Monday, January 31, 2011

Sunday Supper Series #4: Braised Lamb in the Style of Pontaubert

Last night our friend Jen joined us for supper. MP stalled things a bit by slicing her pad open on our evening run. She is bandaged up tight, but had to go to the vet tonight for three stitches, as it is a rather deep cut. 
But, onward to dinner.
Menu: Braised lamb in the style of Pontaubert, red cabbage au gratin, broccoli, salad, fresh bread.

When we were in France last October, we spent the night in the small Burgundian village of Pontaubert. Our little two-star hotel had a restaurant that served a wicked dinner. I had a lamb shank, braised in white wine with carrots and potatoes. It was wonderful and I wondered why I had never braised lamb before (I always roast my lamb). Upon querying my Mom, I learned that we never braised lamb because the smell of braising lamb was deemed unpleasant by some in our family.
But memories of my recent dining experience in France overcame any olfactory concerns I may have had, and coupled with the fact that a recent issue of Saveur magazine contained a recipe for braised leg of lamb, I decided to give it a try. It turned out to be easier than I thought and not particularly stinky.
While heating the broiler to high, I put the leg into a roasting dish and liberally salted and peppered it up. I put it under the broiler for about 10 minutes, keeping a close eye on it to ensure that it didn’t char. While it broiled, I cut up a bunch of carrots, a leek and an onion. I washed a bunch of small potatoes and crushed the cloves of an entire head of garlic, the latter of which I can still smell on my hands today.
After about 10 minutes I flipped the lamb leg over and let the other side brown. When both sides were browned, I took it out of the oven, turned the oven to bake at 325 and threw all the veggies into the roasting pan. To this I added fresh thyme and rosemary, as well as bay leaves, salt and pepper. I then poured two cups of wine and three cups of chicken stock over it, covered it with foil and forgot about it for two hours. At that point, I opened it up, flipped it over and put it back in for another 2 ½ hours. Then, when a knife went through it like a fine needle through silk, I took it out. I took out the veggies and put them into a separate dish and put the juices through the fat separator. I made a roux-based gravy with this, although it would have been just as good, and more like what I had in Pontaubert, as simple au jus.
Here is what it looked like after it was browned, but before it was braised.

And here is what it looked like after everything was done.

It being winter, our windows were all closed and I don’t think it smelled bad. I wonder why this is so. Perhaps the added wine did something to cut the smell. Or perhaps the searing of the meat prior to braising helped. However, it could be that animal husbandry practices have changed since the last remembered lamb-braising event in our family, in the late-1970s. Perhaps something has changed in the way lamb is raised and that this is what makes some lamb taste decidedly un-gamey, and in some cases, un-lambey. And this same change has somehow caused lamb to smell differently as it braises. I don’t know.
I do know that overall while this certainly tasted good, it was a particularly un-gamey and to some extent, un-lambey piece of lamb. It wasn’t a Polyface Farm lamb. I ran out of that and didn’t order another one in time last year. That is the one (minor) downside to buying meat from a family farm as opposed to a supermarket. When they run out of animals, they truly run out until next year’s season. I learned my lesson and will be vigilantly watching for this year’s crop of lambs to be advertised.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mid-week meal and a mess

Nothing like a mid-week snow storm to throw the whole routine out the window. Yesterday, we got about 10-12 inches of snow. Last year we got much, much more but this year's snow was wet and heavy. I believe there are more limbs down in the neighborhood today than there were all of last winter. We fared okay, we didn't lose any tree limbs we couldn't live without, although our holly trees took some hits. Also, while last year's storms passed without even the mere flicker of a power outage, we were in the dark for close to 24 hours this time and had to sleep in the den, as the only heat we had came from our gas fireplace. Thus was our life temporarily reduced to this. Whoever designed the modern headlamp should have a star named after them.

The snow storm hit at rush hour last night, which made T's commute home miserable. I was kindly let out early and no joke, the second I put the vehicle into reverse to head up our driveway was when the first piece of sleet hit the hood. How lucky is that. I decided to get MP exercised before the real snow started to fall. Good thing too.

This is MP's annoyed, "When are you going to take me on my run woman?" face. Note the tell-tale signs of anxious, fence pacing.

This is one happy dog and the beginning of the snow storm.

This is a still happy dog, taken by a wet, cold and slightly miserable owner later on in the snow storm. 

Tonight after the power came on, I made the meal I had intended to make last night. Hong Kong style cake noodle, as the restaurants in Hawaii call it.

I used these noodles.

Over the weekend I chopped the following: Garlic, green onions, snap peas, Chinese cabbage. To this mix I added bean sprouts and Enoki mushrooms. I also bought a pound of Char Siu (roast pork with a red glaze), sliced it and cleverly hid it from T during the course of the week because for a good southern boy, he is a Char Siu fiend.

Therefore, tonight all I had to do was stir-fry the veggies and meat.

And dry fry the noodles.

And this was the result. Tonight's was the best cake noodle I have ever made by far. I ate mine with dou miao, or pea shoots, one of my favorite seasonal Chinese greens, tender and sweet.

Enjoy the electricity in your life. You don't realize how much you rely on it until it is gone.

Last summer hike

For our final hike last year in the mountains near our cabin, H and I decided to tackle Engle Peak.  The 7,583 foot peak is in the heart of the southern Cabinets, just north of the tiny town of Noxon, Montana.  Side note:  The locals tell us that Noxon is a stronghold for folks who are "anti-establishment" types (that's being politically correct).  Although Engle's height is certainly not very comparable to the peaks of the high Rockies, the views from the top provide a fantastic panorama of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness, as well as the Clark Fork River valley.  From the top and for a considerable way up, one also has a view of a picturesque elongated basin containing two small unnamed lakes, plus the larger Engle Lake, which sits nestled under the flank of Engle Peak and is stocked with cutthroat trout and surrounded by wildflowers and huckleberry bushes.

It is about a 2,600 foot climb to the top--four miles up and four miles down--altogether not so bad for the reward.  Most of the climbing is done in the first (1,100 feet) and last miles (another 1,200 feet or so).

 The trail once you finish that first mile, which is a doozy of a climb.

 Looking southeast towards the Clark Fork River valley.  Yes, this area of the mountainside was burned by a wildfire, but I do not recall when.   Views like this enable one to understand why Montana is nicknamed "Big Sky Country."

 Unnamed lakes in the Engle Lake basin

 Another shot of the basin with more of the Cabinets in the background.

This is the same shot taken in June of 2007 with a considerable amount of snow still on the ground.  We hiked up to a perch just above Engle Lake, but decided that the snow was too deep for us to continue on.  The next two photos are of our destination, Engle Peak, taken from the trail above Engle Lake:

This one was taken in the the summer of last year.

While this one was taken in June of 2007.

 The top of Engle Peak.

 View from the top of Engle.

More views from the top.

Yet another view from the top looking along a ridge extending east from the peak.

 This pack is in a lot of photographs with nice backgrounds.

 Engle Lake.

Another shot of Engle Lake and the basin.

 The spot of blue in the right center of this photo is Rock Lake, a favorite destination of ours, which we try to hit every year.  We have hiked the trail on both beautiful sunny days and in the middle of an early fall snowstorm. The trail up to Rock Lake passes through a lovely meadow filled with wildilfe, colorful flora, and the remnants of a mine, including an open mine shaft (we will write in more detail about the trail later).  Above the lake to the right (east) is Ojibway Peak, which reminds H of Jabba the Hut from Star Wars fame.  To the left of the lake is Rock Peak and between the two peaks is St. Paul Pass.  The round peak on the left hand side of the photo is 7,700 ft St. Paul, which H conquered back in 2007 while I hung out with our old husky Harley, who at the time was too old to climb mountains.  

Closer view of Rock Lake and the surrounding mountains.  The high peaks in the background are Snowshoe and A peaks, the crown jewels of the Cabinets.

 H on top of Engle looking towards Lost Horse Mountain and Lost Buck Pass (the small "U" in the middle of the photo), which we have climbed from the other (eastern) side.  In the valley below the "U" is the Swamp Creek Drainage and Lake Wanless, the largest lake in the Cabinets.  And here is a view of Lake Wanless from Lost Buck Pass:

And here is Lost Buck Pass.  The lake is Upper Geiger:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Auntie Marialani

The reader "M" who I am going to out as my parents mentioned that the Sunday Supper Series post #3 reminded them of Auntie Marialani. And I thought the same thing myself, so I am going to explain.

Rap Replinger was arguably the best Hawaiian comedian evah. He died young, cocaine I think. One of his most enduring characters was Auntie Marialani. I hesitate posting this video here, as I think you have to have lived in Hawaii in the late 70s and early 80s to get the humor. It was done in the idyllic time before we created the term "politically correct". In fact, perhaps it was a good thing Rap never lived to see the day when he would have had to clean up his routines.

Those were the days when we in Hawaii could jokingly poke fun at ethnic differences and no one minded. Why? Because we were all made fun of in one way or another and no one took it personally. Later artists have tried to capture that celebration, for lack of a better word, of our ethnic differences by ridicule, but no one ever got as close as Rap did to how we acted and felt. Pureheart and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole sang songs about it, both were good, but not as good as Rap.

But don't take my word for it. Watch it. Go, go, go watch it now, go...

Finally, the part about the needle

In my fleeting spare time, I like to dabble in the needle arts. I am lucky to have a well-stocked sewing room with wonderful afternoon sunlight where I spend every spare weekend afternoon. It is my happy place, the girlie room and the only one devoid of antique guns, knives and other military memorabilia. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things. One day we’ll take a tour of it, but not today.
Due to the holidays, my stitching time has been rather limited in the past few months. Only now am I getting back into the swing of things. One of the first things I wanted to accomplish in the new year was to turn a stitched piece into a pillow. It is a design by one of my favorite French designers, Perrette Samouiloff. I know it is terribly cutesy, this from a person who is not terribly cutesy herself, but I blame my Mom for this particular fascination of mine.
You see my Mom spent some of her formative years in rural France, when her Dad was stationed there after the war. All throughout my childhood she pointed out (whether she realized it or not) images of French children that made her reminisce about her childhood. I grew to think of these images as the epitome of youth; brightly colored, carefree, simple, delightfully anachronistic.
When I started stitching I stumbled upon her designs and was immediately hooked. In other words, get used to seeing stuff by Perrette Samouiloff.
But about my pillow. Here is the layout. Stitched design, trim and fabric. Yes, I know, it is a bit late. But there is always next Christmas, right?

And here is the finished piece.

Like I said, almost too cute for words.
But wait! There’s more. One of my projects for the year is to fill a shadow box with her designs. A shadow box is something like this that you can fill with pieces of stitching.

This is not the box I am using for this Perrette Samiouloff madness. The particular box I am using for this project has 49 spaces, of three varying sizes. I can’t show it to you right now because T’s Mom has it in North Carolina where she is getting the individual pieces of foam core cut for me by her framer.
This past weekend I finished my first square. Yay! Only 48 more to.

Isn’t she so cute and tiny?
For those who are reading this and who stitch, I’ll give the details. She is done 1x1 in HDF silk threads on Sassy’s hand-painted 28-count Lugana fabric. What is all this gobbledygook you ask? Okay 1x1 refers to the number of strands of silk thread used (one) and the number of threads in the fabric that you cross over as you stitch (again, one). Typically, when cross-stitching, you go 2x2, or two strands over two fabric threads. Here is the difference visually.

Over one thread.

Over two threads. Here the stitched design is larger, and a little more blocky.
Lastly, the “count” of a piece of fabric refers to the number of threads per hole. So in 28-count fabric there are 28 threads per inch in each direction. Or something like that. Therefore, 40 count has a higher thread count than 28 and thus when stitched, the design will be smaller.
And that is my first “needle” post. Like childhood itself; short, simple, sweet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Supper Series #3: Over the top, migraine-fueled, NFC/AFC Championship Edition

This is a day late, but I was in no mood to write after cleaning up last night. I have been battling a migraine for about five days now, so I am even surprised I managed to cook dinner at all. At any rate, I did and it was fabulous, although it is not a meal that will be repeated at any sort of regular interval.

Why you ask? Well, listen to the menu.

Menu: Roast duck à l’Alsacienne with sausage and apple stuffing, potatoes, carrots, pearl onions, green beans, rice, salad and homemade whole wheat baguettes.

The recipe came from Julia Child of course, and she did not disappoint. I ended up substituting all the places where she said “add port” with liberal glugs of Calvados (just because), so perhaps it was more along the lines of “à la Normande” than à l’Alsacienne… regardless it was à la yum-ande. (I must be feeling better, I make jokey-joke).

I suppose if T and I aspired to be shaped like those rosy-cheeked, round-bottomed Alsatian farmers that are depicted on all the touristy trinkets we browsed over in Alsace, I would cook this every week. But as we aspire to more urban svelteness, and note I said “aspire,” we only eat like this every once in awhile. I think it is telling that this was one of the first times where T loved the meal but did NOT go back for seconds. Still, if you want to impress company, this would be the way to go.

I didn’t drink wine last night due to all the medication I have been taking for my head, but if I were to have imbibed, I would have chosen a light, crisp Alsatian white, probably a blend of some sort. JC recommended a red, but I think that would have been too much. It would have made the meal so heavy that we would have just tipped over where we sat. And speaking of “sat,” we broke Sunday tradition last night and sat in the den watching football ‘cuz we are down to the last few games of the season.

So how does is get made? I rinsed the duck and emptied all the stuff out from its cavity into a saucepan and added water to make stock. Don’t forget to skim the scum. I brined the duck for two hours in 4 quarts of water with ½ cup salt and ¼ cup sugar. 

When it was done brining, I dried it out in a colander for a bit and then stuffed it with sausage, apples and leeks. JC doesn’t call for leeks, but I had one and it needed using. I made my own bulk sausage since I have a lot of ground pork lurking in the basement freezer, but you can certainly buy sausage just as easily. Making bulk sausage is easy though, only do it one or two days ahead of time so the flavors can blend. I used one pound of pork, and one teaspoon of the following: Salt, white pepper, finely minced garlic, sage and chopped fresh thyme. Mix it all up and let it sit. If you do it properly, your entire fridge will reek of garlic while it is “resting.”

How much to make? JC calls for ½ lb sausage and 4-5 apples, but I made my determination by peering into the ducky’s cavity and estimating. It seemed to be a pretty large cavity, so I used that excuse to throw in the entire pound of sausage. First I cooked the sausage. Once it was done, I took it out of the pan and let it drain. I peeled, quartered, cored and chopped three large apples while it was cooking. JC says to put the apples directly in to cook in the pork fat. 

Here I shamefacedly admit that I ignored the Master’s counsel. I just couldn’t do it. There was a good ½ inch of glistening pork fat in the bottom of the pan, and as much as I love pork fat, and I do love pork fat, I just couldn’t bring myself to rob Mei Ping of the pleasure of pork drippings on her kibble. That is correct. It was not a matter of svelte-consciousness, but on behalf of poor, long-suffering Mei Ping. Anyway, I emptied about 75% of the fat into the “tasty treats for MP” bowl that sits at the back of my range and sautéed the apples in the rest, adding liberal glugs of Calvados when it started to look dry. JC says to add salt, pepper, sugar and cinnamon, but I only added salt and pepper to balance the sweet. Eventually I threw in a chopped leek and it gave off the most incredible smell, which unfortunate technical limitations do not allow me to share with you. You will have to suffice with this.

To keep things moist as the apples and leeks cooked, I added some stock and more Calvados. When the apples and leeks seemed done, I mixed in ALL of the sausage and stuffed it into ducky. Of course I misjudged the cavity size, so I saved the rest for the roasting pan. I had never trussed anything before, but as I have the “right” kind of roasting cord and a large supply of sewing needles (that haven’t seen much action recently, but that is for another post), I decided to give it a try.

So I’ll never be a surgeon, but there you have it. First time for everything. If you are interested, I used a size 22 tapestry needle and it worked great. Only thing was I inadvertently unthreaded my needle half way through and came uncomfortably close to doing what I always do when I unthread my needle, namely licking the thread and rethreading…So word to the wise, once the needle has made contact with the duck, do not pretend like you are stitching a pattern onto linen. Consider raw duck skin to be a non-saliva friendly sort of canvas. Ahem.

JC says to prick the duck’s breast, thighs and back to release the subcutaneous fat. Here I imagine Cantonese chefs fainting at the sheer horror of letting the essence of the duck dribble wastefully into the pan, but being neither Cantonese, nor a chef, I happily turned the fat release valve on to high and used my sewing needle to poke with abandon.

Heat the oven to 425 and brown the duck for 15 minutes. While this was happening, I chopped potatoes and carrots. I defrosted some pearl onions too, because they caramelize so nicely. After 15 minutes, reduce the oven to 350 and take the duck out briefly. Strew (and that is a JC word) them and the leftover stuffing around the duck and glug more Calvados and a little stock into the pan. It should look something like this.

Put it back in. She goes through the convolutions of turning the duck on its side every 30 minutes or so, as if it was going to develop pan-sores if left in one position for too long. I took Mei Ping on a walk instead, leaving T with strict instructions on what to do if he smelled burning fat. He didn’t. When I got back it smelled and looked terrific, so I helped it out by feeding it the rest of the Calvados in the bottle. After an hour, I took it out and took out 80% of the accumulated juices and let the fat start to separate. She says it is done when you prick the thigh and the juice that comes out is pink. I found that it is awfully hard to determine pink against the dark brown of duck skin, so I guestimated. I probably left it in a tad too long, but it was still edible.

This is what it looked like when it came out.

Cut the threads, empty the stuffing (tricky when the cavity is so long and narrow and the darned thing is so steamy hot) and then you have something like this.

While the meat is resting, make the sauce. Take the pan drippings, minus most the fat and put it in a pan and heat to simmer. To thicken, you can start it with a roux using some of said fat. Adjust the taste with salt, pepper and Calvados, if you have any left, and add the rest of the duck stock on the stove (unless you have something else to make with duck stock in the next few days).

I have to say that this was just beyond words fabulous. But come on. Duck AND pork fat together? I mean, how could you go wrong? I think I liked the stuffing and veggies with the pan juices even more than the duck itself. And eaten with still warm, homemade bread (ooh la), the whole meal was just beyond outrageous.

Svelte? Who, us? Mmm, don’t think so.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Meuse-Argonne Battlefield drive thru

This is really part three of the Verdun battlefield tour.  On the same day we toured Verdun, we decided to hit before dark a few close by sites marking the American Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War One.  The offensive was conducted over a 6-week period from September 1918 to the end of the war on 11 November.  It was the largest single operation undertaken by the US Army up until that time, involving more than 1 million troops, including more than 20 infantry divisions, plus miscellaneous marine, tank, artillery, and air units.  Many of the American troops were green; the German troops were not and even though they realized the war probably was lost, the Germans fought hard and brought in heavy reinforcements.  The fighting was savage and bloody.  American tactics and leadership were rather unimaginative and expectations  unrealistic.  General John J. Pershing, the commander of US forces, thought the Americans would break through in 36 hours; instead, it took 6 weeks and casualties exceeded 120,000, including some 26,000 killed.

There is much to explore about the campaign in the area and the country itself looks similar to what it did in 1918 before the carnage of the fighting; largely rural farmland and dotted with patches of woods, small towns, and tiny villages.  Those who study the campaign say that there are a number of monuments and markers scattered about.  Some of them have disappeared over the years, destroyed by French farmers who found them to be a nuisance for their planting or simply lost to the weeds and woods.  Many other sites of significant American actions and heroism remain unmarked and waiting on the curious to find.  With a good map, one can see where individuals like Alvin York, Harry Truman, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur fought their individual actions, or where Charles Whittlesey and his "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Division gained fame.  You might also find where other, lesser known soldiers carried individual acts of heroism, like Private Lewis "Jack" Barkley of the 3rd Division, who fought off an entire German 600-man battalion and won the Medal of Honor for his deed.  Similarly, you might walk little-known places where American units fought some of the bloodiest actions in US military history, like Cote Dame Marie, Hill 258, Hill 253, Bois des Ogons, Bois de Fays, and the Madeleine Farm.  Again, it was unfortunate we could give the area only a cursory visit.  Though we drove up the main axis of the American advance, we stopped at just two sites, the American monument at Montfaucon and the cemetery at Romagne.  To see where we went and the ground of the American offensive, check out this website:

For anyone interested in the details of the campaign, I recommend Edward Lengel's To Conquer Hell:  The Meuse-Argonne, 1918.  Although a bit repetitious, it is well written, superbly researched, and probably the most comprehensive account of the campaign to date.  I doubt the book will be surpassed.  For an overall look at the American experience in WW1, try John S. D. Eisenhower's Yanks:  The Epic Story of the American Army in World War 1 or The AEF Way of War by Mark E. Grotelueschen.   To read about the experience at the small unit and soldier (or marine) level, try The Remains of Company D by James Carl Nelson or James Boyd's 1923 novel Through the Wheat, which F. Scott Fitzgerald called "...not only the best combatant story of the Great War, but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage."  Jack Barkley's memoir is (Scarlet Fields) coming out soon as well.

Now on to the tour.  Off to the northwest of Verdun and generally out in the middle of nowhere stands the Montfaucon American Monument, which pays tribute to all the American forces that fought in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.

The monument.  On the wall below the column are tributes to all the American infantry divisions that took part in the offensive.
Behind the monument are the ruins of the village of Montfaucon, a hill top stronghold and observation post for the Germans and an early objective for the American offensive.   The hill and village were seized by the US 79th ("Kuhn's Singing Army") Division after heavy fighting.  Edward Lengel in To Conquer Hell quotes an account of the 79th Division's 313th Regiment upon entering the remnants of the village:  "Awful carnage--torn bodies of 313th Infantrymen, Germans, and horses, lying in piles amid rubble and wrecked caissons and carts; in the cemetery, coffins and skeletons of German soldiers blown from their graves by the bombardment."  Hundreds of German soldiers were found hiding out in dugouts, but surrendering machine gunners were "shot on sight." The village after the war was rebuilt in the valley below the hill and the ruins left in place as a park.

Notice the bunker/observation post built into the ruins on the left. 

    Another bunker on the Montfaucon hillside.

From Montfaucon, we continued along the axis of the American advance to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial at Romagne.  It is the largest American military cemetery in Europe. Over 14,200 Americans who died in WW1 are buried here, most of them killed during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  A few have their date of death listed as 1919 and some are civilians; they probably died during the great influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe (and the globe) at the end of the war.  Romagne was a major objective for US forces during the offensive.  The hills, ridges, and fields just south of the village, as well as the nearby village of Cunel, were part of the main German defensive line in the Argonne, known as the Kriemhilde Stellung belt.  Many US soldiers lost their lives trying to break through it.  Just in the vicinity of the cemetery, US forces suffered some 27,000 casualties.  The 3rd ("Rock of the Marne"), 4th ("Ivy"), 5th ("Red Diamond"), 32nd ("Red Arrow"), 80th ("Blue Ridge Boys"), 89th ("Middle West"), and 90th ("Tough Ombres") divisions fought in the vicinity.

It was a lovely, peaceful, and sobering place we visited on that quiet fall afternoon.  There were no other souls about and the only sounds were the leaves rustling along the ground and our whispered comments while we walked among the many rows of white crosses and the occasional Star of David. 

Last, as we were leaving the Meuse-Argonne area, we stopped off to check out a monument in the middle of a small town called Dun-on-the-Meuse.  The monument spoke for itself.  The 5th Division liberated the town in November of 1918 shortly before the Armistice.  On the left hand side of the monument is the obligatory tribute to the villagers who died serving in the "Great War."  This was one of many such monuments we saw during our trip through the provinces of eastern France.  Just like many small American towns have their monument to Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, each French village seemed to have its tribute to the "Poulis" or "hairy one," the warmly informal name for the WW1 French infantryman, who died by the hundreds of thousands between 1914 and 1918.