Say cheese

If you live in central Indiana and you’re all about cheese — and come on, who isn’t? – you’re probably already familiar with Tulip Tree Creamery, owned and operated by local dairy king Fons Smits.

Fons.jpeg

You can find Fons’ fresh mozzarella, funky Foxglove, herby Nettle, creamy fromage frais, dreamy cultured butter and more at Indy-area farmers markets, on restaurant menus and at select gourmet retail outlets all over town. What you may not know is that Fons and company are generously sharing their knowledge through cheesemaking classes held here in Indy at the Tulip Tree production facility.

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I attended one of these sessions last winter, and was thrilled with the whole experience. Class sizes are kept small — around 12 to 15 — to allow everyone a chance to participate.

Here’s how it all went down. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a festive array of Tulip Tree cheeses and accompaniments like crackers, cherry bomb peppers, baguette slices, dates, nuts and other yummy goodies. Besides TT’s greatest hits, we got the chance to sample the new Tiger Lily tomme offering, an earthy soft cheese with a gorgeous salmon-pink rind. So, so happy to dig in and meet my fellow students while noshing on all the cheese we could eat.

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For me, the whole spread easily stood in for dinner. If you were to order a much smaller cheese platter/plate of this caliber at a local mid-to-upscale restaurant, you’d be shelling out at least $15 or $20 easily.

After filling up, we took our seats to learn about the art and science of cheesemaking. Fons himself greeted us, and then we received a short primer before donning our aprons and hairnets to give it a shot ourselves.

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Cheesemaking is not easy. There’s so much nuance and mad science in the whole process — making sure you achieve the right temperatures, stirring fast or slow enough, monitoring the curds, and a whole bunch of other technical steps along the way.

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Thank goodness our two small groups had excellent coaching, and working as teams, we were able to turn out a tasty queso blanco and stretchy balls of fresh mozzarella. And, everyone got generous samples of both to take home – bonus!!! More than I could eat within a few days, I had to give some away to the neighbors.

A few notes to keep in mind. Classes are BYOB; I brought along a nice Malbec and found my fellow students happily willing to share pours from their bottles as well. The price to attend is $50. At first blush, this may sound a little steep, but when you factor in the amount and quality of cheese you receive and the awesome hands-on experience, it’s well worth the price tag. Also, classes fill up quickly. If you want to attend one, check the web site and sign up as early as you can.

All in all, a super fun — and tasty — way to spend a few hours. I couldn’t help but think this would make a great teambuilding activity, or even an interesting, educational thing to do with kids. I’m excited to see a parent-and-child mozzarella making class on the schedule roster for later in August. My kiddo would LOVE this.

To learn more, tuliptreecreamery.com.

Can't go wrong with Caprese

Caprese salad might just be the perfect food. Ripe juicy tomatoes, fresh creamy mozzarella, a few leaves of bracing basil — what’s not to like? It’s unprocessed, it’s delicious, and it’s relatively healthy. A little s&p, maybe a drizzle of olive oil… boom. Perfection on a plate.

an impromptu Caprese sandwich

I grew to love Caprese salads — or insalata Caprese — in Italy, as you do, and in Germany of all unexpected places. During our visits these past few years, my standard lunch order abroad has been a Caprese sandwich — said salad on a thick wedge of crusty toothsome bread. It’s easy to find, readily available on nearly every menu and at every bake shop counter.

If you want to look like a rock star in the kitchen, put together a Caprese salad or sandwich and see what kind of compliments you receive. The only way you can really mess up this dish is by using sub-par ingredients. Like most Italian food, it relies on quality tomatoes and cheese, dressed just barely or not at all to let the true flavors shine through. When you start with high quality building blocks like this, you don’t have to hide them under a sauce or mask them with a dressing.

Caprese salad is pretty enough to serve at a fancy dinner party, or simple enough to toss together for a quick lunch (as I did yesterday). A few tips – get the best tomatoes you can find, and don’t refrigerate them; this makes the texture mealy and blunts the flavor. If you can pick them straight out of your garden and serve them still warm from the sun, all the better. I’ve had great luck with farmers’ market products this summer as well.

On to the cheese. Who doesn’t like mozzarella cheese? Again, go for the best quality you can find and afford, although I often just buy a ball of the stuff at Marsh or Kroger in the deli section when it’s on sale. (The smoked mozzarella is a nice alternative on occasion.)

I’ve had a bumper crop of basil in my patio planter this year, but if you must buy it at the store, look for fresh snappy leaves with no bruises. Store the herb upright in a tall glass in the fridge with just enough water in it to barely submerge the stems.

When it’s time to put it all together, slice the cheese and the tomatoes into widths of equal size. Layer the slices on a plate or platter, alternating for color contrast. Scatter a few whole basil leaves over on top, or tear them into small pieces with your fingers. If you want to be really fancy, you can chiffonade your basil. Don’t freak out and panic when I say “chiffonade;” it just means you roll up the leaves into a little cigar shape and slice them into cute thin ribbons.

Whoomp, there it is. If you like, you can drizzle the salad with a little good quality olive oil. I sometimes like to add a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar for flavor, but that’s just me. You can also cube the cheese and tomato, put it in a bowl, mix in the basil and olive oil, then spoon the mixture over grilled chicken or pasta. Add some kalamata olives, or perhaps a few garlic croutons. Or, throw in slices of avocado. Heck – go crazy.

It goes without saying that Caprese’s best served in summer, when produce is at its peak ripeness, but it makes a great starter or fresh side dish any time of the year. Mangia.

Can’t go wrong with Caprese

Caprese salad might just be the perfect food. Ripe juicy tomatoes, fresh creamy mozzarella, a few leaves of bracing basil — what’s not to like? It’s unprocessed, it’s delicious, and it’s relatively healthy. A little s&p, maybe a drizzle of olive oil… boom. Perfection on a plate.

an impromptu Caprese sandwich

I grew to love Caprese salads — or insalata Caprese — in Italy, as you do, and in Germany of all unexpected places. During our visits these past few years, my standard lunch order abroad has been a Caprese sandwich — said salad on a thick wedge of crusty toothsome bread. It’s easy to find, readily available on nearly every menu and at every bake shop counter.

If you want to look like a rock star in the kitchen, put together a Caprese salad or sandwich and see what kind of compliments you receive. The only way you can really mess up this dish is by using sub-par ingredients. Like most Italian food, it relies on quality tomatoes and cheese, dressed just barely or not at all to let the true flavors shine through. When you start with high quality building blocks like this, you don’t have to hide them under a sauce or mask them with a dressing.

Caprese salad is pretty enough to serve at a fancy dinner party, or simple enough to toss together for a quick lunch (as I did yesterday). A few tips – get the best tomatoes you can find, and don’t refrigerate them; this makes the texture mealy and blunts the flavor. If you can pick them straight out of your garden and serve them still warm from the sun, all the better. I’ve had great luck with farmers’ market products this summer as well.

On to the cheese. Who doesn’t like mozzarella cheese? Again, go for the best quality you can find and afford, although I often just buy a ball of the stuff at Marsh or Kroger in the deli section when it’s on sale. (The smoked mozzarella is a nice alternative on occasion.)

I’ve had a bumper crop of basil in my patio planter this year, but if you must buy it at the store, look for fresh snappy leaves with no bruises. Store the herb upright in a tall glass in the fridge with just enough water in it to barely submerge the stems.

When it’s time to put it all together, slice the cheese and the tomatoes into widths of equal size. Layer the slices on a plate or platter, alternating for color contrast. Scatter a few whole basil leaves over on top, or tear them into small pieces with your fingers. If you want to be really fancy, you can chiffonade your basil. Don’t freak out and panic when I say “chiffonade;” it just means you roll up the leaves into a little cigar shape and slice them into cute thin ribbons.

Whoomp, there it is. If you like, you can drizzle the salad with a little good quality olive oil. I sometimes like to add a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar for flavor, but that’s just me. You can also cube the cheese and tomato, put it in a bowl, mix in the basil and olive oil, then spoon the mixture over grilled chicken or pasta. Add some kalamata olives, or perhaps a few garlic croutons. Or, throw in slices of avocado. Heck – go crazy.

It goes without saying that Caprese’s best served in summer, when produce is at its peak ripeness, but it makes a great starter or fresh side dish any time of the year. Mangia.

Say cheese

I believe I mentioned in a post awhile back my penchant for pretty platters laden with cheese, bread, crackers, fruit, nuts, what have you… Hubby and I recently found ourselves amid a veritable jackpot of newly launched Ludwig Farmstead Creamery artisan cheeses and were all too happy to assemble a dinnertime cheese board to sample the wares, rounding out our spread with a baguette, hard salami, kalamata olives and some sliced cucumbers. An ideal summertime meal when it’s scorching hot outside and you don’t feel like firing up the stove.

Ludwig Farmstead Creamery cheeses

Under the capable direction of Zionsville-based cheesemaster Fons Smits (formerly of Traders Point Creamery and an international dairy consultant), Ludwig is turning out some damn fine specimens.

Now, let me preface this review by saying that I am not by any means a cheese expert, nor have I ever played one on TV. I just know what I like when I taste it. So without further ado, let me bring you along on a little virtual Ludwig cheesetasting tour:

Feather Ridge is the company’s bestseller, inspired by hearty European cheeses like Fontina, Vacherin and Mobier. This firm number eats smooth with a little tweak of sharpness on the finish. I couldn’t help but think it would taste fantastic grated over some pasta or maybe on a pizza.

Feather Ridge

The Jake’s Wheel havarti has a mild, mellow nature that lends itself to experimentation, but its semi-soft texture and buttery flavor is plenty delicious on its own merits. Perfect sliced on a crunchy little cracker with perhaps a smear of mustard underneath.

The talented Mr. Smits is having fun infusing this cheese with ingredients as the mood strikes him to produce variations that include, say, bits of Moody Meats bacon (a guaranteed hit with most Midwesterners); fenugreek, a love-it-or-hate-it herb/spice that vaguely calls to mind Indian cuisine; spicy habanero peppers (Fons says this cheese has a small but very enthusiastic fan base); Dutch garden herbs; Italian herbs; and Asian spices. I like the Dutch garden herb with its bright, pretty blend of mixed green herbs. It looks gorgeous, and tastes delicious – do I detect a little bit of dill here? I love dill.

Jake’s Wheel, Dutch garden variety

The Kickapoo, named in honor of a state park near the Indiana-Illinois border not far from where the Ludwig Farm is located, is creamy in texture with a fresh flavor and a tiny hint of sweetness. My three-year-old loved this cheese, gobbling up each bite I gave him and asking for more. I plan to try to melt some on toast or use it for a grilled cheese and see how it goes over.

Kickapoo

Blue cheese fans, sit up and take notice. Fons is toying around with a Kickapoo that includes a stripe of blue cheese culture running through the middle. If you like an extra-bold blue cheese that really brings the funk, this probably won’t pack enough pungent punch for you. However, if you’re looking for just a subtle hint of flavor that won’t overpower — a good starter blue cheese, if you will — this baby should be right up your alley.

Kickapoo blue

Traditional Dutch Farmstead Gouda is perhaps closest to Fons’ own heart, being a native Dutchman and all. A good, solid all-around cheese for sandwiches, salads, whatever.

You can currently find the lovely Ludwig cheeses for sale (and free sampling!) at the Zionsville Farmers Market on Saturday mornings; check the web site for updated product news and a list of other retail outlets. The cheeses are also available to order online.

For more information:

http://ludwigfarmsteadcreamery.com/

A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.

Puff daddy

One word strikes fear into the heart of cooks and chefs everywhere. And that word is… soufflé.  When made correctly, it’s sublime, but there is perhaps no other recipe so fraught with potential for disaster.

Souffle can be a finicky little bugger. If you don’t give it the love, attention and respect it deserves, it can pout and refuse to rise to the occasion, so to speak. It will show you who’s boss by emerging from the oven sad, flat and floppy instead of heavenly light and pillowy — a mere baked omelet instead of the puffy, fluffy masterpiece it was intended to be.

Hubby just got home last night from another work trip. When we got up this morning and saw the snow blanketing down (AGAIN. Ugh.), we decided to skip our planned yoga class and hole up inside for the day instead. Our thoughts turned to food, and hubby mentioned a “soufflé omelet” one of his colleagues enjoyed during a breakfast meeting the other day. Then he said, “Why don’t you ever make stuff like that?” I immediately bristled at this passive-aggressive comment and took offense. You want a soufflé, buddy? You got it.

I’ve made soufflés a couple of times before, but haven’t banged one out for a long time. And I have made them for hubby in the past, which he’s conveniently forgotten. No matter. I was up for the challenge.

The only soufflé recipe I’ve ever used is a Julia Child cheese version. Now, those of you who’ve ever prepared a Julia recipe know right away that her directions are going to make everything sound ten times more complicated than it needs to be, and you’re going to dirty every pot and pan in your kitchen before it’s all said and done. On the upside, your finished product is going to be delicious.

Souffles are one of those dishes that go a long way on just a few ingredients. Basically, all you need are eggs, milk, butter, a little flour and any ingredients you want to use as flavoring — cheese, sugar, melted chocolate, Grand Marnier, what have you. Since our soufflé was intended to serve as a late breakfast, we included shredded sharp cheddar cheese, slivered ham and a little diced red pepper. (Some sautéed onion would have made a nice addition, but you all know my audience…)

You start by greasing up an oven-safe casserole dish with butter and dusting it with grated parmesan cheese. This gives the eggs something to grab onto as they rise so impossibly high up the sides of the dish.

Next, you make a thick béchamel sauce on your stovetop by melting butter into flour to make a roux and adding milk, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Take it off the heat and stir in your egg yolks (just the yolks, mind you), shredded cheese and other flavoring ingredients.

Meanwhile, the egg whites come into play in a separate bowl (told you this was labor-intensive). Whip the heck out of them with an electric hand-mixer until they reach the stiff peak stage. As I’ve learned the hard way, you have to be painstakingly careful when separating your eggs. If there’s even the tiniest hint of egg yolk in the mix, they won’t whip up.

Once that’s done, fold the whipped whites into the béchamel, ever so gently so as to avoid deflating the whole concoction, and pour the whole mess into your casserole dish. Transfer it into the oven, set your timer for 30 minutes, cross your fingers and hope for the best. If all is well, you’ll see your soufflé slowly making its way up the dish as it bakes, but you’ll have to content yourself with watching it through the window. Don’t open the oven door, no matter how tempting it is. You’ll let in a rush of air that can disrupt the steady temperature and screw it all up.

When the timer goes off, if your culinary prayers have been answered, you should open the door to find a lovely, browned dome of feather-light eggs.

cheese souffle just out of the oven

Serve immediately to achieve maximum oohs and aahs; the soufflé immediately starts to sink back down the second it comes out of the heat. Tap into the crusty top and scoop out a big steaming serving. Don’t be shy. The consistency is so light and airy, you can eat a ton of this without stuffing yourself.

just look at that eggy lusciousness!

If you want to cut corners or you just don’t have the patience, stick to making an omelet or a frittata. But if you really want to impress your guests at brunch or turn out something truly romantic for a special-occasion breakfast, a soufflé is a great way to go.

Windy City wow

Move over this little piggy, there’s a new porker in town.

Our local babysitters extraordinaire/lovely neighbors/surrogate grandparents down the street offered to take the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a quick trip to Chicago. Hubby had to go up there to pick up his new passport and also had an Expedia credit burning a whole in his virtual pocket, so we decided to make a night of it.

After some deliberation, we booked a room at Hotel 71, right on the river at Wacker and Wabash. A competent and comfortable choice. The hotel looks mod and hipster from the outside and in the lobby, but the rooms are sumptuously furnished with subdued upscale pieces and neutral décor. We stayed on the 16th floor with an impressive view of the river and bridges below. Nice. The orange-scented bath products are worth mentioning as well, they smelled yummy enough to make your mouth water. Our only (very minor) complaints were that the water in the shower and bath wasn’t as hot as we would have liked, and there was some noise in the morning from what sounded like construction going on next door. Other than that, the location was ideal and we agreed we’d definitely stay here again.

Chicago is foodie heaven for someone like me, and the choices are dizzying. For dinner, we’d already pre-scouted thanks to recommendations from a friend who used to live there (thanks, Renate!) The Purple Pig looked fun from the get-go, and has been rated one of the top 10 new restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Good enough for me.

To get to the Purple Pig proper, you enter under a metal archway off Michigan Avenue and walk back along a sidewalk to the restaurant itself. The place offers indoor and outdoor (heated) seating, but it’s not large. We ended up sitting across from each other at a long indoor table, elbow to elbow with fellow diners. Fortunately, the high ceilings and the acoustics help keep the noise at a somewhat manageable level (much better than, say, Napolese…), but it still felt intimate and cozy with lots of light wood and a huge wall of glass-fronted wine racks.

Our server was really on top of his game and somehow managed to keep our whole table and then some buzzing and well taken care of. The wine list is huge and overwhelming; I finally just closed it and told our server what I liked. I don’t even know exactly what he brought me, but it was a light, fruity, fragrant red just like I’d asked for. Hubby was pleased with his glass as well, a more assertive red with distinctive jammy but not sweet flavors.

The Purple Pig advertises “cheese, wine and swine,” and that’s pretty accurate. The menu is full of Mediterranean-tinged, small-plate tapas goodies. Now, I’m usually not all that crazy about tapas because I would usually rather eat a full serving of one thing I really like than a few bites each of half a dozen different dishes. Plus, I don’t like sharing my food. Tonight, though, this was somehow perfect. It was terribly difficult to make choices because so many things sounded tempting. The fact that hubby hates seafood helped narrow options down somewhat, as did obvious items like pig’s ears and tails that we both agreed were not personally appealing. We subtly tried to check out what our fellow diners were eating for inspiration; not difficult considering our quarters were so close, we could have just reached over and eaten off their plates.

We started with two dishes from the fried portion of the menu – breaded chorizo-stuffed olives with a lemony mayonnaise underneath, and proscuitto bread balls that came with a mild tomato sauce. I was a little surprised we only got five smallish pieces with each, but the flavors were so bold and vibrant, that was really all we needed. The savory green olives were good, but the proscuitto balls were AWESOME, a steaming-hot hush puppyish concoction with a crispy browned outer crust. The tomato sauce was a little bland, but a great complementary foil for the much saltier bread balls.

Next up was a sharable plate of mixed green salad with slivered pieces of asparagus, crushed hazelnuts and a citrusy vinaigrette dressing. Light, lovely and a refreshing way to cleanse our palates after the fried treats. We’d already started perusing the menu again by this point, looking for other items to order. The cured meats and cheeses are always a hit with both of us, but we looked beyond to the “smears,” a series of spreadable offerings delivered with slices of crusty brioche or Italian peasant bread. Hubby fought for the whipped feta with sliced cucumbers, but I lobbied hard for the eggplant caponata with goat cheese and won.

The serving size of the smear was pretty substantial – five slices of bread, each slathered with soft goat cheese that made a just-right base for the messy but delicious caponata. The chunky eggplant spread was like a sweet-and-spicy chutney with a nice vinegary tang and plump golden raisins (no onion, thank God!)

Hubby had his eye on the chicken thigh kebabs with fried smashed potatoes and tzatziki or the Jimmy’s housemade Greek sausage with rapini and grapes from the larger-portion “la plancha” selections, but let himself be swayed by the server’s suggestion to try the pork blade steak instead. And again, props to the server – this was fantastic, and something we never would have ordered of our own volition. The steak was a thin but generous piece of meat that had been brined in a salt solution, then quick grilled on both sides and topped with a little honey, arugula and parmesan cheese. A sweet and salty masterpiece. There were a few fatty bits here and there that we spit out, but the meat for the most part was tender and delicious. And underneath was what I thought at first glimpse to be sliced tomatoes, but was actually something called “ ‘Njuda,” a soft spreadable form of salami.

By the time we polished off the pork steak, we were starting to feel pleasantly full. The desserts were intriguing, especially the olive oil soft-serve ice cream, but we decided not to overstuff ourselves and went straight to the check. We were fully expecting a bill of at least $100, and were surprised and even a little shocked that our total was only $71. VERY fair considering the amount of quality of food and wine we enjoyed.

If you’re in Chicago and looking for a fun, scrumptious, pseudo-communal dining experience, pay a visit to the Purple Pig. I wish, wish, wish we would have taken a camera in with us. However, you can get a gander at the menu, the décor and some of the dishes for yourself at www.thepurplepigchicago.com. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, after the Purple Pig, we had a drink at the Redhead Piano Bar, then ended up at Blue Chicago. A colorful evening, to say the least.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Viva la fromage!

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, the heart of California wine country, for a spell several years ago, we made a weekly habit of a cheese board dinner. Meaning, once every weekend (or more frequently some weeks), we would purchase a bottle of previously untested wine and round out our evening meal with some fabulous local cheese, fruit, sausage, olives, nuts, bread and other apropos local produce and nibbles. With all the insanely good markets going on here in Paris, we knew we couldn’t let this visit drift away without doing the same thing here at least once. Yesterday being the weekly Bastille street market, what better time would there be for us to get a true taste of France?

We took a slow stroll through the market knowing we wanted to buy wine, cheese and bread, leaving the other goodies up to chance. The market was crowded as hell and we had a little trouble navigating the stroller through the narrow aisles, dodging other shoppers with their glowing cigarette ashes and the ubiquitous Parisian dog poop that seems to be EVERYWHERE. Do these people just never clean up after their pooches or what?? The amount of street candy you see here is truly offputting; it’s like tiptoeing through a minefield every time you walk down the street..

First up, the cheese… hubby asked the first fromager we found for recommendations, and he hooked us up with a wedge of Brie and a block of bleu d’auvergne. Done. Next up, a booth selling wines from the Burgundy region. The vendor recommended an “unusual” white to go with our cheeses, and we took his suggestion. A baguette, some gorgeous little black and giant green olives that shone like jewels and reeked of garlic and herbs, a small handful of strawberries, some grapes, an apple and we were all set.

When our tummies started growling around suppertime, I set out the spread and we spent the next half hour happily nibbling away at our treasures. Sadly, some of our selections proved better choices than others. The wine was unusual, indeed. I like my white wines either crisp and sweet like a Riesling or rich and oaky like a chardonnay, but this was neither. I can’t quite say what the flavor was – maybe spicy? It was light, but it wasn’t sweet and it wasn’t buttery. In other words, it was just ok for me.

We went one for two on the cheeses as well. The bleu was fantastic, and between us we put away the entire block, hubby enjoying his with the bread; me spreading little chunks onto slices of apple and strawberry. The brie was another story, however. Maybe I’m just more accustomed to the milder Americanized versions, or maybe it was just better suited for a palate much more sophisticated than mine. In any case, neither hubby or I could manage more than one bite.

I knew we were going to have trouble when I unwrapped the package. As my hubby so succinctly put it, it smelled like a sweaty gym sock. I figured, ok, this is a French cheese, perhaps it’s one of those cases where stinky equals good. Not so, I’m afraid. One bite and our fears were confirmed. I’m still puzzling over exactly what it tasted like. It didn’t taste like cheese, that’s for sure. It tasted sort of like a cow pasture. Not that I’ve ever sampled a swatch of cow pasture, but if I had, this is how I imagine it would taste. Gamey and grassy and overly ripe, not in a good way. Ugh. Very disappointing, as I am usually a big fan of rich and creamy Brie and will eat it spread over anything that will stand still. Anyway, we filled up on the bleu and a small chunk of Emmentaler we had leftover from earlier in the week, and it was all fine in the end.

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

our beautiful Parisian cheese board

I feel I’ve probably eaten my weight in cheese during this two-week trip. It’s impossible to escape, between the croque monsieurs, the omelets, the quiches, the crepes and the desserts, the Francais LOVE their fromage. And why shouldn’t they, with so many delicious options to choose from? Still, I fear for the state of my cholesterol. Hopefully all the exercise I’ve gotten has been enough to offset my high calorie intake. Amazingly, my pants are actually fitting more loosely than they were before we arrived, and my butt’s never been in better shape. I guess that’s what walking two or three hours a day and staying in a third-floor walkup apartment with steep, narrow stairs will get you. Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining!

Today is our last day in Paris; tomorrow we’ll be up and catching a taxi to the airport at a rather ungodly hour. We had originally intended to enjoy our last evening meal tonight at the scene of our first Parisian dinner together – Cafe Rempart, but seeing as how we’ve already been there this morning for coffees and Nutella crepes, it seemed a bit much to hit it twice in one day. Instead, we tried a place we’d not been to yet, a bistro called Restaurant Sully, right across the corner from the lovely produce stand I’ve been frequenting all week.

My dinner was better than hubby’s – I enjoyed the best roast chicken in recent memory, even better than the really good one I enjoyed last week, along with a mixed green salad and a few slices of baguette. I got a quarter chicken portion, dark meat, the thigh and leg encased in the most perfectly crispy thin skin ever, all topped with a rich sauce that was the very essence of the chicken itself. I kept trying to figure out what was in it; the best I could come up with was that it tasted just like a super-intensely reduced chicken stock thickened with a little bit of butter. In any case, it was incredible. Hubby ordered one of the evening specials, an entrecote steak with peppery gravy, fries and a salad. All good, but not nearly as good as my chicken. My only complaint I had was that the portion was fairly small and I was still hungry after I had gnawed every shred of meat off the bones. Not a bad thing, really, in retrospect, as it left me plenty of room to fully enjoy a dessert.

I’ve been wanting to order a tarte tatin since we got here, but it’s not been on as many menus as I expected it would be. Thank goodness I was in luck tonight. Tarte tatin is a traditional French dessert, like a French cake-y version of apple pie ala mode. It’s not unlike a pineapple upside cake, but made with apples. I really need to learn how to make this stuff once we get back home. The wedge I received tonight was very generous in size, heated to steaming and served with a small side ramekin of creme fraiche to spoon over the top (creme fraiche is tasty concoction the consistency of light whipped cream cheese, but with a subtle tarty tang like sour cream). I spooned the entire lot over the cake, watched it melt into the apples and took a big mouthful. Mmmmmm. Hubby said he would have preferred something chocolate, but only after he’d eaten three or four large bites. I finished off every bit of the rest. The perfect way to cap off a lovely meal on our last night in the City of Lights.