Prelude to Summer: Soupe au Pistou

soupe Last Sunday, my family honored this Jewish-earth-mama with a home-cooked breakfast of luscious lemon ricotta pancakes, fresh berries, and crispy bacon, followed by a much needed reprieve from my share of the household duties. After a relaxing morning of feeding on love and lazing about in the sun with a good book, I could stand it no longer – I had to labor away at something!

In an attempt to prolong the afterglow from my trip to Paris, I recently began reading Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah. This delicious memoir is at once relatable, mouth-watering, and an edible journey through France. A lifelong foodie and Francophile, Mah embarks on a year of discovery – one regional specialty at a time.

I recently made the steak frites from her first chapter – receiving Dino hugs and rave reviews – and on Sunday, I decided to spend the afternoon exploring another recipe from the book: soupe au pistou.

With the summer harvest nipping at the heels of late spring, the time was ripe to put the latest stars at our local farmers market on display. Soupe au pistou, a Provencal summer soup reminiscent of minestrone, seemed an optimal way to taste the season.

With a little assistance from my favorite prep cook (give Caleb le Cuisinart and he’ll wiz and whir the day away), we prepped the ingredients and started the slow process of making the soup. The beans had begun soaking the night before, I rinsed them off and began cooking them in the Dutch Oven first. Then came the diced vegetables, and other ingredients; lastly, the pistou (think pesto).

After several hours, the fragrance emanating from the kitchen, redolent of basil, left us eager to spill out onto our patio and dine al fresco with a close friend who had joined us for dinner. The finished soupe au pistou, with a blend of emmental and parmesan sprinkled and melting on top was heavenly, and elicited happy sounds and compliments from all. Enjoyed with a simple arugula salad, Acme’s Bread Company’s pain au levain, and a glass of chardonnay laced with crème de cassis (for the grown-ups, of course), we were transported from the San Francisco Bay Area to Provence for a few delicious hours and the perfect end to Mother’s Day.


Soupe au Pistou

Makes 6 servings

For soup

  • 1/2 cup dried white beans, such as cannellini, sorted, soaked overnight in water to cover by 2 inches
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberry beans (or borlotti beans), sorted overnight in water to cover by 2 inches
  • 2 pounds zucchini, trimmed
  • 2 to 3 medium-size red potatoes
  • 2 pounds fresh green beans, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup elbow macaroni
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For pistou

  • 2 to 3 plump garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 large bunch fresh basil, washed, dried
  • 1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
  • Pinch of salt
  • Garnish: 1 cup grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese, or a combination

Preparation

    1. Drain beans. In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, add beans and enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to boil on medium-high heat, skimming off foam from the surface. Lower heat and simmer until beans are tender, about 11/2 hours. The cooking time for beans varies greatly, so make sure to test the beans for tenderness from time to time (they might be tender after 50 minutes or so).
    2. Meanwhile, peel the zucchini lengthwise, leaving half of the skin on, making stripes; cut into 11/2-inch pieces. Peel and cube the potatoes into the same size. When beans are tender, add zucchini, potatoes and green beans. Bring to boil, lower heat and gently simmer until zucchini starts to disintegrate (about an hour, adding more water if necessary); use a fork to mash a few pieces of potatoes and zucchini against the side of the pot to thicken soup. Raise the heat slightly and add macaroni, cooking until very soft. Taste and season as needed.
    3. While the soup is cooking, make the pistou. With the motor running, drop garlic into feed-tube of food processor. Add basil and process until finely chopped. Add tomatoes and pulse to very finely chop, intermittently stopping motor to scrape down sides. Add olive oil and process to combine. Add salt and pulse to combine. Taste and add more olive oil or salt if needed.
    4. Remove soup from heat. Stir in pistou and combine thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve, passing the grated cheese at the table for topping. The soup can be prepared in advance and reheated.

    Source: adapted from “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah

A Paris Memory: Bacon and Egg Pizza

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Who doesn’t love a satisfying breakfast of bacon and eggs? Then, why not fall in love with bacon and egg pizza like I did on my recent solo trip to Paris?

On my second night staying in le Marais neighborhood in the 4th Arrondissement, and after a fulfilling day of walking my ass off through one of the most breath-takingly beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, I ducked into what appeared to be a very popular Italian restaurant. After looking around at the individual wood oven-baked pizzas sitting in front of the guests at the neighboring table, I quickly surmised that I should order the pizza. The waiter came to take my order, and with my very limited French, I promptly ordered something far different from what I had in mind.

What arrived after my glass of vin rouge, was the happiest of accidents: an ambrosial and heavenly looking pancetta (bacon) flecked pizza with a large egg, sunny-side up in the middle. Not a big fan of farm egg on everything – still a craze on restaurant menus ranging from farm-to-table to Asian eateries – I pulled a c’est la vie and expectantly dove in. I quickly observed that what set me apart from the Parisian diners (apart from the fact that I wasn’t looking tres chic or planting kisses on the cheeks of friends at my lonely table), was that I impatiently sliced my pie into quarters, scooped the slice up in my hands, then hungrily stuffed it in my mouth. Other, more well-mannered patrons, had fork and knife in hand and were politely slicing bite-sized pieces – feeding their hunger slowly and with intention. Whatever! My pizza – a delicious dance of flavors including smoky, salty bacon, four cheeses, and a rich egg atop – was absolutely mind-blowing! I had left my camera back in my room and had no one to witness my perfect moment of blissful food transcendence, with a little egg dripping down my chin.

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Funny, that one of the best eating experiences I had in France was at a trendy Italian pizzeria. Once I returned home, I vowed to re-create this pizza in my kitchen. On a recent trip to TJ’s, I picked up pre-made pizza dough, shredded quattro formaggi, and diced pancetta – the organic eggs were waiting for me at home.

Last night, after a full day at work, I rolled up my sleeves, kicked everyone out of the kitchen, and summoned my inner pizzaiolo. Taking the advice of Phyllis Grant, a fellow blogger and skilled baker of sweet and savory, I made a round trough with my fingers in the center of each pizza, to eventually crack the eggs into. I then pre-heated the oven to 500F, assembled a larger pie for Mateo and I, and smaller pies for Caleb and Sadie. Once in the oven for 8-10 minutes (light golden topping), I pulled the racks out and gently slipped one raw egg in the middle of each pie, then let them bake for an additional 4-5 minutes.

I can say with confidence that I nailed it, having created the closest version of what I had enjoyed in Paris and was very pleased with myself as I bit into the first hot, salty, cheesy, and egg-oozy slice. Mateo quickly exclaimed that he has absolutely loved everything I have been cooking since my return, and Caleb ran over to me with a Dino hug and kiss. If you have any questions about how to make this at home, just ask. I hope you try…it was that good!!

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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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