22 August 2014

Season of the Witch Finger Grape

Witch Finger Grapes
I've had a hankering for chicken salad with onions, walnuts and grapes. Served chilled, it's one of my favorite summer salads. A dash of cinnamon and thyme adds layers of taste. It's great served with popovers or even muffins.

I ran across these odd-shaped grapes at the supermarket yesterday and the sample I tried from the woman who was promoting them was juicy and sweet - and seedless.


These elongated grapes are hybrids, as you've probably guessed, a hand-pollinated marriage of American cultivar developed by the University Of Arkansas Division Of Agriculture and a Mediterranean variety. They are grown in Bakersfield, Cal., and sold at farm markets in California and distributed to supermarkets nationwide. That didn't stop me from buying them: I eat local about 75 percent of the time in summer, anyway. And this hasn't been the best growing season, as local farmers will tell you. Plus, you can't find grapes at local farm markets.

Speaking of summer, apparently that's the only time you can buy Witch's Finger grapes. Too bad, because they would be a healthy treat for a kids' Halloween party, given their resemblance to an old hag's wizened claw.

Here's how I used mine:
  • 1 chilled roasted chicken breast, white meat cut into chunks
  • 1 medium sweet onion
  • 2 cups Witch's Finger, or other seedless red grape
  • 1 Tablespoon green pepper, minced
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (or Tablespoon fresh, chopped)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Combine chicken, onion and grapes. Add mayo and walnuts. Blend. Add seasonings. Serves two.

You can substitute any kind of seedless grape, red or green, and almonds instead of walnuts. Optional additions include celery, chevre, or even blue cheese.


21 August 2014

Throwback Thursday: Bleu d'Auvergne Cheese

Bleu d'Auvergne Cheese, Cahors 2008
A few weeks ago my husband and I had lunch at a local restaurant known for its views of the water and daily specials. We both chose a salad with apples, walnuts and dried cherries that sound good but was in reality overly sweet and well, a little wimpy.

We were disappointed.

A salad combining lettuce and fruit demands a bold counterpart like blue cheese or a savory pairing like bacon to bring out its full flavor.

Bleu d'Auvergne, a relatively new French cheese with roots in the 1850s, is robust and pungent, but creamier and less salty than other blue cheeses. As its name suggests, it originates in the Auvergne, a region of south central France just northeast of the Midi-Pyrnees. When I last visited the latter region, I purchased my first wedge (above).

I used my Bleu d'Auvergne in a salad of regional walnuts and apples, purchased at the market in Cahors. I served it with a main dish of chicken roasted with onions and rosemary and a glass of pear cider, although I understand it also mates well with the black wine of Cahors, which was also an option.

Learn more about Bleu d'Auvergne here and here. I buy it whenever I find it, which is not very often, sad to say, unless I happen to stumble upon a cheese shop that sells something other than Wisconsin cheese.

19 August 2014

Fresh, Fast and Frugal: Sautéed Corn with Onions

Sautéed Corn with Onions

One of the vendors at the farm market shared this simple recipe with me and I was eager to try it.

Sautéed Corn with Onions (serves 4)

  • 1 medium union, minced or chopped
  • 4 ears of corn, kernels removed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon cooking oil
  • salt and pepper

Once the corn has been husked and washed, remove the kernels using a knife or a tool like this or this, and set aside.

Chop or mince a fresh onion. Melt butter and oil in a shallow pan over medium heat. Add onion and toss until it begins to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Next add corn and sauté for another 3-4 minutes. Season.

The vendor told me to add cream toward the end if my corn was less than fresh. But there was no need to; I'll try that another time.

I loved the way my kitchen smelled as I was preparing this side dish. I'd serve it with fresh-caught whitefish, or maybe with steaks from the grill.

I never knew how delicious sautéed corn could be! It has a roasted flavor, which I think suits this lovely golden season of waning summer. The days are dwindling down, but this simple side dish will carry us into September.




17 August 2014

Meatless Monday: Julia Child's Grated Zucchini with Shallots

Julia Child's Grated Zucchini with Shallots and Butter

Marking the anniversary of the birth of Julia McWilliams Child is almost a food blogging must-do, and late developer that I am, I am doing it a few days after her actual birthday, which was last Friday, Aug. 15.

I'm not sure how I stumbled across this recipe, probably on Facebook, but it sounded perfect for Sunday supper, always a laid-back meal at our house.

And it was. I've never tasted such delicious zucchini, a vegetable that falls into the "blank canvas" category for me, along with chicken, pasta, potatoes and eggplant. In other words, zucchini is a mild tasting food that can be prepared in a variety of ways.

I think Julia's method may well be the best. Ever.

Here's how I did it:
  • 3 small shallots, peeled and minced
  • 2 medium zucchinis, unpeeled and grated
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • sea salt and ground pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon Parmesan Cheese, grated

Simply brown the onions for 3-4 minutes in oil and butter over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini, and brown for another 4-6 minutes, lowering the heat slightly. Again, stir frequently.

I added a small amount of Parmesan at the end, simply because I wanted to recycle the nearly-empty container. The Food Network Recipe Link offers more variations. I'm going to try the added cream next time.

I served my - or rather Julia's - zucchini with a cobbled-together rotini, ham and tomato dish for an inexpensive but tasty end to the weekend.

16 August 2014

Sunday in Frenchtown: The Old House

My great-grandparents and their children, on the balcony.
Welcome to Frenchtown, tucked away along the river on the west side of town, home to many of my hometown's French Canadian immigrant families in the late 1800s.

The building above was likely built when the area was subdivided in 1863, and enlarged over the years. My grandparents moved in after their marriage in 1883, and raised their five surviving children, plus my great-grandmother's daughter from her first marriage, in the six-room flat above the store.

They took out numerous mortgages over the years, and it appears the structure was remodeled in about 1914. That was around the time my grandmother, a middle daughter, moved into the now-closed general store area with her husband and young daughters, my older aunts.

In 1930, the building was converted into a family home, and it received additional updates in 1960. The photo below was taken about 1954. At that time, the third generation, my grandmother's daughters and nieces were chatting on the front steps after Ascension Thursday mass, with Grandma Annie leaning against a pillar.

The old house in 1954, taken from the southeast side.

In the intervening years, the house became a focal point for holidays and family gatherings, most notably summer stays with Grandma Annie and Réveillon Open Houses on Christmas Eve. Finally in 2003 with Grandma Annie gone for more than two decades and a maiden aunt  living their alone, it was sold to a loving family who carefully gave the building its most massive rehab ever, converting a two-flat structure into a one-family home. My siblings and I couldn't be happier. The house has entered its third century under good stewardship. The owner tells me she feels friendly vibes there. That would be Grandma Annie and her parents; they loved that house.

I have my own house to love, also built in the 19th century, but I drive past the old house when I need a boost. It's sacred to me now, the simple clapboard structure.

15 August 2014

Sweating the Eggplant (How to Remove Bitterness)

First eggplant of the season

I am pleased as punch that I have harvested my first eggplant of the season, a purple-and-white striped variety which will probably find its way into roasted ratatouille by this time on Saturday.

It is likely I will have at least a half dozen more in about a month or so, if the weather holds and the critters stay away.

For me, eggplant is comfort food, not unlike mashed potatoes or rice. In fact, eggplant make a great substitute for those easy-on-the-tummy, but oh-so-carby side dishes. Somewhere, perhaps Milwaukee or Madison, I once tasted a classic Moussaka with eggplant that was quite literally, heaven on a plate.

This little baby is just the right size for a single-serving of ratatouille.

But first, it must sweat.

That is, I must cut it into fairly small pieces, salt it heavily, and allow the salt to do its job for about two hours, which is to remove moisture and hence, a great deal of eggplant's customary bitterness.

The eggplant will darken, but the moisture will be extracted. You can actually rinse it and then pat it try with a paper towel, or allow it to sit on a paper towel and air dry before using it in your ratatouille or other dish.

It's that easy. You can also place the salted eggplant in a colander, and place the colander in a larger dish and allow the moisture to drip out.

I have also added herbs de provence to my salt, and allowed the eggplant to absorb the taste. It seems I now have a surplus of my favorite herb mix, so I can use it liberally.

Looking forward to that ratatouille...