Archive for June 2009

Let Every Bottle Speak

June 28, 2009

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If this bottle could speak for itself, it would proclaim “she loves me!”  Other bottles would have less to boast about, on this, the morning after the Great Vermouth Taste-Off.

Thanks to some enterprising and inquisitive friends, a group of us gathered last night to pass judgment on 14 bottles of sweet vermouth.  I had gone into the evening with my personal favorite being the Punt e Mes, but I was open to the notion that somewhere out there a better vermouth was to be found.  Since from the moment I discovered Punt e Mes I never betrayed it with another vermouth, it seemed entirely possible that my affections were misplaced, had fixed too early on some less than perfect example of the vermouth family, and so I dove into the tasting with enthusiasm and high expectations.

In the order I tasted them, there were the offerings of Lejon, Stock, D’Aquino, Gallo, a homemade hyppocras, Boissière, Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat, Martini and Rossi, Cinzano, Punt e Mes, Martelletti, Vya, and Marcarini.    As we tasted, noted, chatted, it quickly became evident that each of us was looking for something different in a vermouth.  One of our hosts found many of them too herbal, while I thought that lots of them were too sweet.  There was, however, startled and unanimous agreement on the Gallo, which sparked strangled cries of “oh my god, where’s the spit bucket?” from virtually everyone.  I think I’m summing up correctly when I say that at the end of the evening the Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, and Boissière garnered the most general approval.

But here was the kicker for me.  Almost everyone detested the Martini and Rossi, which I have to confess  amazed and crushed me.  It’s true that it’s sweet and simple, like a first love.  In fact, it was my first vermouth love, and I remember that when I  tasted it, over ice with a twist of lemon, I thought it was the best drink there ever could be.  It was herbal, a little bitter, not like anything I’d ever tasted before, and it lifted me above the Budweiser world that surrounded me.  If you’re old enough to remember when Mateus rosé was the height of sophistication, you’ll know what I mean.  That glass of Martini with a twist made me feel European and adult, transported me to the as-yet-unseen Mediterranean, where one might have such a drink on a sunny terrace in late afternoon in the company of a charming Italian, or so I imagined.

So when my fellow tasters pronounced, one after the other, that it was horrible, terrible, and even, I hesitate to say, disgusting, it was hard for me to swallow.  It’s as if someone had looked at an old snapshot of my first boyfriend and pronounced him a dog, a loser, and a dweeb of the highest order.

Happily it’s the case that I’ve graduated from both my first vermouth and my first boyfriend, but still, they’re part of my history.  I no longer want them in my life, although I’d pick the Martini over the boyfriend any day, but they do occupy a warm spot in my memories of growing up.  Back then I didn’t know that some day I’d become a moderately sophisticated adult married to my umpteenth boyfriend and living not far from the Mediterranean myself, or that I’d shift my allegiance to Punt e Mes.  But I’ll be forever fond of my sweet and simple beginnings, even though today I’m drawn to the deep, the complex, and yes, the herbal.

Green Va-Voom

June 25, 2009

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No one ever has to tell me to eat more vegetables.  And you would probably be wise not to vote for me for President, because instead of doing something idiotic and subversive like Bush The First did when he famously exclaimed  “I’m the President of the United States and I don’t have to eat broccoli,” I’d be more likely to use my executive powers to make everyone join a CSA and eat vegetables three times a day.  Ok, maybe only twice a day, because even though I often do eat leftover veggies for breakfast myself, decreeing that others follow my example would definitely put me on the fast track to impeachment.

But last night, as occasionally happens even to me, I wasn’t much in the mood for cooking.  If we’d been in France I’d have ordered pizza, which would have been delivered by motor scooter, crisp and delicious, in under 20 minutes flat.  Here on the island, however, there’s no pizza worth eating, and although Shel kindly offered to make a call for me (“hello Air France, could we get a pizza delivered anytime today?”) I thought it would be prudent to have a look around the kitchen, in case inspiration should strike.  And thus was born…drum roll…thunder…lightning…one of the best and easiest things ever to do with a zucchini.  Va va voom and hey presto, kitchen magic.  I love it when that happens.  And so will you, if you happen to live in a place where furtive farmers are prone to leaving surplus zucchini in the unlocked cars of the unsuspecting public.

It turned out that in my kitchen I had a grey-striped zucchini, some organic ground pork, some Yukon Golds, some shiitakes, a bowl of leftover parsley pesto, a bag of gorgeous sugar snap peas from my CSA, and a heap of thyme and sage that I’d culled from my overflowing herb box on the deck.  So, ignoring the whispers of the pizza demon, I boiled and mashed the potatoes with the parsley pesto, which is really nothing more than a giant bunch of parsley pureed with a clove of garlic, olive oil, and a little water.  A splash of walnut oil mellowed out the assertive greenness of the flavor in a wonderful way, and voilà, herby green potatoes.  I fried some sage leaves until crisp, blanched, shocked, and buttered the sugar snaps, and assembled this vegetable-laden feast.  Oh, that tantalizing pork patty, you ask?  It too was (almost) all about the vegetables.
Pork and Zucchini Patties with a Madeira Shiitake Sauce

1 lb  ground pork, organic if possible
1 medium  zucchini,  coarsely grated
1 heaping teaspoon  fresh thyme
1/2  lb  shiitake mushrooms,  stemmed and quartered
1 heaping Tablespoon  tomato paste
1/2 cup  Madeira
3-4 T  olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix together the pork, grated zucchini, thyme, and some salt and pepper.  Knead well with your hands to get a homogeneous mixture.

Heat some of the olive oil in a large skillet, form the meat into 10-12 small patties, and fry them until golden on both sides and cooked through.  You may need to do this in two batches, and how much olive oil you need to add will depend on the fat content of your pork.  Mine was very lean, and so I used a good 4 Tablespoons for the whole dish.  Remove patties from pan and set aside, on a plate, to collect any juices.

If necessary, add a little more oil to the pan without washing it and saute the mushrooms over high heat, degreasing the pan lightly with a bit of the Madeira.  When the mushrooms are cooked, add the tomato paste and stir well, cooking until the paste browns slightly.  Slowly add the rest of the Madeira and stir to form a smooth sauce.  Put the patties back into the pan, along with any juices from the plate, and warm through to allow the flavors to blend.  Adjust seasoning and serve.  You’re pretty much guaranteed to forget all about pizza, at least for a day, and this way you’re in no danger of getting run over by a motor scooter.

It’s Not All Roses

June 23, 2009

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It started with a garage sale.  During the month we’ve been back on our little island we’ve been wrapped in a cocoon of homecoming and culture shock, with time out for travel to San Francisco.  But now, emerging from that cocoon,  I read that there was a garage sale here on the island last week, and that it raised the relatively huge sum, as garage sales go, of $22,000.

That would be great small town news, the kind of thing that we love to read about in our local weekly paper, except for one fact.  The garage sale, and a few bake sales, and a couple of car washes, were all held to raise money to pay the island’s teachers.  Twelve teachers were recently laid off in crisis-engendered budget cuts, and the community is trying to save their jobs, one car wash at a time.

I’m trying to imagine such a thing happening in France, but I’m pretty sure that under similar circumstances people would be marching in the streets and shutting the system down, instead of baking cookies to sell.

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Then this morning I was at the clinic, getting a mammogram.  If you’ve had one, you know that often the technician tries to distract you from the discomfort by chattering away while she presses and prods.  But today she told me that she’d had five patients in a row who were desperate to sell their houses, but because there are so many foreclosures and the market is awash in houses for sale, people who really need to move are thinking of giving their houses back to the bank.

I’d really never imagined that happening here in our affluent community.  But I remember that when I used to be a personal chef on the island I’d often come home with tales of young couples with young children living in million dollar houses, and wonder aloud where they got the money, how they managed to have two or three times the house we did, at half our age.  I imagine that some of those families now find themselves on the verge of giving up their homes, some of those kids’ teachers are out of a job and are unlikely to be rescued by a garage sale bonanza.  Knowing how it all unraveled doesn’t make it any easier.

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After the clinic I went to buy groceries, and because these salal plants are a long way from bearing fruit, I was hunting for berries in the produce aisle.  A grocery store staff member that I’ve known for years, and who is just about exactly my age, helped me out.  When I asked her if she were thinking of retiring she said that she, along with the other folks that staff the store, had lost so much of her retirement funds in the crisis that she’d be working at least another six years, until she’s 65.

Again I thought of France, where people usually retire between 50 and 55, and where the fact that retirees got only a 4% cost of living increase on their retirements this year, an increase that was said to be held down by the crisis, brought about a national outcry that still echoes in my ears.

It’s a global financial crisis, and so even in France these days it’s not la vie en rose, but I have to say that it looks very thorny here, by comparison.

Father’s Day Symmetry

June 21, 2009

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It’s funny how hard it is for me to allow things to be asymmetrical, out of balance.  Things that I can control, that is, like the arrangement of a plate.  Things I cannot control, like the fact that my father left me when I was five, and that my son’s father left him before he was born, now that too has a certain symmetry, but not the kind I enjoy. 

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Somehow, in preparing this Father’s Day feast, symmetry took hold of me and wouldn’t let go.

In my perfect world, all paths lead to and away from the source, and of course the source is what we’re remembering on Father’s Day.  Speaking as a person who doesn’t even know the names of half of her grandparents, let me say that I hope that the path that led them here to America was clear to them, even though it’s invisible, incomprehensible, to me.  Our fathers, even when we don’t know who they are, where they came from or why, or where they went, they’re still a part of our path.

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In our family we have stepfathers, and step mothers too for that matter.  Stepfathers stepping in after fathers stepped out.  Stepmothers rounding up the ragtag and the restless, keeping the family wheel oiled and turning.  I wish I could thank my stepfather today, just as I wish I could give my own father a good shaking.  My stepfather, my stepson, my son’s stepfather, around here it’s all about the steps, the steps we take toward wholeness.  Toward family.

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We all know that not every part of family life is beautiful, sometimes it’s gloppy and gooey and grainy and sub-gorgeous.  But the bright spots are there to be grabbed  and held onto for dear life, when a family feels like quicksand, when having a father or being a father just isn’t enough to make the world run as it should.  I’d be the last one to deny that fathers do have their special magic, that’s why we all need them, but let’s face it, a lot of it’s just biology, primordial, goopy.

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It’s what one makes of it, the heart and soul of fatherhood, that counts for everything.  What goes around and comes around and keeps the world turning is one good guy taking care of another, fathering, stepfathering, and bravely stepping up to the job of raising the young, a task that calls for a lot of  raising of the spirits, and a modicum of raising hell when necessary. 

I wish I had a father of my own  to salute today, but since I don’t, if you’re a father I’m tipping my hat to you.  And if you’re a stepfather, this cake is for you, because it’s not easy being step, and because stepfathers deserve a special place in all of our hearts.

Only In San Francisco

June 18, 2009

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So, there we were at 4th and Market, waiting for the Amtrak bus to collect us and deliver us to the train.  We looked up, and whoa!

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And before that, there we’d been, waiting for a pizza at Za’s, when I looked up to yell something to Shel  about the blasting reggae accompanying our wait, and wow!

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San Francisco’s got that ineffable something, or as we’re fond of saying around here, “it has a certain je ne sais quoi but I don’t know what it is.”

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In San Francisco buying bread from a pink-haired charmer seems normal,

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as does standing at the feet of Sun Yat Sen in the middle of St. Mary’s Square,

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in the heart of Chinatown, where cultures commingle cozily.

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Where else but in San Francisco could two fearless women get 80-90 strangers waiting to ride the cable car to sing” Happy Birthday dear Dave” to a guy who didn’t even look embarrassed by the attention?

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Where else can you sit under a gigantic stained glass dome and lunch on an $18 Reuben sandwich?

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It’s not just everywhere that you’ll see brown pelicans giving huge container ships a run for their money,

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or street musicians vying with pigeons for the last few feet of space on the edge of the continent.

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Even though I haven’t lived there in more years than you might imagine,  I’ll freely admit that be it ever so quirky, ever so gorgeous, ever so free to be you and me and it and only itself, there’s no place in the world like the town I once called home.

Mon Pays Natal

June 15, 2009

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Your pays natal is the place you’re from, where you were born, a special place that your heart calls home.  In my case, it’s San Francisco, and although I haven’t been here in years, that’s where I am today.  A lot has changed, but many things from my childhood are alive and well, thriving even amidst the push to rebuild and replace that overcomes all cities.

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When you grow up in San Francisco, Coit Tower means a lot to you.  Visible from almost everywhere, it’s where you look to orient yourself and keep from getting lost,

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it’s a place you visit as a school kid to study the WPA murals that recount California’s history,

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and if you can afford the elevator, it’s a place you go to get a birdseye view of home.

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Those murals, with their moving examples of socialist realist art, inspired my childhood.  California’s agricultural heritage

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is alive and well today, transformed by the demands of the times.

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Where once women packed and canned the bounty of San Francisco Bay,

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today well-to-do gourmets put the egg before the fish.

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While there are probably still some San Franciscans reading Das Capital, it’s more likely that they’re reading

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menus at an Israeli restaurant (no relation),

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or a Russian deli.

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In place of cafés with a 25¢ lunch special

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it’s the San Francisco version of a  French café, where, as I can sadly testify, one is obliged to drop $35 for two sandwiches and two single shot espressos.

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Our notions of public art have changed, and instead of glorifying bucolic physical labor we offer sightseers

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what, exactly?

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It’s hard not to be nostalgic for the past, but then, that’s what the whole pays natal thing is about, and today, that’s my story and I’m surrendering to it.

Fiesta Mexicana

June 10, 2009

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Ever since we’ve been back in the US we’ve been inhaling Mexican cuisine like oxygen.  Whether in Mexican restaurants, little roadside taquerias, or cooked at home, it tastes like the best thing in the world to us right now, spicy and tantalizing, completely unavailable during our recent time in France, and soon to become unavailable again when we return to the land of duck fat and truffles. 

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Take this posole that I made for a birthday party yesterday.  No matter what you do to dress up posole, it has a lamentable tendancy to resemble a dog’s breakfast.  But in fact, appearances notwithstanding, this posole rojo is an exemplary version that blows most other posole recipes right out of the agua.

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I worked from this recipe, and I recommend it highly.  Traditionally garnished with a variety of little nibbles, the only thing I changed was to use a broth made from smoked chicken carcasses instead of the water called for in the recipe.  If you have any smoked bones in the freezer, make a little broth and do as I did.  The extra richness and lightly smoky flavor only make the dish more delicious.  Also, as I often do, I made the posole the day before and set it in a slow oven for a couple of hours on the day of the party, another little trick that is guaranteed to improve almost any sort of stew.

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And of course a spoonful of salsa de molcajete doesn’t hurt either.

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And then there was this ensalada de chicharrones de pollo that I put together for lunch the other day.  This was one of my favorite recent inventions and it’s a great summertime salad.  Here’s what you do.

Make this recipe  for the chicharrones de pollo.  While the chicken is marinating, scrape the kernels off 2-3 ears of corn and sauté them in a little olive oil.  When the corn is barely tender, add a big pinch of ground chile and stir it through the kernels.  Squeeze the juice of a lime and a pinch of salt into the pan, stir to combine, remove the corn from the pan and set it aside.  

Chop some crisp Romaine, and toss it with chopped cilantro and sliced green onions to taste.  Make a salsa vinaigrette by adding a little oil and vinegar to your favorite bottled salsa, adjust to taste with salt and pepper, and maybe a little sugar. 

Now place the chopped greens on plates, sprinkle with the sautéed corn, place the chicharrones on top, and drizzle the whole with the salsa vinaigrette.  It’s a fiesta on a plate, and if you want to add a cerveza to the meal, I just say olé.

Garden Lessons

June 7, 2009

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This week it feels like summer’s already gone, as one dark and dreary day follows another.

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And while, as all Northwest gardeners know, some flowers bloom and thrive only in shade, I am not one of them.

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But even on the dullest day parts of the garden reflect light beautifully, and if they can do it, so can I.  There, that’s my goal for the day, the week, for life: to reflect more light.

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And to that let me add other whispers from my garden’s store of timeless advice: even when progress seems to be all a-tangle and every road looks to be going nowhere at all,  forge ahead.  Or at least squiggle forward.

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You can count on happiness to be found in the unlikeliest of places, if you can see beauty in the tie that binds.

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There’s a lot to be said for turning your face to the world, even when you’re having a metaphorical bad hair day.

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Find some bright and uplifting people, the more of them the better, and hang out together, hang on together, hang in there together.

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Coax the bloom from the bud in every way you know how.  Be gentle.

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But when aphids bite, when they try to suck the joy and life out of you, bite back.  Bite hard.

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When doubt and fear creep in, don’t focus on the stinger, focus on the honey.

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Love the one you’re with, even when you’re as different as poppies and peonies. 

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Bloom shamelessly for all the world to see.  The sun is bound to come out after a while, and when it does, be ready.  Be very, very ready,

Record High

June 3, 2009

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It was almost too hot to eat tonight.  Almost, but not quite.  We did set a record high for the date, though, topping out at 89° F.  Which, just to keep things in perspective, was hotter than it was in Aubais, where Beppo and Zazou are no doubt shedding fur in self-defense, and where it’s a paltry 82°.  We leave the south of France and come to cool, cloudy Seattle, “where it rains all the time” and we’re hotter than the denizens of our erstwhile Mediterranean home?  This is weird.

And it also poses the problem of what to eat.  Since I’m pretty sure that my problem is your problem, because wherever you are this summer there will be days that are way too warm and you’ll be panting for a cool and refreshing supper, here’s my tip: cold soba noodle salad.  Here’s a way to get a complete meal in a single bowl without heating up the kitchen too much.  It’s buckwheat, for those of you that avoid gluten.  It’s chock full of green stuff, virtuous as all get out, and will revive even the most heat-impaired appetite.

I started with this recipe, but you know me, I’m not a slave to the mere written word.  I had smoked chicken left over, in it went.  In pots on the deck there were lime mint, basil, and chives.  Into the bowl.   The fridge yielded cilantro and a nice bunch of arugula, which met a similar fate.  A basket of fresh limes?  Squeeze ‘em right over it all.  Peanuts and cashews in the cupboard?  You guessed it.  Next time I’ll grate in some fresh ginger and give it all a drizzle of Sriracha sauce for an even zingier bowlful.  What I’m trying to say here is that with this recipe you have a very good foundation, an underwire bra sort of a salad.  But you’ll want to give it bounce, pizzazz, that little flirty thing or two that says it’s you.  I say go for it.

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And eat it outdoors, if at all possible, preferably on a deck facing the water.  I’m not saying that I arranged for this ship to pass the house in the middle of dinner, but it did.

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Nor am I saying that I arranged for the sun to set behind the mast that’s a peculiarly integral part of our house ,while the moon was already in the sky, but it did. 

Never underestimate the powers of a perfect summer salad supper, that’s all I’m saying.

La Bonnebouffe

June 1, 2009

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Do you know the word bouffe?  It’s a slangy term for food, kind of like chow or grub in English.  And the French use the expression la malbouffe, the bad grub, to indicate food like burgers, fast food, junk food in general.  In other words, what they think of as typical American food.  But take a gander at this made-in-America savory pea ice cream.  Nothing malbouffey about that, is there? 

This little treat was part of a Franco-American dinner we went to this weekend, and by Franco-American you can rest assured that I do not mean spaghetti.  Our friend Steve loves all things French, and he has a group of accomodating friends who indulge him once per season by cooking up their spin on French food and getting together at his house to bouffe it up.  This time it was the printemps dinner, all things Spring.

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Everyone took a turn in the kitchen, either cooking

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or washing dishes.

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Ellie would have liked to help wash dishes, but instead waited politely under the table for the inevitable bounty of crumbs.

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There’s nothing like good entertainment 

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to help an appreciative audience work up a serious appetite.  And their patience was rewarded by a dinner that included but was not limited to

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an asparagus soup in duck stock,

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pounti auvergnat, about which more anon,

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halibut with morels and peas,

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veal paupiettes with pea shoots,

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and homemade chocolates with molten salt caramel centers.  Now honestly, if that’s not a meal worth coining a new word for, I don’t know what would be.  Hence, and henceforth, la bonnebouffe, definition: truly good and beautiful food made by dedicated home cooks and eaten in excellent company with high spirits.  I invite you to incorporate my new word into your own vocabulary, just say “bun-boof.”

Now, about that pounti auvergnat.  My assignment was to make part of the before dinner nibbles, and I wanted to make a terrine, but one that no one would have tasted before, including me.  Et voilà, my searches led me to a terrine made of pork, Swiss chard, and prunes.  Three of my favorite things, and a combination I’d never before imagined.  Because it’s a dish that was originally created to use up leftovers there are dozens of recipes, each with its own twist. 

I settled on this recipe as my basic version, but I tweaked it with the addition of lots of nutmeg and some unsmoked bacon, since that’s the closest thing to the poitrine salé that appears in many of the recipes.  I urge you to try this dish, it’s easy to make, original, and wildly delicious.  I served it cold, but it can also be seved hot or warm.  Even if prunes are on your personal malbouffe list (which proves that you’re American, since the French adore those dried plums) give this a try, and I promise that you too will become a bonnebouffeur.


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