Monday, March 9, 2015

French Press Morning

Life tweaks— I recently made two to my day, in an effort to break up the monotony of winter.  Both happen to involve the morning. The first is that I’ve left behind our old, plastic drip coffee maker and moved on to a shiny 100% stainless steel French press. I have no idea why I’ve waited so long to make this change to something that gives me so much pleasure. I was stuck in a rut, I guess. Sure, it takes a bit more time, but oh is that cup of coffee with the froth on top and the dense mouthfeel and the bit of sludge in the bottom ever worth it.

It tastes like real coffee. Like the coffee I had the first time I lived in France while in college when every sip from the wide, handle-less bowl in the kitchen of my host mother Madame Lavier was a revelation. She served it black and I drank it at her wooden table as she sliced baguette for our breakfast tartine while regaling me with colorful stories I struggled to comprehend. I left her kitchen buzzing from the giant bowl of coffee and ready to delve into the day’s adventure. 

I now realize (lagging behind the many coffee aficionados out there) that the method for making coffee is of the utmost importance. Quality beans roasted to perfection are key also, and fortunately we have lots of options for these here in Vermont. I seek out rich, earthy, full bodied coffee, similar to my taste in chocolate and wine. And I tend to like medium to darker roasts as well. Although we have many excellent local roasters, I’m going to give a shout out to Middlebury’s Vermont Coffee Company and its organic, fair trade beans roasted “big and bold.” Even their decaf is big and bold, a rare and beautiful thing. I’ve known the owner Paul Ralston for years—producer of avant-garde Shakespeare productions, former state legislator, and entrepreneur. He also roasts some damn good coffee. 

Once you’ve identified and acquired your beans, here’s my method for making a satisfying cup: Grind the beans fresh, right before using them. Don’t be tempted to buy pre-ground beans to save time (or worse, to join the ranks of the nearly one in three American households that have a pod-based coffee machine). So much flavor is lost with pre-ground, plus you miss the intoxicating aroma the beans give off while they’re being ground. I use my trusty grinder that was given to me back when I was in grad school (and drinking lots of coffee) by my apartment-mate Sharon. (Yes, Sharon, it’s still grinding away!) Grinding your own also allows you to attain the correct coarse consistency for the French press.

My French press is a single serving size, just 12 ounces. So I grind enough beans to yield 4 scoops of grounds and put those in the bottom of the press. (Lest you wonder why I’m not making coffee for two, the reason is that we have different coffee preferences in my household. Chris goes for single origin beans and lighter roasts. He also starts his day a tad earlier than I do.) Meanwhile, heat your water on the stove (not a microwave) and remove the kettle just after it starts to boil. Let the water rest about 30 seconds and then pour it over the grounds. Set your timer for four minutes.

After about two minutes, give it a stir. I love this part, when the “bloom” swirls around and you can see the frothy foam forming on top. Another hit of the coffee’s heady aroma rises from the press, and I start to wake up.

When the timer goes off, it’s time to plunge.

Slowly press the plunger down so the grinds are forced to the bottom.

Then pour the coffee into your favorite mug.

I like a splash of milk, so it’s nearly black but not quite. Inhale again, sip, and enjoy.

The only downside to converting to the French press is the clean-up process. But in actuality it only takes about a minute. For one of life’s little pleasures, a minute of clean-up is not a big deal. And the only waste that’s generated from this whole process is coffee grinds, which go right into my compost bin. No K-cup is added to the growing pile that threatens to take over the world.

I’ll tell you about my second morning tweak in my next post—making homemade bread from a sour dough starter, another kind of beast that lives right on my kitchen counter.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ottawa Calling: Canal Skating, Beavertails, and a Cold North Wind (guest post by Chris)

Our first evening in Ottawa we found ourselves in front of a goofy photo of President Obama in the Byward Market before dinner. Obama had just purchased a maple leaf cookie and stood surrounded by employees at the Le Moulin de Provence bakery as he proclaimed, “I love this country!”

Like Obama, I too love Canada. Growing up in Williamsville, outside of Buffalo, Canada was a constant presence—from the trips to the beaches and amusement park at Sherkston, to the occasional forays to Niagara Falls, to the television stations streaming in different shows and lots of hockey. And, of course, when I became of legal age, the Canadian beers that were a mainstay of our local bars—Labatt, Molson, O’Keefe. Since we’ve lived in Vermont, our family has made many trips to Canada—usually the short trip to Montreal, sometimes just Sheila and me, other times with Faye and Isabel. We enjoyed a wonderful two week vacation to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and Sheila joined me for several days at a conference in Vancouver. But I had never been to Ottawa—nor had Sheila or Faye. (Isabel went with her 6th grade class from Bristol Elementary, before everyone needed passports.) 

We had heard great things about Ottawa’s winter carnival (Winterlude), and had twice planned a family trip only to have to cancel due to illness and weather too warm to skate. But this year we made it. As we drove into the center of Ottawa after lunch on a Friday, we were struck by the beauty of our hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier

and the buildings of Parliament Hill. 

We checked in, got some friendly advice, and headed to the nearby Rideau Canal Skateway, billed as the world’s largest skating rink.   


We had an hour or so skate, just finding our legs, so to speak. It was crystal clear, however—indeed as clear as the ice sculptures we’d soon visit—that we weren’t native skaters. 

Nearby Confederation Park was home to a wide array of beautifully carved ice sculptures, some made by professionals, and others by local citizens working away with chain saws. 

The cold soon started to catch up with us, and we headed back to the hotel to warm up.

Dinner was nearby at Play, something of a northern tapas restaurant. We each ordered two small plates—I enjoyed a mussel dish and some gnocchi with short rib and Swiss chard. 

Both Faye and Sheila started with a fig salad, 

followed by a hanger steak for Faye and Arctic char for Sheila. 

I also eased in to the excellent Ontario craft brewing scene, with Ottawa’s own Lug Tread Ale from Beau’s and a Muskoka Mad Tom IPA, while Sheila enjoyed some Argentine red. Then it was back to the warm chateau as the temperature headed for zero—excuse me, -18 C.

The next day started out with coffee and pastries at Bridgehead, a fine local chain. 

We then strolled through a quiet downtown (it was Saturday morning) and on past the Supreme Court building and the Parliament Hill complex. As we changed into our skating gear, the sun came out and the blue sky helped offset the cold. 

We skated a confident 6k this day. Not quite Canadians, but at least respectable winter people. Before finishing our skate, Faye and I enjoyed “the” local delicacy—a beavertail (Sheila had a taste). 

This glorified fried dough came with a variety of toppings, but Faye had been advised that the best was sugar, cinnamon, and lemon, so that’s what we had. 

It was a great treat after a good skate, but I couldn’t shake the last vision of a beavertail from my mind as I bit into the dough. It was of our late, great Golden/Lab Cooper, in the rear view mirror, running after our car at full speed with her jaws gripping a real beavertail, pulled from a frozen carcass she discovered on a hike. 

After completing our skate, we headed over to the Byward Market for lunch and strolling in the numerous shops. At the end of the afternoon, we met our friend Zohra for coffee. We served as Zohra's host family when she attended Middlebury several years ago, the first Afghan woman to do so. She is now attending law school at the University of Ottawa, with plans to return to Afghanistan.

A cold walk brought us to Town, our dinner restaurant. It was a hip scene and we like to think we blended right in. 

I enjoyed another Ottawa beer (Dominion City Two Flags IPA) with my pork loin. Faye and Sheila enjoyed ricotta cavatelli with oyster mushrooms and kale pesto, and some Italian red for Sheila. We all agreed that if Town were located near Bristol, we’d be frequent visitors. We then made the walk back to the hotel, cutting through Confederation Park to see the ice sculptures at night and take in some of the (literal) Sub-Zero DJ.

Sunday morning brought a blizzard, more cold, and wind. It was winter in Canada, after all. We had planned some more skating, but given the weather and the drive back, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Moulin de Provence and were on our way. Before our trip we had read that Ottawa was the second coldest capital in the world, and it lived up to that reputation.  I’m very much looking forward to my next visit, but it may be in the summer. Oh, and that trip to Ulan Bator, the world’s coldest capital—that definitely won’t be happening in the winter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Crossing Cultures in Marrakech

“Hello, you remember me?” the man asked, with a wide smile. “I carry your bags this morning, remember?”

Chris and I nodded blankly and smiled back at the man as we walked out the front gate of La Mamounia in Marrakech. We weren’t, in truth, staying at this renowned hotel. We had simply wanted to stroll its magnificent gardens, usually reserved for guests. But we were dressed for dinner at a nearby restaurant and thought we’d try to sneak in, striding past the uniformed doormen just thirty minutes earlier like we owned the place.

Monday, January 5, 2015

On Montreal, Music, and Memory

It’s a new year, not only in the larger sense but, since Chris and I got married on December 29th, we’re also beginning a new year of marriage. We celebrated our anniversary in Montreal this year, taking in the Francophone culture, the art scene, and some excellent food, bien sûr.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Essential Ingredients

Now that the dust has settled in my kitchen after the Thanksgiving frenzy, and the leftovers have dwindled to a pot of soup in the fridge, it’s time to think about December cooking and baking. I’ve written about some holiday favorites before, but lately I’ve been thinking about essential ingredients—what goes into those favorites, what I cannot do without. They break down naturally into the five sensations our tongue’s taste receptors respond to: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For those not familiar with umami, a more recent addition, it’s the Japanese word for “savory deliciousness” and is associated with foods high in glutamate, such as fish, meat, specific vegetables, and fermented and aged foods. Although difficult to define, it’s glaringly obvious when umami is missing. I found it challenging to come up with a list of just ten essentials, but have narrowed it down by limiting it to ingredients I never eat on their own.

Sea salt, preferably coarse: Salt of the earth, grain of salt, worth one’s salt—there’s a reason so many common expressions involve salt and that “salary” is derived from the word. It’s a necessary mineral in the human body, not just an ingredient, and offers sensual satisfaction as well. Unfortunately it’s often applied with an indiscriminate hand, but a judicious amount of salt enhances the flavor of just about anything, and can even be transformative. Think of the difference between plain potatoes and potatoes with a sprinkling of salt…no comparison. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What I'm Thankful For

Every year at Thanksgiving we begin the meal by going around the table and saying what we’re all thankful for. We’ve been doing this since our girls were little and were first starting to talk (a popular contribution at that age was “Pie!”). Our guests are always invited to join in, and they always do, bringing their personalities and varying levels of comfort to this family tradition. What I’m thankful for each year hasn’t really changed over time, although in an effort to not allow the food on our plates to grow cold, I usually compress it into a sentence or two. But here on my blog, I have ample room to elaborate. So elaborate I shall, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday. Here goes.

I’m thankful for my family. That’s always first. For Chris—and nearly 25 years of marriage to my best friend. Who, notwithstanding some challenges along the way, loves and accepts me—weaknesses, flaws, and all. He’s still my dreamboat, and life is rarely dull.