Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pablo's menu this week : 17 months and French-trained tastebuds !

Posting Pablo's menu for this week a bit late, better late than never. Pablo is turning 17 months today, and he sure left his mark in the homes, backyards and kitchens of all the loved ones we visited in Greece and France. While he did have his fair share of "ham and noodles" on a few exhausted evenings, he also had a good number of firsts on the culinary front. From mussels to oysters, to steak tartare and chicken with maroilles, to okra stew and fish soup (recipes coming up soon on the blog), he liked it all and was always eager to taste, to my great delight.
It occurred to me recently (will post more on that soon), that it is a good idea to get children to taste foods with "strange" (to us) textures very young, when they are interested in weird textures (in fact, they're prepared to put anything in their mouth, from sand to soil to worse...), and before they are prejudiced as adults tend to be about certain foods (think oysters, urchin, raw fish...)
I have so much to share from our trip: a day at a farm in Normandy; making Greek fish soup; a comparison of our visits to Rungis, the largest wholesale food market in Europe, and the very picturesque and local Bayeux farmer's market; and for the strong-hearted who are not afraid of raw meat, a great recipe for the perfect steak tartare.
In the meantime, here are a few images from things experienced during the trip, and this week's menu (we're pretty much finished with baby purees at this point, and all eating the same thing).
A wonderful potato, serrano ham & cheese clafoutis we improvised in Normandy
What a treat to have a dinner of sautéed wild chanterelles and cep (boletus / porcini) mushrooms
From a Greek fishmonger to the perfect steak tartare in Lille, France

Cheeses of the week: Following French tradition, I always offer a little bit of cheese at the end of every meal, between the main course and dessert. Rotation this week: Petit Basque (sheep's milk), Italian Truffle Cheese (so decadent!), Goat gouda.

Desserts: At lunch, I offer a fruit yogurt (or plain yogurt with fresh fruit), but at night, I prefer sticking to plain yogurt (regular homemade* whole milk, sheep’s milk, goat's milk and Greek yogurt for extra protein) to avoid too much sugar before bedtime.

If you would like a particular recipe on the menu, feel free to contact me! (I marked with a * the recipes that will be the topic of upcoming posts).


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Quinoa and crudités salad
Main course: Turkey & chards puree

Goûter (4pm snack) - Kiwi                                          


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Cold zucchini with vinaigrette and mint
Main course: Tofu with carrot, turnip, leeks puree



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Grated heirloom carrots, classic French-Style recipe on Karen Le Billon's blog
Main course: Smoked salmon & cucumber tartines

Goûter - Grapes, pear


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Baby artichokes with mint & lemon from Turntable Kitchen
Main course: Roasted chicken with blue potatoes



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Authentic Greek salad
Main course: Tuna tomato tart (recipe typical from Ile d'Yeu)*

Goûter - Raspberry rice pudding*


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Shallot tatin*
Main course: Guinea fowl with fava beans*



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Celery root remoulade made with the homemade mayonnaise recipe on Food Loves Writing*
Main course: Beef patty with simple ratatouille

Goûter - Kiwi


Main course: Dover sole filets with green beans



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Andalusian gazpacho
Main course: Ham with vegetable noodles

Goûter - Banana & pear compote


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Cauliflower, green beans, blue potato salad
Main course: Cheesy polenta with eggplant*



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Lentil salad*
Main course: Whole grilled fish

Goûter - Watermelon


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Andalusian gazpacho
Main course: Cauliflower, potato and spinach curry*



Appetizer / Finger Foods: Broccoli florets
Main course: Tomatoes stuffed with sardines*

Goûter - Lychees


Appetizer / Finger Foods: Vegetable noodle salad
Main course: Cream of chicken and watercress soup*

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Making Speculoos cookies and a children's trifle

We got back from our month-long trip to Greece and France, and I must admit it has been a bit of a challenge to adapt back to “real life”. Probably because this intense month of bonding with friends and (re)discovery and experience felt more real than our so-called “real life”. Most of our time was spent focusing on things that really matter, and very little time on menial things. It just always makes me wonder, “What if life could always be this pure and intense?” Part of me feels energized and motivated from the trip, and another part feels sad, nostalgic and daunted by the mountain of things to do. I must start cooking and writing in hope my spirits will lift.

In the meantime, I shall reminisce about a week in Normandy spent with our friends Christelle and Jean-Max and their children, Calista, 9 and Philéas, 5.
These children are what I would consider very French children (the kind Karen Le Billon talks about in her book). While they love pasta and sweets and French fries, they are also quite the foodies. I was delighted to hear them critique their school lunch menus (which are amazing by American standards, but considered mediocre by most French parents), saying the food left to be desired, the pasta was too greasy, and the meat overcooked. Philéas declared he only liked a particular brand of Camembert cheese (he also went through a phase where he declared himself a “cheese vegetarian”). And Calista professed her love of cooking. When I asked what they liked to cook, they mentioned one of their favorite desserts: the Speculoos trifle. At my puzzled look, they asked, “What, you don’t know what a Speculoos is?” I was soon initiated. It turns out a Speculoos is a very simple, yet tasty, cinnamon spice cookie, as widely known as Oreos in the US. It's from Belgium originally, but has become a favorite of the French (and of Amélie Poulain in the French film, Amélie).

So we decide to make home-made Speculoos to use for the trifle. The children bring out the ingredients, Philéas mixes, Calista knows all about making a well in the dry ingredients to pour the wet. As we shape the dough, Calista suggests adding more butter, as it is too dry. She’s correct, that does the trick. We are in Normandy after all, the land of cream and butter. In doubt, add more.

Watching Philéas getting so excited about making tonight’s dessert, and Calista licking the bowl of cream, I feel thrilled at the idea of paying homage to their gourmet spirit in this space. Their mother is a dear childhood friend of mine, we’ve known each other since we’re 11, and the thought of our children cooking and eating together couldn’t make me happier.

This dessert is very easy to make for children, and it is a wonderful refreshing treat for the whole family. The cookie softens under the yogurt and the fruit adds a splash of sweetness. It is a reasonably healthy treat, which I will make in Los Angeles, if only to be transported back to Philéas and Calista Land, for a trifle in time.


Calista & Philéas' Speculoos trifle

For the cookies (Prepare dough one day ahead)

(Original recipe found here)

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
½ cup (100 g) butter, melted
1 pinch of salt


In a large bowl, mix the flour, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, salt and baking powder.

Make a well (hole) in the middle of the dry ingredients and add the lightly beaten egg and melted butter.

Gently mix together (easier done with both hands) to form a tube of dough that holds together (if too crumbly, add a little more melted butter).

Wrap in plastic and keep in the fridge overnight or more.

Preheat the oven at 350° F.

Cut into ¾ inch slices. Place them on a baking sheet over parchment paper.

Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Let cool.


For the trifle

(Recipe invented by Calista, 9, and Philéas, 5)

3 cups of Greek yogurt (use the creamiest you can find, and avoid 0% fat)
2 tbsp of crème fraîche
(*Alternatively, you can easily find and use whole milk plain yogurt with cream on top)
2 tbsp Brown sugar
4-5 cups of cut-up fresh fruit (For us, it was 5 peaches and nectarines. Use what’s available in season, pears and apples in winter, stone fruit in summer. Organic canned fruit could also be used)
Speculoos cookies

Lay Speculoos cookies flat to cover the bottom of a serving dish.

In a bowl, mix the yogurt and cream. Then add the brown sugar and mix.

Pour the yogurt mixture on top of the cookies, and use a spoon to spread it evenly.

Place the fruit on top and place in the fridge until ready to serve.


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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Appreciating Normandy, and authentic sea bass on a grill

We have just spent a week in the countryside in Normandy (the southern part, near Caen), cooking, eating lots of good yogurt, strong cheese, gorgeous cream and sweet apples, seeing lots of farm animals, and enjoying the life of a small provincial town with our friends. I have felt a bit guilty not posting more often here this week, but my only excuse - with a flat apology - is that we were just too busy living and enjoying, I couldn’t keep up! I will be sharing several recipes and images from our stay in the coming weeks, including a kids' recipe for a trifle made with a delicious spice cookie French kids adore, among a couple of others.

But for now, let’s talk about fish.

On a Friday morning, we pull up to the small harbor of Courceulles-Sur-Mer full of small fishing boats. Right there on the dock, a few stands with fish from the morning catch. One fishmonger shows fresh mackerels to an old couple looking for what to make for lunch, another empties and scales a sea bass. Gurnards, weevers, mussels, turbots, John Dory… Pablo observes, pba-pba-bpa: poisson in Pablo language. One of the fishmongers lets him touch a crab, he’s brave enough to do it for a split second. An old fisherman that looks so much the part that I am too intimidated to take his picture, gives advice to a young salesgirl about treating a weever bite. This guy is the old man and the sea. Pablo waves at him, he stares down at the kid, gruff. I love it.


There’s nothing like buying fish from the fisherman who caught it just a few hours before. I really miss that in LA, as it’s nearly impossible there. Being on the coast of Normandy, I was reminded how much French families eat local and eat seasonal. The fishing industry seems pretty heavily regulated in France. For example, scallops and some varieties of shrimp may only be fished commercially during a given period (I sadly missed the scallop season…)

Another thing you cannot do in France, is sell a fish and say it’s another. In the States, the famous and very expensive Chilean sea bass is in fact an impostor. It is neither from Chili nor a bass. It is actually a Patagonian toothfish, marketed as Chilean Sea bass (because, I assume, it is a sexier, more exotic name??) I have never understood the craze for the toothfish (I shall call it here by its proper name), I find it bland and overpriced. So my next mission will be to find REAL sea bass in LA, as the one we tasted in Normandy was simply delightful. A very delicate white flesh, perfect for children too with a tangy marinade.

Here, the fishmonger even goes as far as to tell you how the sea bass was fished. For a few Euros more per kilo, you get the sea bass that’s wild caught on a fishing line - the bar de ligne (vs. bass caught with a trawl net) – yes, I learned a bit about fishing on this trip J ! But I have to say I really enjoyed knowing exactly where the fish I feed my son (and myself), comes from and how it was caught. And I think a lot of French families demand this type of information from their food providers.
I’m also warming up to the idea of cooking a whole fish. I haven’t done a lot of that, buying mostly fillets. It is a little more work, filleting the fish and insuring there are no bones (nothing will make a child hate fish more than fish bones, so the stakes are high!), but it is so fresh, delicious and healthy (and fun too), it’s worth it. I figured it has a few advantages over the fillets: it is more economical, you get a chance to see the actual fish you’re eating and you can gauge its freshness by the eyes and the color. It is also most likely fresher and will have more nutrients (and taste better). In truth, this recipe wasn’t much more difficult than putting together a quick marinade and throwing steaks on a barbecue.
That night, our host Jean-Max brings out his “Weber bible of barbecue”, and we laugh at the fact that we are going to make sea bass “Moroccan style”, caught no more that 10 miles away, in Normandy, following a very American recipe book.


His little Webber barbecue is set in their ever so bucolic garden, with visiting cats and neighbor horses. It is a warm evening, a real treat in rainy Normandy.
So we eat outside, talking about fish, and how good the butter is, and what farm we’re going to visit on Sunday, and why the French cheese Livarot is called “Le Colonel” (five red stripes around the cheese). The children are very proud of their region, and they know about good food. May my child know cheeses and fish recipes as these do. In the meantime, Pablo gobbles the fish up almost as gluttonously as the fresh baguettes he has become quite fond of here.  


So here’s to bountiful Normandy. I grew up here. I left. And I came back to truly experience it, and love it, for the first time.

Grilled REAL sea bass Moroccan-style

Adapted from “La Bible Weber du Barbecue” de J. Purviance (a translation of “Weber’s Way to grill – the step by step guide to expert grilling”)

Age for babies: 8-12 months because of the spices.

Note: You could probably use this recipe for any whole medium size fish. Worth experimenting!

2 whole sea bass, emptied but not scaled (so it's easier to take off the bbq)
5 1/2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Half bunch parsley
Half bunch of cilantro
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Prepare the marinade mixing all the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside 5 or 6 tbsp to serve with the fish.

Make 3 or 4 incisions, a couple of inches deep, on each flank of the fish.

Place the fish in a large dish, brush it with the marinade (inside and out). Cover with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for 2 or 3 hours, as well as the marinade set aside.

Preheat the barbecue or grill on medium high heat.

Bring the fish out of the fridge, drizzle with olive oil, and cook 10 to 12 minutes, at medium high heat, lid closed, until the flesh is opaque yet juicy near the central bone (test using knife). Turn them over carefully once, half way through.  

Transfer the cooked fish to a dish and drizzle with the reserved marinade. Fillet the fish to serve.

We served it with an authentic Greek salad. Wonderful.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A day in hazelnut country... and a grandmother's ratatouille


Every time I come back to France, it strikes me how much more I appreciate it now than I did when I lived here.  I have been an expat for 15 years now, and the past 7 to 10 years, coming back to France has been a pilgrimage of sorts into my past, my childhood. Perhaps expats have this little bonus: their past is embodied in a concrete place. It somehow makes the past more real, more palpable.

We have spent the last few days in Paris, and I have really longed for the city. Coming back to Paris for me is like having dinner with a long lost love. I know there were many things I hated about her in the past, but I can only remember the good times. Yesterday, I was fortunate to have my good friends looking after Pablo for an afternoon. Bicycling through the streets, visiting and chatting with friends, stopping at the bakery, I felt at home again. I felt very free. I felt happy.

If the city is my old love, with all the nostalgia that comes with it, the country is my new, exciting, exhilarating love.  I did grow up in a small town in the country, but was so concerned with going far and away in my youth, that I never saw what was right in front of me. Sunday, Pablo and I went with my best friend and her two boys, to visit her parents at their little house in the countryside, in Haramont, a small village of stone houses, an hour from Paris.
Last time I was here, my best friend and I were going to school together, about 17 years ago… As soon as we drove up the driveway, I felt so thrilled to be there. My friend C’s father is an avid gardener, he has gardened all his life, and this place is his haven, his world. The children come here every weekend in the summer, they love it.


As we get out of the car, the kids run to the back, through the vegetable patch, to feed biscottes to the chickens, goats and sheep. I follow, discovering zucchinis, spinach, salads, chamomile, parsley, tarragon, green beans, melons, chards, leeks, carrots… and those gorgeous hazelnut and apple trees. I am as excited to be here as the children… and then I remember. Quick, my camera.

Shortly after, we sit down for lunch, a platter of charcuterie with artisan pâté en croûte, hams and dry salami (called saucisson in French).
Then Mrs. C brings out her ratatouille. To her, this is a very simple lunch and dish, she improvised with the garden vegetables. She serves it in an old pan with an old camping ladle.

As I marvel at everything, the food, the bowl of freshly picked hazelnuts, and that old ladle, I sense their puzzlement. “What has happened to Helene? She’s photographing a simple ratatouille with an old camping ladle? What did they do to her over in America?” All this isn’t “charming”, or “vintage” or “country rustic” to them. It is just normal, boring stuff. Boring for one, thrilling to another.

Later in the afternoon, as I go around the yard taking photographs, 4 year old H is intrigued. “What are you taking? Why?” I tell him this isn’t old boring stuff at all, it’s a wonderful haven, it’s beautiful, and I want to capture every little corner of it. He’s excited, and takes pictures with me (he took that great picture of the sheep above!) Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to come into our world to make us see our world with new fresh eyes. I wonder what I’m missing back home, what am I not seeing and appreciating? May friendly strangers come open my eyes soon.

So, much to Mrs C’s surprise, I decided to share her very simple ratatouille recipe here. But I made that decision half-way through the meal, that's why my pictures here show you an almost empty pot!It’s not traditional ratatouille, it’s a homey simplified ratatouille with just zucchinis and tomatoes, perfect for children and adults alike. I can just picture the look on her face when my friend shows her the post on this blog. "Ah that Helene… she’s very sweet, but just a little weird"... J Fair enough.

Today we are off to Normandy, hope to be sharing some yumminess from there with you very soon, so stay tuned.

Mrs Chéron’s Ratatouille

Age for babies: 6-8 months if each ingredient has been tasted before. This might be a good opportunity to introduce cooked tomato to a baby.
Serves 4-6
6-8 zucchinis, peeled, seeds removed, diced
5 large tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed, quartered
3 tbsp short grain rice
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, crumbed laurel
3 whole cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan, sauté the zucchini in some olive oil, until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, mix and let simmer for a few more minutes. When the tomatoes have produced a bit of water, add the rice, herbs and garlic cloves (whole), and let simmer for about 20-25 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Planes, trains, automobiles... and chicken with French cheese!

This week, we made our way from Greece to Lille in Northern France. Talk about a change of scenery! From 90° to 65°, from sand & white to red brick, from Mediterranean to northern food. As good an opportunity as any to share with you some thoughts I've had on adaptability.
Traveling with a 16 months old has definitely been a lesson in adaptability for everyone involved. I should say I am very lucky and grateful to have a toddler that falls asleep in 3 minutes in any bed, takes naps in the car when convenient, and will eat, or at least try, just about any food, which has made me incredibly proud.
Adaptability has got to be one my top priorities for Pablo. I think it’s a key component to becoming a happy, flexible adult. Being adaptable is another, less poetic way to say open-minded. It means accepting the world around, looking at it, letting it in, as opposed to trying to bend the world to what we already know. And nothing like traveling, to teach open-mindedness and adaptability, whether it is with food, environment, people, weather, activities, schedule. And as much as I expect Pablo to adapt to this new life while traveling, starting with Greece (a place where rhythms are very different than in the US, eating dinner very late, napping mid-day), I have also learned to adapt to a different schedule and a different type of vacationing with a toddler. I have been more lenient with table manners (oh how I missed the high chair in Greece…), Pablo wandering around with his 18 months old cousin Margarita, eating a piece of tomato here, a piece of bell pepper there… There was way more snacking than I would allow back home. But I adapted, because I didn’t want to be stressed and spoil both our time. What kind of lesson would I be teaching him in adaptability if I couldn’t myself be open-minded and flexible?
I think young children can be incredibly resilient, and we may often times underestimate their ability to handle change and transitions and new environments. Perhaps it is us adults who sometimes have a hard time with change and pass on our discomfort to our children. Just like many foods, if we expose them to it very young, it will become part of their world. And when you think about it, life is nothing but changes and transitions, isn't it? The world is there to be experienced, and home is where love is, and I think this is one of the essential lessons Pablo is getting out of this trip, as we go from friends to friends, all with different styles, and different lives, but all with the warmth of friendship in their smiles as they welcome us into their homes.

I would like to share a specialty dish from Northern France, made with a local cheese called Maroilles, which may be substituted for another strong cheese in your area. I still remembered this wonderful dish from a few years ago when my friend Linda made it for me on my last visit to Lille. And Pablo had to have a taste this time as well. It is ridiculously easy to make, and just delicious, though admittedly not the lightest of meals... But once in a while, you've just got to succumb to cheese and cream... Pablo certainly did, and he loved this dish.

Chicken au Maroilles

Age for babies: Depending on the cheese you use, especially if it is raw milk cheese, I would wait until after 12 months.
Serves 4
12 oz of Maroilles cheese (or other strong cow milk cheese, such as epoisse, reblochon)
1.5 lb chicken breast
8 oz crème fraîche 
1 shallot
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Fresh tagliatelles or linguine
Cut the chicken breast in bite-size pieces. Remove the rind of the cheese and cut it in cubes.
In a frying pan, melt the shallot with a bit of olive oil, until translucent. Add the chicken and sauté over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup of hot water, and let simmer until the chicken is cooked and the water has reduced, about 10 minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water with a drop of olive oil to a boil.
Over medium heat, add the cheese cubes and mix until the cheese melts, about 5 minutes. Once the cheese is melted, add the cream and stir well. Keep warm.
Add the fresh pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook for a few minutes, as instructed on the package.
Serve in deep plates: pasta first, chicken and cheese sauce on top.
You can serve this with a simple endive salad (endive is also a specialty Northern France) with a walnut vinaigrette (1 part red wine vinegar, 2 parts olive oil, 1 part walnut oil, 2 tsp of mustard, salt & pepper). The bitterness and crunch of the endive and tanginess of the vinaigrette will compensate the saltiness of the cheese.
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