Archive for August 2008

The Little Fan That Could

August 31, 2008

On a hot, hot, end-of-summer’s day we hopped on the train for Amsterdam.  When I say hopped, of course, it’s a mere metaphor for “dragged our hot and tired selves and two enormous suitcases aboard” the TGV, but hopped sounds more sprightly, more vacation-like.  And we are indeed now on vacation, although I’m sure that my mother-in-law is going to read this and say “on vacation from WHAT?” since our normal life is already more or less a perpetual vacation in itself.

The TGV was hot, Paris was hot, the train to Amsterdam was hot, and Amsterdam itself was, you guessed it, also hot. Thank heavens that Marie, in presenting me with a pretty Chinese fan, reminded me that “on ne sort jamais sans son éventail.”  Never leave the house without your fan!  And thus it was that I fanned my way across three countries to a place where neither of us can understand a single word that’s spoken around us.

Stopping over in Paris, we searched for lunch near the Gare du Nord.  If you can recommend a good restaurant within suitcase-dragging distance of the Gare, please do.  If you’re in the vicinity and happen to see a little place claiming to be Japanese, as we did, perhaps you’ll notice that the staff is all speaking Chinese, not that we can understand Chinese, but we know Japanese when we hear it.  Even if we’d been wearing earmuffs, though, we’d have noticed that the tempura was, to put it charitably, not at all lacy.  While it’s true that even I could open a restaurant and call it Japanese, I just don’t know why people do that.  Oh well, we’re still batting about 1000 for eating badly in Paris.  It’s almost getting to be funny.

Aboard the Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam Shel went off to the bar car in an attempt to save me from melting into a puddle and returned with this consolation prize, reporting that it was actually cheaper than bottled water.  Ok!  That’s undoubtedly because we were in Belgium at the moment

where they really understand beer, although our sojourn was brief.  Being a very small country, we soon left Belgium behind and found ourselves at last in Holland.  The platforms offered us interesting sights

like this guy with his cool antennae coiffure

and this friendly face.  I knew right away that we weren’t in Kansas anymore when I saw this sign in The Hague

which appears to be advertising adventure sports including dog-mushing.  If I hadn’t seen the samoyed on the platform I’d never have imagined dog-mushing in Amsterdam, but now, I’m wondering.  Of course, first it would have to cool off.  A lot.


When Old Friends First Meet

August 28, 2008

Have you ever had a friend like this?  Someone you’ve known for so long that neither of you is sure whether it’s been ten years or twelve years.  Someone who remembers your birthday, always asks about your family, shares favorite recipes, and lives far away?  A friend who lives so far away, in fact, that although you’ve known each other for what seems like forever, you’ve never actually met?

Meet Heinz and Christine, as we just did.  After perhaps ten, perhaps twelve, years of an Internet-only relationship, Heinz beamed himself from the south of Germany to the south of France, and ended up with his charming wife and granddaughter at our lunch table.

The first few moments were a blur of sorting out our languages, adjusting our preconceptions to the reality of living, breathing persons, and focusing on the bright link that has kept us in touch for twelve years.  Or was it ten?

Although Heinz and I had a rich history together, especially a kitchen-variety history, it had all been told in writing.  It’s quite something else to hear the voice that speaks the words, and making the transition from pixels to sound waves was a lot like the difference between looking at these figs piled with foie gras and truffle mousse, and popping one or two into your mouth.  Or was it three? 

Because we’re both cooks, and cooks are always at their best when they’re around a table heaped with food and wine, soon the stories were tumbling out of us like a tangle of green vegetables over rare duck breast, which is to say juicily and refreshingly.  Satisfyingly, filling in the little empty corners in our understanding of each other until it seemed that we’d often sat together in just this way.  Or was it the wine?

And before we knew it the afternoon flowed into evening and we were still at the table, laughing and catching up on the things we hadn’t been able to talk about for lo these ten long years.  Or was it twelve?  No matter, because in any case we reset the clock today, and now we’ll count from this lunch forward.  And next time, it’s his turn to cook.

What Makes French Letters Tick?

August 24, 2008

Have you checked out your navel lately?  I know it sounds a bit kinky, in a neck-cricking sort of way, but I find that every so often a little navel-gazing does most of us good.  

Recently I received an email from a reader telling me how she sees French Letters, and asking why I do what I do.  Which, when you think of it, is a really good invitation to self-examination, and makes for a timely wrap up to the blog’s first year in the world. 

Somewhere in the early part of my life I came across Socrates’ notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and apparently it made quite an impression on me.  So, thanks to N.S., whom I’ve never met, for this reminder to stop and take a good look at the inner workings of what’s become a very nice part of my life.  Here’s some of what she said:

“I read your blog faithfully. I’m still trying to work out what to say, if anything, to your “bird in the hand” entry; it strikes so close to my heart that I fear writing the wrong thing.”

Friends of French Letters, there’s no wrong thing you could say.  The Comment section of the blog is a place for readers to express themselves, and you are all cordially invited to do so.  If something touches you, please, touch back!

“The French Letters is becoming, for me, less a blog and more a series of really fine essays. I think what you’re writing is on a par with the essays of Joan Didion and Maya Angelou. Seriously. “

Thank you for the compliment, but if I took that seriously we’d need the Jaws of Life to extract my swollen head from the biggest bird Air France flies! 

I keep wondering what the driving force is for blogging……. I’m curious about whether the blog is good exercise, good exposure, good advertisement, a venue for expression, all of the above, or something else I’ve overlooked. I’d love to know your thoughts on this, if you care to respond.”

Whew.  That’s a series of hard questions.  I could start by asking my Inner Blogger whether I write for mainly you or for myself.  That’s easy, the answer is both.  But would I write if you didn’t read?  Probably not.  Would my life be different without French Letters?  Totally.  Would yours?  I hope so.

I write about the things that make a difference in my life, and hope they’ll make some small difference in yours as well.  However, I have to agree that the line between essay writing and blogging is a bit floue for me, blurry.  Does that matter?

Well, sure.  To call myself an essayist would be to take myself too seriously.  As a blogger I have a wonderful freedom, to be silly, irreverent, post pictures of my lunch, brag about my cat, all the things Joan Didion would probably like to do but can’t because she’s, well, Joan Didion.  Because a blog is in the moment, if we suddenly can’t drink the water here in town or a kid grabs a bull by the tail in the main street, I get to write about it as if it were a Big Deal.

Of course, to me it is a big deal.  It’s all a big deal, and you might even say that’s my specialty, making a big deal out of the daily minutiae of our life in France.  When I was a kid my Mom was forever saying that I tended to make mountains out of molehills, and you know, for once I think she might have been right.

But lately I’ve been asking myself whether I dare to dig a little deeper.  I’d like to write about what the French people think about the upcoming American elections.  I might like to tackle the topic of how French society is changing before our very eyes.  Sometimes I think French Letters should have a little less food and wine, and a little more France.

But then, those would be essays.  The blog could become more serious.  Standards might have to be imposed.  The Fun Quotient might go down.  Beppo might no longer feel at home as a French Letters regular.

And how about you, friends met and unmet?  If you could make one French Letters wish for the coming year, what would it be?  After all, I write for you as least as much as I do for myself, so you should get to have a say in all this.  Because, finally, it’s as much about communication as it is about self-expression.

And then, in a few days, I promise that I’m going to take you on a road trip to Amsterdam and Bretagne, to reward you for your faithful reading of whatever it is I’m writing here.

A Tingle-Tangle of Tomatoes

August 21, 2008

This morning I awoke with the nuns.  We live near a convent where every morning some devoted person wakes up and vigorously clangs a not-too-tuneful bell to propel the community out of its slothful repose.  The bell clangs, I dare not say chimes, at 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00 in the morning, giving us all a choice of virtuous rising times.  This morning it was the 5:00 bells that got me out of bed, imagining this glass full of tomatoes and Petit Suisse.

I jumped out of bed, got out a knife, and set to dicing.  My goal was to create something eminently photographable, but not by the usual standards of French Letters.  For today was the day when my food first saw the light of professional photography, and wowsers, was it ever fun!  However, let me say that the photo above was taken by me, involving no karmic demerits for my photographer friend, and that the photos she took of these verrines, France’s favorite little glassfuls, were about 100 times better than the shot you see here.  Maybe 150 times better.

With Verity, a pro photographer par excellence, I made a veritable mountain of tomatoes come to life in  an amazingly elegant way.  My normal food photo experience is that I make something pretty, take a decent, plus or minus a little, photo of what I’ve cooked, and post it here.  I’m always a little sad because the photo doesn’t look as good as it should, but I just accept that as part of life.  I’m a cook who dabbles in photography, not the other way round.

But today the world stood on its head.  I looked at the photos as they rolled off the camera and onto the laptop in total awe.  “Wow, I made that beautiful food?”  Well, no, not exactly.  I made something, and then the photography made something of it.  It was a humbling and thrilling experience.  And as soon as I know where those photos are going to be published, believe me, you’ll be the first to know.

In the meanwhile, if you haven’t seen the current issue of Chile Pepper magazine, and you’d like to see how French Letters looks on semi-gloss paper, go get one.  There you can read about my trip to the piment d’Espelette festival, and see some reasonably okay pictures of how it all unfolded. 

And if you have way too many tomatoes on your hands just let me know.  I’m up to my ears in them myself, and I have a lot of pretty ideas what to do with them, with a little help from my friends.

Hooked On Sardines

August 18, 2008

I’m thrilled by sardines.  Go ahead, think I’m weird, it’s ok.  Having lived most of my life near waters where sardines have ceased to swim, the secrets of fresh sardines are still unfolding for me.  Look how beautiful they are.  They’re practically fish art, and the fact that they’re cheap, plentiful, and good for you only serves to enhance their beauty.

But, enhance it we must, unless raw sardines seem appealing.  I don’t know about you, but while I like to admire them raw, I prefer to eat them cooked.  Like this, for example.

My friend Marie gave me a sweet little cookbook recently, called “La Cuisine du Languedoc-Roussillon et de l’Aveyron.”  It’s full of simple, non chef-influenced recipes like this one, the kind grandmothers make when their families descend on them along with the rest of the August hordes that head to the south of France to enjoy the heat and the seafood.  The great thing about this recipe is that, according to the instructions, it can keep in the fridge for 10 days.  While I wouldn’t go that far, and it wouldn’t last that long around here anyway, I love a dish that will hang out peacefully in my fridge waiting to be served at a moment’s notice.  If you can get fresh sardines, try this while the weather is still warm.  That way you can have a swim, kick back with a cool drink, and still serve something brilliant for supper.

Sardines à l’Escabèche

1 kilo of sardine fillets
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 T. paprika
6 bay leaves
2 cups good olive oil
a splash of vinegar

Rinse the sardines and pat dry.  Grill them on both sides, either over a wood fire or under the broiler.  Don’t cook them too long, 5 minutes total is the most it will take.  Arrange them in a flat dish, close together, and salt them well.

Heat the oil gently in a saucepan and add the chopped garlic, bay leaves, and paprika.  When the garlic is cooked but not browned turn off the heat.  Add a good splash of your favorite vinegar to the pan; I like to use sherry vinegar.  It will bubble and boil a bit.  When it stops, pour it over the sardines.  Let it chill in the fridge for at least a day before serving.

Now there, wasn’t that easy?  Actually, the hardest part is finding the fresh sardines.  Serve these with a green salad full of fresh herbs, on buttered bread, or with pasta.  If you find another good way to use them, please let me know.  I have a plateful in the fridge just awaiting inspiration.

Smitten By Bitten

August 16, 2008

This is lecso.  Thanks to Mark Bittman’s wonderful blog Bitten I think lecso is going to be my new summer favorite vegetable.  This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Bitten, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  It’s an ever-changing, smart and interesting collection of recipes and articles, one I’m sure you’ll like too.  Check it out, if you haven’t already.  Ok, are you ready to lauch into lecso?

You’ll need to find some frying peppers, those long, sometimes twisty, thin-skinned beauties that are in season right now.  And it’s worth hunting for some good paprika, one that tastes deep and rich.  Give yours a sniff.  If it smells like dust, toss it out without mercy.  Other than that, there’s nothing to it.  A couple of hours in the kitchen at most and you’ll be smiling for at least a week, since this recipe makes a huge amount.  Thank goodness.

Get out your favorite wooden spoon, because you’re going to be stirring quite a lot and it might as well be fun.  And sharpen your knife, because lecso takes some serious knife work: you’ll need to julienne a couple pounds of peppers, plus onions and tomatoes.  If you’re following along with the recipe, let me say that I did peel my tomatoes and I think you should too.  I used duck fat instead of lard, because that’s what I had, and it’s delicious.  And even though there’s some discussion in the article about reducing the sugar content, I’ll confess to having used two entire teaspoons.  My tomatoes were straight from the garden, but that added sugar is just right.  Be sure to taste and adjust at the end, as the recipe recommends.

If you’re a person like me, a person who likes to keep duck confit in your fridge all winter, lecso may be just the summer substitute you’ve been searching for.  Keep a bowlful on hand and you’ll never have to wonder whether to call out for a pizza because there’s nothing for dinner.  It’s Hungarian, it’s healthy, and I’m pretty sure it’s good with everything.  Stir some into pasta, put it over polenta, fill an omelette, use it as a sauce for anything the least bit bland, or eat it on toast.  Although, honestly, it’s good enough to eat with a spoon.

Gimme That Old Time Religion

August 14, 2008

Hey, what have we here?  Nothing much, just your basic buckwheat galettes  that I filled with egg, ham, and cheese.  It’s plain, it’s simple, it’s buttery and comforting, it’s the kind of thing women have been making at home for hundreds of years.  It’s why their families worship them.  It’s just what it looks like, although not as lacy and delicate as it should be, and it tastes just like it looks.  What it’s not is Michelin star material. 

This week, to celebrate my birthday, we went to a restaurant with one Michelin star.  This was our third meal at a starred restaurant, and might well be our last.  Why?  Because I think I’m finally tired of food that looks like this:

What the heck is that, anyway?  Well, it’s ris de veau wrapped in a robe of spaghetti with fresh mushrooms, crisp bacon, summer truffle, and a “virtual lard” sauce.   Summer truffle because then the server can tantalize you with the idea of truffle, even though this particular summer truffle tasted neither of summer nor of truffle, but more like a dried chip of packaging material.  Virtual, according to our server, because there’s no lard in there, but it tastes like there’s lard in there.  Lard being a way to say bacon here.  And virtual being a way to say unreal, as in not what it seems, not what you hope for, and in the end, not what you want.

Or take this dish.  It was announced as pigeon étouffé, and here’s where my French let me down.  I imagined pigeon à l’étouffée, pigeon smothered in a little onion or other aromatics.  So when the naked hunks of pigeon landed in front of me I asked the server about the name, since the meat didn’t appear to be smothered in anything.  After a quick trip to the kitchen our flustered-looking young server returned to say “I’m sorry, Madame, but it’s the way the pigeon was killed.”  Ok, probably a smothered pigeon, with its blood still in it, does taste better than a regularly slaughtered pigeon.  I’m not going to get all squeamish here, since the pigeon was going to become dead one way or another.  And it did taste good, but not that fabulous.  Evidently what was supposed to be fabulous about it was the fact that it had been smothered.  As for the cute little crunchy thingie, it looked nice on the plate, but it wasn’t really something you’d want in your mouth unless you were lost in the Andes, in great need of sustenance, and didn’t feel like smothering anything more obviously edible.

Last night when I asked Shel what he wanted for dinner he said, without a moment’s hesitation “cheeseburger.”  But I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d asked for galettes, or even scrambled eggs.  After a surfeit of precious food, food almost too picturesque to disturb with your fork, food that fills your eyes and your belly without nourishing your spirit, all I wanted myself was the least pretentious meal imagineable.  I wanted food that was served with only one set of silverware, with forks and knives that were easily identifiable.  I wanted food prepared by a cook who wasn’t bored with normal ingredients and had to resort to playing tricks on the plate.  I wanted food prepared for someone hungry, somone without a jaded palate, someone who might like to add a little catsup.

And so, virtually humming the catchy tune to “gimme that old time religion, it’s good enough for me,” I went in my own zero-star kitchen and made cheeseburgers for dinner.  And they were very good.