Archive for April 2009

Packing It In

April 29, 2009

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We’re doing everything we can to avoid regret.  Am I going to miss these pans over the summer?  Certainly not.  Are we going to miss Zazou?  Unquestionably, and Beppo even more so.  We’re in non-stop decision mode, which requires touching each and every thing that belongs to us in this life, right down to the most trivial.  Like how about my exercise sheets on the use of the subjunctive?  I could take them back with me, but would I really study them over the summer?  Do we want to have French toothpaste with us or would we be happy to use Tom’s again? Really, nothing is too insignificant for our consideration today.

In the great triage extravaganza everything is trying to find its place in the scheme of the summer, so that we don’t find ourselves somewhere, someday, lacking what seems at the time to be the one essential element of happiness.   There’s what to take back to the US for good, what to take over there and bring back to France in the Fall, what to take to the US with the plan to leave it there altogether, what to throw or give away, what to leave here awaiting our return.  What the heck are we doing with all this stuff?

And there’s even a bigger question, what’s to become of French Letters when I’m not in France? Would you be so kind, dear readers, as to give me some feedback on this existential issue? I’m not 100% certain that this poll will work, but then, nothing’s really 100% certain. Go on, give it a try. You have the opportunity to shape the immediate future of French Letters, and I invite you to speak up. And if you want to come over and help us pack, you know you’re invited to do that too.

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A Victory For Vegetables

April 26, 2009

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It’s sad but true that vegetables are kind of second class citizens in France.  Salads are big, but when it comes to cooked vegetables you all too often see just a few beans or a little pile of something vaguely green on your plate.  So when we were invited by our friend Jacqueline to participate in a cooking competition, and invited to choose a plate to prepare, I chose vegetables.  Actually, I hesitated a bit, wanting to win, wanting to choose something more popular, but when Jacqueline said that if I didn’t do vegetables nobody would, I realized that it was my duty to tackle the French vegetable situation.

Above you see the plate that Shel and I made, artichokes braised with fennel, carrots and coriander, little Parmigiano tuile cups filled with fava beans, mint and crème fraîche, zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs, a springtime vegetable risotto, and a stuffed morel.  And the secret ingredient on the plate? The all-important green leaf, which is l’ail des ours, or bear garlic.  And in fact said ail des ours found its subtly garlicky way into each and every preparation, so that what we had was a long riff on an unknown green leaf that adds something delicate and special to anything it touches.  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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This was a real contest, with real rules.  Six couples cooked and one couple hosted and organized and helped out teams in difficulty and washed dishes and poured wine and enforced the rules, stuff like everyone had to wear a chef’s toque, and every dish had to have a name, and as much of the cooking as possible had to be done on site in real time, and so on.  And they were entrusted with counting up the scores, for each dish was graded.  Also they provided the prizes, since every team was rewarded for its efforts.  They had the hardest job of all, and they did it cheerfully and with feeling.

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So, to begin at the beginning.

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We made a big effort to arrive early so as to grab a large workspace for ourselves, American hegemony at its finest.  Shel went to work trimming up the little purple Provençal artichokes, while Jacqueline provided moral support.  Not that Shel really needed it, but you know he loved it anyway.

About those artichokes.  Remember when I first told you about Alice and her wonderful vegetables? When I called her to say that I was going to participate in a cooking competition and wanted whatever she had that was perfect for the season and rare into the bargain, right away she said “l’ail des ours, no one will have any idea what that is, and all the chefs are using it right now.”  Okay!  I was sold on the idea immediately, and got a big bag of the garlicky leaves from her, along with tiny purple artichokes, fava beans, radishes, peas, and other springtime delights.  I advise you to have farmers as friends whenever possible, it makes life just that much better on a daily basis, contest or no.

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Although Soléa looks quite calm here, except for the speed with which she’s dusting her choux puffs, the kitchen was absolute pandemonium, with people bumping into each other on the way to the sink, stove, and oven, immersion blenders whirring, pots simmering, and remarkably little swearing.

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Once each plate hit the table, the critical tasting and scoring began.  Wines were matched to the dishes, and each one was graded on four criteria: the taste, the originality, the presentation, and the creativity of the name given to the dish.  Each couple huddled, assessed, argued, finally agreed, and voted.

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Third place, and the prize for overall flavor, went to Soléa and René for their choux puffs filled with a rum pastry cream.  I’m not saying that the rum influenced the votes, but there was definitely quite a lot of it in there.

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Second place, and the prize for the dish with the best name, went to Christine and Alain for their salmon, asparagus, and quail egg aspic.

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Jacqueline was incredibly generous with the prizes.  This is the pile of goodies that went to the first place winner, next to the Golden Fork.  Today was the third annual contest, and the names of the previous winners  were already inscribed on the huge fork, awaiting this year’s winners.  The prizes were all heaped into

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an enormous and gorgeous serving dish.

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Do I look as stunned as I felt?  I never imagined that an American could win, but even more so, I never imagined that vegetables could win.  Most original dish, best presentation, and first place overall, went to Our Vegetable Plate.  I’m still blown away.

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I had to ask the group: did we win in honor of our new President?  Was it political?  Was it because we’re foreigners?  But no, really, I think it was the vegetables.  Nobody imagined that vegetables could be the stars of the show.  One strike for the superiority of the vegetable kingdom!  And also, we did get special mention and probably extra points for the fact that Shel was working in the kitchen all morning right along with me.  Of course I said, with an air of utter conviction, that all American men do that.  Don’t they?

Wisteria Hysteria

April 23, 2009

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Like the glycine in the garden this year, our life here is lush, richly colored, fragrant and delicious and brimming with growth.

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How quickly we’ve grown roots, how our lives have become entwined with this place.  How profoundly we flourish and flower here.  How hard it is to leave.

Far more than just  a place to call home, it actually feels like home to us much of the time.  We constantly envy our Dutch and English friends, who can have two homes in two countries that are only some number of car lengths apart.  Our two would-be homes are so far apart that we’re torn between them, every day.

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Meanwhile the days pass faster and faster, as days are wont to do.  The to-do list grows by leaps and bounds, the wisteria climbs the cypress, the packing boxes pile high.  Friends here ask us why we’re leaving, if we’re coming back, and how soon.  Friends and family on the other side shower us with come-home wishes.  Beppo and Zazou are blissfully ignorant of the fact that they’ll stay in France and wait for our return, a long wait, in the life of a cat.

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One day soon we’ll close this gate behind us and step back into the world we once called our own.  I’m so glad we didn’t leave before the wisteria bloomed.

Bon Anniversaire A Toi

April 21, 2009

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A French birthday party on a stormy springtime Sunday.  Chased indoors by thunder and hail after a welcoming glass of Champagne and little sausage bites on the patio, we settled in for a festive afternoon.  I tried to explain that we have a similarly pastry-wrapped sausage nibble, but somehow cochons en couette, although I think it’s a good translation of pigs in a blanket, fell strangely on the ears of our friends.  It’s one of those things that just sounds better in English, although it tasted better in French, being made with puff pastry and really good sausage.

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We all agreed, though, that this tempting starter should be given a special name, and we settled on Crevette dans son Berceau de Verdure, shrimp in a cradle of greenery.  This turns out to be one of those things that sounds a whole lot better in French but tastes good in both languages.

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But the oohs and aahs that greeted the appearance of this cassoulet were bilingual, universal, and fervent.  This was a cassoulet delivered directly from Castelnaudary, which is the Cassoulet Mecca of France.  Having made several versions of cassoulet at home, both in the US and here, I was delighted to finally have a chance to taste the real deal.

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Will you permit me a paragraph of complete cassoulet geekery?  I know that some of you are avid cassoulet makers, and will be wondering about the minutest of details.  First of all, the raging debate: to Tarbais or not Tarbais?  These beans were lingots, not Tarbais, and they were perfectly tender yet held their shape.  To top with crumbs or not?  Nope, here the crust was formed entirely by turning, and it was more chewy than crunchy.  The sausage wasn’t like any other I’ve had, and I think the reason was the fat, which I imagined was gorge de porc, the same pork fat I wrote about here.  The sausage was almost dissolving into the whole, and broke apart at the slightest touch.  The ensemble was more unctuous than any cassoulet I’ve eaten, not mushy from being overcooked, but melting in the mouth, undoubtedly from the fat content, without being greasy.  It was, in fact, quite awesomely delicious, and met its match in a glass or two of a beautiful Saint Emilion.

Incredibly, inevitably, there was also birthday cake.  And then, as a digestif, to help the sweet medicine go down,

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the birthday boy unwrapped his new ukelele

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everyone grabbed an instrument

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and set about doing what comes naturally, in every language.

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Once again, it seemed to be all about the music.  But I have to admit that the cassoulet came in a close second.  Very close.

Plant A Radish Get A Radish

April 19, 2009

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Remember that great song from the Fantasticks?

“Plant a radish.
Get a radish.
Never any doubt.
That’s why I love vegetables;
You know what you’re about!”

Although I love adventure as much as the next person, and in the kitchen I probably love adventure more than most people, sometimes I just want to serve a meal that is guaranteed to be 100% perfect every time and adored by everyone.  Up until now I’ve successfully resisted the idea of a “go to” meal, but this one sneaked up on me, and now it won’t let me go.  I’ve served it three times recently, to three entirely different groups of French guests, and each and every time it was Guests Going Gaga.

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The main dish is this Ragout of Veal with Orange, from Paula Wolfert’s Cooking of Southwest France.  If you’ve ignored all of my previous instructions to run out and buy this wonderful book, you can find the recipe here.  I always double the amount, using a kilo of veal stew meat and an entire bottle of wine.  I also make it in the oven in a big clay pot, baking it at 350° tightly covered for 4 hours, then making the sauce as directed, (except that I don’t add the parsley and chives but rather sprinkle them over the top when I serve the dish), and then putting it in the fridge overnight.  The ragout tastes twice as good the next day, when all you need to do is set it in a slow oven for a couple of hours, uncovered, until the sauce is thick and lush and the meat is falling-apart tender.

The dish has a natural affinity for carrots, and I highly recommend that you serve a big heap of them alongside.  And for a starch?  Have I got a treat for you: Gnocchetti di Semola!

 I got this recipe years ago from a former personal chef colleague, Leigh Ochs, who learned it at a cooking class in Tuscany.  It languished in my recipe file until, as if by magic, it popped into my mind the first time I made the veal ragout.  It was an instant hit, a fluffy, rich square of gnocchi-like sauce-absorbing creamy deliciousness.  And the stellar thing about it, even more than the wonderful taste and texture, is the fact that you can easily make it a couple of hours ahead and just warm it for a few minutes before serving.

So here’s what you do.  Three hours before dinner take your ragout out of the fridge to begin coming up to room temperature and make your gnocchetti.  When the gnocchetti is done, set it on the counter somewhere out of the way and put the ragout in the oven.  Ten minutes before serving, take the ragout out, cover to keep warm, and give the gnocchetti another little blast of heat.  Serve the two with some buttery carrots and hey presto, your guests will be licking their lips and then their plates.

                      
Gnocchetti di Semola

1 quart of whole milk            
6 1/2 oz fine semolina flour 
4 oz butter
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
 additional butter
 handful of fresh sage leaves
 salt to taste

Salt the milk and bring it to a light boil.  Turn down the heat to a simmer and slowly sprinkle in the semolina flour, whisking madly all the while to avoid lumps.   Remove the pot from the heat and whisk in the butter, then the egg yolks.  Check for salt and add more if necessary.  Butter a 9×13″ baking dish and pour in the semolina paste, smoothing the top.   Dot with additional butter, cover the top with a good number of sage leaves, torn up if they’re too large, and sprinkle the Parm over the whole.  Bake at 375° until golden bown, about 30 minutes. I sometimes give it a minute or two under the grill to get the top extra golden, but you don’t want the cheese to get crunchy, so be gentle.

And there you have it.  A perfect meal that is guaranteed to please everyone at your table.  And nary a radish in sight.

What They Do For Love

April 16, 2009

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In France, everyone can sing.  Everyone can write, everyone can be an artist.  Everyone can do what they love to do, because fundamentally the French believe that when it comes to art “we all have it in us.”   You can see it on their faces, Nathalie, Françoise, and Georges have it in them.

Americans tend to think of the arts in terms of  in star power, giftedness, and expertise, but paradoxically, we also believe that “anyone can be President.”  The French definitely don’t believe that, not for a second.  Our two cultures are so deep down different that sometimes it’s breathtaking.

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We spent Easter Monday with Eric and Benoîte and eight of their friends, all of whom love to sing or drum.  In this group, we all believed in Eric for President, because he knows all the music, plays all the parts, gathers everyone together, sings his heart out, and has a true genius for musical generosity.  By which I mean that during lunch he serenaded us with Yankee Doodle followed by Ave Maria,

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but also that he creates an ambience that’s so relaxed that a teenager like Romain can be content to spend an entire day with eleven adults, including his parents, alternating between drumming and adjusting the endlessly difficult microphones, without once resorting to an iPod or a cell phone.

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This group of friends gets together once a week, just to sing.  Just for the pure love of singing, because of them all I think Eric is the only one who ever sings on stage.  The rest of them just want to be together making music.  Sometimes they know the words, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes everyone’s on pitch, and sometimes not.  It never matters, because they’ll try again, start over, be endlessly patient.

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It’s a group so patient that when I told Annie that I couldn’t sing with them because I didn’t know the song, she resolutely held her book of lyrics in front of me and said “it doesn’t matter, it’s fun to sing together and you’ll learn it right away.”

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It’s a group so accepting that when Georges donned a paper napkin pirate hat against the hot sun, no one so much as snickered.  Well, perhaps I snickered once or twice, but very discreetly, since he was totally adorable as a pink paper pirate.

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It’s a group that’s so supportive that when Céline and I sang part of an aria from Carmen together, they made us sing it again, as an encore.  I think it was Guillaume that started the calls for an encore, so happy was he to hear Céline finally dare to sing Carmen in public.

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The fact that there was a strong rhythm section didn’t hurt at all, and Shel even felt comfortable enough to sing a solo that I wish I could have recorded for the edification and enjoyment of his various throat surgeons past and present.

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With David as a dedicated percussion section

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and Benoîte’s Mom as an appreciative audience all was rosy,

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even when the harmonies were hard to find and Benoîte had a sore throat.

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What counted was being together, trying, trying again, encouraging each other, singing hour after hour until the sun went down and we all went home, sunburned and happy as one can only be after a day spent outdoors doing the things we love to do.  How did we ever get so lucky?

A French Easter Feast

April 13, 2009

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If you’re going to celebrate Easter, it’s especially fun to do it as we were able to yesterday, with friends who really care about the day, want to do it all right, exactly according to tradition.  Witness Jacqueline’s gorgeous asparagus in a mustardy mousseline sauce.  The essence of Spring and the promise of new life, it tasted as ethereal as it looked.

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Alain has a fabulous cave, and for Easter dinner this is what came out of it.  Drinking wines of Alain’s is always an education, as he opens bottles the likes of which I’d never taste otherwise.  This Margaux was no exception, at 20 years old it was the height of elegance, perfectly balanced and a great pleasure to drink.

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The French eat lamb for Easter, and this lamb from the Lozère, with its sides of flageolet beans and squash from the garden was everything you’d want on a rainy cool Easter Sunday.  We all had seconds, and probably would have even had thirds, except that we knew that cheese and dessert would follow.

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I made the dessert, a strawberry tart with a whisper-thin crust filled with Pierre Hermé’s lemon cream.  I’ve been making this cream for years, but although it’s a French recipe, it was a first for our dinner companions.  If you’ve never made this, try it as soon as possible.  The recipe, with a good explanation of the process, is here.  It’s not like any other lemon cream on Earth.

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Macao didn’t get any special Easter treats, but he never gave up hope.  Hope is, after all, what Easter is about.  Whether you’re hoping that the Easter Bunny will hop your way, or, as French children do, hoping that the church bells will fly to Rome and return bearing chocolates, or even hoping for life eternal, it’s all about the hope.  I hope your Easter was as lovely as ours was.