Archive for February 2010

One Last Love Letter

February 28, 2010

Dearest Uzès,

It’s so hard to say this, but although I’ve loved you well and truly for several years now, the time has come to leave you.  A bitter time.

It’s especially hard to leave in winter, when you’re chilly, deserted.  It seems that you might need me more, when your streets are empty. When the summer people are gone, the rest of us huddle together a bit more, breathe more freely, take a little more time to talk.  It’s too hard to go today, but it won’t be any easier tomorrow.

Your casual summertime friends, on their way to the Office of Tourism, know you so differently than I do.  They see your classic beauty

and not so much your quirky asymmetries.

They might wander the Rue Sigalon, but would they ever imagine that within the tiny cinema one can see a live Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Carmen, or a live performance of the Vagina Monologues?

They might stop for a glass of wine at a sidewalk café

but would they ever find their way into our favorite spot, where Odette knows our order before we ask?

They might stop into Hervé’s shop, but will he cut their hair as tenderly as he does mine?

Walking and weeping my way around town, bidding my au revoirs, I almost couldn’t bear to say nous partons.  We’re leaving.

How to say goodbye to Christi and her adorable husband, who sell Shel’s favorite roast chickens, who will be having a baby soon, a baby that we won’t be here to see?

How to leave André

and Christian, who have sold me fruits and vegetables hundreds and hundreds of times, Christian who calls me “charmante dame?”  No one’s ever called me that before.

How is it possible to move away from a house that has a bakery right next door, where every morning Shel goes, barely dressed and combed, to get something freshly baked by Monsieur Quanté?

But harder than that, oh, much harder, for me at least, is leaving my dear Nadine and Marie, keepers of the butcher shop of my dreams, where they’ve given me the very best of everything, including cooking instructions, recipes and little French language lessons, always with the brightest of smiles, and who sent us off to America with a gift of soft warm scarves to protect us against cruel fate.

And oh dear heaven, Dorindo and Thierry, who have brought so much beauty into our home, always knowing what was needed to fill our lives, and the lives of our guests, with the sweetest of the flower world, and who sent us back to America with dozens of kisses and some lovely embroidered covers for pots of homemade jam, jams that I used to share with them, but now, won’t.

And then, Marie.  Marie who has kept our house and our lives in order from the beginning, teaching us how a French household should be kept, tending Beppo and Zazou when we were away, doing everything possible to make our lives easier and tidier than we’d ever imagined.  If only I could put her in my pocket and bring her with me.

So many faces I’ll be longing to see as soon as we’re away from here.  And that’s not even mentioning our friends, the people you’ve read about here over the years, the people that have made our lives rich beyond imagining.

But our bags are packed, and boy are there a lot of them – 21 to be exact, a whole life reduced to 21 containers taped and bubble-wrapped to a faretheewell.

A truck on its way from Spain to London pulled up at our door, only 5 minutes after the last box was taped shut, and now our whole life is on the road, out there somewhere.

Beppo and Zazou have their French kitty passports and they too are out there, somewhere.  Actually, they’re in the kitty hotel, waiting to be sent speeding across the sky, in a way quite unnatural for cats, to join us in another 10 days.

We’re all going now, every one of us, every last scrap of stuff, leaving behind these beloved faces and places, a trail of tears and sniffle-filled Kleenex littering our wake.

Because as much as I love you, Uzès, I love Shel more.  Yes, even more than I love our French life.  And we have to go where he has a chance to get well, so we can come back here and kiss those dear faces once again.  And if we can’t come back, well, we’ve had all that we’d dreamed of here, and more. We’ve spent the happiest part of our married life right here, in your arms.

Yours forever, gros bisous,


Any Way You Look At It

February 24, 2010

I don’t want to just fade away on you.  And lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what will happen to French Letters once we leave France.  Most of them start with some variation on “I hope you’re going to keep French Letters going.”  And normally I say that no, French Letters is about my life in France, and if I live somewhere else, I can’t very well write about anything French.  But on further reflection, I think that’s not getting at the whole truth.

French Letters is a blog about France, yes, but it’s really a blog about how I see France

and about how France sees me, for better and for worse (although actually in French you say “for worse and for better” which tells you something right there).  It’s the story of my life, as I’m living it today.  In other words, thinly disguised as the story of food, wine, and France, it’s really All About Me.  Probably I should blush as I say that, but I think you might have already figured that out for yourself, and if you’re still here, you must not hold it against me.

Sometimes I do turn my eye squarely on French life, and France is what you see.  And I know that one of the main reasons you’re here is because you like to see France, in all its wonderful variety.

Sometimes I’m barely there, adding a light layer of commentary to the events of my day,

sometimes I try to let you know how the world looks through my eyes by explaining, interpreting, translating,

and sometimes I put myself, and Shel, front and center.  Lately there’s been a lot of that, and I’ve been sharing our life with you even though a lot of it has nothing specifically French about it these days.

I want to find a way to continue to be with you, because French Letters is so much a part of my life now that I can’t imagine leaving it behind when we move next week.  Clearly it needs to change, to undergo a transformation and a transplant, just as we ourselves are doing.  But I find myself at a loss for the Best and Brightest Idea.  So many of you have offered to help in our current troubles, and here’s a way you really can. Tell me what you’d like me to write about next.  I’m all eyes

Le Moral Dans Les Chaussettes

February 19, 2010

A friend asked me yesterday how we were doing, and I said “O, c’est la morosité ambiente, c’est la merditude des choses, c’est le moral dans les chaussettes.”

I love the French expression la morosité ambiente. If there were such a word as morosity in English, it would mean the morosity that floats freely in the environment.  I guess we’d say moroseness, although it doesn’t have quite the same feel.   Anyway, that’s the mood around here as we prepare to move back to the US at the end of the month.  Let me just sum it all up by saying that we SO don’t want to go.  If I could walk into the Office of Public Tranquility and buy a kilo or two of peace, I’d pay any price.

As for la merditude des choses, sometimes things are just so downright crappy that you want to hide out, can’t do anything but stare into space and wonder how it all got this bad.  Shel’s cancer is in a lot of places it shouldn’t be, and they have no treatment for him in France.

And when a French doctor, proud of the French system, suggests that there’s nothing else she can do and that you might be better off in America, you know it’s for real.  At least we have an America to go to.  What would a French person do under the same circumstances?  That would be the real merditude des choses.

So now our vision of the future is murky, and we have le morale dans les chaussettes.  Our morale is way down in our socks.  And that’s about the best thing I can say about it.  But there’s always a light somewhere, and in our case it’s the City of Light.  We’ll be leaving here on March 1st, and we’re giving ourselves a couple of days in Paris, a parting gift, before we head out to see what the American medical system has to offer.  On croise les doigts, and you keep your fingers crossed too, please.

Thought For The Day

February 13, 2010

In the morning we’re off to Roquemaure for a little Valentine’s Day fooling around, 19th century style.  And then on to Lyon, where on Monday we’ll find out whether, when, and how some new excitement on the cancer front will be changing our life.

In the meantime I leave you with this most profound of questions, the only question one needs to ask oneself in life, really.  And if your answer is no, well, you might want to rethink some things.

“Are you doing everything you want to do?”

Dr. Renato Martins, a very wise oncologist

A Spice Girl At Heart

February 11, 2010

Today as I was being buffeted down the street, my velocity greatly increased by a fierce following wind, snuggled into two wool sweaters and a long wool coat, the temperature a degree below freezing and the wind chill off the chart, I had two thoughts.  The first was the thought-form generally known as WTF.  The second was Axoa

I first discovered Axoa in the Basque country of France, and I wrote about it, and the piment d’Espelette that enlivens it, for Chile Pepper magazine.  So perhaps this recipe and these photos look familiar to you, if you’re a faithful Chile Pepper reader.  But probably not, since according to my friends far and wide, the issue of Chile Pepper in which this recipe originally appeared was near-impossible to find.

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I bring you one of the most satisfying winter kitchen projects that can be accomplished in a single day, and which will thrill your friends who are low carb eaters.

Axoa is one of the most typical dishes in Basque home cooking, and we first tasted it as guests at Domaine  Xixtaberri, a charming place run by Noël and Laurence Mathey.

Noël’s the cook in the family, and he spent several hours teaching me how to make Axoa.  As he put it, there are as many versions of Axoa as there are grandmothers to make them.  His version is especially delicious, and much more complex in its preparation and flavor than most other Axoa recipes.  “It’s fit for a holiday” he said, but I say “why wait for a holiday to make it?”

W hen his eight year old daughter asked him “Papa, why are you always giving away your secret recipes?  A true cook takes his secrets with him to his grave,”  Nöel replied “My only secret is the love I put into the dish.”  And to make this dish successfully, you’ll need love too.  That, and a good vegetable peeler.

1 lb beef, ground coarse as for chili
1 lb veal, ground coarse as for chili
4 T. duck fat, or substitute olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine, divided use
1/2 small onion, sliced paper thin
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp. Piment d’Espelette powder, or to taste
3 bell peppers, 1 each red, green, and yellow, quartered and peeled with a vegetable peeler
3 T. olive oil, preferably a peppery, grassy one
1 heaping tsp. veal demi-glace, or use beef bouillon
1/2 cup water
salt to taste

Melt half of the duck fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the veal and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown and tender. Salt to taste only at the end of the cooking period. Remove veal to an ovenproof casserole dish and deglaze the skillet with 1/4 cup of the wine. Scrape skillet into the casserole dish. Do not wash out the skillet.

Melt remaining duck fat in the same skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the beef and sauté for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until just browned.  Salt to taste only at the end of the cooking period.  Remove beef the casserole dish and deglaze the skillet with 1/4 cup of the wine.  Scrape skillet into the casserole dish.   Do not wash out the skillet.

Dissolve the demi-glace or Better Than Bouillon in the water and pour into the casserole dish with the meat.  Stir all together and set aside.

For the vegetables:

While the meats are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Preheat the oven to 375°.

Heat half of the olive oil in the skillet and add the thinly sliced onion and the chopped garlic.  Add a pinch of salt, and 1/2 tsp of piment d’Espelette.  Let sauté together very gently over a low heat for 10 minutes.  You want the onions to melt, but not to brown.

Cut the peeled peppers into lengthwise strips, then cut the strips in half crosswise and add them to the boiling water.  I know you’re going to want to skip peeling the peppers, but the Basques believe that pepper skins are indigestible, and in fact the texture of the peeled peppers is an important part of the dish.  Just do it.  Let the peppers simmer for about 10 minutes while the onions cook, or until very tender but not falling apart.  Drain the peppers.

Add the onions to the meat mixture, deglaze the pan with the remaining wine, and scrape the pan into the casserole.  Add half of the peppers to the casserole and stir to combine, reserving the remaining half for garnish.

Cover the casserole dish and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Heat the remaining half of the olive oil in the skillet and gently sauté the garnish peppers until they are lightly golden around the edges. Set aside.

Remove casserole from the oven, and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 tsp of piment d’Espelette, or use more to taste.  Personally I like a lot more.  Make a colorful pattern on top of the casserole with the sautéed peppers and serve.

Nöel’s serving suggestion: serve with cubes of oven-roasted potatoes and green beans sautéed with olive oil and garlic.

And if you want to know where piment d’Espelette comes from, or where you can get some that’s really stellar

meet Maialen Noblia.  She grows and roasts the best piment d’Espelette I’ve ever tasted, and you can order it here.

A Special Thank You Stew

February 7, 2010

I owe you, dear friends.  Over the past week you have sent me 29, count ’em, 29, beautiful and comforting recipes.  But I know they weren’t meant just for me, and if you personally haven’t checked them out yet, click here and read the Comments section to see the warm and wonderfully creative kitchen work of French Letters readers.

And now it’s payback time.  Even though I was out in the garden in a sweater today, I know that lots of you are under piles of snow or buckets of icy rain. And so here’s a little something from me to warm up your day, and hopefully your heart, just as you’ve warmed mine.

The key to making a really good beef stew is, of course, starting with really good beef.  Beef stew is not a dish for which you want lean meat, so ask your butcher for a well-marbled cut.  And if you don’t have a butcher, I suggest buying a chuck roast and cutting it up yourself, since often what’s sold as stew beef is very lean and stringy.

The next good thing you need is a bottle of red wine that doesn’t taste of wood, nor of jam, nor of tannins that will make you suck your teeth all night. I like to use Côtes du Rhône because it’s none of the above.  It’s your choice, given what’s available to you, but use a good bottle and think of it as an investment in the success of your stew.

And to preserve the flavors of your beef and wine and lighten the finished dish, I suggest not flouring the beef before you brown it.  The sauce will become thick and rich by reduction, so there’s no need to introduce that murky quality you get from added flour.

Then there are the shiitake mushrooms, one of the world’s great umami-adding ingredients.  It’s true that a pound of fresh shiitakes is likely to set you back about $14 dollars, but you’ll be using every bit of them to make your stew brilliant.  There are slices in the stew itself, slices that are crispy and crunchy to top the dish with*, and you’ll use the stems in the marinade.  You should never throw away shiitake stems, by the way, as they’re full of flavor and make a great add-in to soups and stews.

Finally, I’ve used sun dried tomatoes to give the stew a bright, hopeful, spring-is-coming sort of flavor.  Also, you’ll notice that I finish the dish with butter, and I’m sure that half of you will want to omit said butter.  So let me admonish you here and now on that point: butter and beef are delicious together, and it’s the butter added at the very end that brings the whole thing together, smoothing it into a lush reminder of why we love winter food.

Light and Bright Beef Stew with Shiitake Crisps
For The Stew:
1 bottle red wine, preferably Côtes du Rhône
1 cup beef broth
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons dried bouquet garni herb mix
1 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 large carrot, finely diced
6 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cubed
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2 pounds cubed well-marbled beef, preferably chuck
1 cup sundried tomatoes in oil
3 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
For The Shiitake Crisps:
half of the sliced shiitakes from making the stew
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Pour the entire bottle of wine into a heavy pot, the one in which you will cook the stew.  Add the beef broth, onion, garlic, and carrot.

Remove the stems from the shiitakes and set the mushroom caps aside.  Place the stems on a square of cheesecloth, add the bouquet garni, and tie into a tight bundle with kitchen twine.  Place the bundle in the pot with the wine, bring to a boil, then let simmer gently for 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat under the pot.  Salt and pepper the beef liberally.

In a heavy skillet, heat 1 T of the olive oil, add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté until golden.  Remove from skillet and drop the meat into the pot containing the wine mixture.  Using the remaining 2 T olive oil as necessary, brown the beef in batches, being careful not to crowd the meat in the pan.  You want the beef to be really brown on all sides, almost chocolate-colored – for best results don’t use a nonstick pan.  As each cube of beef is browned remove it from the skillet and drop it into the pot containing the wine mixture.  When all the beef is soaking in the wine, cover the pot and let it all marinate for 1 hour (no heat at this point!).

Slice the shiitake caps into 1/4″ slices.  Half of the slices will go into the stew, the other half will be for making the shiitake crisps.

To make the crisps, heat the oven to 375°.  Place a Silpat on a cookie sheet, or use a nonstick sheet pan.  Drizzle the shiitake slices with 2 T olive oil, and sprinkle them with the salt and thyme.  With your hands, toss it all together to thoroughly coat the mushroom slices.  Place in the hot oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, tossing and turning them occasionally, until they are crisp and brown.  Set aside on paper towels to drain and dry.

After the beef has marinated for 1 hour, remove the cheesecloth bundle, squeezing it well into the pot to extract all of the mushroom juices.  Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer.  Cover and simmer for 1 hour.  Add the other half of the shiitake slices and the sundried tomatoes and simmer for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until fork tender.  Just before serving add the butter and stir well until the butter is melted and the sauce is shiny.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Serve with mashed potatoes or polenta, and a dark green vegetable like spinach or kale.

*The idea for the shiitake crisps comes from Fine Cooking magazine, although I’ve tweaked their recipe.  The article says that the crisps will taste like bacon, and yes they do.  Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but they really do.  For that reason these would make a great garnish for a vegetarian dish as well.  The idea for a hot cooked wine marinade comes from Paula Wolfert and Michael Ruhlman and, if I remember correctly, even Thomas Keller.

How Do I Love Thee

February 4, 2010

I don’t know what it is about this guy.  He’s probably difficult in the morning, full of himself, birdbrained, cocky, but I can’t help but love him.

Actually, it’s a bit of a contest.  Who did I love more?  The Orange Wyandotte rooster, or these Royal Golden Pheasants?

Or maybe I gave my heart to the curly beauty of a Hungarian Grison Rouge pigeon, looking like she just emerged from the salon de coiffure, freshly curled and ready to party.

Or possibly this German Havane bunny is my new main squeeze, with his impossibly pinchable puffy cheeks and crinkly ears.  He’s the only one of my new loves that I have a hope of ever seeing again, after our first date, because he belongs to our friends Alice and Christian.

When we saw her last, Alice had pried herself away from the birds and the bunnies and was cooking a giant pot of stew for the hungry spectators at the National Exposition of Animals of the Basse-Cour (which I’d translate as barnyard) in Vergèze last weekend.  There were 1200 cages of pigeons, ducks, geese, chickens, pheasants, and rabbits on exhibit, and while the smell of so many animals cooped up together was intense, we were there to fall in love with them all.

If you wanted to send a love note by a method more discreet than Twitter, there were carrier pigeons, which I’d never seen before.  They looked a lot like, well, pigeons.

I’ve never been in love with a pigeon before, but now the world’s changed. This one’s got a head in there somewhere, but I defy you to find it.

This Blue Capucin is peeking out coyly from a fantastic fringe

vying with her neighbor the Red Capucin for Best in Ruff.

Here’s a White Peacock Tailed pigeon in the running for Miss Flamboyance

while the Silvery Cauchois gets my vote for quiet beauty.  Pigeons, I’m telling you, turn out to be endlessly beautiful.  I actually have about a dozen more I’d like to show you, but if I did there’d be no room for the other animals.

And I wouldn’t want to leave out the chickens, like this Black Java,

or this Orange Wyandotte hen,

or this Thousand Flowers Sabelpoot, who wins, hands down, the award for Best Name.  Not to mention that she looks a lot like Zazou, all dressed in calico.

I’ve always liked chickens, and there was even a brief time in my life when I had a couple of Silkies like these.

But I sure never had anything like this Spanish Fighting rooster

or this Brahma,

or this White Yokohama.  This exposition was devoted to saving the rare and vanishing breeds of barnyard animals, which is why we need not worry about recipes that go with these chickens, and also why we don’t see them very often.

There were also rare geese like the Guinea Goose

and the French Bagadais, which looks, as Shel put it so aptly, like it’s put together out of spare parts.

On the duck front, this stunning Mandarin caught my eye

but I have to admit that I fell head over heels for this Cayuga, probably the most beautiful duck I’ve ever seen.  

But lest all these feathers stick in your craw, there were also some sweet interspecies moments

like this Black Cauchois pigeon regarding its neighber the Fauve de Bourgogne bunny.

Because yes, there were also rabbits, like this elegant Chamois de Thuringe

this busy little Viennese Blue,

Shel’s personal favorite the Giant Butterfly, which is as large as a small dog,

another Zazou lookalike, although this Tricolored Rex was about twice her size,

and this lop-eared Dwarf Bélier Chamois, a pocket pet if I ever saw one.

There was even this poor little Rex Castor who was disqualified from the judging because, oh the shame, his ears were too long.  I was ready to take him home on the spot and whisper into those furry ears that it’s ok to be different, but then I’d have had to take

this other Peacock Tailed pigeon who wasn’t white as snow

and this Silvery Pheasant with the impractically long tail and…and…and…you get the idea.  For the first time I regret living in a rented house, where having a full complement of exotic barnyard animals would definitely not do.

So for now I guess we’ll have to stick with a more usual sort of calico pet, less exotic, more adapted to town life.  But believe me, if we ever live in the country, I’m having a pigeon cote, and maybe a few bunny hutches.  And possibly an irridescent blue duck to shimmer like sun on the water.  As for a pheasant, well, we’ll have to see about that.