A French Cheese Class in Paris

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Day five of my reacquaintance rendezvous in Paris. After participating in a wonderful walking tour of Notre Dame, I headed to l’Hotel de Ville to La Cuisine Paris, for a French cheese and wine pairing class that I had registered for prior to my arrival. Lucky for me, the school, which teaches classes in English, is located at the base of the hotel and was a pleasant 10 minute walk from my apartment in Le Marais (4th Arrondissement).

I arrived just before the start of the class and introduced myself to Jane Bertch, the lovely founder of the school who originates from Chicago (and someone I could envision becoming fast friends with over the subject of anything food). I then met our young Parisian teacher Emily as well as a couple from Norway, a woman from Australia, and a young couple from New York – all signed up for the class.

Once gathered, we were offered umbrellas, then promptly headed out on a walking tour of the nearby island of Il Saint Louis. First, we visited a fromagerie on the main walking street, met the owner and were treated to several samples of his perfectly aged cheese. My favorite, being a truffle flecked tomme, an earthy and unctuous delight (shout out to Martine)! I became particularly giddy when I noticed he had a large round of Mimolette, which was recently banned by the FDA in the US because it is brought to you in part by small mites which live on the periphery of the cheese and help form the little craters in the rind. When I pointed to it and began jumping up-and-down, the owner handed out some samples and I think I floated above the ground bit, or was that when I ate the truffle cheese?

We then bid farewell to the owner and left with several examples of French cheese including Livarot, Fourme d’ Ambert, Brie de Meaux, three varieties of aged chèvre, and the aforementioned Mimolette.

Just around the corner we walked into a small wine shop, where we met the amusing and quintessentially Parisian owner who was very much a contrarian, and probably someone best taken in small doses. We left with a recommended bottle of wine and walked back to the school on the slightly overcast streets of Paris, along the banks of the Seine.

We walked upstairs to the cooking school and sat around a table in the back of the kitchen. Before long, we were being offered samples of the cheese we had purchased on our walk. For each cheese, a selection of wine that paired extremely well with it.

Sitting around the sizable dining table, eating copious amounts of French cheese and talking with a knowledgeable instructor and my ‘partners in cheese’ about my favorite subject, was as close as I’ll likely come to arriving in heaven for some time. C’est la vie!

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Greetings From Paris

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Long story short, I’m in Paris, France (insert equal parts elation and exhaustion here). This is my first trip away from my family and without the kids since Caleb was born, close to nine years ago. I’ve been dreaming of traveling to France and taking a self-guided culinary tour. Flying a family of four here wasn’t in the cards anytime soon so Mateo and I decided to send me off to fulfill a long-standing dream of eating my way through the streets of Paris. So here I am, in the ‘City of Love’, on a reacquaintance tour with myself.

I landed on Monday and I’ve been absolutely in love since the moment I arrived, if not a lot exhausted. I’ll fill you in, in bits and pieces but yesterday was my second day in Paris and after visiting Notre Dame then taking a walking tour of the Left Bank, I visited my first fromagerie (cheese shop), Laurent Dubois, then purchased a baguette from a nearby patisserie, and pate from a surly Parisian (most other encounters with locals have been surprisingly pleasant). With a grumbly belly, I walk to toward the Seine and sat in a park and sat on a park bench facing the river – eating a rustic pate sandwich, nibbling on goat cheese and a pungent wash-rind cheese, feeling like the happiest woman alive.

Meatballs and Chocolate to Tame the Wild Things

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Recently, I picked up soup and sandwiches from Rustic Bakery in Larkspur and delivered them to a friend in need. The soup I arrived with – spring minestrone with meatballs – wasn’t actually what I had ordered, but was unlike anything I’d had before. It tasted of spring and was nourishing, and full of flavor. I was inspired to make something similar at home.

Today, we had a break in the gorgeous weather and it actually felt like early spring with some light showers and slightly brisk temperatures — the perfect day for cooking with the kids.

Our trip to Monterey Market took its toll on me. Sadie and Caleb had been replaced by unruly wild things and it’s surprising we made it out alive with the ingredients for our meatball soup and triple chocolate cookies, not to mention good cheese, bread, and salad fixings.

By mid-afternoon, my children had returned on their boat from far across the world and in and out of a day. Caleb and I took on the triple chocolate cookie recipe together. He was so eager to help just had a great attitude with any task I threw at him. Could this have had anything to do with the fact that he was in close proximity to chocolate and plenty of utensils to lick? Most definitely.

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Later in the afternoon, I prepared the meatballs, then Sadie helped me to brown them in the pan. The soup came together rather quickly and before too long, we were sitting down to a gorgeous spring meal. The soup (which, of course, was still hot) was outstanding and we all fell quiet as we devoured it. The chocolate cookies were not too sweet, and were perfectly chewy and rich with flavor.

It felt good to be in the kitchen with my kiddos after a lengthy hiatus. We’ve just been too busy, and this was the perfect opportunity to slow our gears down a bit and bond over good things to eat.

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Spring Minestrone with Meatballs

ingredients

  • 6 ounces ground turkey (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 6 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan, divided, plus more for garnish
  • 4 garlic cloves, 2 minced, 2 thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
  • 1 large egg, whisked to blend
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, sliced into 1/4″ rounds
  • 5 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 3/4 cup Israel couscous
  • 1 cup peeled and small diced carrots
  • 1 cup (packed) baby spinach or other greens
  • Chopped fresh herbs
  • Fresh Parmesan

preparation

Mix ground turkey, breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 minced garlic cloves, chives, egg, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Form into 1/2″-diameter meatballs (makes about 28).

Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. Cook meatballs until golden all over, about 3 minutes (they will finish cooking in soup). Transfer to a plate; set aside.

Add leek to pot and cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves; cook for 1 minute. Add broth and 2 cups water; bring to a boil. Stir in Israeli couscous and carrots; simmer until pasta is almost al dente, about 8 minutes. Add meatballs; simmer until pasta is al dente, carrots are tender, and meatballs are cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add spinach, kale, or favorite green and remaining 3 tablespoons Parmesan; stir until greens are wilted and Parmesan is melted. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with herbs of choice and Parmesan.


Triple Chocolate Cookies

ingredients

  • 10 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons all purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup chopped pecans (optional)
  • 6 ounces (1 cup) semisweet chocolate chips

preparation

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Stir chopped chocolate in top of double boiler set over simmering water until melted and smooth; remove from over water. Cool melted chocolate 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in another medium bowl until crumbly. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until mixture is light, pale, and creamy, about 5 minutes. Add lukewarm melted chocolate and vanilla and beat just until blended. Fold in dry ingredients, then chocolate chips.

Drop chocolate cookie batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto prepared baking sheets, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake cookies, 1 baking sheet at a time, until tops are evenly cracked but cookies are not yet firm to touch, about 12 minutes.

A Day Not To Be Forgotten

Toward the end of this past holiday weekend, Mateo and I knew that, in lieu of a traditional family vacation, we needed to take our kiddos on an adventure. To end our three-day weekend on a high-note, we planned a fun and food-filled trip into San Francisco. First, we drove over to Larkspur from the East Bay, and after grabbing some drool-worthy pastries (man, do they know how to make a croissant!) from Rustic Bakery at Larkspur Landing, we walked over to the terminal and boarded a ferry headed to the City.

I won’t bore you with oodles of details (you can see from our photos), we got just what we needed – concentrated quality time together, spontaneity, laughter, and wait for it….good things to eat. After sampling cheese at Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry Building – I now let Caleb do all the ordering and he went straight for the Redhawk – we walked over to Yank Sing for traditional dim sum. Playing tourist in our native city (at least for Mateo and I), we sampled everything we could fit into our bellies. After letting the kids chase each other around the courtyard for a bit, we headed back to the Ferry Building, then boarded our ferry.

With little energy left after a fun-packed day, Caleb and Sadie entertained themselves on the boat, by quietly drawing and reading. Mateo and I were sharing the same thought – how did we luck out with such amazing, funny, bright, and adventurous children?! What good fortune we came into.

Hot On the Cheese Trail

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Mateo recently returned home from a work retreat with a map of the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail. This handy little map brought to you by the California Artisan Cheese Guild keeps making its way back into my hands, so on Saturday I decided to take it for a spin. Mid-morning, my family packed into the Camry and embarked on a cheese trail adventure.

Our three stops on the Marin driving tour were Marin French Cheese Company just outside of Novato, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company in the small town of Nicasio, and our family favorite – Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes.

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We arrived at Marin French just in time for lunch, along with a merry band of bikers. Inside the sizeable retail operation, we sampled their cow’s milk offerings. I’m not a big fan of this dairy, but some of the first ‘exotic’ cheeses I ever sampled in my youth, were their Rouge & Noir camembert and brie. I find their cheese to be too mild, lacking in distinguishing qualities, and most everything we tasted was young and not ripened enough to my liking.

Just as I was about to give up on flavor, I honed in on a style I hadn’t heard of, Schloss, a square wash-rind variety that makes up for all of their mild-mannered options with the flavor and pungency of an Austrian style aged cow’s milk cheese. We walked our stinky little Schloss out to a picnic area near the small, picturesque lake and enjoyed it with a hearty seeded baguette and salami. Sadie and Caleb shared a portion of our snack with the geese and ducks gathered near our table, while Mateo and I sat in the sunshine basking in a quiet moment.

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We then drove for about 10 minutes until we reached Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. There, we sampled a large variety of…wait for it…more mild-mannered cheeses. My taste buds were losing interest fast and I’m thinking bring on the stink bring on the funk! At last, I found a happy marriage of flavor and pungency in their Nicasio Reserve, a Swiss-Italian mountain cheese. We bought a square to later share with our friends at dinner, then on to Point Reyes Station!

Cowgirl Creamery never lets me down. I will wait in the longest of lines only to be rewarded with delectable, perfectly aged cheese that lacks not at all in flavor and personality. Caleb and I particularly enjoyed the Gouda-style Wagon Wheel and a very mature Red Hawk, which is made right where we stood and flourishes off the salt air cultures unique to that area. Finishing our cheese tour at Cowgirl Creamery was the perfect end note and with happy bellies filled with way too much cheese, we returned back to the East Bay. What a trip!

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An Unforgettable Visit to the North Pole

Toward the end of November, my family drove to Sacramento for a long-awaited, magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express.

This annual Christmas season offering from the California State Railroad Museum is what memories are made of and the tickets sell out in a hot second. This year, after taking out a membership to the museum, Mateo was savvy enough to jump on-line at just the right time to secure four tickets for our family.

We arrived at the Sacramento train station in the early afternoon and after retrieving our tickets from will-call, all we had to do was look for families with pajama-clad children walking toward a classic steam train waiting expectantly on the tracks. We purchased a pair of Polar Express PJ’s for Sadie (Caleb was apparently way too cool to put on a pair), then we eagerly waited in line. Volunteers in classic railroad costume greeted and welcomed us, truly setting the tone for the fantasy journey ahead. Caleb and Sadie were all smiles and just over-the-moon when the time had come to board the train.

We quickly found our seats and then the train exited the station. On our way to the North Pole, we were greeted by a conductor who stamped our tickets, and then entertained by a hobo and a cast of other actors who reenacted scenes from the movie. Dancing up and down the aisle with hot chocolate and cookies, we eventually were offered our own individual Polar Express branded mugs with piping hot (and perfectly mediocre) hot chocolate, along with soft, fresh-baked cookies. The train rode along side the Sacramento river, making a gorgeous backdrop to this unforgettable excursion. The kiddos were in heaven and Mateo and I were feeling triumphant as parents who aim to make lasting, positive memories.

Eventually, our train arrived at its destination: the North Pole. Santa and his elves (several hot chicks in costume) were at the station outside the train, waiving at us, while packing and arranging Christmas gifts for the children of the world. Most of the kids on the train ran to the window to wave back at Santa and his crew. Once the train moved on, a very special visitor came on board and greeted each of the children – Santa himself. I was tickled by all of the thought they put into this exceptional train experience, which was bound to make perfect lifelong memories for our children.

The efforts by the volunteers dressed up in period costume, the crazy hobo who kept running up and down our car, the hot chocolate and fresh cookies, having the book read to us by a grandfatherly voice over the speaker system – all of this was just extraordinary. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m so glad we made this a part of our holiday plans this year – a wonderful way to end the year.

Happy Holidays from the Soltero Family!

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Fairy Princess of the N Judah (and Other Tales of the City)

In our last installment, Sadie and Caleb were spared the wrath of the wild dingoes and dragged through yet another agonizing food adventure [insert tiny-violin concerto here]. Caleb had been dangling a rain-check over my head to ride MUNI around San Francisco…the time had come to cash it in. Funny how we frequently expose our children to exotic cuisine and enviable food adventures around the Bay Area, yet they nag and fantasize about riding the MUNI, which was not something Mateo nor I took any youthful pleasure in.

After driving in just after the lunch hour on Saturday, we pulled into a parking spot in front of Ton Kiang Restaurant on Geary for some of the best dim sum the City has to offer. Before Mateo could even take the key out of the ignition, the kids and I ran into the restaurant, up the stairs to the second floor, and began ordering and eating in a manic flurry of hunger and excitement. Mateo soon joined us and we dined on steamed and baked pork buns, char siu stuffed rice noodle rolls, pork shumai, foil-wrapped chicken, custard buns, and other delectable bites.

Sufficiently stuffed, we drove across the park to the Sunset District, parked and then walked over to a N Judah metro stop. On board, Caleb especially, could barely contain his excitement. Their enthusiasm was magnetic and other passengers fell into easy conversation with us. One young woman described Sadie, in her fluffy pink tutu, as “The Fairy Princess of the N Judah.”

Once the initial excitement wore off, we jumped off the train at Duboce park and walked over to a local playground. Eventually, we were back on the N Judah headed for Cole Valley. At Carl and Cole, we exited the train and headed over to Say Cheese, a sweet yet pricey cheese shop. After happily sampling our way across the counter, I settled on a large hunk of Challerhocker, a nutty Swiss alpine cheese. We brought the cheese and some chocolate over to what used to be Tasajara Bakery – now La Boulange, where we sipped on artful lattes and vanilla steamers for the kiddos. I treasure memories of going to Tasajara on Sunday mornings with my parents, sitting around drinking coffee milk, which felt very ‘adult’ to me, and eating a blueberry cheese Danish.

By the end of our day of traveling on MUNI and eating our way through some of my favorite neighborhoods, it was time to return back home. Rain-check redeemed, family happily fed, and kiddos wiped out from a day of adventure. Successful day? Check!

How Not to Feed Your Children to Wild Dingoes

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Last year, around this time, my family enjoyed a lovely day-trip to Point Reyes. It was a memorable day, which is why I documented it and named the post Ten Steps to Enlightenment.

This weekend, we returned to Point Reyes and the experience left much to be desired. Quite frankly, Caleb was acting premenstrual, bringing kvetching to a whole new level. Mateo and I returned home exhausted, ready to sell our children on the black market. In the spirit of that last trip to Point Reyes; a new top-ten list:

How Not to Feed Your Children to Wild Dingoes

  1. Don’t hop in the car on a gorgeous Saturday morning with promises of a fun road trip to be had. I don’t want to go on adventure. I want to stay home! Why do we always have to go on adventures?
  2. Don’t neglect to feed your children enough food prior to hitting the road. You never let me eat food. Do you want me to starve?
  3. Don’t drive to Point Reyes with promises of delicious cheese to be had at Cowgirl Creamery. I don’t want to eat outside, there are too many bees. What, do you want to get stung to death?
  4. Don’t buy your children gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. This doesn’t taste like grilled cheese and why does Sadie get all of the macaroni? No fair!
  5. Don’t drive to a beautiful coastal town with hopes of taking a family walk along the cliffs overlooking the sea. I’ve been walking all week. My legs hurt and I don’t want to move any more.
  6. Don’t get caught in a 20 minute traffic jam in the middle of a gorgeous state park surrounded by redwoods. Why can’t I listen to my station? Can you turn the music louder? When are we going?
  7. Don’t suggest a rain-check for something you said “no” to on the drive home. You always give out rain-checks. When are we going to drive to San Francisco and ride around on MUNI like you promised, it’s been two years!
  8. Don’t offer to let your child pick out a movie at the rental store on the way home. I’d rather go into San Francisco and ride around on MUNI.
  9. Don’t offer to buy Gordos burritos for dinner following your road-trip. Why do we always have to eat food from restaurants? Why can’t we cook at home? We never cook real food at home!
  10. Don’t offer to give your child a kiss goodnight while he’s tucking himself under the covers on the top bunk. I don’t want to give you a kiss. You’re taking away from my reading time. Can’t I just read my book in peace?

I’ll take a martini, thank you and a gold medal for braving a full-day trapped in a metal kvetching booth. Momma told me there’d be days like this.