Sunday, August 30, 2009


It's tempting to say that life has returned to normal. But what is normal? Maybe what I mean is routine has found its way back in our lives after the long summer break. Our older son has gone back to college and has one week of classes under his junior belt. He is living in an on-campus apartment with three buddies from the basketball team. He says he is running and working out. I say "Good!" Classes started at Durham Academy on Tuesday so the rest of us head there everyday. Our younger son went to school last Sunday to get his locker settled and his heavy load of textbooks, binders and novels stacked away. He turned 17 on the first day of school. Steve's days now do not end until the last student athlete has left the locker room and the lights have been turned out. Games have begun at the upper school, practices at the middle school. As for moi, I have a new group of 12 seventh grade advisees, four classes of French to plan for and teach (and papers to check already!), agendas to set for my 7th grade team meetings, and after school study hall to supervise until 5:00 pm every day except Friday. I have a class of new-to-DA 6th graders who are also new to French. We begin teaching French in 5th grade and, although I have taught that level, it's been a while. So, we've started with the basics of pronunciation, the alphabet. My 7th graders have already had two years of French and I taught my 8th graders for half a year last year. The 8th graders are already asking about the spring trip. This is "normal" in my household. We've re-established our routines, grudgingly to tell the truth, and we are trying to let go of summer. When the heat subsides maybe it will be easier?
I finally went to see Julie and Julia last night. Rarely one to jump in and read a novel when it first comes out or see a movie on opening day, I waited a couple of weeks to see it although I'd been looking forward to it for months. I read both books it is based upon, Julie Powell's book by the same name and Julia Child's My Life in France. I looked at Julie Powell's blog. I read reviews of the movie, some good, some bad. I thought I was ready. But I wasn't. From the opening scenes in which Julia and Paul arrive in France in 1949, drive to Paris along the narrow, tree-lined roads from Normandy, stop to have sole meunière, see the bigger-than-life Eiffel Tower and Julia greets everyone with a booming Bonjour! to the end in Julia and Paul's kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now an exhibit in the Museum of American History in Washington, DC) when she receives her first copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the mail and when Julie becomes a celebrity after an article is written about her in the New York Times, I was mesmerized. Meryl Streep was a genius. I've always admired her talent. She becomes her characters. Amy Adams played neurotic Julie very well. A normal 30 year old, bored with her job answering phones who takes on a monumental project and succeeds. She worships Julia, making her into a saint in her head, only to discover, after the Times article, that Julia did not think much of her project. The husbands figured prominently in the successes of Julia and Julie. For some reason I've yet to figure out, I was in tears at the end. Joy at seeing two women work so hard for something they believe in finally succeed (in Julia's case at least eight years of her life went into that cookbook, for Julie 365 days of cooking 524 recipes)? Being transported back to France for Julia's segments (the Eiffel Tower views, the cafés, restaurants and food markets)? Watching people eat wonderful food and drink good wine with unbridled pleasure (friends sharing their meals, birthday and Valentine's Day celebrations)? The ups and downs of life (Julia's sadness at being unable to have children, Julie's all-consuming obsession with her project that threatens her marriage)? Perhaps a touch (okay, more than a touch) of jealousy when Julie's blog brings about her fame (everyone on the subway was reading the article about her in the Times, I watched a lady and a man in the waiting room at the Nissan place skip over my last article in the Herald-Sun). I doubt that I will analyze it all beyond the time it takes me to write this. I plan to go to Costco to buy a copy of MTAOFC today for a mere $25 (thanks for the tip, Anna!). I will not cook my way through it. I really do not use much butter in my cooking, opting for olive oil instead. I do not have a whole lot of interest in sauces, but I think that I will try some out. I think I will attempt hollandaise and beurre blanc. Just to say I did it. Pourquoi pas?
Before I begin my Sunday chores (grocery shopping with Steve, grading a few homework papers, planning lessons for the week), I will finish this with my lasagne recipe. It was Grant's request for his birthday dinner and he has told me it is okay with him if I make it once a week. It is his favorite dish. We did a (blind to everyone but me) taste-testing of various lasagnes last winter after my return from France. I bought a Stouffer's lasagne with meat, I made Chef Érick's recipe and I made the one using the recipe I'd used for years, probably found long ago on the back of a package of Mueller's lasagne noodles. The last one won hands down. I've tweaked it and think I have it just about right. I finally found the kind of noodles that Érick used in Arles (Leo and Jonas, his sons, love lasagna, too) at Target. They are made by Barilla and they're flat rectangles, shorter than standard noodles, without the curly edges. You don't have to cook them first, a step I am thrilled about because I can never get the others to fit in the only large pot I have to boil them in. The Barilla ones are not as thick either. Anyway, I know that I will continue to perfect the sauce. My recipes are always a work in progress. And come to think of it, so am I.

Grant's Favorite Lasagne
(basically found on the back of Barilla's box of lasagne noodles)

1 box (9 oz) Barilla lasagne, uncooked
2 eggs
15 oz. ricotta cheese
4 c. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage or ground beef
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
15 oz. can tomato sauce
Oregano to taste (fresh, if possible)
Salt and pepper to taste
*You do not have to make your own sauce. You can use two jars of your favorite baking sauce or marinara sauce. Or you could use fresh tomatoes and make it chunkier. My guys are not crazy about what they call "warm tomatoes" - what is the matter with them??? -- so I use crushed tomatoes instead.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray 13 x 9 x 2 or 3 baking pan with non-stick spray. Remove 16 Barilla sheets from box (12 if using a 2-inch deep pan). Once again, do not boil them. In a medium bowl, beat eggs. Stir in ricotta, 2 cups of mozzarella and the Parmesan. Combine crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, oregano, salt and pepper in a pan and heat, allowing it to simmer gently. Crumble, cook and drain the sausage and/or ground beef (I sometimes use a mixture of the two- the spices in the sausage add a nice extra "bite" to the dish).

To assemble:
When layering lasagne, slightly overlap sheets. The noodles will expand to the edges during cooking. Spread fillings to edges to seal in and cook the lasagne during baking. Layer in the following order:

1. Spread about a cup of sauce on bottom of pan.
2. Layer 4 uncooked sheets of noodles, 1/3 of ricotta mixture, 1/3 of browned meat, 1 c. mozzarella and 1 c. of sauce.
3. Repeat three times if using a 3-in. deep pan, twice for a 2-in. deep one, ending with mozzarella.

Bake, covered with foil, 50-60 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until cheese is melted, about 5-7 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.
Personally, I think that lasagne is even better the next day, after the flavors have more time to mingle.

Chef Érick's lasagne is creamier. He makes his own sauce using crushed tomatoes and spices. He doesn't brown the ground beef in advance, just crumbles into the layers. If doing this, use very lean ground beef so that you do not have too much excess fat. Instead of the ricotta-egg-Parmesan mixture, he uses cream, pouring a small amount over the sauce as he layers it, ending with mozzarella and Parmesan on the top. I really like this version, too.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Friends and Fromage

The "real" world is calling me, not softly, but in a loud, ever-so-impatient voice. I just spent two (more) days sitting in front of my computer with St. Karl working on my school moodle site. I wish I knew how to best describe what moodle is. Let's see, it will be a place where my students can get their assignments, add notes or thoughts from class and see the cool stuff that I hope I will be able to remember how to post there! So, I've worked on it for a total of six days this summer and I think I am ready to allow access to it to my students. Or at least I will be on August 24, the day before classes start.
The best part of the two days was not the computer, though, or the cool websites I found. It was being in a room with my amazing colleagues who also gave up two of their last days of summer vacation to moodle. But they are not just my colleagues. They are my friends. I am very, very lucky to work with such a funny, talented group of teachers. Yolanda, one of my Arles 6 gang, was there making me laugh and calling me back to look at a video of Arles she found at Discovery Learning. She and Mary were sitting together on the back row (hmmm... troublemakers in the back??) and I gave them a lavender sachet to sniff for relaxation purposes. Mary gave me a new book to read-- The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones, the woman who was responsible for publishing Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. By the way-- Happy Birthday, Julia!! I have started the book and love it! Jamie and Claire, new teachers, were there, but quiet (it's hard to get a word in edgewise with some of us around). Virginia was behind me. She and I go way back. I taught her when she was in the middle school. I still have flashcards that she made. She still clips out "France in the News" articles and leaves them in my mailbox. I really need to give her extra credit! I am so proud of her. She taught my son, Grant, fifth grade history a few years back. Senor Glass sat next to me and we helped each other. He helped me the most... he has been moodling for a couple of years now. He brought me fresh figs from his tree and shared recipes from his Facebook page. Thanks for friending me, senor. (Sorry, I can't figure out how to actually put that tilde thing on top of the n. French accents are about all I can handle!) I ate most of the figs yesterday but used the leftover ones today to make a fig-honey-goat cheese spread. (Not as good as Dave's from Elodie Farms, but he was sold out by the time I got to him this morning.) Marian was in attendance. Yes, we "old dogs" can learn new tricks, Marian! Wanda and Michele were there (go, FL teachers!!), sitting in the corner but being very good and brave in the face of all this technology. Timmy was there-- his site is already amazing. He and I have taught together for 29 years and he is one of the funniest, most creative people I know. I am sure I am leaving some people out, but my brain is tired from two days' worth of work. Pauvre moi. Marianne and Sophie were hanging out but not in the lab. It was fun to see them. Sophie is Marianne's daughter and she will be a student at DA this year!! Very exciting! All in all, we worked, but we also caught up with each other. We talked about our kids, a shower we are hosting for two colleages who are having babies soon, our parents, our weeks at the beach, recipes, our gardens, etc.
Another colleague, Betsy, brought me tomatoes from her garden yesterday so I invited her over to sample my tomato tart. That's the recipe that I included in this week's article in the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper about my adventures in cooking for the Wine Authorites guys ( On the very day it came out (August 12), I was sitting in the waiting room at Michael Jordan Nissan while my car was being worked on. A lady next to me was reading the paper and I kept glancing over to see if she was reading my article. (She probably thought I was either nuts or too cheap to buy my own paper.) But, sadly, she did not read it. She skipped right over it to the comics and crossword puzzle. She left it on the seat when she left and I took it so I'd have an extra copy to send my mama. Oh well. Anyway, someone had left a New York Times and I picked up the food section. Lo and behold, there was a short article called "Just Like Grandma Makes" featuring a recipe called Granny's Tomato Tart. It was about a café in Soho called Once Upon a Tart run by two chefs, Jerome Audureau and Frank Mentesana. Jerome is French and his recipe is one his grandma in Châteauneuf de Gadagne, a small town near Avignon, has been making for him forever. He is now 44 and grand-mère is 98 and still baking. I looked them up on-line (once again, what did I do before google??) and found a menu for their shop-- my mouth is still watering. They've also written a cookbook. I read some of the reviews on Amazon's website and know that I must add this one to my collection.
My final adventure of the past couple of days was to head to the Durham Farmers' Market this morning. Steve and I weren't looking for anything in particular. We just love to people watch and I love to just look at all the brightly colored vegetables and smell the wonderful odors that drift in the air-- fresh peaches, French-style bread in the form of miches and pain de campagne, goat cheese, coffee, warm tomatoes, just picked basil and flowers. We ran into some friends from school, parents and colleagues, including Kathy who was shopping for tomatoes to make my tart!! I have one fan, even if the lady at the car shop ignored me. One parent asked me if I'd read The Olive Farm books by Carol Drinkwater (I have- they are set in Provence) and promised to drop off a book that features pictures of the farm for me at school. I saw Dave Artigues from Elodie Farms and he gave me some of the Camembert cheese that I helped (in a very small way) make with the Teen Chefs back in late June. And best of all, I was able to greet Yolanda very loudly as she made her entrance into the market. I wonder why she puts up with me sometimes. I really do... Wine and whine soon, Lucy? I'll make the tomato tart, I promise.

Granny's Tomato Tart
(from "Once Upon a Tart) by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau (Knopf, 2003)

Time: 1 hour plus 1 hour for chilling dough and 15 minutes for cooling shell

For the tart crust:
2 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp semolina flour
1 tsp salt
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3 Tbsp chilled solid vegetable shortening

For the topping:
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
8 oz. Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
12-14 ripe plum tomatoes, ends trimmed, very thinly sliced into rounds
1 tsp herbes de Provence
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste

1. For tart crust: In a food processor, combine flours and salt. Pulse to combine. Add butter and shortening and pulse until mixture resembles moist crumbs; do not overwork dough. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with 4 tablespoons ice water. Shape into a ball, adding ice water 1 tablespoon at a time (as many as 6 more may be needed) until dough is just past crumbly and holds together.
2. For two tarts, divide dough in half and wrap each in plastic wrap, and press each with palm of your hand into disks. For one tart, wrap in plastic and shape into one large disk. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling out.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out dough into two 9-inch diskes or one 10-by-16-inch rectangle 1/8-inch thick. Transfer to a baking sheet and crimp edges 1/2-inch high. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Prick all over with fork. Place parchment paper or foil on top and weigh down with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool; do not turn off oven.
4. For topping: Spread mustard thinly over bottom of cooled shell. Scatter evenly with cheese. Arrange tomatoes in even, slightly overlapping rows, and season to taste with pepper. Bake until tomatoes begin to shrivel and cheese melts, 10 to 12 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, and serve hot or at room temperature.

Bon appétit!!

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Prodigal Cat

Callie and Rusty

I am a cat person and have been for most, if not all, of my life. We did have a dog when I was growing up, Poochie Pie Bell. He was NTB (not too bright) and loved to chase cars on the road I lived on in Spruce Pine, even surviving being hit a couple of times. Luckily, a broken tail was the worst of his injuries. Poochie was a mutt, but generally a lovable, although smelly one. He loved me more than I loved him, to tell the truth. Everyone else in my family has one or more dogs. I just did not get that gene. For years, my grandparents babysat for my Aunt Sandi's dog while she was at work. No kidding. (They preferred that to babysitting for me and my three siblings.) My sister Marsha has 3 (or is it 4?) chihuahuas. I am not the least bit fond of those yapping dogs. I tolerate them when I go visit. I draw the line with them sleeping in the bed with me.
In Arles, I admit that I did love to walk the family dog, Filou. And he loves to be walked! There is no better way to look as if you belong in France than to have a dog on the end of a leash. I think there are about as many dogs as there are French citizens, somewhere around 60 million. They love their dogs and allow them to go most everywhere (except museums as I found out in Nice at the Matisse museum- another story, but let's just say that I volunteered to stay outside with Filou on a hot day, lost my wallet and was not too thrilled with the whole experience). But walking Filou around the wall in Arles and down by the Rhône River was relaxing. When we would go out and about with him in the van, though, he liked to ride shotgun, on my lap, with his head sticking out the window. Filou heaven.
I have had quite a few cats, favoring tabby and black ones. I had an orange tabby named Powder Puff when I was high school. I did love that cat and she loved me until I ran her through the clothes dryer. Not on purpose, I promise. I needed to dry something really quickly and threw it in the dryer and turned it on. There was a thumping noise coming from the dryer, but I ignored it, thinking it was probably my brother's Converse sneakers. Imagine my shock when I opened the dryer a little while later and Powder Puff shot out of it like a rocket. She ran right out the door and didn't come back for a couple of days. I figured her for dead and felt horrible. However, she came home, not too worse for the wear, just a little scorched around the ears. I was no longer her favorite human being and she steered clear of me for the rest of my time at home.
We now have Callie and Rusty, a sister and brother rescue duo. We've had them for a couple of years, finding them after our family cat TC died due to a sudden strange disease which paralyzed her. No dryers involved. Since the Powder Puff incident
I've been very, very careful to always close the door tightly. Rusty and Callie have always been quite content to be indoor cats, never trying to dart outside when we come home. That is, until last month. Rusty escaped while we were in Pennsylvania for a couple of days. Evidently we did not close the back door very well before leaving. Steve had been out on the deck watering my herbs and tomatoes and didn't tightly close the door and lock it. That's the best we can do to explain why the door was open and nothing was missing except Rusty when we returned home.
We called him, set out food for him but pretty much gave up on finding him after a few days and no sightings. Then one night we were sitting out on the deck, looked out in the grass and there he was, staring back at us before running away. The next week was spent trying to entice him to come back, to no avail. Rusty discovered that our next door neighbors' crawl space was open and made it his new home. I can't say as I blame him. It is nice and cool under there, lined with plastic covering the ground, a little grate opening to the front so that he could watch everyone come and go. After discovering he was under there and not managing to get him to come to us, we called Critter Control. They came and set a trap with fragrant wet cat food (the kind he never gets at home) and we checked it every day to see if he was in it. Nope. It was now time for our week at the beach but still no Rusty. Steve and Jake crawled around on their hands and knees (and even tummies at times) trying to find him under the house (Grant stayed on the outside with me, claiming to suffer from arachnophobia and claustrophobia). No again. We left for Sunset and the Critter Control guy promised to come check every day. We returned a week later. Still no caged cat. We were really starting to worry because he hadn't eaten in at least a week. He had water, but no food except for what was in the trap. We decided to have our new best friend Chip come remove the traps. We placed food outside the door to the crawl space, hoping to get him out so we could close the door and at least get our neighbors out of the drama. One evening, he finally came to me as I was sitting at the door to the crawl space, under the neighbors' deck. I tried to grab him tightly, hold on and crawl out from under the deck. Yeah, right. He used his very sharp claws on me and I let go, hoping not to need stitches or to bleed to death. So much for that tactic. Lesson learned: a tank top is not appropriate cat-catching gear.
Next plan of action. I finally spotted him outside and quickly closed the door to the crawl space. Now was the time to place his food and water dishes on our front porch and try to lure him in the house. Rusty loves to eat and loves the rattle of his cat food as it is poured into his dish. Music to his little orange ears. So, Grant and I spent a few evenings on the porch rattling his dish and calling him. We discovered that he was hiding out in the drain near our townhouse. We could hear him meowing and actually see him, but he still wouldn't come to us.
It was time to put our final plan in place. Last night around 11:30, Grant and I opened the front door and placed his food dish in the doorway. Callie was safe and sound in my bedroom fast asleep (she adjusted very well to being the only cat!). Grant was the lookout and I sat in a chair, patiently working a crossword puzzle while keeping an eye on the door. I am not the most patient person I know, but I couldn't sleep and I figured it was as good a night as any for cat trapping. Finally, after the neighbor walked his yappy dog twice, the neighborhood got quiet and Rusty's hunger pangs and curiosity got the better of him. I saw his shadow on the threshold. He saw me, too, however and bolted. I pretended to ignore him, figuring he would return. And sure enough he did. He came in the house, took a right and headed into the kitchen where we keep the food and water dishes. I sat very still, knowing that a false move on my part and he would head right back out the door. Pretty soon I saw him walk back past the door and head either to where his litter box is kept in the downstairs half bath or up the stairs to Grant's and Jake's bedrooms. I gave him a few minutes and got up quietly, closed and locked the door. I went upstairs to find out if Grant had seen him. He was watching TV, having given up his sentry position and wasn't aware that Rusty was now inside. We found Rusty under Grant's bed, one of his former favorite hiding spots.
We released Callie from the bedroom to see if she could make his re-entry easier. She proceeded to puff out her tail and hiss at him. I imagine he didn't smell the same anymore and she didn't seem overjoyed to see her long lost brother. Rusty spent the night roaming through the house, meowing loudly and walking on me as I tried to sleep, begging to have his ears scratched. At one point, Grant and I decided to attempt to give him a dose of his flea medicine and finally managed to accomplish that. He seems none the worse for his adventure, just a few pounds lighter. He was getting chubby anyway. Grant thinks he may be slightly "retarded." The neighbor even suggested a cat specialist. I did not laugh out loud at that suggestion, showing amazing self-control on my part, I think. But hey, maybe I can rent myself out as a cat whisperer.

Since I do not eat cats (do they really do that in Asia??), I decided that one of Chef Érick's tuna recipes would be appropriate!

Thon Aux Câpres - Tuna with Capers

Serves 4

Preparation time : 40 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours for the sauce; 10 minutes for the tuna.

For the tuna :
2 good size tuna steaks (7-9 inches long, one inch thick)
6 Tbsp olive oil for frying
2 Tbsp flour for coating the tuna

For the tomato sauce :
6 large fresh tomatoes
one mid-sized yellow onion chopped fine
3 garlic cloves crushed and chopped fine
3 bay leaves
a small bird’s eye pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil
large pinch of sea salt or to taste
3 Tbsp capers
water as needed

1. Rinse the tuna well in running cold water for 5 minutes and then tap it dry.

2. Prepare the sauce : Peel the tomatoes. Peeling the tomatoes over a stove top flame one by one works well. Hold them on the end of a fork, and turn them slowly, until the skin simply pops off. This removes only the thinnest outer skin, and leaves all the rich and flavorful flesh from just under the skin intact. Once all the tomatoes are peeled, chop them into small cubes.

3. In a large sauce pan pour in the olive oil and add the onions. Simmer until translucent (sweated), approximately 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook untill they start to release their juice (5 minutes or so). Add the garlic, the bay leaves, the tiny pepper and the salt and let simmer. As needed, add fresh water (especially if you’re working with a sauce pan without a lid). This has the added benefit of allowing you to cook the tomatoes longer and therefore have a sweeter richer sauce flavor when you serve it. Do not let the sauce reduce to a thickness that would encourage the bottom to burn. You want a relatively liquid sauce. Cooking time can be an hour or two if you have the time. The general rule with tomatoes is the more they simmer, the less acidic they’ll be. 15 minutes before you are ready to serve the tuna, add the capers to the sauce and let simmer gently.

4. Now take the tuna steaks and cut them in half lengthwise to have 4 good portions, remove the skin and the center bone. Flour them on one side only. In a large frying pan pour in olive oil for frying and heat it for a minute (depending on the thickness of the pan, if using a heavy cast iron, heat for at least 2-3 minutes). Just before it starts to smoke, place tuna steaks, flour side down and fry for 6 minutes on the flour side, turn them over and fry for 1 minute on the other side.

To serve : On each individual plate place a tuna steak, browned side up, spoon a few capers on the top of the steak and gently ladle a 1/2 ladle-full of sauce around the steak.

Small steamed new potatoes make a good side dish.