Category: Home


The main course of our French feast à la the Smythe-Subers

Time and money are scarce in our household right now. Oh, we have plenty of money to buy groceries, heat our house, pay the bills. We are surely blessed. But there’s not a lot of excess. We’re not scheduling any jet-setting to Paris in the near future.

Shannon works her magic

So, you can imagine our excitement when we were invited over to our friends’ house in Trenton, New Jersey to experience a homemade meal. My friend Shannon is an excellent cook … always. But she was trying out recipes from a new cookbook (which is now on my Christmas wish list, by the way). It’s Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan.

I’d heard an interview about the cookbook on NPR, which had already piqued my curiosity. And Shannon had thoroughly planned our menu–planning is one of Shannon’s specialties–course by course.

(I just noticed that there are several recipes available on NPR’s website, if you’d like to try them out: we had this, but this cake is different than the one we devoured.)

We also got to visit their new third-floor apartment in a huge, old house in Trenton. They’d done a great job working with the space. (We’d last seen it filled with boxes on their rainy move-in day.) Their decor, along with the unique molding over the doors and the lovely wood floors, only added to the appeal of the whole dinner.

We started with drinks and homemade cheese crackers. Delicious.

Just look at this set up:

Salad, crackers, lentils

Next came a salad. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe there were mixed greens, a vinaigrette, goat cheese, and roasted beets (yum!). I loved the salad. How can you go wrong with beets and goat cheese? I wager that you can’t.

The heart-shaped cracker accompanies the salad

We had a soup course, too, which was deliciously warm and rich. I think it was cauliflower. My recollection is imprecise. I think I had a haze of food-joy going on! Aren’t the table linens great, too? 🙂

Soup and salad

Look at that! Was the soup garnished with bacon? I think so. No wonder I blissed out.

Shannon served lentils with the stuffed pumpkin dish. The pumpkin was rich, but you felt justified in downing massive amounts of cheese because the pumpkin was a healthy, piping hot medium for the cheese.

The main course itself, pumpkin and lentils

I was so glad I had a backstage pass, though, because the pumpkin was cool to see fresh from the oven. It actually deflated a little bit after sitting out, but rest assured: the deliciousness was unabated.

The cooked, stuffed pumpkin, fresh from the oven

Did I mention that we were entertained all the while by THIS character?

Next came the cheese course. I felt transported back to my only trip to Paris back in 2001. I was in college and had never before heard of a cheese course. Ahh, but I learned quickly to appreciate it.

Shannon picked these cheeses out at the Trenton Farmer's Market. It is a treasure. And each cheese was so distinctively good.

I can't believe this is the best picture I got of the cake! It was sooo delicious!

Finally, we had the dessert course and coffee. Can you believe we still had room? The dessert was a delicious apple cake. It was rustic and so French. I can’t quite explain why. It reminded me of something you’d buy in a French bakery. (Or a German bakery, like many I’ve been to, that has many, many French items.) You’d cherish its moist density, alternating bites and swigs of dark, bitter coffee. Shannon served the cake with vanilla ice cream from Halo Farm (another Trenton treasure).

The dinner was delicious. The company was wonderful and fun. The dog was adorable (I’ll close with a picture of him). And I was reminded that my mouth and senses can travel a long way … without booking a plane ticket. A fabulous cookbook, a well-selected menu, and an adventurous (and skilled, in Shannon’s case) cook can really transport you to another world! I know that the menu was a splurge. But the cost pales in comparison to a trip to France. And although we definitely hope to visit there (among a host of other places), this tastebud-trip was wonderful in and of itself.

Cooking at home isn’t a consolation prize, it makes travel a real, thoroughgoing lifestyle. It’s even more fun to share the food journey with friends. Weren’t we lucky? I loved this meal. Merci, Shannon and Kevin. C’est magnifique!

Linus dressed for dinner. Dapper gent!

Advertisements

Okay. I know that you, whomever you are who may read this beyond some of my friends and family, probably don’t want to read the innerworkings of my brain. You want to see food and read about food. Understandable!

WELL, SKIP OVER THIS:

I thought I was missing German food. And I was, in a way. Okay, I’ll admit it: When I tasted my Wurst, my eyes might have rolled back in my head a little bit. When I tried my German potato salad, I may have had to tone down my shriek of “Oh! This tastes just like the Kartoffelsalat I had at the Schwarzwaldstuben!” But I think, honestly, what I was and am missing is my time in Germany. I was there (alone, not counting when Charlie came to visit at the end) for two months last summer and it was a total learning experience of the grandest sort.

Me in front of Berlin's Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

There are lots of things I don’t miss:

1) Being away from Charlie.

2) Being away from Charlie.

3)      “          “         “          “     [repeat]

29) No free refills on drinks and having to buy water at restaurants.

30) Meeting no one who understands what on earth I do professionally.

But I suspect I miss the adventurous feeling, wherein every day held something new. I miss speaking German out of necessity, not just as a novelty. I love that language. I miss the strange array of people, architecture, and foods that make Berlin such an amazing global city. I miss having a singular focus into which all of my activities (leisure, classroom, study, sight-seeing) fit in some aspect: learning German. I miss the amazingly comprehensive public transportation.

Adventures like that most likely live on as a golden-hued chapter in our memories precisely because they are short-lived. My scholarship didn’t go on forever. I am a wife and Ph.D. student and I couldn’t stay away from my husband and study a field (German) only tangentially related to mine (New Testament). And I didn’t want to.

But in retrospect, what I remember isn’t the heartsickness for my beloved husband nor the loneliness of being in a new place where I knew not a soul. I don’t remember the times when I embarrassed myself terribly by calling something by the wrong name or committing some social faux pas (like sniffing repeatedly or putting a hand in my lap at the dinner table). Instead I remember the joy of discovering new things, new foods, unique places, hidden alleyways, city quirks, local haunts, new worlds of history in unequaled museums, new stories on walking tours with Berliner guides, cultural particulars both of Germans and other nationalities in my class, and the sheer loveliness of the German language (NO naysayers allowed. I adore German!).

On a fantastic walking tour (Spaziergang) of Berlin's Mitte

So, I shouldn’t have expected a restaurant featuring the cuisines of the countries of the Alps (Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, namely) to have been the balm to cure  all of my wistful feelings regarding Berlin. First of all, Berlin is nowhere near the Alps. Second, a Berliner is much, much more likely to be found munching on an organic salad topped with sprouts and flaxseed, or eating a Turkish kebab on the run, or snacking on tapas and drinking wine for hours and hours in an outdoor cafe than they are to be eating anything we Americans would classify as “German cuisine.” In fact, many “German” restaurants in Germany are geared toward tourists. And, third, what I hadn’t considered, but really should have known is that no one in Allentown, NJ would be speaking German at a German restaurant. In fact, they’d be butchering it (in speech or, a couple times, on the menu) to a degree that would make me cringe. And I’m an American, not a German! This lack of German conversation should have been a given, but it took me by subconscious-surprise and made it impossible for me to even pretend that I was in Deutschland. So, that was a bummer that shouldn’t have bummed me out, but did anyway.

START BACK HERE, O FOOD-CENTRIC READER:

The Alps Bistro opened on Allentown, NJ’s picturesque, historic Main Street (the perfectness of which, for me, makes it the standard by which any small town American main street will henceforth be judged) on July 6, 2010. So, it had not even been open a month when Charlie and I decided to check it out. I, see previous post, felt compelled to have some German food, so we made reservations. The restaurant is open for lunch most days and dinner only on Friday and Saturday. The dining room is also quite small, so reservations are recommended.

The Alps Bistro

It was full when we got there. As many nice NJ restaurants are, The Alps is a BYOB place, although they have sodas, coffee, and water at least. We just had water, but folks around us had brought along wine. I thought it was kind of cool that the local liquor store had suggested some wine and beer pairings that would go well with German food (they were German, mostly). This, along with other signals like the small lace table adornments, showed me that the management is really trying for authenticity. I appreciated that.

* I apologize that the food photos that follow are really quite grainy. I tried to use my iPhone for subtlety, but I’ve learned my lesson. These photos do not really do the food justice. I apologize. *

Charlie's salad (It came with a three-bean salad, too)

The mood of the restaurant was upbeat. Owners, employees, customers were excited about the new business. They were excited to try something new or, for the many people of German descent in the area, they were excited for a taste of the familiar or nostalgic.

We had printed out a coupon (good until August 31) for a free appetizer when you purchase a dinner entrée over $11. This was not, given the menu, a hard amount to top. The restaurant’s menu incorporated German titles, always with translation, and was very focused. That is, they’re not attempting to offer everything under the sun. There were two soup choices, for instance, and about five options for appetizers. There’s a daily menu and the schnitzel changes daily, as well as the options for wursts.

Soup (Suppe)

I started with the Alsatian Sauerkraut soup, which wasn’t “sauer” at all, but faintly sweet. It was brothy and just perfectly flavored to be a light starter. Charlie had a salad which came with a 3-bean salad and blanched carrots, in addition to a more traditional green lettuce salad.

Other people seemed to get a bread basket, but we didn’t. I’m not sure whether I observed this incorrectly, or if there was some reason why we didn’t qualify. I would have liked to compare The Alps Bistro’s breads to German Brot, since breadmaking is one of the areas in which Germans are vast culinary superiors to Americans. German breads are not only staple of their daily meals, but are always fresh, artisanal, with many whole grain varieties to choose from. Wonder Bread is not an option in Deutschland. But bakeries (Bäckerei/Konditorei) are on every corner, offering full loaves, sweet and savory pastries, desserts, and vast varieties of flavorful sandwiches, fresh every day.

Pierogies

Venturing outside of Deutschland for our appetizer, we selected potato pierogies. The Alps Bistro’s self-diagnosis of their gastronomical territory is as follows: “Join us for a culinary adventure through the Alps region of Europe–feature the foods of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France. We’ll even make stops to Poland, Hungary, and Russia to tempt your tastebuds.” So, we figured we’d allow them to take us to Poland with a pierogie. Since we’d only eaten ice cream in that nation (when we barely crossed the border last July) it seemed fitting to try something a little more Polish when we had the opportunity.

The appetizer plate came with three potato pierogies, hot and sprinkled with bacon and onions (which had clearly been cooked with the bacon). Delicious! We definitely ate every last morsel.

Pork Schnitzel

Charlie had chosen the day’s Schnitzel as his meal. It was a pork schnitzel in a dark gravy with mushrooms. He asked for Spätzle as his side and, in addition, it came with carrots. Everything was well-cooked and not overdone. The Schnitzel was really tender, flavorful, and lightly breaded. It certainly rivaled any Schnitzel we had in Europe. Charlie was wholly satisfied.

Being a bit of a Wurst-fan myself (and not being tempted at all by anything with a “Leber” in it—that means “liver”), I ordered the three-Wurst platter. It came with German potato salad and sauerkraut (this was actually sour, not sweet like the soup with the same label). The smaller Wurstchen were the tastiest.

Lots of Wurst

Apfelstrudel

I was too full by the end of the meal to want a dessert, but Charlie thought an Apfelstrudel was in order. I was afraid to chance tarnishing my active memory of amazing Strudel. But I agreed to have a couple bites. The apple strudels are made on-site and it was, itself, quite tasty. One fun ingredient was chopped nuts (maybe walnuts?), which I don’t think I’d had in any of my German or Viennese strudels. As I predicted, I didn’t think it lived up to my memory, but that just means it didn’t ascend to demigod status. So, it was good. I’d recommend it.

All in all, I’m impressed at the new restaurant in town. People are clearly trying hard for Alpine authenticity. It’s a quaint place for a meal and a good alternative to the sea of Italian restaurants that are [Kara scans the horizon] just about all that is available around here. I do want to do a German spell-check of their menu, but Charlie told me to hold off with the red pen until after we’d eaten. Sigh.

True confession: I expected more than a single restaurant could ever truly provide—more than anything short of a plane ticket, Bahn pass, and a fistful of Euros could offer—but I still greatly enjoyed my meal and hope to return.

Avocados (not local, but delicious)

It’s summer. It’s warm and sunny. The fresh, local produce in New Jersey is hard to beat.

Right down the road, there’s a stand that sells the produce they grow in their back yard. So far I’ve had their tomatoes (bucket loads of them), grape tomatoes, corn, summer squash, zucchini, onions, and one peach. All delicious. As I was recently saying to Charlie, I don’t know how I’ll ever be satisfied with store-bought tomatoes again. These just have so much more flavor.

That’s not even to mention the other farms and farmers markets very near me (Russo’s Farm, Trenton Farmers Market, the once-a-week Farmers Market in Hightstown, etc.), where I’ve gotten locally-grown delights.

And, ever since I heard from the Nutrition Diva (whose podcasts I love) that eating two whole tomatoes a day wasn’t being a glutton (I submitted my question via Facebook), I have been trying to turn into a tomato this summer!

Not to mention, there are perfectly ripened avocados that I can find in Whole Foods for $5 a bag. Although they aren’t local, they taste perfect. Until we live in an avocado-growing locale again, I think this is the best I can hope for.

Summertime meals center around fresh produce and, often, consist of that produce either washed and sliced or slightly doctored up:

Our Wednesday (and then also Thursday) night dinner

The above dinner was photographed only on my iPhone (like the avocado above) and in a rather poorly lighted area, which accounts for its poorer quality. I don’t always think to photograph our meals at home, although when I’m particularly proud I do.

This one consisted of a recipe from the Everyday Food magazine, which I love. It was the Spring-Vegetable Couscous with Chicken. I wish I’d made it when we had local asparagus, but we were just moving then and I couldn’t get myself in gear. Another change I made to the recipe was due to the fact that I discovered while making the recipe that I didn’t have any regular couscous (the recipe called for 1 cup). I had about 2/3 a cup Israeli couscous (larger size) left in a container, but that’s all. Hmmm … I decided to add bulgur wheat to fill out the 1-cup measure, so the amount would be similar to what the recipe called for. It worked! So, we got a little more whole grain than the recipe might have intended.

The star of the meal, although the tomato is always a star in my book, was the stuffed squash. I followed a recipe I found for Stuffed Summer Squash. If you scroll to the bottom of the linked blog entry, there’s the recipe. I followed it pretty thoroughly, except I didn’t have any of the recommended cheeses, so I shredded some Fontina we had. The only other “unhealthiness” added were bread crumbs I made from some whole wheat we had on hand and the 2 Tbsp of olive oil used to make the 4 servings of the side dish. Most of the contents of the stuffing were onions and squash guts (technical term, I’m sure). All in all, it was a pretty good-for-you way to dress up this plentiful summertime vegetable. It was quite tasty and you didn’t lose the squash among the other flavors. Baked summer squash is QUITE delicious.

A bad shot of good corn

So, with all these delicious and healthy summer options at my fingertips, WHY did I make reservations tonight for a new German/Swiss/Austrian restaurant that opened up in a small town near us?

Because I’ve been blogging and blogging and blogging about some of the Euro-cuisine I sampled last summer and it’s got me craving the stuff.

Do doughy dumplings and hot, saucy meats sound particularly summery? No.

Is this the stuff real Germans (etc.) eat day-in-day-out during hot summer weather? As far as I observed, no.

Should I eat Wursts just because I can? No.

Am I still looking forward to it nonetheless? Yes!

So, soon I’ll be posting a review of this newly-opened restaurant. I hope it serves good enough food to satiate my nostalgia-craving for awhile. Then I can get back to the very, very good foods that await me at my local farmers markets (and there are many more than I’ve already tried this year).

I do love food (too much – I’m still trying to learn to balance) and I thrive on new experiences. Making new recipes at home, as well as tasting someone else’s cooking, is a chance to embark on a mini journey of flavor.

My idea when starting this blog was to post about my wanderings (as in, world and domestic travel) and my culinary wanderings (as in, experiences with food – eating out and in). Well, blogging while I was bombarded with new places, people, and subject matter in Germany in the Summer of 2009 turned out not to be my specialty. I was constantly on the move, trying to soak everything in, which made it hard to edit photos and to write (in English – when I was supposed to be immersed in German) about my experiences with enough background for anyone else to understand it.

But, now, we’re fully settled in New Jersey. We’re starting our fourth year here together (my fifth year!). And we’re even further settled into a new house with more space. I’ve cut back on responsibilities at school (and we’re cutting back our budget). So, maybe this is a better blogging atmosphere for me.

I’ve recently been posting quite a bit to the website Yelp!, adding reviews of places I’ve been, or that Charlie and I have been together, mostly in the last year. I think I’ll be expanding and reposting several of those reviews here.

The Yelp! website has the following star scale to guide reviewers:

1 = “Eek! Methinks Not”

2 = “Meh. I’ve experienced better.”

3 =  “A-OK”

4 = “Yay! I’m a fan.”

5 = “Woohoo! As good as it gets!”

Cafe Du Monde, New Orleans (taken by iPhone)

For the most part, except if the visit was very recent, the places I remember were my very favorites. The result is that at the time of this post I have never given any place a 1. I’ve given two places a 2 (one was a recent visit and bad service; one was because I was stretching to think of someplace I’ve been displeased with to balance out my ratings). I’ve given two places a 3 (and I felt really bad about one of them, even though it’s a nice rating!). I’ve given a whopping eight places 4 stars (which is pretty stinking effusive). And I’ve awarded the highest honor, 5 stars, to six different establishments.

I trust Yelp! because the reviewers are real people with real budgets and real preferences. We’ve used it to pick several restaurants and hotels and have, basically, never been led astray.

So, what do my overly-enthusiastic reviews mean about my reviewing mantra? Am I just uncritical? Have I, perhaps, majored in my favorite restaurants and forgotten about the poor or average dining experiences?

Kara, “The Simon Cowell of Life”

I am trained to be critical in some things: biblical scholarship, for instance. And, according to my husband, I’m really critical about “everyday life.” He’s taken, on occasion, to calling me “The Simon Cowell of Life” (referring to Simon Cowell of American Idol fame; he was my favorite of the judges the one season I watched, by the way).

But, thinking about my reviewing stats (see restaurants above; or, just ask me about TV shows or movies I’ve seen = probably 75% positive), I felt like I needed him to clarify. So I asked him: “In what way am I the ‘Simon Cowell of Life’?”

Under some duress (since he doesn’t want to be critical), Charlie said, “I just notice it with anything that’s on TV, you feel the need to criticize things. Sometimes it feels like, ‘What did that person ever do to you?’”

I asked him to clarify. He said it’s mostly “people’s appearances and voices on shows.” (I can actually think of two very specific examples of the latter that drove me c-r-a-z-y!)

My husband insisted, “I’m not trying to be meeeeean.” But then he went on: “To say you’re the ‘Simon Cowell’ is like to be so brutally honest that it’s mean. Maybe that person didn’t deserve such a harsh critique.”

Hmmm.

Cooking Brussels Sprouts at home

I mean, I think he’s right. I can get bugged by something (a systemic evil, administrative red tape, electronics not working, a mistake I’ve made, a terrible Boston accent on a show, a grammatical mistake) and harp on and on and critique it ad nauseum. My verbosity and my willingness to “speak the truth” combine in a nasty way sometimes. (Note to self: Work on that.)

But how does that part of me—the critical Simon Cowell part—become (if you’ll allow the metaphor to extend slightly further) the Paula Abdul of Food. That is, I love it all, with the rarest of exceptions.

Kara, the appreciator of little things in life

More flattering than the Paula Abdul comparison, I guess, I’d say, I appreciate the little things. I notice beautiful trees on the side of the highway as we’re whizzing past them and point each one out to Charlie. I worked hard during seminary and college to find something I liked in every class I took, which made education a wonderful experience, even outside of my interest areas. When I don’t like something at first (music, an artist, a vegetable), I try it again to see if I missed something about it.

And as a kid, disliking the food I was served wasn’t an option. We were praised for adventurous eating. In that regard, I blame my parents both for my wide expanse of tastes … and my wide expanse of backside.

So, sometimes when I read other people’s Yelp! reviews I think: “Ouch. Why are these people so picky?!” I mean, I can find something I like at McDonald’s, at Ruby Tuesday, at random roadside grills in Turkey, at open air cafes in Vienna (see photo below for proof!), at the swankiest restaurants in Princeton, etc. Anywhere.

Our shared dessert of Struedels in Wien (Vienna)

I don’t think it’s that I’m undiscerning. I have favorites and some things impress me more than others. There are places I’m happy to have gone once and there are places that, as I exit, I’m planning my return trip. There are recipes that I toss out as soon as I’ve made them, and others that I mark with a quick “We loved this!” notation.

But on the whole, I like the experience of trying new food, or familiar food at a new place.

So what if my Yelp! reviews make me look like a wide-eyed big-eater from Idaho? That’s not so far from the truth. And I hope to recount here on “the Wandering Palate” what I’ve tried and just how good it was.

I wrote the following brief biography of my dear husband Charlie for class on the 11th of May. My writing in German has likely improved greatly since then … but I still thought I’d put it up here. 🙂 And, no, I won’t translate it for you. I have many friends who claim they want to practice their German. Here’s the easiest way to do so: Baby-Deutsch.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

The last photo we took together before my departure for Berlin.

Mein Mann heißt Charlie. Er ist Amerikaner und kommt aus dem Staat New Mexico, der im Südwesten der U.S.A. liegt. Er wuchs auf einer Ranch auf und war deshalb natürlich ein “Cowboy.” Aber als er 18 Jahre alt war, wünschte er ganz weit von der Wüste wegzugehen. Er studierte Religion an einer Universität im südlichen Kalifornien, in der Stadt San Diego. Er hatte den Ozean viel lieber als das Leben mit Vieh und Pferden.

Charlie machte mir einen Heiratsantrag auf dem “Observation-Deck” des Empire State Buildings. Natürlich sagte ich: Ja! Obwohl es in Filmen viele Heiratsanträge am selben Ort gibt, überraschte er mich!

Jetzt arbeitet Charlie bei der Kirche als Pastor für Jugendliche von 14 bis 18 Jahren alt. In seinem Beruf muss man freundlich und geduldig sein. Er ist beides. Obwohl seine Frau oft zu genau and nervös ist, ist Charlie fast immer ruhig und lässig. Er ist auch kreativ und macht graphische Kunst. Am liebsten schaut und dreht er Filme.

Am 27. Juni wird er erstmals nach Deutschland reisen!

Meine Wohnung

In Berlin wohne ich im Kiez “Pankow.” Es war DDR vor dem Mauerfall. Hier ist mein Bahnhof:

Me, tired but still smiling, in my U-Bahn Station, Vinetastraße

Me, tired but still smiling, in my U-Bahn Station, Vinetastraße

Translating and expanding on the above: I live in the neighborhood called Pankow (although it’s closer to Prenzlauer Berg than most of Pankow). This area was in East Berlin/East Germany before the wall fell.

I live with a host whose name is Barbara, she’s a journalist and early childhood specialist/consultant. She has two children, twins (“Zwilling” in German), who are grown. In another room lives a boarder, Sigrun, whose husband and daughter are in the U.S. right now. Her husband is an American. Her English is impeccable. But, so she says, that’s why she doesn’t have to practice it with me!

Meine Aussicht

Meine Aussicht

Barbara, Sigrun, and I live on the fourth floor of an apartment building. That was a tough climb the first day with all my luggage, but since has been lovely, especially because of my great view out my window. Flowers are in bloom these days, and you can see some flowering trees in the park across the way. One night when we had a big thunderstorm, I had a great view of the lightning. I closed my windows, though, as we have no screens so there’s NOTHING to protect the house from the rain if I leave the windows open. (Note to self.)

Children (Kinder) behind my apartment buildingChildren (Kinder) behind my apartment building

I’ve heard lots of children outside playing. I think a little boy lives in the room below me. It’s about a 4-5 minute walk to the U-Bahn station. There are icecream parlors, flower shops, fruit/veggie stands, fast food places (to be discussed later), etc. right on the same street, Berlinerstraße, as the U-Bahn entrances. The only negative is that I’m about 30 minutes from the Goethe-Institut, which isn’t that much, but means I have to get up earlier or wait longer to get home after a long day.

My abode for 2 months.

My abode for 2 months.