Monday, January 30, 2012

Red Snapper Chowder

            The soup worked.  I was kind of stressed about it.  After I made such a dramatic point about the fish stock with my glassy-eyed John Dory photo, I knew some people wanted to know how the actual soup came off.  And to tell you the truth, I had to really think about it.  It has been a couple of years now since I’ve had the pleasure of a serving of the snapper chowder at Stock Market in Granville Island Market.  I actually scrolled through the reviews of the restaurant looking for descriptors and found a few helpful ones.  In the end though, I had to go deeply into my taste memory and what I clearly remembered is as follows:  It was a little chunky.  It had a base flavor of oysters and bay leaves.  There was a ton of celery with some actual stringy bits that didn’t puree out.  And it was completely nondairy.  Here is how I built the soup to go with the stock.

1 ½ - 2 yellow onions, chopped
A bundle of celery about 3” in diameter, including leaves, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1-2 leeks, chopped
3-5 bay leaves
1 potato, peeled and cubed
2 liters fish stock
¼ cup Arborio rice
2-3 fish fillets, diced into ½ inch cubes
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

            Sauté all of the vegetables, except the potato, in olive oil until soft, but not browned.  Cook the potato in a small saucepan, with a little water, until tender.  Puree vegetables in a food processor or with an emersion blender.  Leave it a little chunky.  Add solids to fish stock and heat.
            Stir in Arborio rice and simmer until rice is soft.
            Add the fish to the heated stock and simmer, without boiling, until fish is cooked, but tender. 
            Season with salt and pepper.
Serves 8-10

The Rosemary, Scallion Focaccia Bread is a David Tanis reprint.  I have already written about it at Dinner at Diane’s.  It's always great, but remember, you have to start it one day ahead of when you want to eat it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fish Stock

            If I could do anything I want to this weekend… anything at all, I would go to Vancouver for the day and wander around Granville Island Market.  This False Creekside maze is the creative, culinary hub of the city that is still my standard as the greatest city in the world.  Sydney? Barcelona? Munich?  They’re all great, but you cannot beat that fresh, west, native feeling of Vancouver, which at the same time is Manhattan hip and San Francisco grounded.    With all of the big bounty of the Frazier Valley and the Pacific Ocean at hand, Granville Market serves as a food terminal moving it all along to kitchens and tables.  There’s the produce, strawberries stacked in almost 12-inch high pyramids, and the seafood, the cheeses and pastas and almost every beautiful food item you could desire.  So I dawdle through the sectors of the market, totally wide-eyed, my mind spinning with the options of the meals I could cook.  And suddenly, I’m starving.  Hunger comes upon me instantaneously and I have to eat that second.  I always go to the same place; it’s called The Stock Market.    This is a kiosk that sells vacuum-packed liters of their made-fresh-daily soups, fresh soup stocks, pasta sauces, dressings, and pestos.  You know, this is where you really need to start your shopping and then work backward, picking up meat, or pasta, or vegetables to complete the dish.  But how does this help my hunger issue?  They sell containers of their daily soup topped with a big hunk of Rosemary focaccia bread and they always seem to have my favorite:  red snapper chowder.  I never considered that anyone else in the world had noticed the red snapper chowder at The Stock Market on Granville Island, but me, yet when I researched it, there seems to be an entire cult following for this soup. 
            I found a beautiful St. Pierre, which is a Mediterranean species of John Dory, at a local market this week.  I'll admit that he's not the most handsome fish, but I knew when I saw it that the post-fillet carcass of this fish was bound for fish soup stock, which is what is absolutely required if you’re going to make any kind of fish soup.  This formula will fill a 1-gallon stock pot. The ingredient amounts are suggestions to give you an idea of the proportions so you can, of course, adjust them.

Fish Stock

Ingredients: All well-washed and chopped in large pieces
Onions, 2 large
Celery, 3 stalks, including lots of leaves
Leeks, 1 large or 2-3 small
Carrots, 2-3 large
Fresh garlic, 1 clove, peeled and smashed
Fresh parsley, about 1 cup
Thyme, 6 healthy sprigs
Bay leaves, 3-5
Cloves, 2
Black peppercorns, 20 whole
Sea salt , a little for now.  You can adjust the salt in your finished dish.
Non-oily white fish bones (halibut, cod, red snapper or sole), rinsed and kept in large pieces

Cover with filtered water and low-simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.

When cool, strain the stock and compost the solids.  Freeze or use the stock in soups, sauces, and braises.

I plan to follow through with the snapper chowder and Rosemary focaccia bread this weekend and if all goes well, I'll post it here.   Otherwise, I've got a gold mine of stock in my freezer for my next endeavor.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grilled Caesar Salad

            You know that January night when you come home from work and say, “Wait a minute, isn’t the sun usually down by now?”  There is some lingering daylight hanging over the backyard and the long-shrouded barbecue is giving you a nod.  We’re a month past solstice and at a minute per day, it amounts to something. 
            I wanted so much to make this grilled Caesar salad last summer, but in Tunisia, Romaine lettuce is a winter crop, not summer.  It is perfect and abundant now so tonight, we have a great opportunity to bring some summer into our winter work week.  
            I use non-stick aluminum foil on the grill.  With some planning, I can cycle through the entire meal with one set of foil.  I started with leeks wrapped in pancetta and drizzled with excellent olive oil.   Wrapping vegatables in pancetta and grilling them is one of my go-to food preparations.  I do an entire bundle of vegetables at once and then put them in scrambled eggs for breakfast during the rest of the week.

            Next, I toasted bread, tossed in the leeky, salty olive oil.  This is basically Texas Toast.  Funny thing, my dad is from Texas and everything great in our house, when I was growing up, was from Texas.  I actually thought that Texas Toast was my dad's invention until about 3 months ago when I heard my Canadian friend, Paul, mention Texas Toast to his sons in the context of not having a toaster yet because their shipment hadn't yet arrived. 
            Finally, you put the Romaine lettuce on the grill and leave it only until it develops grill marks.  Grilling it in whole heads is extra beautiful, but mine came apart on its own. 
2 flat anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
2 small garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Artisinal salt (I used Himalayan pink salt)
Freshly ground pepper
Blend all ingredients until emulsified.  Adjust amounts to taste.
           We bought these eggs, individually, yesterday in the Tunisian countryside.  I carried them home in a plastic bag.  I felt like I was playing a party game on the way home, trying not to break the eggs.  I won!

           Toss the greens with the dressing, to taste.  Coursely chop the leeks and pancetta and place on top.   Dust with freshly grated Parmesan and pepper.

 It doesn't just taste like a summer salad.  It's a little bit roasted, a little bit wilted.  It suits winter.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Greens Soup


            This recipe is the follow up to the vegetarian stock that I previously posted.  As I wrote there, I planned to make a soup of greens that I heard described on The Splendid Table (NPR).  Anna Thomas was the guest and she just published a new cookbook:  Eating Well.  From listening to the interview, I believe that Anna’s definition of eating well means eating whole foods, extracting as much of the foods’ flavor and nutrition as culinarily possible and I definitely agree.

            If you’ve got the vegetarian stock already packed away in your freezer, this can come together after work.  If you need to start from stock, then this is a weekend project, but worth it.
            I won’t summarize the recipe first, but I do need to comment on the onions.  Anna made a big point about caramelizing those onions to what may seem like an absurd degree.  Her rule of thumb was when you think you’ve overcooked them, go another ½ hour.  The bit of water you sprinkle over them once they’ve browned, and lidding the pan, keeps them from burning and steams them a little.  I almost had caramelized onion paste when I finished and that’s probably about right.
            This is not a bright, springy type of green soup.  Recall all of the browning of vegetables that has occurred both in the making of the stock and in the soup.  Additionally, the Arborio rice base you create before cooking the greens sets a nutty, warm palette.  You will need to finish it with good salt and fresh lemon juice to bring up some pop.  I also especially enjoyed the lingering heat of the cayenne and don't think that drizzle of olive oil is optional.  Buy the grassiest, first-cold-pressed olive oil you can find and top it off with just a touch. 

            The soup is an excellent team player.  Just on its own, it might be a little heavy.  I had it once alongside a sparkling salad of fennel, parsley, and cranberries, with a citrus dressing, and they were perfect mates.  We all went home that night and dreamed of dancing vegetables.  I had it a second time with a brunch of potato/gruyere quiche and blood orange juice and couldn’t imagine a more delicious combination than that.  Make it up, pack in the greens, and pair it up with just about anything.  

Basic Green Soup
From Eating Well, by Anna Thomas
Yield:  8 servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 tablespoons, plus 3 cups, water, divided
1/4 cup arborio rice
1 bunch green chard (about 1 pound)
14 cups gently packed spinach (about 12 ounces), tough stems trimmed
4 cups vegetable broth
Big pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste
Drizzle of first, cold-pressed olive oil

1.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Add onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low, add 2 tablespoons water and cover.  Cook, stirring frequently until the pan cools down, and then occasionally, always covering the pan again, until the onions are greatly reduced and have a deep caramel color, 25-30 minutes.
2.  Meanwhile, combine the remaining 3 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a soup pot or Dutch oven; add rice.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.  Trim the white ribs out of the chard (save for another use, such as stir-fry or another soup).  Coarsely chop the chard greens and spinach.
3. When the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, stir in the chard greens.  Return to a simmer; cover and cook for 10 minutes.  When the onions are caramelized, stir a little of the simmering liquid into them; add them to the rice along with the spinach, broth, and cayenne.  Return to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring once, until the spinach is tender, but still bright green, about 5 minutes more.
4.  Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender until perfectly smooth or in a regular blender in batches (return it to the pot).  Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice.  Taste and add more lemon juice, if desired.  Garnish each bowl of soup with a drizzle of olive oil.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It Begins with the Stock

            I make chicken stock regularly.  This ritual has been a staple in my life for years and though I have wished for the idea of vegetarian stock, a vegetarian stock that is my soul mate, I have yet to discover one that satisfies me.  I have tried many:  organic store bought, concoctions involving brewer’s yeast, but I’m sorry to say that they have, for the most part, come out tasting strongly of a strange, particular ingredient or else… dish water.  Usually, when a recipe calls for vegetable stock I substitute homemade chicken stock. 
            I love The Splendid Table on NPR.  I feel happy in the radio presence of Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host.  She is wise, yet so fresh with food.  She is also constantly affirming of all the guests on her show, taking a sincere interest in their culinary discoveries and implying that she is eager to learn from them, too.  Even Amy Sedaris.  

            I am on a trajectory this week to make a greens soup that was described by a guest on The Splendid Table, Anna Thomas, who wrote a book called Eating Well.  I am going to save her greens soup recipe for a few days because I first need to make a deeply flavored vegetable stock.  I turned to the experience of Lynne Rossetto Kasper on this.  She has a recipe for a Hearty Vegetable Broth.  Her words, “There is nothing weak-kneed about this vegetable broth.  It’s big flavors hold their own in any dish…” 
If you are used to tossing a bunch of raw ingredients in a pot, covering them with water, and walking away to let them simmer when you make stock, you may find this is a little more complicated.  To bring up the sugars in all of the vegetables, you cook them down until they are brown and beginning to stick to the pan.  You then deglaze the pan with white wine and let that cook off.  Finally, you add the cooked vegetables to some fresh ones, cover it all with water, and simmer it for a couple of hours.  This process, along with a large portion of sautéed mushrooms, gives the stock depth that I think rivals a beef stock. 

Hearty Vegetable Broth
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table, NPR

2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
2 large carrots, coursely chopped
2 large stalks celery with leaves, coursely chopped
4 medium onions, coursely chopped 
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, coursely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dry basil or marjoram
2/3 cup dry white wine
6 large romaine lettuce leaves, coursely chopped
1 large ripe fresh tomato, chopped, or 2 canned plum tomatoes, crushed
A pinch freshly grated nutmeg
About 4 to 5 quarts of water

1.  Heat the oil in a 12-inch saute pan or skillet (not non-stick) over medium-high heat.  Add the carrot, celery, onion, and mushrooms.  Cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spatula, until the onions are golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and basil and cook a few seconds more.  
Vegetables caramelizing and beginning to stick to the pan

2.  Add the wine and stir, scraping up any brown glaze in the pan, until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Transfer to an 8-quart stock pot.  Add the romaine, tomatoes, nutmeg, and enough water to cover the solids by 3 to 4 inches.  Bring to a gentle bubble, partially cover, and simmer slowly for about 90 minutes.
Deglazing the pan with white wine
Simmering stock

3.  Strain the broth into a large bowl, pressing down on the solids to extract as much flavor as possible.  Cool and chill.  Skim off any solidified oil from broth's surface.  Refrigerate or freeze in 1 quart portions or in ice-cube trays.
I felt like I was making an Asian soup with the lettuce and the mushrooms.  The broth has a complex, yet natural flavor and this is only the stock.  On to the greens soup.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sticky Date Pudding

            Me dates ‘ave gone soft.  If that isn’t a constant concern for cooks.  We buy dates by the hank here.  They’re still on the stem and bundled together, almost like a skein of yarn, and they taste like caramels.

But they are dusty when you bring them home and need a rinsing.  Usually they dry right out and have an ongoing shelf life, but this particular batch isn’t drying so well and they have gotten a bit sticky.  So naturally, I thought of making another (also see Whole Orange Cake) Australian housewives' staple dessert:  sticky date pudding.  You do know that a pudding is nothing more than a cake in British/Australian speak, so don’t let it intimidate you. 
I first fell in love with this cake at a little Australian café in KATHMANDU, of all places.  The restaurant was opened by an Australian couple who were trying to adopt a Nepali child.  This turned out to be one complete genre of expat we frequently met in Nepal.  Others were Buddhist students, missionaries, ancient hippies, mountaineers, and entrepreneurs, along with diplomats and aid workers.   As the adoption process lingered on, this family decided to save the wear and tear on their family and just move to Kathmandu and open a restaurant, what they knew how to do.  The name of the restaurant was The Red Dingo.  I remembered this by association as it was right around the corner from another expat favorite, a Mex-Nepali restaurant called Lazy Gringo.  What made that restaurant Mex-Nepali you ask?  I guess it was mostly because all of the cheese they used was yak cheese, but there were other indicators, too.   The Red Dingo, however,  was quite un-Nepali which made it fun to visit now and then.  Inside the ceiling to floor glass windows were black and white tiles, a blackboard with the daily menu, and lipstick red leather sofas and chairs where you could sit with several friends and pretend that you were being very urban and First World.
 They always had sticky date pudding on the dessert menu.  I know myself well enough by this time in life to understand how completely I am lured in by caramel sauce.  Is anyone else defenseless against a sauce of butter, sugar, and cream?  I thought so.  The caramel sauce poured all over the date-studded cake causes the whole thing to just melt together.  

Sticky Date Pudding
Serves 8
Description: lose

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Sticky date pudding
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1 1/2 c.  pitted dates, chopped 
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 1/2 cups boiling water 
1/2 c.  butter, softened 
1 cup brown sugar 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
2 eggs 
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted 
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Caramel sauce 
1 cup brown sugar 
3/4 c.  thickened cream  or creme fraiche
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 
1/4 c. butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and line the base of an 8-inch springform cake pan. 
Place dates and baking soda into a bowl. Pour over boiling water. Allow to stand for 20 minutes. 
Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and vanilla until pale and creamy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well
after each addition. Using a large metal spoon, fold through date mixture and flour until well combined. 
Spoon mixture into prepared cake pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center 
comes out clean. When cool enough to handle, place plate under cake. Open springform pan side and remove it
Make sauce:
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until sauce comes to 
the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 2 minutes. 
Pierce pudding all over with a skewer or large-tined fork. Pour 1/2 cup of warm sauce over warm pudding. Let 
stand for at least 10 minutes before cutting into wedges.
Serve with remaining warm sauce.
Finished cake swimming in caramel sauce.  I love the air hole indicating the sauce is soaking way inside.

  Next time your dates go soft (not an idiom) you know just what you can do with them.


    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    Between the Pear and Cheese

    I love putting French phrases into Google translator to see what I get.  The super literal translation, messing around with the syntax, sometimes puts words in a slightly more poignant order and makes me take them more poetically.  Take for instance this French starter recipe I found this week.  Obviously, it is a lovely stack of pear/cheese/pear etc, but isn’t that title just begging for an ellipses?  Are you already filling in the blank for what comes between the pear and the cheese?  Literally?  Metaphorically?
    I’ve been playing around with a magazine this week that is the French equivalence of Bon Appetit.  It is called a table.  I’ve learned so much translating recipes, making predictions about what I think is called for and then sometimes getting surprised.  For example, many recipes call for 1 c. a café de ________ or 1 c. a soupe ____________.  Even though it didn’t exactly make sense for the recipe I was fairly assured that I was going to be using a coffee infusion and some other sort of liquid solution.  It turns out that the first one is a teaspoon and the second is a tablespoon.  That’s all.  Now, isn’t that surprising and nonintuitive?
                This recipe says almost everything with the photo.  It is simply a strata of pear and cheese that has been sprinkled with lemon juice and dusted with a cracked pepper mixture.  It comes together more deliciously than the short list of ingredients suggests.  If you want to make it more substantial, place it on a bed of greens that have been tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper.  For the full winter detox meal, follow the salad with a bowl of my favorite lentil soup. 

    6 small pears
    200 grams of any delicious cheese
    ½ lemon, juiced
    Mixed peppercorns, cracked

    1.     Peel pears, leaving stem. Core them from below.  Sprinkle all sides of pears with a few drops of lemon juice.  Cut into 4 pieces each (see photo).  If bottom doesn’t sit flat, trim it straight across.
    2.     Thinly slice the cheese, preparing about 5 slices per serving.  Encourage some rough edges.
    3.     Arrange on a plate.
    4.     Sprinkle with cracked pepper.
    6 servings

    Sunday, January 8, 2012

    Winter Preserves Pork Ribs

               There is a reason why humans invented the preservation methods of drying, candying, smoking, freezing, and keeping foods in airtight jars.  Of course, we all know it was to extend the life of foods a little beyond the growing season and to prevent starvation during the dormant months. The other motivation was to keep foods so they could be transported from an entirely foreign climate which would allow people to enjoy pineapples, and cloves, and even herring when they had no way of harvesting those foods themselves. 
                When I travel, I am always picking up interesting dried herbs and spices, dried fruit, potted meats, and fruit preserves.  It is a luxurious feeling to know I have exotic hard spices or a glistening jar of preserves in the pantry, but sometimes, those “special” items get passed over when I am cooking because they require a little bit of imagination or preparation such as toasting and grinding.  Also, it is true that people just don’t eat so many jams and jellies as they used to even though we still love the idea of them.  Rather than waiting for the odd piece of receptive toast, this type of recipe is a great way to use those gems.
                My intent today was to use a good quantity of my pantry items with pork ribs as the vehicle. The recipe is then easily adaptable to your own pantry.  If you think of your basic barbecue sauce you usually take a base like tomatoes, contrast it with mustard and vinegar, and then add a few spices for flavor.  With that formula in mind, I made ribs that were akin to the sticky Chinese style, without replicating that icon. 

    Spice Mix
    2 tsp. fresh ginger, minced
    5 cloves garlic, minced
    2 shallots, minced or 1 tbsp. dried
    Artisinal salt to taste
    Grind the following in a spice grinder:
    ½  tsp. each of cardamom, cloves, dried peppers, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, yellow mustard seeds,  black mustard seeds, and star anise (I also added a Tunisian specialty of dried bitter orange blossoms.  If you want the extra orange essence, you can add some orange zest.)

    Mix all spice ingredients together.

    ½ cup black sesame paste
    ½ cup orange or lemon marmelade
    1/3 cup tomato vinegar or ketchup
    1/3 cup soy sauce

    Stir spice mix into marinade ingredients.  

    Dice 1 large onion.  In a deep baking dish, layer chopped onions and rib sections that have been covered on both sides with the marinade mixture.  Intersperse so the onions touch all sides of the pork.  Pour 1 cup water around the side of the meat.  Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 300 degrees for two to three hours or until the meat is completely tender.  Uncover for the last 30 minutes to reduce the liquid and caramelize the meat.  If the cooking liquid is still watery, remove the meat and reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stovetop until it thickens.

    In a small foil pan or open topped foil packet (approx.. 6” square), combine ½ cup black or green tea, ½ cup dry rice, and ¼ cup brown sugar.  Place in the bottom of a barbecue with a lid.  Heat barbecue to medium heat.  When tea mixture begins to smoke, add ribs for approximately 15 minutes or until they have taken on a subtle smoky flavor.  Remove ribs to a platter.    When cool, discard tea packet.
     Spicy, bright, sweet, smoky.  Very nice for a winter Sunday supper.  What's in your pantry?

    Friday, January 6, 2012

    Pretty Pictures

    I’m trying hard to stop taking pictures of pretty things (Thanks Karen for ruining that for me).  On my last day of European vacation I am almost prettied out, anyway.  There was so much to take in and I did and I also photographed most of it. I’m full and happy and ready to go home and live simply and work hard again.  That’s the point of a vacation right?  To make you crave the routine you were previously fatigued with living.  I love that we live in close proximity to Europe, but that we go home to the pared down existence of Tunis.  It feels like a good life balance. 
                Allan and I are driving our final bit of French countryside as we approach Paris for our flight out tomorrow.  We are going over things that we thought were a success from the trip or cautions we would have for another time.  Here is our list of what we learned.
                Pack lightly!  For a three-week winter trip you can get by with the following:
    ·      3 pairs of jeans
    ·      3-5 long sleeved cotton shirts (some of mine were turtlenecks)
    ·      One black turtleneck sweater
    ·      One zippered, hooded fleece sweatshirt
    ·      1 pair of sweatpants
    ·      Slippers
    ·      Underwear (no more than 5 pairs)
    ·      Socks (no more than 5 pairs, one wool)
    ·      Down jacket that can layer over other items
    ·      Hat and gloves
    ·      One pair of sturdy, comfortable boots
    ·      Don’t bring a hair dryer
    ·      Buy toiletries as you need them at a grocery store or pharmacy
    ·      Ski gear, optional
                This is a nightmare.  Compounding the complication that most places don’t have clothes dryers is the fact that the wash cycle alone takes a minimum of 1.5 hours.  I advise that you look for every possibility to run a load and then try to dry them wherever you can.  Radiators are your best ally.  When you run out of washing machine options you can hand wash everything (even jeans) and they will eventually get dry. 
                Everything to drink is expensive.  An espresso can be as much as 8 Euros, a bottle of wine starts at 25, and even water is around 3 Euros.  Bring a French press coffee maker and ground coffee to make coffee in your room, buy wine and beer in grocery stores, and refill your own water bottle with perfectly drinkable tap water. 
                Try everything, especially the regional specialties.  You don’t have to eat a sit down meal at a restaurant to eat well.  Some of the best foods are perfect for take-away like breads, charcuterie, and cheeses.  There are also easily available traiteurs who sell food designed to take home and put in the oven or microwave.  

                We were super lucky to stay at our friends’ apartment for several days of our trip, but for our time in Munich, we pitched a vacation exchange proposition and got a bite.  We don’t have to completely turn over our home to do this.  We’ve got guest rooms and will be happy to give our host a return few nights in our home.  These two apartments really helped us get off the Euros ticker for a few nights. 
    I use the website TripAdvisor a lot.  I try to find rooms for around 80 Euros in a good location with free WiFi.  I have found that spending more money than this doesn’t necessarily get us a better room.  I much prefer a spare but clean room with simple supplies to a faux-fancy hotel with gross carpet and one of those slick, floral, germ catching bedspreads.  We also took another look at B & Bs after many years of eschewing that option (I don’t know why, now).  Paris can be notoriously expensive and the rooms tiny.  Since we had a car, we stayed in a village near Versailles for a couple of nights and another in a village near Charles de Gualle airport.  For the same or less money than a cheap hotel, these B & Bs were just as convenient, but multiple times more enjoyable than the expensive airport hotels.
                Here is something that I honestly experienced.  At the end of the day, I got a similar amount of satisfaction from looking at the pictures I had taken that day and thinking about what I might do with them as I would get from laying out a bagful of purchases.  There were some things I knew I wanted, like a few pieces of Polish pottery, but I didn’t need a lifetime supply, just a couple.  I do treat myself to some useful items, generally for the kitchen.  I bought some molds, a bain marie, and a ceramic baking dish and when I use them, I will remember Versailles, the Alps,  and the Bourgogne region where I purchased them.   We also buy food souvenirs that we go right ahead and eat and share with our friends as soon as we return.  We buy that stuff at a local grocery store, not specialty stores.  We both have a lot of fun discovering products available in various cities and leave with treasures like dehydrated shallots, marzipan, and of course some local wines that we transport in wine diapers to hopefully prevent one of them from breaking in a bag and ruining every thing in it.  
                We were back and forth about riding the train versus renting a car.  Once we priced out the train for five adults and thought about the additional inconvenience of packing around our bags and getting from train stations to hotels, it didn’t weigh out. 
    The first car we were issued couldn’t even hold 5 people with a bag each so they brought us a Citroen minivan.  It was comfortable enough for us and we thought that was all we had to be concerned about.  On our drive from Prague to Krakow we had to cross mountain passes with icy roads and we realized that this wasn’t a winter-ready vehicle.  We had it inspected by the Citroen dealer in Krakow and he told us we had bald summer tires.  The rental agency wouldn’t do anything to improve the safety of that car because they said we weren’t authorized to go to Poland.  We had no choice but to creep all the way back to Paris, where they did exchange the car for a four-wheel drive that could safely take us to the Alps. 
    We learned a lesson from this to check about areas that are excluded from service when we make the reservation and to check the tires when we pick up the car.  We were protected with dry, clear roads all the way back, but it could have been a bad situation. 
    One more consideration about driving is that there are frequent tolls throughout Europe.  They seem to be worth it as the roads are excellent with frequent rest stops, but I would estimate that we spent around 150 Euros on tolls in three weeks.
    Our final and perhaps most emphatic recommendation is get a car with GPS.  We are sure we saved ourselves a full day of getting lost and wandering around aimlessly.   There were places we drove right to (B and Bs in dark villages, city apartments) that would have been difficult to ever find.  GPS can save a lot of wear and tear on your relationships and you need all of that you can preserve on an extensive car trip.
    Now, it’s back to Tunis and our routines, there.  What I’m most looking forward to?  My bed with 600 thread count sheets, our own washing machine, getting back to some organizing and simplifying both at home and at work, and finally, learning.  I’ve got a lot I want to learn this year and I will try to write it up and share it along the way.  Thanks for reading.


    Tuesday, January 3, 2012

    Civilized Skiing

                I like skiing and I can still do it.  This is good news.  Yesterday, after my first day of skiing in several years, I hated it.  Yesterday looked like this, which looks quaint for a Christmas card, but I can tell you it provided zero visibility on the ski slope.  

    My entire day was defense against icy speed and bumps that I couldn’t see coming.  I also feared I was paying the price for about three weeks now without going to the gym and an almost steady diet of charcuterie and fromage.  And there was  also a lot of bread.
    I really wondered if I had waited too long, let my skills go, and skiing was a lost sport to me.  This made me sad because Allan and I have long harbored visions of ourselves being those lean, Norwegian-type retirees you always see at ski resorts.  These are not tourists.  They are locals who have, over their lifetimes, developed a deeply artistic and all-business style of skiing.  They are really about interacting with the mountain.  You see them shooshing down the slope below you from the chairlift and  it’s like they just started at the top of the mountain, pointed their skis downhill, and then danced in an unbroken rhythm to the music in their heads.  Pure ballet.  Then you see them in the lodge at lunch, not eating the burger and fries, but their own tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread (surely homemade) and an apple.  Then it’s right back to why they are there:  working those slopes.  When I woke up this morning, not excruciatingly sore in every molecule of my body and there was also a bright blue sky, I took these as signs from God that I should give it another solid attempt.   

    The thing about skiing is that it requires you to focus 3 to 10 feet ahead, pick a path, and then try to ski it with strength and hopefully some style.  For that reason, it is very meditative and mind-clearing.  You just can’t think about anything but the moment.  I will admit that I linked together a few admirable sequences.  Predictably, there were also awkward moments, but nothing face splatting… today.
    Allan said, “ You will love skiing in the Alps.  It’s so civilized.”  He had taken a student group from Singapore skiing in Verbier years ago and told me about how you can ski for kilometers and then come upon a little hut where you can have a beautiful lunch and rest before heading on your way.  We found such a hut today.  The proprietor is this handsome gray-haired man.   

    The menu of the day was salmon a la fondue with four vegetables:  roasted endive, roasted potatoes, stuffed tomato, and salad.  

    Then people sat around sunning on the terrace before strapping on the skis and getting in a couple more hours of ski runs.  

                 That’s not exactly the elegant Norwegian model, but it was really civilized

    Sunday, January 1, 2012

    New Year's Day in the Alps

                After a switchbacking drive into the mountains, Allan and I are at Alpes d'Huez.  It is a ski resort that was recommended by a teacher at our school who takes students on ski trips here so it has a dormitory vibe.  I kind of like that.  It’s basic and our breakfast, dinner, room, and ski gear are all included.  All we have to do is eat, ski, sleep, think, and talk.
                It is always a transition for us after we have been with our sons for a period of time.  We want to maximize every second with them and we have such a full time, but then they are suddenly gone and we look at each other and think, well, it’s you and me again.  You can almost audibly hear a down-shifting between us.  We don’t need to make dinner plans for four, keep the group entertained, or laugh at all of the jokes.  We can be spontaneous and even quiet if we want to. 
    You hear about couples who get into troubled waters when their kids leave home.  I can understand why.  People change more than they think they will as the years go by.  You’ve heard the warning that if you want to know what your spouse will be like, just look at his or her parents.  I think when I reached 40 or 45 and I didn’t seem to be exactly like either of my parents, I thought I had broken the mold.  But then 50 came and I see mannerisms creeping up on both Allan and me that are inbred.  Some things we are aware of and some we aren’t.  They aren’t all bad, but it might take quite a lot of determination to avoid others.  It might get interesting. 
    Yet, when we have some demand-free time to just exist together, we get  back into our friends element.  I still really like being with Allan.  He’s funny, kind, smart,  and athletic.  I don’t see us hitting the marriage wall and my advice to friends who are in the thick of child-raising is to tend your relationship with your mate.  You’re going to need someone you like being with when your kids get on an airplane and leave one day.
    We need a segue here.  It’s New Year’s Day and it has been many years since I haven’t been on my Lummi Island farm for this day.  It might be my favorite day of the year.  Our best friends come out and we have our Polar Bear swim in Rosario Strait, then it’s up to the hot tub and a highly caloric feast.   

    Last year, I made French food:  bouillabaisse, fondue, and couer a la crème.  This was just weeks before I started photographing every bite I ate for a possible blog entry so I don’t have photos of the food.  I only have one of the kids who we made eat outside because the house is small, it was a beautiful day (although cold), and they are really noisy.  This explains why they look sad and seized up.   

    Today I had a fondue lunch with just my husband in the Alps.  I definitely never saw that coming a year ago. 

    I miss my friends, our farm, and our kids, but being here with Allan is just fine, too.