Tag Archives: Travel

Breakfast for Messiaen’s Nephew

Painted in Waterlogue

I had a summer job in a church a long time ago where the pastor had apparently been burned by bad improvisers. “I don’t care what you play,” he said, “but you have to have music in front of you.” I knew he didn’t quite mean that; he would most assuredly have been unhappy with “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” as an offertory. I agreed to do as he wished, though I thought it was a pretty ridiculous restriction. One day, feeling a little cranky about it, I finished the communion hymn and saw that there were still people processing to the altar. I turned the book upside down and, reading the music as if it had been intended that way, slowly and carefully played the same hymn upside down and backwards.

 

 

IMG_0103She came into the kitchen this morning and found a Mason jar of soup, containers of grapes and pretzels, a hard-boiled egg, and her travel mug filled with tea. “Wow, this looks amazing!” she said. “And you don’t know the half of it,” I replied. I gestured to a baking rack on which four chocolate croissants were cooling.

“You…made…chocolate…croissants?!”

“Well, when a guy can’t sleep he has to do something…”

Then I fessed up. I’d slept pretty well. I woke up once, checked on the cat, and wondered if it was time to put the croissants in the oven. The cat was fine; at 4:00 AM, it wasn’t baking time, so I went back to sleep.

“But you baked them.”

Yes. While I was baking cornbread to go with last night’s chili, I opened a package I’d bought at a national market and set some frozen croissants out to rise overnight. I set the oven to start pre-heating 20 minutes before I came downstairs. The croissants looked awful last night: pasty white folds of frozen dough, like sloppily folded comforters for a dollhouse.  Overnight they’d risen beautifully. I brushed them with a little egg-wash, and baked them while I finished breakfast-and-lunch prep and she got ready for work. It was astonishingly simple.

Out of the oven, they looked exactly like I’d hoped they would: beautiful golden brown pain au chocolat. When it was cool enough to handle, I put one in a paper-towel-padded container and asked her to leave the lid off until just getting on the train. (Personally, I wouldn’t have had the willpower to refrain from eating it on the way, but she’s very disciplined. Also, she hates getting crumbs on her clothes.)

One chocolate piece had fallen out of a croissant on the parchment that lined the baking sheet. I tasted it. “Hm. Sweeter than I remember, but still good.”

My memory was of the pain au chocolat I’d had on my trip to France. The chocolate inside the croissants there was fabulously bittersweet. This chip was better than Hershey’s, but that’s not saying much. The ones she’d had on a trip to London probably weren’t authentically French either, but she said these looked just as good.

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Croissant, safely arrived at the office. 

 

There was respectful silence after I finished the hymn-in-retrograde-inversion. The priest stood for the post-communion prayer, looked up to the choir loft, and called my name.

I am so busted, I thought.

“Was that one of yours?” (He knew I’m a composer.)

“Well…it was an arrangement.” I said meekly.

He loosed a contented sigh and smiled at the congregation as if his summer-substitute organist was the grand-nephew of Olivier Messiaen. “Just like Paris, France.”

My croissant was assez bon. The chocolate was sweeter than I’d like, but the pastry was flaky and light-as-air. It wasn’t as good as if I strolled to the patisserie on the corner, but we didn’t have to take a transatlantic flight. Even Messiaen’s nephew couldn’t argue with that.

Painted in Waterlogue

 

Travel

There’s a song we sing at the beginning of every car trip–well, every trip that’s longer than an excursion to the grocery store. The song is from a musical I’ve never seen, based on a Rumor Godden novel I haven’t read, but I love the original cast recording. The song is great fun to sing as we venture down whatever highway is next.

Take me where you want to go, make it anywhere at all…

A weekend jaunt to Paris would be nice.  Christmas in the Bahamas sounds like fun.  A marathon run along the Great Wall of China would certainly be memorable.  But those destinations and a thousand more are still a little out of reach.  We’ve gone to the theatre many times, visited family and friends, and become regulars at Home Depot, but time, energy, and budget have not yet permitted more extravagant travel.

For my birthday, she gave me a subscription to a service called Taste the World.  Every two months for a year, we’ll receive a package that takes us on a virtual-culinary visit to someplace new.  In addition to food, each trip-in-a-box contains recipes, cultural information, and a playlist of appropriate music. Of course we could go to a French or Szechwan or Ethiopian restaurant, but cooking with the ingredients ourselves seems more fun than choosing something from a menu.

The first box arrived. It’s very classy looking, about 8 inches square and 4 inches tall, pale green in a shade that reminds me of Tiffany blue–but maybe I’m thinking of jewelry stores more than usual these days. We opened the box with anticipation. We’re going to Marrakesh!

The box contained organic couscous, orange-peel cookies, tinned sardines, kefta rub, couscous sauce, and culinary Argan oil.

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The accompanying booklet was filled with poetry, beautiful photographs, a link to the on-line playlist, and a few recipes. Oddly, they weren’t recipes that call for the items in the box.

We put the booklet aside, ported the playlist to the stereo, and figured out what to do for dinner.

The couscous was simple enough: toast it in a dry pan, add some boiling water, cover, and wait, then fluff with a fork.

I was a little disappointed in finding pre-made sauce–at first thought, it seemed like using a jar of Ragu to represent a trip to Italy. But there was a time when tomato sauce was exotic to American cooks, so I tempered my expectations and opened the jar. The sauce was sweet, a little smoky, and a little tangy, tomato-based and fairly thin. Pouring it over couscous alone sounded awfully boring, and not much of a main dish.  She doesn’t like sardines–and after my tinned-fish pizza experience, I wasn’t game for them either–so I pulled some chicken out of the fridge and simmered it in the sauce along with a little onion and red pepper.  Chick peas would have been appropriate, too, but we only had dry ones at hand and didn’t want to wait until morning for dinner.  I chopped some spinach and added it, too–there should be greens! She was concerned that it was such a lot of spinach, but it cooked down to almost nothing in no time flat.

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Dinner was great. Was it authentic? I don’t know. We poured a jar of sauce into a pan and cooked some chicken and vegetables in it. We probably had all the ingredients for the sauce in our pantry, though we might not have used them in the same combination. (Without a recipe, who knows?) The couscous tasted like any other couscous I’ve had–microscopic grains of pasta. We didn’t use the kefta rub on the chicken, fearing the sauce would be too spicy. The argan oil will wait for a day when we have flatbread in the house.

The orange cookies were breakfast on Saturday morning. They’re cute little things, looking as much like dog biscuits as treats for people–dense and grainy, made partly from almond flour, faintly sweet and nuttily fragrant, with a piece of candied orange peel in the center. They were fun, served with a ramekin of whipped cream for dipping. I wouldn’t buy them from a market shelf, but they might be fun to make if we had a recipe.

Based on this box, I’m not inclined to call my travel agent and book a trip to Marrakesh. Based on this box, I might not even be really inclined to order a second Taste the World box. But I do look forward to finding out what’s in the next one, and to where we might “go.” And to where we might go.

As the boat says to the river…

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In the Not-Completely-Bleak Midwinter

This has been a long, cold, snowy winter, and the end seems frustratingly out of reach, still.  We’re tired from the extra hours of fuss and worry and the poor quality of light, and sore from shoveling snow and digging out cars and throwing salt.

But I’m so grateful that the only effects of it have been inconvenience and some discomfort for us and the people we love. We’re warm and dry, well fed and well attired. And we seem to be making a real effort to stay connected to one another rather than to hibernate. To find beauty in this winter land (that can so easily become un-wondrous). To laugh and smile and lift one’s spirits. 

“We should go to New Orleans,” she said. I had a rough time picturing her amid the revelry of Mardi Gras. “Of course not!  But a couple of days eating beignets and drinking Hurricanes…”

I’m unconvinced that there would be Hurricanes (plural), however much they seem like “Red Kool-aid, perfect,” but I could be wrong.

I didn’t feel up to the challenge of making beignets, but there were a couple of donuts in the kitchen, the last of a dozen we bought earlier in the week. They were a little old, even for dunking in our cuppas, but they weren’t too far gone for a little transformation.

Donuts Dreaming of New Orleans

Melt 2 tbsp butter in a non-stick skillet.

Slice the slightly-stale old-fashioned donuts through the center. Toast in the pan, cut side first, about three minutes per side.

Warm and soften about 1/2 cup fruit–whatever’s at hand. Berries, maybe, or sliced apples in a little butter and brown sugar.  I had some chunky, well-spiced homemade applesauce, and that was perfect.

Plate the donuts, cut side up; spoon on the fruit; add a dollop of whipped cream; sprinkle on a little cinnamon and grated nutmeg.

Serves two, one of whom may say something extravagantly complimentary.

The omelets we were planning for breakfast became a very late brunch.

She asked how I felt about stuffed peppers.  I like the idea more than the execution; the pepper flesh always seems slimy when baked.  She had an idea. I chopped some vegetables for her, and she did the wonderful rest.

Stuffed Pepper Casserole
(All the Flavor, None of the Slime) 

In a saucepan, add 2-1/2 cups boiling water, 1 tbsp olive oil, and 1 cup white rice.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.  (The rice may seem underdone, and will be a little sticky, but that’s okay.)

In a Dutch oven, brown 3/4 lb. ground beef; season to taste with salt, pepper, worcestershire sauce, and all-purpose seasoning.

Dice 1 onion, 2 ribs of celery, and 1 big bell pepper (2 peppers might be even better.) Trim 1/2 lb. green beans and slice into small pieces.

Push the beef to one side of the Dutch oven, and add vegetables to the other. Sauté until just softened.

Add most of the rice to the Dutch oven, reserving a third of it to make fried rice later in the week. Also add 1-1/2 cups marinara sauce (or a 14-oz can of diced or crushed tomatoes). Mix all together. Cover and bake at 350F for 30 minutes.  While baking, fold some laundry or try on some clearance-special clothes or watch an old game show.

Serves 4—or, at least, two hungry people, with plenty that will be looked forward to for lunches.

Thank you, winter, for being hard, and bringing out some of the best in us.

The Real Thing

We hadn’t expected to see her mother again so soon after her parents began their cross-country motor home odyssey, but the death of an uncle occasioned a quick flight back north.  She met her mom at the airport after work, and they traveled together by bus and train to where I could collect them for dinner, a quiet evening, and a hearty breakfast before the next leg of the journey.

It was a beautiful day for travel, the snow staying, as I prefer it, on tree branches, fields, and roadsides, and leaving the pavement clear. The memorial gathering was as joyous as such a occasion can be, and remarkably stress-free for the new guy who never had the chance to meet the deceased. I like her family a lot, though, and they seem to accept me without question though I’m not officially a relative.  All told–even including the odd quasi-eulogy given by the family friend who talked a lot about her dinner theatre career–it could have been much worse.

Her beloved Nana insisted on taking a bunch of us to dinner afterward.  She’d intended that we go for pizza, but the nearby place she had in mind closed early on a winter weeknight. Her second choice was a well-respected Chinese restaurant that everyone was delighted about; it is apparently the only place to go for Chinese food in the area–which is not to say that there are not other such restaurants, only that this is head and shoulders above the rest.  It was farther away, though.  “Just keep going,” her mom said after one turn, “until you get to Vermont.” It wasn’t quite that far, but my geography is not good.

The Plum Blossom is beautiful, with intricate woodwork at every turn. It might become a Buddhist temple if the kitchen ever closes, though from what I hear there’s no chance of that happening. I’m not sure who designed or fashioned the 10-foot-tall wooden flowers–lotus blossoms, I believe–but I’m not sure the artisan would have been pleased to discover that their bases were used as sites to store bottles of sriracha sauce and the sound system’s remote control.

I have never visited China, nor grew up eating Chinese food. My dad hated it, so I don’t recall tasting it until college. I like it now, though I don’t feel like I know much about it. I have a favorite dish, but I understand that it’s completely inauthentic. Although General Tso was a real person, there’s a TED talk and a feature-length documentary discussing how the dish named for him is completely unknown in his home country. I’ve had versions that I like better than others, but General Tso’s chicken is my default choice.  And it was, of course, on the Plum Blossom’s menu.  Still, I looked further.  In a restaurant this beautiful, it seemed like a better idea to choose something “authentic.” (I want to call the restaurant itself “authentic,” but since I know nothing about what an “authentic” Chinese restaurant might look like; the Plum Blossom might well be the Disney World version.) I’ve never encountered a waiter rolling his eyes at my choice, but I didn’t want to chance it.

I looked past columns of …lo meins and …fried rices and with broccolis and so on, hoping to find something that seemed just right.  There’d been a plate of cabbage-and-carrot salad presented as an amuse-bouche: sweet and spicy and altogether delightful, I considered asking of a bowl of that salad with some extra salad on the side, but thought it might not be the most digestively prudent move. Still, if the kitchen turned out something that appealing, I was sure that I didn’t have to settle for a potential eye-roll.

“Lovers in a Bird’s Nest” was high on a list of Chef’s Specialties. Shrimp, chicken, and many vegetables, in a light sauce, served in a “birds nest” made of shredded potato. This sounded pretty, and like it might be everything I was looking for. I chose it happily, with no buyer’s remorse, even as she chose “Dragon and Phoenix,” a two-entrees-in-one meal that included General Tso’s Chicken.  (Or, perhaps I had no regret because I suspected she’d offer me a taste.)

The wonton soup could not have been better: a rich broth surrounding paper-thin dumplings bursting with matchsticks of beef. I had high hopes. I also had another bite of the cabbage salad.

Lovers in a Bird’s Nest arrived–or, more accurately, Lovers in Birds’ Nests: her Nana chose the same entree, which I considered a good omen since she is a regular at the Plum Blossom. It was lovely.  Maybe not quite as color-corrected as a food stylist might have presented it, but it was certainly appealing.

The snow peas, broccoli, and carrots were crisp-tender.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly–which is to say, not a second more than necessary. But the slices of chicken breast were bland. The light sauce was flavorless–cornstarch and water, maybe? The potato nest was pretty, but any idea I’d had that it was meant to be consumed like a hash-brown was swiftly dispatched after I tried to break off a piece. It might have served as packing material for a piece of expensive electronic equipment.

Meanwhile, to my left, her Dragon and Phoenix arrived.  I’m not sure whether the General Tso’s portion was the Dragon or the Phoenix, but it looked fabulous, nothing like the bright orange versions one might find at the food court. She offered a bite. The shrimp side–whichever of Dragon or Phoenix wasn’t the chicken–looked just like the shrimp in my nest, but, oh, the chicken. It was coated with the thinnest imaginable layer of batter, and meltingly tender. The sauce was sweet, spicy, delicate, and not a bit gloppy.

A completely underwhelming chef’s specialty, side by side with a remarkable execution of a dish that wouldn’t be on the menu at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned from this experience, but I am confident what I’ll order the next time we visit. I hope that visit will be for a happier occasion, but even this trip was not maudlin.  There was much laughter. Good food is good whether or not it is ethnically authentic, and a big family dinner is a celebration whatever the reason for gathering.

A Night at the Not-Quite Disco

I don’t travel all that often, but when I do I try to eat something that I can’t get at home–a local specialty.  Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood has never steered me wrong; in Minneapolis, for instance, it helped me find the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever encountered. But asking those you meet is a good idea, too.

Nobody in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, could agree on what one thing I had to eat before I left. Almost nobody, in fact, had any strong opinions at all. “Cheese curd, I guess,” said one fellow. So, when I stopped for lunch during a little sightseeing trip between rehearsals, I saw them on the menu and asked for a serving.  They’re deep-fried bits of cheese (imagine a solid-cheese Cheeto) served with ranch dressing. If that’s how they’re served, that’s how I’m trying them–though after a couple of bites the combination of buttermilk and cheese was dairy overload. I asked for some cocktail sauce and tried not to notice the waiter looking at me as if I’d grown an extra head. (Tomato, lemon, and horseradish were, to me, the perfect foil for the fried cheese, though to look at that combination in print makes me understand why the waiter looked at me strangely.)

This isn’t a story about Wisconsin, though. There will be lots of stories about Wisconsin, but those for other days.

When I told her about the cheese curd, she said, “Oh, poutine!” It turns out that cheese curds aren’t especially local to Wisconsin; they are part of the national dish of Canada. Poutine is a plate of french fried potatoes topped with cheese curds over which brown gravy is ladled. I have no idea who first came up with this idea, but if it was a customer at a restaurant, I suspect the waiter may have given a little eye-roll.

This isn’t a story about Canada, either. (I’m not sure that she’s ever been to Canada, and I’ve only been there a couple of times–and I’ve never ordered poutine when I was.)

It turns out that there are many versions of poutine, and plenty of them don’t involve cheese curds. I am not so closed-minded as to say I will never try the one that involves feta cheese and vinaigrette dressing, but it’s not high on my list of enthusiasm.

A particularly swanky version of poutine is served at one of her favorite restaurants. Not her favorite spot; as discussed previously, that is not a spot for a pre-theatre bite. Seeing A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Alan Alda and Candice Bergen–our Friday night plan–was a bit of an occasion, so we decided to go her fancy poutine spot.  If our history was any indication, drinks and appetizers would be plenty for dinner.

On Wednesday, as we walked to the train station after work, we realized that it was going to be late enough that we should have dinner before boarding. But not fries, she said. “No, that’s for Friday,” I agreed. “And surely not Disco Fries,” she said. I laughed, trying to imagine fries in a white polyester suit, doing the Hustle under a mirror ball. “You know, American poutine,” she said, and I laughed all the harder her name for the American diner version of a Canadian dish.

We ended up at a diner, with an omelette and a BLT and a chocolate shake in a glass as big as her head–but not Disco Fries.  Which were actually on the menu.  I thought it was a very amusing coincidence until, meeting for coffee with a collaborator at a different diner, I saw Disco Fries listed there, too.

She laughed harder than I had at the thought the she had invented the name.  (She maintains she isn’t that clever, though I know better.) In the Northeast, fries with cheese and gravy are called Disco Fries, though I can’t find an explanation why. Even in this regional variation no sources agree what kind of cheese or gravy is supposed to be used.

Nios’s variation is as lavish as I had been led to understand: excellent fries with shredded mozzarella and julienned strips of pepperoni, sprinkled with chopped parsley, set under a broiler to melt the cheese and crisp the pepperoni, then bathed (but not soaked) with beefy gravy that most decidedly did not come from a can. Salty, crunchy, and rich; with a little salad alongside, and very well-made cocktails, it was a perfect pre-show dinner.

I’ll try Canadian poutine when I have a chance, and I might even take her for cheese curd next time we’re in Wisconsin.  Until then, when fries, cheese, and gravy meet, it will be at Nios. With no disco music.

 

 

 

Road Trip #2

We’re several hours away from beginning an overnight adventure, heading to the state capital for a pair of road races.  Assuming the weather holds, I’ll be running a Half Marathon; she’s entered in the accompanying 5K.  I’d love to be there to cheer for her finish, but–since the races start at the same hour–she’ll be finished while I’m only about a third of the way through the course.  (I owe her one.  Okay, I owe her many.)

The plan is for me to pick her up at the train station after work so we can start our journey right away. It’s a holiday weekend, so the traffic is bound to be thick.  After we arrive and check into our hotel, we’ve got to get to the race registration station to pick up our number bibs for tomorrow morning.  I’d love for us to have a festive dinner at a nice restaurant, but by the time we’re settled, it’ll be late evening, and we’ll be prone to grumpiness or indecisiveness or ordering pizza from whatever place will deliver to our hotel.

Instead, I plan to pack a dine-en-route picnic. I’ll stop at the deli after work and find sandwich fixings: roast beef and something else that looks good (Virginia ham, perhaps, or a Buffalo-spiced turkey.  (Of course, they’ll be cut in half so we can share.)  Provolone cheese, a little muenster.  There’s very fresh lettuce in the crisper, and an assortment of mustards and mayonnaise and horseradish sauce.  Slicing tomatoes are out of season, but that’s probably just as well, as they’d make for very sloppy sandwiches even if I try to wrap them carefully–and I know it won’t be as neatly as she’d do. The object, of course, is to stave off hunger, have something wonderful to eat, and not reach our destination looking like we used our laps for the prep table.

Accompaniments: a baggie of grape tomatoes and sliced red peppers. The best chips I can find. A ginger ale for her, a seltzer for me. There’ll be some chocolate, too, in case we decide not to wait for our destination to source dessert. And moist towelettes.

I will also pack some of her excellent tea and our house-blend coffee for making in our room at the crack of dawn, along with peanut butter and bagels for just-in-case breakfast, and bananas for post-run potassium.

Travel music and fun podcasts on the iPhone. Plastic bags to stow wet running gear. Clothes, of course, but those are already packed.

I still dread the likelihood of a long run on a rainy morning, but the trip and the company will be excellent. Our first grand adventure, long ago, was a road trip to see a musical I’d written. Every trip since has been as much fun, and  this one should be no exception.

Very French, or Nearly So

There was no dinner at the country house last night; we’d gone over the river and through the woods to have lunch with her beloved Nana, and to deliver furniture to a refinishing shop. We stopped for gas on the way home at a dairy store where she worked during college breaks. Dinner, such as it was, was a double-scoop cone for each of us. 

Brunch today, however, was another matter. Open-faced tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on really good bread, sliced hard-cooked eggs over lettuce with a mustard vinaigrette, and an apple-cider donut, sliced and grilled. She had a wide-brimmed mug of sweet, light tea; I had coffee. I discovered that a beach umbrella fit perfectly into the table on the deck and provided just enough shade.  It might not seemed authentic to a Parisian, but brunch on this late August Saturday felt very much like I remember simple meals at homes in the south of France on a trip long ago.

She broke off a big piece of romaine, wrapped half a of a mustardy hard-boiled egg in it, and mmmmmmdd contentedly after taking a bite. “When you serve meals like this, I don’t want them to end,” she said. “I can’t decide what I want the last bite to be.”

That’s compliment enough for any cook.

Some days you grab a bagel on the way out the door. When there's time for a proper breakfast, you take it.

Some days you barely grab a bagel on the way out the door. When there’s time for a proper breakfast, you take it.