On Sunday there was an inspirational article on cassoulet by Georgeanne Brennan in the food section of the S.F. Chronicle. Okay, maybe not everyone finds newspaper articles on cooking beans inspirational... but the article certainly inspired me to rummage around my kitchen for ingredients to prepare something vaguely sort of cassoulet-ish this evening!

Don't these words inspire you?

I admit to having been seduced by reading about cassoulet long before I ate it. I read about its history, about the importance of the local beans from Tarbes, the traditional ceramic dish, narrow at the bottom, wide at the top, the arguments over which meats must be included - duck confit or goose or both, lamb or not, pork parts of all kinds, local Toulouse sausages.
Enthusiasts would argue, too, about whether to include tomatoes, yes or no on bread crumbs, breaking the crust - or not - as the dish cooks.

But most of all I liked reading about how cassoulet was a farmhouse dish meant to be served to a crowd. My imagination filled in the farmhouse part - dark wood, probably; copper pots; a fire blazing in the big open fireplace in the kitchen; uncorked and unlabeled bottles of the farmer's wine, freshly carried up from the cellar, sitting on the long, much-used wooden table; and lots of crusty bread. (Georgeanne Brennan, S.F. Chronicle 1/30/11)

In the article, she continues to describe trundling around the French countryside by car searching for "Le Vrai Cassoulet," and finally nestling into a warm corner of a comfortable restaurant, spooning up mouthfuls of a delicious lunch.

There are 3 lovely recipes in the S.F. Chronicle article, and I of course, followed none of them. I had no flageolet (or similar large, white beans) so I substituted black-eyed peas (sacrebleu!) I did not have a can of crushed tomatoes so I substituted some tomato sauce left over from dinner on Friday (zut allors) I had no ham-bones, pancetta or duck-confit so I substituted smoked chicken sausage (Quelle horreur) Our dinner, however, was delicious, and even hours later, my house still smells like a French countryside restaurant...

Cassoulet Chez-Bloom
2 cups black eyed peas (feel free to substitute some proper white beans, but I like black eyed peas just fine... and they only take approx. 30 minutes to cook... no soaking required!)

approx. 8 cups water (or broth)
1 tsp. dry thyme (the thyme in our garden was looking rather feeble)
some fresh rosemary if you can get your hands on some
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper (or to taste)
a couple of pinches of cayenne
1-2 peeled carrots sliced into thick rounds
3 smoked chicken sausages, sliced (or whatever kind of sausage you have on hand...)
1-2 cups tomato sauce
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced and diced
2 TBLSP chopped parsely (optional)
some olive oil
a wee splash of dry sherry (which I forgot to add, but will add tomorrow night when I reheat the left-overs!)

NOTE: I also made a traditional bread-crumb topping for our cassoulet this evening (see photo below.) However, my husband and I both agreed, the topping did not add to the dish. My advice? Don't bother with the bread-crumb topping...

Place beans, water, dry thyme, bay leaves and a rosemary sprig (or two) into a dutch oven. Bring to a boil and then simmer on stove top until beans are barely soft and still have a bit of resistance (for black eyed peas, this will take approx. 35 minutes... for large white beans, this will take 2-3 hours.)

Approx. 15 minutes before your beans finish cooking pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Add sliced sausages, sliced carrots, salt, a few dashes of cayenne & some black pepper to the dutch oven with the beans. Then, in a frying pan saute onion and garlic until lightly browned at the edges.

When beans are done cooking, spoon off any excess liquid. Add tomato sauce, sauteed onions/garlic and a wee splash of sherry to the pot. Mix gently being careful not to mash the beans (you want them to retain their shape.) Sprinkle (optional) parsley on top of bean mixture and cook in pre-heated oven approx. 30 minutes.

Enjoy with some thick, crusty bread, red wine and imagine you are in Carcasonne...


All Children Grow Up...

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!' This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

The opening paragraph of Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

The other night I overheard my husband reading these first lines of the book Peter Pan to our 7 year old.


The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
— Wallace Stevens

I welcome insomnia. I love being awake at 4 a.m. to hear the great-horned owl in the tree behind our house. I love watching the inky dark outside give way to foggy gray. I love hearing the newspaper land at the foot of our steps when the delivery man goes by. I love seeing lights blink on in windows down the hill and across the valley.  But most of all, I love to read at night when everyone else is asleep.


The Surprise has been Blown: Peg-doll Swap Starts February 20!

Yesterday, due to a glitch with Google/Blogger, a post I had been working on appeared on the side-bar "blog-list" of several friends. This post was a draft and not meant to go up on my blog until February 20... However, now that a number of people have seen (and inquired) about this little "teaser," I am pleased to make a preliminary announcement!

On February 20 I will be posting an invitation to join a peg-doll swap. This will be followed by tutorials and a list of fun links on February 21st and 22nd. Shannon of Rhythm & Rhyme and I have been working on this for a couple of weeks -- it's going to be a veritable peg-doll-palooza!
If you would like to get ready for this swap you can stock up on some supplies now... Each participant will need 5 peg-doll bases. Any shape wooden doll base 3 ½ inches (9 cm) or smaller may be used. You can see the simple wooden doll-bases I've used in my photos... You might also use gnome doll bases or small wooden finger puppet bases, however, we will not be using the tall "clothes-pin" type wooden bases.

I hope you will come back February 20 for the official invitation to this swap and join me as we explore our imaginations together...

P.S. Shhhhh... this tiny sprite is trying to hide among the toadstools... She thinks we cannot see her... Shall we play along in her game of hide-and-seek?

A Visit to the Museum: Part 3 (and the Mondrian Cake!)

My husband trained as a commercial photographer, and up until 12 years ago, when he transitioned to another career, he worked as a photographer. So, he was very interested in seeing the exhibit Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870 at SFMOMA in San Francisco.

We set off to visit SFMOMA a few days before the start of the new year. When we arrived at the museum, we went right up to the third floor and were greeted by signs stating clearly: This exhibit contains photographs which some people might find offensive and which may not be appropriate for children. oops... I wish this statement about the exhibit had been featured on the SFMOMA website. Among other things, the exhibit contained photos taken by journalists of famous assassinations & executions, photos taken of celebrities by paparazzi and photos which could be considered pornographic by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. No, definitely not appropriate, so the children and I were exiled to the third floor foyer (along with other small groups of parents & children...)

We did have a nice time as a family looking at a large exhibit of photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, but the best part of the day was when we visited the new Rooftop Coffee Bar and Sculpture Garden.

At the cafe, we shared a slice of Mondrian cake. Also on the dessert menu: Wayne Thiebaud Cake, Katharina Fritsch Ice Cream Sandwiches, Jeff Koons White Hot Chocolate, Frida Kahlo Mexican Wedding Cookies and Diebenkorn Trifle (I'm not joking -- you can see the SFMOMA dessert gallery here...)

Except for the pesky Robert Mapplethorpe photos, we had a lovely time, and that Mondrian cake made it all worthwhile.


A Visit to the Museum: Part 2 -- Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

In early December a friend and I decided we would take our children (an eight year old, a seven year old, a six year old, a two year old and a 5 month old, collectively) on an excursion to see an exhibit at the DeYoung Museum -- The exhibit was titled Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. In addition to paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin & Cezanne, there were paintings by Degas, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, the Nabis Pierre Bonnard,Vuillard & Rousseau. This is the only time these paintings will be shown as a collection in the United States.

Bold intrepid mamas! It was quite an adventure. In we trooped, a happy little parade, skipping through the endless security barriers... and out we trooped again three (3!) times for restroom visits. We sorely tested the patience of the security guards (but secretly, inside, I'm sure they were amused.)

My friend and her daughters loved the joyful paintings by Renoir...

My seven year old son loved the mysterious paintings by Rousseau...

And seeing this little painting by Degas called Dancers Climbing the Stairs made me cry... It was hard for me to understand, at the time, why I had such a strong emotional response. I think it was the experience of seeing these original works of art, hanging on the walls only 2 or 3 feet in front of me. The paintings, in person, were so very different from viewing photographs of them in books. The photos in books and reproduction posters are flat. It's impossible to see the textures and layers of paint, and the textures and layers are what brings them to life. I felt like I could sense the breath & brush strokes of the artist... it felt that close and intimate...

We made it about 3/4 of the way through the exhibit when the children themselves were inspired to create art, so out came the paper and pencils I keep stashed in my bag. Sprawled across the elegant, shining parquet floors of the exhibit hall, the children set themselves to work while the well-heeled museum patrons stepped lightly over and around them. I expected a museum guard to march over and grump at us, but the guards only nodded and smiled indulgently. The museum goers, themselves, paused between viewing paintings by Vuillard and Rousseau to admire the work of the children and offer compliments.

After we were done in the museum, we went out into the cold, dusky twilight to play in the fallen leaves...

And run around...

and around...

And around...

And around, once again, the big fountain in the center of the beautiful Golden Gate Park Music Concourse...

It was a wonderful day.


A Visit to the Museum: Part 1

Here I am again, playing catch-up... Between Thanksgiving and New Years we visited not one, and not two, but three museums. All three experiences were so interesting that I feel compelled to post about them.

The weekend of Thanksgiving, we made our way to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was our chosen destination because we wanted to see an exhibit displaying original artwork by the author & illustrator of the Curious George books -- Margret & H.A. Rey. Not only were the drawings and illustrations lovely to look at, the story of Margret & H.A. Rey was amazing. Hours before the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles, carrying drawings for their children’s stories, including one about a mischievous monkey. Not only were they able to save the drawings, but the Reys themselves were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings. After their escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple reached New York in the fall of 1940. In all, the Reys wrote and illustrated over 30 books, seven of them starring Curious George.

After immersing ourselves in the world of Curious George for an hour, we trundled upstairs to see what we would see... And what we saw sent me reeling back to a wonderful book I read several months ago called Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling. The book follows the story of a family of Jewish art dealers through World War II and the aftermath. Although the book is fiction, it's well researched and chronicles the history of how millions of pieces of art work were methodically stolen by the Nazis. Some of the artwork was destroyed, but most of it was warehoused against grandiose plans Hitler had for displaying the art. After the war, very little of the artwork was returned to the owners; Governments absorbed the artwork into their own national collections, and even now, families are still trying to recover their lost collections.

The paintings in this exhibit are from one of the largest collections to be returned to the family from which it had been stolen. The collection was primarily made up of Dutch Masters, which were lovely. However, for me, the artwork paled next to the terrible, sad story of all the artwork which was stolen, much of it, still missing.

Wednesday: Part 2 -- Our adventures at the De Young Museum (Hooray for the Impressionists!)


His Royal Pudginess

I cannot believe Baby Bloom turned 6 months old on Tuesday...

Each photo is even funnier than the one before...

And every day, this baby adds to his pudgi-tude. Tomorrow he will have an official weigh-in at the pediatricians office. I suspect he has topped 20 lbs. Shall I turn in our stroller for a wheelbarrow (or a fork-lift?) We'll keep you posted!

Addendum 1/6/2011: He weighed in today at 19 lbs. 15 oz. That's my boy!


A New Years Sojourn

What's the perfect way to spend New Years Eve.? This dilemma always crops up every year at the end of the holiday season. When I was younger (a century, or two, ago) there was the business of staying up all night, parties to attend, etc... Nowadays, my favorite part of New Years is waking up on January 1st, turning on the television at 8 a.m. and watching the Tournament of Roses Parade. Still, on New Years Eve, putting the children to bed and getting some well deserved sleep myself doesn't feel particularly festive or celebratory. So, this year, we decided to hit the road and visit friends in Glen Ellen and Sebastapol.

I wish I had taken some photos for you of the misty hills and the leafless, moss-covered trees, but I was too busy being in the moment... looking out the windows of the car as we were driving along, enjoying the company of friends we don't see often enough and smelling the air of Sonoma County (it smells like wood-burning stoves, trees, damp earth and something else, indefinable...)

So, I didn't come home with photos of misty hills and leafless trees, but I managed to tuck some pretty good souvenirs among our luggage in the back of the car.

Our friends in Sebastapol have a hachiya persimmon tree. Now, in November I sang the praises of fuyu persimmons, but I have to admit, I haven't been a fan of hachiyas since my days at university when, feeling over-eager and impatient, I bit into hachiya persimmon which was not yet quite ripe. Taking a bite of a not-quite-ripe hachiya persimmon is a rather unforgettable experience, and not one I recommend in the least. Imagine, having an old, dusty sweat sock stuffed in your mouth. That's what taking a taste of an unripe hachiya is like (unripe hachiyas are unbelievably astringent.) But have you ever seen a hachiya persimmon tree in November or December? All the leaves fall off the tree and the bare branches remain festooned with bright orange fruit. It's remarkably beautiful.

So, when a box of the pretty, orange fruit was thrust into my arms, I good naturedly chirped, "Surely, I can find a good recipe for baking with these," and that's just what I did the minute I got home. I found a recipe...

Now, I have to admit, these cookies will not win any beauty contests, but they taste amazing. I highly recommend you get your hands on 3 hachiya persimmons and proceed as follows:

3 ripe hachiya persimmons, stripped of peel and mashed with a fork (approx. 1 cup)
2 cups unbleached flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
(OPTIONAL 1/2 tsp each, ground cinnamon, cloves & nutmeg)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C)

Whisk together flour, baking soda & salt (plus optional spices if you wish... I personally omit them because I want the flavor of the fruit to shine.)

Cream together sugar & butter then add the egg, vanilla & persimmon.

Combine wet & dry ingredients. Then stir in the nuts & raisins.

Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and drop heaping teaspoonfuls of batter 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake approx. 12 minutes (or until light brown around the edges) and cool on a rack.

Another souvenir we managed to find space for in the back of the car was some apple wood kindling for our fireplace. But until we get around to burning it, it will remind me of our New Years sojourn...it smells of trees, damp earth and something else, indefinable...

What's your favorite way to spend New Years Eve? However you celebrated the New Year, I hope you had a wonderful time and I wish you all the best in 2011...


Happy New Year

Sprites... sprouts... and a happy new year!