Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Memories Of Miri On Bellaire Boulevard




stirring the water, making the shrimp jump out (photo©raymond franssen)

On the coast of Sarawak, close to the border with Brunei, is a town called Miri. It is where I lived for four years. We lived in a bungalow in tropical surroundings. Hornbills woke us up in the morning with their piercing cries. Bullfrogs kept us up at night croaking loudly after a rainstorm. It was 200 meters from the beach. Not your seaside-resort beach, this one was often littered with dead fish and debris from the logging industry. Call it a working beach. When the sea turned pink from the tiny shrimp feeding in the shallows, fishermen armed with nets, sticks and baskets gathered to catch them. Wading knee-deep in water, they stirred around in the shallow water with their sticks, creating a whirlpool of shrimp squirming up and under the waves. Carefully, they dragged their nets. Then they walked back to the beach, emptied their nets and went back into the water. For weeks, the shrimp dried out in the open, filling the air with their fermenting smell. Hard to imagine something so putrid can be so delicious. 
back to the beach to dry the catch (photo©raymond franssen)
Life in Miri was an eye-opening gastronomic adventure. I loved the local market. From the malodorous durian, fresh slaughtered jungle wild boar, to the delicate slipper lobster, you'd find it at the market. I attempted to chat with vendors, learning that food connects, even if language fails. I bought midin (jungle ferns). Tofu sheets that looked like parchment paper. I saw bundles of horseshoe crabs, a creature said to be a living fossil. They come ashore to mate. I nearly stepped on one walking on the beach one day. I bought whole duck, pale head dangling on the long neck, webbed feet attached, every bit considered a delicacy. The pork section was behind a tiled wall, also in the open air. The most vivid nose-to-tail display, ears, snouts, intestines, organs, trotters and tails, everything of the pig was butchered and sold. Coupled with the humid heat of the tropics, the market was quite an assault on the senses. I often miss that hotpot of exotic smells and sights. But I miss the food more.
shrimp fishing, a stone's throw from our house when we lived in Miri (photo©raymond franssen)
It is why in Houston, a favorite pastime is to go for lunch at Banana Leaf on Bellaire Boulevard, and then for groceries to the Chinese supermarket next door. The food brings back memories of life in Miri. It is a nice place, too, decorated with bamboo and palm-thatched booths. Last time lunch was succulent grilled chicken satay, piping hot fresh roti canai with a mild curry sauce. We had nasi lemak. It is a staple in Malaysia, and the national dish, really. The "fat rice" (literal translation) comes surrounded with a variety of condiments, usually including ikan bilis (tiny anchovies, usually fried crisp), kacang (roasted peanuts), telor (boiled and quartered egg), and above all: sambal belacan, a chili sauce made with crushed dried shrimp. I always ask for extra at Banana Leaf. There was Mee Hoon goreng (flavorsome fried Singapore vermicelli noodles), and, a dish he loved living in Miri, my son chose Char Kueh Teow, stir-fried flat band rice noodles. Bellies full, we quickly shopped next door at the supermarket for longans, rambutan, king oyster mushrooms, rau ram (Vietnamese herb), a bunch of lemongrass, and a big fat pomelo. 
clockwise: char kueh teow, satay, nasi lemak, bee hoon goreng, and sambal belacan
Malaysian Restaurant Banana Leaf Houston: www.bananaleafhouston.com


You may also like Sarawak Indigenous Food Treasures


Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Pass, Houston!

Oh My, The Pass. Through the wall you go, in a classy ambiance you arrive. At the end, the pass. Chef at the ready, brigade buzzing. It was good the moment we walked in.

A champagne trolley is wheeled to our table. Celebrating (always something), we go for a full glass of Marc Hebrart Brut Rosé 1er Cru. The table next to us is nearing the end of their dinner, and I see them lick a lolly.

We opt for the 8-course tasting menu with wine pairings. The other option would have been 5-course. There is no other menu at The Pass: the chef takes you on a journey through the kitchen and its creativity.

Modern dining. Fine art on a plate, the food is intriguing and entertaining to the senses. There is an element of surprise, a teaser, an unexpected taste. Throughout the evening, different kitchen chefs appear at our table, explaining a dish, an ingredient, answering a question, slicing a component, pouring a liquid, bringing a final touch.

The Pass has a different menu as seasons come, and kitchen creativity blooms. This one is from almost a year ago, when we visited the restaurant for the first time.

In a hay-like nest sits a duck egg, filled up with chawanmushi, a custard made with gingko nuts. It comes topped with salty dashi flaked granola. Visual pleasure versus bland custard, it is rather oddly paired with foie gras framed in brioche toast. In the pairing, we went for the refreshing and fruity 2011Tokaji sec, which pleasantly mingled with the foie gras. The other pairing option was the Junmai Ginjo "Bride of the Fox" sake. It would perhaps have lifted the custard and dashi granola somewhat.

The house smoked trout floating in creamy brandade is plate-licking good. Flavors are rich, deep, with licorice hints of tarragon. Even a small spoonful is sheer delight, especially when the flavors mix with those of plump salmon eggs bursting. The dish is accompanied by a wood box full of paper-thin reconstructed potato crisps.

Culinary entertainment arrives with a salt-and-coffee crusted, black-charred baked rutabaga: its crust is carefully cracked at the table to reveal a deep orange, steaming-hot naturally sweet rutabaga, its flesh gently infused with the salt and coffee from its crust. Slices naturally savory-sweet rutabaga join a plate with brilliantly tender venison, and nutty wheatberries, fragrant with orange. More than a pretty picture, the aromas of coffee and orange, against the meatiness of the venison, the heartiness of the wheatberries and intense flavor of the baked rutabaga made for a perfect fall dish. It married well with the 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape.
Predominantly a savory person, it isn't often that I rave about a dessert. I do here. Stunning in presentation, amusing in surprise discovered, and delicious in taste (even if a little numbing), the ice-smoking, flash-frozen slices of apple and beetroot spooned from a carved pumpkin, lit for extra effect, is a wow-ing dessert, and well-paired a Riesling Auslese. Yet it is the dessert that comes next, that has me wipe a little happy tear of culinary emotion. It is a truffle risotto.
vanilla risotto with shaved truffle-infused chocolate, a stunning dessert.
Apologies for the blurry images, IPhone pictures and wine pairings are not the best match
I had been wondering about "truffle risotto". It had to be sweet, given its ranking in the menu. When one of the pastry chefs arrived at our table, carrying a black towel with a big, black truffle in one hand, and a truffle shaver in her other hand, confusion mounted. Then the dish arrives. The aromas wafting from the plate give us a clue. Sweet aromas, with a hint of vanilla, this is a creamy, lush sweet risotto. And the truffle in the black towel is made of bitter chocolate, infused with fresh truffle, and reshaped into this beautiful knobbly chunk of deliciousness. Amused by our stunned delight, the chef gently shaved slivers of the dark chocolate truffle over the risotto. Paired with a Perle d'Arche 2005 Sauternes, heaven came to our table right that very moment.

Wine pairings were original and spot on, and while pouring some great wines, other pairings were equally intriguing, from a specialty cocktail, sake to microbrew beers. The evening ended with another trolley wheeled to our table: a sweets cart. Lollies, marshmallows, mini madeleines, brittle, wrapped candy... all made in-house, and best of all: you didn't have to pick, but instead you're encouraged to try them all!

The Pass. Can't wait to try another journey.

The Pass is the intimate, fine dining counterpart of The Pass & Provisions. Provisions is the convivial part, with annexed bar for some outstanding cocktails and local beers. Plates are often intended for sharing, although you can gobble it up all by yourself. Food is tasty, fresh, and creative in its own right. It is, after all, cooked under the same culinary roof as The Pass.  

website: www.passandprovisions.com




Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cooking With Kohlrabi


hello you beauty!
Kohlrabi is as versatile as celeriac, turnip, beetroot, jicama, and what other bulbous vegetable you can think of that slices nicely, is tasty and crunchy raw, and equally delicious cooked, braised, or roasted. The little beauty in the picture is a kohlrabi still in the ground, moments away from being picked fresh from the field at the farmhouse in Maine where I was staying (link). You can eat the leaves, too! The larger ones may be a tad tough, but cook them like you would kale or collard greens. If you find the greens, that is: on the manicured vegetable shelves in many a supermarket, the kohlrabi comes trimmed and stripped. The name, by the way, is of German origin and points to the two vegetables this bulb is reminiscent of: cabbage (kohl) and turnip (rübe). Below are three recipes featuring kohlrabi.

The first recipe is for Coconut Ginger Kohlrabi Puree. Smooth and full of flavor, I found it a perfect bed for seared scallops. Next, is kohlrabi "carpaccio" style. Sliced thin and marinated, it makes a pretty picture with dark, crunchy kale chips. The flavors of the roasted, savory kale, the crunchy kohlrabi and its hints of lemon, ginger, spice, and herbs literally will whet your appetite, making it a great appetizer. Of course, it is even better with lump crab meat, plump shrimp, a good goat cheese, smoked duck breast, should I go on? The final recipe is a simple red coleslaw that builds on the pure flavors and textures of kohlrabi and celeriac. Celeriac is one of my favorite roots, especially as a simple salad of thin cut julienne celeriac tossed with a lemon and mustard mayonnaise. You could do the same with kohlrabi!

Bon Appetite!

Coconut Ginger Kohlrabi Puree (gone before I took a picture)
1 cup coconut cream
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp grated lime peel
 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
2 medium kohlrabi, diced

Cook the kohlrabi in the cream and ginger until soft. Strain (keep the liquid!!!) and mash into a puree adding the coconut-ginger liquid as you go until it is creamy, smooth, and slightly runny to your liking (you may not need all the liquid). Add the lime peel, taste and adjust if needed.

Marinated Kohlrabi With Crumbled Kale

1 medium kohlrabi, peeled and thinly sliced carpaccio-style (use a mandoline)
1/2 cup kale chips*
marinade: 
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp shredded herbs**
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp (or to taste) finely chopped (minced, really) fresh green chili
1 tsp raw cane sugar (or honey)
  • Mix all marinade ingredients, and let stand for 30 minutes to infuse all the flavors
  • Add the sliced kohlrabi, and leave to marinade for 30 minutes up to 2 hours.
  • Take the kohlrabi out of the marinade (save the marinade), and arrange on a platter in a circle
  • drizzle the marinade over.
  • Crumble the kale chips over OR leave the kale chips whole and arrange alongside the kohlrabi slices
*Kale Chips: you can buy them in a store, or very easily make your own. This is how I usually make them: preheat the oven to 350F, tear the (washed and dried) kale leafs into chip-size pieces. Toss with a little olive oil (a few drops) and a pinch of sea salt (basic kale chip). Spread on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, and bake until crisp and dried (12-15 min).

**the herbs: I used fresh basil because I had it, but you can use other herbs if you like. Mint works, so does tarragon, for instance. 
Red Coleslaw with Kohlrabi and Celeriac
1 kohlrabi, peeled
1 celeriac, cleaned and peeled
1 red cabbage, outer leaves removed
dressing
2 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tsp sharp mustard (Dijon)
juice of a lemon (or to taste)
1 tbsp finely chopped spring onion
1/2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, and if you have, some fresh tarragon
  • Celeriac raw is delicious, but can be tough to chew if not cut thin. I usually cut it by hand in julienne (thin strips). Put the strips in a colander and sprinkle some coarse salt on. Leave for up to 30 minutes, then drain. It softens the celeriac. Proceed to use in the salad.
  • Cut the kohlrabi in thin strips, and shred the cabbage thin.
  • Make the dressing by mixing all ingredients together. Mix through the vegetables, and leave to infuse for up to 30 minutes (it keeps well overnight)

thank you New Moorings in Maine!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Houston's Urban Harvest Abundance In My Kitchen

I escaped the summer heat in Houston for six weeks. A luxury, I am well aware. I spent it picking vegetables fresh from the greenhouse, digging clams on the beach, and cooking happily in my holiday farm kitchen in Maine. Then on to Quebec, where I went to the local farmers market, cooked with wild mushrooms, zebra cherry tomatoes, beautiful goat meat, fresh sweetbreads, and even samphire, or as the farmer called it: sea asparagus. Twas a summer so full of delicious fresh food, I almost forgot the farm-fresh abundance I can find right here in Houston. Almost, but not quite: soon as I returned to Houston, I went to the weekly farmers market. In My Kitchen I am now busy preparing a farmers market menu. 
Crisp Fresh Squash Flowers
Look at that beautiful bunch of squash flowers, fresh like cold morning air! Tis not even half of the amount in my kitchen. Similar to a recipe for zucchini flowers, I stuffed them with goat cheese, dipped them in a tempura-style batter and fried them crisp. The fresh goat cheese comes from Vermont Creamery, where we made a visit-stop en route to Boston Logan Airport. Delightful fresh goat cheese, but I must admit: passing by the market stall of local Texas cheesemakers like Blue Heron Farm, I felt a little regret I had all that goat cheese already. I better finish that goat cheese in my kitchen (yum)!
Galveston Bay shrimp
He caught them the day before, said the vendor with the ice chest full of fresh shrimp. Galveston Bay shrimp are like the teenagers of Gulf shrimp, feeding in the Bay before they venture out into the Gulf of Mexico. These babies are tender, succulent shrimp. I bought a good batch, and steam-boiled them in a Cajun style court-bouillon spiced with tabasco. I saved the court-bouillon, soaked now with flavors of shrimp, for a creamy bisque that I'll make later in my kitchen.
yard eggs in my kitchen
Multi-Color Yard Eggs
The farmers market menu in my kitchen so far has court-bouillon boiled shrimp, goat-cheese stuffed squash flowers, roasted okra and Yellow Roma tomato salad. On to dessert. Never did a custard taste better than made with these farm-fresh beautiful eggs. Such a pleasure watching yard egg yolks whisked with sugar come together with lemon-infused cream-and-milk in a silky-smooth custard to go with colorful fresh figs.
Figs Galore In My Kitchen
The green figs are ripe, the farmer assured me. These were Strawberry Figs, he said. Green on the outside, red inside, the figs are absolutely delicious. Biting into the delicate bulb of green revealed a strawberry red heart of sweet fig-ness. Unable to resist the 3 for 12$ offer, I came home with a variety of fresh little figs. Including the Texas Everbearing. The color of caramel and honey-sweet in taste, these really are better-than-a-bonbon figs. The medley of figs grace the silky yard egg custard tonight. And tomorrow in my kitchen, the rest of the little gems are caramelized and served with creamy goat cheese over grilled pork chops from a local farm.
better-than-a-bonbon fresh figs caramelized with local Texas honey, a sprig of thyme, and goat cheese

This post comes with an appreciative fig-wink to Celia. In My Kitchen is a monthly "peek into kitchens around the world" series initiated by Celia @ Fig And Jam Cordial

Houston, the farmers market in this post is, of course, the fabulous, weekly, year-round Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market, website: www.urbanharvest.org

Saturday, August 30, 2014

At Vermont Creamery

One of the first American cheeses I tasted when I moved to the States, was a Bonne Bouche. A fresh goat cheese from Vermont Creamery. A lover of aged, ripe artisanal cheeses, I was delighted with the rich savory soft goat cheese. It rapidly became one of my favorite cheeses, especially the riper one oozing deliciously under its wrinkled rind. Bonne Bouche ages on the shelves at Vermont Creamery for 7-10 days. After that, it continues to ripen in its individual little box for up to 80 days. A very young Bonne Bouche has deliciously firm snow-white fresh goat cheese, while one pushing the sell-by date, and my favorite, comes out runny and ripe. The wonderful characteristics of an artisanal cheese.

A detour off the I-89 en route to Boston airport for our flight back to Houston takes me to Vermont Creamery. It smells of fresh milk, even outside. Goat milk, collected from local family farms. Cow milk, churned into cultured butter. The wafts of dairy and a picture of an old 10-gallon milk container bring back memories of when I was young, helping out on a dairy farm pouring milk raw and foaming from the milking bucket into a container just like it. Peering through the glass window to look at a system of vats, drain tables, and cheesecloth bags, I listen to Aged Cheese artisan Joey Conner explaining the process of collecting, pasteurizing and culturing the milk before the resulting fresh cream is drained to separate whey from curds to the desired consistency. Or goes to the churner for butter. 
"wrinkles are beautiful", a ripe Bonne Bouche wriggled free from its little wood box and onto my cheese board
Goût de Terroir
Cheesemaker and co-founder of Vermont Creamery Allison Hooper learned the secrets of artisanal cheesemaking in France (Brittany). Impressed with the notion of goût de terroir, the "taste of a place" became one of the most determining elements in cheesemaking at the Vermont Creamery. Quality starts with the origin of the product, or in this case the milk: goat or cow, milk comes strictly from selected local family farms, in a region abundant in green, seasons and fresh air. And my god, it is green, Vermont. I drove the I-89 from the Canadian border down to New Hampshire and green was all we saw. Green mountains, green pastures, green shores around rivers and lakes reflecting green.

The cultured butter produced at Vermont Creamery is rich: it contains 86% butterfat, the kind that makes you purr. Making cultured butter started with an old churner found abandoned in a farm field. The old churner with its big moving blades operated until just three years ago, when it was replaced with a modern churner to meet growing demand for the rich golden pure butter goodness. It comes unsalted, lightly salted, salted with grey Baltic sea salt, and one that had my son imagine hot homemade pancakes, and me seared bison steak: a butter enriched with pure maple syrup.

For the size of its market today, Vermont Creamery is a small operation, and a substantial part of the process is still done by hand. Proud of their artisanal fresh goat cheese, their rich cultured butter, what the company seems most proud of is the fact that for more than thirty years and counting, it sustains a solid local network of small farms and creamery artisans.
Vermont Creamery has a small team of creamery artisans. Here the butter man carefully
hand-packages a new batch of Vermont Creamery 86% cultured butter 
butter goodness under a checkered cloth: you want it, I know you do
Geotricum-rinded Cheeses
Vermont Creamery was the first to make “geo-rinds” (using pasteurized milk) in the States, and have perfected it in their aptly named Bijou (made in the style of crottin de Chavignol, a young Bijou has a creamy texture, and as it ages it gains in sharpness), Coupole, and of course, my favorite Bonne Bouche. Geotricum is a fungus, or yeast. It creates that wrinkled rind around the cheese that comes with blemishes, blots, and a moldy-looking appearance. None of it harmful, it adds to the flavor and overall delicacy of the cheese. You'll find this kind of cheese all over Europe, many of them in fact made from raw milk. In the US, any raw milk product is bound by strict regulations, including artisanal raw milk cheeses. To me it doesn't make sense why you would restrict artisanal raw milk cheese, yet have processed cheese with the taste and texture qualities of candle wax so unrestrictedly available by the buckets. Not to end on a rant: thank cheese heaven for the cheese artisans around the US dedicated to making good quality cheeses.

Vermont Creamery is a Certified B-Corp: Be The Change, these are small corporations that "meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Read more here

Further reading
Developing Geotricum-rinded Cheese In The States (by Allison Hooper, VC cheesemaker and co-founder)

You may also like
A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese
Slow Shepherds And The Cheese Resistance
Dreaming Of Cheese: Dutch Artisanal Cheeses

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Lean Goat Marries Full-Bodied Priorat

You are what you eat. It goes for goat, too! Just had goat from a local farm in the Quebec Laurentians. Gone was the odoriferous quality I came to associate with goat meat. Grass-fed, this goat meat was tender in taste and smell, and rightfully so likened to veal by its farmer.

Don't get me wrong. Even with a certain rankness, I've had some wonderful goat. Simmered in a spicy curry. Gentled with ginger, sweet soy, chili and lime in my favorite Indonesian Satay Kambing. Whole goat roasted asado in front of a blazing wood fire, and served in crispy thin slices. Goat just had this undeniable taste, I thought.

Natural Taste
Not the goat meat I bought at La Maison des Fermiers in Saint Jovite (Quebec). It looked lean and smelled fresh. Putting it to the test, we simply grilled the delicate rack of goat in all its naturalness. It was velvety tender with a pure red meatiness that I'd place between veal and venison. Rubbed with Moroccan spice and braised slowly, the goat shanks came out falling off the bone, deliciously meaty and amazingly: very little fat.

La Maison des Fermiers in Saint Jovite (Quebec) sells local farmers specialty meats, eggs, and dairy products. Their blackboard lists oie, canard, bison, and chevreau. Translating the bunch for the benefit of my son, I had some fun explaining also the variations of "chev" as in cheveaux, cheveux, cheval, chevreuil, chevreau, and how not to mix up horse and hair at the hairdresser. We tried goose burgers, bought duck legs for confit, and of course: the goat meat from their own farm nearby in the Laurentian mountains.
What's in a wine label
Red ants crawling all over the black and white label. I thought of The Label Project I participated in: how important is the label in choosing a wine. It isn't, well, not if you know what you want. Priorat is a small wine region inland from the Catalonian coast in northeastern Spain. Known for its full-bodied wines, it is a wine that swirls wonderful with rustic meat dishes. Locking flavors quite happily, the match between Formiga DOG Priorat and my braised goat was no exception (tasting notes here).




Moroccan Spice Braised Goat Shanks
recipe for 4
4 goat shanks
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 can peeled cherry tomatoes
1 glass red wine
2 tsp coarse salt (or to taste)
1 tbsp olive oil

spice mix
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground paprika
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp fennel seeds
  • preheat the oven to 350F
  • lightly toast the seeds (coriander, cumin, peppercorns, fennel) and pound fine. Mix all spices together. You may need all (store the rest)
  • rub the spice mix and coarse salt onto the shanks. 
  • heat the olive oil in a casserole (ovenproof with lid), and brown shanks on all sides. Careful not to burn the spices. 
  • take the shanks out, and gently soften the onions in the same pan. Add ginger and celeriac after about 5 minutes, cook for another 2 minutes
  • turn up the heat, add the red wine, reduce to half the amount
  • add the cherry tomatoes, bring to a boil and add the shanks
  • Cover and cook in the oven for 2-3 hours, or until meat pulls easily when you tear it with a fork. 
I served the shanks with creamy polenta, roasted rainbow carrots and New Zealand spinach fresh from a local farmer in the area.



Monday, August 18, 2014

With A Belly Full Of Cheese Around Vanoise


Seasonally speckled with fresh morel mushrooms, the bubbling pot of Fondue Savoyarde was an open invitation to overeat. We dipped bread, pulled strings of melted cheese, peeped over the rim of the fondue pot to locate a good morsel of morel mushroom, and we indulged like there was no hiking the next day. The local herbal liqueur, Génépi (pronounced it sounds like JennyPee) helped ease the overeaten fullness, but didn't do my legs any favors the next morning on the mountain trails of Vanoise National Park.

The hike up from Pralognan to the Col de la Vanoise starts with a relentless, steep climb. It pulverized my wobbly legs, but the reward was some of nature's best Alpine scenery of rocky mountains, snow-covered peaks, glacier lakes, and dreamy meadows where marmots whistle and Bouquetin (Alpine Ibex) graze. I had booked our refuges in the Vanoise in advance, to be assured of a meal and a spot on the family-style bunk-beds in the authentic small, stone hut. When we dumped our stuff in the first night dormitory room, I shrugged at the narrowness of my allotted sleeping space. At the end of a long mountain walking day, a bed is a bed.
We snacked on chunks of Beaufort and Abondance we'd bought before departure from Pralognan. And salami we sliced with a pocket knife. I was never one for trail mix. We even brought a baguette that was crusty and smelled alluringly the day we got it at the boulangerie, but squashed against our sweaty backs all day, the leftover came out crumbled and stale the next day. Every night at the refuge, a satisfying dinner was served: a hearty soup, a "plat du jour", cheese, and a dessert. A bottle of wine on the table, a digestif to seal the deal. Soon as dinner was over, the dining room cleared and it was off to bed, finally allowing the eyelids to do what they'd been begging to do since the soup: shut. 

Up from the trail on a grassy slope one day, some people stood bent over low bushes. They were picking wild blueberries. Tiny and oh so delicious, we joined the foraging for a short while before we trudged on. We had a long, long trail ahead. Around every rocky curve we looked hopefully across. Could we see our next hut perched in the distance? The trail meandered around many curves and cliffs more before we did. And even then, it was never "as the crow flies". Tired to the bone, we arrived at La Dent Parrachée, and kicked off our hiking boots to cool the steaming hoofs in the open mountain air. After a refreshing shower, beer in hand and breathtaking view to take in, the throbbing legs were soon forgotten. The final struggle that day was to remain awake through dinner, and then crash for a good night sleep. That evening, a group with young children arrived quite late, when everyone else was already down to dessert. I remember my brother looking up, expressing dismay: how can we, adults, go off to bed when kids are still out there eating, looking all chipper and awake. We tried to sit up straight, smile, and pretend not to be overwhelmingly tired. It was a lost battle. I did hear them shuffle quietly to the dormitory later that evening. Worse, they were up and done with breakfast before we even emerged.

This multi-day hike was done several years ago, and for me personally it was one of the most strenuous hikes I have ever done (with the exception of Hiking in the Annapurna). We did a 4 day/3 nts loop hike, starting and finishing in Pralognan-la-Vanoise. We walked past Col de la Vanoise to stay overnight at the Refuge d'Entre Deux Eaux. From there, we walked a long, long day to Refuge de la Dent Parrachée. We spent a final night in Refuge du Col de la Vanoise before descending back to Pralognan. 

Fondue Savoyarde
A cheese fondue made with cheeses from the Savoie and the Franche-Comte, like Abondance, Beaufort, Comte, and French Gruyere and Emmenthal (the latter two are made in the style of, and named after the original Swiss cheeses). A regional wine made to match the richness of cheese fondue is Vin de Savoie Apremont.
Tartiflette
One of my favorite dishes to eat in the Savoie region, it is a dish of sliced potatoes, hearty bacon, onions, and topped with a thick layer of local Reblochon. The dish is served hot, with the cheese melted all over and into the potato mixture underneath
Tarte aux Myrtille Sauvages
An open shortcrust pie filled and baked with delicious wild blueberries

Refuges in the Vanoise here (including maps and links to the refuges mentioned in this post)
Vanoise hiking loops here (including trail maps of the area described in this post)

NEXT: GRAN PARADISO

This is a post in a series Hiking And Eating In The Alps. Also in this series is A Short Story of Alpine Cheese (a walk to a traditional Alpage de Beaufort in the French Savoie).



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hiking And Eating In The Alps

You can hike across the Alps, never bring a rucksack picnic or overnight-hike food, and still eat very well even at high altitude. On a gastronomic trail map, you could start your day with Weisswurst and a beer in the Bavarian Alps, nibble on cured meats, good butter and dark sourdough bread in Tyrol, dip into a veritable cheese fondue in Switzerland, fill up on carbonade and polenta in Val d'Aosta, and end your day with tarte aux myrtilles sauvages and an artisanal Génépi in the SavoieSpanning across eight different countries, the Alps are a hikers' paradise with hundreds of miles of trails, passes, and footpaths cutting through spectacular high mountain scenery. Some of them are as old as when Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants. Yet what makes the Alps such a splendid region for mountain walking in MY book, is the authentic culture and Alpine cuisine you come across as you tramp the trails.
 
Part of that Alpine culture are the Alps' authentic mountain huts, where weary hikers can rest, eat, and even spend the night. These huts champion their Alpine heritage: built to last with sturdy dark wooden beams and thick stone walls, they're often in a panoramic position, affording views that both take your breath away, and let you catch it again. Traditional foods and local gastronomy thrive here. The common denominator is hearty comfort food aimed to restore your energy levels. Each country has its own specialities. Potatoes, for instance, are a main ingredient in many a dish, but they'll be grated into rösti in Switzerland, cooked down in a Gulash soup in Austria, mashed and rolled into gnocchi in Italy, and sliced and topped with speck and melted cheese for a tartiflette in France. 

Over the years, we've been to the Alps for hiking and eating many, many times. First as a couple, with my brother, and later with our son. In fact, part of the Vanoise loop done first with my brother, we did a couple of years later with both brother and son, spending a hiking night at Refuge Plan du Lac. Treasured memories retraced make even better memories to last.


In a series of posts Hiking And Eating In The Alps, I look back on some of my favorite hiking trips in the Alps, based on criteria of stunning Alpine scenery, unique moments, great food, and beautiful memories. They are a random selection of short stories. The first story describes an adventure in the land of Beaufort cheese: A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese, and coming up are Vanoise, Gran Paradiso, and Tyrol Sud and Austrian. Links to mountain huts and maps are included where possible. Hope you will enjoy my series of little ad hoc epicurean hiking adventures in the European Alps!

In the series Hiking And Eating In The Alps:
With A Belly Full Of Cheese Around Vanoise (A multi-day hike that started off with a belly full of Savoie cheese fondue.
A Short Story Of Alpine Cheese (a delightful walk up to a traditional Alpage de Beaufort in Savoie)
Well-thumbed and smudged, Walking The Alpine Parks of France and Northwest Italy (1994 edition) has been our guide on many of our mountain-walking trips. Preparing an Alpine walking trip starts with the fun of tracing your trails on the map. Maps and guide books are also a perfect excuse on a steady climb to pause and "get your bearings"

Saturday, August 2, 2014

With A Pitchfork In My Kitchen


Birds and butterflies frolic around the flowers in the garden. At night, fireflies come out and dance above the blueberry hill. Vegetables grow healthy here. Black kale, rainbow chard, patty pans, yellow beans, green cabbage, kohlrabi, potatoes, beetroots, tomatoes from deep red to bright orange, aromatic herbs galore, even edible flowers. It all grows free for the picking and digging just outside my kitchen. That's farmers' hospitality for you.

There is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall in the living room. A smile confirms my unspoken question. Lincoln is a family name and traces back to the great Abe. It is a lovely house, charmingly decorated with paintings, family heirlooms and memorabilia, and our home for the week. We're in Sedgwick on the scenic Blue Hill Peninsula in Maine. Settled in 1763, the tiny town retained much of its rural character with all but a couple of clapboard houses, a post office, and a town landing on a pretty inlet.
With a pitchfork we dig out horseradish root from underneath the leafy green bush. I stare wantingly at another lush green plant. Its roots are among my favorite tubers: jerusalem artichokes, but they're not yet in season. Even the potatoes are so new, they're practically skinless. I walk around looking at vegetables, and my mind spins: Ribollita with the black kale? Patty Pan Squash Risotto? Stuffed squash flowers? Chard Stalk Crab Cakes? I feel like a kid in a candy store.
The edible flowers are the best treat. They lift a dish from simple to natural art. I use the flowers in a petite salade with the tzatziki I made. It has cucumber, beetroot, horseradish, chives, garlic, and yogurt (recipe here). A vivid color itself, garnished with yellow edible flowers, oak leaf lettuce, and cherry tomatoes, the tzatziki almost looks too good to eat. 
We pick a kohlrabi. I braise it with black kale, garlic, and tomatoes, and love how well it combines with the crispy skin-fried Arctic Charr. We bought the fish in nearby Stonington on Deer Isle, a typical Maine fishing village with clapboard houses, lobster cages, and boats bobbing in the natural harbor.

Not a day goes by without something picked and cooked in my Maine kitchen. Kohlrabi and kale yesterday, today has us picking fresh sage for the slow-roasting pork shoulder poked with orange peel and fennel (recipe here). Outside, bees are busy collecting nectar, keeping the farmer happy harvesting their natural honey. I have a jar of farm honey in my kitchen, and we drizzle it with lip-licking anticipation over the handpicked wild blueberry pancakes I just made, using eggs laid by one of the free-roaming chicken that managed to steer clear from the hungry fox roaming at night.
Armed with a pitchfork and small digger, we stroll down to the beach at low tide to go clam digging. We have to dig deep in the coarse dark sand, but are rewarded with some big clams. Lifting seaweed, I discover black mussels clinging to the rocks underneath, and we end up with a bucket full of clams and mussels to go back to my kitchen. Cleaned, steamed and chopped, the clams join a concoction of onion, fennel, kohlrabi, and new potatoes, simmering with lovage, bay leaf and cream. Clam chowder doesn't get any better (recipe here). The mussels steam open in white wine, a few twigs of thyme, and garlic so fresh and juicy, it cracks rather than crushes under my kitchen knife. Chopped ripe tomatoes and shredded basil complete the super-fresh vino-steamed mussels. Life is oh so good in my Maine farm kitchen!
Beach-Dug Clam Chowder (recipe here). See the steam rising up from this bowl of deliciousness?
In My Kitchen is an inspiring series initiated by Celia @ Fig Jam And Lime Cordial (link). I could not resist this In My Kitchen post, given the range of fresh produce I unexpectedly found in my (holiday) kitchen.

The farm is called New Moorings and we found it through AirBnB (link here). Doug and Angie know what good, honest and sustainable farming is all about. They also know true hospitality, sharing farm and house in the most generous way.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Summer Red & Refreshing

Living close to local farms as a teenager in the Netherlands, seasonal harvesting jobs were a way to earn some money. Beans, sugar beets, corn, whatever was in season (and wasn't harvested mechanically) had me and my brother on our bicycles off to the farmers' fields to help with the harvest. Summertime planted us in the strawberry fields, where we sat on our knees, moving down the rows of strawberry bushes all day picking ripe strawberries. Payment was per full box picked, so any you ate, or time you took to rest, meant less money in your pocket. The very first time I went, I ate too many, and moved too slow. In no time, I was well behind in my row, and at the end of the day, I had not even 10 "box slips" compared to the 50 or more of others. That didn't happen again. Every day, my hands still smelled of strawberry even after a shower, and after a week, the sun had colored my face just about as red.
Summer has been in full hot swing for weeks and weeks here in Houston. Strawberry season was celebrated earlier in the summer, with strawberry festivals adding live music to the sweet scent of ripe red summer kings. Big now (and quite literally so) are watermelons: colossal green oblongs girdling juicy red flesh. Nothing beats a slice of fresh watermelon on a hot summer day, when its free-run juices bring relief to a parched palate.

It's a coming and going of strawberry and watermelon in my kitchen this summer. Little strawberry custard tartlets, my SummerFLing strawberry-lemonade cocktail with gin and campari, strawberry risotto, gallons of the best thirst-quencher: fresh watermelon juice, and a new popular summer soup in our house: watermelon gazpacho.

Also popular at our lunch or dinner table is this refreshing summertime salad. Strawberry and watermelon combine with beetroot and fresh herbs, a hint of lemon and the crunch of sea salt flakes. Once you've tried it, you'll be making it all summer long.

Strawberry, Watermelon & Beetroot Salad
(serves 3-4 as appetizer)
1 cup strawberries, quartered
1 cup diced watermelon
1 cup julienne-cut raw red beetroot

1 tbsp handful fresh mint (small leaves)
1 tbsp handful fresh basil (small leaves)

1 tbsp lemon oil (homemade or store-bought, or use olive oil + a sprinkling of grated lemon zest)
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar
a good sprinkle of sea salt flakes
1/2 cup good quality crumbly goat cheese (optional)

How easy is this salad? Just build the layers: beetroot first, strawberry and watermelon next, herbs and raw onion and crumbled goat cheese divided on top. The lemon juice, sea salt and citrus oil are sprinkled over the salad very last minute. Serve as is for prettiness, but toss before you eat to infuse all the flavors.

ps. instead of goat cheese, try this watermelon, strawberry & beetroot salad alongside smoked salmon, or even better: with your own cured Pacific wild salamon (recipe here).

Or try the strawberry, watermelon & beetroot salad as a garnish with watermelon gazpacho for a beautiful flavor range of summer red.

Watermelon Gazpacho
1 cup chopped watermelon
1 cup peeled tomato
1/2 cup chopped fennel
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1/2 cup chopped onion
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove
1/2 serrano chili peper (or other green chili)
salt/pepper to taste

Whizz all in the blender, taste and adjust if needed, et voila.
Simple and in Season - enter your post on mycustardpie.com
This recipe was inspired by a series initiated by Ren Behan's Simple & In Season, and My Custard Pie.

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