Friday, September 27, 2013

France: Brittany - What Are They and Do They Taste Good? Plus: Seafood Paella

View of St. Malo

     We spent last weekend in France celebrating Dear Daughter's 12th birthday.  The trip was timed perfectly.  We arrived late Wednesday evening and spent an enjoyable morning cruising around the large indoor/outdoor market in the coastal town of Dinard.  We purchased food items for our dinner, early Christmas presents, sat outside and drank coffee like the locals and even managed a seaside stroll along the promenade.  That evening, we made a very nice seafood paella (recipe to follow).

     The weather was cool but mostly sunny on Friday.  After a slow and lazy start to the day, we headed to our favorite beach at St. Jacut de la Mer.  This time of year, the beach was nearly empty and the vacation houses, all boarded up.  I think for us, it is a great time of year to experience the area.  After our picnic lunch, we headed out to walk to the island.  The tides are very extreme in this area and during low tide, you can walk a mile out to a small (and inhabited) island.  As we walked, you could see locals and vacationers loaded down with various types of fishing equipment:  rakes, small shovels, buckets, and nets.  We are always amazed at what they will search for whether it be small clams (cockles), mussels, oysters or the occasional crab.  We have never been that lucky but we did manage to find several two scallops one year.  But since the bad oyster incident, we are hesitant; that is another story.

    We do like to walk and we do like to watch those who seem to know what they are doing do what they do.  Sometimes, we will try to ask questions but most of the time we quietly maneuver around the "fishermen", looking inside of their buckets and figuring out the daily catch.  

     On this particular outing we noticed for the first time, people carrying containers of salt.  They wandered not to far from the edge of the tide, their eyes glued to the sand.  Every few moments, the individual would stop, sprinkle some salt on the sand and then, a few seconds later, something would poke through the sand and the person would quickly grab it and put in a container.  We found a group of young Spaniards clearly engrossed in the activity.  Each of them were practically squatting on the sand, barely moving except for pouring salt and pulling out these sand creatures.  Their shells were long and straight and when you pulled them out, their bodies would partially hang from the shell almost like jelly.  It wasn't a pleasant sight but it was intriguing.

     I had to figure out what these things were and what you do with them.  I ventured over to the group and began in my pathetic French to ask one of the girls.  I have no idea what she said that they were but evidently you grilled them with oil and butter.  She then plunged one of creatures back into the sand indicating to me that it was too small.

     Dear Daughter and I were totally engrossed in the activity and vowed that the next day we would return and search for what we now called razor clams.  Dear Husband was a bit more skeptical.  "What are we going to do with them?"  "We will cook them and have them as an appetizer," was my response.  He was not totally convinced.

     The next day, looking the part in our new water boots and carrying a large container of salt, we made our way to roughly the same location and we started looking for holes and pouring salt.  Nothing happened.  We walked a little more and poured a little more salt...nothing happened.  Really?  It looked so easy yesterday.  What was our problem?  We tried over and over again to no success.  

     Finally, we spotted two small holes almost together.  We poured in the salt and the sand absorbed it and the hole gurgled a bit.  Excited, we poured a bit more salt and the same thing happened.  Then it stopped altogether and a second or two later, out popped the clam, its gelatinous head popping off.  We quickly grabbed it and then squealed with delight.  Shortly after that, we had "caught" almost a bucket full of these things.  Even Dear Husband was getting into the spirit of things.  He did still have one question..."What are we going to do with them?"

     I looked around and found a group of older women nearby.  I walked over to one and told her that we wanted to give her our catch.  "Non, c'est bon."  No, they are good.  She wouldn't take them!  I asked her how to cook - actually, I only knew the word for "Cook" and she seemed to understand and began to rattle off cooking instructions.  I understood most of her directions.  Off we went back home with at least 40 of these odd looking shellfish.

     I have heard that the Bretons will eat anything in a shell.  I know that I now eat certain shellfish that looks absolutely terrible - not just the cute little shrimp and lobsters but things like bullots (they look really gross but taste really good).  But as I started to cook whatever it was that we found, I realized that there was no way...that I was going to eat these.  I didn't even show them to the rest of the family - into the trash they went!  But here is a video of the adventure!

     Our seafood paella didn't contain any strange looking shellfish but you could always add some if you wish!

Seafood Paella

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ode to Joy

     Twelve years ago today after a very long day, Dear Daughter decided to present herself to the world.  Wow, what a wonderful trip it has been thus far.  Sure, there are rocks in the road and bumps along the way but I do not think we would change anything.    These dozen years have gone by at lightening do I slow the next twelve?

     I stepped into her room this morning and sang "Happy Birthday" to her.  In true "tween" style, she informed me sleepily, that it was actually her cat that woke her up and perhaps I should stop my singing and dancing routine, as I was embarrassing myself.  It is that witty sense of humor that is so endearing.  Really, she was saying with it with a smile on her she can have a witty sense of humor.  While I contemplated this post today, my thoughts were of specific memories of the past twelve years.  However, rather than write them all are a few photographic memories - in no specific order.

And today - the birthday girl!  We love you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Belgium: Liege and Meatballs!

     I have a whiteboard in our home office and it lists all of our "free" weekend days between now and the end of the year.   Amazingly, as of last week, we only had three entire weekends free.  How did we manage to get so booked when we only just moved here?  Frankly, I think that we like it that way.  Even when we lived in the States, it was hard to go through a weekend without anything planned.  Since our football time is relegated to Sunday nights at 7pm (when we can see the 1pm game), that really leaves the entire weekend for activities.

     So while this past weekend was a free weekend, we also thought that it would be a great idea to have our first dinner "party" and sleepover for Dear Daughter.  On Friday night, we invited a couple that we have known for years (and now live in Brussels) over for dinner and Dear Daughter invited her new BFF to spend the night.  It could not have worked out better.  Adults were entertained; children were entertained.  It was a very easy night.  I have also learned a great deal about entertaining...KISS...keep it simple, stupid.  While keeping it simple, I also wanted to give our guests something a bit different.  I think that we achieved both.  Over drinks, I served a combination of appetizers:  melon balls wrapped in prosciutto, sun-dried tomato and mozzarella skewers, small slivers of brie topped with a peach slice and a drop of honey and endive filled at the tip with roquefort.  We lingered over these while sipping a typical French aperitif, a Kir (creme de cassis with white wine).  

      And while we were catching up, the girls were having pizza...from Dominos...even in Belgium.  Our salad course consisted of a wonderful summer melon salad with prosciutto and arugula and I served a Cremant (sparkling wine) from Burgundy.  The main course....soupe de poisson...was made from the fishmonger in town.  It is similar to bouillabaisse without all the chunks of seafood.  You take a large crouton and smear rouille (a garlic condiment) on top; drop it into the soup and add grated cheese.  Fabulous.  For dessert...easy-peasy...chocolate from the local Belgian chocolate shop and macaroons.  Lovely company, lovely food and very easy...a very enjoyable evening.  Of course, I have no idea when the kids went to sleep as I was purring comfortably in my bed by midnight.

     With one day left of the weekend to explore and the weather looking favorable, we decided to take a drive to the university city of Liège.  About 90 minutes away, it sits on the River Meuse - one of the main rivers in Belgium.  Evidently, the Emperor Charlemagne was born in the city but I have to tell you that we did not sightsee one bit.  I wanted to explore the Sunday market at La Batte...the oldest and largest market in Belgium.  It extends one mile along the river and frankly, you can find everything at this market.  Need flowers; see one of the many florists.  Looking for Italian pasta or cheese; I saw at least five different vendors that "specialized" in all things Italian.  Need some live chickens; take your pick...old ones, chicks, black ones, white ones.  What about that lovely eggplant caviar that you just received as a housewarming gift....yep, it is there.  Need a new bra?  Well, have no fear...the man will guess your size and slip one right over your blouse.  Shoes, vietnamese food, records, jewelry, cleaning supplies...REALLY, it is all there.

     And it had no impact on either Dear Daughter or Dear Husband.  Their comment..."how many times can you see the same thing for sale?"  Ok, maybe they have a point there.  To diffuse the situation, I took them to the one cafe at the border of the market that almost everyone on TripAdvisor raved about...Cafe Lequet.  When in Liège, you have to eat Boulets à la Liégeoise and evidently, Cafe Lequet is the place to have them.

Cafe Lequet - Guy is on the left

     There is nothing special about the restaurant.  It is long and narrow.  There is a long bar at the entrance and the tables are long rectangles seating up to 8.  You do not receive a menu but can view the offerings from a chalkboard on the wall or via the pop-ups on the tables.  We sit at the back of the restaurant and peruse the offerings.  One boulet avec frites; two boulets avec frits; two boulets avec frits, salad and compote...and a few other offerings.  But evidently, it is all about the boulet.  We hear a man bellowing across the restaurant...taking orders and yelling back to the staff.  He finally makes his way over to us and I assume he is asking for our drink order.  I hear "Voulez-vous" and "boire" which I know is "would you like" and "drink".   Drink orders delivered, he asks us what we would like to eat "manger"...mais oui...boulets.  Dear Daughter opts for one, Dear Husband and I split an order of two with fries.

     They arrive at lightening speed.  Through the door of the kitchen, women bring plates and plates of boulets.  We see very little else being served.  The owner bellows out his orders; bellows out to his friends; bellows out to everyone.  Very quickly, the restaurant has filled to capacity and nearly everyone is eating Meatballs with Fries.  But these are Liège meatballs...a very special kind of meatball.  Why?  It is actually a very ordinary meatball - a mixture of pork and beef.  It is the sauce that is its claim to fame.  The sauce has Sirop de Liège...which, of course, is from Liège.  This is a total Belgian speciality - not found in the US.  It is made from pears and apples and seems to be somewhat like a jam but it is used in all sorts of recipes.  You might spread it on bread in the morning; or spread it over a soft cheese for a snack.  And, you can use it in sauces - for which they do for the meatballs.

     So, it makes for a bit of an odd combination - meatballs with a slightly sweet sauce.  Dear Husband and I liked it but Dear Daughter was not convinced.

     All in all, not a bad trip but I am not sure if we will make it to Liège again for the market or the meatballs.  But I hear that they have a great Christmas Market!!!

     Now on to a service announcement from our sponsors.  Should you be looking for a vacation rental in France...let me introduce you to La Riviére - a wonderful two bedroom apartment situated in a lively yet peaceful market town.  Want to see more information...then head to our new website:


Friday, September 13, 2013

Foire aux Vins - Pork and Tomato Skillet Saute

     They start coming on Wednesday of each week.  Over the next few days, the mailbox quickly fills up but not with regular mail or bills.  We are inundated each weeks with advertising circulars!  Every grocery store (and there are about five around us), every Home Depot store, every car dealership sends out these circulars.  On many mailboxes, you will see "Pas de Pub" which is a short and very nice way of saying, "Don't fill my mailbox with garbage".  It doesn't matter...the "Pub" still sticks out of the mailbox, waiting to be pulled out and read.

     The interesting thing about these circulars is that the items are not yet on sale.  This is a sort of advance warning.  The businesses want you to sit down with your cup of coffee and carefully examine each and every item.  They want to give you time to decide, so the promotions will actually not start until a few days from now or even a week from now.  Then, if you are in a particular store on the first day of the promotion, you naturally will find individuals walking around with their circulars...searching for the items.  I think this is a national sport!

     I have to admit that I am sucked into this game.  So imagine my surprise when last week super-sized circulars started clogging up the mailbox.  Why?  Evidently, the "Foire aux Vins" season has begun.  And what exactly is a Wine Fair at a grocery store?  Here is what I have been able to determine thus far.  Each September/October, the local grocery stores start having sales on wine.   The savings can be significant and each store tries to out-do the other.  Normally, you do not receive case discounts when you buy in large quantities here as you do in the States.  During the Foire aux Vins, you can buy any number of bottles and receive the discounted price.  The promotion could be "Buy 4 and get 2 Free" or could just be a discounted price.  Large spaces in each grocery store are dedicated to stocking cases of wine that the store would not normally stock.

     Now, after some research, I learned that in France there is an actual website that tells you when each grocery store chain is having their Foire aux Vins.  They go so far as to produce a bar chart so you can tell that the Super U's Foire aux Vins starts on September 24 and ends of October 6 or that Cora's promotion will only last a week.  I have not found that convenient chart in Belgium.  However, the Belgian stores provide you with much more information on each of the wines.  Our largest store chain, Carrefour, produced a 70 page advertising circular that was ALL wine!  The publication not only tells you the name, type and year of the wine, but it also tells you the food you should eat while drinking this wine and to go one step further - it tells you how long you can keep the wine!

     Naturally, we have to participate in the festival of wines!  Unfortunately, there are no tasting sessions.  We do not want to buy wine that we potentially would not enjoy (I know...that would be difficult in our case).  I did take a chance and bought six bottles of a Bordeaux for all of 30 Euros because the flyer said I could cellar it for 5-7 years.  Last night, we tried a wine from the South of France that you could cellar for 8-10 years and we liked it.  Today, I now have to go back to the store and buy six or twelve.  I have a feeling that between now and the end of the month, our cellar will be growing steadily.  (On a side note, I also think that this is what keeps the retired and those out of work busy.  They are traveling all over the area visiting various grocery stores - in an attempt to get the best deal!)

     Now on to a fast and easy dinner dish that is good enough to make for guests!  I made it a few nights ago and you know that it must be good if the smells from the kitchen pulled Dear Daughter off off the couch and away from her electronic device just long enough to ask me if dinner was ready..."Because it smells really good, Mom."  Maybe next time, she will offer to set the table...

Pork and Tomato Skillet Saute
From Cooking Light, July 2012

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


     I am not proud of the next sentence.  Frankly, living overseas - I forget sometimes what this day is... 

     I am having my first "dinner party" on Friday and Dear Daughter is having her first sleepover of the school year so I am a bit preoccupied.  Dear Husband commented last night that perhaps I am living in my own little world...and perhaps he is right.  I am caught in limbo...  When we left the States, I knew my purpose and was completely happy with getting everyone (all three of us) acclimated to a new life.  I didn't worry about finding a job.  I didn't worry about finding friends, although that came pretty easily.  I lived within the world of our family for eight months and was ecstatic.  I cooked; I gardened; I played my flute; I walked in the fields.  Then I started writing; then I started working and it was was more than fine.  So, while I really love being in Belgium and I really feel comfortable with the move - I wasn't prepared for completely starting over again.  This is different because I am in a different place.  As a result, I think I am in a bit of my own world.

     Driving down the road this morning on my way to France to shop for the dinner party (isn't that nice to say - but it is actually cheaper to shop in France), I was listening to the Armed Forces Network radio station.  This is something that I rarely do - opting to listen to the local channels in hopes that I will progress in the language.   But this morning, I thought it might be interesting to hear the news, etc.  As I listened to the DJ, I realized that today was 9-11 (no, I hadn't realized the date) and he had an incredible memorial piece - he talked to NATO folks about their experiences that day.  He spoke to a guy from Italy, who was at university at the time and he spoke to a woman from the UK and it was interesting to hear their experiences on that day.  They were not even there...but this one event changed them and perhaps everyone.

     Driving down the road with the rain pouring down and tears beginning to stream through my eyes, I quickly recovered and began to concentrate on the road and the task at hand.  Back at home, I worked out, started laundry, ate lunch, and completed my daily French lessons.  I started up my VPN and tuned into my favorite country music station in DC just as I began to make the trial-run appetizers for the dinner party.  (Yes, I made appetizers for the family to evaluate.)  It hit me again...I was listening to a channel in DC on 9-11 - what did I expect to hear?  Naturally, lots of remembrances - and it got to me.

     I was pregnant with Dear Daughter - only two weeks away from my due date.  I worked in Arlington in a high rise building that overlooked the Potomac and within view of the Pentagon.  Back in those days, I used to get to work before 7am.  I had an interior office that "overlooked" our Trading Desk, which I loved as it was the hub of activity.  Our CEO and COO were not in the office that day - traveling to parts unknown, which was a regular part of their jobs.  I vaguely remember one of our Traders yelling out about a plane hitting a building in NY.  We all came out from our cubes and offices and went over to the television.   At first, it seemed like a horrible tragedy that a plane would have a mechanical issue and crash.  Then, we remembered that we had organizations that we worked with in the building and perhaps at that point, one of our traders tried to call one of the brokerage firms, I don't remember.  But, we all seemed to disperse and just thought that it was a tragic event.  As the news continued to unfold, we slowly began to divorce ourselves from the work we were doing and congregated back at the trading area.  There we saw the second plane...then the one closer to home.

   We heard that another plane hit the Pentagon.  We ran to one side our building and we could see the smoke generating from the area (we were that close).  Not much longer after that, one of Partners told me to tell everyone to evacuate and go home.  We quickly left the building only to be met with massive traffic jams.  I could not get in touch with Dear Husband who was working at the National Guard Headquarters.  Surprisingly, however, I was able to get in touch with my father, who lived out of town.  He told me to go home and stay there.  He told me again...go home and stay there.  He told me a third time...go home and stay there.  I took a detour and drove to the National Guard Headquarters - of course, only to find the gates shut and locked.  (Later, he explained that he had heard that there was another plane in the air - the one that crashed in Pennsylvania and he wanted me off the streets.)

     I drove home to our townhouse in Alexandria and positioned myself in our basement TV room and prayed over and over again, "Please let this child stay in my belly", "Do not come out, dear girl".  Much later that day, Dear Husband called and he was ok.  He had been scheduled to be at the Pentagon that day but had not gone.  I did not see him for another 24 hours as he was locked down in some sort of operations center.

     Dear Daughter was born 13 days later.  I went back to work three months later and developed "Shelter in Place" plans, stocked emergency food supplies and had company-wide drills.  Every year, the maintenance guys would lower a huge American flag from our balcony that overlooked the Potomac.  We all went on with our lives and remembered the event at different times...when a container didn't make it through security, or when we would hear about some idiot on the news or being delayed at security --- or when we saw the flags draped all over DC or we would  hear the annual presidential 9-11 speech.

     I have no real story...I have no family nor friends that died that day.  My beautiful daughter was born; my wonderful husband continued...but perhaps we should all remember what so many had taken away that day.  How difficult can our lives be - when so many of us only went through seeing it on the news or reading about it in the newspapers.  I watch it all again tonight via the television and think that perhaps even writing about it is not paying enough reverence.  

     Thank God.  Do a dance in the kitchen.  Kiss your kids when they come home.  Tell your "sig" other that you love him/her.  Remember where you were that day; pay remembrance to those that lost that day.  Go out and make a difference - (help yourself or help others) - get out of your own little world!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Belgium: Discovering Ghent - Chicken & Sausage Gumbo

     Yesterday was Labor Day and alas,  Dear Daughter had to go to school.  It seems that even though she attends an American school, the holidays align to a more European schedule.  It seemed a bit odd to send her on her way to school and then for Dear Husband and me to have the rest of the day together.  We decided to do a bit more exploring and the town of Gent (or Ghent) was on our itinerary for the day.

   Wow, what a gem!  Located only an hour away (via car or train), it is similar in some ways to Brugge but without the throngs of tourists.  It is also home to one of the largest universities in Europe, so the town had a nice vibe to it.  Together with the beautiful blue skies, we quickly fell in love with the town.  We wondered along the cobbled streets and admired the beautiful architecture.  It seemed that with each corner we took, a new and impressive square awaited us.  Since many of the shops are open on Sunday, that meant that they were closed on Monday.  Perhaps that was for the best but I did manage to drag my dear one into a small soap shop that looked so charming from the windows.  Upon entering, we were greeted by the owner, who then spent five minutes explaining all of the different types of soaps.  He gave us a bit of time to look around and once we had made a choice, he spent the next ten minutes telling us all about Ghent - why it is better than Brugge - where the best restaurants were - when was the best time to come...  He was truly delightful and he sold a wonderful product - and not just the soap!

    We relaxed at an outdoor cafe and sampled a Belgian Trappist beer that we had not yet had.  We found the recommended restaurants and vowed to return.  We even found a popular sushi restaurant that we knew would capture Dear Daughter's attention.  And of course, we found several great picnic spots.  I think that we could have stayed much longer but Dear Daughter's school bus was calling.  It was a nice day.  It was nice to share it with DH.  It was nice to be enchanted by a town.  It was nice to know that we would definitely return.

     Now for food.  I have had this recipe for nearly four years now.  I downloaded it from Food and Wine and have made it so many times that the pages are spotted with sauce and smudged fingerprints.  I have not written too many notes on the top of the page in big black letters - I wrote "GREAT" and to me, it is.  It isn't authentic to Louisiana but it is tasty, easy to make and you can make it ahead of time.  In fact, I just finished making it - and sampling it - and it is only 9:00 a.m.  I cannot wait for dinner tonight!

Sausage and Chicken Gumbo
Adapted from a recipe which appeared on