  Because the mixture is boiling when you cover it, it will stay sterile while it cools.  Do not lift the lid while it is cooling, and refrigerate promptly within 60 minutes.]


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Chicken Salad Suite

IMG_5283

Chicken Tarragon Salad on Croissant

Thank you all for posting your copycat recipes on the internet!  Now that I live alone, it’s sometimes hard to find someone to join me for dinner or when I crave a particular menu item from a distant restaurant, so I’ve turned to these recipes.  It’s also a great way to cut out salt and fat by adapting the originals, because nothing packs on the pounds like dining out.

Before the internet, I either bought the chef’s cookbook (Thomas Keller, Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud, Roy Yamaguchi, Paul Prudhomme, even California Pizza Kitchen) or experimented.  Now, all you need is a Google-search.

One of the first dishes I ever duplicated was a chicken salad on croissant from a long-defunct café at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  It was simple with a twist, flavored with tarragon, one of my favorite herbs.  I don’t even know if my current incarnation is anything similar to the original recipe, but it’s always a hit and has been reproduced in church and school cookbooks and passed around by friends.

From 1986, on our sailboat

If you recall from my post on The Mayonnaise Wars, tarragon effectively masks the taste of the mayonnaise, which I find — well — distasteful.  The traditional celery adds crunch, along with my addition of sliced almonds, and a little lemon juice brightens anything.  Served on a buttery croissant, with or without a little red-leaf or butter lettuce, it’s just about my favorite lunch.

Besides church socials, it’s been a standby for boat trips, picnics, and always accompanies us on the first leg of any trip, either in the car or on an airplane, known in my family as the “Going Home Sandwiches,” not to be confused with the “Travelling Chocolate Chip Cookies.”

When The Daughter attended Salisbury University, in Salisbury, Maryland, I found a chicken salad that I like almost as much, and I’ve been craving it since she graduated and moved back home.  The Acorn Market (three long hours away) serves the second best chicken salad I’ve ever eaten, which seems to be just chicken breast chunks, mayonnaise, and honey.  No crunchy stuff.  No fruit.  But not bland.  They even give you a nice piece of shortbread to go with it for dessert.

Since I can’t find a recipe for it or convince The Daughter to go back to graduate school, I’m going to experiment with it.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

If I’m trying to stretch it into a formal luncheon, I serve a little cucumber-dill salad on the side and chilled white wine.  If I’m on a boat or at a picnic, I serve something easy and chocolate for dessert, but, now that I think of it, I should serve my scrumptious shortbread.

with shredded chicken

with shredded chicken

Chicken Tarragon Salad

4  boneless chicken breast halves, cooked and chopped or shredded (do you like chunky or soft?)

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

⅓ cup finely chopped celery

2 Tablespoons dried tarragon

½ cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

¼ teaspoon white pepper

¼ teaspoon onion powderIMG_5275

2 teaspoons dried parsley or 1 Tablespoon minced fresh parsley

¼ cup sliced almonds

8 large croissants, split just to the tips, leaving them intact

Red leaf or butter lettuce (optional)

Combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, pepper, salt, and onion powder in a medium mixing bowl.  Toss with the chicken.  Toss again with tarragon, parsley, and almonds.  Cover and refrigerate 4 hours or overnight.  Serve on croissants or alone.  [Holds up well when spread on croissants, wrapped individually in plastic wrap, and transported in a zippered plastic bag.]

Makes 8 sandwich-sized servings.


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Function, Form — and Flames!

It must be July.  Heat waves are coming in, well, waves.  Yawn.  I’m not sure why the weather broadcasters are so frantic.  It’s called summer, people!  Remember when we had all that snow in February and March? I know that farmers in our area hope to save their crops from the deluge of rain we’ve gotten, but I just enjoy the warmth.

Every July, during what turns out to be the hottest weekend of the summer, the arts community in Baltimore throws a three-day festival they call “Artscape,” celebrating art of all kinds, visual, graphic, pottery, jewelry, glass, music, dance, and even culinary.  After all, what kind of festival doesn’t need food?  Last weekend, there were the usual hot dogs, grilled sausage, pizza, crab cakes, Boardwalk fries (doused with vinegar), funnel cakes, and even Thai and vegetarian specialties.

Tiny house from True North Guide Lab

Tiny house from TrueNorthGuideLab.com

But I wasn’t there to eat. I went to see my friend, Byron,  who was exhibiting and promoting his social enterprise model, featuring a micro-dwelling, or “tiny house” that he developed. His mission is to teach students the skills to build affordable housing for residences, businesses, studios, etc.  As Louis Sullivan, the great turn-of-the-century architect said, “form ever following function.”

During Artscape, Byron stayed in his tiny house, even when the temp hit 97, attracting all kinds of people, including a little boy from Honolulu who told me, “I’m going to build myself a tiny house and live in it.”

Tiny House becomes part of

Tiny House becomes part of “Artscape.”

If you’ve ever purchased anything at Ikea, you get the idea.  There’s simple beauty, innovative design, and economical construction.  Byron applies this idea to changing the way people consume resources, occupy space, and provide basic shelter.  Taking it one step further, he proposes to teach design and construction skills to young people who need it the most.  He explains it all on his company’s website, truenorthguidelab.com.

The Veterinarian would have loved a tiny house, which is the size of the first sailboat that we owned but with more headroom.  The walls are reinforced canvas over plywood. There’s the usual, large single berth for sleeping, a U-shaped settee and table that convert to another berth, and a three-burner cooktop.  Retractable solar panels provide energy for the LED lighting, stereo, and 12-volt fan.  As in marine design, there’s a place to stow everything, clothes, tools, food, supplies, cooking utensils.  Essentially, it’s smaller than my kitchen, which causes me brief guilt pangs about my carbon footprint.

Maybe he isn’t just educating youth; maybe he’s educating us about the excess of our lives, the flotsam and jetsam to which we’ve become addicted.  Friends were astounded when I wrote about my skillet collection in Pot Head.  Do I really need specialized cooking equipment that only gets used once or twice a year?  Do I really need eight whisks or 50 cookbooks?  Seven sets of china?  Dozens of glasses with specialized uses?

Could I prepare gourmet meals in a tiny house?  Well, yeah.  I’ve done it on boats, cooking on two-burner propane stoves with gimballed ovens.  I once met a French woman who sold crêpes (savory or dessert) from her 30’ sailboat anchored in the harbor of the Caribbean island of Bequia (one of the few places where the International Whaling Union sanctions traditional whaling with hand-thrown harpoons from small, open sailing dinghys, by the way).  In the afternoon, her husband would come by in a dinghy to take orders and return in the evening to deliver them.  Crêpe batter requires one mixing bowl, a fork or whisk, a small sauté pan, and one burner.  So simple.

On another sailing trip, halfway around the world on the beach of a tiny Thai island, I had the best shrimp tempura of my life, made by a woman cranking them out in one small sauté pan over a single propane burner.  Like the crêpemaker in Bequia, she used one mixing bowl for the batter and something to whisk it together.  There were a dozen of us gathered for dinner at an open-air grill, and she served us all in an efficient and timely manner, putting so-called “Iron” chefs to shame without a Ninja, Cuisinart, or electric deep-fryer (mine has gathered dust on the floor of my pantry closet for almost 20 years).

What kind of meals could I make in a tiny house with the one skillet?  Anything stir-fried (sayonara, wok).  Grilled sandwiches (arrivederci, panini grill).  Fajitas (adios, fajita griddle). Thinking completely off the top of my head, I probably could make an apple tart, if I topped it with something pre-baked, like shortbread (adieu, tarte tatin pan).  I’ve seen recipes in which fresh pasta is simmered in simple sauces, and my shrimp étouffée only takes one pan.  Even those old college standbys, hamburger stroganoff and tuna jambalaya (made with Rice-a-Roni — don’t judge it until you’ve tried it — I just can’t cook treats like Tournedos à La Vallière for myself every day, although it, too, could be done, laboriously, with just one pan).

No boat trip or visit to the tropics was ever complete without the Veterinarian’s version of the New Orleans classic, Bananas Foster.  In the Caribbean, there were bananas, butter, sugar, and rum in every port.  The ice cream was more problematic; it doesn’t always survive the dinghy trip from shore to boat successfully.  The same small boy in the Veterinarian’s heart, who would have loved living in a tiny house, also loved setting things on fire, but, for safety, he probably would have stepped outside it to flambé his dessert. In Mexico, he learned the showman’s trick of tossing the nutmeg into the flames to create “stars.” It was pretty spectacular on the back of a boat after sunset.

Flambéing terrifies me, so I light the rum with a long lighter or match, instead of using the stove’s flame to ignite it.  As I used to say to the Veterinarian in my best “schoolmarm” voice, “Be careful!”  Not only are the flames hazardous, but the hot syrup can produce a nasty burn.

Bananas Don

Bananas Don

Bananas Don – Serves 6

4 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced lengthwise and then in half, crosswise

¼ cup butter

½ cup dark brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Triple-sec

½ cup dark rum

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Vanilla ice cream

Have all ingredients mise en place (ie, measured and ready) before starting.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter.  Stir in brown sugar and cinnamon until melted, smooth, and bubbly. Gently stir in the orange liqueur.  Add the bananas and gently cook on both sides until they start to soften, about two minutes.  Turn off the heat and remove from the burner.

Be careful!

Be careful!

Pour rum onto the top of the banana mixture and ignite with a lighter or long match.  Toss the nutmeg into the flames.  Carefully return the pan to the burner; gently swirl pan until flames die out.  If mixture is too thin, remove the bananas and cook the sauce down to the consistency of syrup.  Serve over ice cream.

[Note:  You can prepare the syrup through the addition of the orange liqueur, and carefully pour into a glass, heat-proof measuring cup or storage jar and keep in the refrigerator.  Reheat small amounts in a sauté pan, finishing with the bananas and rum.]


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The First Time I Saw Paris

Quatorze juillet

Quatorze juillet

When I was a girl, I learned that the world was a much bigger place than the block of houses on which I lived.  My grandparents, and those of my friends, spoke different languages, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Hungarian, Gaelic, German, Lithuanian, Norwegian, and French, among others.  They told stories of hardship that drove them onto ships and trains looking for better lives, regaled us with stories of magical places, and stuffed us with exotic food.  I wanted to see and hear and taste and understand them all.

On the cover of my first French language textbook was a photo of the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, that medieval engineering marvel off the coast of Normandy.  It was something from a fairy tale, perched on a rock, isolated by water during especially high tides.  I placed my 14-year old hand over the picture, scanning it into my brain through my palm.

During my sophomore year in college, we read Henry Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres in a western European art and history class.  I scanned Adams’ description into my brain with the image and carried them until 1989, when I planned a long-awaited, first trip to France with The Veterinarian for a medical conference.

“Here’s our itinerary,” I showed him my plans.  “On Saturday, we fly into Charles de Gaulle airport and take the Air France bus right to the conference hotel.  Then, on Monday, we meet up with a French Rail tour which will take us to Normandy.”

“What?” he asked.  “Normandy isn’t near Paris, is it?”

“Well, no, it isn’t,” I explained.  “That’s why we have to take the train.”

“How long is this going to take?”  I could tell he was skeptical.

“It’s a 10-hour tour.”

“10 hours on a tour?!”

“Sometimes, we’ll be on the train and sometimes, on a bus, and we get lunch in a medieval restaurant.”

“Are we going to see the D-Day beaches?” He brightened a bit.

“No, we’re going to see the Mont-Saint-Michel,” I explained.  His face was blank.  “You know?  The abbey on the island in the English Channel?”  He was unimpressed.

“Why are we going all the way west to Normandy when the conference is in Burgundy in the east?”

Mont-Saint-Michel 1989

Mont-Saint-Michel 1989

“Because,” I sighed and fixed him with my steeliest glare, “I’ve wanted to see the Mont-Saint-Michel all my life, and I am not going to France and not seeing it.  I may never get there again.”  He knew when to quit and let the subject drop.

The previous year, we had taken a similar BritRail tour in England and Scotland, a perfectly delightful way to cover a lot of a country in the fewest number of days, so I didn’t understand his peevishness.

Our Air France flight introduced us to our first experience française.  The flight attendants were chic, the food and wine sublime, even in economique.  After the cheese plate and dessert were served, they brought coffee, cognac, and squares of the most divine dark chocolate that I had ever tasted.  I let mine melt on my tongue until it coated every part of my mouth.

“You aren’t going to eat that chocolate, are you?” I asked The Veterinarian.

“Yes, I’m going to eat it all. You shouldn’t have eaten yours so fast.”

“But, it’s sooo good.”

Madame, would you care for another chocolat?”  The flight attendant magically appeared and presented a box under my nose.  Not wanting to be the piggish Americaine, I limited myself to two more of the little wrapped squares, which I tucked securely in my purse.

Ah, oui, s’il vous plaît.  Et merci!”  I practiced my best French.

“Aren’t you the lucky one?”  The Veterinarian smirked.

“Yes, and I’m going to find this chocolat and buy some to take home.”

Upon arrival in Paris, we went straight to our hotel, a modern high-rise in the business district, not especially romantic, but we were exhausted, and our room had a spectacular view of Paris.  No matter which way I lay on the bed, I could see the Eiffel Tower, either through the window or perfectly reflected in the mirrored closet doors.  After a brief nap, we set out to explore the city of my dreams.  I dressed in chic and practical black, and he wore a tweed sport coat.

“Let’s go to the Tour Eiffel first, so we can see all of Paris,” we decided.  The Métro station’s map of multi-colored train lines and stops wasn’t nearly as daunting as we had expected.

“Now,” I said to The Veterinarian, “go to the window over there and ask for ‘deux billets, s’il vous plaît,’ and hand them the money.”

He nodded, walked about three feet, stopped abruptly, and turned to me.

“Wait a minute,” he shook his head. “I don’t speak French.  You’re the one who speaks French.  You buy the tickets.”

Merde!  He’d found me out.  I was secretly terrified that I didn’t really speak French intelligibly.  Everyone told horror stories about the French mocking American tourists, and I wasn’t sure that my ego or my childhood fantasies could take it.  But he was right, and, if I was ever going to speak French properly to a French person, I might as well try it out in an anonymous subway station, where the clerks were probably rude to everyone.

I timidly approached the window.  When the bored clerk looked up, I made my request and slid my francs into the till.  Without a word, he counted out the two tickets and my change.  Amazed, I whispered, “Merci, Monsieur.”  He went back to his newspaper.

“See?” The Veterinarian laughed.  “That was easy.  He understood you.”

“Oh, God,” I was on the verge of hyperventilating, “I’m not sure I can do that again.  Too much stress.”

At the Tour Eiffel, we got in line and easily purchased our tickets.  I used the same French phrase, and the clerk answered me in English.  Ok.  It was obvious that I was a non-native speaker of French, but I was communicating in a foreign language.  We rode up Gustave Eiffel’s elevators to the top, a real steampunk experience of late 19th-century ironwork and gears and cables with glimpses of the ground and Paris and faces.

“I’m starving,” The Veterinarian complained.  “I’ve got to eat.  Let’s go to that brasserie on the second floor.”  Actually, I recall a little more arguing about exactly where we were going to eat, but, after looking longingly at the menu of the Tour’s Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant, we headed for its much cheaper stepsister.

“You do the ordering,” he said, when our waiter appeared.  I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye.  She wore the traditional black pants, crisp white shirt, and long white apron of French waiters, her blonde hair in an elegant chignon.  I felt like the street sweeper.

Je voudrais le steak frites, et mon mari…” I began.

Le steak frites.  Beefsteak with fried potatoes,” she interrupted.

“Uh, oui,” I replied.  “Et mon mari voudrait le poulet rotî, s’il vous plaît.”

Le poulet rotî.  Roast chicken.” she said.

“Uh, oui, merci.”

Eh, bien, Madame, Monsieur,” The waiter gave a slight nod, smiled pleasantly, and left the table.

“Oh, no,” I moaned, “she was correcting my pronunciation.”

“No,” The Veterinarian replied, “it sounded the same to me.  Didn’t you notice that she wasn’t writing down the order?  She was repeating it, so she would remember it.”  He even became bold enough to order wine in English, and we settled into our first meal in Paris, right through to the Tarte aux Pommes.

When our alarm went off at 6 the next morning, our jet-lag was so bad we could hardly focus to dress ourselves, find the Métro, and get to the train station for the tour’s 7 o’clock departure.  The Veterinarian was mollified by a boulangerie in the station with heavenly coffee.

“This had better be worth it,” he mumbled through his croissant.

Our group boarded the sleek Train Grand Vitesse (TGV), one of those high-speed modes of transportation enjoyed by the rest of the civilized world that makes the U.S. look like it’s still in the horse-and-buggy age.  Soon, we were zipping along the seamless rail.  The faster the train went, the smoother the ride became.  In my mind, I was hurtling from the future into the past.

Mont-Saint-Michel 2009

Mont-Saint-Michel 2009

At LeMans, the famous racing town, we disembarked and boarded a bus, which began to wind its way through the bucolic Norman countryside to the coast.  Just before noon, the bus turned onto a narrow road, and we could see the spire of the church atop the rock rise into view.  The one-time abbey and some-time prison looked exactly like the photo on my old textbook, but even more mysterious, as it grew out of the rock.  In places, it was impossible to tell where the rock ended and the abbey’s foundation, built from the same stone, began.  The bus let us out at the end of the causeway, and we followed our guide up the steep street, stopping for a lunch of one of the town’s famous, and famously overpriced, puffy omelettes.

Just before one o’clock, we made our way past a long line of tourists to the ancient wooden door.  To the side, a smaller door opened, and a hand reached out with an enormous iron key, which our guide accepted and opened the enormous wooden door for our group, closing it behind us.  She returned the key.

“See?  This is why we took this tour,” I hissed to The Veterinarian.

For about 15 minutes, our group was alone on the grounds, the wind off the English Channel whipping around us, as we walked through the cloister and into the reconstructed church and refectory.  Although I had no idea what an abbey would look like, this one whispered ancient stories from the stone walls.  You know how you read the “Harry Potter” books and imagined how Hogwarts would look, and when you saw the movie, it looked exactly like you pictured it?  That was my experience, only I felt the prayers of the monks and the prisoners who had lived there.

At the end of the day, as we hurtled through the French countryside back to Paris, I thought I should just get on a plane and fly home.  I had seen the Tour Eiffel.  I had seen the Mont-Saint-Michel.  I thought I had seen it all.  Luckily, there were 10 more days, from the Château Clos de Vougeot to the tiled roofs of Beaune, a Swiss breakfast in Geneva, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel for lunch in Italy, and back to Chamonix for dinner.  It was a whirlwind of eating and sightseeing and the inevitable day of crashing in our room, when we just couldn’t take one more day of dreams coming true.

The First Time I saw Paris 1989

The First Time I saw Paris 1989

On our last day, we took another train tour to Chartres to see the great cathedral with its famous labyrinth, another lunch in a quaint inn, and on to Versailles.  That night, we crowned the trip with dinner on a Bateau Mouche, those barges that ply the Seine through the heart of Paris, to the delight of tourists and the bane of residents.  It was a day of piety and indulgences of the not-so-religious kind.

The next morning, as we made our way through Charles de Gaulle airport, I realized that I had forgotten to the chocolates.  I turned into a “gourmet” gift shop, and there it was, Valrhona, in small bars and in a large box.  My love affair began in earnest, I must confess.

“We should get the large box of the little squares so we can share them, don’t you think?”  I asked the Veterinarian, who shook his head at my indiscretion.

I handed over my credit card and stuffed the surprisingly heavy box into my carry-on, where it remained untouched, since we were served little squares with lunch on our flight home.  It was the first thing I unpacked.  I pulled it out and cut the seal.  Inside the box was a foil wrapped package.

“Oh, I guess this is to make sure that the little squares stay fresh,” I thought.  But, when I cut into the foil, there was a solid block of the finest chocolate that I had ever tasted.  The aroma filled my head.  I looked at the box.  “70% guanaja chocolat.  3kg.”  Yep, I had purchased a 6.5 pound solid block of chocolate.

“Whoa!  What are we going to do with all of this?”  I was shocked by what I had purchased.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” the Veterinarian replied.  He pulled a metal mallet out of the drawer and smacked off one corner of the block and popped it into his mouth.  “Oh, my gosh.”  He handed me a chunk.  In a solid marble-sized piece, it melted even slower.  We looked at each other and groaned with delight.

I learned to do a lot with chocolate.  Created my own truffles.  Used it in mousse au chocolat.  Made a killer coconut cream pie whose custard is spooned over a layer of hardened chocolate in the baked pie shell.  And the ultimate dessert that never ceases to amaze guests, a chocolate soufflé made in individual rings.

And, of course, it’s a great anti-depressant, when eaten all by itself.  I’ve eaten a lot of it in the past three years, especially with Pinot Noir.

It takes me about two years to go through an entire block, which I keep tightly wrapped in its foil pouch.  Yes, it does bloom, but nothing else has the same deep chocolate flavor, with just enough sweetness and even a hint of vanilla.  Only two other things can transport me to France, Champagne (see Yes, I’m a Champagne Slut) and bread from Poîlane, other trips and other storiey.

The Last Time I saw Paris 2009

The Last Time I saw Paris 2009

In 2009, 20 years after our first visit, we returned to the Mont-Saint-Michel on the Autumnal Equinox, September 21, one of the few times of the year that the parking area at the foot of the causeway was closed because the tide came in so high that the water almost completely surrounded the island.  Silting at the mouth of the river, as well as construction of the causeway, prevented it from occuring on a regular basis.  However, in 2015, a bridge opened to link the mainland to the island so that the causeway could be removed.    We parked on the mainland and started walking, as the water receded, and cars returned to the carpark.  It was even more spectacular than we remembered.

Last week, I found out through a distant cousin, that our Italian great-grandmother’s mother was French!  I like to think that explains it all.  Now, if someone could explain to me why I buy stuff in the airport without properly calculating the exchange rate, please get in touch.  I’m always horrified by my foolishness when my credit card statement arrives.  Of course, I’m always delighted with my souvenirs, such as the pair of buttery soft, lilac suede gloves that I bought at DaVinci airport in Rome, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!