Archive for December 2009

What’s Old Is New Again

December 31, 2009

Here we are together, all of us poised on the same brink, on the tipping point of change. It’s the night when we collectively take stock, counting up last year’s scratches and hard knocks, smiling upon those of last year’s hopes and dreams that are still in full flower, 364 days later.

It’s tonight that we sow the seeds of next year’s fruit, casting them onto the often-rocky soil of this life on Earth, watering them well with Champagne, toasting the rebirth of possibility, our hearts open to the universe of hope and goodwill that each New Year’s resolution embodies.

We cannot know yet which of the seeds will burst into bloom, which will produce fruit, which fruit will be sweet with success.

If your faith in the human race has been shaken, a new year lets you take a deep breath and give the world another chance.  If your faith in yourself has been shaken, get out a pen and paper and resolve to find your own light, to keep your eye on your own star.  If your faith in those you love has been shaken, stand under the mistletoe with them and share a kiss of peace and commitment.

May we walk together into a brighter year for us all.

A Bavarian Welcome

December 29, 2009

Imagine that you’re in a country that you don’t know well, and in a city that you know even less, where they speak a language that you don’t understand any better than your dog understands your random musings.  Imagine that someone invites you home to dinner.  An eight course dinner.  Imagine that you accept.

Last night, because they asked and we accepted, we dined chez Heinz and Christine.  You met them for the first time here, which is when we also met them for the first time, and which is when I told you that next time it would be Heinz’s turn to cook.  I didn’t really know then if there would be a next time, but I definitely knew he could cook.  I knew he’d won big cooking contests, but that knowledge was abstract.  No longer.

As we sat around a candle-filled coffee table and sorted out the fact that Christine doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak German, Heinz served us an excellent Champagne and a delightful little bite of foie gras. “Okay,” I thought, “that was very nice,” but at that moment I was more intent on trying to dredge up the remains of my single year of high school German than on the meal that might follow.  Christine was similarly trying to resurrect her school girl English, but unlike me she knew what lay ahead.  In her case, it was dishes, tons of dishes, a whole evening of doing dishes so that we might indeed have an eight course dinner in a state of stunned culinary nirvana.

So let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?  Heinz served this trio as an amuse bouche, although it could well have been the meal itself.  Slices of rosy venison cooked sous vide, little meatballs called frikadellar served with tiny shrimp-like creatures and beets, and lamb in a coffee crust accompanied by potatoes and apples.  The lamb was actually a little joke for me, since it was the first recipe Heinz shared with me many years ago, and when I tried it myself I used so much coffee that I couldn’t sleep for a day and a half afterwards.   I had no trouble at all sleeping last night, and I think I was dreaming of that lamb at least part of the night.

The soft intimate lighting didn’t do justice to the beauty of the plates, but next came a delightful paté of guinea hen with a heart of foie gras, paired with figs stuffed with fig chutney.  And you know what?  I’m not going to enthuse about every dish as I present it, because there just aren’t enough food-related adjectives in the English language and there are only so many times that I can reasonably expect you to read “beautiful, fabulous, delicious” and so on.  So, are we agreed?  For the moment, it’ll be just the facts.

Next was one of the big surprises of the evening, a pea and peppermint soup with little crayfish swimming under the velvety green blanket.  I’ll admit that it sounds rather peculiar as a combination, but I can’t wait to get my hands on the recipe and make it again myself.

Then came an adorable little cheese cannelloni, wrapped in a homemade dough and served on a bed of tiny vegetables with a sprinkle of toasted polenta,

followed by a sweet little bite of quail resting in its nest of salsify purée.  By this point we were starting to doubt the wisdom of having eaten lunch before this dinner.

Then came dorade on a bed of fennel, with purées of celery root and purple carrot.  And now we were definitely regretting lunch, and even heretically discussed whether we should just skip the next course.  Reason, fortunately, prevailed, and we forged boldly ahead.

Venison with a little stuffed cabbage roll and beet purée were the reward for our perseverance.  One bite and we knew we’d made the right choice.

And finally, a light yogurt mousse with berries and berry coulis managed to fit itself snugly into any tiny spaces left in our rounded bellies.

And of course there was a wine for each course, each one perfectly chosen to highlight Heinz’s remarkable cooking.  I don’t often say things like this, but I have to be honest with you.  Heinz is a WAY better cook than I am. Hands down, flat out, he can cook circles around most of us and barely break a sweat.

The warm hospitality, the unexpected pleasure of feeling at home in a strange country, the often hilarious conversation carried out in a cobbled together language, all of those were beyond wonderful.  But what I can’t get over is the sheer unmitigated expertise of the cooking, done with love, in a small home kitchen, just for us.

And I’m definitely going to take you back to Strasbourg very soon, but this dinner was too good to let get cold.

Alsace, Where Beer Is King

December 27, 2009

I’m sure that some of you, naming no names, are getting tired of my obsessing about wine all the time, and have been pining for equal time for beer.  Well, here you go then, this one’s for you.

Beer is everywhere here.  This part of France has belonged to Germany several times in the past, and that influence can really be seen in the food, which I’ll tell you about soon, and in the oceans of beer that accompany it so well.

We had the chance to visit the Kronenbourg brewery, France’s largest brewer, and to tour their lovely old facilities

where beer is manufactured in enormous copper pots.

We got to taste three different roasts of barley, from pale and wan to dark and bracing as coffee, and learned how those contribute to the various flavors found in beer.

Even the Kronenbourg Christmas tree is decorated with vials of barley.

We sniffed the hops too, a mild and musty variety that smelled quite different from the pungent version we know from the Pacific Northwest.

We didn’t get to see, taste, or smell the yeasts used at Kronenbourg because, as our guide Florence explained, the yeast is the most secret part of the brewing process, and is the most important factor in the differences between brands of beer.  I had no idea that yeast espionage could be a major issue, but Florence assured us that guarding the secret of the yeast is one of a brewery’s most important tasks.

The Kronenbourg plant also houses some beautiful old beer-related artifacts. This is L’Etoile des Brasseurs, the Brewer’s Star, which has been a good luck symbol of brewers since about 1397.

There were also old casks of mellow wood

and a series of antique ad placards left over from the days when

advertising had more character

and beer’s image was far more elegant than it is today.

After the tour came the tasting, and as this statue clearly shows, tasting to0 much beer is likely to leave one leaning against the nearest wall in a state of excessive bliss.  As the French are so fond of saying these days “A consommer avec moderation.”

Let Heaven And Nature Sing

December 24, 2009

Would it be blasphemy to say that a good bottle of Riesling is a perfect expression of the harmony between heaven and nature?  I guess that depends entirely on your perspective.  Personally, although I’m much more of a red wine person, I am finding the Alsatian white wines to be pretty heavenly.

Some of you would surely prefer this old crêche in the Strasbourg cathedral, although I have my doubts about the natural correctness of an elephant in the manger.

Although I’m no expert on crêches, being noncroyante, a non-believer from the get-go, I personally loved this homey little one we saw yesterday in a restaurant in Germany.  The nature part looks better to me, and I’ll leave it to you to decide on the heavenly harmony part.

As far as nature goes, this big tree looks right at home amidst the typical Alsatian architecture,

although on a drizzly Christmas Eve morn I have to say that this twinkling bright blue tree hit the heavenly high note.

We’ve spent the day wandering through the Christmas markets and department stores, in the best tradition of last-minute shopping, a tradition which I’m here to testify is alive and well in France.  People didn’t seem grumpy or stressed out though, not even when I arrived at the bakery this morning at a little after 8:00 only to find that I was the 24th person in line outside the shop, not to mention the dozen or so people already inside, each of us there to lay claim to the most beautiful bûche de Noël possible for tomorrow’s dessert.  A shopgirl was walking up and down the line of people waiting in the drizzle, offering little cups of coffee, which I thought was an especially nice touch.

Now, at 6:00 p.m., the air is full of the endless chiming of the cathedral bells, signaling the closing of the shops and the end to the commercial part of Christmas.  Later tonight, after what I’m hoping will be a really festive restaurant dinner, non-believers though we may be, we’ll try to squeeze into the midnight Mass at the cathedral.  “Be here at 11:00 sharp” the church concierge told me conspiratorially, “by 11:15 the cathedral will be completely full.”

Afterwards, although there’s no snow, we’ll wander sleepily past the little town of Bethlehem, which just happens to be right outside our door.

And so I wish you all a silent night, a holiday full of love and joy, and I hope you sing as much as possible, whether with heaven or nature, making your own sweet music with whatever choir suits your fancy.

Last Call For Hope

December 23, 2009

Here in richer-than-rich France, yesterday I saw a man take a large can of ravioli off the shelf of a fancy grocery store that was full of Christmas shoppers buying their holiday Champagne and foie gras.  He popped the top off the can, grabbed a loaf of bread from a nearby bin, and ate it all, cold, right there in front of us.

Do what you can to save people from having to do things like that. Right here I wrote about something small you can do, something easy, something quick, to help improve the state of the world.  Please, if you haven’t already, click that link and bid on some of the special items being offered as part of the Menu For Hope.  Your holidays will be happier because you did.

Christmas in Alsace

December 21, 2009

Tonight, the longest night of the year, Strasbourg is all lit up like it never heard of an energy crisis.  This is the view from our window, down onto the Place Kléber, where the city’s unimaginably tall Christmas tree, le sapin de Noël, reigns supreme.  Wafting up to our fourth floor hideaway are the dulcet sounds of…..really competent and vigorous African drumming.  It sounds incongruous, but actually it’s a relief after the canned Christmas carols we’ve been hearing all day as we wandered through the Christmas-obsessed town.

The beautiful half-timbered buildings are all decorated, and the storks are out in force, the stork being the regional mascot of the area and their team costume apparently being red stockings.

Beer is everywhere too, Strasbourg being at least partly German, and when you can get storks and beer in the same place, why not go for it?

Not all of the decorations are silly, of course.  Some are wickedly gorgeous, like this trompe l’oeil façade.

I’d spend all of my time looking into store windows, which are of a quality and variety that I find really staggering, were it not for the crowds.  If everyone in France isn’t in Strasbourg this week, I don’t know where all these people came from.  Thousands upon thousands of people mill in the streets, every restaurant is full at lunch time, you can barely move from one place to another, and almost all of the people are French.

It’s a ritual pilgrimage for the French, the Christmas markets of Alsace.  All roads lead to the markets, for there are several of them, scattered throughout the center of town, and all of the hotels rooms in town are booked months in advance.

What can you buy there?  I’d say that one out of every three or four vendors is selling vin chaud, hot spiced wine , and giant pretzels.  It’s been really freezing here, as the steaming wine attests, and so possibly the wine is even more popular than usual.  Or possibly it’s the real reason that so many people come to the market in the first place.

You can also get every sort of treat and gift, ranging from Christmas candy

through jumbo gingerbread cookies,

to dolls with classic French faces,

sublimely elegant gifts for the lady of your life,

and recreations of village Christmases past.  And that was just in a couple hours of walking around.  Believe me when I tell you that Christmas is vast here, and that we have not yet begun to really seize the day.  

Except, and this is an important exception, when it comes to Shel’s present. The only thing I bought today was a wonderful Russian camel fur vest for Shel.  Nope, I’m not kidding.  That too is a part of the Strasbourg Christmas spirit.

A French Village In Winter

December 16, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered whether Santa and his reindeer come to France, here’s your answer.  These reindeer, in the small and extraordinarily lovely village of Yvoire, are the rustic, handpainted proof.  I especially liked them, because they were about as different from outlet mall reindeer as one can get, without having a species transplant.  They’re recognizably real animals, yet they hint of Christmas.  They might be Santa’s reindeer, or they might have just wandered down from the Alps.  Who can say?

Christmas in France is much more restrained than it is in the US, except perhaps at the dinner table, and this year that’s especially noticeable. Festive displays are small, there are fewer lights, and the papers are full of tips on how to economize over the holidays.  We’ll be going to Strasbourg in a couple of days, which I gather is the center of the French Christmas Universe, and then we’ll see how widespread this restraint really is.  But in Yvoire the Christmas spirit was tucked away here and there, small and bright, looking like the elves had cobbled it together on a fun but short night out.

Back when Shel and I were young lovebirds we came to Yvoire and thought it was the most beautiful town we’d ever seen.  We dreamed of living there someday, each house prettier than the next, the lake all around, mountains in the distance.

So when we decided to pay it another visit, we were both prepared for disappointment.  After all, we’ve seen so many lovely French villages now, surely, we thought,  it couldn’t be as drop-dead gorgeous and enticing as it was in our memories.  How wrong we were.

Perched on the French side of Lac Léman, it’s ancient and graceful, inviting visitors to tarry and wander.  A few hundred people do live there, hardy souls that can accept the fact that it’s drowning in tourists in the summer and nearly deserted in winter.  Except for the reindeer, clearly there to please the locals, and the prodigious woodpiles in front of some of the houses, I’d have thought that no one at all lived there at this time of year.

They’re making a museum of ancient tools, like this grape press and jam kettle, which will undoubtedly attract even more tourists.  It’s sad, because although that will certainly bring more money into the village, it will probably also contribute to the ongoing death of its authenticity as a place to live and work and raise your kids.  There are a lot of dead villages dotted all over the countryside, places where no one lives any more, or where there are still a few residents, but no bakery, no cafe.  And without one or both of those as a gathering place, a center of village life, people soon lose touch with each other, and many move away.

The Alps in the distance, with less snow than one would expect at this time of year, have seen a lot of people come and go from Yvoire since it was founded in 1308.  They’ve seen the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker desert the town, since the year-round population is no longer big enough to support them.  It’s still as beautiful as we remembered it, but there’s no bread baked there anymore, and now we understand what that means.

It’s so easy to be seduced by the quiet, the lapping of the lake, the charm of the reindeer, and for a while I let myself imagine wandering those streets daily.   But soon I realize that every loaf of bread would mean a car trip, every peaceful summer’s day would see the town taken over by tour buses and boats, and my wish to live there subsides.  It was a sweet dream, and we’ve dreamed it for a dozen years, but we’re over that now.

Still, I wouldn’t mind having those reindeer in my front yard.

Spread Hope This Holiday Season

December 14, 2009

I want each and every one of you to feel like a kid in a candy store – a French candy store, that is!  Here’s your chance to win a sumptuous collection of candy, consisting of a wooden box of the iconic glazed chestnuts called Marrons Glacés (in this case with the added benefit of Cognac), that irresistable soft almond Nougat de Montélimar, a Lindt Connaisseur’s Collection of classic chocolate bonbons, the famous candied orange peels coated in dark chocolate known as Orangettes, mint flavored dark chocolate Sarments du Médoc in the shape of beautiful little twigs, and a set of liqueur-filled bonbons with Cognac, Framboise, Marc de Champagne, Poire Williams, Chartreuse, Grand Marnier, and Kirsch.  I will wrap this with my own two hands and  ship this dessert delight directly to you, just one very special person among you all, dear French Letters readers,  wherever you may be, anywhere in the world.  Now how’s that for an offer you can’t refuse?

Have you heard about the Menu for Hope?

Menu for Hope is an annual fundraising campaign hosted worldwide by Chez Pim and here in Europe by David Lebovitz.  The first Menu For Hope was born five years ago in response to the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the campaign has since become a yearly extravanza of generosity.  Over the past three years, Menu for Hope has raised nearly a quarter of million dollars in support of the good work of the UN World Food Programme, helping to feed hungry people worldwide.

Each December, food bloggers from all over the world join the campaign by offering a delectable array of food-related prizes for the Menu for Hope raffle. In the case of French Letters, it’s a delectable array of French candy, hand selected by me to make your New Year sweet and bright.  Anyone , and especially you,  can buy raffle tickets for the French Letters bid item, cleverly named Bid Item  EU06.  Of course, you’re cordially invited to also bid on the fabulous prizes offered by other bloggers all over the world, but I’m hoping that French Leaders readers will dig deep into their credit cards and go for the candy first!

For every $10 you donate, you earn one virtual raffle ticket to bid on a prize of your choice. At the end of the two-week campaign, the raffle tickets are drawn and the results announced on Chez Pim.  This year’s campaign is taking place December 14 through Christmas.  I know you’re busy baking cookies, but since you can’t send those treats to hungry kids around the world, please bid on this pile of candy and assuage your conscience while spreading holiday cheer.

Once again the beneficiary of this year’s campaign is the UN World Food Programme. WFP is the world’s largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they have a chance to escape hunger for good.

This year, Menu For Hope is supporting a new initiative at the WFP called Purchase for Progress (P4P).  P4P enables smallholder and low-income farmers to supply food to WFP’s global operation.  P4P helps farmers improve farming practices and puts more cash directly into their pockets in return for their crops.  This will also help buoy local economies by creating jobs and income locally.    Should you have the least shred of doubt, you can learn more about P4P here.

And by the way, I won’t be collecting any of the money, nor will any of the other bloggers participating in the campaign.  All the money is collected by an online fundraising company called FirstGiving, which has worked with Menu For Hope since the beginning.

Here’s how it works.  You want to bid, you know you do!  You’ve looked at the list of all the wonderful items offered for raffle here.  You know what you want, so go get it, using the easy bidding form available below the list!

Easy as pie, you make an online (tax deductible) donation by bidding on the item or items of your choice, with a credit card.  Be sure to follow the easy steps in the bidding instructions.  The minimum bid is $10 and you can bid as many times as you like, and on as many items as you like. To win this collection of French bonbons, make sure to put the item number (EU06) next to your bid(s) and use a valid email address.

FirstGiving will collect and process the payments and, at the end of the campaign, transfer the donations in one lump sum to the WFP. This is a win-win situation for all parties involved. The bloggers never touch the money. The WFP doesn’t waste time processing mini-donations, the majority of which are between $10-$50.  Firstgiving does all the work and collects a small fee, which include the credit card processing charges.  If your ticket is drawn,  and I hope it will be, you are richly rewarded, in the case of the French Letters bid item (EU06), with a gorgeous selection of yummy French treats.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Choose a bid item or bid items of your choice from our Menu for Hope main bid item list .

2. Go to the donation site at Firstgiving and make a donation.

3. Please specify which bid item you’d like in the ‘Personal Message’ section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per bid item, and please use the bid item code (EU06).

Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a bid item of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU06 and 3 tickets for other items on offer.

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we can claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

So, ready, set, bid here!  How sweet is that?

Foie Gras Frenzy

December 12, 2009

It’s foie gras season again.  More than Santa, more than twinkly street lights, more than Christmas markets, Noël is announced by the sudden appearance of foie gras on every menu and in every butcher case.

It’s been one of those things that I eat when someone else prepares it, because it’s so incredibly expensive to buy fresh, high quality foie gras and I’ve been afraid of blowing it.  But when I saw a lobe of duck foie gras on sale for only 18 Euros, about $25, instead of its usual 98 Euros a kilo, I decided to experiment a bit.  I started out easy,  simmering it whole in spiced red wine, which was a beautiful process to behold, as the golden fat oozed out into the wine most fetchingly.

Served at room temperature, with its poaching liquid reduced to a thick syrup, it was pretty darn good, although I think it’s never going to be my favorite way to eat foie gras.  But now that I’ve ventured into the realm, I’ll feel a lot less nervous about making my own terrine, redolent of Cognac and Port, or serving warm nuggets of pan sautéed melting foie gras.  And it made a very make-ahead nice starter for an all-duck meal.

Because really, I have to admit that my favorite thing about the season isn’t the foie gras itself, it’s the fact that the markets are flooded with all of the other duck parts, which, since they are deemed to be mere by-products of foie gras production, are ravishingly cheap.  Here we have rosy slices of duck breast, served over a celery root purée and topped with a killer porcini and red wine sauce.  The brilliantly green spinach cake that I learned from David Lebovitz has become one of my favorite ways to eat spinach, and goes perfectly with duck.

Here’s the recipe for the porcini sauce, which will serve you in good stead for the holidays, because it would be excellent and festive on almost anything.  It’s a simple little riff, inspired by a recipe by Lynn Rosetto Kaspar, and it goes like this.

Porcini Sauce

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup hot water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons water

Soak the mushrooms in the hot water for 15 minutes.  Remove them from the water, squeezing them over the soaking bowl.  Reserve soaking liquid.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan, add the minced shallots, and sauté them until they are translucent.  Add the soaked mushrooms and sauté until they dry out and are starting to become golden.  Add 1/4 cup of the mushroom soaking liquid and simmer, stirring,  until liquid disappears. Repeat this step with an additional 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid.  Add the red wine and simmer until almost no liquid remains.

Stir in the butter and water and swirl to make a thick sauce.  If you have a couple of tablespoons of duck or meat juices handy, from whatever the sauce it going to top, stir those in as well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

And that’s all there is to it.  Its great on duck, Kaspar’s original was meant for chicken, and I think it would go perfectly with beef as well.  While you’re at it, double the recipe, because you’ll eat more of this than you might imagine at the outset.  And, needless to say, use the very best dried porcinis you can find.

French Lunch, A Bunch

December 9, 2009

We’ve had some great lunch invitations lately.  One thing I love about France is that lunch can be a real meal, an event, and an occasion.  It’s really sweet to hang out with nice people, eat great food, and drink good wine, while the sun’s still shining.  In the above case, we were invited by some Belgian friends for a raclette lunch, which I’m here to say beats a Swiss raclette lunch hands down.  The Swiss thing is a huge round of cheese, melting bit by bit, served with a potato, and a cornichon or two, and maybe a pickled onion.  In other words, virtually all cheese.  And however good the cheese, it’s still all about the cheese.

Whereas Belgian raclette, at least chez Henk and Greete, involves rolls of smoked salmon, cauliflower, green beans, onions, pickles, mushrooms,

gorgeous jambon cru, a delicious cured raw ham,

as well as the inevitable (not approved for diabetics) potatoes.  Actually, this proved to be a perfect meal for anyone eating low carb, diabetic or not.

You lay a slice of cheese on your own personal tray, cover it with whatever suits your fancy, and top it with more cheese.

Then you slide your creation into the raclette toaster and wait until it becomes all melty and gooey.  I took a picture of the melty gooey phase of this lunch, but it looked like just what you’d imagine, yellow goo.  Thus permit me to leave it to your imagination, and believe me when I tell you that leeks and smoked salmon are fantastic with that special variety of yellow goo.  Really fantastic.

For those who weren’t worrying about their blood sugar there was cake and cream and

coffee from their nifty built-in Miele espresso maker.  It was all enough to make me resolve to visit Belgium as soon as possible.

Then, not long afterward, we had lunch with our one-of-a-kind neighbor Jean-Claude and his adorable mom, who is 94 years old and a treat to be around.  As opposed to a build-your-own lunch, Jean-Claude made us

his own special brand of beautifully composed food.  He was a restaurateur before he retired, and his plates always reflect that sensibility.  Here we had olives that he cured in salt from the tree in his back yard

and he sent us home with a jar of green lovelies that he’d cured in brine.

I wish I had a picture that did justice to the inside of this pastry pyramid, which was filled with beef tenderloin and tiny vegetables.  But alas, as with the yellow goo, my camera skills lagged behind those of the cook.  Suffice it to say that it was tender and succulent, a delight to the eye and the palate, even if the camera refused to cooperate.

Dessert was a beautiful, and, from what I heard, delicious, choux puff with a transfixing caramel mirror glaze.  I’d love to be able to tell you how it tasted, believe me I would, but you’ll just have to imagine it for yourself.

What I can tell you, without hesitation, is that it is truly a wonderful thing to be cooked for.  Normally I’m the one who cooks for my friends, something I adore doing.  But really, there’s a fantastic little something about being a guest, about having someone else standing over the stove, chopping the ingredients, presenting them beautifully.  I scarcely even regret the things I do not eat while I revel in the dishes that someone has prepared with me in mind.  I love to be a guest, it’s that simple.  Feeeeeed me!