every girl needs a greek chorus

a blog about hope


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Chilly Chili Days

Winter finally arrived this week.  I’ve pulled out my fleecy pullovers and leggings, and even the BFF won’t stay outside very long.  This is the time of year when I’m glad I’ve stored up hearty soups and stews in my freezer.  I’ve got French onion, beef barley, broccoli, butternut squash, and potato-corn chowder.  Today, I want something with a little extra heat, the kind that comes from chiles. The kind that heats up your mouth as well as your bones.  Today, I’m making chili with black beans and chopped lean chuck, so it’s extra hearty, too.

Chili is one of those syncretized American foods, like pizza, whose closest origins are in Italy but became an entirely different type of food when it got to our shores.  Chili began in the southwest, borrowing flavors and ingredients from indigenous people (beans, chiles, spices) and was adapted for mainstream palates.  Certainly, Spanish settlers in the area brought stews with tomato bases, garlic, onions, meat, and, the most important ingredient, peppers, much as Creole cuisine developed in Louisiana and the Caribbean with Spanish, French, and African influences.  See what wonderful flavors we get when we share?

“Tomato or no tomato?” is the question in some parts of the country.  “Meat or no meat?”  is the question in others.  Even the 1930s editions of Joy of Cooking, that bastion of 20th century American cooking, recommends both, albeit in the form of tomato soup. (Can you imagine anything more pedestrian?)  It also recommends that you use either onions or half of a garlic clove!  (Can you imagine anything more tasteless?)

Chili is an opportunity to use all kinds of meat, because, with enough other vegetables, herbs, and spices, who knows what you’re eating?  Once, when visiting The Veterinarian’s grandmother in Florida, she served us an intensely-flavored chili, sitting back and watching us with a smirk on her face.  After we had finished cleaning our bowls, she revealed the secret ingredient, ground elk meat, which his grandfather had shot on a trip to South Dakota.

This is my syncretized version of American chili, using black beans, chiles, garlic, onion, and spices, garnished with corn tortilla chips and cheese.  I recommend that you start with one jalapeño and add the chili powder gradually.  While I like considerable heat in my chili, The Daughter and others do not.  I don’t believe in hot for hot’s sake; the flavors should only be enhanced by the heat, not overpowered by it.

And how do you temper that heat?  Sour cream is good, but my favorite is that syncretized beverage, the frozen Margarita, or a frosty beer.  Stay toasty, my friends!

Black Bean Chili with meat

½ pound dried black beans, rinsed  (see “Note 1” below)

1 quart water

½ pound raw chopped or ground lean beef chuck, or raw ground turkey

1 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 large jalapeño, seeded and minced, use two, if you like a lot of heat (see “Note 2” below)

1 small can tomato paste

1 Tablespoon good quality chili powder (I sometimes just use a pinch of chipotle powder.)

½ Tablespoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Cover beans with water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.

Add meat, onion, garlic, jalapeño, tomato paste, chili powder, oregano, salt, and cumin.  Simmer 30 minutes, until thickened.  Adjust seasonings.

Serve with any of these garnishes on the side: chopped sweet onion or scallions, shredded Monterey Jack or sharp Cheddar cheese, queso fresco, sour cream, tortilla chips, shredded lettuce.

Note 1:  This recipe saves you from soaking the beans overnight.  Yay!  You also can substitute 2 cans of undrained black beans for the dried beans, and use 2 cups of water, but I like the texture of freshly cooked beans.  If it is too thin, you can simmer it until thickened, or, if too thick, add a little water.  You can also omit the meat entirely.

Note 2:  Take care when handling hot peppers.  A pair of disposable gloves are helpful.  Lay a sheet of paper towel on your counter.  Over the towel, slice off the stem end and slit the pepper lengthwise.  With the tip of a paring knife, flick the membrane and seeds (where most of the capsaicin — the volatile irritant in peppers — is contained) onto the towel.  Roll up and discard, where children and pets can’t get into it.  Still wearing the gloves, mince the pepper and add to the chili.  Clean up your cutting board and knife, then discard your gloves.  I recommend the gloves, because I, invariably, forget that I’ve cut up a pepper without them, and, even hours later, will touch my eyes or nose and burn myself!  Maybe you won’t, but I thought I’d pass it along.

How to chop beef:  Slice into strips, then whack with a cleaver until it resembles very coarsely ground hamburger.


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Reluctant Omnivore

A big old steak for a little old girl and just the right asparagus.

A big old steak for a little old girl and just the right asparagus.

I’m an omnivore.  There.  I’ve said it.  It’s true.  Gasp!  Shock!  Horror!  In whatever is left of my lifetime, it is unlikely that I will become a vegan.  Or a vegetarian.  Or a lacto-vegetarian.  Or an ovo-vegetarian.  Or a pesca-vegetarian.  Dairy gives me gas.  Eggs give me gas.  Fish gives me — well, I love fish, but even a seared Bluefin tuna steak can’t hold a candle to a veal chop.  (And is there any Bluefin tuna left for the average person?)

I’m sorry.  I would, if I could, but I can’t, so I shan’t.  I love animals.  Some of my best friends are animals.  I feel really bad about eating them, and I am ever so grateful for them, but I am so weak, and I just love red meat.  It’s the way I’m genetically wired.  I’m an addict, but, I hope, not an abuser.  If I buy meat, I make sure that I eat it fresh or freeze it.  “If I buy meat?”  Who am I kidding?  I eat meat almost every day, except when I realize that I haven’t had meat at lunch and turn it into a “meatless” day. [In that case, I eat popcorn for dinner.]

Long before the Paleo Diet became all the rage, I was a kid who ate a very limited diet of meat, potatoes, corn, and canned green beans.  That was it.  And grape jelly.  (But not together.  That would be gross, although I have had cocktail meatballs in a sauce made with grape jelly, which was weird but not gross.)  I drank milk and ate carbs, but that was it.  My Mother made sure that I had a multi-vitamin every day, because she was so concerned about me.  Our family doctor asked her, “Is Suzanne sick very often?”

“She’s never sick.”

“Well, let’s not worry about her, then.”

I eat beef in all forms, hamburgers, meat loaf, pot roast, tartare, short ribs, stew, Stroganoff, steaks real and “Swiss.”  Or stuffed in peppers or in chili or spaghetti sauce.  Trying to recreate my childhood memory of succulent Midwestern beef, I once dragged the Veterinarian to a Famous Chicago Steakhouse, when we were visiting the Windy City.  My dinner was ruined before it started, when the waiter rolled up a trolley of raw meat as we ordered.  As much as I love meat, I don’t want to smell it raw, under my nose, at the dinner table.  The portions were at least a pound or two each.  The restaurant’s motto must have been “The Bigger, the Better,” because the potatoes were the size of footballs and the asparagus as big as tree limbs.

“How do you prepare the asparagus?”  I asked warily.

“We steam it,” the waiter beamed.

“Do you peel it first?”

“Oh, no, ma’am.  We steam it and serve it just as it is.”

“I’ll have the broccoli,” I replied.  I can eat broccoli raw, if I must.

I love pork chops, especially fried.  Fried pork chops are like eating fried chicken.  You can pick it up, but My Mother taught us to cut off the fat first (always trim the fat).  I love pork roast and ribs (you should try my dry rub recipe) and whole roasted pig and all manner of smoked and cooked pork products, bacon, ham, Vienna sausages, hot dogs, baloney (or bologna, if you want to be picky about it).  I’ll even eat Spam, and I’m not Hawaiian.  There is still no vegetable that can’t be improved by a smoked pork product.  Beans and wienies?  Green beans with salt pork?  Greens and ham hocks?  Sauerkraut and kielbasa?  Brussels sprouts or spinach sautéed with bacon?  Fresh corn chowder with ham?  Canned deviled ham?  A favorite on crackers, which are not a vegetable — technically, even if they’re herbed.

Worst of all, I eat veal.  I’ve eaten veal in Europe, God help me.  I feel really, really bad about the European veal, but I rationalize it because I don’t get to Europe that often, so I can’t be part of the problem, can I?  Plus, I’m 50% Italian with a French great-grandmother thrown in.  Osso bucco?  But, of course.  City chicken?  I’m from Detroit.  Grilled veal chop?  Marinated in olive oil, lemon, and rosemary?  Oh, my!

I do not eat lamb, unless you serve me those cute little lamb chops, and my wine glass is full of a fine red wine to wash the flavor away.  An appreciation for lamb seems to be acquired, or, maybe, it’s genetic.  I’ve never acquired it. You can’t mask the flavor with mint jelly, which I also can’t stand.  And little sheep are so cute!

Like most of my vices, I blame it on The Veterinarian (and he can’t talk back, so, why not?).  He ate everything.  We were enjoying Chick-fil-a sandwiches and discussing the company’s trademarked cows encouraging us to “Eat more chikin.”  I said I shouldn’t eat anything with big brown eyes.

“Get over it.  How old do you think that chicken was that you’re eating?”  He asked me.  I didn’t know.  He told me.  I was surprised.  (Google it.  You may be surprised, too.)  “This is how we humans are designed.  This is what we eat.”  I could tell you more about meat production, but you probably don’t want to hear about it any more than I did.

You can argue with me and send me hate mail, but please don’t recommend tofu, which has the texture of mushrooms, which I won’t eat, either.  I am happy to share my only recipe for tofu:

IMG_5108

This summer, I’ve been eating a lot of skewered steak, because I really don’t ever eat an entire steak by myself. I’ve also skewered chicken, shrimp, scallops, lobster, and fish, and I feel so virtuous when adding veggies like peppers, sugar snap or snow peas, or corn.  I’ve even added cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and squash, for those who like their food tasteless.  [Really?  What is the point of squash?  To make zucchini bread?]

Lately, I’ve been grilling tenderloin chunks, which were a great buy, because they’re what’s left when you butcher a whole tenderloin into steaks or a nice roast like a Châteaubriand.  [Sudden thought:  I have to tell you about my disastrous honeymoon that was almost saved by a Châteaubriand and Captain Kangaroo.]

I have no recipe to share this week.  I marinate the meat for about an hour, longer if it’s a tougher cut, and about 30 minutes for chicken, fish, and shellfish.  Sometimes I make a little teriyaki (soy, brown sugar, garlic, ginger) or the aforementioned lemon, olive oil, and rosemary (great with chicken) or even just a little white wine, garlic, and thyme (for the seafood).

KabobI love these skewers.  They are short, with two prongs to securely hold the food and keep it from spinning when you rotate them.  They are easy to grill on all four sides.  There is also a “slider-thing-y” that pushes the cooked food off the skewer.

As with all grilling, make sure you preheat the grill and wipe it with a paper towel dampened with cooking oil (hold it with barbecue tongs), so the food won’t stick.  I also saw a tv chef wipe the grill with an onion dipped in oil, which eliminates the risk of flaming paper towel, but I’d be wasting an onion.

My secret technique for grilling with skewers is to place a disposable aluminum cookie sheet under the handles, which keeps them from burning, even if you use bambo skewers that have been soaked in water.

Enjoy this last gasp of summer!


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S’More’s the Pity

S'mores cakeLike everyone who likes to cook and peruses Facebook or Pinterest, I screenshot photos of food regularly.  I don’t always screenshot the recipe, especially if I can see the major ingredient is cheese or tinned dough or some kind of canned soup, but the photos give me ideas to play with.  I found one recently whose design was rather pretty and thought it would be perfect to adapt for the Daughter’s birthday cake.

Every year for her birthday, the Daughter requests an unusual cake.  She comes up with a lot of crazy ideas, all requiring a lot of chocolate.  I decided to make her a S’Mores Cheesecake, which is really a no-brainer adaptation of my regular Chocolate Cheesecake.  Instead of using a chocolate cookie crumb crust, I used graham cracker crumbs.  The filling was made with my favorite dark chocolate and one-and-a-half pounds of cream cheese.  I used eight ounces of low-fat cream cheese to relieve the guilt, but, considering that I used another pound of regular cream cheese, it was a pointless effort; pure chocolate-cream-cheese-overload.

Decadence

Decadence

Instead of the cheesecake’s traditional sour cream topping, I decided to arrange marshmallows over the chilled cheesecake and toast them under the broiler, just before presenting to the Birthday Girl.  You know those joke photos that people post on Facebook, “What the dish is supposed to look like,”  and it’s worthy of Bon Appétit?  But next to it is “How it turned out,” and it looks like it was made in a sandbox by a four-year old?  That’s sort of what happened with this cheesecake.

I forgot that the center of the cheesecake falls when it cools. Normally, I pile berries in the cake’s center, which is rather pretty, but in order to arrange the marshmallows levelly, I had to cut off the top edges.  Fortunately, the marshmallows hid the mess that I made.  After the marshmallows were toasted, they melted and stuck to the ring of the springform pan.  I had to shove escaping marshmallows back onto the cake.

Once the candles were lit, it was still pretty, but not worthy of Bon Appétit.  The Daughter was delighted with her decadent birthday cake, and I have all those edges in my refrigerator, just crying out for a big old glass of milk, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

Trial and error:  A little messy, but lessons learned.

Trial and error: A little messy, but lessons learned.

S’Mores Cheesecake

Crust:

1½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs

3 Tablespoons sugar

½ cup butter, melted

In a 9” springform pan, combine the graham cracker crumbs and sugar.  Stir in the melted butter; press into the bottom and ½” up the sides of the pan.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.  The colder the better.

Filling:

1½ pounds (3-eight ounce packages) cream cheese, softened

1¾ cups sugar

3 eggs

4 ounces of good quality semi-sweet chocolate, melted

3 Tablespoons heavy cream

¼ cup dark rum

In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until fluffy.  Add the sugar and beat, scraping the bowl and beater, until well-combined.  With the mixer running, add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition.  Beat in the melted chocolate and heavy cream until thoroughly combined.  Scrape the bowl and beaters so that there are no light-colored streaks left.  Stir in dark rum.

Pour batter into chilled graham cracker crust and bake for 60 minutes.  A toothpick inserted to ¼” in the center should come out clean, although it may jiggle a little.

[Note:  If making plain chocolate cheesecake, skip to the directions below for the Sour Cream topping.]

Cool on rack completely to room temperature;  cover; refrigerate until well-chilled.  To make the S’mores dessert, cut the top edges off to make a level surface for the marshmallows.  Save the excess and serve with vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Just before serving, preheat broiler.

Without unmolding, run a spatula around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the sides of the cake.  Arrange marshmallows on the top, covering it completely. Set under preheated broiler and toast marshmallows.  If I ever make this again, I will let the marshmallows cool and run the knife around the edge again before unmolding and serving.

Optional Sour cream topping for regular chocolate cheesecake:

2 cups (1 pint) sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon almond extract

Stir together all ingredients.  When cheesecake is baked, remove from oven and increase heat to 500°.  Spread sour cream mixture evenly over top.  Bake in hot oven for five minutes.  Remove to cooling rack and cool thoroughly to room temperature.  Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled.  Garnish with strawberries in center of cake.


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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!


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The Mayonnaise Wars

mayonnaise-vs-miracle-whipWhat is your family eating on the Fourth?  Families have been torn asunder by variations in holiday traditions, especially by what goes on the buffet.  While we’re celebrating the Great Melting Pot that is the Land of the Free, I’ll bet that you’ll encounter some cultural variation of potato salad on that table.  (And, I hope, it will be properly refrigerated.)  A hamburger is a hamburger is a hamburger, but how our mothers or grandmothers concocted their potato salad is often debatable.  At least, it was in my family.

One of the tricks of creating and maintaining a happy relationship with another person is accepting their eating habits and preferences, and I’m not talking about meat-vs-meatless.  We may grow up liking green pepper in our meatloaf and wind up with someone who just can’t abide it.  You may grow up with mayo, while your beloved’s life was spent with Miracle Whip.  And in my case, I don’t like either one.  I was an innocent bystander in my family’s Mayonnaise Wars.

I was a really picky eater as a kid (and am still fussy).  I still eat my hamburgers plain, with nothing on them, “just meat and the bun,” as The Veterinarian used to explain to the faceless speaker at the drive-thru.  No mustard on my hot dog, even if it’s one of Detroit’s beloved “Coney Islands.”  No mayo slathered on my Philly cheesesteak — or the cheese, either, for that matter.  Just meat and grilled onions.  Bottles of ketchup and mustard last for months at my house, unless The Daughter is spending a lot of time there.  I’ve started writing the date opened on the top of my mayonnaise for my own safety, and I always open a new jar, if I’m preparing food for friends or strangers.

The Veterinarian accepted my taste (and texture) preferences and relished (pun-intended) taking anything off my plate that I wasn’t going to eat.  He was a mayo eater, on anything, tuna salad, deviled eggs, hamburgers, cheesesteaks.  My family swears by Miracle Whip, in tuna salad, deviled eggs, and egg salad.  My Sister was always in charge of the deviled eggs at Easter, which meant she made two batches, one with Miracle Whip for her and My Mother, and one with mayo for The Daughter and The Veterinarian.  I found them both abhorrent (the dressings, not my family) and accept that something creamy must be used to bind tuna salad, pasta salad, and, most of all, my celebrated Chicken Tarragon Salad.  I just don’t want to taste or feel it.

Learning to cook means that you taste as you go.  Once you’re an experienced cook, sometimes you can even smell when something’s seasoned correctly or even done.  I can see and smell when broccoli or asparagus is done.  I can see and smell when the dressing for my celebrated Chicken Tarragon salad is correct, because I can smell the appropriate amount of tarragon.  I’ll give you the recipe for my Chicken Tarragon Salad another time, but, first, let’s play with our food.

We haven't even talked about favorite mayos!

We haven’t even talked about favorite mayos!

Some dishes just don’t need a recipe, and potato salad is one of them.  I didn’t grow up eating potato salad because the only thing in it that I liked were the potatoes and the chopped celery.  Not only do I not eat mayo, but I don’t eat egg salad because I also don’t eat eggs.  Nor do I eat green pepper, raw or cooked, because it talks to me all night long instead of making the long, slow journey through my GI tract.  I avoid raw onion, unless it is really sweet, like a Vidalia.  Maui sweets are only barely acceptable.

The Veterinarian liked potato salad, and, what else are you going to serve with all-American hamburgers, hot dogs, and baked beans?  I taught myself to make potato salad by recognizing the look and smell of the dressing.  I would mix together mayo and a little prepared mustard and make him taste it.  He would say, “More mustard” or “More mayo” or whatever.  Eventually, I could tell by the smell and the color when I had achieved the correct balance.  When I could do that, I could make any quantity without measuring anything.  It was the balance that made the difference.  “Do I smell only mayo?”  Add a little mustard.  “Is the smell too sharp?”  Add a little mayo.

With July 4th right down the block, you should experiment and make your own potato salad to please yourself.  What kind of potatoes do you like?  I prefer russet/Idaho for almost every potato dish.  I like their flavor and texture.  You may like redskin or new potatoes or even fingerlings, although I would stay away from the dark purple ones with a creamy dressing, because they look disgusting together.   Scrub your potatoes and poke them with a fork.  Starting them in cold water, bring to a boil and simmer them in their skins until a sharp knife inserted into the center meets resistance.  You have to practice this one, because cooking times are dependent on the thickness and type of potatoes, 20-30 minutes. Properly cooked potatoes for salad need to be stiffer than potatoes to be mashed, riced, or baked, or they will completely collapse in the dressing.  When done, remove from the hot water and immediately rinse in cold water.  Drain and finish cooling on a rack.

When cool, you can peel the potatoes or just cut them into reasonably bite-sized chunks, small enough to fit into your mouth, big enough to be identifiable as potatoes.  Set aside.

Here comes the fun part, the dressing.  In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise and prepared mustard until you like the flavor.  For six large potatoes, I would start with one cup of your favorite chilled mayo or Miracle Whip and add one teaspoon of mustard at a time until you like the flavor.  Do you like the mustardy-taste?  Add more.  It’s like chemistry class, but you’re unlikely to cause an explosion (unless you don’t keep that mayo refrigerated).

Here’s where your potato salad becomes yours.  You can add any or all of the following ingredients.  Beyond the mayo/Miracle Whip thing, The Veterinarian liked crisply fried bacon bits in his potato salad.  My Mother likes finely chopped green pepper.  I always made my potato salad to suit me, not them, and used mayo, bacon bits, one mashed hard-boiled egg (because I hate eggs but acknowledge their contribution), chopped celery, minced sweet onion, and finely chopped red bell pepper (which isn’t bitter and doesn’t talk to me all night long).  I also season mine with coarse sea salt, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, green, and red), a little celery salt, and a little onion powder.  The latter two further disguise the mayo taste, for me.

Again, you need to taste it as you go along, and taste it just before you serve it, as the flavors will blend as they sit in the refrigerator.  I only like just enough dressing to hold all the veggies together.  If you like your potato salad creamier after you’ve tossed it all together, in a separate bowl, stir together a little more dressing and add gradually to the salad.

I’ve also seen people use fresh dill, celery seed, shredded carrots and radishes, and chopped pickle.  I even make an elegant warm potato salad that uses a little truffle oil as a condiment.  You toss warm dark purple and white fingerling potato chunks with a vinaigrette made with Champagne vinegar, a little Dijon-style mustard, 1 Tablespoon of minced shallots, and a very light olive oil, then drizzle on the truffle oil just to give it flavor.  The warm potatoes soak up the dressing and look swanky on a plate with a steak or that grilled chicken that I wrote about last week.  But it’s still potato salad, no matter how you gussy it up, and for the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence, I think we ought to keep it humble, just potatoes and mayonnaise or Miracle Whip or whatever.

In The Mayonnaise Wars, love eventually conquered all.  For The Veterinarian’s memorial service, My Sister made 12 dozen deviled eggs, all with mayonnaise, in his honor.  It was the first platter emptied on the long reception tables with his favorite foods, including expensive French cheeses, which just goes to show you that we are a nation of folk who take comfort in the humble, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!