Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cooking with Friends | a French Cuisine-Themed Dinner Party

Last weekend was our month to host our "Friends Cooking Dinner" party - a standing date we have with eight other friends every month or two where one couple hosts with a theme, and everyone brings something to contribute to the meal.

The old man made cocktails for us drink while we mulled over the menu.

We decided our theme would be French cuisine since I'm a big admirer of French chef Jacques Pepin as well as American Ina Garten  - who is of course not French, but French cooking totally shaped her ideology and can be found everywhere in her recipes.

And if you don't believe me that Ina is one of the greats, check out what Business Insider had to say about her prowess hosting dinner parties. 

But first! A dinner party is only partly about the dinner. You have to think about ambiance. Usually I rely mostly on alcohol to create a good ambiance in everyone's own mind, but this time I took the extra step to go to the Farmer's Market here on Saturday morning to get some baguettes and flowers. I thought about trying to make the baguettes from scratch for a second, then realized that was stupid. Kidding (kind of!) It was only stupid for me on this day... I'm sure it would be a great idea for you to do it. 

Not making baguettes from scratch does allow for more lounging time though, with the kids and the cat. Sometimes we take our bengal cat, Ginger, with us to the Farmer's market. If everyone can bring their slobbering, possibly bitey dogs there then I think this tiny little sprite can come too, yes?

She noses around everyone's dropped food just like any dog. But she's not as good at heeling.

This is one of the reasons we so love Poway.

After we got home and put the flowers in some water we got our cat-walker above, Willa, to work her magic on some Jacques Pepin-style menus. 

I just love this idea to get the kids involved with the planning! Our twelve-year-old daughter made ten simple drawings brought to life with water colors, and after they dried, wrote the evening's menu inside that lovely border.

Ideally guests would take them home to remember the night, but almost all of my guests were too drunk. 

Look at the little bicycle one! These were all her idea.

But before we get to the food, a note on a good dinner party playlist: I actually searched for great French music, but I also found that just playing quality jazz music is good enough if you don't want to struggle with potentially getting too hokey on your French stuff. But if you do insist on some French music thrown in, I'm a huge fan of:

  • Malcolm McLaren (English, not French, but his album Paris is one of my all-time faves)
  • anything by Carla Bruni. If you didn't know, this former French First Lady can sing!
  • Chanteuse Emilie-Claire Barlow
Punctuate that stuff with your normal lounge-y favorites and you're good to go!

Photo by Lisa Churchville

Now on to food. What super iconically-French? Escargots.

Photo by Paulina Gomberg

I guess people love or hate escargots - but I don't know anyone who hates them who have actually tried them. It's one of those dishes you can't screw up if you have butter and shallots and garlic, plus a little cognac. You're working off the assumption that your snails are good - which they are even if you're getting them cheaply enough via Amazon. Yes these snails are Indonesian, but the quality is fantastic, and if you don't believe me, read the reviews.

Saveur penned a great escargot recipe in 2010. It got rave reviews! I used Courvoissier for the cognac.

For the lamb, I relied on a simple lamb chop recipe from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc Home cookbook. It's basically sauteeing the lamb chops in garlic and herbs, then finishing them in the oven for a nice medium rare.

Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Here's a little lamb chop with the cauliflower puree and some ratatouille.

 Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Our other major meat main was this wild pork tenderloin, which the old man hunted himself in November, stowed in the freezer for a special occasion like this, and roasted to perfection on the grill.

It was tender and juicy and delightful. The medallions were gone before they hit our plates - people were taking them off the board with their fingers.

Wow, someone needs to clean this grill! Thankfully, that is not my job. 

We had a few other desserts on the table for the evening, so I kept the sweetness of mine down. I made this Ricotta + Blueberry Tart with Honey, Lemon + Lavender.

The first time I made it years ago, I used the amount of lavender in the recipe, which I found just WAY too overwhelmingly strong. When you cut the lavendar all the way down to 1/4 tsp, and crush it with a mortar and pestle to break out the flavors in those tiny blooms, I think it's so much more delicious! I also made the crust as proscribed and it was a hit. I mean the edges of my pies are always ugly, but they are also tasty.

Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Now let me share with you some of the delightful dishes our dear friends brought over!

In no particular order, because they were all amazing and delicious:

Beef tartare.

 Photo by Paulina Gomberg
Belgian endives with salmon.

 Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Bouillabaisse, made with fresh fish and shellfish from Poway Farmer's Market.

  Photo by Paulina Gomberg

The iconic chocolate mousse!

  Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Ratatouille with goat cheese.

French onion soup. The onions were cooked for over five hours alone!

Phyllo pie with apples.

 Photo by Paulina Gomberg

Too many other wines and drinks to remember...

A great dinner with friends.

Thanks for looking!
xo :)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Banff, AB, Canada | Dog sledding, skiing, + ice skating

Last month we took our first big family "international" trip, if you don't count hitting Mexico from the cruise trip we embarked on last summer, which I think counts. But this trip involved a flight, so the rules were much less loosey-goosey than when we stumbled off the Carnival Imagination for the afternoon in Ensenada.

A bestie of mine had taken a summertime trip to Banff, Alberta, Canada, and you just have to Google the place once to see how spectacular it is. It's known for being a world-renowned golf and hiking destination in the summer, situated along the turquoise-blue waters of Lake Louise; however, it's a pretty stunning ski retreat in the wintertime, with hot springs and an incredible dog-sledding outfit in nearby Canmore.

I booked well in advance on Expedia to try to get this family of five the best deal at the place I really wanted to stay: the Fairmont, Banff Springs. 

It looks like a castle, doesn't it? 

It's not cheap, but as you will come to find, it might just be worth the price. We even sacrificed something I really hate to do without these days on family vacations: the separate bedroom for us. If you can swing the extra bedroom for yourself, then do so... not to mention the possibilities if you are kid-free or empty-nesters. But for us booking as late as we did, we had to be happy with TWO queen beds in a single sleeping chamber (along with a pull-out in the living room), and given the small amount of time that we were all spending in the room, it worked out just fine for us. 

That's the Fairmont in the distance.

To make this trip from Southern California, you're going to fly out of San Diego (better flights go out of LA, but I am too impatient to tolerate that drive) and connect in either Seattle or Phoenix, or wherever. You'll wind up in Calgary, if all goes according to plan. 

Look how cute the baggage claim is in Calgary?

Too bad the rest of Calgary isn't as cute, because next you're going to rent a car and drive 1.5-hours to Banff. On the day we arrived (and even moreso on our return drive), Calgary was flat and bleak, so don't get depressed and wonder where all the mountains are and whether someone played a trick on you. They didn't (this time). 

I'm sure someone will call me out for saying Calgary wasn't cute. What can I say? It wasn't. Maybe it's cute in the summertime? Or if you photograph it through a very blurry lens.

The closer you get to Banff, the more you will see the landscape change. I have no pictures of Calgary for a reason, but here's what you'll start to see as you get closer to what you came for:

This is the town of Banff, and it is darn cute!

This is a frozen lake, and one of many. Don't just go stomping around all over the ice! You have no idea how thin it is. If you fall through, they may never even find you and you'll pop out centuries later like the animals in the bog at La Brea Tar Pits.

Getting closer to our hotel... how cute is the little Canadian flag on top? Well I guess it's actually a big Canadian flag, but from here it looks tiny, just like the hotel looks like a cute little dollhouse if you don't understand how "scale" works (in the relative-dimension sense).

By the time we got to our room we were travel-fatigued. 

The Pub makes a delicious Old Fashioned, just the way I like it: with some liquor-soaked cherries in the bottom. I know they say the worst way to cure jet lag is alcohol, but it's the best way to cure traveling with three children.

The traveler next to me in this pic was exceptionally delightful, of course.

They also serve the BEST goulash I've ever had, with beer and pretzel bread if that's your thing.

Afterward, we went outside to check out the scenery.

It was cold enough for me. All the thickening my blood supposedly did when I lived in New York is long gone! That was a decade ago. 

I wish we could accumulate tolerance to cold or humidity like superpowers we keep for life, because living in San Diego has only given me tolerance to cold water. What a waste it's been to all of my other tolerances.

I quite enjoyed the fire outside. I don't even know how to behave in the cold anymore. I got so close to the fire I could've crawled right into it. Thank God these clothes aren't super flammable! 

By the time we dragged ourselves away from the Pub, it was dark enough to just chill out at the pools. There is a heated indoor pool (which is cool in temperature), and an indoor hot tub in this grotto-type area:

And then... there is the outdoor pool. It's not quite as hot as the hot tub, but it's not at all temperate like a heated pool... it's VERY WARM. See the steam rising? This night it was actually snowing gently on us, which was delightful in the heat of the pool. 

I might be a little overly-obsessed with pools in general, but this outdoor heated pool was everything to me. I know this photo isn't super cute or helpful in showing the whole pool (or even most of the pool) at night, but with the lighting outside it was actually pretty difficult to get a decent shot. 

We have a few very weird shots. You would probably prefer those, which is human nature, but it doesn't mean I have to post them.

On our first full day in Banff, we decided to try skiing. We tried it for the first time in my all-time favorite San Diego getaway - Big Bear Mountain - two years ago, and I finally understood what all the fuss was about with skiing. Okay? I get it. 

This time we even had a gondola ride, which was pretty fun all on its own! We chose Sunshine Village Ski Resort.

The views from the gondola were incredible.

But we're still total novices and our middle child can't even walk in ski boots (I barely can?) so we put the other two kids into refresher ski training. 

Meanwhile, the old man and I PIZZAED our way down the bunny slopes...

... and I also made sure our middle child was happy making snowmen, or at least not hurting people with the snowballs she was throwing at incoming chairlifts (she was only throwing snowballs at the empty, incoming chairs, before you go getting indignant! But it still doesn't look good, I'll give you that.)

So while the old man was busy getting misrouted onto blue diamond runs while I played with our middle one...

... our boy was getting increasingly confident and excited about skiing. 

Our eldest took a break to look after her sister while the three of us went up for a try at a gentle green diamond run.

It came on the heels of the old man's near wipeout, so we were proceeding with caution.

We had to carve out the easy stuff, but if you ski blue or black diamonds or snowboard, there are incredible options for you. In addition to Sunshine Village there are two others - Lake Louise and Norquay - in addition to the steep runs at Sunshine, which are phenomenal (so they say).

We walked into town for a pizza dinner and peeked into all the shops, buying candy apples for the walk home. They were all sugared-up for an attempted night's sleep.

The next day, I had planned the event that I was most excited about: dog sledding. My grandfather, Jacques Suzanne, was an avid outdoorsman and used dog sledding as his primary method of exploring the far north. Outside of Lake Placid (where he is legendary) and those obsessed with malamutes and huskies, you wouldn't know who he is. But in our family he is talked about with the reverence of a God, and even his potential human failings are shouted down with the vigor of the Pope defending Jesus.

In any event I remain curious and inspired by his many talents, especially the connection he had with his dogs and wolf hybrids.

Finding an experience which would be good for our family - as well as for the sled dogs - was very important to me. So we chose a dog-sledding outfit known for its excellent reputation for their treatment of the dogs: Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours.

Here's one of the owners, Jeremy, giving us a pep talk before our adventure:

It almost seemed like the dogs couldn't wait to get going.

Our son rode with me on the first leg of the trip. 

He decided that he wanted to drive first, taught by our professional sled driver named Sydney (with me riding as the passenger in the sled).

No doubt I'm biased, but I was impressed with his young level of fitness and bravery! On one of our stops, a dog peed on his foot (collateral damage for being there). I believe this long clip shows him dunking his foot into the snow to wipe it away.

If you think we're cheering on the dogs too much, know that this is what you DO when driving dogs. They want to hear that you are excited about them running, and it absolutely makes them run faster.

Meanwhile, the old man was driving his own sled, with our girls tucked inside.

This is what it looked like from down inside the sled:

We finally reached a stopping point about halfway through the route, on an enormous frozen lake - there was just a light dusting of snow on the lake, so putting the anchor in was tricky. But it was a great place to give the dogs (and ourselves!) a break, and to get out and give the dogs a bunch of love.

This is Megatron on your left, and Indian on your right.

Here you see the anchor come out. In fairness, the pros warned us this could happen. But the dogs quickly responded to my calmly-stated "WHOA" direction.

I drove us back by switching sleds and taking over the girls' sled, driving solo.

After pulling in for a stop at the end of our journey, you can see how much love and attention the dogs received from us grateful riders.

What are the odds we can pick up a couple of these babies to add to our family??? If the old man has anything to say about it, odds are ZERO to NONE.

Following our animal adventure, we decided to see what else the Fairmont had to offer besides amazing swimming pools. Turns out that right behind their authentic pub is a frozen pond that's perfect for hockey and ice skating.

Such a peaceful scene.

The ice all around us was melting. Except on the skating pond! Well I'm sure it was melting there too, but the receptionist who checked us into the hotel assured me that they "refroze it" so it was "all good" for ice play.

I know that doesn't reassure you, but if that ice could hold me then it can hold almost anyone. Almost.

Our kids had never played hockey before. Our son must've fallen a hundred times. A bunch of those falls resulted in him just lying there crying, and I'd think, "This is it, he's done playing hockey." Then he'd get right back up and try again.

Our eldest enjoyed it too!

Our middle girl can't ice skate any more than she can ski, but she IS very good at tobogganing (here, in the background with Dad).

After the dog sledding and what was seriously HOURS of skating and hockey, I thought I had exhausted the kids. Nope! The ones who skated forever moved on to sledding.

We just put our feet up for a little while while they were sledding.

After all the outdoor play, we decided to try out Canadian bowling (candlepins? If you ask a Canadian, they simply call it Bowling or 5-pin).

There's an adorable bowling alley at the Fairmont, too.

Canadian bowling is super tricky - all the balls are smaller and in uniform size, and your fingers go around them, not inside them. There are only 5 pins, but somehow that seems to make it tricky, too.

They also have those cheater devices for the little ones.

The old man somehow managed a very lucky shot - I only filmed him once, and this is what I got:

The next day, we decided to take the Official Tour of the Fairmont. Anyone coming from anywhere in town can take the tour, and it was extremely well-attended... but it's free if you're staying in the hotel.

They share the incredible history of the hotel dating back to the 19th century, when people foolishly built the entire structure out of wood. By the early 20th century it had burned to the ground. But! That was okay because no one died, and it allowed the owner to redo it like he had always truly envisioned it: made of stone pulled from the surrounding mountains.

Here you see the short wall behind me matching the mountain in the distance exactly. That is not just for show! It's the same material.

The entire town of Banff is named for the Scottish town of Banffshire, and in fact most of the personnel still wear kilts while Scottish Coats of Arms adorn the walls and windows throughout this magestic castle.

Even through the fire, much of the original furnishings were saved by being pulled out and covered.

Originally, the naturally-occurring sulfur-fed hot springs from the surrounding mountains heated the famous outdoor pool. So if you want to keep romanticizing life back then and wishing you lived back in those days, I hope you don't mind the smell of sulfur - or the lack of wifi. 

The tour guide kept mentioning how famous types like "Queen Elizabeth" and "Prince So-and-So" had been regular guests there.

I only seemed to take note when they mentioned Americans like Marilyn Monroe. I guess that makes me an "Ugly American."

I will say that the tour improves by a considerable amount when you take a cocktail along. Did I mention the bars? This is another Old Fashioned.

I guess I am a creature of habit.

There are huge ballrooms just waiting for a big event, like a wedding.

I said huge!

The attention to detail is astonishing.

Speaking of weddings, on the "Ghost Stories" portion of the tour they told us a horrific (and true?) story of a bride who died going down the spiral staircase to her wedding reception, where she tripped and fell, catching fire on the candles lighting the way.

I don't make up these stories, I just report them.

We happened to see a bride flit by during our stay. I wonder how much thought she gave to the Ghost Bride story. Not much, apparently.

There are lots of little places to just sit and take in the view. Or the house drinks. Or both.

There are also pool tables on the premises. No library though, which was pretty disappointing. Wouldn't you think a place like this would have an amazing library? Our eldest was really outraged over it.

The boy got some experience trying out trick shots (he made none of them).

Naturally, there are lots of optional "day trips" and tours that leave from the hotel if you so choose. I opted for a solo nature tour, banking on the fact that my little ones would complain about a bus tour "just to look at plants and stuff" - local flora and fauna.

We learned a lot about some of their local animals which are also some of my favorite animals here in San Diego. Except that in San Diego, we don't have wolves.

We have deer though!

 But we do not have elk. Boy I wish we did, though.

Banff National Park is entirely a protected area. So much so that Native North Americans who live on their soverign-like lands (like our tribal nations here in the US) cannot even hunt on their own land if it falls within the confines of Banff National Park. There is NO HUNTING here whatsoever.

I asked what conservationists did when populations of deer and elk got out of control. My tour guide said that they literally pack them up and relocate them rather than hunt in the park. They may then be hunted once relocated, but even possessing a firearm capable of discharge - within the park - carries a steep fine.

This is a pregnant female.

This one has an obvious injury, and it may be quite the tale to tell, if elks could talk. But it also might just be a very boring tale of clumsiness. Who can say?

Some had lost their antlers already, and some had not. We were there right about when they were shedding them, so unless you have binoculars it's hard to tell a male from a female from afar. 

I'd hate to have to figure out which was male or female when hunting them around this time! But I guess the whole "no hunting" thing takes that fantasy off the table anyway.

My photos are a bit blurry because I was told we were NOT ALLOWED to exit the vehicle to take photos, mostly for our safety. I won't tell you how I know this.

 It was fascinating to look at the tracks in the fresh snow.

Our tour guide, Nicole, explained all about elk and deer, and Big Horn Sheep. Her lovely accent is due to her being Quebecois.

Then she took us to feel the sulfur springs, which were causing an early thaw to the lakes where they bubbled up nearby. It felt no cooler to the touch than La Jolla Cove.

I came back from the tour to find that the kids had basically been in the pools the whole time. Can't say I blame them!

This is the indoor pool:

Not surprisingly, there's some excellent French cuisine both in-hotel and in town. This is a favorite of mine, and it didn't disappoint!

We also tried elk. #sorrynotsorry

Hope you enjoyed our tour and that it makes you want to try out Banff for yourself. Happy adventuring!

Thanks for looking :)