radical enthusiasm, plus bran muffins

bran muffins

The kitchen counter at the Dougall Avenue house was long and narrow, a speckled beige Formica. The kitchen itself was typical of a late-eighties reno: the cream-and-brown up-and-down refrigerator (before they fell out of—then came back into—fashion) and glossy orange-cocoa tiles arranged in hopscotch pattern, which we would follow daily as we skipped the kitchen’s length, the tile left glossier by our socks.

I spent many years with a bum planted to that Formica. Mom was hands on with us girls. In the kitchen as her sous chefs. In the garden as her bean-snappers, one bean for the wicker basket, one bean for each hungry maw. In the bathtub, rendering soap crayons to nubs, two addicts with a pack-a-week habit who drew in technicolor on the tub’s porcelain surface (and each-other) the imaginings of childhood. In the basement, mom’s gallery installed with our art; caterpillars of egg cartons and origami swans and many a tempera paint masterpiece lining the walls. In the playroom, whose costume cupboard spilled with her distinctively patterned seventies wardrobe and highest heels; we’d become gypsies and fairies and mermaids as she ironed dad’s shirts.

Eleni and I were insulated within the castle walls of idyllic childhood because of mom; we didn’t see the bills to pay and the mouths to feed and the ‘round-the-clock terror of owning a small business, where so many livelihoods rested at the end of each tiny and momentous decision that came with being your own boss.

Mom’s quiet shelter. We were safe and we were loved and we made so many messes, messes that we cleaned up, because messes are for cleaning up. Mom instilled responsibility, even within her cocoon: a roster of rules and roles that we didn’t shirk. We made our beds. We wrote thank-you cards. We kissed dad goodbye every morning at 11 am, before bundling up for the walk to kindergarten, three abreast, hand-in-hand-in-hand. We ate dinner, whatever was put on the table, voraciously, as a family (no “kids’ meals” from this kitchen). We washed the dishes and toweled dry our messes.

I tend toward radical enthusiasm when it comes to the things and the people I love. “Everything is your favourite!” I’ve been chided, and it’s true. I have five dozen favourite dishes that I cooked with mom as a kid, each of them the best thing I ever ate, depending on the day and week and month and year. For a long time, this bothered me, that my best-ofs weren’t fewer, that those simple grade-school get-to-know-your-classmate surveys—favourite food, vacation, colour—would leave me white knuckled and in a heaving sweat. How could anyone possibly land on tacos, Disneyland, yellow? Maybe today, but ask me again tomorrow. I had a lot of not-sures and paragraph-long replies alike on those one-word answer questionnaires. Teachers urging me to pick a lane, already.

No matter. Being a radical enthusiast is a great way to be; everything is heightened and better for it. It’s fun to conjure delight and deep memory from tiny favourites that bring outsize joy. Favourite season? All of them. Favourite colour? The rainbow (plus black and white and grey and camel and ochre and the lift of the sky just after heavy, sudden rainfall, aglow as an opal). Favourite man in my life? My husband, and my dad, and my grandpa, and my other grandpa, and my best friend, and my nephew. Radically enthused about each and every and all.

I do have a favourite, where the humble muffin is concerned. Categorically and always, muffins are the best—personal-sized cakes, am I right?—and bran muffins are the best of all the muffins. From the time I was grasshopper-high seated on that speckled Formica, to the adult-onset Wednesday afternoons that sometimes bring with them an I-need-a-treat disposition. I trudge to the tuck shop for a Tim Horton’s bran muffin, always a smidgen dry and cardboard-like, housed in a rigid paper wrapper, delicious in spite of itself.

Mom loved making bran muffins with us girls; she still does with her grandson. A close third after lemon loaf and banana bread, bran muffins were the bronze medalist of baked goods in mom’s kitchen. She made hers from memory, so forgiving and tender like the lady who gently instructed. Into a bowl went bran, flour, eggs, oil, brown sugar, vanilla, buttermilk, golden raisins. Don’t over-mix. Fill the paper wrappers just level. Sit before the oven door like a puppy, face bathed in yellow light and with a watchful eye for those peaked, just burnished tops. Muffin tins with a patina painted by years of love, never quite clean enough despite a hot, soapy wash. Bran muffins, favourite to find in my paper sack lunch, tender and nutty and gently sweet, enhanced by pops of toothache-giving raisins.

I know these treats by heart and hand, but I’ve done my best to replicate them here in a recipe to follow. If you’re looking to radically enthuse about a muffin (or just take one quietly with your morning coffee), try these. They’re my favourite. I swear.

Lori’s Bran Muffins

As with any recipe, mom probably picked these up a long time ago in a church cookbook or from an aunt or some other happy kitchen, making them so often they eventually became muscle memory. Worry not, as the muffins are exceptionally forgiving if you need to substitute an ingredient—the sweetener or milk, for example. Use a sweet fruit (i.e., avoid sour fruit such as raw cranberries or rhubarb or plums) as the batter is barely sweet and benefits from pockets of sugar.

Makes 12 medium muffins; the recipe easily doubles or triples for batch baking

Ingredients

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 ⅓ cups buttermilk (or regular milk spiked with 1 tsp of vinegar and set aside to thicken)
  • ⅓ cup neutral oil (I use canola)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (or other aromatic, e.g., almond extract, lemon zest)
  • 1 ½ cups wheat bran
  • 1 cup flour (either all-purpose or whole wheat)
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp fine salt

Mix ins:

  • ½ cup chopped nuts (we like almonds or walnuts)
  • 1 cup fresh fruit, chopped OR ½ cup dried fruit (we like raspberries, blueberries, apple, dried apricot, golden raisins, peach; whatever is ripe and available given the season!)
  • coarse sugar, for sprinkling (if using fresh fruit)

Method

Prepare your 12-muffin tin by greasing it or adding parchment liners. Heat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a small bowl, whisk: egg, buttermilk, oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract.

In a large bowl, whisk: wheat bran, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

Add wet ingredients to dry, folding gently and just barely to incorporate. The batter will seem really wet, but it sets up within a couple minutes as the bran absorbs the liquid. If using dried fruit and nuts, fold in now.

Into the prepared muffin tin, spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter in each hole. Top with a pile of chopped fruit (about 1 Tbsp) and sprinkle of coarse sugar (about 1/2 teaspoon). Cap with a bit more batter.

Bake on centre oven rack for about 15 minutes, testing for done-ness by inserting a toothpick in a non-fruit part of the muffin. If the toothpick comes out wet, bake in further two-minute increments until fully set but not dry.

Cool on a rack. These are great immediately, but also are well suited to tightly wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge or freezer for later.

Related

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sesame miso banana bread

sesame miso banana bread

It’s safe to say most bakers have a favourite banana bread. For years, I did. The recipe, based on a beloved Jean Pare standard, made its way into our wedding cookbook so family and friends could make it, too. Through the years, that bread used up many a turned banana bunch on our kitchen counter.

You probably can tell where this is going.

Last year, Food & Wine published a recipe for Miso Banana Bread. I was so intrigued; mainly because I often buy massive containers of miso with great intention to scrape through the whole thing, only to throw it out a year later minus that heaping tablespoon used for soup, worried it’s turned. Ever consistent, I carted home a big tub of white miso on a recent trip to Tokyo and it’s been staring me down from the condiment shelf ever since.

From a perspective of balance, the recipe just makes sense; we often use salt in sweet recipes for balance, and vice-versa. A deep, umami base of miso is just right to balance and add complexity against the cloying sweetness of banana, which sometimes can make a loaf taste one-note.

The recipe benefits from a full quarter-cup of miso and four mashed bananas, for heady banana overtones and tender crumb. I add a generous topping of crunchy sesame seeds for even more depth. Having now made the recipe twice, I can confirm I prefer it with the sesame addition, and a few other modifications: a second flour for depth, decreased sugar, no added salt and a shorter cooking time. The original recipe is excellent if you prefer a sweeter, denser, more cake-like loaf.

Sesame Miso Banana Bread

Modified from a July 2016 Food and Wine recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup white miso
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 medium-size overripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp raw sesame seeds
  • 1 medium banana, sliced in half lengthwise

Method

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Prepare a standard metal loaf tin with parchment paper overhanging the sides.

Using a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar and miso at medium speed until fluffy. Scrape down bowl.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together dry ingredients: flours, baking soda and baking powder.

At low speed, add to the stand mixer buttermilk, then beat in 
the eggs. Beat in the mashed bananas (the batter will look curdled). Add the dry ingredients and mix until just blended.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle sesame seeds across the loaf, concentrating more in the middle. Arrange the banana slices over top as pictured.

Bake for about 75 minutes, until the top of the loaf is burnished and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Allow to cool on a rack for 30 minutes before gently pulling from the pan and slicing.

Keep the bread, wrapped on the counter, for up to three days. It also freezes like a dream for later thawing and toasting.

Related

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electric winter slaw

32320815972_02466ac392_oMost times, I’ll post a recipe here on a whim; when a dish has repeatedly turned out especially well, or has become a kitchen standard.

In the case of this salad shared to Instagram at the height of New Year’s resolution season, I have received so many emails and messages and requests for the recipe that I feel obliged to share.

The Electric Winter Slaw has three components: (1) shredded red cabbage dressed in tangy miso-soy-lime dressing; (2) spicy shredded citrus-nigella-ginger carrots; and (3) flash-marinated sesame-cilantro cucumber. It sounds like a lot of work and components, but is mostly just a bit of chopping and whisking to some good music and kitchen conversation.

Each element of the salad is great solo, but combined create a winter salad with a rainbow of flavours and satisfying crunch. Store the three components separately so they don’t bleed together, then plate for easy lunches and sides.

Electric winter slaw with sesame & miso

Austin and I joke that each year we get a deluge of one vegetable in our winter farmshare as a challenge. 2013/4—year of the rutabaga; 2014/5—celeriac; 2015/6—golden beets; and this year, purple cabbage. This slaw was originally conceived in an effort to get through the deluge. Make a double portion for a full head of cabbage and eat it for lunches all week long.

Makes 6 generous lunch portions

Ingredients

For the Miso-soy-lime cabbage slaw

  • 4 Tbsp neutral oil
  • juice of 1 large lime
  • 4 tsp white miso
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp maple syrup
  • 2 tsp ginger, grated
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce or tamari
  • 1/2 large head red cabbage, shredded
  • 2 clementines, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

For the Shredded citrus-nigella-ginger carrots

  • 2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp ginger, grated
  • 1 tsp nigella seeds or black sesame seeds
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • fine sea salt, to taste
  • 3 large carrots, finely grated or shredded

For the Sesame-cilantro cucumber

  • 1 tsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp red peppercorns, crushed
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 large English cucumber, very thinly sliced (with a knife or mandolin)

As garnish

  • additional sesame seeds
  • lime wedges

Method

For the Miso-soy-lime cabbage slaw: Combine all ingredients, except produce, in a large bowl and whisk until emulsified. Add the cabbage, onions and clementine. Toss to coat, and set aside to marinate.

For the Shredded citrus-nigella-ginger carrots: Combine all ingredients, except carrots, in a large bowl and whisk until incorporated. Add the carrots, toss to coat, and set aside to marinate.

For the Sesame-cilantro cucumber: Combine all ingredients, except cucumber, in a large bowl and whisk until incorporated. Add the sliced cucumber, toss to coat, and set aside to marinate.

To serve: On a large serving platter, heap piles of each salad. Sprinkle with more sesame seeds and serve with fat lime wedges.

Related

A full index of recipes featured on Some Infinite Thing

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Choosing and using a farm share (CSA) service

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#loveykitchen on Instagram

winter harvest muffins

32203817693_9035496ab8_o.jpg

As a kid, mom had a cookbook that was a sacred part of our kitchen, a slim circa-1983 spiral-bound volume by Jean Paré called Company’s Coming: Muffins & More. This book was dogeared and batter-splatted and thumbed through unconsciously by our entire family; a centrepiece of the kitchen bookshelf.

It produced our favourite treats — lemon loaf with a craggy tart-sour icing top, crumbly coffee cake, Holy Grail banana bread… and especially muffins that featured vegetables. Mom loved these — she tasked Eleni and me with grating zucchini and carrot and parsnip and their contemporaries for any and every quick bread and muffin and loaf.

A few years back, I happened upon a copy at a used bookshop, and made Muffins & More my own. My volume isn’t quite as well loved as mom’s, but all the same inspires simple, wholesome baking from my kitchen. This cookbook was and is brilliant for its adaptable recipes, a reminder that baking can be an uncomplicated and generous home pursuit.

In mom’s honour (and in true Jean Paré fashion), these winter harvest muffins are packed with every last bit of our farmshare — grated carrot, parsnip, apple — and jewelled with dried apricot, raisins, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. They are a hybrid of a few recipes perfected through the years — and importantly, adaptable. The root vegetables can be subbed at will, the sweetener forgivingly interchanged, the mix-ins optional and rotating, depending upon what’s on hand.

Making this type of muffin inevitably ends in a call to mom — to wax nostalgia about stained cookbook pages, and muffin tins with a loving patina, and little girls perched high on countertops grating carrots and wielding wooden spoons. Sure enough, she’s probably just made some of Jean’s banana bread.

Winter Harvest Muffins

This recipe is based loosely on a few recipes collected and melded over time; mostly adapted from techniques in Muffins & More, with the smart additions of olive oil and honey borrowed from Melissa Clark’s Lunchbox Harvest Muffins.

As I note above, this is recipe forgiving, as muffins should be. Be sure to approximate the same quantities of wet ingredients (1.5 cups assorted grated wet/root vegetables) and mix-ins (1 cup assorted dried nuts/fruits), and everything should turn out okay!

Makes one-dozen midsize muffins

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 cup bran
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • pinch salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp honey
  • 1 small apple, grated (~1/2 cup)
  • 1 small carrot, grated (~1/2 cup)
  • 1 small parsnip, grated (~1/2 cup)

Mix-ins

  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/4 cup assortment (I like walnuts, pepitas and chopped dried apricots)
  • demerara sugar, to top (optional)

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line muffin tin with parchment or liners, if desired. 

In a bowl, whisk together dry ingredients: flours, bran, baking soda, spices and salt.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, olive oil, honey, apple, parsnip and carrot. 

Gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined. Add mix-ins: raisins, coconut and nuts, reserving a handful to decorate the muffins, if desired.

Fill each cup 3/4 full. If desired, top with mix-ins and a sprinkle of Demerara sugar, for crunch. Bake on middle rack for about 25 minutes until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack. Serve immediately or wrap in saran and foil for lunches or to freeze for later snacking. 

Related

A full index of recipes featured on Some Infinite Thing

A guide to uncomplicated meal planning for two

Choosing and using a farm share (CSA) service

The Lovey Kitchen on Flickr

#loveykitchen on Instagram

yiayia maria’s avgolemono

avgolemono soupAs a girl, I was fascinated by avgolemono, the broad term for a creamy lemon-egg sauce we use to finish all manner of Greek dishes — from cabbage rolls to poached fish to meatballs to stuffed grape leaves. While the cabbage rolls take a close second, my favourite preparation has always been avgolemono soupa, a five-ingredient soup that belies its simplicity.

This soup is our salve for all ailments and woes; this soup is food we eat to honour and nourish our bodies.

My namesake, Yiayia Maria, makes her avgolemono in a massive and dented metal pot, starting with the whole chicken that forms the soup’s broth. She’ll extract the swollen carcass and pick the meat, showing her island upbringing, where not a shred went wasted. Into the pot of broth: the rice, then separately whisking the lemon and eggs to a frothy ordeal that thickens the soup. With care and by the ladleful, hot stock is whisked into the lemon-egg mixture, bringing it to temperature so as not to curdle.

Then, the magic: the lemon-egg mixture joins the soup pot, and with barely a turn of the whisk transforms the broth to a lemon-yellow cream that coats a spoon. Always, I watched this step with intensity and interest, amazed that a little protein and acid could turn thin broth into something entirely other. (To this day, any similar culinary slight of hand fills me with glee: bechamel sauce thickening, ouzo made cloudy by ice cubes, gelatin setting milk into panna cotta.)

That was that. The soup heaped into bowls, pulled boiled chicken at the side to add at your preference. How water, chicken, rice, lemon and eggs can be so perfect is a mystery, but one I’m willing to accept.

25311170634_bcc8dd1dec_oYiayia Maria’s Avgolemono Soup

I make Yiayia’s soup with chicken stock following my favourite Cook’s Illustrated/Smitten Kitchen method, as I love the gelatinous richness you get from slowly simmered chicken wings. Otherwise, it’s true to her traditional recipe. If you prefer lighter broth, work from a whole chicken carcass versus just wings.

I’ve provided an optional garnish of braised bitter greens for the soup, playing off the Greek tradition of horta, boiled wild greens (and one of my favourite foods). It’s decidedly not traditional, but a scoop at the bottom of your bowl is the perfect bitter-rich foil to the bright soup.

Makes 8 generous bowlfuls

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe’s worth Perfect Uncluttered Chicken Stock (you will need: 3 lbs chicken wings, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove)
  • 3/4 c short-grain white rice
  • 3 lemons, juiced and seeded
  • 4 large eggs
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Optional bitter green garnish

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 8 cups bitter greens, washed and trimmed (e.g., dandelion, chicory, spinach, kale)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Method

In a large stock pot, bring chicken stock to a rolling boil. Taste for seasoning (it should be generously salted).

Add rice to stock, stirring frequently until cooked through, about 20 minutes.

While the rice cooks, whisk together the lemon juice and eggs in a large bowl until pale yellow and frothy.

One ladleful at a time, slowly whisk hot stock from your pot into the lemon-egg mixture. The purpose here is to bring to mixture to temperature so it doesn’t curdle and cook (like scrambled eggs) when it hits the broth.

To the stock pot, add the tempered lemon-egg mixture in a gentle stream, whisking constantly. Within 60 seconds or so, your soup with turn a beautiful opaque yellow hue and start to thicken.

For the optional bitter green garnish: In a shallow pan, heat olive oil over medium and add the greens and garlic, salting well. Cover and allow to wilt, about five minutes. Finish with a swirl of olive oil.

Serve immediately, or allow to thicken further by sitting the soup at room temperature. If serving with the greens, heap a little pile at the bottom of each bowl before filling with soup.

Because of the rice leeching starch, avgolemono will continue to thicken in the fridge and leftovers will be a no-less-delicious but creamier soup. You can see this distinction in the photos included with this recipe: the lead photo has a just-made broth-y soup, whereas the second image shows a soup thickened with time.

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travelogue | champagne, france (march 2016)

Champagne France TravelogueNew to the travelogue series on Some Infinite Thing? See past travels!

From the moment I turned 29, Austin was plotting how we would welcome my 30th. I’m his elder by a year and a month, so he sets the tone for how we celebrate new decades.

One evening, he shot up in bed as we were reading and exclaimed to me: “It’s obvious!” He continued, “where else would you celebrate turning 30 than by drinking Champagne in Champagne?!” I could toast to that.

Austin set about planning a 30th birthday celebration that would start in the Champagne region of France, eventually working up to Belgium and the Netherlands over the course of 10 days in March 2016.

He snagged some cheap mid-week tickets (YYZ to CDG), which added a couple bonus days to our initial plans for a week-long trip. We boarded a Wednesday night flight and slept/movie binged through the flight, landing mid-morning.25949434130_ba3096f4ba_bKnowing our intent was to circumvent Paris (nothing against Paris — it’s one of our favourite cities — but that wasn’t the point of this trip) we caught a TGV to Reims from Charles de Gaulle. The ride took about an hour and led us into the quaint downtown station.

We checked into our Airbnb rental, a simple, well-designed little apartment right near the Reims city centre. We set out to find a late lunch, opting for tartine and moules frites along the main stretch, given the off-hours dining time. As we often do when we arrive timezones east, we headed home to rest and acclimate to the difference.

26129871452_d6799b78f9_b 25949421770_dbffd82cda_b reims france airbnbReims (pronounced “rahnse”) is the big city of the Champagne-Ardenne region of northern France, and along with neighbouring town Epernay, forms the commercial hub of the region. The region has five administrative areas for grape-growing purposes, as has been drilled into my brain from these last few years of wine school: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne. (This Wine Folly post offers a great primer on the Champagne region.)

For our first full day in Champagne, Austin booked a private tour of some of the smaller houses that required special arrangements to visit, through a company called La Vigne du Roy. For those of us used to the North American model of wine tasting (show up and taste) the by-appointment-only system in many of France’s wine regions may come as a surprise. It’s why we opted for the services of a reputable guide to help plan our itinerary.

Our guide, Katya, a St. Petersburg native who had lived in Champagne for almost two decades, met us at our apartment just after breakfast to start the day. Through the day, she switched effortlessly between perfect French, Russian, English and Italian — I’m always impressed to see a fellow polyglot in action, but especially one with a flawless command of so many languages. 26156008251_4f9b060813_b reims ponson champagne 26222304285_5a5808b814_b

We started our day by visiting a small producer, Champagne Pascal Ponson et Fils in Coulommes la Montagne, about 45 minutes from Reims. The drive through the narrow cobblestoned streets and misty vineyards on the Montagne de Reims was incredible — stripped of their vines for the winter, you could really see the age of the old and spindly plants braced into the slope.

We walked into Ponson’s bottling facility in full swing, bottles being filled and capped for second fermentation. Descending into the small cellar, we encountered two riddlers at work — hand riddling bottles on old-style pupitres (riddling desks). This was something I’d only ever read about in textbooks! Even amongst quality producers, few modern ones undertake all their riddling by hand, due to both the expense of manual labour and expertise required.

We moved up to a small tasting room where Katya poured glasses of each house variety — Prestige (Pinot Meunier dominant) with a floral, fragrant nose; Grand Reserve (1/3 of each varietal in the classic style) with a golden hue and honeyed nose; Rose Gentes Dames (Pinot Meunier dominant rose) with a long red fruit nose; and the Cuvee de Domaine (or house blend, Chardonnay dominant) with a fine bubble and structured, toasty nose.

Another difference between wine tasting in Europe and North America — they don’t spit! I’m used to having a spit cup by my side during extended tastings, but Katya was horrified at the thought. Bottoms up!

We continued to our next stop, another small producer based out of the village Ecueil called Champagne Nicolas Maillart. Though the facilities were closed to the public, Katya had full range of the cellars, production facilities and tasting room, ensuring we took our time to explore every nook.

After touring the labyrinthine cellars beneath the property, we sat down in the tasting room for a truly extraordinary tasting of all eight wines on offeras well as some special vintages on hand that she opened for us to taste comparatively. It’s not every day one gets to comparatively taste 10+ styles of a house’s Champagnes! Blissful.maillart champagne france 26129867032_e65365ae90_b 26196387856_dee8f75205_b

By this time, we needed food, so Katya dropped us at a bistro back in Reims for a lunch she had arranged. Coq au vin for Austin and dorade in beurre blanc for me — with more Champagne, of course — and petits fours for dessert.

We continued our afternoon in Reims proper — where many of the big houses are located — opting to visit Taittinger. Katya noted she preferred to visit small producers because “once you’ve had a tour with one big house, you’ve seen them all” but acknowledged it was important to visit at least one commercial-scale producer, to get a sense of the sheer volume of production. (We’d visit Mumm on our own the next day, and further understand her perspective!)

26222298415_ea575361e3_oWe lucked out at Taittinger with a fabulous guide — an expat Brit who lived and breathed Champagne and ate up our dozens of questions with aplomb. The chalk caves beneath the property were like nothing else I’ve experienced — endless, soaring and stacked dozens deep with every last vintage, many under lock and key. It delighted me to no end to place my hand on the consistently damp and chilled chalk walls of the caves, nature’s perfect temperature regulator for these special wines.26156000721_b145ce4b1a_oAfter exploring the caves, we returned to the tasting room to sample Taittinger’s Chardonnay-dominant house style. I’ve always enjoyed their house style on previous occasions, so it was fun to experience a familiar wine in place.

We returned to our apartment sated from a day of bubbles (“When again will we drink so much Champagne in one day?!” I gushed to Austin… “Tomorrow?” he replied. Touche…) for an afternoon nap.

With evening’s arrival, we dressed for dinner at a restaurant just down the street, L’Alambic, whose dining room is housed in an old Champagne cave once part of Reims’ vast networks. It was a simple little seasonal menu executed with care, which we paired with what else but more Champagne — a zero dosage style bracing with salinity.

The next morning, we again set out with a guide to explore two small Premier Cru producers based in the town of Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon is entombed. We started at a truly mom-and-pop operation, Champagne Fernand Lemaire — so small they lack a website — to tour their tiny cave and taste their wines. These were of exceptional value and perfectly suited as a food wine.25949415400_72a3e2267a_o.jpg25619644583_3928eb14e6_oFrom there, we took time to explore Hautvillers on our own by foot, notably the abbey where Dom Perignon first “tasted the stars”, as in the infamous (if fictitious) tale. Perignon is entombed at the abbey’s altar (above photo), which was something incredible to behold after reading so much about his important position in Champagne’s history and lore.25619643833_95c9e2402e_o.jpgFan-girl moment passed, we continued to JM Gobillard et Fils, which was both Austin and my favourite winery over the two days. We sat at their beautiful barrel table, sampling everything on offer. We both were blown away by a 20 euro (!) Blanc de Noirs wine that drank well beyond its price point. We still regret not shipping home several cases to have on hand for anytime-celebrations…

We retuned to Reims for an afternoon us two, starting with a big lunch at Bouillon des Halles, a brasserie recommended to us a couple times during our stay. We opted for their market menu, which was impeccably fresh and well priced — with fish, fresh pasta, house-made terrine and simple salads. There’s nothing fancy about northern French fare — it’s just thoughtful and simple — which I so adore.

Post-lunch, we digested with a long walk to the part of town where all the big houses are congregated, opting to visit Mumm as a comparison to the previous day’s Taittinger experience. It very much followed the same formula — a detailed account of the house’s history, tour of the caves and finish with a few iconic offerings in its tasting room.25619642593_d3f0efeaf9_o.jpg26129857372_f818b305ed_o.jpgWe realized at Mumm that we lucked out with our previous day’s guide, who seemed much more knowledgeable and excited by his wines. By this point, we understood Katya’s earlier point that one or two big houses is plenty. For any visitor to the region, I would suggest picking a favourite big house, then devoting the rest of your time (and money) to the endless options amongst tiny Cru and Villages producers.25949418140_69d9120f35_o.jpgThat afternoon, we ambled through the city centre, along our way gathering provisions for a picnic dinner at home — the best cheeses, meats, bread and produce we could find — coupled with a bottle of that wonderful Blanc de Noirs from Gobillard.

During our walk, we stopped off at the iconic Notre Dame de Reims with its famed stained glass windows, including Chagall’s blue glass. After watching the sun set into the cathedral’s warm facade, we retreated to our apartment for a final night in Reims before heading north to Brussels the next morning.26155995081_3826a1ba09_o.jpg25949416500_5c25281ef0_o.jpgAustin and I discussed at length on our train ride — was 2.5 days and six houses of varying size and complexity enough to experience Champagne? Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that you eventually fatigue, in two ways.

First, information fatigue. Most tours/guides assume very minimal prior knowledge of Champagne on the part of visitors, which is completely understandable. But if you’ve already studied the region, its history, production, varietals and such, it becomes tedious to hear the same entry-level information presented over and again.

Second, palate fatigue. Your tongue can only take so much bracing, acidic liquid before it stops tasting anything at all, and Champagne is as bracing and acidic as wine gets! By the second full day, I was spitting about 50% of what we consumed and even then, I was at the precipice of what I could intelligently enjoy.

No, in in terms of depth and breadth.

First, any oenophile could spend days with these small producers and still not touch the surface of Champagne’s complexity. I could see returning with a sommelier or buyer in order to visit producer after producer for tastings.

Second, we didn’t experience the breadth of the region, no doubt. With more time, I also would have visited Epernay to experience either of Moet & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot’s famous houses. There are a handful of excellent restaurants in and around Epernay that we would have tried, time permitting. Further, it would have been great to venture deeper into the distinct regions to understand their equally distinct handling of grape varietals.

All said, I return to Austin’s adage to “save something for next time.” Champagne is a special place, and one I see us returning to at all times of the year to witness the cycle of production.

Stay

We loved our reasonably-priced Airbnb rental in the heart of town

Eat

L’Alambic for simple French cooking in a beautiful setting

Bouillon des Halles for impeccable market fare (also visit the market next door!)

See/Do

Consider Katya at La Vigne du Roy for an informed, personalized tour of the region’s small Cru producers

Use a guide like Cris Event to build a tour around Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon

Visit a big house or two in Reims (TaittingerMumm, Ruinart) or Epernay (Moet & ChandonVeuve Clicquot), and ensure you make reservations in advance

See the historic Notre Dame de Reims, the seat of coronation of France’s kings

Other Resources

Step-by-step guide to building a travel itinerary

How to pack a capsule suitcase

Some tested tips for a successful Airbnb booking

Snaps from our travels on Instagram

 

vege-table

32368682265_20ba898853_o.jpgOur household is a meat-eating one.

I spent over a decade of my life as an anemic vegetarian (who by benefit of science and persistent testing finally learned my body does not readily absorb non-heme iron). In other words, I reject plant-based iron sources, like dark greens and legumes. I was saved, literally, by animal protein. I still have my blood tested regularly and don’t ever receive my “perfectly average” iron levels without a silent thanks and cheer to the doctor who figured out my omnivorous destiny.

Animal protein always will be an important part of my diet to stave off anemia, and I consume at least a little bit each day.

But sometimes our former vegetarians surface (my husband, too, was a vegetarian for a sizeable part of his 20s) and we enjoy meals built around plant-based protein. We’ve had two vegetarian dishes recently that were so excellent I’m compelled to share: a cassoulet and citrus-radicchio farro salad that were fortifying weekday meals for mid-winter’s chill.

31683641494_e66d42d0a7_o.jpgVegetarian Cassoulet

This fresher take on heady cassoulet (one of my favourite southern French dishes), inspired by this recipe, is a perfect winter meal, replete with sturdy vegetables, dark greens, mushrooms and navy beans. We served it topped with crisp fingerling potatoes in place of the traditional breadcrumb topping. We go the extra mile to soak and cook beans from scratch, because while canned is great in a pinch, you can’t beat the texture of a fresh bean when it’s the star of the show!

Feeds two for dinner, with leftovers for lunch

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 2 celery ribs, diced
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 8 ounces assorted mushrooms, quartered (we like cremini and shitake)
  • 1 head curly or lacinato kale, shredded
  • 1/2 c dry red wine (something mid-body like pinot noir or gamay)
  • 3 c navy (or other white) beans
  • 1.5 c vegetable broth
  • 1 large sprig rosemary, or several sprigs thyme
  • sea salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2c toasted walnuts (optional, to serve)

Method

In a large, shallow dutch oven, heat oil over medium. Add onion, celery, carrot and rosemary/thyme and cook about 10 minutes until vegetables are soft and translucent. Taste and season. 

Add the garlic and mushrooms and cover about five minutes until mushrooms have shrunk and released their moisture. Taste and season.

Place kale over mixture and cover again for about five minutes to wilt the greens. Taste and season.

To the mixture, add wine, beans and broth. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the beans are creamy and liquid has started to absorb.

Using a potato masher, mash a quarter of the beans to thicken the sauce, if desired.

Serve sprinkled with toasted walnuts, if desired.  We topped ours with roasted fingerling potatoes for more heft.

32368682265_20ba898853_oCitrus-Radicchio Farro Salad

Farro (spelt) is one of my favourite grains. I love its toothsome quality, deep nuttiness and ability to make a vegetarian meal feel substantial. Paired up with two winter stars: beloved blood oranges and the bitter foil of radicchio, this salad keeps getting better as it sits in Tupperware waiting for weekday lunches.

Makes 4 generous lunch portions

Ingredients

For the dressing:

  • juice of 1 medium blood orange
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup
  • generous salt and pepper, to taste
  • 5 Tbsp olive oil

For the salad:

  • 1 medium blood orange, peeled and segmented
  • 2 medium tangerines, peeled and sliced thinly crosswise
  • 1 small head radicchio, shaved
  • 2 c cooked farro
  • 1/4 c dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1/2 c parsley, finely chopped
  • 1/4 c sliced almonds, toasted

Method

To make the dressing, whisk together all ingredients except oil. Slowly add oil in a stream to emulsify.

To make the salad, toss in a large bowl all ingredients with dressing, reserving some orange slices and almonds for garnish. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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