Thursday, January 31, 2013

Go Abroad's Top Expat Bloggers

It's nice to wake up to good news, isn't it?
This morning's good news is that I have been given the assignation of 'Top Expat Blogger' by GoAbroad. They gave me that nice looking badge over there (just to the right, do you see it?) to make it official.
That's cool. Thank you GoAbroad! Thanks so much! And thank you for getting my blog's name. The best of life is in those tricky verbs.

There are nine other great bloggers on the list, Canadians in Germany, British in Australia, Americans in Spain, that you should check out. It is a great website for study abroad programs, teaching English, and everything in between; like families with three kids thrown into French speaking school and flourishing.

If you'd like to see the full story, it's here on GoAbroad's website. Travel, learn, love and grow. There's nothing like a life abroad to change your point of view. And to make you homesick for a miga, refried bean and hash brown breakfast.

You can follow on Twitter and Facebook too.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Lemon-Yogurt Cake, Revisited

The Littlest's teacher has the flu. There weren't any substitutes available so he just stayed with me. And that's okay. He's still little and has been working so very hard. When we found out yesterday morning and were on our way home after waving goodbye to the big kids, he cheered, 'I'm free!' How could I mind?

We've been keeping busy, he and I. He's been my shadow; holding my hand, pushing the miniature-sized cart at the grocery store, and spontaneously saying, 'Mommy, I love you.' like a verbal pinch. He can't believe his luck.
If I've done it, he's done it with me. We discovered a very rocky path on Clementine's morning walk that he felt was just the right amount of 'scary' and 'cool', stomped through ice crusted mud puddles ('slippery') at the lake, played at the playground (we were the only ones there), read the same French story about a bunny a million times (in French and also on the fly translated into English) and have fallen for each other like only a mommy and her Littlest can.
'Littlest, I love you.'

Today, we also made lemon yogurt cake. It is the same lemon yogurt cake we made together two years ago.

Turns out the Littlest and I like lemon yogurt cake in January. This time we made it with blueberry yogurt rather than the passion fruit of the recipe back then. We did the rest the same, although he was able to hold the electric mixer on his own this time around. He's grown.

If you've got someone at home with you who likes to make cake or if you just feel like a little sunshine lemon in the middle of winter, may I suggest, lemon yogurt cake.

Lemon (Blueberry)Yogurt Cake

Butter a bundt pan.
Pre-heat oven to 350F/180C.

1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup each, natural Greek yogurt and blueberry yogurt (2 cups yogurt total)
3 teaspoons lemon zest
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups all purpose flour

Mix the vegetable oil, melted butter and sugar with an electric mixer until well blended.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between each addition.
Add the yogurt and blend well. Add lemon zest, juice, and vanilla extract.

Mix dry ingredients and then add to the yummy lemony yogurt mixture. Blend very well.
Pour into a greased non-stick bundt pan, wiping any excess off the sides.
Put into the pre-heated oven and cook for 50-60 minutes.

If the top appears to be getting too brown but the inside is too moist, turn the heat down to 325.

Allow to cool completely and then turn onto a serving platter or cake stand. (This is important and was not heeded by me this time. I'm terrible for reading directions. Even my own!)

With the blueberry yogurt added in it tastes like the best blueberry muffin you've ever had. So, so yummy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Beef Shanks with Garlic and Fresh Thyme

I've always thought that the ritual of preparing, cooking and eating food is similar to the rituals I was taught as a young girl in the Episcopal church. I learned how to kneel, what words to whisper, how to let the unleavened cracker melt on my tongue, hands crossed just so, before sipping the wine. This was communion. And I performed it under the watchful eye of my Grandmother. Afterwards, we would go to the parish hall, joyful and renewed. My sister and I would eat cake and drink sugary juice while the grown-ups drank black coffee drained from the spigots of grand, silver urns. All the while knowing the lunch was back at home in the oven, waiting.

When I cook something like beef stew or braised shanks, I think of those Sunday afternoons and ritual.

Today I performed it in my kitchen. I put on my apron, gathered the few, delicious and perfect ingredients--garlic, fresh thyme picked on our walks through the Garrigue and organic beef stock--and let the meat rest outside the refrigerator to allow it to come to room temperature before salting and peppering each thick, meaty side. Clementine stayed close by, watching and waiting, hoping for a bit of goodness to come her way. 'Not now, sweet girl.' I said. 'Later, after the kids have spooned the rich marrow from the bone, you can have the rest.'

I browned the beautiful meaty rounds, marbled with slivers of white fat, on the stove in olive oil, two minutes on each side and then I removed them, crusted and darkened from the pan to wait while I sauteed wafers of garlic and tiny petals of thyme. Then I added the beef stock and scraped up all the goodness that was stuck on the bottom of the pan from the browning of the meat. P-Daddy came upstairs about then, drawn by the smell  of beef, garlic and thyme from his home office and joined Clementine. 'That smells so good! What is it? What are you doing now?!'

I shooed him away, along with the gurley and put the browned meat back into the pot with the rest. Three simple things; garlic, thyme and stock.
Then I laid some parchment paper right on top of the meat and covered the pot with foil before putting the lid on and putting the whole thing in a warm oven to cook.

After a few hours, the garlic will have gone all soft and sweet, the meat will fall apart with spoons and the bone marrow inside will be sticky and rich. We will fight over those later.

Now the house smells divine and I can enjoy the glorious smell while I sit in my little chair and type, forever trying to make the story better.

To me, the best meals evoke reverence. Eyes closed, appreciative murmurs, ritual played out again and again over dining tables of all shapes and sizes, indoors and out, season after season folding one into the next. People carry out this ritual in France every day. It’s not a stretch to say that to some, food is a religion.

I am enjoying my tiny piece of cake and cup of tea with joyful anticipation. I'm patient, knowing that a delicious dinner is in the oven, waiting.
Beef Shanks with Garlic and Fresh Thyme

2 or 3 beef shanks with bones
one head of garlic
a few sprigs of fresh thyme 
olive oil

Pre-heat your oven to 350F/180C.

Pat dry, salt and pepper your room temperature beef shanks.

Heat a small amount of olive oil in an oven-proof pan until quite hot.

Peel and slice half of the head of garlic.
Crush and peel the rest, leaving whole.
Remove two sprigs' worth of leaves from the thyme and leave the rest intact.

Brown the meat one piece at a time, 2-3 minutes per side in the warmed olive oil.

Remove to a plate and turn down the temperature before adding the sliced garlic and thyme leaves to the pan. You may need a tiny bit more olive oil here, you will be able to tell.

Scrape up any bits of meat stuck to the bottom and be careful not to let the garlic brown. 

Pour in the beef stock, preferably warmed, over the garlic and thyme and continue to scrape the bottom of the pan. Don't let any of the good meaty bits left there go to waste.

Return the browned meat to the pan. Add the peeled and smashed remaining cloves of garlic and sprigs of thyme. 
Cover all of it over, down low in the pot, with parchment or baking paper. Then add a layer of  foil at the top of the pan before putting on the lid if you have one. 

Put it in the oven and leave to cook for at least two hours. After that time, lower the temperature a bit more and leave it for even longer if you like.The longer it stays there, the more tender it will become.

Serve with mashed potatoes or potato gratin and green beans.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pink Fizz

I made up a cocktail. It's tasty.

At first I didn't have a name for it and thought I would leave it to you to give it one. And then I had the Bons Amies over for dinner on Friday night and made it for them. And they loved it.

We played a tasting game with it where they tried to determine what was inside and La Bonne Amie got two out of three ingredients, no problem. Then I asked them what they thought of some names I'd thought of for it, Pomegranate Papillion, Bubbly Grenade, Fizzy Swizzy. They offered a couple of their own, Martini Rose, Grenade Martini. But none hit the mark like Pink Fizz. And so it was.

We had more than one, some of us more than even two. (Monsieur Bon Ami, I'm looking at you!) My invention turned out to be a hit. For the rest of the night we all kept shouting, 'Pink Fizz!' It was fun.

I thought you'd like to try it too.  Here's the recette.

Pink Fizz makes one cocktail so alter your glugs accordingly if you want to make a bigger batch. If glugs make you nervous, use a shot glass. The result will be the same.

2 glugs (count to two as you pour) Martini Bianco 
1 glug pomegranate juice, not nectar, not grenadine, but the juice
2-3 glugs of Champagne on top, or Cava or Prosecco, as you wish

Mix and serve.
It's the perfect resolution cocktail thanks to the healthy, choc-full of anti-oxidant pomegranate juice, plus it's not too sweet. Lo cal, if you like.

You could go super fizzy fanciful and tap some pomegranate seeds over the top or even rim the glass with pink sugar before pouring. It's up to you.

One word about the Martini Bianco for the Americans out there who (like me) used to only think of it as 'vermouth', a dash of something at the bottom of a vodka or gin martini glass and never as an aperitif in its own right. It's delicious; a bit bitter with a hint of vanilla, slightly herby. It is the Southern European woman's go-to cocktail, all by itself over ice.

Enjoy some Pink Fizz. Bon Santé!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Meilleurs Voeux

Well, hello there 2013! How did you sneak up on me like that?

How could it be time to say goodbye to 2012?
I loved the past year. It made me joyous, fulfilled, challenged and energized in so many ways. I feel like I learned so much and pushed myself further than ever before, happy to dig deep to find more of myself than in years past.

Today's post is a collection of a few of my favorite moments of 2012.
Thank you for sharing them with me. I can't tell you how much it means to have met so many great and interesting people through this blog; some virtual and some actually in real live person. Knowing that I'm not alone here in the South of France has made this life abroad a much richer and far less lonely experience.

January's christening of my beloved Mon Mari as P-Daddy and his very charming moment on the TGV to Paris.

February, Ma Fille's birthday and its bright sunshine. I am never more grateful for its warmth than in the middle of winter.

March and its travels near and far; Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the Millau Bridge, one of my and P-Daddy's favorite spots from our honeymoon in Provence, Les Baux de Provence, revisited with the kids, and my trip to Venice with the Besties.

April's birthday celebration mixed with Easter at the Pont du Gard and the most bizarre carousel you've ever seen. And Ma Fille's recitation of a beautiful French poem that inspired a large part of a novel I finally managed to finish.

May is the month we celebrate our anniversary and last year was 14. It was also when we filmed our episode of House Hunters International which was a definite highlight of our year. Clementine's birthday and the rapid morphing of a clumsy puppy into a prancing, vivacious adolescent.

June is summer and if you've been with me for awhile you know how much I love it. There is no better season and no better sight than when the beach restaurants begin to pop up, magically appearing on the sand for yet another warm, sunshiney season. Heaven. 

In July we were thrilled to experience the Tour de France firsthand. They passed right by our city and we watched from the shade of a plane tree as they whizzed by, gears clicking, impossibly tiny tires carrying impossibly fit men, leaning into the curve in the road, so close we could feel the rush of air as they sped by and were gone. We also spent a wonderful week with Bestie A and her family in Barcelona; a definite highlight tucked into the middle of my year.

The Littlest and I celebrate our birthdays in August and this year one of my presents was meeting Heather from Lost in Arles. We also celebrated by cycling the Canal du Midi and as you know it took some perseverance and tenacity, plus a whole lotta rubber.

September and its back to school business, new shoes and jeans, signing up for activities and getting back in the swing of things is always a good time to get things done. It reminds me of the new year in a way and I always love the sense of anticipation every new school year brings. Oh, yeah, and you guys got to see our episode of the show. I hope you liked it!

P-Daddy turned Farty-Far in October and I had a wonderful time getting some 10+ fellow bloggers together for lunch here in Montpellier. It was a wonderful day and I was so happy to meet so many of you.

November is Thanksgiving, beautiful foliage, fresh air and here in France, Les Vacances Toussaint. We spent a wonderful week in the Loire Valley visiting chateaux, two of which I still have to share with you, and also paid our respects at the American Cemetery in Normandy.

And December, well, it is so many things: Père Noël, decorated trees, foie gras, roast chapon, Christmas carols now in two languages, wishes, sweet dreams, infinite gratitude for a full, healthy life and wrapping up an entire year filled with so many wonderful things; joy, hope, inspiration and change. Always, change.

Here's to your 2013! I wish you the best. Meilleurs Voeux toujours!