Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Recipe: Creamed Pearl Onions

Every family seems to have that one dish that stands out as special holiday ritual to prepare. A dish that often seems unappealing for those outside the tribe. Mothers often inherit them from mothers-in-laws - which results in a lot of the dishes having a decidedly 1950's flair. All across the country these jello salads and green bean casseroles being prepared for Thanksgiving tomorrow. For my husband's family, the ritual dish is a cold pasta salad made with shrimp and sweet pickles.  For my family, it's always been creamed pearl onions. 
The battle of the pearl onions was legendary in my house. Boiling and peeling (inevitably when they are still too hot) enough of those marble sized onions to serve twelve people was a sisyphean task, let alone making a thick cream sauce without it breaking. In the frenzy of preparing the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sauces, pie crusts, etc, etc, it was usually the pearl onions that pushed things over the edge. One year, the dastardly onions completed their journey just to be dropped just a few feet from the table - throwing bright cream sauce across the curtains. There was cursing.  

But, the onions are so good. And, now that Trader Joe's sells handy bags of pearl onions that have already boiled and peeled, they're easily made without cursing! Here's the original recipe from my mom using fresh pearl onions, which you could just replace with the thawed frozen variety:
  1. The onions: Put two 10 oz packages of whole fresh pearl onions into boiling water for about a minute or two. Onions should be somewhat firm but not crisp when you pierce them. Drain and cut off both ends which takes the outer layer too.
  2. Make a thick cream sauce. Melt in a small heavy saucepan 2 tablespoons butter, Stir in 2 tablespoons of flour, blend well over a low heat, stir in 3/4 cup milk and bring slowly to a boil while stirring.  Add 3/4 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese and melt into the sauce.  Add a dash of cayenne to taste.  If you are using a lot of onions, obviously double or triple your sauce.
  3. Pour the cheese sauce over the onions and bake for about 30 minutes or more depending on how soft you want the onions.
The frozen pearl onions are also great for easy coq-au-vin and pickling. I keep them stocked in the freezer at all times. What's your family's ritual recipe for Thanksgiving meal?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Vacation Recap: Nice, Aix-en-Provence and Vence in 15 days

I thought it would be helpful to wrap-up our reports from the South of France with details on where we stayed and a summary for future reference. Rob and I planned this 15 day trip for the start of November in just a few days - a bit chaotic! We found a decently priced British Airways flight from San Francisco to Nice, stopping in London Heathrow.

We booked a top floor apartment through Airbnb on the edge of the Old Town in a classic old building. The central location was perfect for exploring the city and we had a great view of the busy brand new park from the deck.
  1. Our first day in Nice. Went to the flower market, hiked castle hill and swam in the ocean.
  2. Exploring the hills in Nice and the Matisse museum.
  3. Day trip to Monaco. Explored the deserted city and fell in love with the worlds best aquarium.
  4. Lazy Sunday. Modern art, lunch in the plaza and strolling along the beach. 
  5. Travel day. Before leaving by train, we discovered the Monday antique market.
In Aix, we rented a modern little studio with a garden below a villa. This was our smallest apartment and also our furthest outside the city center. A nice short walk from the studio to Cezanne's old stomping grounds.
  1. Market day. We explored and ate at the many outdoor markets in town. Amazing raclette sandwich.
  2. Thoroughly modern. Quick trip out to the Foundation Vasarley for 1970's graphic arts and a quiet afternoon in the park. 
  3. Stalking Cezanne. We walked up to the painter's grounds, explored his studio garden and conquered the process of buying a roast chicken.
  4. Hiking Provence. An adventure to walk to the top of Mt. Sainte-Victorie outside of Aix. One of our favorite days!
Our smallest city of the trip. Vence is a old walled town in the hills above Nice. Our apartment here was our favorite of the trip - a modern renovated loft in an old building right in the heart of town.
  1. Travel day. A sleepy morning in Aix before taking the bus to Nice and then Vence. 
  2. Hike to St. Paul de Vence. Another favorite day! We walked to St. Paul de Vence and had a leisurely Sunday lunch.  
  3. Inside the ramparts. A rainy day of exploring Vence's Roman and Medieval history. Plus, lunch with the locals. 
  4. Last day. Another rainy day. Shopping, lunch and then exploring the hills around Vence. 
I wouldn't change a thing about our trip - aside from just wishing we could have stayed longer. We didn't feel the need to rent a car while there - although it certainly would have been a bit quicker for traveling between cities. 

As for packing, I definitely brought too much - not knowing exactly where we were going after the first few days in Nice. A pair of slacks, a pair of leggings, a dress, a few tops and sweaters, a blazer, a bathing suit, a warm jacket and a couple scarfs would be more than enough. For shoes, a pair of dressier flats and either converse-style sneaker or flat boots is fine. I brought sneakers, but only wore them on the hike and could have done with flat boots. I should have brought an electrical converter, but it was a fun adventure to track one down in Nice.

Having a 3G Kindle was really great for traveling, it was so easy to buy books on the fly. I read A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, Two Towns in Provence and A Room With a View among other things while on vacation.

I would highly recommend visiting the South of France in November! I think it would be a great destination for families with young kids as well as those traveling as a couple. All our apartments could have accommodated one or two little ones easily. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Weekends: Jet Lag

After all the fun of exploring and blogging in France, I took it easy this weekend. Jet lag is no joke.

On Friday night, Rob and I laid low with a pizza and tried to go to bed early. Woke up at 4:30 am or so and spent a few hours reading in bed. Later Saturday morning, I went to have my hair done down in Dogpatch while Rob tackled an emergency with his work. Nicole and Margaret came with me to Haight Street for some vintage clothes shopping after lunch.
We stopped for cake and coffee at a cafe in the afternoon before heading home. Quick rest and then it was time for Rob and me to go to the opera. The Barber of Seville is a fun opera full of some of the most recognizable music in the genre.
It was a good cast, except for Figaro who wasn't quite delivering in the main role. We were both super exhausted and decided to walk home after intermission.

Up early again on Sunday, but at a much more reasonable hour. Breakfast with the Sunday paper in bed. I drove down to Palo Alto to have a birthday lunch with my sister. Jean, Trent, little Ev and I walked across the Stanford campus to have burgers at Gott's Roadside and ice cream at Tin Pot Creamery.

Back to the city before 3:00 - just in time for Rob and me to meet Nicole for our scooter lesson in Hayes Valley. We all signed up for Scoot Networks, and their fleet of rental electric mopeds. Thanks to our friendly trainer, we learned how to ride in about 30 minutes.
The three of us scooted down to Valencia Street and stopped for wine and snacks at Mission Cheese.
Headed back to Hayes Valley at dusk. We were zipping all over the place on the fun scooters! A fun adventure for a fun little weekend.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Au Revior Cote d'Azur

Our last day in France. Very bittersweet! Rob and I woke up early with plans for a three hour hike in the hills outside of Vence, but pouring rain had us reconsider.
Despite the stormy weather, the village did seem to be bustling. So we bundled up and headed out. Garden roses, eggs, leeks, honey and gourds were for sale in the plaza in the rain.
Inside the ancient ramparts, the empty streets we wandered the day before had bloomed into produce, seafood, spice and soap markets.
Empty storefronts became stylish boutiques. What a transformation!

I bought a big Provencal-style straw market bag from one little shop, a few linens from the boutique and fancy pastries from the bakery. We ran home to drop off the purchases and eat a rich coffee eclair before heading out to eat
Les Lavandes seemed like a popular choice for lunch. Not an authentic local's brasserie like we ate at yesterday - but a fun gourmet spot for tourists and locals. The sign outside was advertising rabbit and venison specials.
Our meal started with an amuse bouche of vegetable quiche with roquefort sauce.
Rob had the lamb and I ordered the venison. It was super delicious, with a thick wine, tomato, onion, mushroom, olive and basil sauce.
Coffee with tiny chocolate pastries to end the meal.
We picked up a few more pastries on our way home. Of course, it had stopped raining just in time for Rob to go to work for the day. I read for a bit and let my shoes dry out before going to explore. I headed up to the hills. Which villa should we live in?
The countryside was sparkling after the heavy rain.
The view just kept getting better and better as I hiked up.
This pink villa would suit me nicely I think.
From the top, it felt like you owned the entire Cote d'Azur. To the right, you could see miles into the countryside and vineyards. To the left, you could see far out to sea past Nice to Antibes and Cannes in the distance.

A perfect way to end our our stay in Provence!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Vence: Rainy Day

We woke up this morning to a rainy day in Vence. Not like Sunday's romantic drizzle, this was real winter rain. A good day to relax and explore the little town. After breakfast, Rob and I walked around the city ramparts.
This is the old city wash-house, built in 1811 for scrubbing clothes. Apparently, there was a serious hierarchy about who got the spots closest to the fountain at the end. The gossip that happened here must have been epic!
We walked across the bridge to see Matisse's chapel, but it was closed today.
One of the old churches in town had been turned into a museum celebrating the artist and director, Jean Cocteau, as part of the local film festival running in November. An enthusiastic volunteer served us espresso while we watched clips. Back in town, we explored the medieval city.
So tiny and cute. These archways were added ad hoc over the centuries as people wanted to expand their homes.
I'm usually great at navigation but kept getting turned around and confused inside the city walls.
The cathedral inside was built on top of a Roman temple in the 4th century and has gravestones going back to the year 220 built into the exterior walls. St. Joseph has a pretty snazzy alcove inside.
The mosaic Chagall designed for the baptism area is a happy scene of Moses being saved from the Nile.
We passed the bakery and decided it was time for a early lunch and escape from the cold.
Rob and I grabbed a table at a brasserie in town that was packed with locals. Great for people watching! I imagined that the guests around us were bankers, plumbers and bakers. I had coq au vin and Rob had daube de boeuf provencal - a hearty beef stew cooked with wine and rosemary and served over noodles. Red wine for me and water for rob. Two hearty local dishes, nicely done, for a cold day. Followed by two coffees.
Back home for Rob to start his work day. I curled up in bed and read through A Room With a View on my Kindle while it rained. Love that book!
Headed out to explore in the rainy afternoon. It looked like the whole town had smartly decided to call it quits on the stormy day. Only a few bakeries were open.
Went to the market for supplies and returned home to paint for the rest of the evening. For dinner, I heated up the camembert we picked up yesterday to make an instant fondue, along with a big salad and green olive tapenade with anchovies. Creme caramel for dessert. The cheese was good - but SO smelly - I braved the rain storm to throw away the leftover packaging in a trash bin outside instead of keeping it in our kitchen.
Tomorrow is our last day in France and we have a big hike planned.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Vence: To St. Paul de Vence

This was our favorite day in France yet! A long post for a long, fun day.  Woke up this morning to rain outside the windows on one side of the apartment and a big rainbow on the other side. Vence (pronounced "vance") is adorable and we love it already. It's like Aix-en-Provence and Nice had a perfect, 1,500-year-old baby.

Despite the rain, the town is bustling with people out for Sunday morning shopping. Rob and I grab a quiche and a warm chocolate croissant from a crowded bakery and set out to find the walking trail to St. Paul de Vence. The tourism office isn't open to provide a map, so we are winging it.
We find our first "chemin" (trail) on the south of town.
That trail leads us down to a wooded road. It feels a lot like California, with oak trees along the path.
The occasional stone ruin and chapel reminds us that we're far from home.
An hour's walk later and we pop-out into St. Paul de Vence. This small walled town is much fancier and more touristy than Vence, full of art galleries. The tiny streets must be absolute madness in the summer.

We stop in a little cafe and the owner sets us up with coffee out on a bench across the street overlooking the valley. You can see Cannes in the distance.
We wander around the city and visit the small church. There are some very cute cafes outside the ramparts and brave people eating at outside tables between rain showers.

A few locals, and their shaggy dogs, are among the groups of Italian, Canadian and Chinese tourists.
I explore the Fragonard Parfumeur shop - absolutely darling! Rob and I are surprisingly hungry and discover that it's nearly 2:00 already. Where has the time gone?
We stop in for what my family would call a "step out" lunch at Le Vieux Moulin. It is full of French families and smells divine.  Start off with a half bottle of a crisp Cote d'Azur white wine and an appetizer of artichokes with arugula and truffled panisses (remember when we discovered this chickpea polenta back in Nice?).
Risotto with wild mushrooms for Rob's main entree and homemade gnocci with fresh herbs, cheese and pancetta for me.
Warm chocolate cake with almond vanilla bean ice cream and two coffees for dessert.
The owner pours us tiny glasses of homemade limoncello to end our meal.
Two hours later, we're not the last people in the restaurant, but close to it. A perfect Sunday meal for our last weekend in France!
It's a little drizzly out as we head back to Vence on the trail right behind the restaurant.
What a view!
We walk past a local couple harvesting olives from their grove.
A couple of adorable little dogs out for walks with their owners greet us happily on the trail and we throw sticks for them. Back in the woods, we cross a creek before climbing up to Vence.
Back in town about 5:00 and the village is decidedly closed for the night. We manage to find the one tiny market that is open and buy supplies: baguette, camembert, red grapes, wine and apricot cookies.
This porcelain urn, the size of a quarter, is a souvenir of our amazing day hiking in the Pays Vencois.