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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Cooking Life: Mead All About It

Welcome to Mead All About It, Part One of our Fermented Beverage Series. Go here to read Part Two, Drinking in Danger. 

My husband, Rich, the beekeeper of C'est si Bon! came back yesterday from checking on his hives. "They'll have enough honey to get through the winter."

(Look for an update on their survival of Winter Storm 2017.)

Rich's Bee Suit

That's awesome news! See below for two recipes great to pair with your mead tasting. 

Though its hard to think we won't get to taste the good stuff, by extracting their honey, its far more important to keep the bees well fed with the honey they worked hard to make. It's a complicated issue but basically its about bee preservation.

Connected to the bees is certainly one the oldest fermented beverages known, and one of the most delicious, better known as Mead.

Our "mead to know" level has recently increased. We began years ago with a mead class given by Starrlight Mead, which we visited recently again in preparation for a Taste the Adventure in North Carolina week next summer. 

We've journeyed with our oldest son, Erick, deep into the Colorado Rockies near Pallisades and had our mouths tickled by the fermented mountain honey at Meadery of the Rockies.  

Then, last week as part of Thanksgiving in Asheville, we got to taste mead made with, yes, Avocado Honey. Many more meads are currently in the R & D phase with Wehrloom Honey out of of Robbinsville, NC.

Here's a few other drizzles of info.

Did you know that a mazer is a mead-maker?
Mead was first made by Egyptians and was mentioned in Beowolf.  

But you want to be a mazer, and make your own Mead? Where can you find honey? There are different kinds of mead, but all are made with honey, water and yeast. 

Wildflower honey is used quite often. But might you also consider Butterbean Honey? Bamboo Honey or Radish Honey?Nope, neither had I. But the folks at Beefolks have. And you can order bulk honey from them. 
Just want to nab a few bottles?

Sam's Quik Stop - lots of mead!

Want to also taste?

Starrlight Mead in Pittsboro. Want to make mead? 

Supplies available at the Fifth Season in Carrboro

You'll mead a tutorial on yeast. 
What? All yeast isn't the same? Mead-makers use a wine-makers yeast. Also you'll need to learn about residual sugar and what kind of mead you want to make. Good mead is not really, sweet. Really. 

Class with Starrlight Mead at Eno River

Tasting Tutorial with Starrlight Mead

How to Actually Make Mead. Oh boy. Carboy. 

Two recipes to accompany your flight of mead! 

Barcelona Brittle with Smoked Paprika and Black Pepper Chocolate!

Salade Frisee Lardon with Crispy Duck Confit and Sesame Dressing!

Come back for Part Two of Our Fermented Beverage Series

Friday, April 22, 2016

Teen-Chef Alumni of C'est si Bon! Series: Elijah

Step Up Your Summer in France and Spain with C'est si Bon!

Start Your Own Adventure in Taste Now! 

A huge gift of working with Teen-Chefs is keeping in touch with them, and answering the question where are they now? Today we're going to meet Elijah!

Read the first  post of the series, a bit of the background of how we began with Teen Tours in Provence. Then, please read about Nora and Maya. If intrigued I invite you to join us and Taste the Adventure.

Elijah came to C'est si Bon! from Madison, Wisconsin for a Provence teen tour back in 2006. I have had the good fortune of seeing and catching up with him, recently! He was in Chapel Hill in March to visit his girlfriend, Margo, a UNC Med School student who also house sits for us from time to time. We had a super lovely time going out for lunch at Pizzaria Mercato in Carrboro and then we grilled up some giant fish at the house and reminisced and caught up.

Elijah and Margo, 2016

In 2006 Elijah was adventurous, flexible, a little kooky, loved Provence and Arles, and they him, so much that he returned to Provence for an internship during the summer of 2007 and he also ventured to Chapel Hill and was an intern in C'est si Bon!'s Kid-Chef program for a couple of weeks.

His interests then included eggplant tian, dance, running, theater, and baguettes, but that is simplifying things way too much. Now Elijah was working on his PhD in data analysis regarding astronomy, travels to intergalactic conferences (not exactly...) and determines such quantifiable things as dust and galaxies. He said he uses Python code to do this and patiently explained it to me at Mercato as I looked on in amazement. I was mulling over how I felt the same when my youngest son, Jaryd, tells me all about how he also uses Python code to "rig" a character.

Now that is not enough, on the side Elijah works on projects using data to predict where an Airbnb user will book next. I am glad he is doing this work, because maybe at last someone can tell me where I am going! Included in his other hobbies are woodworking and from time to time he delves into brewing barleywine.

Sweet basil for the grilled fish we made.

Of Elijah's variety of woodworking projects, I am lucky enough to give a home to one magnificent chopping block!

Of his seemingly diverse interests he says - "The common theme amongst all of my endeavors however, is the attention to quality."

Here is Elijah's pre-Provence trip questionnaire in 2006 - we and all the teens answered the questions and then shared the results to get a sense of who we all were!

Hi Dorette,

I found some time to answer your questions!

What languages do you already speak? Where have you traveled?

-I'm learning French and I've been to Ireland

How do you feel about trying new food and new dishes? Are you concerned about foods you haven’t tried but may experience on the trip?

-I love to try new things every day to get more variety in my diet and see what I like so I'm not always obligated to the same food.

Favorite foods now? Favorite baking? Favorite chefs? Do you watch Food TV?

-Right now, baguettes are the best thing in the world to bake and to eat. My favorite chef is Alton Brown and yes I do watch the food network

Tell us a little about the foods of your region. What is your region, what is happening there? If you have moved or originate from a different locale, please share a bit of both.

-For a few years of my childhood in Maine, we mostly ate lobster and cold water fish. Once we moved to Wisconsin, we began eating a lot of corn during the season and plenty of cheese and milk. There's not a lot going on around here, we have an occasional tornado, but nothing more exciting.

How do you prepare for traveling? Do you take care of your own passport or do your parents handle that for you?
-I throw together my baggage the night before and get on the plane while my parents take care of the rest.

How do you feel about bouillabaisse, zuppa de pesce, wild boar, and rabbit?

-I've never heard of bouillabaisee or zuppa de pesce, but it sounds exciting and I can't wait to try new flavors and textures.

Your favorite childhood memory?

-Running through the woods on a rainy day when I was about 7. It was pouring and the trees were beautiful

What do you want most or hope most to learn while on the Provence trip or the Tuscan trip this summer?
What and when French people eat. How they make it mostly. The French know how to cook and I'm looking forward to bringing their knowledge home.

Do you enjoy walks? Prefer city landscape or countryside?

-I'm not much of a lone walker but when I go with somebody it's fine. I don't prefer one over the either, the city brings you plenty of things to think about like: what is that guy going to do? how long did that building take to construct? where's that car going? and it keeps your mind busy. but the countryside is often beautiful, so you can't go wrong there.

What are you reading lately?

-Catch 22, cookbooks, and Great Expectations

Elijah and Maya working on the mussels

Elijah, Maya, Brita, Chef Erick, and Madeleine in the Arles kitchen

Elijah, Brita, Stephanie, and others working on garlic

Provencale lunch after a hike along the Calanques

Getting ready to make pistou with genoese basil

Elijah and Filou, Provencal poodle pooch

Elijah and sunflowers near St Remy
One of Elijah's long-held interests remains, bread! Here is one of his current faves, a no-knead sourdough bread from his blog on a variety of topics.

Merci, Elijah, for spending time with us today and yesterday! We wish you safe travels and hope to see you and Margo soon! 

Eggplant Papeton - Papeton d’Aubergine 
From my colleagues, Madeleine Hill Vedel and Erick Vedel

Another name for the eggplant in Provencal is the mérijanne. tremendously abundant and with so many varieties on the markets of Provence. large and purple, round and violet, egg-shaped and white, tiny and dark maroon. the legend goes that this dish was first prepared for the pope during his time in Avignon in the 15th century. he apparently told his cook that he preferred the food he was served in Italy, from whence he came. the next day, the cook served him a molded dish shaped like the pope’s hat, and when queried, told the pope that it was a papeton (the word for pope in french is ‘pape’).

We can also make a variation of this dish with zucchini.

serves 5-6 persons

preparation time: 10 minutes

cooking time for the eggplant 40 minutes;

cooking time for the papeton 45 minutes - 1 hour

for the papeton

4 eggplant (or 5-6 zucchini)

2 bay leaves

5 eggs

pinch of salt

dribble of olive oil

for the coulis :

5 tomatoes peeled and chopped (the best tomatoes you can find, st. pierres, or vine tomatoes, or ideally, fresh and deep red from your garden)

4 garlic cloves

juice from 1/2 a lemon

a pinch of fine salt

2 tbsp fresh chopped basil

1-2 tbsp olive oil

coarse sea salt to taste

poke the eggplant with a fork and bake whole in the oven for 45 minutes or till a wooden spoon can press it down – till the inside pulp is fully cooked. if using zucchini, peel first and then steam till very tender. (you can also simmer or steam your eggplant with the skins on till tender, and then purée it).

meantime, start your sauce. peel the tomatoes over a stove top flame one by one. this removes only the thinnest outer skin, and leaves all the rich and flavorful flesh from just under the skin intact. once chopped, move them cup by cup into a heavy mortar and pestle and crush them to a pulp.

prepare the garlic: on a small plate, squeeze the lemon juice, sprinkle the pinch of fine salt, take a sharp pronged fork and place the prongs flat on the plate, take a peeled garlic clove (the larger the easier to handle) and scrape it back and forth on the tips of the prongs. you will produce a fine puree that will be lightly cured by the acid of the lemon juice, ideal for cold sauces and salad dressings.

mix together the tomato pulp, the garlic puree, the chopped basil, the olive oil, and the sea salt to taste. place the sauce in the freezer to chill before serving.

remove your eggplant from the oven, let cool a bit till you can handle them, remove the pulp from inside the skins, discard the skins. mash the puree till smooth. (do likewise with the steamed zucchini). then place in a colander to drain excess liquid.

mix the eggs in a bowl with the pinch of salt, add the eggplant (or zucchini) puree. to speed up the cooking process, use a large omelette pan, well greased with olive oil, and “pre-cook” your eggs and eggplant mixture till the texture of very wet scrambled eggs (about 3 minutes, with constant stirring and turning). then put this still soft mixture in a well-greased/non-stick loaf pan (or simply line it with tin foil, dribbling the olive oil on the foil), placed in a water bath of its own, lay 4-5 bay leaves along the bottom and sides of the dish, then pour in the eggplant and egg mixture. place in the oven and bake till browned on top and solid, about 45 minutes - 1 hour.

to serve : remove from its mold and place on an oval or long serving platter and slice. accompany with the cold tomato coulis.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Teen-Chef Alumni of C'est si Bon! Series: Nora!

This is the beginning of our Teen-Chef Alumni Series where we catch up with Teens who have gone with us on various Culinary Travel Adventures, both in North Carolina and abroad in France and Italy, and learn where are they now?

Please visit the post on Elijah and Maya.

Learn more about our current programs in Gascony this summer, 2017, Taste the Adventure. If you are a Teen Chef (all grown up now!) who has been with us, and want to get back in touch, please write me dorette at

Nora was in her teens, and with us for our first Teens in Provence, back in 2005, with our Co-leaders, Madeline and Erick Vedel at Ecole de la Cuisine Provencale.  Madeleine is up to marvelous foibles herself; "French-trained in cheese making and goat herding, developing farm projects in the US, making award-winning cheeses, collaborating with fantastic colleagues, and re-learning how to live in America & be American with my two (very French) teen-age sons."   Read her post about l'affinage in Nimes, France.

Nora, Then. With Madeleine Vedel, making hazelnut chocolate tarts.

Nora, Now.

All of a sudden we're up to now, and it's been a such a pleasure to catch up with Nora.

"I've been quite busy doing lots of different things; leather working crafts, working on farms in the summer, and doing Viking Age Living History in my free time."

Did you say Viking?

"Viking age dishes are usually combinations of fish, lamb, barley or oats, tubers, and fresh herbs like cilantro and mint. They would roast meat by building a fire around a whole animal in a pit."

When she's not doing leather and farm working, she participates with Viking events in North America, the best ones being in Quebec.

For more info and inspiration visit Nora's site at 

Many viking folks she knows are aiming for trips to Viking Markets in Europe; in Denmark, Germany, and Poland.

Nora's leather key chains for an Event

Beautiful Viking Gloves made by Nora"The thumb pieces on the sides of the gloves are free-floating, to provide protection with flexibility. The palms of the gloves are a soft oil-tan leather, very comfy and movable, and easily replaceable if they get damaged."

Simple Summer Dishes 

Camping, Hobbit Style

Hobbit Style Kitchen

Enjoying the sunshine!

"My favorite dish from Provence was definitely the stuffed zucchini, I still make it all the time (usually I stuff it with rice, meat, and maybe cheese). We also do cherry clafoutis quite often." 

Nora, thank you for spending some time with us! We hope you'll keep us posted on your further adventures, and come visit us in NC if you can. 

Stay tuned, who will be up next? Cary, Stephanie, Sarah, Claire, Becca, or ??

Here is the stuffed zucchini we did in Provence

Les Légumes Farcis - Stuffed Vegetables

As Nora says, we learned this dish from Madeleine and Erick Vedel in Arles. The traditional vegetables that we stuffed were tomatoes, bell peppers and zucchini/courgettes. However, you can also stuff onions or mushroom caps or eggplant. This is one of those dishes that can be a side dish of a big meal, or the main course, even a one-dish dinner that pleases well and covers all the bases.

makes 6 servings

for the vegetables
6 tomatoes
3 zucchini/courgettes
3 bell peppers

for the stuffing
50 grams (1/3 cup) cooked rice
200 grams ground meat (turkey/pork/veal or a mixture of any 2)
2 garlic cloves crushed and minced
2 large slices of bread soaked in water
one bouquet fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil

Cut the tops of the tomatoes and put aside for later use. Remove the seeds and juice from the tomatoes, dumping them into the stuffing bowl. Cut the bell peppers in 2 lengthwise and remove and toss the seeds. Slice a millimeter or 3 off each of the bell peppers and chop finely to add to the stuffing. Cut the zucchini/courgettes in 2 lengthwise and core the center with a spoon, adding the center - chopped - to the stuffing. Place the vegetable halves in oven safe platters, open side up.

Take your stuffing bowl, now filled with the chopped bits of all the vegetables you¹re stuffing, and add the ground meat, the chopped garlic, the chopped parsley, the cooked rice, the soaked and strained bread, the salt and pepper. Mix well and then spoon into the vegetables, leaving the peppers for last as they consume the most stuffing.

Dribble the olive oil over the vegetables, pour a little water in the bottom of the platter(s) and place in the oven at 180c (375f) for an hour and 15 minutes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Teen-Chef Alumni Series: And Introducing Taste the Adventure.

Start Your Own Taste Adventure!

As we gear up for this summers' Teen Culinary Program: Taste the Adventure, I thought it would be fun to introduce you to the Teens who joined C'est si Bon! for previous trips to Provence, Paris, Tuscany, the Loire, and Carolina on My Plate, and see where they are now. 

First up is Provence 2005. I want to extend so much gratitude to my colleagues Madeleine and Erick Vedel whose bed and breakfast in Arles, Ecole de la Cuisine Provencale, was our home and cooking school for the duration of the tours from 2005-2008.

Also it is imperative to thank Aileen Randall, my faithful assistant for many years who never faltered, never said she was tired, and who made traveling a breeze, ever flexible, even more fun, and possible to understand all the French around me, and not just guess, as hilarious as that could be. It is a real gift to see her lovely daughter, Stephanie, all "growed up" now, as they say. But more on that soon.

Here is the first group at Le Baux just after a hike, and before our chocolate class with Joel Durand in St. Remy de Provence. Joel now has shops in Paris and Tokyo. His chocolates are legendary, and steeped with the flavors of Provence; olive, lavender, and rose. He was always super, friendly, easygoing, and talented to work with. 

At the rocky outcropping, Les Baux de Provence, looking out over the ruined castle and the village. Front row left to right. - Nora, Claire, Cary, Dorette, and behind us is Sam, Stephanie, Sarah, Becca, Peter, my assistant Aileen, Alexander, and Claudine. 

I am excited to share what they've been up to since 2005!  

Our Provence itineraries varied with visits to Chateau d'If off the coast of Marseille where the Count of Monte Cristo escaped; as well as getting up very early to visit the Fassy Boulangerie about a 20 minute drive from Arles.

If the weather cooperated we always rode the beautiful white horses of the Camargue.

Besides the white horses, the Camargue produces salt, and since 1988, red rice. Surprisingly enough you don't hear too much about the Riz Rouge of the Camargue outside of this region. I looked for a place to order it (go to igourmet and order 12 ounces for 5.99) and learned that it has earned PGI certification, which means Protected Geographic Indication. I also read that they export 90 percent of it, but I have my doubts. And why wouldn't they want to keep it for themselves. I have included a recipe below for stuffed Pintade or Guinea Hen which uses this unusual rice.

We hope to work in a little pony riding through King Henri's forest which is just above the petite village of Poudenas in the "other South" of France this summer. 

Provencale Guinea Hen, Pintade, with Camarguese Rice and Tomato Caper Sauce

This recipe was first developed by Teen-Chef, Anne, for the last night competition in Arles in 2008. I admit it's hard to find pintade, but you can order on-line from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem North Carolina.

one guinea hen: about 2.5-3 pounds

for the farcie, the stuffing:
50 grams black olives, pitted
50 grams green olives, pitted
50 grams dried tomatoes, follow directions if they need to be desalted
1 1/2 cups of cooked red rice of the camargue
1 bunch of parsley
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp of ground green anise, you can also use fennel pollen

Desalt the dried tomatoes in cold water for 6 hours, changing the water 4 times, rinse them and dry then in a clean towel. chop them finely. Finely also chop the olives. chop the parsley. mix these ingredients with the cooked rice; add the green anise and mix it all well. Add the beaten egg to the stuffing. Mix well.

Heat the oven to 375.

White horses walking out to the Camargue. Claire, Penelope, Cary, Sam, Becca, Sarah, Peter, and Dorette

Becca leading the way. Sarah, followed by Peter.

Dorette with the reins. Peter on horseback. Nora talking to him. 

Sam, Claire, Sarah, and Norah

Riding the white horses out towards the rice paddies. 

Stuff the guinea hen with the farcie, and sew the opening closed with a large needle and string.

Roast in a hot oven for 65 minutes or until the internal temp is 165. let the pintade rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing, and arranging on a platter.

Aha, the perfect amount of time to make the sauce!

for the sauce
2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 scallions, thinly sliced
¼ cup green garlic, thinly sliced
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup white wine

Heat a sauce pan on over medium heat, melt butter and when sizzling, add the scallions and green garlic. Sauté till they start to stick to the pan, deglaze with the wine. add the tomatoes, capers, thyme, parsley, zest and juice. cook to desired consistency. taste and correct seasoning, if necessary. Add last tablespoon butter to the sauce and swirl. Serve in a sauceboat and pass with the stuffed guinea hen.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Travel with Me: I was Really Very Nervous to Meet the Apricot Tree

I thought I'd talk a little bit about the different trees in the my upcoming novel, The Way of Psomi, and today let me trace the journey in 2006 to the apricot tree in Provence during one of C'est si Bon!'s Teen Culinary Tours with my assistant Aileen Randall, to Madeline and Erick Vedel's Ecole de la Cuisine Provence in Arles. 

The apricot tree lived on Sophie's land.

Sophie was Madeleine's, and many others as well, beekeeper, and mistress of honey. She sold the honey from her bees in the Arles market. Sophie was vivacious with dark hair, smooth skin, wiry, and strong. A bit wild like you would expect of someone who lives in a house in the middle of the bees and apricots and dogs and cats.

Sophie's house was set in the woods, far away from everything. We bounced down a long unpaved road. This was magic. This was typical. This was Provence.

Lunch with the Teens included Sophie's Green Beans with Mint and Honey Garlic Vinaigrette  and discussions over "what was happening to the bees."

Madeleine and Aileen had discussed the details in French with Sophie, details of heading out to see the tree. They figured it all out. But while they talked I had to figure out a way not to see the tree, not to go through with it, because this was going to be very weird. This apricot tree could never be all that I had imagined. I felt really crazy, to even think about not seeing the tree that I had wanted to see. Turned out it was so close. It wasn't something that would happen years from now. Has something you wanted been presented to you and then you back away from it?

This just wasn't the right time to visit the apricot tree. Summer. Right after lunch. Anyone could see that. But when, my little voice nagged, just when would the right time be?

Sophie, Madeleine and I left the honey house and walked. I scanned the field. Or was it a grove? What do you call the place where apricot trees live? Whatever logic and reason that had been present, left me. I expected the tree to leap out, or glow from a distance. Wasn't that reasonable?

There it is.


Right there.

Couldn't be. It was such a well, very, petite tree. Unassuming, and innocent. Quiet. Oh.

I had so many emotions. At this point in my work, 2006, the apricot tee was a mother figure in the story. I was nervous. I was scared. I wasn't prepared. But I had wanted this. I had hoped for it, but when faced with the actuality of it, I wanted to push it off. What was that about? I had so long imagined it. Written about it. It was very different in reality. 

So. Much. Better. 

Why, bonjour, Abricot. Ca va? I sighed and walked over to touch her branches.

Olives growing near Sophie's. 

Sweet little apricot tree near Sophie's

Approaching Sophie's Bee House

Plating the salad. 

Becca, Sarah, Claire, Peter, Cary, and Stephanie. 
Maybe anchovies aren't for everyone. 

Penelope heading for the piquenique table.

Gilbert, Erick, Sophie, Penelope, Sam, Moi, Claudine

Discussing the plight of bees in Provence. 

Apres dejeuner, siesta pour le chien.

Sophie, Peter, Becca, and Cary

Bees and their Flowers

A little history nearby

Honey Glazed Goat's Cheese with Spiced Apricot Compote
1 goat's cheese camembert, cut into quarters
4 slices of brioche
4 tablespoons local honey

600 g ready-to-eat dried apricots
4 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons muscadet
zest of 1 orange
2 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks

Wash the apricots in warm water and place in a heavy pan with the remaining compote ingredients. cook over a low heat until the apricots have plumped up and the liquid has reduced to a syrup.

Toast the brioche and keep warm.

Place the quarters of goat cheese on a ceramic baking platter and spoon over the honey and grill until the cheese bubbles. to serve, place the goat's cheese on top of the brioche, spoon over the compote and drizzle the plate with the apricot syrup.

Sophies Green Beans with Mint and Honey Garlic Vinaigrette 
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) green beans, ends trimmed, and halved on the bias
1 bunch of fresh mint
honey garlic vinaigrette
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey vinegar
(or cider vinegar with a teaspoon of mild honey)
2 minced garlic cloves

salt and pepper to taste

½ cup fried prosciutto, onions, or anchovies, chopped

Ready a large bowl with ice water, and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Mince garlic and then whisk remaining vinaigrette ingredients together in the bottom of a deep platter or decorative salad bowl you will use for serving. taste and adjust.

Decide about the garnishes, and take the necessary steps.

When hot, add your beans to the boiling water with some of the mint leaves. after a minute or two, remove beans with a bamboo skimmer and plunge into the ice water to shock and stop cooking.

When cooled, drain beans well and toss in the bowl with your vinaigrette.

Snip more fresh mint leaves onto the beans. and add your garnishes, toss and serve.

May be warm or cold.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Read With Me: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

This is the second post for Foodies Read 2016. Here's the first post on the book Vertical by Rex Pickett, author of Sideways. And yes we have a delicious menu at the end; with mushrooms, goat cheese and figs. But not necessarily combined. Foodies, you'll just have to read on!

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino 
is a little weird, utterly fantastic, and surely wild and delightful.

But it's more than a tale about some odd but intelligent guy, Cosimo, who goes off to spend his life hunting in, sowing crops from, and traversing carob, fig, pear, and plum trees in Ombrasa, Italy; its really more about living close to nature, and enlightenment in the age of a philosophic contemporary, Rosseau.

Let's see, where have we heard that theme lately? Where?

I think it's a perfect story for today, and applies whole-heartedly as we entertain wildness and foraging, even like Cosimo did, at the highest levels, no pun intended; such as when Conde Naste Traveler wrote about the world's top hotel's who offer guests, the option to pay big bucks, to forage for a few ingredients for their dinners. In today's world we also wait for tables months in advance at places like Noma where we gladly dine on "green shoots of the season with scallop marinade." Dishes that might be called scavenging if we were left to our own devices!

And so, food runs throughout, and plays a role in Cosimo's journey which begins at lunch one day in early summer.

"It was the fifteenth of June 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the very last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the dining room of our house in Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park. It was midday, the traditional dinner hour followed by our family, though by then most nobles had taken to the fashion set by the sluggard Court of France of dining halfway through the afternoon. A breeze was blowing from the sea, I remember rustling the leaves. Cosimo said, 'I told you I didn't want any, and I don't!' and pushed away his plateful of snails. Never had we seen such disobedience."

Cosimo is definitely a character! I love this guy. He's a hero and a strong-willed young Italian nobleman in the 18th Century and perhaps like many Italian nobleman even in the 21st century, he rebels against parental authority, and against society.

It may seem unlikely that he can pull it off but after his snail refusal he climbs into the trees and stays there for the rest of his life.

Part of the reason he's there is his sister. Purported to be a gifted, if not slightly sadistic, culinarian is Cosimo's sister, Battista.

"She made pate toast of rat liver, grasshopper claws laid out on a tart crust, porcupine cooked until rosy and tender, Or she worked jewelry out of the cauliflower and hares ears, pigs ears, and lobster tongues."

What, that's not exactly yummy?

"On a fig tree, though, as long as he saw to it that a branch could bear his weight, he could move about forever; Cosimo would stand under the pavilion of leaves, watching the sun appear through the network of twigs and branches, the gradual swell of the green fruit, smelling the scent of flowers budding in the stalks. The fig tree seemed to absorb him, permeate him with its gummy texture and the buzz of hornets; after a little Cosimo would begin to feel he was becoming a fig tree himself, and move away, uneasy."

But how did Cosimo survive in the trees; did he only eat fruit and nuts; Euell Gibboning his way to heaven?

"In fact he did everything in the trees. He had found a way to roast the game he caught on spit; without ever coming down. This is what he did; he would light a pine cone with a flint and throw it to the ground on a spot already arranged for fire (I had set this up, with some smooth stones); then he would drop twigs and dried branches on it regulating the flame with a poker tied on a long stick in such a way that it reached the spit, which was hanging from two branches. All this called for great care, as it is easy to start a fire in the trees."

And is it not perfectly preferable to quaff one's thirst with a bit of goat milk? And have fresh laid eggs? Of course, Cosimo knows the answer. It is.

"He made friends with a goat, which would climb up the fork of an olive tree a foot or two from the ground; but it did not really climb up, it just put its two rear hoofs up, so that he could come down into the fork with a pail and milk it."

"He had made a similar arrangement with a chicken, a red Paduan, a very good layer. He had made a secret nest in the hole of a trunk, and on alternate days he would find an egg, which he drank after making two holes in it with a pin."

As Cosimo ages, he climbs higher and higher in the trees, until one day, barely still alive, he grabs hold of a balloon's anchor rope and escapes into the sky!

And that's the last we see of him. What he's left us with, or me anyway, is the wonder of life.

Cosimo, here's a dinner I created with you in mind.

Oyster Mushroom Straciatella

made in one pot, this soup is a wonderful way to warm up to the meal and impending conversations. both while making it in the kitchen and eating it at the table.

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
6 dried mushrooms, reconstituted and coarsely chopped
3 cups oyster mushrooms, or your choice, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 sweet bell peppers, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup each fresh parsley and basil
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 eggs
2 tablespoons fresh grated romano cheese
1 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed soup kettle over medium heat. add the garlic, onions, carrots, celery, peppers, and fresh mushrooms. 

Saute these, stirring and tossing, for 7-8 minutes, or until softened. pour in the white wine and scrape up any browned bits of vegetables. 

Add the dried mushrooms, their liquid and stock or water and bring to a boil. 

Simmer for 40-50 minutes. stir in the cream. in a separate bowl beat the three eggs and add to the simmering soup, continue to heat over medium for a minute or two, till the eggs cook. remove from heat, transfer to a tureen or serve right from the stove. Top each bowl with some of the grated cheese and the fresh chopped parsley.

Frittata of Spring Greens with Goat Cheese

This is a perfect dish because it can be so very flexible. And ready quickly. Like spring? Warm one dang minute, and icy the next. Love spinach? No problem. Kale? Swiss Chard? Cheese, too? Put it all in there. The finished frittata is pretty, but rustic, and ready for your fork. Serve warm or cold.

Serves 8 as a first course, or 4 as an entree

6 chicken eggs or 3 duck eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoon fresh herbs, chopped (save a bit for garnish)
½ teaspoon sea salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper
a glug of olive oil
1 large bunch or a mix of spinach, chard, kale, mustard greens, and tat soi, washed and chiffonaded
2 green garlic or scallions, sliced thin
½ cup, soft fresh goat cheese, we like Prodigal Farm or Celebrity Dairy

Break the eggs in a bowl and add salt and pepper, using a whisk or a simple kitchen fork and mix well with the fresh herbs.

Prepare the greens as per chef’s instructions.

Heat a large heavy skillet such as a cast iron pan, over medium, till hot. Add olive oil and when hot add green garlic, sauté for one minute, and then add the greens. Sauté till just bright green.

Raise heat to medium high.

Add egg mixture to very hot pan. Using a fork stir the eggs in a circular motion towards the center, eggs will cook very quickly. Push down any ingredients with a fork, and reduce heat. Cover with a lid, keeping heat on medium.

When completely cooked, add the cheese, and slide off onto a pretty round plate.

Serve warm and garnish with a few chopped herbs and, a fork.

Fig and Walnut Biscotti

1 ½ cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup walnut halves
2/3 cup coarsely chopped dried figs
1 stick butter, melted
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 egg for egg wash
Heat the oven to 375°f.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon, salt, walnuts and figs. stir until blended. 

Add the melted butter. then the 2 eggs and vanilla. Stir with a wooden spoon. turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. knead until dough is blended.

Divide dough in half. roll into two loaves, about 12 inches long. place the loaves on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, spacing them 3 inches apart.

In a small bowl, beat remaining egg with a fork. using a pastry brush, brush the beaten egg on top of the fig and walnut loaves.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Remove from the oven. Carefully remove hot fig and walnut loaves from the cookie sheet and place on a cutting board. while warm, slice the loaves diagonally into ½-inch-wide slices.

Place slices in a single layer on the cookie sheet. return to oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. remove cookies sheet from the oven. cool fig and walnut toasted biscotti on wire cooling rack. store in an airtight container.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Read With Me: Review of Vertical, plus a little Sideways excursion

Back in the beginning of January I signed up for the Foodies Read Challenge. Read that post here.

Vertical, a Novel by Rex Pickett, was my first pick.

Vertical, The Follow-Up Novel to Sideways

This post took a long time to write. It's more than a review of the book, it's also about a trip we took while in California visiting our son and his girlfriend for the holidays to visit the locations in the film, Sideways. I wanted this post to be succinct. Thoughtful. Not too wordy. And above all, I didn't want to wine. :)

Not sure if I totally succeeded, but I hope Foodies Read 2016 will find a few morsels to digest here, especially if you like the film, Sideways? It's one of my all-time favorite films, and as I say, the hubster and I were recently knee deep in a post Christmas lull in sunny SoCal, we went, uh, decidedly Sideways.

What was it really like there in Sideways land? Fascinating. Delicious. And a little surreal.

I looked up where and when the filming took place - in the fall of 2003, and the release of the film in 2004, a whole 12 years ago. I printed out the Sideways itinerary from the Santa Barbara site and we set our sights on the road trip adventure. For me, I love Miles, Maya, and Stephanie. They're all very unique. Very human. Very believable, and Jack too, even if he wasn't my fave. I love to not like him. So you're welcome to take Jack and his plight. Yes, please, take him.

As a writer myself, I'm always curious to get the inside scoop. How did the film became the icon it did? I read about the author of the novel, Sideways, Rex Pickett. After a few paragraphs I learned about his journey of writing, and ultimately selling the novel; but only after it had been turned down 78 times, and garnered a modest $5,000 and even then only after it had been green-lit to being filmed.

How did Mr Pickett feel about that? The film made a boat load of money. Did he see any of it? I also got more curious about his follow-up novel, called Vertical, as I had followed the news of whether it would, or wouldn't, be made into a film as well. I quickly kindled Vertical but didn't begin reading it till we had completed our Sideways adventure in Buellton, Los Olivos, Solvang, Santa Maria, and the Santa Ynez Wine Valley. And I'm glad that I didn't. Really glad. If I had, it would have greatly impacted our little Sideways nostalgia trip. Vertical is nothing like Sideways. Nothing!

The view out the window is much better than the view of the 
breakfast bar at the Windmill Days Inn in Buellton. Trust me.

The Windmill, the Sideways Motel.

We motored north through Santa Barbara, and turned off at Buellton. It would have been impossible to follow google maps instructions and turn left into the oncoming traffic and onto the little side road just before the Shell station.

Would the Sideways hotel look as I imagined?

Just then the hotel appeared. I'll be honest, the windmill startled me - it was large. I expected to see Don Quixote and Pancho Villa round the corner. My initial reaction and sigh was by far the best part of the whole experience. Inside the motel rooms were really shoddy, and, the breakfast was horrendous, I can't even bear to go into it. It might have been just as well if the Windmill Days Inn had lifted up and spun away across the Santa Ynez Valley, ala The Wizard of Oz. I sure didn't think any of our cast would appear. Not Miles, Maya or Stephanie. Or even Jack.

But it was great great fun to visit many of Sideways spots and quaff wine where Miles and gum-chewing Jack had.

We made it just in time to swirl wine in Los Olivos at Artiste Winery and Tasting Studio and Carhardt Winery's Tasting Room, but missed having dinner at the Los Olivos Cafe. Again, too packed.

We tried to get in the Hitching Post, the restaurant where Maya waited tables, and in the film it seemed to be a nice little walk from the Windmill. Not so at all. We likely would have been pummeled like a bunch of merlot grapes if we had tried. Was the place so packed because it was only a few days before New Year's? Again, apparently not. The place, so they say, is almost always teeming with people; since Sideways. So we went to the Firestone Walker Brewing Taproom instead.

The next morning we ate an aebelskiver in the quirky and ever so Danish Solvang Restaurant where Miles and Jack had their tense breakfast over what was going to happen on the trip.

The Solvang Restaurant

So even 12 years later, the Santa Ynez Valley is still feeling the effects, some good and some not so good, from the movie, and as we followed the film itinerary we made some additional yummy discoveries, like a great breakfast at Jovi's Delights in Santa Maria, and the most amazing selections of fromage at the Santa Ynez Cheese Company, and an appetizer at the Succulent Cafe in Solvang.

I'd happily take Miles and Maya and Steph to any of these if they ever pop out of their parallel universe; which I'm betting begins somewhere near Blackjack Ranch. Or Foxen Winery. Ok, maybe Jack, too.

Here is a great page that talks about all the Wines in the film.

One of my posts on Instagram. Follow me @ Madamelevain.

Once back in Glendale I was so obsessed that I started fantasizing about writing a spin-off to Sideways, one that asked the "what if" question of whether Jack, Miles, Maya, and Steph could step out of their parallel universe and up to the plate to turn back the clock and solve the problem of California's drought.

But luckily for everyone, I started reading the follow-up novel, Vertical, instead. Yes finally we're going to talk about that.

The basic plot of Vertical is another road trip, and not only does Miles team up again with his cad-like compadre Jack, but he has also sprung his paralytic mother, Phyllis from her rest home, and stolen back her dog, Snapper, from a former girlfriend; with the ultimate plan to take them both back to Sheboygan, Wisconsin to live with Phyllis's sister, Alice, who loves making pot-roast. If you did actually took your mom out of the rest home, would you only get a phone call? I would have thought this was kid-napping, or mom-napping, but what do I know?

Riding side-saddle to Phyllis is Joy, her Filipina caretaker addicted to Med-Mary. This unlikely bunch lurches in a rented wheelchair accessible ramp-van towards the International Pinot Noir Celebration, yes it's a real celebration, shall we go? in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where Miles is the MC.

There were times I felt weary and disgusted and nauseous as the first 2/3's of the story is decidedly one note. Sex and alcohol and debauchery is a major theme, a muscle that was way overworked to the point that Jack ends up in the ER because he is unschooled about Viagra, and thinks in his inebriated state that more is mo better. But he learns that more is painfully, way too much! It's not that I'm a prude, I am a chef after all, but there was very little complexity involved, and the narrow arc of the characters almost broke my patience for a good story. The quartet hurl north in the rampvan while uncorking and drinking the most elegant of Pinot's - except for Phyllis who is addicted to Chardonnay - and Joy who takes her tokes very seriously. But the wine seems more like product placements, ho hum, and I quickly lost what appreciation I once had for Miles' affinity and identity as the elusive grape, Pinot Noir, which Sideways catapulted to stardom. Fame and stardom are no good, which is a recurring theme.

I thought about Christopher "story guru" Vogler's adage:

“I realized that the good stories were affecting the organs of my body in various ways, and the really good ones were stimulating more than one organ. An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips.”

Now Miles and Jack had plenty of organs being stimulated, but please believe me when I say that it was my stomach that turned over again and again as they consumed bottle after bottle of fine wine. This couldn't be the same Miles who had proclaimed his insignificance in Sideways with the now famous line:

"I'm a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage."

(Interested in a bit of Sideways trivia? Bukowski didn't write that, Rex Pickett, the author, did.)

Miles, baby, in most of Vertical, yes, this is what you have become, a smudge of excrement. But the pull of Sideways is so strong for me, that Miles is not someone I can hate. But for the first part of Vertical, I was bitterly, I say bitterly! disappointed. Then came the last third of the novel when the Miles I love returns; and the story is about a son and his dying mother. There was meat on those bones. Something for me to digest and my nausea left me.

So is Vertical about the American dream; fame and fortune? If so, then fame and fortune are a pair of screaming monkeys on Miles' back. I suppose this has always been true. Why did I expect so much from Miles? In Vertical, people were expecting a lot from Miles, too. It seemed no matter what he did, that he couldn't disappoint them, because they weren't really seeing him. He could stand up and pour a spit bucket over his head, aka the scene in Sideways at Foxen Winery, and people would cheer. He could say the most asinine things. and the crowd would cheer. Maybe Miles never really believed that he had made it. Never really felt like he deserved his success.

And maybe Rex Pickett felt somehow that Vertical was his screw you to the millions of fans who loved Sideways, because he had not really been recognized for the novel, from which the film Sideways was made. There is a backstory to that "transaction." I wanted to tell Rex/Miles that he didn't have to perform like a circus bear. Look how far he had fallen. It made me wonder if three worlds have been blurred in Vertical; the novel, the film, and true life?

In Vertical, the novel that supposedly made Miles famous is called Shameless. But as we know, in Sideways Miles wasn't trying to sell a novel about his road trip with Jack, the novel that didn't sell, was an existential one about his father's death. In Vertical, the story seems to be that now Miles has become what he wrote, and made famous, Shameless.

In Sideways, I love Miles, he is my hero. I recognize him. I know him. His pain, his struggle. But now this Miles. has changed his game. He is the one, not Jack as in Sideways, leading the chase; sucking down great gulps of the fame and notoriety that has bought him the attentions of willing women, that was so fleeting before. Of course this led to my having to adjust MY attitude as the women were also a big part of this, they were the ones throwing themselves at him. I wanted Miles to show us, teach us, and these women, that he was a bigger man, and not in a Viagra sort of way, but that there was a deeper and better response to fame than to be a puppet in the scripted dog and pony show.

Now to be sure Sideways had its unsavory moments as I mentioned above - as part of the story is Jack's approach - his Sideways approach? - to getting married. But Jack's plight was something he believed in. And in Vertical we see how that panned out for him. He's still struggling with it, is getting a divorce, and must deal with guilt over seeing/not seeing his young son.

What about the women? The women of Sideways are visited in Vertical, but given short shrift. Steph is rumored to now be a hooker in Vegas. Really, the Steph who broke Jack's nose with a bicycle helmet has sunk so low as to become a hooker? Maya has one scene where she is bitter about her and Miles' relationship. I don't know about you, but this is not the Maya who we see at the end of Sideways when Miles knocks on her door, I felt so much hope about her opening the door to the future, and I often wondered where they might be now.

For me, that Miles and Maya, are still there.

And yes, there is a next book in the series, Chile 3, which I'll read. But first, maybe I'll go back and read the novel, Sideways. Or should I save that for last? I guess I feel a little like a Star Wars fan in that regard. I have to see if Miles ever makes it to Barcelona to see his "one true love" Laura. And has he maintained his redemption that he worked so hard for at the end of Vertical? But then I have to wonder, what kind of story would that make?

But since this is a Foodie Reads review, here are a few Foodie moments.

"Scampi. Pickled Olives. Smoked paprika. Saffron. Seafood. Paella. I make an amazing Paella," says Laura, from Barcelona, to Miles in the middle of their love-making.

"Bring her the Australian lobster tails," Miles orders for Joy at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Fresno. But Joy is not as interested in food as in smoking. Which kind of goes against everything I thought I knew. :)

Phyllis, does like to eat out and often, and before dinner arrives at Fleming's she explains why. "All I ever did was cook, cook, cook, we never went out. And when we did it was pizza. That's what killed your father, all that damn pizza."

At Tina's in Dundee, Oregon - "the eclectic offerings included seafood, lamb, duck, steak, rabbit, and a wild mushroom risotto."

Phyllis also waxes on about Sunday night suppers when she was growing up in Sheboygan. We revisit some of those memories in the last part of the book.

Also towards the end of the book Miles and his mom go to the Blue Lake Resort on the shores of Lake Michigan and order seafood salads and a Chardonnay "which for a moment the wine affording her a lift that in her words made her, 'fly like the angels.' " There is a Blue Lake Resort in Michigan, but it doesn't have a restaurant.

Back at Phyllis's sister, Alice's place, a pot roast dinner waits with all the trimmings.

A poignant moment is when Jack returns with Snapper, Phyllis's dog, and since Miles has quit drinking, he and Jack no longer have anything in common. Without alcohol, their relationship has dried up.

After visiting the Santa Ynez Cheese Factory we spied a BBQ place, but they were closing and we were directed back to the Hitching Post as the best BBQ in the area. You might know, or you might not, that in California BBQ means that the meat (or sometimes vegetables like artichokes) is grilled over a red oak fire. There is no sauce a'tall.

Artichokes, Before Roasting

Here is the Hitching Post 2's owner, Frank Ostini.'s recipe!

Artichokes with Smoked Ancho Chile Mayonnaise by Frank Ostini

I revised this because it was snowing and there was no grilling to be had. Roasting was the ticket.

4 large globe artichokes

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup Hitching Post Smoked Tomato Pesto*

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Trim artichokes with scissors to remove leaves' sharp edges. Bring 1 to 2 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Add artichokes, and steam 30 minutes or until inside leaves and heart are tender. Drain and cool slightly.

Oven-Roasted Artichokes

Cut each artichoke in half. Snip around fuzzy thistle (choke), and remove with a spoon. Grill artichoke halves 8 to 10 minutes or until hot, basting with butter and sprinkling with salt and pepper. Combine pesto and mayonnaise in a small bowl; serve on the side.

Smoked Ancho Chile Mayonnaise, almost

the roasted artichokes, dechoked, and filled with yumminess

*Note: You can purchase the Smoked Tomato Pesto at Hitching Post 2. To make a similar version, combine 1 teaspoon chopped chipotle pepper in adobo sauce and 1 tablespoon minced sun-dried tomatoes in oil.
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