29 April 2010



We're off at the crack o'dawn tomorrow. Again. This time, we're going in the car, and we're taking you with us--virtually, of course!

We're off to Torino (Turin) for two weeks, where we'll spend the mornings in class improving our Italian, and the afternoons exploring Torino and the Piemonte region of Northwest Italy.

27 April 2010

DAY TRIP: Amsterdam

Sunday morning Dan and I got up bright and early and took the train to Amsterdam. Dan had a meeting there and I had free time. I had arranged to meet up with Oz, from Kitchen Butterfly and to spend the afternoon with her exploring Amsterdam.

The train ride up there was really interesting--we passed a lot of pastures with canals around them instead of fences. From some angles it looked like the animals were running free. The Dutch are experts at water management. Since a large part of the northern Netherlands is below sea level, they have to be!

We met up with Oz, and Dan went off to his meeting. Oz and I found a cup of tea and began telling our life stories...

...and continued as we walked around snapping pictures.

Amsterdam to me is all about water and darling houses.

There was a kayak race on one of the canals.

And it wouldn’t be Amsterdam without the headshops. I love this photo of the family on the bicycle in front of the head shop. New shipments of ‘hemp’ had apparently been received, and business was brisk.

We took a walk through the narrow streets, heading for the Old Church. We passed some colorful shops, one of which specialized in ...ahem....protective appliances, shall we say. In all sizes. I don't want to think about how they measure for them...

LOL, there was a couple taking photos of the merchandise in the window and their daughter, about 3, asked “Mama, what’s that?” I wanted to stick around and hear the answer, but I didn’t.

As we made our way toward the old church...

...we ducked down a very narrow passage. It was full of shops, and they all had large windows. Most of the windows were covered with curtains, but in a few the curtains were opened, and there were women inside, wearing bikinis and, um, sort of dancing. One of the windows was open, and the woman was leaning out and, um, dancing, towards some guys. I was carrying my big honking Nikon, but I was holding it by the lens and my hand was up by my shoulder to make it clear I wasn’t using it. When the woman in the open window saw my camera, she shouted, “Oh NO. NO. NO CAMERAS. GET THAT OUT OF HERE.” I held it up over my head and shouted back, “NOT using it! NOT using it!”. We kept walking. So I’m sorry to say that there are no photos of the Amsterdam dancers. Ahem. Sorry.

At the old church there is a statue commemorating the working girls of Amsterdam.

But there’s a lot more to Amsterdam than the red light district. There's the Anne Frank House. There is the Beguinage. There's the Dam. And there are macarons, of course.

There are narrow, charming streets. There are more darling houses.

And bicycles. Lots of bicycles. Everywhere.

There are interesting contrasts--here between the shop and the name of the alley...

There are tourist shops. This one was our favorite. He liked us too.

He promised low prices, although we know that the Euro didn’t exist in 1992, so that can’t be right...

We walked a lot, we saw a lot--yes, we got an eyeful! We missed a lot, too, because it was Sunday and a none of the markets were open. We didn't get to the Anne Frank House or the Beguinage. The Dam is under scaffolding right now, and there's a Ferris wheel in front of it. The amazing museums--the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum--we decided to save for another day. We had adventures enough for one day! But the best part of the day for me was meeting Oz.

24 April 2010


It’s asparagus season, and we’re eating a lot of it. Steamed, baked, roasted. It’s everywhere. Green, white, tiny, enormous, baked, grilled, roasted, in soups and salads. In Germany it’s called Spargel. I love that word--it sounds like sparkle, and that’s what happens when the asparagus hits the market. It’s the official signal that Spring is here.

In our markets there are mostly white asparagus, often bigger around than my thumb. Its flavor is more delicate than the green kind, and it’s highly prized. I confess that I prefer my asparagus green, though. It has more flavor, and I like its slightly bitter tang. However you buy it, there are many ways to eat it. We’ve had most of them this week, and I finally used the last of it in a tart.

Well, ok, in truth it’s a quiche. Or, as a friend of mine once called it, a 'quickie'. Waaay back when I was in grad school, quiche wasn’t really well known in the Southern part of the US. I went with a friend to a restaurant much prized by poor students. This restaurant was a favorite because it was sort of ferny and bright inside, and it served cheap but ‘cheffy’ food (or at least our idea of cheffy food). We went there for special occasions. I’ve forgotten what this occasion was, but I remember that my friend took one look at the menu and said to the waiter, “bring me some of that quickie Lorraine”. He never lived that one down.

When I made the crust for this I used some of the duck fat I had left from the cuisses de canard. I wanted the flavor of the duck in the crust. If you leave that out, this dish is vegetarian. I used half butter and half duck fat. When I do this the next time I think I’ll use less duck fat--the flavor was good, but a little too strong for this. Next time I’ll use 2 tablespoons duck fat and 1/2 cup butter. Since I think you may not have duck fat sitting around in your fridge, I’ve written the recipe using only butter.

My tart pan is 27 cm / 10 1/2 inches wide, and shallow. The baking time wasn’t very long, and the crust wasn’t as brown as I’d like it. Next time I’ll blind bake the crust so that it will be browner. I’ve adjusted the recipe for that as well.

Asparagus Tart


350 g / 2 cups flour

2/3 cup butter, chilled

1/2 tsp salt

4-5 tablespoons ice water


100 g / 4 oz gruyere cheese, grated

4 eggs

a good pinch of cayenne pepper

fresh ground pepper

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup cream

5 cherry tomatoes

8 spears broccoli, crisp-steamed

Preheat oven to 160 C / 375 F.

  • First, make the crust. In a large bowl, mix the flour and the salt well. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. With your fingers, crumble the butter pieces until they resemble fine sand. You can also do this with a fork, but it’s not as much fun. Add ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until you can make a loose ball of the dough.
  • Form the dough into a ball, and roll it out to fit your tart pan. (Unless you have a pan as large as mine, you’ll probably have some left over.) If there are holes, be sure that you patch them well.
  • Put a piece of baking paper in the pan and fill with beans or pastry weights. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and remove the weights and the paper. Let it cool.
  • Put the grated cheese in the bottom of the pan.
  • In a large bowl, beat the eggs and add the cayenne, the milk, cream, and the pepper.
  • Arrange the broccoli spears in the pan on top of the cheese.
  • Carefully pour the egg mixture over the broccoli spears. I used a funnel to pour it into the center of the tart so as not to disturb the broccoli or cover it with the egg mixture.
  • Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and arrange the halves between the asparagus spears. I also used pieces cut from the spears to decorate the spaces.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

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


  • If you don’t have gruyere, cheese, you can use any mild hard cheese: swiss/ementhal, gouda, cheddar...
  • I don’t peel my broccoli--it seems like such a waste. I break off the hard part at the bottom and eat the rest. Sometimes the result is that it’s hard to cut with a fork...
  • Because of the duck fat that I used, this crust is very short, and was sticky to roll out. I rolled it between two sheets of plastic wrap, but next time I’ll chill it first.

19 April 2010

Under the Little Big Top

I love a circus, don’t you? When Dan had an office in Montreal, we used to spend a certain amount of time there. One of the things we loved to do was to see Cirque du Soleil. The things they did were astonishing, magical. I remember once there was a man who flew. Really flew. He began by walking around the enormous ring, his hands through some gymnast’s rings that were attached far above him. He just walked in a big circle. Then slightly faster, and faster, till he was running. Then he simply lifted his feet in that amazing gymnast’s move until he was horizontal in the air, arms out to his side. He was flying. Magic. I was entranced.

While this was among the simplest things I ever saw at Cirque du Soleil, it is among the most amazing. A man and some rings. That’s all it took for him to fly. Well, no, it also took hours and hours and weeks and years of training, but all that was behind the scenes. All we saw was the magic. That’s what Cirque du Soleil is: magic. The circus grown up.

This is a far cry from the circuses I grew up with: Barnum and Bailey’s best. Lions and Elephants and horses and trapezes and tightrope walkers. Men who ate fire. Jugglers. Clowns. The guy who got shot out of a cannon. A different kind of magic, but still magic to a child’s eyes.

This week in my town there’s a circus. It’s a traveling circus, moving around Belgium and spending ten days to two weeks in the smaller towns. (You can find their fascinating--in French, though--history here.) They set up in a big parking lot, with their Big Top and their trailers and they set about to entertain us. To bring us magic.

Saturday was a gorgeous day here. The air was warm, even if it smelled faintly like a cold fireplace from the volcanic ash. The sun was shining and the sky was perfectly blue. No clouds. No airplanes dragging their contrails. Nothing to mar the perfection of a sky of the sort we rarely see in Belgium. It was lovely. Dan and I went out to dinner and then treated ourselves to the circus.

We got there early, as soon as it opened, because we enjoy watching the preparations and seeing the audience file in. It was a small tent, and at capacity probably held 200 people. It was about 2/3 full, and there were lots of children. There were sparkly toys to tempt the children, and cotton candy to make them sticky. In the middle of the tent there was one ring, filled with sawdust.

There were big cats. No lions, but leopards, cougars and a puma. One of them refused to perform. Oops. Cats will be cats, after all. There were other animals too: a black stallion who performed dressage moves under the direction of a beautiful lady dressed like a Spanish Princess. The kids (big and small) all said AAAAH... There were donkeys, and a pony, some llamas and even trained steers (a first for me!). And an elephant, of course. There were the usual mishaps with animals: the llama pooped and the kids said EWWW! The elephant peed and the kids laughed. We understood the reason for the sawdust.

At the intermission, the elephant was still in the ring and they brought out an enormous tub full of carrots for her to eat. As she stood there placidly munching away, the kids could come and have their photos taken with her. One little boy didn’t quite realize what would be expected of him till he was really close, and then he took one look at the elephant and would have nothing to do with her. He was saying, NO! NO!, and his mother was trying to calm him. The elephant took hold of one side of the carrot tub with her trunk and moved it to the side, farther from the boy, and continued to eat. She’d seen this before.

The performances were a far cry from Cirque du Soleil: this was a different kind of circus, with a magic all its own. It was small, personal. It was a circus for kids, and for the kid in all of us. The woman who showed us to our seats was the acrobat. The man who took our tickets was her assistant. The ringmaster was selling refreshments outside. The Spanish Princess was also the tightrope walker. The big cat handler scooped up the poop. The curtain to the backstage was slightly tattered.

The juggler dropped his pins. Some animals refused to perform. The tightrope walker danced on the rope, on her toes like a ballet dancer. We held our collective breath when she bobbled, conscious of the possibility of failure. We were thrilled when she arrived at the far side, and applauded wildly. The acrobat shinnied up a long pole balanced on the forehead of her assistant. At the top she hung by her feet from some rings, and the kids said, OOOH! When she finally came down we could all breathe again.

This is the kind of circus you’d run away to. These were the kind of performances you could imagine yourself doing if you spent hours and hours and weeks and years training. OK, not the shinnying up the pole bit for me--too high. Not the tightrope either. But the Spanish Princess role I could do. The cats too--I could do the cats.

I think that’s the magic of this kind of circus--you can imagine yourself being there, traveling from town to town performing for children who will say OOOOH, and AAAH, and EWWW and even NO! NO! For the space of a couple of hours you can imagine yourself living a different life. Under the Little Big Top.

15 April 2010

DUCK REDUX: Duck and Lentil Tarts

Leftovers. I love ‘em, don’t you? I mean, what’s better than finding food already cooked in the fridge? That way you can re-combine it with new ingredients and make something au pif, something on the spur of the moment, something that’s never been done before. Or at least not this week.

Because there’s normally only two of us eating here, we often have leftovers. When I made cuisses de canard confit, there were leftovers. The next day I used them to make these little tarts.

To make the tart shells, I put some puff pastry in a little tart tin (these are 11 cm 4.5 inches across) and covered it with another tart tin. I weighted the top one with beans and baked them for about 10-12 minutes. This kept the puff pastry from puffing up too much, and kept the form clean. One note: on half of these I trimmed the puff pastry before I baked it, so that there was no overhang between the tart tins. On the other half, I left some puff pastry hanging out, thinking it would make a pretty puffy collar for the tarts. WRONG. The puff pastry sort of melted down around the sides of the bottom tart tin, making it impossible to get the tart shells out of the tins. We had lots of puff pastry crumbs to sprinkle on salads...

These little tarts are pretty hearty. They’ve got lentils and duck and veggies in them, and with a salad they’re a nice lunch. They’d also do for a first course if the main course was light.

Duck and Lentil Tarts

3 small carrots
2 stalks celery
1/2 bulb fennel
1 leek
1 Tablespoon duck fat
250 g / 1/2 pound lentils, cooked
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
shredded meat from 2 cuisses de canard confit
Salt and pepper to taste
4 pre-baked tart shells
  • Chop the carrots, the celery and the fennel about the size of the end of your little finger. Include the green tops of the celery.
  • Clean the leek: cut off the tough part at the top and cut the leek in half lengthwise. Holding the two halves together, wash the leeks under cold running water, making sure to check between the layers where there’s often sandy dirt lurking to chip your teeth. When they’re clean, cut them crosswise into small strips.
  • Melt 1 tablespoon of duck fat left from the cuisses de canard in a large-ish pan. Add the vegetables and cook till they’re softened, about 7-10 minutes.
  • Add the lentils, mix well and drain if necessary.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the vinegar, olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over the lentils and vegetables and mix well.
  • Add the duck meat, fill the tart shells and garnish with whatever greenery you have.
Serves 4 if they like it and 10 if they don’t.

  • For me, this is essentially a leftover dish. I used the vegetables I had. You could also add tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, onions instead of the leeks.
  • Duck and lentils are a classic pairing here, but you could use chickpeas or white beans instead of the lentils. You’d be kicked out of the confrerie des amateurs du canard, but you don’t really care about them, do you?

11 April 2010

Home again...

Home again, recovering from jet-lag and finally unpacked! We got home to find that our wifi router had committed suicide and we spent a lot of frustrating time trying to restore internet service. It's interesting to come face-to-face with how much we depend on the internet in our daily lives--from email to lesson preparation to blogging.

In any case, we're back now and I'm off to try to catch up with what you've been doing. I'll leave you with some eye candy from our visit with the grandkids. Enjoy!

05 April 2010


Note: We're still on holiday. This is the last of my pre-programmed posts. I'll be home soon with fresh ones!

Do you see these things? Aren't they adorable? I love it when I find these in the market. They're perfect for stuffing. They're also perfect for playing zucchini bowling, but that's another story. Today we'll just stuff them. Not in the rude way, of course.

This is a great weeknight dish. It's not too hard to prepare and it uses up leftovers. Perfect for when you're getting ready to leave on a trip and you need to clean out the fridge. Or just when you have some leftover rice and sausage.

I used a sausage that we have here that has swiss cheese in it. Any fresh sausage that you like can be used. Italian Sausage would be very good in this. Merguez would be awesome.

If you can't find these round zucchini, you can make these with the long ones. Just cut them in half, hollow them out, and stuff them. Not in the rude way, of course. If you use the long ones, you won't have the cute little hats to put on them, but you could top them with some grated cheese. I think grated cheese makes up for a lot of things.

Stuffed Zucchini

8 round zucchini or 4 long ones

350 g / 12 oz sausage

1 medium onion

1 large tomato

1 ½ cups cooked rice

  • Preheat oven to 160 C / 350 F
  • Cut the tops off the zucchinis and hollow them out with a spoon. I used a grapefruit spoon because it has those little teeth to help scrape the insides out.
  • Crumble the sausage into a pan and cook over medium heat till it releases some of its fat.
  • Chop the onion and put it in with the sausage, cooking till the sausage is beginning to brown and the onion is soft and translucent.
  • Chop the tomato and add to the pan with the rice. Cook till the tomato releases its juice and the mixture is moist, about 1-2 minutes. Don't worry if the sausage isn't fully cooked—this is going in the oven to cook some more.
  • Stuff the zucchini with the mixture (not in the rude way, of course) and put it in the oven for 40-45 minutes, until the zucchini are soft.

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


  • I think if you put these in the oven in a dish with a cover they would probably take less time to cook and they wouldn't risk drying out. I'll have to try that next time and let you know.
  • Obviously, you can add anything you like to this mixture. Peas, cut up green beans, leeks, bell peppers. If you want a little crunch, you could add pine nuts. If you want it spicier, you can add some chili peppers. Just remember that when you put it in the oven it will dry out, so you want the mixture to be really moist when you put it in the zucchini.
  • If the mixture is dry, you can moisten it with stock or wine or tomato juice.
  • Pasta would substitute nicely for the rice.

What would you put in it?

02 April 2010

LANGUAGE LESSONS: Logical Consequences

NOTE: We're still on holiday. This is a re-write of an early post about the problems of trying to solve linguistic challenges using logic. Enjoy.

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 didn't 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!). So 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 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. In French, a preservatif is a condom. Oh. Well. At least 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...

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. Our logic went like this: in French, grosse means 'fat', so 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 French and logic were no help in Germany. Grosse doesn't mean 'fat' in German. 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.