Memorable Meals: The Weight of a Magnum

imageOne of our favorite Bay Area events was the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Weekends, the purchase of one wine glass was the ticket to wineries on the Bay side of the Santa Cruz Mountains the first weekend and the ocean side the second. The bay side was convenient to us and we had relatives to stay with on the ocean side, so the purchase of one glass was a ticket to a lot of wines.

Many of the wineries are in remote and difficult to get to locations, often groups of wineries would set up tasting tables at a single venue. The normal tasting routine was to start with the light wines, move through the whites from light and dry to rich and full, continue with the lighter bodied reds, and finish off with the full-bodied, barn-burner reds. Not a bad plan for a single tasting, or a tasting that is a 20 minute drive from the previous one, but when there are about 4 or 5 wineries all operating from the light to the dark side, the taste buds can go from discriminating to full confusion. It occurs to me now that the best thing would have been to make a complete wine #1 circuit, a wine #2 circuit, and so on in order for my taste buds to compare pleasantly light to pleasantly light and intensely rich to intense rich. For whatever reason–not that all those sips of wine would effect our reason–that did not occur to us at the time. We would go home with lots of bottles that we thought were fabulous at the time; months later they were opened in hopes that our cloudy purchase decisions were good ones. Happily, we were never disappointed nor were we ever plagued with buyer’s regret.

At one of these venues there were crowds gathered around every tasting table. One was a little less crowded than the others and, without the pressure of frantic rounds of pouring and recitations of wine facts, I was able to chat with the winemaker a bit. They were just starting out–which explained the smaller crowd–and had a wine club that promised to have special events and privileges for its first 100 members. I like privileges in this voice-activated, please-listen-as-our-options-have-changed, customer service-avoidance world, but the costs of shipping wine can exceed the costs of the wines so I was hesitant. I thought about it as I went to the other tables and sipped my way through series of light transparent whites to deep opaque reds. I returned after having made my circuit and, before 100 people could beat me to it, signed on the dotted line. My final resistance gave way when they told me they would arrange to have the winery open to the public when the club wines were released. The winery was located about 40 minutes from our home; picnicking in a pretty winery a few times a year sounded lovely. I managed to beat 93 people, becoming lucky member number 7. In the months and years that followed, hundreds more joined and we all were equally loved, but in the beginning we were special being there at the start.

They were as good as their word, having wonderful member events and occasions to celebrate the wineries climb to recognition and accolades. Wine pick-ups were a day’s outing not only for us but also for our resident energetic and friendly border collie. He would sleep in the back seat on our way down, but as soon as we pulled off the freeway and made our way to the country roads, he would pop up, stick his snoot out the window, and breath in the scents of dry California grasses baking on the hillsides. Upon arrival, our routine was to hop out of the car and go straight to the pond for a lap around water and grapevines before going to the winery. On one of our visits there was an event and a drawing for prizes. We had finished our lunch and were doing another pond circuit before our drive home. When we returned to gather our things, someone said, “You won!” We had to be present to win but as they thought we were still on the property had held off drawing another name. Sure enough, we won the grand prize: a magnum of Cabernet Franc.

We learned a bit more about this wine. They were just returning from losing a beloved pet and the phone was ringing as they entered the house. It was a reporter wanting to buy several cases of their Cabernet Franc. This was how–in a low moment–they heard the happy news that they had won their first gold metal. The wine sold out very quickly and this magnum was one of the few remaining bottles. Somehow, my thrill of winning became my weight of responsibility. This wine deserved more than being opened amidst a large party, fated to be poured into plastic tumblers and left forgotten on side tables. It was a weighty challenge to find an occasion worthy of the wine.

After discussing various possibilities, we reached a decision; we would have a dinner that included only people who would appreciate a special wine highlighted by good food and company. The first guests we thought of were the winemakers themselves, and they graciously accepted. Rounding out the party were friends of ours who had taken several cooking classes and enjoyed gourmet cooking along with a couple of family members. Guests to gather round the table determined, the next weighty challenge was what to put on the table to compliment and honor the wine.

Around this time a rather short lived but wonderful dining opportunity came into being. A French chef, a Maîtres Cuisiniers de France and former Culinary Acadmey instructor, started offering a dinner once a week in his friend’s little breakfast and lunch cafe. It was reservations only, set seating times, BYOB, and prix fix menus, but for those of us who were lucky enough to find out about it, and even luckier to get a table, it was a slow-paced, multi-coursed evening of great food. The small cafe was dressed up for evening with Provençal tablecloths, candles, and china place settings. Diners often sipped their wine and chatted amongst themselves while patiently waiting for each course. At the end of one such evening, having finished the cheese course and trying to work our way through a decadent dessert, the chef came out and chatted with the well-sipped and over-fed diners. The conversation turned to wine and I naturally mentioned my magnum and food pairing conundrum. The chef had all sorts of suggestions and–all those sips of wine between courses may have had something to do with this–I invited him to join us.

So now we had a French chef and his family, gold medal winning winemakers, foodie friends, and a few assorted family members, specifically my mother, daughter, and spouse. No pressure, just the usual dinner party.

The day of the dinner, my mother, daughter, and I spent all afternoon chopping onions, grinding spices, and braising lamb shanks. We used a recipe of Jamie Oliver’s, “Spiced Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks” from The Naked Chef. The irony of using a recipe from a British Chef’s cookbook to serve a French chef was not lost on me, but I knew imagethis recipe. A braise is usually satisfyingly rich and, more importantly, very forgiving. In an unorthodox move, I made a mass of polenta in a fuzzy logic rice cooker, but I needed a way to keep it hot and moist for an undertimined amount of time and fortunately it worked like a charm. We scurried about, sweated cucumber slices, spread them with goat cheese, and topped them with smoked salmon and a sprig of dill, moved furniture into place and laid the table, made last minute salads, and moments before guests arrived sliced up baguettes. We, three generations of women, worked all afternoon without a snip or a snarl.

Our gourmet friends arrived with chocolate pots de creme, our winemakers with more wine and winery stemware to serve it in, and our chef and family with duck legs ready to be finished in the oven. It required emptying the liquor cabinet before finding something suitable for flaming into glazing sauce, adding to the kitchen chaos, but soon duck legs were glazed and golden.

Before the preliminary sips, nibbles, and salad had been consumed, the group was relaxed and chatting like old friends. Our winemaker opened the magnum of Cabernet Franc and while he did the ceremonial pouring, the main course was served to honor the star of the show. British Jamie Oliver’s lamb shanks valiantly stood along side a French chef’s duck and a California gold medal wine. Even the polenta was a success, the chef’s son was a picky eater and he filled his mostly empty plate with several helpings of polenta. Wine enjoyed and consumed, dinner eaten, and plates cleared, we finished with the decadent chocolate. The evening had been enjoyed and had come to a satisfying end.

It was nerve wracking to cook for that particular group, but looking back it was worth every moment of worry and ranks among one of our most memorable meals. Whether anyone thought the food we prepared was worthy of the wine I will never know, they were too polite to say anything other than the usual complimentary remarks. But I truly believe the winemakers recognized our efforts to honor the wine and appreciated being present for the sharing of it. Our friends and our family love us for who we are, not for what we cook, but they all genuinely seemed to enjoy the food, wine, and company. As to the chef? What mattered was not the food served but the invitation given. Perhaps because it is so intimidating, an accomplished chef gets few invitations to eat in ordinary homes. He too recognized our effort and forgave our amateurish kitchen skills in exchange for the opportunity to just be a guest. Besides, this time the taste bud confusion of so many wines worked in our favor. If enough wine is poured, everything tastes great. And in my memory, it did.

Memorable Meals: Thanksgiving on Île de la Cité

As mentioned in the Thrill is Gone, I am temporarily restricted to a bland diet and determined to soldier through to better days. In the meantime, while I may not be able to indulge, my memory is free to enjoy memorable meals of the past. One of our memorable meals was a Franco-American Thanksgiving on Île de la Cité.

Traveling in November is a roll of the dice, but if our number comes up it is a great time to visit Europe; the sites, museums, and restaurants are a bit less crowded and everything a lot quieter and peaceful in the soft winter light. A bit risky, but it can be a wonderful time to travel if Momma Nature and the Travel Gods are on our side. While late November can be one of the busiest travel times of the year in the states, Thanksgiving is virtually unknown in Europe save for ex-pats and the people who are lucky enough to befriend them. Likewise with shopping in November, no crowds before Thanksgiving rushing to markets and grocers, no crowds after Thanksgiving sprinting full speed ahead into the Christmas rush. It is a quiet time in Europe, a bit before the Christmas markets open and long after the summer tourists have returned home.

One November we joined with friends and found a wonderful apartment on Île de la Cité overlooking the busy Seine and Hôtel de Ville. Centered in the middle of the most touristy of Paris, we had wonderful places to explore in all directions–and we did–but one of our favorite things was to sit at the window and watch the boats go by from the early morning commercial river traffic to the busy tourist boats that drifted by throughout the day, the dusk, and into the twinkling lit darkness of evening. It was the perfect place to take a break for lunch in the middle of the day, we were never far from our local home for a simple luncheon with a remarkable view.

The kitchen was small but our dining table was quite large, a bit challenging for cooking but a perfect place for entertaining. With plenty of seating at the table we were able to increase our number with an assortment of guests, our nephew who was studying in Paris that year, our daughter and her British friend who joined us from Germany, and finally a chef acquaintance of our friends, who happened to be in Paris with his daughter and a friend, completed the guest list.

With a challenging kitchen–very limited counter space, tiny refrigerator, and a small oven–we had to plan our feast accordingly. We were familiar with the local wine, produce, butcher, and cheese shops in the neighborhood but we needed more selection than could be found in our immediate area to create a Thanksgiving. We branched out to other neighborhoods looking for oddities.

Not trusting I could find canned pumpkin and condensed milk in Paris, I brought a couple of cans with me along with some decent knives; one is less likely to find good knives in a rental apartment than cans of Libby’s pumpkin in Paris. Not surprisingly, the kitchen–although fairly well outfitted–did not have pie pans. No problem, we were across from a large BHV department store and not too far away from cookware shops in Les Halles.

We found fabulous cookware and housewares departments in the BHV, and did pick up a few things, but not pie pans. To say we picked up a few things fails to relate how perplexed we were shopping in this store. We had a total failure to communicate, and not just with the language. We gathered our goods and stood in line for the cashier waiting to check out. When we reached the front of the line, the woman would not ring up our purchases. Our French was not good enough to gather more than the emphatic “No” and we were quite at a loss as to why she refused to sell us the items we had gathered. It was not until we found a salesperson on the floor who had enough English to explain the proper way to purchase our goods that we were able to have any success. Our instructions were to leave the goods in the department, have a salesperson on the floor write a ticket, take the ticket to the cashier, stand in line (again), pay the amount on the ticket, have the ticket marked as paid, return to the department where the goods remained on the shelves, find the salesperson and give him or her the ticket, wait patiently as he or she collected the goods and wrapped them for carry-out, and finally, after all that, would we be able to leave with the goods.

We wandered through a cookware shop with a large baking section in Les Halles, but no pie pan. Surely, we thought, the very famous Julia Child recommended shop, E.Dehillerin, would have pie pans. E.Dehillerin did have about every type of cookware and bakeware one could imagine, including pots big enough to seat all of our guests, but no pie pans. It was a multi-level, floor to ceiling treasure hunt that turned up many a treasure save the one we were looking for. Sighing with the thought of all those disposable aluminum pie tins hanging in displays in the states, I belatedly thought how easily a couple of aluminum pie tins could have joined my cans for the transatlantic journey. Well, this was Paris so citrouille tarte it would be.

E. Dehillerin

Having resolved to make a tart and giving up the pie pan search, I realized we that while we had a tart pan we had no pastry making equipment. We would not mind searching  La Grande Épicerie de Paris for pre made tart shells but were fortunate to find a smallish supermarket nearby that had “bio” savory tart pastry in a roll, similar to the Pillsbury pie crusts found in the refrigerated section in grocery stores at home but made from all natural ingredients. It was pretty close to as good as we could have made if we had counter space, pastry boards, mixing bowls, and rolling pins. Heavy cream, no problem. Our plans and ingredients for pumpkin pie, or rather tart, all present and accounted for.

The produce store nearby was good but selected our produce for us, it was strictly hands-off and all transactions took place in French or by pointing and holding up fingers; a bit difficult when one has limited French and a long list of produce to purchase. The first time in the shop I had learned the moment my fingers reached for a tangerine that I had done the unthinkable. My husband entered a few minutes later and began to reach for a piece of fruit and I cried, “NOOOOO, don’t touch it!” just in time to prevent another international incident. The produce store we found in Saint Germain was a bit more relaxed and we could select on our own produce or get assistance. There we found a bag of Ocean Spray fresh cranberries and as soon as I had them in hand, an assistant was by my side helping me find everything on my laboriously translated-into-French shopping list. He even asked how many stalks of celery we needed for our stuffing and tore off just the amount we needed, no leftovers to worry about shoving into that tiny refrigerator. Sage was the problem as my translator had given me the translation for a wise guy, not an herb, but he stuck with me until we figured it out and we eventually found it.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we saved bits of baguettes from our meals to put toward the stuffing and had our plan for bread cubes. With the help of the produce man, we now had celery and sage, which left ground sausage for the stuffing. It is easy enough to find stuffed sausages of many varieties, but bulk sausage was not so easily found. We were able to find bulk sausage at the butcher next to the produce market. They quickly recognized why we were shopping and tried to sell us a turkey. It was tempting, until I remembered the size of the oven. They did, however, have a rotisserie filled with golden juicy chickens turning round and round. Even better, the slow roasted chickens were situated over roasted potatoes, potatoes which were probably already well laden with butter but now saturated with juices from those chickens. There is always mashed potatoes and gravy at this feast, but those flavor enriched potatoes erased all thoughts of that tradition. Our dinner shopping was complete, save a bit of shopping for wine–anything but a challenge in Paris–and fresh bread pulled from the oven hours before the feast.

On Thanksgiving, we sent a crew out to pick up chickens and potatoes while we made all the trimmings, rotating things in and out of the small oven beginning with our pumpkin tart-not-pie. We baked our stuffing in broth after cubing the saved bits of baguettes and tossing them with the sautéed onions, celery, sausage, and sage. Yes, we learned, baguettes do make wonderful bread cubes for stuffing. We cooked up some cranberry sauce with a bit of freshly squeezed orange juice and prepared haricot vert with mushrooms for our final side dish.

We had a lot of wine at the ready, and as every guest also brought wine, many bottles of regional French wines were opened, passed around, and enjoyed. Having a guest chef in the mix turned out to be an excellent idea, not only for the quality of wine he brought but also for his expertise in carving those chickens up faster than we could open a bottle of wine.

With the view of the Seine visible through the windows, we sat down to a memorable feast. Although missing a few of the traditional dishes and family back in the states, it was not lacking in the things that Thanksgiving is known for: beloved family, good friends, good food, good wine, and the thankfulness to be in this place, at this time, and sharing it with these people.

Photo credit for many of the photos to the spouse (everyone has a job in the kitchen, someone had to take pictures while the others planned, shopped, and cooked).

The Thrill is Gone

To call myself a foodie would overstate my knowledge and expertise in fine wines, top restaurants, exotic cuisines, and flavor profiles. But I do love to cook, eat good food, and enjoy a variety of wines. Although many of our books did not make our West Coast to Midwest move, the number of cookbooks that made the cut was exceeded only by the number of knitting books that made it on board the moving van. First captivatedby Julia Child so many years ago, moving on to Iron Chef (the original Japanese version), and now captivated by shows such as Top Chef and the British Baking Show, I find watching about food as enjoyable as eating it. There is little about travel I enjoy more than experiencing local cuisine. Of course it helps that it is one of the few travel experiences that lets me sit down and rest, but it is one of the best ways

of experiencing a new region. I may photograph more plates of food than local sites when traveling and relive my travels as much with memories of meals as with memories of excursions. Visiting wineries, participating in wine tastings, and experimenting with wine pairings has always been among our favorite activities. For all that–although admittedly falling short of foodie status–I certainly can be counted among those who enjoy good food and fine wines.

Imagine my horror when, in response to a malady, the doctor restricted my diet to all but the blandest of ingredients. Just say no to coffee, tea, acidic juices, and wine (or any other alcoholic beverage for that matter). Just say no to citrus or any other acidic fruits such as strawberries or pineapple. Just say no to tomatoes or any foods containing tomatoes including sauces, soups, and braises. Just say no to spicey foods. Just say no to fatty foods. Just say no, no, no.

There are pros and cons for the spouse. Although he can get the cheeseburger, pizza, burrito, spice-fest out of his system when he eats out at lunch, the dinners at home have held very little excitement. Rice or roasted potatoes, steamed vegetables, lean imagemeat, no dessert, wine in his glass, and water in mine. On the plus side, he can look at the wine cellar and say, “Mine, all mine!” He also has a sweet deal when it comes to a night out, a resident designated driver and lower restaurant tabs with only one person on the a bar bill.

If dinners for the spouse our dull, at least he is spared my very simple lean white meat
lunches and unflavored oatmeal breakfasts. Weekend breakfasts I avert my eyes so he does not feel my glare when he generously shakes Lousianna hot sauce on his eggs, peels off sections of tart juicy wedges from his tangerine, and enjoys slabs of butter on his toast. Eating has become something that is a necessity, not an enjoyment, like the routine of brushing teeth; necessary but not something to look forward to. That brings me to the kitchen. There is no inspiration to be found there. Meal planning is an absolute drudge. Grocery shopping has become a dull-eyed wander up and down the aisles with a nearly empty cart. Weeknight cooking has never been a high point, but to say the thrill is gone when I enter the kitchen every evening to prepare dinner is an understatement. Remembering Like Water for Chocolate, I can only think that my lack of inspiration and my malaise is as noticeable in the food itself as it is in my planning and preparing.

There has to be a silver lining, a plus side to all this. Well, clearly knocking out just about everything from my diet, including the empty caloried but oh so delicious wines, should be a boon for the waistline. But (wo)man does not live on bread alone, and watching a scale–although satisfying to watch numbers decline little by little–does not replace the loss of flavor and enjoyment of meals. So…perhaps I need to change my point of view. This could be my greatest kitchen challenge ever. Granted, I feel as limited as a chef-testant on Top Chef being told to create a masterpiece for a Vegan with celiac disease and a garlic allergy, but surely there is flavor to be found in the simplest of ingredients.image

Now is the time for those all those cookbooks to justify their added weight on the moving truck. And now it is time for me to crack them open, enthusiastic with the challenge and anxious for the inspiration. If I succeed, I’ll be back with a full belly and a mouthful of words. If I fail, my next kitchen posting may be when my health is restored and my whine is back in a glass where it belongs.