30 August 2009


I just love Nigel Slater, don’t you? I mean, not in a stalker sort of way; rather, in a bloggy sort of way. From afar. From the kitchen, to be exact. His cookbooks are currently my favorites. (NOTE: International Truth in Blogging rules compel me to specify that I can be fickle when it comes to cookbooks. But Nigel is always near the top of my list) I love his no-nonsense approach to cooking: You’re just making something to eat. I also love that he tells us how to do something and then tells us variations on that.

My favorite of his books to date is Kitchen Diaries. Over the course of a year, Nigel tells us what he’s cooking. Not every day, but about three times a week. He speaks about his garden and what’s ripe and what he does with it. He has company and worries a little but not too much about what to serve. He makes wonderful food that I’d like to eat (Nigel: I’m normally available on Friday evenings...) and he writes beautifully about it.

I often pull out this book to get ideas. His ingredients are always fresh, and his meals are always interesting. One of the recipes that I’ve taken from his book is this cake. I love the texture of it and the ease of making it. It has just the perfect crumb to go with ice cream, or raspberry sauce or just a cup of tea. Or nothing. It goes just perfectly in my mouth, thank you! Of course I changed it. Not too much, but some. I think Nigel would approve.

What’s your current favorite cook book?

Nigel’s lemon cake

200 g / 7 oz (1 3/4 sticks) butter

200 g / 1 cup sugar + 2 Tablespoons for the syrup

90 g / 2/3 cup plain flour + more for the pan

90 g / 3/4 cup ground almonds

3/4 tsp baking powder

zest and juice from one large lemon

4 large eggs

  1. Preheat oven to 160 C / 375 F.
  2. Prepare a large loaf pan by cutting baking paper to fit the length, letting the excess fall over the sides. Grease and flour the ends of the tin.
  3. Mix the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, and lemon zest in a bowl.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and 200 g sugar till light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. The mixture might curdle at this point, but don’t worry--keep going. It will be ok after you add the dry ingredients.
  5. Gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ones. Nigel recommends using a metal spoon to avoid knocking the air out. Scrape the batter (it will be thick) into the prepared loaf pan.
  6. Bake 45 minutes, until risen and golden brown on top.
  7. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.
  8. While the cake is cooling, make the syrup: mix the juice of your large lemon with 2 Tablespoons of sugar. You want this to be tart but not too puckery. When the cake is cool, pierce it all over with a bamboo skewer and spoon the syrup over it. Let it soak in. At this point, I usually sprinkle a little more sugar over the top to hide the holes.

This is perfect with a fruit sauce or coulis. It positively begs for some cream or ice cream. Or a nice thick Greek yogurt.

Notes: Nigel uses demerara sugar for this, but I can’t get that here. I made it once with brown sugar, and it had a heavenly flavor, but the color was a little gray. So I stick to white sugar, and it has a lovely yellow color.


  • When I have some nice berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries), I put half the batter in the pan and make a layer of berries and then add rest of the batter. It’s important to flour the berries first, though, or they just sink to the bottom.
  • You can make a lemon glaze to pour over the top by mixing icing sugar / powdered sugar with lemon juice.

26 August 2009

CLASSICS: Waldorf Salad

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the US, where pecan trees abound. I love pecans, and find them difficult to get here in Belgium. However, I have some wonderful friends who send them to me from time to time, and this classic salad is one of my favorite things to make from them. We eat this often at the end of the summer, when the first apples and the first pecans come to the market. Or when it’s just too hot or too muggy to cook. Or when we’re just too pooped. Like today.

This salad reminds me of my grandmother, who used to make it for us. I love its old-fashioned simplicity and its mix of crunches. It’s a little sweet from the apple and the pecans and a little bitter from the celery and the mayonnaise adds just the right touch. I don’t add too many other things to it, though others often to. Why mess with perfection?

All of the measurements are ‘-ish’--you can adjust them for what you have on hand and/or what you like. You can use yogurt instead of mayonnaise, but it’s just not the same...After all, there’s a reason it’s a classic, eh?


2 crisp apples

6-8 large stalks of celery

1/2 cup / 100 g pecan pieces

3 soup spoons of mayonnaise

  1. Wash, core and roughly chop the apples. Don’t peel them--the peel adds color to the salad!
  2. Wash and roughly chop the celery and add it to the apple pieces.
  3. If the pecan pieces are halves, crumble them with your fingers. Add them to the apples and celery.
  4. Add the mayonnaise and mix gently. Serve chilled.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.

Variations -- if you feel the need mess with a classic:

  • Add 1 cup red or green grapes, cut in half.
  • Serve over freshly washed lettuce.
  • Replace the pecans with walnut pieces.
  • Add 1/2 cup raisins.
  • Chop everything fine and serve on leaves of Belgian Endive as an appetizer.

23 August 2009

PANNA COTTA: A Vanilla Revelation

I have seen recipes for panna cotta for years, and frankly, I didn’t understand the point of it. Sweetened cream, set with gelatin? Eww. But when we were in Siena several years ago, I tried it for the first time. OH. MY. This is definitely something whose description doesn’t do it justice. Not at all. It’s just--well, wonderful.

It’s the perfect light dessert after a rich meal. It’s just the right touch of sweetness, balanced by the vanilla. When you add berries as I have, you have a light, sweet/tart dessert, the perfect end to a perfect meal. What more can you ask?

Personally, I can ask more. Call me greedy. I can ask that it be easy, and this is that. It takes only a few minutes to prepare, and I make it in little verrines, so that I don’t have to un-mold it. This presentation is not only pretty but it’s also (even better) almost totally do-ahead. I usually have an Italian almond cookie to put on the side, and maybe a pretty edible flower.


1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup (scant) sugar

1/2 vanilla bean

2 sheets gelatine (3.5 - 4 g total)

To serve:

Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries or any other tart berry macerated in sugar to draw out the juice.

  1. Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water while you prepare the cream. Put the cream, milk, sugar in a saucepan.
  2. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add these to the cream mixture, and whisk to break up the vanilla seeds.
  3. Squeeze the water from the gelatine and stir it into the pan with the hot cream/milk.
  4. Heat gently till just beginning to steam--don’t let it boil! Don’t even let it simmer. Keep it gently steaming for about 5 minutes to allow the vanilla to steep.
  5. Pour into 4 small verrines or pretty glasses, and chill for 8 hours or overnight. To serve, spoon berries and their juice over the panna cotta and add a dab of whipped cream if you like.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.


  • Make this in a larger bowl and unmold it onto a plate at serving time. Surround it with berries or fruit coulis and serve.
  • Make individual servings in small cups and unmold each of them. This is really pretty, especially if you have some pretty dessert plates.
  • Use rosewater or lavender instead of vanilla for a delicate, floral perfume.

20 August 2009


This is my favorite, easy pasta recipe. This is the recipe I make when I don’t feel like cooking, or whenever we have unexpected company and I want something different but easy to feed them--I always have the ingredients on hand.

For these photos I used cappellacci, which are cute little hat-shaped pasta, but you can use any pasta that will hold a thicker sauce: rigatoni, penne, farfalle, tortilloni, spirelli, even tagliatelli. Basically, whatever you have on hand, but probably not spaghetti or cappelini. This sauce needs something to grab on to. It’s good with plain or flavored or whole-wheat pasta.

The sauce is based on plain yogurt, and I try to use a tangy one. I usually use low-fat yogurt, because that’s what I always have on hand. You could use greek or bulgarian yogurt as well. A word to the wise, though: be SURE the yogurt’s plain. When we lived in DC, Dan’s cousin Dick came to town for a business meeting. I naturally assumed that Dick would have dinner in a fancy restaurant with his colleagues, but he said he’d rather take pot luck with us. I didn’t have much in the house, so I made this pasta for him. I (luckily) had one carton of yogurt left in the fridge, and when I opened it I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be cherry or chocolate. Nope, it was white. So I made the dish, and served it proudly. When I took the first bite, I gagged. Really. I actually gagged. The yogurt wasn’t chocolate, it was vanilla. Eewwww. I jumped up and reached for Dick’s plate, explaining red-facedly that it wasn’t supposed to taste like that. But he held on to his plate for dear life (probably afraid of what might replace it!) “No!” Dick said, “I LIKE it”. And he ate it. Every bite. I loved him for that. So when you make this, please double check the yogurt. It should be PLAIN.


1 cup/250 ml plain yogurt

3-4 Tablespoons basil pesto

3-4 Tablespoons red pesto

a generous handful of parmesan, plus more for garnish

1 pound / 500 g pasta


  1. Fill a large pot with plenty of cold water, and bring it to a boil. Add a good handful of salt. When it’s at a rolling boil, add the pasta and stir from time to time while it’s cooking.
  2. Meanwhile, take a pan large enough to hold the pasta easily (I use a wok) and in it put the yogurt and the pestos and the parmesan. Stir to mix and heat gently. You don’t want this to cook, you only want to knock the cold off it. When it’s barely warm, turn the heat off and wait till the pasta is done.
  3. When the pasta is done as you like it, drain it well and dump it all into the sauce. Stir well to mix. Serve sprinkled with more freshly grated parmesan.

Note that because you’re mixing complementary colors (red and green), the color of this will be sort of, well, brown. You can modify the brown-ness by changing the proportions of the two pestos. I sometimes make it redder or greener. In any case, it’s still brown...

Variations--basically you can add whatever you have around that will go with these flavors. Some examples:

  • A handful of chopped dried or semi-dried tomatoes.
  • Chicken
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • You can also use pesto made with rocket instead of basil. It’s a different flavor, but it also goes with the tomatoes.

Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t

17 August 2009


No, I don’t mean the kind of false friends that you had in the third grade who were your BFFs for about a day and a half. I mean words that you see in another language and you think you know what they mean (like preservative) and then you find out that you don’t, because somewhere between French 2 and the supermarket they changed their meaning.

English is an interesting language. We borrow words from other languages, and forget to give them back. Normally, we keep the same meaning, or almost. This can be a big help in learning a language--words like gouvernement, and sauté, communication and pardonnez-moi are relatively easy for the French student to learn.

Sometimes, though, just to be sneaky, we steal a word and change the meaning. A little. Or a LOT. For example, take the word 'deception'. In French, deception means disappointment. Wait! That’s not what it means in English! Right. We changed it. Linguists call these words 'false friends', because we think they’ll help us and they end up causing problems. Sort of like that BFF in third grade.

Some false friends cause relatively little trouble. They can even be funny. For example, in French, crier means 'to shout'. So if you say that you cry when you see a sad movie, you’re not likely to be invited to the cinema.

Then there’s 'eventually'. In English, it means 'in the end', 'finally'. In French, eventuellement means 'perhaps', 'maybe'. This one can cause incredible problems in negotiations. I don’t even use it when talking with French speakers, because I don’t know if the person I’m speaking to uses it in the French sense or the English sense. I just avoid this one. It’s a bomb waiting to go off.

In French, an issue can be an 'exit from a building' or it can be an 'outcome', a solution. In English, an 'issue' can mean a problem. (Yeah, as in “Houston, we have an issue”.)

Most false friends are readily recognizable from the context. If a grandmother tells you that she wiped her adored grandson’s face with his doodoo, you KNOW it means something else*. But some false friends don’t give you a red flag. Sensible is one of these. In French, it means means sensitive. A mini-bomb, in some situations.

I think my all time favorite false friend is a word that in French means to stamp a letter. It’s a sort of official, bureaucratic word, like ‘franking’ in English (which also means to stamp a letter, even though it’s not the word we use most). The French word that means ‘franking’ is.... are you ready? ....are you sure? Obliterer. Yep, you read that right--'obliterate'. You have to wonder about the path that this word had to follow to get from stamping a letter to total destruction. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Needless to say, my business students need to learn these false friends. I can imagine, for example, a meeting following a day of fairly unsuccessful negotiations. A hapless Belgian tries to make a friendly overture. In his best English:

"Please be sure that we are prepared to be sensible about your deception yesterday. We are sure that eventually we’ll find an issue, so we plan to obliterate the contract."

People often ask me what it takes to live in another country and to speak another language. I think that the most important thing is the willingness to make mistakes and to laugh at yourself. I tell my students that if they're not making mistakes, they're not learning. Me, I learn a LOT.

*In Belgian French, a child's doodoo is his 'blankey'. You don't want to know how I discovered that.

13 August 2009


Markets. I love markets. Not supermarkets, but open air markets. There’s a market every day in a town around here--you just have to know that it’s in Spa on Tuesday, Dolhain on Wednesday, Ensival on Thursday, etc. In medieval times, one of the privileges of a town was the permission to hold a market.

Whenever we travel, I search out markets. There’s a wonderful word in French for what I love to do at markets: flâner. It means to stroll around, browsing a little, chatting a little, buying a little. I love to flâner in the markets.

The market in our town is Saturday morning, and it’s one of my favorites. I get to practice my German with the lady who makes roasted chickens, and my French with everyone else. The market is one of those with everything: fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese (to die for!), clothes, olives, tagine dishes, hair stuff, cleaning stuff, towels, batteries, dog toys, etc, etc, etc. I love the sounds of all the vendors crying their wares and all the flâneurs walking around bargaining. I love the smells of fruit and vegetables and flowers and chickens roasting. I love the colors and the atmosphere.

Our market takes place in the Marketplace (DUH!) surrounding the town hall, and every Saturday there are weddings going on in the Town hall. The wedding party comes up in the middle of the market, and everyone waits to see them come out. It's wonderful to see the bride and the groom and the bridesmaids and the families. And especially the little kids.

Sometimes there’s an Italian fruit and vegetable vendor who sets up next to the town hall; he’s wonderful. "Fraises, un kiloOOOO pour deux euroooOOOOO" (strawberries, 2 Euros a kilo), "Tout est a vendre, sauf le proprieteur" (everything is for sale but the owner), "Mesdames, je suis celibataire!" (ladies, I'm single...) When a wedding party comes by, he switches to Italian: "Bella, bella!" It's wonderfully full of life, and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

When I want fruit, though, I try to wait till Sunday, when the market is in nearby Aubel. This is a small market, with mostly producers rather than resellers. Because we live in a fruit producing area, we get some wonderful stuff. Right now there is a bumper crop of blackberries and raspberries, and people are buying them by the case to make jam. The music of the shouts and the smell of the berries, combined with the warmth of the sunshine make me very happy. I love dealing with the people who produce the fruit, and taking advantage of their knowledge. Here's an example of a transaction:

Bonjour, Madame, can I help you? (actually, they say, “je vous ecoute”, which roughly translates to “I’m listening”)

I'd like some apples, please.

But of course. What kind? For when?

Ummm. I want some to eat during the next week, and some for a pie.

Aha. Good. These are for the pie, and THESE are to eat during the week. This one first, then this one, then.... Anything else?

Yes, a melon.

For when? Tomorrow? Ahhh...this one, then. Anything else?

Yes, some cherries.

To eat or for jam?

To eat.


They actually choose the fruit for when you will use/eat it. It's always perfect on that day, and I'm rarely disappointed. I can’t think of a better way to spend a morning than to flâner among the sellers listening to the music of a market. Its a nice outing. You should come along.

09 August 2009


These are about the easiest cookies I know. Light, buttery, not too sweet--just right. I normally cook with metric measures, and weigh my ingredients. For these cookies, you only need equal weights of each of four ingredients: butter, flour, sugar, ground almonds. That’s it. What could be easier? No eggs, no baking powder, no liquids.

But wait, you say, I don’t have a scale in my kitchen. Ok, I’ve translated this recipe for you. It’s still easy, though. You’ll see.

Because these have so few ingredients, I think they have to be very high quality. I use real butter. I don’t think that anything else would give the right flavor to these. This recipe can also very easily be doubled or tripled or quadrupled or even halved, though I’m not sure why you’d want less of them...

For a gluten-free version of this recipe click here.

1/4 lb / 110 g very soft butter
1/2 c / 110 g sugar
3/4 c / 110 g flour
1 c / 110 g ground almonds

  • Mix this all together in a bowl. It will be sort of sandy, and won’t want to stick together. Don’t worry, it’ll come together when you roll it out.
  • Roll it out on a floured work surface. I roll it very thin, using bamboo skewers to guide my rolling pin. That way they’re all the same thickness.
  • Cut them close together--you don’t want a lot of wasted dough, because the more you work with this soft dough, the more flour becomes incorporated into it and the tougher it gets. The least amount of handling is best.
  • I cut them in squares, because I like that shape, and because it’s easier to get them off the work surface when the shape is simple. Stars work too, though!
  • Bake at 350F / 160 C for 10-12 minutes. I set a timer for 11 minutes, then watch them. You want them beige, not brown. Barely colored.
  • Remove from oven and cool on wire racks. I bake them on silpats, which I just slide off the baking sheet onto my counter top, and let them cool there for a minute or two before I transfer them to a rack. They’re less likely to break.

Yield: 5 dozen 1 3/4 inch / 4 cm cookies.


  • Normally I love to play with recipes and find other ways to do them, but this one is so great as is that frankly, I haven’t messed with it. I think adding other flavors would spoil the delicate butter/almond flavor of this. I’d be happy to be proved wrong, though, so if you find a variation to this recipe, please tell me!

Serving ideas

  • With a cup of tea
  • Three on a plate with small scoops of ice cream on top
  • Piped with pastry cream, surrounded by a berry coulis
  • Take two and make a sandwich with lemon curd in the middle
  • Surround with perfect berries
  • Stacked alternately with chocolate cookies the same size and shape to make cookie towers. Great for small gifts.


08 August 2009


In the south of France, in a village called Lorgues, there’s a market every Tuesday. There’s nothing unusual about that, in fact, it would be unusual if there wasn’t a market there at least one day of the week. So, you ask yourself, why mention it? Good question. It’s because at this market, you can buy the World’s Best Tapenade.

I first heard about this from my friend Tessa Nelson, who’s a private chef. Tessa is an amazing cook, the only person I know who’s received a standing ovation from the director of the Culinary Institute of America. More about Tessa later. The first time I visited Tessa, we went to the market in Lorgues, where she lives. Why did we go to the market, you ask? Because that’s what I do. I love markets. So does Tessa. See why we’re friends?

If you go to this market, about in the middle, on the right hand side as you climb the street, you’ll find a man selling olives and tapenade. I love tapenade, the provençal spread made from black olives, anchovies, garlic, and all things good. When it’s good, it’s food from the gods. But it’s not always good. When it’s bad, it’s ...well, bad. Ick. Ew. Nasty.

Now Lorgues is in the sunny part of the world, where they produce wonderful olives. And when Tessa says something is good, that gets my attention. So when she stopped at this booth and said with a sigh, “Ohhhhhh....”. I knew there was something I needed to try. “This is the World’s Best Tapenade”, said Tessa. The seller, Alain Villaret, was flattered and offered her his recipe. She laughed, and asked if she could buy his olives in bulk instead. He laughed and declined. Later, she explained, “I KNOW how to make tapenade. But without his olives it wouldn’t be the same at all. It’s the olives that make that the World’s Best Tapenade”.

I’ve come to believe that this true for much of the cooking that I love--it’s not so much about recipes and ‘cheffy’ stuff. It’s more about the quality of the ingredients. When they’re fresh and the best that I can lay my hands on, then I don’t have to do much to them to make something wonderful. When they’re stale and jet-lagged and out of season, it doesn’t matter what kind of recipe I have, whatever I make will be mediocre.

We’re lucky to live in a part of the world that’s still rural. It produces fruit and dairy products and beef and lamb and pork from animals who lived in fields with grass before they became my dinner. Chickens that actually ran around on their legs, making for HUGE drumsticks. In the fall, there is wild game--boar and deer and duck and pigeon and partridge. It’s not hard to get fresh local food here. I can buy cheese from the guy who milked the cow, and vegetables still warm from the sun. The fruit smells like itself because it’s picked ripe and ready for me to eat.

I used to live in a major US metro area, where styrofoam strawberries and mealy tomatoes abounded. But there were also farmer’s markets where I could buy fresh local products. There were supermarkets that labeled their produce as to its origin, helping me pick food that wasn’t feeling homesick. I had to learn what was in season when, because everything was always available. It just wasn’t always good.

A friend who visited us here in the summer asked for my recipe for Bruschetta. I gave it to her, though ‘recipe’ is too grand a word for what I do. She emailed me in the winter saying that she had tried my ‘recipe’ and it wasn’t nearly as good. She attributed the difference to the ambience and the company. I tend to think it was the tomatoes. Ok, the company too.


A few years ago I decided that if I had to be as old as 40 I didn’t have to eat styrofoam tomatoes any more. Ditto for strawberries. So I quit buying them out of season. Now I look forward to them. I anticipate them. I celebrate them when they finally arrive. LES TOMATES NOUVELLES SONT ARRIVÉES! It’s better than Beaujolais. We welcome them with a glorious lunch-- BLT, unknown here, or another classic, Insalata Caprese. The strawberries I welcome with Strawberry Tiramisu.

In nearby Germany asparagus is called “Spargel”. Since Spargel is one of the first vegetables to appear in the spring, Spargel season is anxiously anticipated. And when it arrives, there is much fanfare. Restaurants feature Spargel menus, Spargel is Angebot (on special offer) in all the markets, and people gorge on Spargel. About the time we all start to get sick of Spargel, it’s gone until the next year. At least the fresh stuff. The good stuff.

There are things that I don’t try to make. I buy them, because I can’t get the ingredients I want. Tapenade is one of those things. I make my own pesto in the summer when I can get wonderful basil and I freeze it so that I can have it all year round. Tapenade and pesto. In the middle of winter, it’s a taste of summer.

Here’s James Martin’s recipe for Tapenade. But I warn you, without Alain’s olives, it just won't be the same.


1 garlic clove, crushed

1 lemon, juice only

3 tbsp capers, chopped

6 anchovy fillets, chopped

250g/9oz black olives, pitted

small bunch fresh parsley, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil


1. To make a rough textured tapenade, simply mix all the ingredients together, adding enough olive oil to form a paste. 

2. For a smoother texture, tip the garlic, lemon juice, capers and anchovy into a food processor and process for about 10 seconds. Add the olives and parsley and enough olive oil to make a paste. 

3. Season to taste if necessary.

Uses for Tapenade
  • The classic use is to spread it on toasted baguette rounds as an appetizer. I sometimes use it on little melba toasts as well. Top it with a tiny piece of roasted red pepper for color. I usually make some with pesto on them as well and serve the two together.
  • A variation on Provençal pissaladière: in tiny tart shells, spread some tapenade, cover with onions which have been sauteed slo-ow-ly till they’re caramelized. Here too, I’ll add a bit of roasted red pepper or maybe some slivered cheese for color.
  • Pound a slice of pork tenderloin thin. Spread it with tapenade, add some (guess what?) roasted red pepper and roll it up. Bake it, slice it and serve as an appetizer.
  • Serve it as a sauce with fish.
  • Throw some in an omelet.
  • Eat it from a spoon.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and visit Tessa. Because I’m almost out of The World’s Best Tapenade.

06 August 2009


One of the interesting things about living in Belgium is that we are exposed to different languages every day. Everything we buy has two or three languages on it: French, Dutch, and often German as well.

Our daily language is French. When we leave our house we're in a world where very few people speak English. Consequently, our French is very good today. When we first came here we thought our French was pretty good but we quickly found out that what passes for 'good' in DC doesn't work so well here. There are accents. There are idiomatic expressions. There's all that vocabulary and advanced grammar that we didnt' need in DC, like "if you had done what you promised we wouldn't have this problem today". Come to think of it, that would have come in handy in DC too. In any case when we first moved to Belgium we had a lot of language learning to do.

Some lessons came from professional teachers. Most came from innocent bystanders. Some of those work in my local supermarket. Shortly after I arrived here, I approached the manager with a can of chickpeas in my hand. I wanted to know if they were organic, and I hadn't yet learned the word
bio (which seems to be the western European word for organic). But I figured I could approach it logically and use the fancy English word with French pronunciation (it works surprisingly often!) I screwed up my nerve and in my very best and most polite French asked the poor man if there were any preservatifs in the can. He was stunned by my question. He got up on a veryvery high horse and wanted to know why I'd want to ask him that kind of question? What kind of place did I think that was? He also said a lot of other things that I didn't really understand, but thankfully the words 'get out' and 'never come back' didn't seem to be there. At first I thought it must be an organic supermarket and he was very proud of that fact. But even that wouldn't really explain his reaction... I was perplexed until I went home and got out my trusty dictionary to discover that the word I wanted was conservateur and in French, a preservatif is a condom. Oh. Well. Now I know that there are no condoms in the chickpeas here. That's a relief.

It's not only in French that we made mistakes. I should say make mistakes, because we still do. On one of our early jaunts to explore our region we went to Aachen, which although it's in Germany, is only about 25 km from here. We had no German at that point beyond
Ich bin kein warmduscher (I am not a sissy). While this is kind of fun to say, it doesn't get you very far. Not even to the tourist office, as it happens. But in the end we managed to find the tourist office and asked for all the tourist information in French so that we could practice, and we dutifully followed the tourist trail reading all about somebody they called by his German name: Karl der Grosse. We read that Karl der Grosse had founded the city in the late 700's. All the history of Aachen seemed to be bound up with Karl der Grosse. We didn't really know who he was, but decided that we could use logic to figure it out. In French, grosse means 'fat', so we thought he must have been fat...that didn't really help much, but we continued to follow the tourist trail where we saw Fat Karl's house (hmmm....he was rich) and Fat Karl's cathedral (hmmm....he was holy) and Fat Karl's crown (hmmm....he was royal). We were beginning to think that maybe we should know who he was when we finally stumbled on a statue of Fat Karl. You know what? HE WASN'T FAT AT ALL! However, he was veryvery tall. That's when we realized that our French was no help in Germany. Grosse doesn't mean 'fat'. It means 'tall' and 'big' and ....'great'. That's when I remembered having seen a statue somewhere with the name 'Carolus Magnus' on it. Oh, no. It wasn't Fat Karl at all. It was Charlemagne.

When we travel now we make sure that all of our papers are in order and that we have a good dictionary with us. 'Cause you never know.

I will admit, though, that I still think of Charlamagne as Fat Karl.

04 August 2009

FLASHBACK: The Best Laid Plans... (part 2)

Note: This is a continuing story; the first part can be found here.

By 1999, Dan and I were still nursing our dream of living in Europe “some day”. We returned to Washington to our 70 hour a week jobs, and the pressure of “real” life. But whenever we could, we escaped to Europe.

We went nearly every year to Ireland, where we have close friends living in a village in County Galway. Ireland was our spiritual home. We loved the people and the countryside and even the weather. When we dreamed of living in Europe, it was a rural life that we envisioned—a thatched cottage overlooking the sea, with the smell of turf fires and the distant lowing of cattle. The fact that we were both “city kids” didn’t deter us in the least.

02 August 2009

SUMMER CLASSIC: Insalata Caprese

I love summer, with its abundance of fruit and vegetables. I find myself being more adventuresome with my cooking. I also find myself returning to some classic dishes--after all, there’s a reason they’re classics, eh? This one, with its riperipe tomatoes and creamy mozzarella and basil that smells like sunshine is one of my favorites. I make it as soon as there are good tomatoes. I always use buffalo mozzarella. When I first heard about buffalo mozzarella, I thought it was a joke--after all, mozzarella is Italian and everyone KNOWS that buffaloes aren’t found in Italy, they’re found in North America, right? (NORTH AMERICA ROCKS!) And I don’t know about you, but I sure-as-heck wouldn’t want to try and milk one. And furthermore...

But then I found out that real mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffaloes. Oh. Never mind.


Do we need a recipe for this? Ok, if you insist. You’ll need:

  • 4 perfectly ripe tomatoes, preferably still warm from the sunshine and shouting “my roots! I can’t feel my roots!”
  • 2 - 125 g/4 oz balls of buffalo mozzarella
  • Some large, intact basil leaves--the exact number depends on how thin you slice your tomatoes. I love basil, and I slice my tomatoes very thin...
  • A sharp knife. I only add this because I’ve cooked in a lot of kitchens where there was not one single knife that would cut a tomato. You really need one. I use a filet knife, meant to filet fish. It’s perfect for this job.
  • About 1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette

Slice the tomatoes and the mozzarella as thin as you can. It helps with the mozzarella to really slice it--don’t just push down with the knife, move it back and forth. This will yield thinner slices. In the center of the mozzarella, the slices may be larger than the tomatoes. If that happens, you are allowed to cut them in half. If you’re really good, you’ll have as many slices of mozzarella as you have of tomatoes. If you don’t, just eat the extras. Sometimes we shoot for imperfection.

Arrange the salad as follows: a slice of tomato, a slice of cheese, a basil leaf, repeat. Finish with a basil leaf. Drizzle vinaigrette over it all.

Serves 4 if they like it, and 10 if they don’t.


  1. You can make this with the little pearl mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. You’ll want to cut the tomatoes in half so that they don’t squirt on your silk shirt when you bite into them (trust me on this). Add a chiffonade of basil--cut the basil leaves into thin strips and mix with the mozzarella and tomatoes.
  2. You can hollow out a tomato and fill it with little pearl mozzarella or just mozzarella cut into small cubes. Pour over a loose pesto made with basil, pine nuts and good olive oil.
  3. You can cut a tomato into 8-10 wedges and arrange them artfully around a ball of mozzarella that you’ve cut into. Cut an X-shape, not quite through the ball, and fill the center with basil pesto.