Archive for January 2009

Too Beautiful To Be Food

January 27, 2009

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Now I ask you, could you bring yourself to eat something so surpassingly gorgeous?  It was tough.  And yet, an eggplant is nothing if not food.  Left to its own devices it will simply ripen, wither, and reseed itself.  Which, when you come to think of it, is about all we ourselves do, so who am I to minimize the intrinsic worthiness of that cycle?

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We do have to eat, however, so in terms of something edible, wouldn’t you say that these beauties are the Essence of Eggplant, the Summit of Stripeyness, the Acme of Appetizability?  Me too, and I enjoyed every bite.  But since my preferred eggplant cookery trick is to simply roast them whole in a hot oven, then toss the meltingly tender flesh into various other concoctions, they were all too quickly reduced from their flamboyant good looks to a drab ordinariness.  And actually, now that you mention it, that’s pretty much what happens to us as well, so perhaps I Am The Eggplant, You Are The Eggplant, and so on.  Or maybe not.

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Perhaps it would be better to be an amande.  Although normally an amande is an almond, in this case it’s a mysterious shellfish that looks to be closely related to a clam.  I couldn’t resist these today when I saw them for the first time at, of all places, the supermarket.  I asked the fish seller how to cook them.  “Oh no, Madame, you must eat them raw.”  Since they’re actually quite huge I let it be known that I was having a hard time imagining how to swallow one.  “Oh no, Madame, you must bite it.”  And since the very thought of biting into huge raw unknown denizens of the shoreline must have turned me a bit pale, he said to me quietly “il sonts très particuliers.”

Now, particulier is a polite way to say peculiar, or weird, or even beyond the pale, when applied to a person.  It’s said knowingly, with a little shrug or wink, but not entirely disparagingly, as if to say that he, she, or it is an acquired taste.  Possibly one that’s very hard to acquire.  So naturally, ever up for a culinary challenge,  I had to acquire a few amandes, take them home with me, and bite them.

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Uh oh.  Does this inspire you to open wide?  In the interest of science, as well as maintaining my self-respect, I took a deep breath and while no one was watching I bit the middle right out of that amande, and yes, it was good.  Crunchy, briny, vivid.  So I bravely attacked the side parts, which were oh my god spit me out right now.  And so I did.  But there was still one left and it was very pretty, so pretty that I wanted to take a picture of it for you.

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Only for some reason every shot was out of focus, no matter how hard I twirled my magic dials.  And finally I came to the crashing realization that oh my god the thing was moving, trying to get away from the light and my sharp teeth, right down into the safety of its shell.  Just as we do when life tries to bite us off and spit us out.

And I suddenly remembered why I was once a vegetarian for nine long years, and I felt better about despoiling an exquisite eggplant than I ever have before, and no, I did not eat that last amande.  Not on your life.

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Why There Are So Many Cats In France

January 25, 2009

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Cats are absolutely everywhere in France.  A few, like Beppo, may have come from abroad to snooze through la vie française, but judging by how many people are surprised and delighted to make the acquaintance of an actual American cat, I rather think he’s in the minority.  And, thank the cat goddess, he normally stays close to home, eschewing the ways of French cats in which they generally act like they own the outside world.

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I mean, really.  We’d never seen this cat before in our lives, but doesn’t he look like he’s about to carjack us?  One cat I see often seems to live in a roundabout near the supermarket, and can frequently be found sunning himself and having a bath as the cars whiz all around him.  A restaurant in town has numerous cats in the dining room, and although the owner swears they are wild cats who just happened in, you don’t see her shooing them off the chairs.  In fact, there are often more cats than customers in there, and a cynic might say that the two things are related.  And lately I’ve even had to resort to closing the cat door when we go to bed, shutting Beppo and Zazou in the house, because of stray cats coming inside for a snack and a gander at little Zazou, now a teenager, both of which cause Beppo to let loose with his terrible ear-splitting protective yowls in the middle of the night.

And thus we come to the stark truth.  Those cats were coming into a strange house because Zazou smelled interesting, in a girlie way.  Even though she’s still a baby and a real tomboy and would rather be up a tree than locked in a furry embrace with another cat, unless that cat’s Beppo,

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she’s six months old.  Old enough, incredible as it seems, to be a maman.  And in France, cats aren’t sterilized until they’re 6 months old.  When I told the veterinary tech that in the US we sterilize them at 8 weeks, she at first thought that my French wasn’t up to making the distinction between weeks and months.  When I finally convinced her that yes, we sterilize them before they’re old enough to even get any ideas, she was horrified.

This goes a long way toward explaining why there are always kids selling baskets of kittens, and clutches of feral kittens hanging around abandoned buildings.  By the time the vet is willing to snip the kitty, the kitty has other things in mind, and people who don’t want a houseful of kittens evidently just set them outside somewhere.  Not to mention that we had to pay 115 Euros to have Zazou spayed, which is almost three times what one pays in the US to adopt a kitten from the shelter who’s been spayed and has had shots into the bargain.  The French say this is all in the best interest of the cat, that sterilizing them too young damages them internally, and for all I know, psychologically as well.

But the truth is that when sterilized at 8 weeks a kitten barely knows what hit it, whereas Zazou still hasn’t entirely forgiven us for the pain and indignities she suffered in the process.  When we brought her home from the vet she dragged herself upstairs in a painful, wobbly way and hid under the covers of our bed, which was sweet and funny until she screamed and hissed at us when we tried to get in with her later that night.  As soon as she was able she set about ripping off her bandage, and when we took her back to have her stitches out we learned that Zazou the Tomboy Princess and Surgical Assistant Kitten had already taken them out herself, thank you very much.

This whole business has helped me to finally understand a French expression that I learned long ago: when you want to say a place is utterly deserted, there’s nobody there at all, you say there is pas un chat.  Not even a cat.  It’s a rare state of affairs here, where if only one creature is stirring, it’s very likely to be a cat.

Black Is Beautiful

January 23, 2009

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Truffles for two, please.  Oh, and a side of foie gras, if you will. 

For Eric’s last dinner with us before he heads back to the States, we decided to throw both caution and our investment in the truffle economy where they would do the most good: namely, directly onto our plates.  We had two truffles, each about 20 grams, which is just the right amount for two people.  Luckily for us, Shel doesn’t really like truffles, so Eric and I were in business.

Last year at truffle time I tried to use little bits of my truffles here and there, to spread them out as much as possible.  That was a big mistake, since nothing I made with them was really wow.  This year I followed two important principles: 1) you need 5 grams of truffle per person in a dish to really appreciate the Truffle Nature, and 2) if 5 grams per person is good, 10 grams is much better.  And you know, 15 grams might have been even more exquisite, but even though truffles are much cheaper this year, they’re still a luxury and a pair of 20 gram truffles was what we had.

Eric asked for a truffle risotto as a starter, and I followed this recipe almost exactly, except that I microplaned my truffle into the cream before infusing it.  It’s a gorgeous recipe, and even though it looks like way too much broth for the amount of rice, and doesn’t use any wine, it turns out to be one of the best risotto dishes I’ve ever tasted. 

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We decided on truffle burgers as a main course, so I grated half a truffle into the ground beef and let it mellow all together for a couple of hours.

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I put some nice truffle slices into a bit of olive oil, and chopped the rest into a heap of foie gras, with the result that we sat down to

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burgers of truffled beef, with truffle slices in the middle of the patty, and a melt of truffled foie gras on top.  After the risotto, eating it on a salad seemed like the thing to do, so I dressed the greens with just the meat juices from the pan deglazed with a bit of red wine, and we were purring.

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I’d wanted to make a truffle dessert too, but I chickened out and made this wonderful pudding with leftover viennoiseries, croissants, pain d’amande, and even a bit of baguette, with some little chunks of Bernachon extra-bitter chocolate standing in for the truffles.

A lovely bottle of Domaine de St. Georges 2001 Côtes du Rhône, candlelight, truffles and foie gras, a light rain falling outside,

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and a cute French girl to sleep with, and now bonne route Eric, safe trip home, and I hope that large can of duck confit isn’t making your luggage too heavy.

Abra’s Viennoiserie Pudding

12-14 oz assorted croissants, pain d’amande, baguette, or whatever pastries and bits of bread you’d like to use up
3 eggs
1 cup cream
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup cassonade or raw sugar, plus a little for topping
1 tsp vanilla
1 small handful of the best and darkest chocolate you can find, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°  Cut the pastries into bite-sized pieces and place them in a baking dish.  Put the eggs, cream, milk, sugar and vanilla in the blender and whizz to a froth.  Pour this over the pastry bits, toss in the chocolate, and press with a spoon for a couple of minutes to be sure the bread is submerged.  Sprinkle the top of the pudding with an extra spoonful or two of sugar.

Place the pudding dish in a bain marie of hot water and put it all in the oven.  Bake for about an hour, until top is golden but the center of the pudding is still a bit jiggly.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a little splash of cream.

Le Plus Beau Moment

January 21, 2009

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Here’s what I wore to the Inaugural Ball, which I described to various reporters as “le plus beau moment de ma vie,” the best moment of my life.

The fact that our inaugural festivities took place in Avignon instead of Washington didn’t matter a bit; we watched America celebrate on a huge screen, in real time, we cheered for Aretha’s indomitable soul, commiserated with Michelle for those blocks walked in tortuous high heels, stood to sing the national anthem, and listened to our new President describe the hard work ahead with our hearts full of hope, just as you did.

There were many French people at our inaugural party, which surprised me.   When I asked them why they’d come, they universally said that this was a very important moment for France, for Europe, for the world.  It was a great reminder that it’s not just our private party, our personal celebration of having finally outgrown our dark and too-narrow past, that, in fact, the whole world is watching.  There were a lot of reporters at the party too, which really surprised me.  They wanted to know what the night meant to us, what we thought of Barack’s inaugural address, how we felt about having a black President, and contrary to what one would expect of the fashion-conscious French, not one asked what we thought of Michelle’s dress.

The music was good, with the French musicians launching valiantly into an eclectic selection of American favorites.  First on the list was We Shall Overcome, a song I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember, but sung last night with a twist: no more we shall overcome some day, but instead, a ringing “we have overcome today.”  I don’t think any of us believed, deep in our hearts, that it’s all been overcome, but it felt good to sing.  It felt very good.

The party rocked, the wine was excellent, as French wine is, and it flowed freely, American style.  I heard myself saying that it was the best moment of my life, and I wondered privately if I might have been exaggerating a bit.  Mais non, que nenni, and nope, not at all, I decided after a moment’s reflection.  Because in truth I feel that the days formerly known as my personal best have been beautifully eclipsed by a day that is so manifestly the best for my country, and so much in the best interest of my world.

At the end of one interview the reporter asked me, just for the record, if I were American.  “Américaine, et fière de l’être” I replied.  American, and proud to be one.  That felt good to say, and I can’t remember the last time I said it.  Nor can I remember the last time everyone called the President of the United States by his first name.  But although we’ve heard a lot of “go Barack” and “go Michelle” in the past few months, it is with the greatest pleasure that I now say “you go, Mr. President!”

A Bite Of Black Gold

January 18, 2009

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I guess they got asked so many times for the recipe that the nice ladies from the Uzès Office of Tourism  just wrote it on the tablecloth:

3 kg truffles
3000 eggs
20 litres oil
30 litres cream

And that’s all they wrote.  But that’s not the whole story, of course, because to pull it off you need a town square full of truffle lovers, truffle tasters, truffle buyers

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and truffle vendors.  Thanks to favorable weather conditions, truffles are relatively cheap this year, going today for 70 Euros for 100 grams, which works out to 700 Euros a kilo, or about $425 a pound.  Considering that last year they were selling for about 1000 Euros a kilo, that’s practically a bargain basement price.  Since the weather has been trufflish, we invested in a few, and later this week we’ll make some sort of truffle extravaganza dinner.  But for today, we let others do the cooking.

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You need a big crew of strong guys to scramble 3000 eggs,

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plus a fork lift to get the hot pan off the fire before the eggs get vulcanized,

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lots of serving dishes to feed the hungry masses,

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and a stalwart dish crew for the sad moment when it’s all over but the fire.  

But truffles aren’t brought by the stork, and to further our education we were also treated to a demonstration of truffle hunting.  These truffles are cultivated, of course, in a wildcrafted sort of way, but they still need to be found and dug up.

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Dogs in the audience were invited to come front and center and dig for truffles, although most of them sniffed happily without ever finding anything.

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A few dogs were more diligent and approached the ring in a workmanlike manner

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with an eye to taking care of business.

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After the dogs had their day, they brought in the big gun.  This rather enormous pig showed us who was the boss truffle turner-upper, as she went quickly and decisively from one buried treasure to another

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getting a treat from her person for every truffle she found, and never stealing the tiniest one for herself.  You can see her in action right here on YouTube, courtesy of Eric.  She was such a cutie pie, don’t you dare even think about pork roast with truffles!

After watching the dig, we weren’t ready to renounce truffle-snuffling, and went off in search of a truffle lunch for ourselves.

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All the restaurants in town had posted their truffle menus in the center of the square, and we chose Le Zanelli

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where, if “awesomest” were a word I’d use it to describe their truffle and arugula pizza,

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with the truffle tagliatelle in a cognac and cream sauce coming in a close second.  We left, licking our lips and stuffed to the gills

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and couldn’t help but notice that even the restaurant’s cat, who had been much in evidence under the tables, looked like truffle festival day might be the best day of the year.

And now we’ve got three truffles waiting in the kitchen, so if you have a favorite recipe to share, please do!

Old Is The Color

January 17, 2009

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We’re all getting older all the time, a fact that has been forcefully brought home to me this week by having two birthday boys in the house at once.  But no matter how old they get, they’ll never be really old, not by French standards.

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Here old is measured in centuries, as in “we’re having a hard time finding plumbing fixtures for this part of the house that was started in the 13th century.”  There a bad side and a good side to this: on the one hand, you feel like an upstart newcomer being from a country that’s younger than most people’s houses, but on the other hand, you’re not dragging the weight of all those centuries around with you everywhere you go.

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When the Greeks invaded Gaul they brought the idea of stone cutting with them.  Lacking power tools, each and every stonecutter left the imprints of his daily work for us to gawk at thousands of years later. 

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Then the Romans showed up, knocked down most of the work done by the Greeks, and introduced plumbing to the land.  Lots of their plumbing still exists here,

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since it was built to last forever, unlike the plumbing in our house which was built to last until the plumber put the check in the bank.  In fact, dealing with the plumber has aged us more than any six birthdays combined, and we’d pretty much prefer to move into an unrestored Roman ruin than call him again.

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That might actually be easier than it sounds, since around here just about every time you put a shovel in the ground you end up uncovering some priceless bit of antiquity.  If I dig in my garden at home I might find that pair of pruning shears I lost a couple of summers ago, but that’s about it.  It all kind of puts you in your place, if you think about it.

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What trips me up, even more than the plumbing, is the idea that whatever I think here, wherever I think it, it’s all old news.  People have been here for so long already, thinking what people think, doing what people do, for more time than I know how to imagine.  There’s not a lot new under the sun here, which is at once the charm and the heavy burden of the place.

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Buildings are in layers, modern atop Roman piled on Greek built over Gallic as far back as it goes, a busy warren of human life through the centuries.  Ideas here are like that too, each new thought is sifted through the filter of a long, long history of thought.  It’s hard to leave one’s mark on generations to come, unless one is a plumber, and then all bets are off.  Coming from a country where the new and the now are valued more highly than whatever happened there and then, it’s an eye-opening experience.

Living as we are in a land that’s been invaded countless times, our house, like many houses, is behind a locked gate set in a stone wall.  Strangely, this does not make me feel safer and more secure, but rather, in dark moments, I feel trapped.  We’re starting to talk about going home.  It’s a long conversation.

Someone’s In The Kitchen

January 12, 2009

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Before one even has a chance to get the post-holiday blues, in France it’s time for galettes des rois, which could sweeten up the most stalwart Grinch.  As I explained here, there are a number of rituals associated with this cake, but our main ritual this year was to collect fèves.  Just so you know, we didn’t actually eat five cakes, but we did collect fèves whenever possible, with the result that I now possess an adorable wee chef of my own, plus a lovely, if rock-solid, naked lady.  Both of those come from cakes baked in Montpellier, where life must be a little more exciting than it is here, judging by our comparatively tame local fèves, and so I’m glad to have them.

I had intended to bake a galette of my own this year,  but instead I’ve been focused more on the savory side of the house.  Chased indoors by the winter weather, I’ve been into long, slow kitchen projects

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like this rabbit and hare terrine.  To make it I riffed on Lucy’s recipe,

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but used pecans instead of pistachios, and added tart cherries and a big dousing of Farigoule, a peculiarly delicious thyme liqueur.  I’d make it again in a heartbeat, if only for the fantastic soup that I simmered up with the rabbit stock and the overflow juices from the terrine, but right after Noël, unless you’re a hunter, fresh hare disappears completely out of your life. 

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I’ve also made this fabulous Spinach Cake, which is an excellent way to atone for too much galette and other holiday treats.  The part of this recipe that qualifies it for long and slow is washing the spinach, since it uses nearly a kilo of greens.  In case you are wondering how much a kilo of spinach actually is, it’s an entire large sink full.  Really full.

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There have also been Comice pears slowly simmered and endlessly basted in red wine and Ruby port with Christmas spices, one of the best winter fruit desserts there is.  These were, in fact, all-weather pears, since not only is the pot sitting in the snow, but the spicy syrup is reflecting passing clouds and the peekaboo blue of the clearing sky.

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For a homesick day there was a vegetable tikka and a lamb curry.  It’s hilarious to us, but the more homesick we are, the more we crave spicy food, Asian food, Mexican food, anything but French food.

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But then inevitably I come to my senses and start something like this civet de sanglier, a boar stew that, having  marinated for two days, is in the oven right now for its first cooking, and will be ready to serve in two more days, for Eric’s birthday.

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Because, yes, Eric will be celebrating an anniversaire this year, as well as a birthday.  Shel too, as it happens, both getting another year older this very week, giving me a marvelous excuse to hang out in the kitchen making delicious birthday foods for them.  And while you know that I love to cook each and every day, I love it the most when I have a special occasion to prompt my best efforts.  Two January birthdays, that’s the cure for the after-holiday slump.  That and a fridge full of boar, what more could one want?