Friday, January 25, 2008

France - Part Deux and a Half

My Day with Monet, a Most Intriguing Lunch (Tongue)
and a Farewell

While Chris and the Cronces were immersing themselves in WWII history in Normandy, I spent the day with a delightful local tour guide, Ariane Cauderlier. I found her through the efforts of the owner of our bed and breakfast in Giverny. Since Chris would have the car and our bed and breakfast was out in the countryside, I was pleased a guide with a car was available.

By the way, the bed and breakfast, La Reserve in Giverny, was beautiful and one of my all time favorites. The owners, Marie-Lorraine and Didier Brunet, have built a most exquisite home to look old yet with modern conveniences. Didier stripped windows and fixtures from an ancient manor house and reused them in the building of La Reserve. Brilliant! That’s me waiving from our bedroom window.

But back to Monet’s gardens - pictures just cannot convey the beauty of it. Lush, overflowing and a riot of color. The beds are replanted for each season of the year. Again, a digital camera was priceless. I took hundreds of pictures, which I sorted through at home and edited down to my favorites. What a joy it is to not worry about film, cost of developing, etc. I believe the lily pond with the Japanese bridge are probably the closest to how it looked in Monet‘s day.

I have seen many pictures of the yellow dining room, but the reality was much different. It felt like walking into the middle of a rich gold egg yolk. Maybe it was the time of the day, but wow! Pictures portray the room as a sunny yellow, but it is so much more intense - like being wrapped in a rusty gold cocoon. I could feel my cholesterol rising as I stood there. (See…there I go with another food reference. Sorry.)

Ariane was a delightful companion and tour guide beyond compare. Her knowledge of Monet’s life is encyclopedic and she shared it with many anecdotes you just could not learn from reading a guide book. Tour guides are not allowed in the house (the French are strange sometimes), but Ariane has a secret connection with someone at the foundation that manages the museum, so she chatted away in every room bringing the times and world of Monet and his large family to life for me. I even got a peek of the vast gardens and greenhouses where the out of season and upcoming plants are nurtured for the gardens around the house. The area is not open to the public, but Ariane knew just which path to walk up so we could view it from a neighboring driveway.

As an interesting side note, and something I did not know, Monet’s home and gardens were in ruin almost beyond repair when a group of impressionist loving Americans created a foundation to save the property. The French were only too happy to allow such a fortuitous circumstance, thereby saving a historic property, small village sinking into obscurity and the memory of a cultural icon.

Later in the day, Ariane drove us to a nearby village to visit the grave of Cami, Monet’s beloved first wife. On the way to the village, we passed the house where they lived before moving to Giverny (which happed to be for sale and made Ariane very excited). One of Monet’s famous winter scenes was painted just outside the front door. It was fun to compare the picture to the reality.

From Giverny we drove across the Seine to the medieval town of Vernon. Rich in history and with many small half timbered, pre-10th century houses tucked along the streets. One stop was the Colligate Church of Notre Dame which dates back to the roman period (end of 11th century) but its construction continued in the Gothic period to end in the 17th century. The church has a plaque which has puzzled many a visitor and scholar…dedicated in 1072 "to the Holy Mother of God." There is speculation that it means God is a woman - not that it is referring to God’s mother - also an interesting concept. The stained glass windows by a contemporary French artist couple are stunning. These pictures just can’t do them justice.

Ariane recommended a lovely small bistro for lunch where I encountered something completely new for me - beef tongue (well, what did you THINK I meant? You‘re such a juvenile.) It was the special for the day and I asked Ariane if she liked it. I applaud her great effort at keeping the look of revulsion at bay and neutrally commenting that her great aunt would always order it if she saw it on a menu. I figured anything good enough for a French great aunt was good enough for me and ordered away! I LOVE TONGUE (no, now really, stop it…you’re just getting stupid) It was delicious - beefy, tender, cohesive in a perfect kind of texture way. It was served with boiled potatoes and parsley/caper sauce on the side.

The instant I got home, I started on a hunt for a recipe. Not that easy to track down, but I finally found one on the internet, with pictures on how to clean and prepare it for boiling. Chris just wrinkles his nose at it, but I am a convert for life, and like Ariane’s great aunt, will order it wherever I find it. I will post it here if anyone is interested but I can hear you all moanin' and groanin' - eeeuuuuwwwwww!

Sadly, it was time for the Cronces to head home the next day. So we decided to have our farewell dinner at the same little bistro in Vernon. It was a cheery evening and the food was delicious. Again, I was surprised with something I have never tried before - bulot, which is what the French call whelk, a sea snail. They came with Melitta’s shrimp starter, but she was a-scared to try them, so, “give them to Barbara, she’ll eat anything.” You think we've had just a tad too much wine? No was a memorable trip!

Next France episode - a church trippin’ on acid! Tomorrow we head for Florida in the motor home. Yeah! Only three weeks late.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pantry Wars

When you live on a farm, you have to share it with all manner of creatures. Especially as cold weather sets in and little beady eyed, twitchy nose *mices* seek food and shelter in a warm place…like our pantry.
What amuses me is their eclectic taste in pantry goods. One would think dog biscuits would be about it for their gastronomic range. Not so! Not MY *mices*…oh no, MY *mices* are into chocolate (and not the ordinary, cheap Baker’s chocolate…no, they are into the Vahlrona bars that cost about a billion dollars a pound) and the organic almonds. (I even think there are wee teeth marks on the caviar jar lid.) And Remy’s Beggin’ Strips.
A few evenings ago, we were watching the TV after dinner, when we heard a commotion in the kitchen. Sort of like the sound of a ping pong ball bouncing down stairs. What the ??!…. Just then one of wee things scoots across the floor into the pantry. Ah HA…got ya now, you little #&*@#. We arm ourselves with various weapons - rubber gloves, goggles and hip waders are my choice - and throw open the pantry door. As if we had a chance of catching it. Off the wee beastie scampers, leaving behind a Beggin’ Strip bigger than it was. It had dragged (drug? drugged? whatever…) this gargantuan morsel across the kitchen from the dog food closet.
“That’s IT,” declares Chris, channeling his Viking warrior ancestors. “I’m setting a trap!” You think? So I get down off the kitchen counter and go rummage in the Junk Drawer (you have one too, don‘t lie) and pull out this package of *special* traps. A gray plastic device that looks like the hood of a ‘57 Cadillac with a big red “X“ where the varmint will inhale his last whiff of peanut butter. “We could try this, you don‘t have to touch the corpse,” I say.
It’s appropriate to point out here that neither barn kitty Dillon or Number One Son, Spike, even cocked an ear at our escapades in the kitchen…from their comfy lounge chair beds in the family room…by the fire. Dillon declared he is retired and Number One Son had just finished another gargantuan meal and was enjoying his 187th nap of the day.
Days go by. More Beggin’ Strips disappear along with can goods and jars of peanut butter. No corpses. Chris heads for Home Depot for a better mouse trap. Ha! “What’s that?” I ask looking at a small black box Chris is fitting with batteries. “This will get them…it electrocutes them when they thread their way into the bait.” Hmmmmmm. (Bet it was invented by a man, a beer swilling, basement dwelling part-time inventor. Can’t you just picture the AHA moment when his tiny little brain connected the dots…car battery, aligator clamps, stinky cheese and a rusty bait bucket.)
Days go by. Mice figure out how to lick the peanut butter from the OUTSIDE of the box through the “scent holes” placed there to attract them. So Chris builds a barrier of boxes and cans so they can’t get to the “scent holes.” Days go by. No corpses. Sigh.
Determined to uphold his Horn Head tradition (read stubborn Dane here), Chris heads back to Home Depot. He arrives back home with a super, jumbo package of old fashioned wooden Victory traps. That night there is a slaughter in the pantry. SNAP to right of the Beggin’ Strips, SNAP to the left…all night long. Chris’s Viking blood lust has been sated. He dances the Dane version of the Hakka.
It just goes to show you man really hasn’t invented a better mouse trap than the good, ole Victory. Peace reigns once again in Pantryland.

Monday, January 7, 2008

France, Part Deux - A Day in Normandy

Well, I FINALLY got Chris to write something in this Blog! Yeah!

While Barbara was touring the gardens in Giverny, The Cronces and I spent our last day together in France driving north to Normandy. Our plan was to see the allied invasion beaches, Ste-Mere Eglise and Pointe du Hoc. We managed to do all of those things after figuring out how to get through French toll booths (once putting money in the wrong slot, once trying a non functioning credit card and once getting in a “truck only” lane). We don’t talk about that much.

Having a look at a bunker at Pointe du Hoc. Our friend Jay Burke's uncle was one of the US Army Rangers that scaled the cliff on D Day (and thankfully lived to tell the tale).

You can see the artillery shell craters still - it was a hard won day.

The church (eglise) in the village of Ste-Mere Eglise (this is the church tower where Red Buttons character was stuck by his parachute in the movie The Longest Day)

We toured the allied war museum at Ste-Mere Eglise which is where the US 82nd Airborne parachuted into France early in the morning of June 6. A “must see” if you ever get there.

However, the biggest highlight of the day was a town fair where we found the best sausage sandwiches in all of France. Craig had been jonesing for a hit of American comfort food for days. As soon as we stepped from the car, planning to tour the museum, the smell of sausage and onion hit us. Craig was a happy man. After nourishment, we continued on finally ending at Omaha Beach. It’s hard to describe what it must have been like that morning.

The most moving part of the day was a walk through the American cemetery. Eight thousand of our countrymen rest there now. The French government has ceded the land to the United States. If you ever go there, you will never forget it.
Craig and Chris walking
in the cemetary

We finally found our way back home after getting lost a time or two but it was a great day.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ringing in the New Year

This year we were about a dozen. Just perfect. Some neighbors, some new friends and their house guests and some old friends. The party ran the usual course with hors d’oeuvres and drinks in the living room in front of the fire, buffet supper, hugging, kissing and toasting at midnight with champagne followed by dessert.

The evening was especially fun because of the bonhomie among the guests. It was a loud party…my personal measure of successful partydom. Among the revelers were several folks from Britian and Ireland. There was much laughter and story telling, political debating (as in “fooking cow“ - I‘ll leave you to guess the candidate and who uttered the honorific), local gossip and speculation and movie reviews. Discussion about buying the local restaurant and running it as a proper local pub. Well, if you can’t dream about new ventures on New Years Eve, when can you?

In a daring - maybe even foolhardy - step, I decided to make Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert - a classic in the UK. Sometimes I even scare myself. I’ve described my absolute addiction to this dish in the Birthday Weekend blog. I think it went over OK…no one threw up on me anyway.

The main course was Osso Buco. I’ve made this particular recipe several times, but this time I had a new approach. Amy gave me The French Laundry Cookbook for Christmas. I was so excited…my favorite blog focuses on cooking all the recipes in the book. You can find it here. In reading through the book, I have learned some new things about braising, which I applied to the recipe. The improvement was dramatic. (You can find the original recipe from Gourmet magazine here.) Braising at a low temperature, using the parchment to cover the meat like a lid and the care in straining the sauce were new techniques and, as I said, the results were savory beyond belief. Below is my re-work of the original recipe. I served it with peas and carrots with shallots, polenta with rosemary, a green salad and homemade French bread.

Serves 6.

I try to get one shank per person plus a couple extra, whatever that might weigh.

3/4 cup brine-cured green olives, rinsed well, pitted and rough chopped
5 pounds 1 to 1 1/2-inch-thick veal shanks (6 to 8 shanks),
each tied securely with kitchen string to keep meat attached to bone
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium-large onion, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
Red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
fresh lemon zest
1 1/2 tablespoons drained bottled capers
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 1/2 cups homemade chicken or veal stock
Preheat oven to 300°F. [use Bake setting, not Convection]
Pat veal shanks dry between paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Dredge top and bottom (not side) of each shank in flour, knocking off excess. In a 12-inch heavy skillet heat 2 tablespoons oil and butter over moderately high heat until foam subsides and brown tops and bottoms of shanks in batches, about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer shanks as browned to a roasting pan - a pan large enough to hold veal in a single layer is best.
Scatter capers over meat. Grate a teaspoon or so of lemon zest over meat.
Wipe out skillet and add remaining tablespoon oil. Heat oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and cook onion, stirring, until golden. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, rosemary and anchovy and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Spread evenly over the meat.
Deglaze fry pan with white wine. Add stock and bring liquids to a boil.
Pour over shanks to almost cover the meat, adding water if necessary. Cover meat fully with a piece of parchment paper. Braise shanks in oven 4 hours, or until meat is tender. Scatter olives over meat for last 30 minutes of cooking. Keep liquid level up by adding hot water if necessary.
Remove meat from roasting pan. Strain liquid using a fine mesh strainer and several layers of cheesecloth. Discard solids. Reserve 1 cup for reheating the meat. De-fat remaining stock and reduce gently by 1/3, skimming well.
Shanks may be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Bring meat to room temp and stock to simmer on stove top before adding to meat. Reheat all in 350 oven for 30 minutes.