GETTING A RISE OUT OF DAD

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In previous posts, I’ve described in great detail my dad’s prowess as the Combes Family Inn‘s breakfast chef, and, on a few occasions, wrote about my mom’s role as its main dinner chef. Dad also contributes to the inn’s kitchen as a specialty chef in different and oftentimes unique ways. These other specialties of his can best be described as culinary hobbies.

Dad in Baking Class (cropped)

(Above: Innkeeper Bill at a recent baking course at King Arthur Flour.)

For example, about 20 years ago, Dad really got into making his own pasta. Inn guests got to sample several delicious variations of fettuccini, stuffed ravioli, and the like. As popular as this phase was, unfortunately, according to my mother, it only lasted for about six months.

There is recent evidence of a pasta-making revival, however. Mom said just yesterday, “I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I found your father’s pasta machine. I told him he really should start making his own pasta again.” And, checking in with Dad on the matter, he said he probably would crank up the old machine again.

One of many food phases Dad went through included sausage making, which he said he only tried a couple of times. Evidently it was fun, but a lot of work. “There’s really an art to it and I can’t say that I developed it,” he admitted.

Then there was beer making, wine making, and mead making, each in a separate phase.  Dad moved quickly on from these hobbies. “They were not immediately gratifying, because you have to wait so long to enjoy them,” he explained. “In fact, I still have a whole refrigerator full of mead, which I suspect is getting better and better tasting the longer I let it sit.”

Despite the short-lived nature of the aforementioned, there are two culinary hobbies Dad comes back to time and time again: making soups and baking bread.

Finished Loaves (cropped)

(Above: Finished loaves from Dad’s last baking class.)

He says, “What I like about soups is you can just use up stuff that we have left over from the inn. I usually look through a soup cookbook and one recipe will catch my eye, when I know I have some of the ingredients left over in the fridge, then I’ll pick up whatever else I need and . . . voila!” (His favorite soup cookbook is 12 Months of Monastery Soups.)

And, what does he like about bread baking? A lot of things, evidently:

“You get to get all messy with flour which is fun. It takes you off of the street. You get to try different varieties of yeasts and flours. It’s fun to experiment. And, of course, it’s nice eating it afterwards.”

Since he loves baking bread so much, and because the inn’s guests love eating it, my husband and I gave Dad a class at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center as a Christmas gift one year. He’s now been to King Arthur for a different class three years in a row.

One of Dad’s all-time favorite breads from these classes is Portuguese bread, which uses what’s called unbleached “wholesome” flour. Dad’s secret is that you can put other things in it—such as seeds, nuts or berries—simply by replacing one cup of the flour in the recipe with a cup of one type or a mixture of these other goodies.

Baking Instruction (cropped)

(Above: My dad loves the instruction at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center so much he’s attended three different classes.)

He’s also a big fan of baking scones, and he attended one class that was exclusively dedicated to the art of making them. “I like making scones, because I like eating them,” he opined. “It’s more like a dessert. They’re also easier to make than other kinds of bread.” Several of these recipes can be found on the King Arthur Flour website here.

When I asked if he wants to get another class as a gift this coming Christmas, the answer was a resounding YES. “The classes are interesting because each has 30 people in it and everybody is different. Some are professional bread bakers and others are home-makers or whatever. I guess you could say that I’m a professional home-maker,” he says.

The Baking Education Center class calendar can be found here and King Arthur Flour bread recipes are here.

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INN KITCHEN COMFORTS

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More than 40 followers of my blog took a readers’ poll that I recently issued.  Although the responses indicate a diversity of interests, the message was clear: you want to read more tales about the Combes Family Inn, and you want me to throw in a bit about my travels, past and present. And, you want me to move past my “dry year” and associated diet and exercise journaling. Accordingly, I’ve put the innkeepers on notice that they need to dust off more of their apocryphal stories.

Blog Reader Poll Results

(The top vote-getters from the reader’s poll were Vermont Inn-Trigue, Travels, and My Memoir.)

While we await a few more “Vermont Inn-trigue” inn-keeping stories, I’ll share several of Mom’s famous comfort food recipes that she recently made for a dining room full of skiers. The menu included three of her most beloved winter recipes: broccoli soup, pork schnitzel, and homemade apple sauce.

Perched on the precipice of spring, we’re alternating between days of snow melt, mud, and rain, and nights (and some days) of freezing temperatures, ice, and snow flurries. This is a great time of year to enjoy comfort foods, in winter’s last hurrah before spring fully arrives, bearing both warm weather and fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the first course, what else but Ruth’s famous broccoli soup, a dish that has been on the menu since the inn opened in 1978? This treat, coveted by both family members and long-time guests alike, has transformed through the years.  The original recipe featured cream, butter, and chicken stock, and had relatively little actual broccoli.  The new one, as you’ll see below, is decidedly different, but it still tastes absolutely delicious.

Mom Dad soup

(Vermont inn keepers Bill and Ruth Combes are still dishing it out in the inn’s kitchen after 37 years.)

CFI’s Original Cream of Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
8 cups of broccoli florets

3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon of flour
2 cups of heavy cream
pinch of ground pepper

Method:
Melt 2 tablespoon of butter. Sauté celery and onions until tender. Add broccoli and broth. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Puree, using an immersion blender or a regular blender. In a small sauce pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter, and stir in flour and cream.  Stir until thick and add to the soup. Season with pepper and serve.

My mom explains the transformation of her broccoli soup this way: “About 10 years ago, I switched to my current recipe, because our guests were looking for healthier food and, frankly, so was I. My current recipe is all broccoli, basil and garlic, with a little olive oil. I actually got this recipe from Joe, the inn’s refrigerator repairman, who happens to have a large garden. Many of his recipes feature garlic, because he grows a lot of it; this recipe is no exception. My only modification from Joe’s original recipe is that I typically use only olive oil, whereas Joe preferred butter.”

Broccoli soup has always been Mom’s signature soup. Now, it’s just healthier and more flavorful. This is Joe’s recipe, which, as Mom notes, freezes very well.

Joe’s Basil and Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
5 cups coarsely chopped broccoli
2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons of olive oil (Joe suggests a combination of butter and olive oil)
¼ cup fresh chopped basil (when fresh basil is unavailable, tubed basil paste works just fine)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt & pepper
Lemon juice

Method:
In a saucepan, bring broccoli and stock to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until broccoli is tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Purée broccoli and stock with an immersion blender, food processor or blender, until smooth. Heat oil and/or melted butter in small saucepan and sauté garlic and basil briefly, until garlic turns brownish. Blend with about 2 cups of purée and process until smooth. Stir into soup. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. To serve, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese or a dollop of sour cream.

Broccoli soup

(The leaner, meaner version of Ruth’s broccoli soup, served with a dollop of Cabot sour cream.)

The entrée course featured pork schnitzel, simple noodles, and homemade apple sauce. Unlike the broccoli soup, Mom never made schnitzel when I was growing up in the inn, so I asked her to tell the story behind this recipe.

“We went to Germany in the early ‘90’s to visit [our son] Wayne, who was stationed there in the Air Force,” Mom said. “When we got back home, your father said we could write off the whole trip on our taxes, because we had brought back this schnitzel recipe, which we’ve been making ever since.”

She also explained that, in addition to being absolutely delicious, this is a very cost-effective, high-protein main dish. My father buys the pork in very large loins when it’s on sale and then slices it into several thin cutlets, which can be used immediately or frozen. The recipe below has its roots in the dinners my parents enjoyed in Germany while on vacation and is a modification of the pork schnitzel in a German cookbook purchased on that trip, combined with the method Mom uses to make her famous “Frenchie’s Chicken.”

Dinner is served

(The main course of pork schnitzel with homemade apple sauce, simple pasta, and green beans about to be served.)

Pork Schnitzel

Ingredients:
4 pork loin cutlets – either boneless pork chops or slices from whole pork loin, about 1/4 in. thick
¼ cup flour
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 egg beaten with a couple tablespoons of milk
¼ cup butter
¼ cup vegetable oil

Method:
Pound pork loin between sheets of plastic wrap until 1/8 inch thick. Melt butter and shortening in frying pan. Put the above flour, panko and beaten egg each on individual plates. Dip both sides of pork cutlets in the flour, the egg, and the crumbs, in that order. Fry in pan until golden brown on each side about 2-3 minutes per side.  Keep in slightly warm oven until ready to serve. Or keep cold and put in 400 degree oven for 5 minutes or so before serving. Serve with apple sauce.

When asked about the secret to the recipe, Mom dished out three: “Cut and pound the pork as thin as you can. You have to use panko and not regular bread crumbs. And, it’s the homemade apple sauce that absolutely makes the recipe.  Also, the secrets to my apple sauce are: apple cider, extra cinnamon, and using a food mill, to crank through the apples. Oh, and there’s another secret to the apple sauce:  I use the whole apple with the stems and everything.”

Mom for apple sauce

(Inn keeper Ruth Combers shares some or her cooking secrets, including a German cookbook purchased on a trip to Germany and her trusty hand-operated food mill.)

Ruth’s Home Made Apple Sauce

Ingredients:
5 lbs. of regular McIntosh apples
1/4 cup water, apple cider, or apple juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Method:
Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hr. or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through a food mill. (“This is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables,” says Innkeeper Ruth.) Add lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon. Apple sauce can be frozen.

Needless to say, dinner was absolutely delicious. That’s all…for now. Tune in next week to find out how Innkeeper Bill fared after two, individual, day-long bread-baking classes at the famous King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center, up in Norwich, Vermont.

A LITTLE PRIVACY PLEASE!

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In my last blog post, I left you with the image of a woman from Manhattan who had hiked through snow and up a fire escape in heels, entered my parents’ inn on the second story, and found her way to their bedroom. At least she knocked. Believe it or not, there have been several guests through the years who just walked right in. 

winter CFI

Once, during ski season, my mother was enjoying precious time by herself while all of the guests were skiing. She took her ritual afternoon bath, settled into bed with a good book and had fallen asleep. She opened her eyes to see a man standing in her bedroom, just three feet away, looking down at her.

When he saw her open her eyes, he said, in a heavy French accent, “I looked for you all over!” Then, “Are you a Combes?”  Before my mother had a chance to answer, he started babbling excitedly, “My name is Combes. I’m French. I wonder if you are French,” and so on. Mom pulled herself together and suggested that he go downstairs, promising that she would join him there in just a moment.

She took a few moments to get dressed and brush her hair, all the while lamenting the abrupt end of her relaxation. She closed the door of her sanctuary and she joined “Monsieur Combes” from France in the sitting room, where they talked for well over an hour about his family and how he happened past the inn, surprised to see a big sign emblazoned with “The Combes Family Inn.” When darkness began to fall, he stood up, kissed her on both cheeks and left. We never heard from him again.

Then there was the time that Room #8 (The Wildflower Suite) was rented to two nuns from Pennsylvania who were in the area to spend time at the Weston Priory. One of the nuns was in her late 70s, while the other was probably around 50 years old.

At about two in the morning, my mother was awakened by a vague noise and then the sight of the older of the two nuns standing over the bed, looking closely at her through the darkness. When my mother tells this story, she laughs as she says, “There was your father lying on top of the covers in his skivvies. Actually, I’m not even sure that he had his skivvies on!”

“May I help you?” my mother asked the old sister, who meekly replied, “I am looking for the bathroom.”

Mom said to me as she told the story, “I guess I was a really good innkeeper back then. I simply got up and took her by the hand and walked her back down the hallway to the bathroom connected to her room at the other end of the hallway.”

At breakfast the next morning, the younger of the two nuns pulled my mother aside and asked about what had happened during the night, evidently aware of the rustling in the room in the middle of the night. It turns out that her companion was known to be a sleep walker and that’s probably how she ended up in my parents’ bedroom!

It’s certainly a significant invasion of privacy to have people walk right into your bedroom, especially when it’s the only space in the whole house that is not open to the guests. However, that’s not the only way that our family gave up privacy through the years. 

It was also very difficult for our family to have private time, especially around the holidays when the ski season was in full swing. In 1999, several of us actually celebrated Christmas day at the inn. My mother claims that this was the only Christmas she and my father ever spent with their grandchildren on Christmas Day.

In fact, it was my nephew Liam’s first Christmas. Liam’s dad — my brother Billy — and his whole family were there. I was finally back from living overseas and also made it back to Vermont for Christmas for a change. It was a rare time in all of the years since my family opened the inn back in 1978 that many of us had the opportunity to celebrate together on Christmas Day.

Of course, it being a significant winter holiday, the inn had several guests, all of whom, save one, were off skiing. Would you believe that rather than reading in the living room or doing some other personal thing, the woman guest sat with us all morning long? She was there next to each of us as we opened every last gift, even peering along with us into our Christmas stockings. My mom’s favorite part of this story is that this woman –who only visited the inn that one time and whose name no one remembers — is, quite literally, in every single photo we took that Christmas morning.

Looking back on these and several other stories and my mother tells about the loss of privacy inherent in having opened our home as an inn for guests all of these years, it strikes me that we gained so much more than we ever gave up.