Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Belgium: Sunday in the Park and Asparagus Fries

     Yes, you read the title correctly...asparagus fries.  If you know me well, then you know that vegetables are not big on my list of things to eat.  Sure, I will eat a salad, will stomach green beans and will occasionally munch on an ear of corn.  But, broccoli, squash, cauliflower or PEAS....that is a form of torture.  However, with this dish, I am willing to compromise...but I will get to that later.
     Dear Daughter was on a school trip to Brugge on Saturday.  As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Well, you can't do that in Coronado!"  She had a wonderful time but we did not get home from picking her up until 1:00 a.m.  Needless to say, she was exhausted and I knew that anything planned for Sunday would have to be low-key.  Upon waking her up at noon (!), we loaded the car and made the short trip (8 miles) to the nearby town of Enghien.  I thought that checking out a local chateau and having a picnic on the grounds would enable us to have a tiny adventure.  It was a beautiful day, so a lazy picnic was in order.
     The GPS had us arriving at the back of the chateau grounds.  We drove down an unpaved road with the feeling that  something was not quite right.  There were no signs; no guidance for parking; no chateau.  We did find a lake and noticed that many people had the same ideal...lazy picnics.  We also realized that we were driving on WALKING paths!  I could see the international incident coming...I could see the headlines...all I wanted was a nice lunch with my family...not this.
     Luckily, a nice man stopped us and in half English, half French, we learned that the entrance to the chateau grounds was through the village.  We backtracked and eventually found the entrance.  We also found that in order to enter, we had to pay a fee of six euros because we were not residents of the town.  Dear Husband was fuming at this point.  We had illegally driven onto the grounds and were charged nothing.  We were now entering legally and had to pay. 
     DH quickly found us a spot on the lake (hey, didn't we just drive past this?) and we had a nice, simple meal.  It was "no carb" day so baguettes were out.  But the first local strawberries of the season were absolutely delicious.  We explored the park as the chateau is not open to the public. The gardens were simple yet the entire area was impressive with its lake, chapel tower and walking paths.  There was even a canal almost one kilometer in length that was built to host mock navel engagements!  Not a bad Sunday adventure.

     We had our first dinner on the patio.  I love eating dinner outside; it feels a bit like being on a holiday.  We set out a huge platter of thinly sliced carne asada, grilled peppers and onions and guacamole in the center of the table and leisurely grazed.  We nearly forgot that the weekend was over.  Now back to the vegetables...
     The star of the meal were the Asparagus Fries.  They were so easy and so incredibly good.   While they will not take the place of the Belgian frites that Dear Daughter had in Brugge, they have to be good if I am going to eat them, much less write about them.  Added bonus...they are low-carb as well.

Asparagus Fries

Saturday, May 10, 2014

France: Versailles Revisited, Beer Tour in Flanders, Belgium and Pizza Frittata

     Dear Daughter suggested it and when she mentions any type of travel, we listen.  She is at that age where we think she would rather hang out at home, or with friends or with her tethered electronic device rather than travel all over Europe.  When she mentioned that she wanted to go back to Versailles, specifically to have a picnic on the grounds, we quickly selected two weekends.  Why two?  Because this time of year, the weather is "iffy" in Belgium (actually, I think it is "iffy" most times of the year) and since this was an outdoor event, we had to be reasonably guaranteed that good weather would prevail.
     To that end, I made reservations for two consecutive Saturday nights at a hotel in Versailles.  It was a different one from the first trip but the price point was good, as was the location.  We were washed out the first weekend but last weekend promised outstanding weather.  Given the short 2 1/2 hour drive, we did not have to leave at the crack of dawn.  We were on the road by 9:30 am and made it to Versailles by 12:00 noon, having successfully navigated the ring around Paris.  Our hotel was in a wonderful location---within a five minute walk to the Chateau and directly behind the incredible weekly farmer's market.  By 1:00 pm, we were comfortably seated on our picnic blanket, sipping wine and enjoying smoked salmon and other treats.  While it was incredibly crowded, our portion of the grounds was peaceful and we lingered for over an hour.  We were sitting along the "canal", built specifically to mimic the canals of Venice.    The skies were blue and the temperature was relatively warm.  The immense Chateau was our distant view and provided the perfect backdrop.
     Following lunch, the afternoon's entertainment consisted of viewing the musical water displays that are held each afternoon.  For nearly three hours, we rambled from one water display to the next; each one more impressive than the previous one.  By 5pm, we were strolling down the streets of Versailles and I watched as Dear Daughter closely examined every clothing store that we passed.  "It would be cool to do some shopping here," she hinted.  Later that evening, we dined at a comfortable, but not a fancy brasserie and commented that we have to leave Belgium in order to eat dinner in a restaurant.  We have found that food prices here can be a bit expensive so we save our dimes for  ventures outside the country.  On Sunday, we spent several hours drooling at one of our favorite food markets. After getting hopelessly lost on the drive home, we managed to arrive back in our town by early afternoon.  Not a bad weekend adventure.

     I had noticed on some of the store windows notices about being closed on May 1 and May 8.  I knew that May 1 was Labor Day in most parts of Europe but I was unaware of the May 8th holiday in France.  Belgium did not have this holiday, nor did Germany.  Several days later, Dear Husband mentioned that France celebrated V-E Day.  In an email dialogue with his father, we learned that on May 8, 1945, Doc was enroute to Paris for a bit of R&R.  He never made it that far.  The train stopped in Liege, Belgium (only 90 minutes from here) and it was there that he learned that the war in Europe was over.  He told us that he participated in the longest "snake" dance in history as everyone danced through the streets in celebration.  Neat memory...

     Several weeks ago, we went on a beer tour of Flanders.  I had read about the tour which consisted of visiting four breweries and we spent a Sunday afternoon exploring and driving all over the countryside.  What we did not realize was the type of beer we would be tasting.  All of the beers were aged in huge oak barrels for several years and the facilities were really impressive.  We have really become fans of Belgian beers and we typically enjoy the opportunity to taste new varieties.  It is said that beer is to a Belgian as wine is to a Frenchman.  It is taken that seriously.  I am not sure what kind of beer we were sampling but it was obviously very popular based on the crowds at each location we visited.  And...I have to tell you...we never finished a single sample.  We thought it was terrible!  So we enjoyed the adventure, but hated the beer.  Oh well...

     The weather today is quite "yucky"...rainy, cold and windy...more like Fall than Spring.  I do not think that any of us want to venture outside but I think we may go a bit stir crazy in the house...especially, if this continues tomorrow.  I think my Mother's Day picnic at a local Chateau will end up being replaced with brunch at home.  I am cooking a few things today...a big pot of black beans for burrito bowls later in the week.  Earlier, I toasted up old pieces of baguettes and made homemade bread crumbs.  The house smells yummy.  We harvested our first batch of radishes yesterday and they made the perfect Friday night appetizer.  

     Recipe today is Pizza Frittata.  Super easy and great for those trying to limit carbs.  While Dear Daughter just says it was "ok", she did manage to polish off two servings at dinner a few nights ago.


Pizza Frittata

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Perfect "Me" Hour and My Favorite Lunch

     "We were planning to have dinner at the park.  You don't mind if {Dear Daughter} joins us?"  At 9:00 am this morning, I was in the doorway of DD's best friend's house talking to her parents.  It is a national holiday, May Day, and while all of the schools are closed as well as most businesses, Dear Husband has to work.  While we had invited the BFF to our house for the day, the family had already planned a family day trip to a local animal park and asked if DD could join them.  As the park is only a short drive away, I thought that they would be finished by early afternoon.  Evidently not...they planned to make it an entire day's activity.  Faced with the possibility of having an entire day at the house to myself, what did I say?  "OF COURSE, {DD} CAN JOIN YOU!"  I just hope that I made the required pause and that my face did not light up like a Christmas tree.

More photos of the Keukenhof because the flowers are just so pretty!

     When I had a "real" job, once a year or so, I would take a "Me" day.  I didn't go shopping.  I didn't go out to lunch.  I didn't take a trip.  I stayed at home and just hung out.  I read books; I watched TV; I may or may not have eaten an entire bag of Doritos and washed it down with several Diet Cokes.   Now that we have moved to Europe, Dear Husband would argue that everyday is my "Me" day.   Perhaps, he is right to some extent.  However, it is not very often that I am in the house for an extended period of time...alone.  No, I have not spent the day eating bonbons and watching reality TV shows (although I am itching to find a cooking show on Netflix).   I have cleaned the house; done four loads of laundry (European washers are really tiny); paid some bills and realized that final payments are due on upcoming trips (yikes!).
     I have also put in the oven a batch of tomatoes to slow roast and fill the house with the tantalizing smell.  I have harvested my first lettuce leaves to use in a salad tonight.  I have looked through pictures taken on recent trips.  I listened to the thunderstorm (and hoped it wasn't impacting DD's day at the park).  More importantly, I had my favorite lunch and relished the silence.
     When I was working in the States, I rarely went out to lunch.  Once a month, a good friend and I would head over to Old Town Alexandria on a Friday and have an extended lunch and it was a real treat.  Most days, I packed my lunch and ate, as most Americans do, at my desk.  I was always amazed at the non-Americans in my office.  They went out everyday and it wasn't going out for take-out or fast food.  Most times, they took a good 90 minutes to go to a proper restaurant and have a proper meal.  On the way back, they would stop at the nearby Starbucks and have a coffee before returning to the office.  I could never bring myself to do that on a regular basis.  It wasn't part of my culture.
     I was determined; however, to make my lunch "special" -- to relish in the dining not just refueling myself for the afternoon.  I am not sure where I came across this recipe but it fit the bill.  I would take time constructing it in the office kitchen - although it takes less than 5 minutes.  I would plate it on a real plate, carry it back to my office and savor every morsel while reading something entertaining.  It was not particularly decadent and went well my dieting strategies but it tasted like something I might eat at one of those restaurants my colleagues were frequenting.  Today, if I am having lunch at home by myself, it is my go-to lunch.
     So, alone and savoring the silence, I constructed my salad, poured a glass of rosé, picked up my IPAD and enjoyed an hour at the dining room table.  I slowly savored the salad and read one of my favorite cooking magazines.  Can I just say, it was a little slice of heaven!  The storm has broken and the sun has come out. I really should mow the lawn...but maybe I should extend this hour just a bit longer......

These are going on a picnic on Saturday!
Arugula Salad with Prosciutto