Friday, January 20, 2012

This is not my Kalifornia Kitchen!

As many of you know, I’m a food-lover (obviously) – be it dining out or eating home-cooked meals. I try to cook during the week for myself and the girls, leaving the weekend free for trying a new restaurant or returning to an old favorite. I’m also a meal-planner – much to the amusement of many of my friends. I created a recipe database back in 1991 to hold all the random torn-out recipes that were beginning to overrun my life, and in my database are recipes from magazines, the Internet, cookbooks, friends, etc. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a recipe collector. And much to the chagrin of my family, whenever I cook, I like to try one of those new recipes. There are a few favorites that I may make if requested, but usually I’m trying something new. Not necessarily a good thing when guests are over and it doesn’t quite work out! Whatever, you can always order pizza…(even here - we have Web Pizza. Haven't tried it yet)

Here in France, I’m currently without any of my cookbooks (most went into storage, some are coming in our sea shipment), but I do have my database thank goodness. It’s harder to use without a printer as I can’t print out the recipes, but it still helps me get the kids & I fed during the week. I try to sit down at some point during the week, come up with 4-5 recipes to make, create the grocery list and then be ready to go shopping. Sometimes I make all the recipes I planned, sometimes I don’t. If a better offer comes up, you bet I’ll hightail it out of the kitchen. People tell me I’m a good cook, but I refute that statement. I think I’m a good recipe selector – not a good cook. A good cook to me is someone who can open their cupboards, see what’s in there, and just whip up something delicious – their own creation. I have to follow a recipe – I need the exact directions. Thus the recipe database.

In addition to the grocery troubles I knew I would encounter here in France (I’m a big California, Asian & Mexican food cook – I like it spicy!), the bigger problems I’m having are located in the kitchen. Or actually what is NOT located in the kitchen. Counter space. Storage space. Appliances. Measuring cups. Measuring spoons. Cutting boards. The supply from the rental company has left much to be desired. It has been a challenge for me to not have my normal tools at my disposal. Many will come when our shipment arrives (have I told you how much I can’t wait for our sea shipment to arrive?), but some I am just dealing without.

The lack of counter space is killing me – we had so much nice counter space at home (even more with the remodel that I barely got to enjoy!). I often stand in the middle of the kitchen, hot pan in hand, turning in circles wishing an open space would magically appear in front of me. Nope – nowhere to put things… Once my things get here I’ll be happy to have them, but it’s going to be tough as I have no idea where I am going to put them! This kitchen is tiny! 
 Since microwave takes up 1 side, really only have 1 side of counter space
 No room around the dishes drying & the place to put dirty dishes

One saving grace was the carbon knives I won at my Wine Club Dice Game party at Christmas. They were light & easy to pack, and are so nice and sharp. I would not have survived with the lame knife (yes, just 1 knife) that the rental company gave me. And since they only gave us 6 plates, 6 glasses, etc., I have to hand wash our dishes every time I cook. That’s the breakfast dishes, the lunch prep dishes (the girls bring their lunches to school every day & it’s always something hot I have to cook up and usually different for each of them), the lunch Tupperware things, the dinner dishes, snack dishes, dessert dishes – you name it, I wash it. Every single day – all day long.

As for things that ARE in my kitchen, I’m trying to get used to them. I’m trying to learn to love my cooktop/oven, but it’s been hard so far. The cooktop is an electric one with 3 induction burners. The induction part is great as it means things heat up quickly, but boy do I miss my gas burners and the fact that I had 6 of them! And an indoor grill! Man, my stove at home is awesome. And the oven is so confusing – it’s too smart for me, I can’t figure out how to use it. It’s a multifunction electric oven and comes with it’s own cooking chart. There is Fan heating, Grill, Turbo-grill, Conventional, Combination cooking, and all with varying assigned temps. Then there’s the Celsius/Fahrenheit changes I’m trying to figure out. Can’t I just have an “on” button with a temperature dial?
 My cooktop with 3 different sized "burners"
 the buttons on the right are all the different cooking choices

The microwave seemed extra confusing at first also. Then we bought items that needed microwaving and realized that it actually works well. The items give microwave instructions in terms of wattage and time. So we’ve been able to figure that one out. You put the lower dial on the correct wattage, then turn the upper dial until the appropriate length of cooking time appears. Easy…

The fridge is typical Euro small, though better than other ones I’ve seen. Fridge on top, freezer on bottom. In addition to the fridge in the kitchen, there is a whole freezer down in the basement. I couldn’t figure out why so many of the homes we saw had extra freezers, or that the rental agent was eager to point out how there was room for an extra freezer. Then I discovered the secret – Picards. Believe it or not, France has a whole store devoted to frozen foods. And they are good! I mean good. Many people here stock up on items from Picards and just serve that to their families. Yes, even the French. Trust the French to make good frozen foods. The kids basically live on Picard stuff for their lunches. As we all say here in France, “thank goodness for Picards”! Since we have one right around the corner, it makes it very convenient and easy. Though I am proud of myself for not relying on it too much for actual dinners. Many of the wives at ASP are used to their husbands coming home and asking “what did Picard make for dinner tonight?”

In case you still read this blog looking for recipes, here are some I have attempted in my French kitchen. Hopefully your versions will turn out better than mine!

Tortellini Florentine Soup (we all liked this though I noticed the girls avoided the spinach)
1 9-oz. pkg.  refrigerated 3-cheese tortellini
2 14-oz. cans  reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 10-oz. container  refrigerated light Alfredo pasta sauce (no Alfredo here in France – used a 3-cheese sauce)
2 cups  shredded deli-roasted chicken (they have wonderful roasted chicken here, but I just oven-roasted my own)
1/2 cup  oil-packed dried tomato strips, drained
3 cups  lightly packed packaged fresh baby spinach
1 oz.  Parmesan cheese, shaved or shredded (optional)

1. In 4-quart Dutch oven cook tortellini according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
2. In the same Dutch oven combine broth and Alfredo sauce. Stir in chicken and tomato strips. Heat just to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
3. Add cooked tortellini and spinach to chicken mixture. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes to heat through and wilt spinach. To serve, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes 6 servings.

Serves 6
Source: Better Homes & Garden

 Chicken with Onion and Pepper (girls ate without onion and pepper. Chicken actually got marinated for 2 days as we joined some friends at a local crepe place for dinner instead of making this when scheduled)
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce (found this at the giant Super U in Vaucresson that has more International stuff. Seems thicker than the stuff I use at home)
2 Tbs. honey
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. hot sauce
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
4 (4-oz) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1 green bell pepper, quartered
1 large sweet or red onion, cut into 4 (1/2-inch-thick) slices
Cooking spray (don’t have this here so used olive oil)

1. Combine first 5 ingredients; pour half of mixture over chicken. Cover and marinate 10 minutes. Set aside remaining soy sauce mixture.
2. Place chicken, pepper, and onion on grill rack coated with cooking spray. Cover and grill chicken 5 to 6 minutes on each side or until done, basting with reserved soy sauce mixture. Remove chicken, and grill vegetables 2 additional minutes or until desired tenderness, basting with reserved soy sauce mixture.

Serves 4
Source: Cooking Light’s Light and Easy Menus
WW pts+=5, calories=226, fat=3.5g, sat fat=0.9g, protein=27.7g, carbs=17.6g, fiber=2g, chol=72mg, sodium=849mg. Exchanges: 1 Startch, 1 Vegetable 3 Very Lean Meat.

Steak Tips with Peppered Mushroom Gravy
2  cups  uncooked egg noodles
Cooking spray (used olive oil)
1  pound  top sirloin steak, cut into 3/4-inch pieces (I’ve got to find a new steak to buy – this one turns out too tough and chewy…gotta bone up on my French cuts of beef)
1  tablespoon  butter
2  tablespoons  finely chopped shallots
1  (8-ounce) package presliced baby bella mushrooms (I used regular mushrooms)
1  teaspoon  minced garlic
1  tablespoon  low-sodium soy sauce
3  tablespoons  all-purpose flour
1 1/2  cups  fat-free, less-sodium beef broth (no canned broths here – have to use bouillon)
1/2  teaspoon  black pepper
1/4  teaspoon  salt
3  fresh thyme sprigs (just used dried)
1  teaspoon  fresh thyme leaves (optional)

1. Cook noodles according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain.
2. While noodles cook, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add steak; sauté 5 minutes, browning on all sides. Remove from pan; cover.
3. Melt butter in pan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and mushrooms; sauté 4 minutes. Add garlic; sauté 30 seconds. Stir in soy sauce. Sprinkle flour over mushroom mixture; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add broth, stirring constantly. Add pepper, salt, and thyme sprigs. Bring to a boil; cook 2 minutes or until thickened. Return beef to pan; cook 1 minute or until thoroughly heated. Discard thyme sprigs. Garnish with thyme leaves, if desired.
Kitchen Notes
Briefly cooking the gravy with thyme sprigs saves the time of stripping the tiny leaves from the stem, but still gives you the herb's woodsy flavor.

Serves 4
Source: Cooking Light Magazine
per 3/4 cup beef mixture and 2/3 cup noodles: WW pts+=9, Calories: 344, Fat: 12.5g (sat 5.3g,mono 4.2g,poly 1.2g), Protein: 27.3g, Carbohydrate: 28.7g, Fiber: 1.7g, Cholesterol: 95mg, Iron: 4.3mg, Sodium: 538mg, Calcium: 28mg

Quick Coq au Vin (I shouldn’t even really post this one as I had taken ground beef out of the freezer instead of chicken so had to use that! But the sauce still tasted good, and I can imagine what it would have been like if I had done it correctly)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 (4-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 cups quartered cremini mushrooms
2 cups (1/4-inch-thick) slices carrot
1/3 cup (1/4-inch-thick) slices Canadian bacon
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste

1. Combine flour, thyme, and salt in a zip-top plastic bag; add chicken. Seal and shake to coat. Remove chicken from bag, shaking off excess flour.
2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken; cook 8 minutes or until browned, turning frequently. Remove chicken from pan.
3. Add mushrooms, carrot, and bacon to pan; sauté 2 minutes. Stir in wine, broth, and tomato paste; cook 9 minutes. Return chicken to pan; cook 8 minutes or until chicken is done.

Serves 6
Source: Cooking Light Magazine
per 1 1/4 cups: WW pts+=6,   Calories: 230, Fat: 7.8g, Saturated fat: 1.7g, Monounsaturated fat: 3.4g, Polyunsaturated fat: 1.5g, Protein: 27.3g, Carbohydrate: 12.5g, Fiber: 2.4g, Cholesterol: 99mg, Iron: 3.1mg, Sodium: 527mg, Calcium: 35mg

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wish List

Yes, I know we've only been here less than 3 weeks, but we already have a wish list growing. If anyone gets inspired to send care packages, here are the items we can't find (& miss) here:

  • Pam cooking spray
  • Snyder's Pretzel Nuggets: Buffalo Wing flavor (hard to find at home too!)
  • Cheeto's Puffs (not the crunchy kind)
  • Aidell's Chicken-Apple Sausage (I think that will require smuggling in luggage)
  • Lawry's taco seasoning mix (only Lawry's)
  • Drink mix to add to water like Crystal Light peach tea, lemonade, etc.
  • Cans of creamed corn
  • Original goldfish
  • Swirl Jolly Ranchers
  • Gum
  • Cheeze-Its
  • Wheat thins
  • Pirate Booty
  • Lipton Onion Soup Mix
  • Cereal - Cheerios, Trix, Lucky Charms
  • Cake & brownie mixes
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Caribbean jerk marinade - any spicy marinades
I'm sure more will be coming!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Road Warrior

With S heading back to the Netherlands, I needed to bite the bullet and start driving in France. S had been doing all the driving for the past week, but it was my turn. We usually never drive when on vacation in different places – we like to rely on planes, trains, subways, taxis and mostly walking. But that won’t work here in the French suburbs living a normal life, so it was time for me to step up. I’m a bit of a back-seat driver, so I had been paying lots of attention to everything around me so it wasn’t totally unknown. My first trips were just to school and back – a pretty easy drive. The key differences that I have to constantly remind myself of are that there is no turn on a red light, and that cars on the right have the right-of-way – even when you are in the middle of a roundabout! Sometimes you have to stop in the middle of the roundabout to let the cars on the right enter. (There are exceptions to his of course, I’m slowly learning) Drivers here love to tailgate, pile up next to each other when waiting to turn – it reminds me how people don’t like to queue  - same thing with cars. I’m constantly hearing in my head “thees ees a race, I hope I ween” when driving as you have to be pretty aggressive to survive.

The cars here are very small for the most part. Which is a necessity as the parking spots are tiny, some of the streets are very narrow, and you have to squeeze yourself around other vehicles! 
This is a tiny street we drive down to get to our house

Our rental car is a Renault Clio with 4 doors and a hatchback. We have to find a car to buy, and I want to make sure it is another small one. Problem is trying to find one to buy with our limited French skills. I would like a used one that isn’t too old and in pretty good condition so I don’t have to worry about it breaking down. The gas mileage the cars get is incredible – which is good with the price of gas here (about 1.50 euros per liter = 6.8 euros per gallon = $8.70 per gallon).
 Notice how narrow our driveway is - rocks on one side, shrubs on the other.

Getting around in France REQUIRES a good GPS – and I mean a good one. One that gives you all the details on the roundabouts, freeway exits, etc. I would be lost without the one in our car. This week we are letting Ken from Australia guide us around – we like to change up the accent (& guide) often. Being an American, I am a true idiot when it comes to the metric system, but it sure feels fun when I’m driving 110 on the expressway! Never mind that that’s kilometers per hour, let me have my fun…

It’s also fun trying to learn all the street signs – some of them are easy to understand (why does a Stop sign in France say “Stop”?), while others are more difficult.
This doesn't mean no Ouilly le Vicomte - it means you are leaving the village of Ouilly le Vicomte
What does this one mean?

I’m looking forward to showing off my aggressive, tight-squeeze driving skills when the first visitor comes. Hopefully I've learned what all the signs mean by then!


Friday, January 6, 2012

Nice to meet you (again) France!

We were lucky on our flight to France as we got to have Premium Voyageur seats on Air France since there were no regular Voyageur (Economy) seats available when we bought our tickets - oh darn! These seats were much nicer - they were in their own section of the plane with nicer screens, more room, etc. A much nicer way to fly. In fact we were able to actually sleep on the flight. Now whether that was due to the nicer seats or the fact that we were all completely exhausted, who knows. But at least we would arrive in France slightly rested.

It’s always amazing to me how easy immigration and customs are in France. At immigration they just open your passport & stamp without asking a single question - then you’re off to collect your luggage. So R and I headed to grab all the suitcases, while S & C went to wait for the animals. She & I grabbed 3 carts and piled them high with luggage. I was able to push 2 carts at the same time side by side so we were able to easily make our way to the oversize luggage area just in time to see all the animals come out! They seemed none too worse for the wear though Zoe was a bit anxious. We were really worried that they would have pooped or thrown up in their crates and had packed some towels and stuff just in case, but all was good - and clean.

Of course because we were so prepared with all our documents, not a single person stopped to check our luggage or the animals. 6 police officers were standing right at the doors leaving the baggage claim area, but nobody asked us a thing – even with our 5 carts, 7 suitcases, 6 carry-ons, 2 dogs & crates and 1 cat & crate. One even helped C push a cart through the baggage claim doors, but didn’t ask for any papers. I guess it was good to be prepared, but a bit annoying that we had spent so much time & effort for nothing. Though you know if we hadn't, that's when we would have been stopped.

Right outside the doors I was very relieved to see a man holding a sign with our name on it. We had 2 drivers and 2 vans there to meet us. Once again we divvied up, loaded up the vans and took off. They drove us to the hotel where we were staying for 2 nights in Versailles – right down the street from the castle. It was a nice hotel, no problems with all the animals and they even stored the crates for us. We were so tired that first night that we just ordered room service and crashed. 
Not our new house

The next day we all had a good breakfast at the hotel and then S & I went to meet the rental agents & bailiff at our house. The bailiff was to go through the whole house and take good notes on the condition of everything so that they can compare conditions when we move out. It was weird to see the house again as we had really only seen it for about ½ an hour back in November. It seemed a lot smaller than we remembered, and the walls really needed some painting. They had originally offered to do the painting but we had said no that it didn’t need it, but now we changed our minds. With all their artwork and pictures off the walls, it looked pretty bad. It is an old house with all the quirky characteristics that go with an old European house, but parts of it have been updated as well. It still seemed like a good house for us – especially compared to all the crap that we had seen before. 
Our new house

The rental furniture was due to be delivered at 2:00 that day, but the guys were already there (4 hours early) when we arrived in the morning – much better than being late. As soon as the bailiff was done, the furniture guys moved everything in. And funny enough, the house looked bigger with furniture in it. Not sure how that works! While the furniture was being moved in I sent S to go pick up R&C from the hotel because we needed C to be sure which bedroom she really wanted so her furniture could be set up. We were so worried about them seeing the house since they had not liked or wanted it when we were here before. I was watching out the front window when they arrived and the first thing they did was run up the driveway and go over to the rope swing on the tree and start swinging. I knew then it would be ok. After they had explored a bit they told me that it was better than they thought & it seemed like it would work. I was so relieved to hear that.

Even though all our furniture was in, we all agreed that the girls & I would stay the 2nd night in Versailles at the hotel as planned, but S and the dogs would stay at the house. Even though we had 2 adjoining rooms at the hotel, it still wasn’t much room for 4 people, 2 dogs and a cat. We thought the animals would be much more comfortable at the house. The girls just wanted to stay in again, but S and I wanted to go out and get a drink and some dinner. After a glass of good red wine at the hotel bar, we wandered off to find a place that we had seen that looked like an Irish pub. And indeed it was. We bellied up to the bar and used our limited French to order deux Guinnesses. Yum! While it seemed like a great pub with rugby on the tellie, and Guinness on tap, there was no food served there – and we were hungry. So we left after only 1 beer to find some food. It was 10:00 at night and even though they eat later in France, many places were closed. We found a cute street with several restaurants and walked down until we found one that appealed to us. For some reason Indian sounded good so that’s what we went for. It was a tiny restaurant, but the chicken tikka masala was good and the people running the restaurant were friendly. All in all a good day and a good night. S dropped me back off at the hotel and then he drove back to Sèvres for his first night in our “new” house.
 Cheers to you France!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nous sommes arrivés en France!

We made it!

Happy Holidays mes amis. We are now officially living in France! We still can’t believe that we aren’t just here on vacation. We also finally got Internet so I can start putting some posts up.

We were busy up until departure with the preparations to leave and trying to fit in as much social time with friends and family as we could. After the packing/moving was done, we could focus on getting all our documentation in order, getting the dogs & cat ready, trying to clean out the house, packing our suitcases and trying to slip in some fun.

The animals needed to visit their vet for an exam & for paperwork, and then visit the USDA vet for sign-off that they were good to go for international travel. It was tough to figure out exactly what was required for bringing them to France with us, but S was able to find some good websites full of information that we followed. You would think the airlines would have information on shipping pets to France, but no. And every time we called Air France to check, they wouldn’t have the information correct – that we were taking 2 dogs & 1 cat with us on the plane in the special cargo area. So we had to keep calling & trying to get them to update their records. We were up late the night before departure getting their crates all assembled, labeled, making sure the documentation required was attached, etc.

We went down to Southern California to spend some time with my family over Christmas. We went out with friends every night beforehand trying to see as many people as we could. Even though it took away from packing and cleaning, it was good to see everyone. Being down at my parents was especially nice as it forced us to take a break. We could still work on emails and documents, but we enjoyed some downtime just hanging with my family, seeing some friends in So Cal, and even doing some Christmas shopping.

We drove back up to Bgame on 12/26, leaving really early. We got home around noon, and started gathering all our suitcases and clothing, etc. to put in the empty dining room as our staging area. We also worked on getting the house set up for our annual Dice Game. Yup, I’m still crazy. We hosted 10 people at our house for dinner and our Christmas Dice Game. Everyone brought food so we didn’t have to cook, but we did need to get set up & find seating for that many people. Thank goodness for neighbors with extra chairs! We had a great time with everyone and continued with our packing after everyone left. S was up all night getting the house in order, packing, etc. There was a pile of stuff we couldn’t fit in our luggage – even after borrowing a suitcase from our neighbor G! So that stuff will be mailed to us. I don’t even want to know what that’s going to cost! Some of the Christmas presents the girls got were heavy and in big boxes. Oh well…It took ages, but luckily we were out the door right on time at 1:00 to head to the airport on the 27th.

We put the dog crates in G’s El Camino, had the dogs get in the crates, & added some luggage.. We packed the back of our LandCruiser full of suitcases, and put the cat crate in with R&C in the middle seats. I rode with G, and we had our friend C come with us to drive the LandCruiser back from the airport. When we arrived at SFO, we got 5 luggage carts, and managed to load everything onto those, which meant we only had 1 extra cart. That was totally manageable. We got to the airport check in counter without any major mishaps. But then we realized one big one – with all the craziness of trying to get packed up and out the door on time, we forgot one critical traveling task. We forgot to check on the flight schedule! Turns out our flight was canceled and the next one was in 3 hours! Poor dogs! So we found out where the closest area was where we could let them out of their crates to go to the bathroom and hang out a bit. (Thank goodness for that area at the airport!) We had bought a harness for SC the cat, and we even let him out to walk around a bit. We all hung out there for awhile, then the girls & I went back into the terminal to get some lunch. When we got back it was time to get the animals to the oversize luggage drop-off and for us to head through security. It was so hard to say goodbye to them and watch them be wheeled away, hoping someone would take good care of them. After going through security, S stopped and had something to eat & then we were off to our gate.

When we were on the plane taxiing away from the gate, words kept flashing in my head: “I can’t believe we’re doing this. I can’t believe we’re doing this”. It still seemed so crazy that we were moving to France. I felt the same as when I’m heading up the hill at the beginning of a very large rollercoaster wondering why the heck I said yes to the ride. Let the craziness begin!