Friday, August 28, 2009

The French Series: le Fin

I hate this part of the vacation - the end. We head out on Sunday so today's post will conclude the French Series. Merci for coming along for the ride!

But before we head off, a view from the beach....

Lazy days on the calanques, the gorgeous rocky beaches between here and Marseilles.

The kids loved the fromage battu - a very thick yogurt, a French lebnah - which they had for breakfast every morning. I loved that it was hot enough to hang out in diapers - they dribbled down their bellies and I did approximately 15 less loads of laundry.

Last night our little crew, which grew on Wednesday to include Martin, Annika and baby Fanny, tried to outsmart the kids by going out for a late dinner. We hit old favorite Le Petit Prince in Cabris, a simple cozy bistro with an excellent kitchen.

General consensus among the meat eaters - Annika's tartar de beouf was delicious. Raw red meat had always put me off - until moving over here. Raw beef mixed with onion, mustard seed, garlic and the chef's secret spices - I've acquired the taste.

Again, dessert was stellar. "Café gourmand" consisted of a pistachio creme brulé, a haselnut ice cream that tasted like Frangelico and a sort of fondant brownie that temporarily renewed my love affair with chocolate.

The dessert was either complimented or decorated or -actually we all wondered what the hell it was doing on the plate along side a gummy artificial strawberry - and here it is in what has become the obligatory Wiz photo.

The kids were destroyed. We had banked on them passing out in the stroller. Let's just say, we all know whose really in charge here.

So, mes bonnes amies, thanks for joining us. See you back in der Vaterland! Bisous x jiff and co.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The French Series: Fondant au Chocolat

There it is - the aforementioned fondant au chocolat which I ate three of in one sitting while nursing. Today I feel victorious when I make it through one. This one is homemade only in the sense that we put it in our oven at home. We picked up a package of four in the refrigerated section of our local grocery store, they come in little plastic cups with instructions to place in a pre-heated oven for exactly 16 minutes. Last year our friend Wiz, a lover of all things chocolate who has a special place in his heart and stomach for fondant, in his quest for the perfect "homemade" consistency, experimented with the times - 12 minutes: too runny though still delicious; 18 minutes: solid, no good. He determined that 16 minutes - give or take 30 seconds - was right on: a moist cakey exterior with an interior that oooozes out when you stick your spoon in. Yes, spoon - no forks for this delicious flowing cake. Add vanilla ice cream (actually last night we topped it with vanilla-pecan-caramel-with-salty-butter ice cream - wow) and eet eez zee best!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The French Series: Taverne du Safranier


To start off: a disclaimer and an acknowledgement.

Disclaimer: The one thing, ONE thing we forgot to pack for this trip was camera battery chargers. S&%!!!! Zia has graciously offered up her phone which has allowed me to post photos from last night's dinner. However, the quality is not quite what it would have been with an actual camera.

Acknowledgement: Le Saf, as the locals call it, was our friend Cathryn's recommendation. Cathryn, who is familiar with Antibes and with good food, did not let us down. THANK YOU CATHRYN!

La Taverne du Safranier is a modest little establishment, about 50 meters from the bord de la mer in old town Antibes. While reviews complain about the views, "overlooking the parking lot" - on the contrary, we found the tables set up in a courtyard overlooking a small square full of children of patrons playing tag and antagonizing each other. The inside of the restaurant consisted of a small bar, a few refrigerators and a window into the kitchen. Everything was covered in seafaring kitch - elaborate mermaids on the bathroom door, nets and captains hats and fish hanging from walks and the ceiling. It was cozy and unpretentious. Our very patient waitress was casual in jeans and a tight revealing black tank top that had, "NO SILICONE 100% Human" written across what she was presumably letting everyone know was not silicone. It only took us 40 minutes to order as we deciphered the menu while saving the babies from kamikaze kids on scooters, an overzealous pair of relaying racing brothers and pigeons.

No I had not yet had my fill of les moules and am so glad I am such a glutton - moules gratininée - delicious muscles on the shell carpeted in a mixture of parsley, garlic and butter.

Ingo and Wiz had le formule, the set menu, which started with carpaccio du thon, a very thinly sliced raw tuna that had the look and feel of a prosciutto baloney. The taste was sweet and salty and melted on the tongue.

Z's sardines were bite-sized salty goodness.

The pegre grilleé was the main course in the formule - a cousin of the dorade, grilled and stuffed with a mixture of herbs - fennel seeds, parsley, and other greens that we could quite make out. A squirt of lemon and mmm the fish was so fresh it really didn't need anything but the herbs were the perfect compliment. Z had the grilled tuna, which also tasted like it jumped out of the sea onto her plate. The only dish that I wasn't crazy about was mine - which I ordered at the insistence and due to the curiosity of the boys, a dorade au foie gras. The fish was excellent but the foie gras was too much. Here I must confess that while I appreciate foie gras, it wouldn't be my last meal. It was so heavy and rather than contrasting the light freshness of the fish, I found it overpowering. Ingo scarfed down the remains on my plate.

Remember how I told you that I've lost my sweet tooth? And how I licked salt cubes as a kid? Well, this dessert, the tarte au citron, was the breakout hit of the night. The lemon curd (thought of you Smash) was creamy and tart and the crust was buttery but light but what stood out about this tarte was the meringue - the whipped egg whites were not sweet, but SALTY. It was like drinking lemonade out of a margarita glass, like eating lemon pudding in the ocean, like licking the salt of your hand, holding the tequila and then sucking on the lemon. It was airy and tart, refreshing and the perfect taste of summer by the sea. I LOVED it.

This profitterol filled with vanilla ice cream and smoothered in warm chocolate sauce was something I would have simply faceplanted into when I was breastfeeding. Even now, the chocolate sauce was fiiiiiiine. And this dish got the most ooohs and ahhs out of the table (as opposed to ummms? that followed the tarte au citron) but the salty lemon tarte still takes the proverbial cake in my book.

I must admit, we were a bit cocky, booking a table for 8pm, naively confident after the kids cooperated a few nights ago while we sat and sucked on moules. Tonight however they showed us who was boss - demanding to push the stroller around the little square in front of the restaurant for 20 minutes, terrorizing a sweet little Italian girl by pulling her hair and attempting to stick fingers into her eye sockets, and eating handfuls of dirt out of the potted plants. One finally succumbed to her fate around 10 after we wheeled her along the boardwalk - fishing cooling on the table. The other slowed down after a few fried potatoes only to have a total meltdown when we ran out of creme brulé. Ingo had to drive him around town for 15 minutes before he finally passed out. In their defense, we did keep them up 3 hours past their bed time. Le Saf was worth it - thanks again, Cathryn!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The French Series: Fromage du Chevre, les Figues et Miel

Petit dejeuner - figs from the tree in our yard, a delicious melt-on-your-plate goat cheese and a drizzle of locally farmed, lavendar scented honey. E voilá - breakfast is served!

Monday, August 24, 2009

The French Series: Boudin Blanc

I'd never had boudin blanc before but found it at the local butchers recently and recalled a nostalgic article about summers in France and this white sausage. And because I'm a sucker for food as memory, I considered making boudin blanc one of mine.

We had decided to throw a few things on the grill - a dorade for the pescatarian in the group, and for the rest of us, a few merguez and the boudin blanc. As soon as Ingo saw it, he asked, "What's with the weiss wurst?" - refering to the Bavarian specialty that's peeled out of its intestinal casing before it's boiled, dipped in sweet mustard and eaten - often for breakfast. Weiss wurst has always been unappealing to me and so the thought that what might turn out to be my new favorite French sausage was nothing more than a German hotdog immediately put me on the defensive.

"It is NOT weiss wurst - it's boo-daan blaaaaaahnk," I insisted in my best Fransch ak-sant. Ingo sceptically grilled the links and the three of us tucked in, albeit somewhat timidly.

"This is weiss wurst", Ingo declared.

"Do NOT inzult ze food of ma pee-pull!" with my best dramatic flair.

To be honest, I couldn't have told you if it was weiss wurst or not. The texture was a little too soft, a little too reminiscent of a mousse and not as flavorful when placed alongside the spicey merguez.

Regretfully, the French weiss wurst will not be included in my list of summer memories.

Photo above: Wiz tackles the wurst!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The French Series: Moules et Frites

Last night we headed up to Cabris, a little hilltop town close to where we are staying, to air the kids out and grab a little kir royale and bierre a la pression... However, the moules et frites at the table next to us unwittingly rearranged our plans. Instead of a quick drink, we grabbed a table and settled into a few pots of moules et frites - a la provencial - a tomato-herb sauce, marinière - broth and vegetables, de la maison - tomatoes, garlic and creme, and creme ail - garlic and cream and mmmmmmmmmm the best frites you ever did eat. One of the kids passed out in the stroller, the other ate several fries and sucked on a few mussel shells. They slept til 9 this morning. A world record. Perhaps we should be having moules et frites more often?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

She's A Gluten Freak!

Guadalajara, Mexico

Bonjour Sniff,
I hate to break up the pastry party you are having in the lovely South of France, but I feel a tugging need to expose my gluten freakishness to our readers. While I can most certainly appreciate the complexities of texture in a perfectly baked baguette and the infinite delight in all of the hot, sour, spice, sweet ways to load up, sandwich, or stuff a piece of gluten, this is solely an intellectual appreciation. That’s right readers, I am gluten-free. Not by choice, but by birth. My “claim to fame” is I have the distinct honor of being the first reported case of Celiac Sprue Disease in Chicago. Seriously, check the books. You will find my one year-old mug attached to a bloated stomach that looks like it could be on a “feed the starving children in Ethiopia ad”. Not pretty, but fully curable with the simple and strict deletion of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. Together, when mixed and moistened, they from gluten.

Gluten is found in grains such as, wheat, barley and rye. Think of everything in beer, except the water, and you have a fairly complete list of things that contain gluten. Sheepish admittance of “my condition,” as Carter likes to call it, will undoubtedly follow with a super sharp person asking, “wait….so…. you can’t drink beer, or….. eat… bagels or pizza?!!!!” Seriously, it is those three foods EVERY TIME. Beer. Bagels. Pizza. I don’t think those three would even make it onto the “Top 50 Glutenous Foods (I think) I Would Eat until I Die” list.

The next question, pretty much without fail, is “so…. What happens to you when you eat gluten?” If Carter is within earshot, , he blurts out the word “EXPUNGE!” faster that I can open my mouth and sink my teeth into a berry and lemon curd filled pavlova with crème anglaise. Move over pissaladier. He takes a sort of sick pleasure in explaining in detail to waiters what will happen if they are wrong and the soup is, in fact, thickened with flour.

Do I suffer when I win the game show of Life and land in France? Are you crazy?! Not in the slightest. Being a gluten-freak is the reason I am an expert in the heavenly brittle crispiness that gives way to the moist chewy center of a delectable French macaroon. It is why I know the pain of eating WAAAY TOO MUCH un-pasteurized triple cream cheese without the added filler of bread getting in the way. It is also why I have room for a fois gras starter, a fish course of red mullet and heirloom tomatoes, rabbit ballontine with baby carrots, and crème brulee, plus a final cheese course – no gluten taking up precious room.

Spare me the bakeries! Let’s go to the Bistro!

The French Series: Pissaladière

If I had to choose one dish, that is not really a dish but a snack, readily available at most bakeries from Nice into the Provence, that to me summarizes this region in one salty-sweet, chewy slippery bite, one edible treat that has the sea and the hills all stirred together and neatly spit back out in one, one piece of culinary memorabilia that conjures up every trip down here - it is Pissaladière.

Pissaladière is a delicious onion tart whose name is dervied from "pissalat", a condiment made from pureed anchovies, thyme and bay leaves and cloves which is spread on a pizza-like dough before baking. It is then topped with carmelized onions, a few black olives, perhaps a few anchovy slices and a sprinkling of herbs de provence.

Not recommended for consumption while floating in the pool.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The French Series: Inflicting Pain

So you know that the French word "pain" means bread, right? Good, so the other day, we headed to our favorite bakery (you sense a theme developing here?), Histoire du Pain – or as we like to call it, the History of Pain, only to find it is now Le Boulangerie de Charlotte, a far less intriguing name and much to our great disappointment, an entire universe away from the crusty, chewy baguette de campagne that we used to get fresh from the history's ovens. Quel domage! No, this baguette tasted a bit like the kind you can find in the frozen foods aisle of a German supermarket, just throw in a preheated oven for 10 minutes style – quel horror! Luckily, our other favorite backery across the street, Pleasure of Pain, is still open.

Ingo’s parents had just spent a week here and stocked the kitchen with essentials: cheese, wine, bread. However, Ingo’s dad, born in northern Italy during World War II and taught from an early age to ration and finish every last scrap, still likes his „pane vecchio“ or stale old bread; this being the case, he usually opts for store bought loafs, the kind that will last a week, rather than a fresh baguette. Mais nooooooooooon, sorry but in la Fraaaance, land of pastries, baguettes and delectable baked delicacies we will not be eating long-life bread. Nooooooooon. We will be hitting pleasure of pain everyday, probably twice.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The French Series: Religieuse

Bonjoooouuuuurrr!!! And greetings from southern France, land of ma peuple, home of a cusine that is built on a block of butter - did I mention that these are my people? So in a little smashandsniff blog-sperament, I am going to attempt an entry a day, a little fraaaaaansch food diary, non? Mai ouuuuiiii. So check back daily (though I might take the weekends off) through the end of this month for daily posts!

And to start things off.....Mmmm, religieuse. Two balls of pastry infused with chocolate or coffee cream.

Last year after the kids were born we moved down here, a small village near Grasse, and camped out for two months. I haven’t read up on this so I don’t know if it is a common phenomenon but while I was nursing, I craaaaaved sugar in a way that I never had before. Everyone who knows me knows I am a salty person – I will take a pretzel over a chocolate bar any day. When I was a kid, I would sneak into my mother’s kitchen cupboard and into a jar of bouillon cubes, unwrap one, lick it until I had rounded all of the corners, rewrap it and stick it back in the jar, believing the disfigured die would go unnoticed.

But while I was nursing – everything changed. I had HAD to have at least a few pieces of cake, a couple of cookies, a half bar of chocolate every day. I was simply following my body’s orders and it demanded that I increase my sugar intake. Perhaps due to this biological craving, sweets tasted better to me than ever before. I once famously ate three fondant au chocolat – with ice cream – IN ONE SITTING. And when I had finally satisfied the craving, I made Ingo promise to stock the fridge so that I could eat one EVERY DAY. Who eats fondant everyday? Absolutely NO ONE.

The religieuse was something my sister Sarah discovered while she was here visiting. Her natural sweet tooth led her tooth them and my temporary rewiring encouraged her. We ate them for breakfast. Religiously (ahem). So this morning, we headed to our local dealer, Le Plaisir du Pain, which we affectionately call (and would actually be more aptly named), the Pleasure of Pain – pain due to overtaxed stomach muscles, pain of no longer fitting into your jeans, but oh! the pleasure!

Very sadly but perhaps fortunately, these delicious balls of puffy creamy goodness just did not taste as good as they did while I was breastfeeding. No sweet has tasted as good to me as it did then. After weening, some women mourn the intimate time they spent with their infant while breastfeeding; I mourn the intimate encounters with chocolate desserts. E voilá.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Swabia with Love

Hamburg, Germany

Hey everybody, it’s Frank! (Hi Frank!) Frank has graciously offered to teach us how to make the one dish that made me believe that there is more to German cuisine than bratwurst and sauerkraut – käsespätzle!

Frank is a Stuttgarter – he’s from the city of Stuttgart, official capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg and unofficial capital of the region of Swabia. His family is from deep in the heart of Schwoabendländle – as one might affectionately call Swabia – famous for its contribution to the automotive industry (Porsche and Mercedes are located here) and its contribution to German cuisine – spätzle and knöpfle.

Käsespäztle is basically German macaroni and cheese. A homemade dough simply constructed of flour, eggs, water and salt is briefly boiled and then heaped into a form with alternating layers of grated cheese and roasted onions. This is the classic version but spätzle affectionados tinker with the teig adding speck, different kinds of cheeses, herbs, vegetables etc. There are also sweet spätzle dishes served with fruit compotes and cream.

The origin of the word späztle is not really known but hotly disputed. Swabian hausfraus used to knead the dough by hand or use spoons to shape small gnocchi-like orbs known as knöpfle or fashion long strands into spätzle. Some believe the small balls of dough in the hand were reminiscent of a sparrow or spatz and when you add the Swabian diminuative –le to the end of the word, you get spätzle or little sparrow. Others contend that späztle comes from the Italian word spezzato wherein pezzo means piece and spezzare is to cut into pieces.

Whatever the literal origin, the culinary origin is believed to have roots in necessity born of poverty – documents dating back to the 18th century describe the Swabians as poor people who had little tillable land. Spätzle, made with simple, readily available and inexpensive ingredients, was relatively cheap, especially when feeding a large family, versitile and filling.

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered spätzle but I know it completely changed the way I looked at German cuisine. The combination of chewy noodles held together by melted cheese and sweet roasted onions – it was comfort food that was sophisticated in its simplicity; it was macaroni and cheese for adults; it was a big warm hug. I was in love.

So, now back to Frank who has been waiting patiently to show you all the secrets of the Swabian hausfrau.

Swabian Frank’s Käsespätzle

First, Frank says, you use this very simple formula to figure out how much of what you need:

Recipe for 5 people:

100 g of flour per person = 500 g flour

1 egg per person = 5 eggs

50 ml of water per person = 250 g water

salt to taste

Combine flour and eggs in a mixing bowl with the eggs in the middle like a lake. Slowly beat the eggs into the flour with a hand mixer. While continuing to mix, slowly add the water. Add salt to taste – a few pinches. And that is it – your dough. It should not be hard but should not be runny either. There should be some fluid elasticity to it.

Bring lightly salted water with a little bit of butter in it to a boil. Ladle the dough into your spätzle press (the press is like an overgrown garlic press – I believe you can get them in the US if you look around. If not, you can do it the old fashioned way by spreading the dough out on a cutting board and cutting thin strips off into the water. This is more time consuming but technically more authentic.)

They only need a few minutes – they float to the top relatively quickly. About three minutes after they float up, take them out and transfer them to a strainer. The spätzle can then be transfered to a baking dish and then layered with grated cheese – a mild gouda or emmentaler or any cheese you would like to experiment with and finally topped with another layer of cheese and roasted onions – these can be roasted or sautéd while the spätzle is boiling or after. Season well with pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Stick the whole thing in the oven for about 20 minutes and essen ist fertig!

Gutten Appetit!!

P.S. Danke schön Frank - your Käsespäztle would make any Swabian hausfrau proud!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Life Gives You Lemons....

Guadalajara, Mexico

For the two years that I lived in Honduras, I lamented the lack of lemons in my life. Yes, the grocery aisles and markets were over-flowing with perfectly round juicy LIMES. There were the ubiquitous varieties of limes I had never heard of- all of which I wishfully put to the test, hoping that there was a lemon substitute in the bunch. Not the case. It is subtle, but there are distinct differences in the flavors of a lemon and a lime. A lime is more astringent, but boasts a lower acidity whereas a lemon has the flowery citrus sweetness that I missed so much while living in Honduras.

Optimistic that Mexico would be different in the citrus realm, I eagerly searched the aisles upon my arrival. I should have known from past experience, gained while prepping and creating in restaurant kitchens, my pursuit would end in disappointment. I do not think a Latino compañero ever handed me the proper fruit, whether I asked for a lemon or a lime. Until I learned I had to specify limes and lemons by their color, there was always confusion. No, sadly, there are no lemons in Mexico; which means there is no lemon meringue pie, Caesar dressing, gremolata, hummus-- the tasty tart lemon-dependent items are endless.

I was not going to easily accept my "lemonless" fate. Life without lemons. Really? While living in the States, my kitchen was consistently stocked with lemons. A squeeze from this magical fruit is usually all that is needed to elevate a sauce, round out a soup, or start a dressing. Clearly a basic necessity to every culinary artillery. I interrogated the fruit and vegetable vendors at any and all markets, and yes, "yellow limes", as they are called here in Mexico, do grace the stalls-- but rarely. Noticing the great variety of citrus trees lining the streets of most neighborhoods, I deduced that there had to be a lemon tree among the bunch. And sure enough – there they were – holy goddess of acidic wonders! Lemon trees! Tons of them! For five blocks the center medium of a fairly busy street was lined with lemon trees, heavy as Sniff caring twins in her tenth month, the trees were loaded with this unappreciated, unwanted fruit, totally neglected, and falling all over themselves to deliver their precious fruit to me.

Like a tattered and starving wanderer emerging from the desert after months of eating and drinking sand, I sprinted towards the vision of bright yellow orbs bobbing among the foliage. As I picked the lemons, I got the strangest looks from people driving by in their cars-- perhaps, because I was leaping around screaming with ecstatic joy, perhaps, because these were the ugliest lemons on the planet. Bulbous warty things, which I later discovered have a very thick pith, but taste straight-up of lemons.

And when life gives you lemons… make lemon curd! Please do not be put off by the name, which unfortunately sounds like turd or curdle, conjuring up smells and sights that should not be found near a kitchen. Hmmm... lemon curd: to me it is the perfect pudding. Brits keep jars of it in their fridge and slather it on their toast in the morning. It is a luxurious filling for pies, tarts, cakes and cookies. I like to eat it with fresh berries, sometimes cutting it with a bit of whipped cream to make it fluffier and lighter in flavor, or simply naked, spoon to mouth. Tart, creamy, mouthwatering curd. The only unfortunate side effect of making lemon curd is, the lemons disappear faster than I can pick them. So, I keep a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge as well, and all is right with the world.

Sherry Yard’s Master Lemon Curd recipe is spot-on, and even more irresistible if you use Meyer lemons.

LEMON CURD – recipe taken from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard

2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped OR grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1. Prepare an ice bath using a large bowl to hold the ice. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 full of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

2. Combine sugar and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse until sugar is yellow and very fragrant, about 1 minute. The friction of the machine heats up the zest, releasing its oils into the sugar. (Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle or a small bowl and a fork to blend the two together.)

3. Combine the lemon sugar, eggs and egg yolks in a medium heatproof bowl and whisk together 30 seconds to distribute sugar evenly, which prevents premature coagulation. Place the bowl over the simmering water and immediately begin whisking. Whisk continuously for 15 seconds, or until sugar dissolves. To see if the sugar has dissolved, place a finger in the mixture. If you feel gains, continue to whisk.

4. Add lemon and lime juices and cook, whisking continuously, about 5 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of bowl from time to time. Insert a thermometer and check curd's temperature. The curd is done when it has the consistency of sour cream and a temperature of 160 degrees F. Rinse and dry the food processor, if using.

5. Transfer curd to the food processor or large bowl. Pulse while you add butter, piece by piece, or whisk it in by hand. Once all butter has been added, pulse or whisk for 10 seconds, or until texture is homogenous. Rinse and dry the heatproof bowl.6. Strain curd through a fine-mesh strainer back into the bowl and set in ice bath to cool. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto surface of curd to prevent a skin from forming. Stir curd occasionally until it has cooled completely. At this point, the curd can be used or refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.

NOTE: For a richer curd, increase butter to 1/4 pound (1 stick).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Postcard: Italy

Ah, summer vacation. Northern Germans usually head for either the North or the Baltic sea – where it is an average of 60 degrees and you wear an average of three layers to the beach. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin home of Lambeau Field - synonymous with frozen tundra - but we still had real summers, i.e. at least four consecutive days of 80 degrees or more, at least four times somewhere in between the time school let out in June and when we went back in late August.

Determined to get my summer this summer, we packed up the kids and flew to Bologna, Italy and from there we drove an hour east to the Adriatic coast to a small beach town called Lido degli Scacchi. Never heard of it? There is a reason for that: of all of the beautiful spots in this maganificient country, all of the ancient hilltowns, rugged beaches and raging cities – Scacchi is NOT one of them.

The coastline here is flat and uninteresting unlike its cousin coast, the Mediterranean. Highrises built in the 1960s are eyesores that newcomers have to contend with and locals don’t notice anymore. As Ingo observed, sitting on the balcony of his nonna’s tiny apartment as we surveyed the tenacles of the television satellites protruding from every other balacony except ours, the unfinished facade of the apartment building across the way with its clover shaped brick and wrought iron fencing, the laundry hung out on lines stretching across the narrow alley ways, „It’s a little bit like the Gaza of Italy – without the fighting.“

So what’s the draw? Ingo spent his summers here as a kid. His grandmother, who is from the Veneto, the region around Venice, wanted a place where she could spend summers on the beach – surrounded by people who spoke with a familiar accent. So she bought the place, or rather, it was offered to her husband to settle a debt, back in the early 70s. And Ingo’s family has been spending the summers here ever since. And after a typical northern German „summer“, I was not as concerned with coloseums, countryside and the west coast as I was with warm sun, a sheltering umbrella and ideally a few good meals.

After our first morning on the beach, we hit up a little hole in the wall which smelled of a fryer and was decorated with bottles of white wine on shelves on either side. We picked up a few white paper bags filled with fritti misti, literally, fried mixed, a mixture of calamari, squid and shrimp breaded and fried and finished with a squeeze of lemon – as simple as that. Henry spent about 20 minutes chewing on one piece of calamari before he finally gave up and left it in tatters for a grateful dog to feast on. A valiant effort and an encouraging sign that my budding gourmet has adventurous tastebuds.

Later that night, we stopped at a little place for a local specialty, spaghetti allo scoglio, literally, spaghetti on the rocks. Named for the rocks installed as breakers that sit out 100 meters from the shore, these boulders are also full of scavengers – mainly kids and birds - looking for crustaceans that bind themselves to the surface. It’s like a spicy spaghetti frutti di mare – but with twice as many clams, muscles and shrimp.

On our last night in Scacchi we were invited to dinner by old family friends of Ingo’s. He and Simona and her sister Irene grew up together over those summers and it was lovely to sit in their garden and listen to stories of their childhood and catch up on stories about our own children. Dinner was an informal make-your-own tacos, Italian style. Piadina are a kind of cross between a pita and a tortilla and when you use them to wrap cheese with salami, prosciutto and grilled vegetables like zucchini and eggplant, you have an Italian quesadilla of sorts called a piadina. It is the region’s answer to a panino – basically the same but on flatbread.

A little pinker, a little heavier and a lot better prepared to deal with the rest of the 60 degree summer, we arrived back in Hamburg late Sunday night – sandy, sunburned and sated.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Summertime Love in a Bun - Chicago Style

Lake Forest, Illinois

If you are going to go full-on Americana with your food, the best time to do it is summer and the best place, no doubt, is in the Midwest. I am sure there are as many definitions of truly American cooking as there are addresses between sea-to-shining sea, and mine most definitely is founded in the house that I grew up in, in the same house where Oscar's grandparents still live. Sadly, our State-side tour was coming to an end, but there was no better place to get my fill of barbequed ribs, beer brats, fruit stuffed pies, sweet corn on the cob, potato and tomato salads then in my mom’s kitchen.

My mom is from Wisconsin, and in her dowry she carried delicious pork beer brats. Any meat ground and teased into a casing causes a sudden saliva tsunami and can be considered a perfect food-- breakfast, lunch or dinner-- throughout the year, but my mom’s beer brats are, to me, the essence of summer cuisine. Mustard slathered skin crispy from the grill, giving way to a bite seasoned with fennel and black pepper, extra juicy from being boiled in beer-- this is summertime love in a bun!

Carter won the Wiener Prize with a "Three Dog Day" the Saturday before our departure. His first order of business upon walking into Wrigley Field was to scarf down an Italian sausage, the seventh inning stretch rained Chicago Style dogs all-around (Chicago Style? All you need to know is DO NOT ask for ketchup). The Cubs' win was celebrated at my parents' house with greatly anticipated beer brats and all the fixings: mustard, day-glow green relish, raw white onion, jardinière (the essential spicy pickled veggie topping) and jalapeños. Carter had seconds at dinner and the biggest piece of pie; that is one reason why he is my hero.

Cubs, dogs, a boat ride past The Statue of Liberty, fireworks, and trips to Target: a very American summer vacation. What is the definition of true American cuisine? Summer is the perfect time to argue it out around a barbeque, sucking down cold ones while your meat of choice sizzles away.