Posts from the “Lifestyle” Category

Schooled

Posted on October 6, 2015

freefrance

 

The past month has been busy, between the work I’ve been doing on my book and the class I’ve been teaching for LSU Continuing Education. I’ve spent the past four weeks talking about the French Resistance with a truly lovely and engaged group of folks. Judging from some of their questions, comments and the like, I suspect there may be a massive run on resistance histories and memoirs over the course of the next week or so. So I am tickled as can be about their interest in the subject and, most importantly, their continued support of my classes. If any of them are reading this now, a big, big thank you for trusting me with your mornings. Until we meet again…

fightersintheshadows Now, part of one’s ability to become a figure worthy of a group’s trust is a willingness to not only admit that one has goofed up, but actually go about the business of fixing one’s blunder. And class, I misspoke yesterday when I said Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows was coming out today. I could say that in my zeal to read this tome, my error was aspirational, i.e. “Dear Lord me, I really hope that Dr. Gildea’s book comes out today because I have been reading so many fantastic reviews about it all over the place, that I just can’t take waiting any longer.” But sadly, the truth is quite simple. This was a case of my very own and very human error. When I went to Amazon to order it this morning, I found that Gildea’s book is not, in fact, out in the United States until November 30. Surely there will be oodles and oodles of more fantastic reviews that will make this wait even more torturous for me and for the others who may have gone online today in search of this bloody thing that their well-meaning instructor told them about in class. Know that you are not suffering in solitude, my friends. May this tome be the gift we give each other this coming holiday season. Vive la Resistance!

In the meantime, I will be reading Patti Smith’s latest memoir M Train because I loved Just Kids oh so very much. Unlike Fighters In The Shadows, M Train actually did come out today.

What are you reading right now? Anything that has captured your imagination? Please let me know what it is and why I can’t live without it in comments.

***

nasaspecialedition

One of the more recent freelance assignments I’ve taken on was for USA Today, which does an annual NASA Special Edition. This is the second consecutive piece I’ve done for them on the agency’s exoplanet research initiatives, which never cease to capture my imagination, especially considering recent reports about the discovery of water on Mars. Is there life out there beyond our planet? The people I’ve talked to for this story are devoting themselves to this question, and it seems we’re getting closer and closer to an answer which very well could be “Yes.”

***

IMG_0903

 See these little nuggets of amazing? They are cocoa sables and I brought a few dozen of them to my class yesterday morning. I live in a household of chocoholics, so when I found the recipe for these cookies in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Tablethey became a pretty beloved sweet (but not too sweet). They’re crumbly and buttery and rich with dark chocolate flavor. They’re just as good served with a cold glass of milk as they are with a nice Malbec.

Here’s the recipe:

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed

1/2 tsp salt

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature

2/3 cup of sugar

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 lb. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (the recipe says this is optional, but I believe it’s a must)

 

1. Whisk the flour, cocoa and salt together.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and smooth. Gradually add the sugar and keep beating, scraping the bowl as needed, until the mixture is creamy, but not airy. Mix in the vanilla.

3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture, little by little, making sure the ingredients are well-incorporated. Then, stir in the chopped chocolate.

4. Scrape the dough onto a cutting board and divide in half. Roll each piece into a log, then wrap the logs in plastic wrap and chill for at least three hours.

5. Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

6. Slice the logs into 1/2-inch thick cookies. Arrange them on the baking sheets, leaving a good amount of space between the rounds.

7. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes. Then transfer the cookies to racks to cool to room temperature.

Enjoy!

Coffee Talk

Posted on August 31, 2015

writer

 

A friend of mine forwarded me this picture over the weekend.

I thought it was funny.

But then I realized I had a deep, dark secret.

Would you like to hear it?

Here goes: I can’t drink coffee like I did when I was younger.

You are full of shock and awe, aren’t you? Because what self-respecting writer can’t guzzle cup after cup of Joe?

(Raises hand sheepishly. Waits for your disapproval and jeers.)

I had a good run, folks. Really, I did. And it was a run fueled by 4-5 cups of coffee a day.

But these days all I can manage is a cup of dark roast (black) in the morning. Anything more than that and you’ll have to peel me off the ceiling. Lionel Richie may be able to dance there, but as a writing space, ceilings just don’t work for me.

Go ahead. Call me Ole One Cup. I won’t mind, especially since i just got “Dancing in the Ceiling” stuck in your head.

You’re welcome, by the way.

The good news is that despite this inability to get my coffee on in the mornings (or even the afternoons), I’ve churned out 20,950 words so far. That’s almost one-quarter of the manuscript that’s due on June 1, 2016. Not all of those words are perfect. But they are down and that’s the most important thing. You cannot revise, refine and rearrange anything unless it is down on paper.

Although I may not know as many baristas as I used to, I’ll take little victories like these when and where I can.

Your turn: Do you have a deep dark secret you’d like to share? If so, what is it? Otherwise, tell me about a little victory you’ve had recently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar

Posted on June 24, 2015

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

I grow a lot of eggplant this time of year.

It’s overwhelming really.

Because eggplant isn’t for everyone.

Or at least it isn’t for everyone in my household. [Ed. note: Unless I trick them into eating it.]

I happen to love it.

But I’ve been looking for new things to do with it. One reason: I have a lot. The other: Our household has had to eliminate dairy and eggs from our diet at least for the near term. So one of my many summer projects involves figuring out how to do this. It’s a little more complicated than I had imagined, but we’re muddling through it.

For now, that means no cheese with my evening glass of wine. [Ed note: I also happen to love cheese.]

Some might feel defeatist about this, but I am not one of those folks. And fortunately, eggplant has stepped in to fill this so-called cocktail hour snack void. One of my favorite French food writers, Clotilde Dusoulier, has a wonderful recipe for Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar in her The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from my Parisian KitchenIt’s a great, savory spread for crackers or flatbread, and Dusoulier says you can even use it in sandwiches or scooped over a bowl of rice.

I am thinking about cheese a little bit less these days, thanks in part to this tangy treat.

Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar

from Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from my Parisian Kitchen

Ingredients:

2 lbs small eggplants

2 garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers (I used a couple more than this)

12 brine-cured black olives, pitted

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

fine sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

hot sauce

Method:

1. Roast the eggplants a few hours in advance or the day before. Use a knife to pierce three or four slits in each eggplant and slip the garlic slivers into the slits. I had trouble doing this, so I roasted the eggplant without the garlic slivers and it still turned out fine.

2. Place the whole eggplants on a lightly oiled baking sheet and insert in a cold oven. Turn oven to 400 degrees and roast the eggplants, flipping them halfway through, until completely soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Set aside to cool completely. If roasting the day before, put the eggplants in an airtight container and refrigerate.

3. Halve the eggplants lengthwise and scoop out the flesh and garlic cloves with a spoon to get as much flesh as possible. It’s okay if a little of the skin comes with it. Put the eggplant and garlic in a food processor or blender.

4. Add the olives, lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, a pinch of salt, a good grind of black pepper and a dash (or two) of hot sauce. Process until very smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Your end result should look something like this (crackers and rose not included):

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

 

Click here for other eggplant recipes from NYT Cooking.

Gnocchis a la Parisienne

Posted on January 27, 2015

One of my favorite scenes from the 2007 animated film “Ratatouille” is when snooty food critic Anton Ego experiences the above Proustian moment. He’s in a Parisian restaurant that has become a huge deal again, thanks in no small part to a street rat with a flair for flavor. Ego doesn’t know the business about the rat yet, which is one of the many reasons why this particular scene is so great.

But that’s not really why I’m writing this post.

I’m writing this post because of a David Lebovitz recipe that inspires the same sort of nostalgic overwhelm that Ego experienced. Lebovitz adapted a friend’s signature “Gnocchis a la Parisienne” dish, which is rich with cheese, Mornay sauce and these little dumplings made from pate a choux.

This is for my mother, who fell in love with the meal when I first made it and has been wanting the recipe ever since.

It is also for my dear friend Michelle, who recently purchased the perfect Le Creuset baking dish in which to make it.

But it’s also for anyone in search of a great go-to dinner full of basic ingredients you probably already have in your pantry or refrigerator.

Are you ready?

Here we go.

Gnocchis a la Parisienne
from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories
Serves 6

Ingredients

For the pate a choux
1 1/4 cups of water
7 tablespoons of unsalted butter; room temperature, cubed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons dry mustard or mustard powder

For the Mornay sauce
5 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole or low-fat milk, warmed
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper
1 3/4 cups Gruyere (or you can substitute Emmenthal or Comte)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. To make the pate a choux, heat the water, butter and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a saucepan over medium heat until the butter is melted. Dump in all the flour at once and stir the mixture briskly for about 2 minutes, until the dough forms a smooth ball. Remove from the heat and scrape the dough into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Lebovitz says if you don’t have a stand mixer, you can leave the dough in the saucepan.) Let the dough sit for 3 minutes, stirring it every so often to release some of the heat. Here’s what it should look like:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

2. With the mixer on medium-high speed, or by hand, add the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next. Add the dry mustard and beat until the dough is completely smooth. Cover with a kitchen towel and set aside. Prior to covering the dough, you should have something looking like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

3. To make the Mornay sauce, melt the butter in the saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, letting the mixture bubble. Stir constantly for 2 minutes, until the paste is thickened. Do not let it brown. Gradually whisk in the milk, beginning slowly and stirring constantly to avoid lumps.

4. Decrease the heat to low and cook the Mornay for 6 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the sauce is about as thick as a milkshake. Remove from heat and add the salt, cayenne, and 1/2 cup of the Gruyere or whatever other Swiss-style cheese you decide to use. Stir until the cheese is melted.

5. Butter a shallow 2 1/2-to 3-quart baking dish. Sprinkle half of the Parmesan over the bottom and sides. Spread 1 cup of Mornay sauce over the bottom of the baking dish like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

6. Line a large dinner plate with a few layers of paper towels. Bring a pot of salted water to a low boil. Either using two soup spoons — one to scoop up some of the dough and the other to scrape it into the boiling water — or a spring-loaded ice cream scoop, scoop up about 1 generous tablespoon of dough and drop it into the water. Working in batches, poach 8 to 10 gnocchi at a time. Let them poach for 2 minutes, then retrieve them from the water and drain them on paper towels. They will not be fully cooked inside. Repeat until all the gnocchi dough is poached.

7. Preheat the oven to 350 F with the oven rack in the top third of the oven.

8. Once the gnocchi are parcooked, place them in a single layer on top of the Mornay in the baking dish, like this:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

9. Then spoon the remaining Mornay over the gnocchi in an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining cheese (both Parmesan and Swiss-style) on top of that.

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

10. Put the dish on a foil-covered baking sheet and then bake for 15 minutes. Then increase the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until the top is well browned. This could probably be browner, but you get the spirit of the thing (and the spirit is pretty delicious):

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

Let cool a few minutes and then serve with a green salad. This is good comfort food, good dinner party food and good family fare that kids will enjoy. It’s become the sort of meal my husband and child ask about if I haven’t made it in a few weeks and I hope you come to enjoy it as much as we do!

Coco the Spy

Posted on December 3, 2014

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

On Monday, French historian Franck Ferrand said that documents locked away in French Ministry of Defense archives since World War II proved without a shadow of a doubt that Coco Chanel spied for the Nazis. Although her affairs with high-ranking German officers have been known about for years, this is the first time a French broadcaster has said that she actually gathered intelligence for occupying forces. Three years ago, American author Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy shed the first light on the story with documents he culled from various archives in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Ferrand spoke in a France 3 documentary called “The Shadow of  a Doubt” and said that Chanel used the code name “Westminster” — a reference to the fling she had with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s — when she passed information to the Abwehr, Adolf Hitler’s secret military intelligence agency. The documentary went on to claim that the designer used her influence with the Germans in an effort to reclaim her perfume business, which had been sold to a Jewish family in 1924.

Ronald C. Rosbottom’s acclaimed history When Paris Went Dark shows how the French faced difficult choices during the Nazi occupation. The France 3 documentary illustrates this further with the information about Chanel. But it also questions the roles of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, whose careers thrived due to Germany’s policy of promoting French popular culture during the war.

It has been a good year for fresh looks at this complicated historical period. France 3’s historical drama “A French Village” has also been acclaimed for the realism with which it depicts Frenchmen during the Occupation. If only I could stream it here in the States…

No-Bake Granola Bars

Posted on November 28, 2014

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

Confession: I have been buying oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit to excess this past year. Of all the fatal flaws a person could have, this is probably not the worst. And yet, my husband has been dropping gentle hints about how maybe I can find something to make with all this stuff…so it will, you know, disappear from the pantry, and (in my mind) make room for more of it, or (in his mind) make room for the homemade beer he is forced to ferment in his office closet.

Domestic bliss, right?

But yes, I have a seeds/nuts/oats/dried fruit problem. It began earlier this year when I had romantic notions about making healthier snacks for the household. It ended (sort of) when I blew up my food processor trying to make some sort of raw candy bar out of cashews, chocolate chips, coconut and I-forget-what-else.

“Is that smoke coming out of the food processor?” my nine year old asked.

“No,” I told her, before sniffing the air and realizing that yes, it was indeed smoke…and…oops…my food processor was no longer working.

So much for those candy bars.

dates

Photo: Paige Bowers

The dream died there, if only for an instant. Ever since that ill-fated evening, I’ve been eating oatmeal and dried fruit and/or nuts and honey for breakfast, which means the unrelenting need to have these products on hand has not ceased (in my mind alone). But today, I decided to go back to this healthy snack idea. I decided to make chewy granola bars. I found a great David Lebovitz recipe on his website and adapted it a little bit to reflect the ridiculous amount of seeds and almonds (slivered and otherwise) that I have in the pantry. After toasting the oats and such and leaving them out to cool, I added dark chocolate chips and chopped dates to the mixture just to keep the flavor simple.

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

Then, I combined almond butter with raw honey and a pinch of salt to create the oozy, chewy sauce that binds it all together.

mixture

Photo: Paige Bowers

I added the sauce to the contents of the picture above, mixing it in with my hands to get it fully incorporated. After that, I smoothed the mixture into a parchment-lined baking pan. This is what it looked like:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

I froze this for thirty minutes, then took it out and sliced it into bars. Mine didn’t look pastry chef perfect, but they tasted fantastic.

Here they are:

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Posted on July 17, 2014

monticello

 

About a month ago, I visited my mother in Virginia for her birthday. Mom is a big Thomas Jefferson buff, and has probably read every single solitary thing ever written about him. So my sister, brother-in-law and I took her down to Charlottesville to visit his home Monticello. As you can see from his tombstone, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for these three accomplishments:

jeffersontombstone

 

I would like to point out that his tombstone says nothing about his gardening prowess, about how he was someone who brought back all manner of interesting vegetables from his travels and exchanged seeds with his neighbors and really lit it up with his green thumbery (a word I just invented to get the snark out of my system).  Although Jefferson was innovative in his garden designs and techniques, he actually messed up a lot of things (just like I do) and, in fact, died in debt because of his storied plots (which I hope not to do).  These facts are deceiving when you look around the grounds of Monticello and see things like this:

monticellogardenvines

 

Or even this:

spanishonion

 

And then you think “Well, why can’t I grow White Spanish onions that get that big and full? Come to think of it, why can’t I grow onions, period?” Hearing the tour guides tell stories about his gardening struggles, you realize Jefferson might have asked himself the same question at some point. And then you kind of like how that little fact brings a certain someone’s favorite founding father down to Earth a wee bit.

Ending thought: I wonder if he struggled with pesky red ants too.

****

My little backyard plot has been producing Ichiban eggplant. I am the only person in my household who will eat eggplant voluntarily, so I’ve been looking for ways to trick the other two folks in this household into eating it too. Otherwise, I will be drawing a lot of uneaten eggplant for the rest of the summer.

Like this:

ichibaneggplantsketch

I found the solution to my eggplant problem Saturday night: Fried eggplant crisps, a small plate on Beausoleil’s dinner menu.

Here’s what you do: You skin the eggplant, then slice it into thin rounds. Then, you prepare three separate bowls, one with flour, the second with an egg white wash, the third with Italian-seasoned Panko bread crumbs. Put the rounds into the egg wash first, then into the flour, then back into the egg wash and then into the Panko crumbs. Fry the rounds in a cast-iron skillet full of hot vegetable oil until they are golden brown. Drain the rounds on paper towels and then season lightly with sea salt. Serve with a tangy marinara.

friedeggplant

****

And finally, web addresses of a few things I liked from this Virginia trip that I think you might like too:

* Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The founding father’s home, gardens and family cemetery are open for tours every day (except Christmas). Visit the web site for more details.

*L’Etoile Restaurant. About 10 minutes from Monticello, the restaurant offers French-Virginian style dining Tuesday-Saturday. The menu showcases fresh and seasonal ingredients, so it is subject to change from time to time. When I visited, they had an excellent hanger steak with roasted potatoes and asparagus, a delicious Korean braised pork belly, and a tender seared duck breast with caramelized local peaches. Definitely worth a visit!

* Riverby Books. My mother is also a big fan of Fredericksburg, Va, so we spent the day there the day after her birthday. She and I both like independently owned bookstores and this one is a new addition to my favorites list. There’s great overstuffed vintage chairs, and an interesting mix of used books, old maps, antiques and other little what-nots.

The Power of Habit

Posted on July 15, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with New York Times-bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, who is finishing a new book about habit formation called Better Than Before. Here is a recent post she wrote that distills the ideas she’ll cover in her book, which comes out in March, 2015.

I interviewed Gretchen because I was working on a forthcoming story about exercise for USA Today‘s Best Years Magazine. The story will give pointers on how to get back into the habit once your kids become more independent or leave home altogether. Although I interviewed several excellent health and wellness experts who could speak to reps and research about how 10 minutes of walking a day will benefit your blood pressure, I thought Gretchen would be a good source about starting a new habit and sticking to it.

Some notes from our conversation that didn’t make it into the final piece:

* She got the idea for Better Than Before while she was working on her blockbuster The Happiness ProjectShe found during her research for that book that people who tried to become happier and succeeded could often point to some sort of habit they developed as the reason for their success. It didn’t take long for her to become “obsessed” with how to change habits.

* If you’re having a hard time starting a positive new habit like exercise, she said it’s important to look at the reasons why. Maybe the gym is located in an inconvenient place with bad parking. Maybe you hate the music they play in the gym. Maybe exercise machines aren’t your thing. “Rather than saying ‘I hate exercise,’ you need to face what it is that’s actually the problem so you can see the solution,” she said. “If you hate loud music, find a place that plays music you like or go for a walk in nature. If you don’t have time to shower after your workout, do some sort of exercise where you don’t sweat.”

* Some people say they want to start a new, healthy habit because people say they should, or because there is some other sort of external expectation. But deep down, they don’t really want to make that sort of change, which makes them feel worse. “You really need to look within and see whether this is something you actually want to do,” she said. “It’s better to say [that this habit is] not a priority than to pretend it is and feel like a failure.”

I hope you’ll look for the piece when it hits newsstands this fall, because Gretchen was a lively and fascinating interviewee. In the meantime, have you ever had trouble starting a new habit? If so, what was the habit and why did you have trouble starting it? What steps did you take to make this habit part of your everyday life? Please let me know in comments.

In the meantime, check out Gretchen’s web site  and visit this link to start a Happiness Project of your own.

 

 

Summer Hours

Posted on July 9, 2014

Photo: Paige Bowers

Photo: Paige Bowers

This blog has had a major case of summer hours for the past two months. It’s partly because of travel, partly because of work and partly because of the usual sweep of family life when school is out of session. Since I last posted, I went to South Florida and (among other things) learned how to cook Greek food, sat in a near-deafening bar in my hometown and watched Miss USA contestants wage karaoke war, and ventured deep into the heart of Texas to discover a treasure trove of European historical manuscripts. I’ve sampled microbrews with my mother in a Northern Virginia RV park (Seriously), bought matching French National Soccer team jerseys with my daughter (oh, la tristesse), and done a fair amount of home improvement projects in this old house, which we moved into a little more than a year ago now.

This list is by means a comprehensive rundown of the past few months. But it does paint a picture, no?

Finally, there is the garden, which is producing plenty of tasty treats. One of the most exciting: Butternut squash, which is pictured above. I tried to grow these in my last garden, but an unexpected frost wiped out all of my plants. This year, I was determined to make sure that didn’t happen. So far…knock wood.

More dispatches to come.