Archive for March 2010

Rainy Day Woman

March 29, 2010

It’s rained part of almost every day since we’ve been back.  Spring creeps, inexorably, but it’s a slow, soggy slog.  It’d make me feel hopeless, except that the fact that I’m always hoping for the sun to come out does actually leave me in a perpetual state of mild hopefulness.

I’m no longer used to the rain, to the grisaille, that silver drizzle that goes on forever.  Beppo and Zazou spend all day indoors keeping dry by napping on the polar fleece blanket, then burn calories and the midnight oil by chasing each other around the house all night.  These are cats that normally sleep on our beds, and keep approximately the same bedtime hours we do, so you know things are off kilter.

I walk to the post office, hiding the letters under my cardinal red waterproof parka and think about how I’d never be able to wear that jacket in France. Whether or not this is a good thing I cannot decide.  On the one hand, it’s a delicious freedom to be perfectly scruffy in public, when everyone else will be too.  On the other hand, I’ve never felt so chic as when I lived in France, even though we lived in one of the poorest areas in the country, just because French women always make an effort when it comes to looks, and don’t hesitate to show their work, and that too has its own allure.

Today I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen since we came back to the island. She immediately, being partly French herself, gave me three kisses.  I realized then and there that one of the things I miss the most from our French life is those bisous, the ritual kisses that one gives and receives all day long in France.  I loved being surrounded by kisses, and miss them almost as much as the cheeks on which I used to bestow them. On one of my first days back  I automatically tried to kiss a small group of old friends. In general they jumped back hastily, or giggled.  One told me bluntly “we don’t kiss in America.”

We’re living a life where there’s a drought of kisses and it’s pouring down rain. What is wrong with this picture?

Food52 And Me

March 27, 2010

I’ve got to say that I’m loving the new food website called Food52 more and more.  The idea of the site is to gather great recipes from home cooks, like you and me, and compile the best ones in a cookbook to be published next year.  Every week there are two recipe theme contests to enter, and if you cook, I urge you to submit your recipes.

I’ve already got one recipe going into the cookbook, an olive and lamb shank concoction that you might want to make before the weather warms up.  And now I have another one nominated, one for a red wine risotto.  Normally I’d be a little embarrassed to be touting my own entry in a contest, but in this case the Food52 team of Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, did a really neat thing.  They got an Italian chef, Cesare Casselli, to help them make the finalists’ versions of risotto and shot a video of the process.

What makes this really fun for me is that normally I don’t get to see other people making my recipes.  I sometimes hear about how you liked them, but to actually see someone else cooking something I created is a special little thrill.  Want to see what I mean?  To see Chef Cesare Casella supervise the preparation of my Risotto Rosso, click here.  And then, if you are inspired to vote for the recipe, you can do that by clicking here.

But after that, be sure to come back for the lamb recipe, because this is one you don’t want to miss.  I wouldn’t call it a classically French dish, but it’s definitely full of French flavors.

Autumn Olive Medley

4 lamb shanks
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
2 large shallots
1 fennel bulb
1 softball-sized celery root (celeriac)
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried bouquet garni
2 cups young red wine
2 cups veal or beef broth
1 cup green olives, pits in
1/2 cup sundried tomatoes in oil
1 splash Ricard or Pernod (optional)
finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper the lamb shanks liberally. Heat olive oil in a large heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid. Brown the lamb shanks all over. Take your time with this and get them really nice and brown. Remove the lamb from the pan and set aside.

Dice the fennel bulb into small pieces. Peel the celery root and dice into the same size pieces as the fennel. Peel and chop the shallots and garlic. Lightly brown the vegetables in the pan used for the meat. When the vegetables are browned add the meat back to the pan. Add the bay leaf, the bouquet garni, the wine, and the broth. Cover the pan and simmer over medium low heat for 1 hour.

Add the olives and the sundried tomatoes to the pot. If necessary, add a little more wine or broth. Simmer, covered, an additional 30 minutes, or until the meat is nearly falling off the bone.

If you’d like to emphasize the fennel flavor and bring out the mellowness of the olives, add a splash of Ricard or Pernod. This really does enhance the dish, and is very Mediterranean. Taste the sauce and add additional salt and/or pepper to taste. Just before serving sprinkle the lamb with the finely grated lemon zest (use a Microplane if you have one).

You can gently pull the meat off the bone and serve it as a stew, or as a sauce over pasta. You can also serve these on the bone as is, or over polenta. Be sure to mention to your diners that the olives contain pits!

Hard Day’s Night

March 21, 2010

When you live on an island and are dependent on the ferry for a good portion of your social life, you want to make the best use of each and every trip across the water, as we did last night.  And when you go to a 9 course dinner party, each course with its own copious and different wine, you are lucky if you even make it onto the ferry that gets you home well after 1:00 in the morning. Inevitably, there’s got to be the morning after, when waking up is hard to do.

And although you swore you’d never eat again, as one always does, the body stubbornly refuses to obey the mind, and eat you must.  But what? Bleary-eyed you stumble to the kitchen, and then, it occurs to you in a flash of inspiration that makes your head pound a little. Oeufs Cocotte, that’s what.  I’m not saying this is a hangover remedy, or a magic potion for lack of sleep.  I’m just saying that it’s a perfect food, endlessly variable, soothing all the senses, appeasing the appetite with nursery-food comfort.  It’s always good for whatever ails you, and you can make it with whatever you’ve got in the house.

Well, so long as you have eggs, cream, and cheese in the house that is. The basic idea is to take fresh eggs, cream, the cheese of your choice, combine them with a bit of vegetables if you wish, a bit of meat if you wish, and bake it all in the oven for a few minutes.  Couldn’t be simpler, and that’s a good thing on the kind of morning I’m talking about.

You start with small ramequins or cazuelas.  Butter the dishes well so your eggs won’t stick.  Then pour in a small amount of heavy cream, enough to just cover the bottom of the dish.  You can (quite traditionally) proceed from here straight to the eggs, but I like to make a nest of vegetables to keep the eggs cozy. Here I made a nice layer of sautéed leeks, but I also love to use a bed of cooked spinach.  This is also great way to use up left over vegetables from dinner, even if you didn’t have 9 courses.

Once you have your vegetables in place, carefully crack the eggs into the individual dishes.  If you’re uncertain about your egg-cracking skills you can crack them first into a small bowl and tip them gently over the vegetables. The idea here is not to break the yolk, so take your time.

Now to the toppings.  One of the nicest is to take small slivers of ham or bacon, sauté them lightly, then simmer them in a bit more cream until the cream is reduced a little.  Let that cool for a couple of minutes, then spoon it over the eggs.  But often I opt for the easy out and just spoon a little more cream over the eggs.  Salt and pepper them to your taste, and then finely grate some cheese over the top.  Gruyère is traditional, but really any grated cheese that suits you will be excellent.

Pop the dishes into a pre-heated 400° oven and let them bake.  How long you bake them depends on your taste, as well as how cold your eggs were to begin with.  I like the white to be set, or very nearly so, and the yolk to run.  In my oven that takes about 18 minutes.  The French eat them less cooked, many of you will probably prefer them a little more well-done. Experiment once, remember your magic time, and you’re good to go from then on out.

And if you’re planning a really late night out with a possibly bleary morning after, you can even prepare these, right up to the baking step, the night before.  They’ll take longer to bake if they’re coming straight out of the fridge, but that will give you time to have a cup or two of coffee to revive your spirits and appetite, and to be glad you broke your vow to never eat again.

The Dark And The Light

March 18, 2010

The mystery scanners have shone their light deep inside Shel and have pronounced their dark verdict: we just have to wait and see for six more weeks.  This is good news, in that nothing drastic will be happening soon.  This is bad news because we have to wait and see, once again.  Sometimes we complain that our whole life lately is about waiting and seeing, imagining the worst, imagining the best, never really knowing.  It’s a fairly brutal drill, and yet, maybe I’ve lost my sense of perspective.  How much of your own life would you say is about waiting and seeing? 

Maybe it’s just the human condition and it’s gotten unreasonably far under my skin.  Maybe it’s just cancer.  It’ll jerk you around like that, time and again.  It’s always there, yet we must live like we don’t feel its hot breath stealing across our dreams.  Live like we’re alive and well and not too old and staying that way.  Live like we’re balance-beam masters, no need for a net.  Maybe you know the dance.  If cancer is in your life, what do you do to maintain an ambiguity equilibrium?

When you can’t even decide whether the news is good or bad, when, as Shel said today “no news is no news,” it’s time for some deeply comforting time coming to terms with the world as we know it.

Light a fire, round up every errant candle holder, fire up the hot tub, get out the guitar and a bottle of French wine, and try not to think too hard.  Think gently about life, and life may be gentle with you.

Dancing With The Past

March 15, 2010

Our dear old friends Rebecca and Bill came to dinner.   Instead of commiserating with us about how hard it must have been to leave France, Bill kept insisting “But what’s good about being back?  I want to hear about the good stuff.”  So here you go: one of the very best things is that Rebecca was wearing her party slippers, which prompted me to don mine as well.  Aren’t we a pair?

For a few hours, our party-slippered feet together under the table, it felt just like old times.  Rebecca had grown the vegetables, the leeks and Brussels sprouts for the soup, the braising greens that nestled under a mound of sweet scallops, the fine and fancy spring salad greens that offset my newest creation, Dark Mocha Lamb.

The meal itself revealed so many changes in our life, though.  I had to call our guests just as they were leaving the house to ask them to bring bread.  It’s been so long since I’ve had to plan ahead for bread, other than asking Shel to run next door to the bakery at the last moment, that I’d completely forgotten it. Then, I put out the tiniest possible amount of food with the pre-dinner drink. In the past I used to make lots of delicious stuff to go with drinks, but now I have come to appreciate the super-simple French approach, a bowl of olives or almonds, possibly nothing more than that, to save one’s appetite for the meal. A mise en bouche of a small sippable cup of soup, made to use up a heap of chicken bones and a small bowl of Brussels sprouts?  Again, tout à fait Français.

Since we’ve been back, even though I’m theoretically a great fan of local products, I just can’t help myself.   I keep buying French wine, much as it pains me to cough up $15 for a vin de pays. But my palate is so tuned to the restraint and structure of French wine now that everything else tastes over the top.  So I had this wine, which you can read about here, and I wanted to make a dish to complement it.  I tasted a small sip, hastily decanted it and came back again in an hour, tasted again,  mmm, coffee, pepper, chocolate.  Et voilà, Dark Mocha Lamb was born.*

Dark Mocha Lamb

8 small (or 4 large) lamb sirloin steaks
thyme, and bay leaf, ground together roughly and mixed with coarse salt**
coarsely ground black pepper
3 T olive oil
2 T Dijon mustard
3/4 cup strong brewed coffee (I recommend a good decaf)
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 T dark rum
2 squares very dark chocolate (I used Lindt 90% Supreme Dark)

Sprinkle the lamb on both sides with the herb blend and plenty of pepper. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and brown the steaks on both sides over high heat, a minute or two per side, until nicely browned.  Remove the meat from the pan and place in a heavy, oiled roasting pan.  Spread the mustard over the top surfaces of the lamb steaks.

Add the coffee to the hot skillet, stirring and scraping vigorously to deglaze. Lower the heat, add the rum, the cream, and the chocolate, stirring constantly to obtain a smooth sauce.  Let the sauce reduce for several minutes until it’s as thick as heavy cream.  Taste for salt.  Spoon the sauce over the lamb.  You can prepare the recipe to this point an hour or so ahead, and just let it rest at room temperature, which makes it really nice for a dinner party.

Preheat the oven to 400°.  Roast the lamb for 8-10 minutes, until it reaches 120° on a meat thermometer for a beautifully rare steak.  Spoon the pan juices over the meat and serve.  If at all possible, eat it with people who insist that you focus on the good things in life.

*inspired by this recipe

**Make the herb blend.  Make lots, you’ll be wanting to use this on everything.  Start with a ratio of 2 T dried thyme to one small bay leaf, and adjust to your taste.

It’s All A Jumble

March 13, 2010

When Jacqueline restored this old painting and presented it to us, maybe a year and a half ago, did she ever imagine it resting between two Finnish wood scrap trees, an Indonesian fish bell, a South American gourd, and two pieces of American glass?  Certainly not, and when she sees this picture she’ll probably have a fit and ask me to send the poor painting back to France where it can be in more ordinary company.

When we won this lovely blue Moroccan plate in a cooking contest, was it forseeable that it would land next to the samovar that Marina brought us in her suitcase from Russia and the ceramic lady I packed home in my suitcase from a business trip to Matamoros, Mexico?  But they all look normal together, right?

That’s my life, eclectic as all get-out.  I remember being in 4th grade and saying in class that I wanted a Citizen of the World passport, and now I realize that  I still want that.  We brought home 21 cartons of our French life, and now their contents are nestling in with the remains of other trips, to other countries.  They all felt like home to me, rootless as I am, however briefly I was there.  France still feels like home, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

When we were packing up to leave France, I tossed all this stuff together in a bag, hair scrunchies (including two green velvet ones with bells on them that were intended to be holiday collars for very small dogs but which I appropriated to be ponytail holders for hair that I have long since left on the floor of Hervé’s salon), necklaces, pins, a nutcracker, and a wineglass washing brush.  I dumped it out on the bed today and wondered what I had been thinking.  Throwing that all together, like the differences between things didn’t matter.

This afternoon Zazou, coyotes be damned and full speed ahead with the climbing program, after being coaxed down from a precarious perch at least 30 feet up in a Douglas fir, decided that subsequently climbing 20 feet up on the dead tree snag outside my office window seemed like kitten’s play.  Boy she sure can meow! Loud and clear, “get me out of here!”

Which is just how we feel right now, although with every box we unpack we’re digging ourselves in deeper.  Moving, like childbirth, is so arduous that in the heat of the moment one vows never again, only to be beset by the desire to adventure even further afield, to try just one more time.

Beppo has the right idea.  All he wants is to sleep in my lap.  He doesn’t care what country the lap is in.  For him, home is where the heart is, and his heart belongs right here, right now, wherever and whenever that is. We should all be so smart.

Cats In Space

March 11, 2010

Cats are just not constitutionally adapted to flying.  Beppo and Zazou, weary to the last whisker, have been explaining this to us since they arrived, although they do seem to be settling in.  I can’t even imagine what they’ve been thinking, though.

First they spent ten days in kitty camp, which is a luxury spot for cats, if they absolutely have to be away from home, which no self-respecting cat wants to be.  I watched them via webcam and they seemed to be having a fine time there, as usual.  But then, horrors!  And I’m glad there was no webcam for this part.

They were picked up from camp by an animal taxi and driven to the Montpellier airport.  There was a huge freak snowstorm in the south of France and their flight was delayed for two hours.  Of course they didn’t know that, and probably they were happier on the ground anyway, but there they were in Montpellier, alone in a foreign land.  Next they flew to Paris where they spent the night in a chatterie, some sort of kennel for flying kitties.

And then finally they got on an Air France flight to Seattle, the same flight we’d taken ourselves some days earlier, a flight that lasts 10 1/2 hours. Now personally I spent those hours watching four movies, but I have no idea how the cats passed the time.  I’m guessing that Zazou mewed and meowed for at least ten of those hours, as she is wont to do, and that Beppo probably sat stoically in his carrier, cursing his fate.  I know that Shel and I, on the ground, were passing the time saying things like “Okay, the kitties must be 40,000 feet over Greenland right now.”

When at last they arrived in Seattle we went to the airport to pick them up and found that we had to pass through Customs before we could reclaim them. Possibly they thought we might be importing rabid fighting weasels disguised as house cats, and they put us through the question mill.  “Oho, so he’s an American cat, but is he an American citizen?” “Well, yes, he’s an American citizen, and she’s a French citizen, but both cats have French passports.”  “So he went to France and found himself a French cat and now he’s bringing her home?”  “Yes, and she’s really a cutie, even though she doesn’t have a Green Card.”  Possibly I shouldn’t have said that bit about the Green Card, since it seldom pays to plumb the depths of the sense of humor of a Customs Official.

After what seemed like an eternity of paperwork, the cats came home with us.  Beppo appears to remember that he spent his first year here, and Zazou the Intrepid isn’t showing any signs of being terrorized by her new environment.  We are, though, since the island has become home to coyotes, who are said to hunt cats.  We scarcely want to let them out of our sight, but of course they are used to being Free Cats, and world travelers at that, so if it weren’t raining they’d surely be outside right now, instead of snuggled together on my favorite recliner.

And now we head back to the airport to reclaim our 21 cartons and suitcases, which, we have been informed, weigh in at 647 pounds.  We’ve rented a truck for the occasion, and I wish I could have rented a bevy of strong young guys as well.  And we’ll have to go through Customs again.  I can see it already.  “Oho, so you rented a furnished house in France and you still acquired 647 pounds of stuff?”  I’m trying to think of how to explain that.

Rebuilding The Nest

March 6, 2010

We’ve been back in America now for about 36 hours, remarkably few of which have been spent sleeping, exhausted though we are.  We find ourselves up before sunrise, unpacking, sorting, sifting through things in the semi-dark, wondering.  Whose house is this?  Whose stuff is this?

See this pile?  None of it is ours, yet it was spread out all over the house. We’ve been on a mission to ferret it out, return it to its owner, our former tenant, in order to reclaim the space as our own.

But the tenant, when I called him, was surprised to learn that all of this stuff was his.  I described the lamps, the blanket, the kitchenware, and he said that he had thought it was all ours.  He didn’t mean to leave it behind, he just didn’t know it belonged to him.  I think it’s because he’d lost his wife just a few months before he came to live here, and maybe it was all hers, in his mind.  He’d brought it here, because he didn’t know what else to do with it, but really, he didn’t own it.

The kitchen is another story.  The fridge and freezer were absolutely stuffed with food, every cupboard overflowing.  Often with two, three, or even more of the same item, often all of them opened.  Had some of it been hers too?  Or did he just think that he needed breadcrumbs, salad dressing, get some, have that thought again, get some more, lose sight of the ones he’d already opened?  Three bags of chocolate chips and pounds of butter in the freezer.  Was he a big baker, or had those been hers too?  I bagged up everything that could be donated to the food bank, tossed most of the rest.

Unlike our former tenants who left everything eerily the same, this time everything was eerily different.  On my night table he’d left me a book on grief and coping with loss.  Nothing in it mentions stocking up your life with enough food for a family of ten, but perhaps that helped in some way.  He said that he was at peace here, and maybe that’s the best you can hope for.

So now, slowly, we’ll try to rebuild our life here on the island.  Soon Beppo and Zazou will be here, and then our shipment will arrive from France.  All the cupboards and corners will once again be overflowing, but this time with our own stuff.

I hate to think that stuff makes a life, but in some way it’s true.  After all, in France we’ve been living in a furnished house, with someone else’s stuff all around us, and still we managed to acquire, or took there with us, what turned out to be about 3 cubic meters of stuff to ship back here.  We couldn’t settle in here until we’d rooted out every channel zester and bulb baster that wasn’t ours, even though they were virtually identical to our own.  The last time we came back I felt like we were in a time warp; this time it’s a stuff warp.

I have to admit, though, that I kept those chocolate chips.  They’ll help Shel cope with loss, the loss of his beloved next door French bakery.

Au Revoir, Paris

March 3, 2010

I think it’s fair to say that when most people visit Paris they head for the beautiful old monuments, like Sacré Coeur.  And in fact when we stopped in briefly, nuns in fluttery white habits were singing some kind of plainsong, and it was pure loveliness.

But the truth is that we were in Paris for the cows.  Sure, we’re flying out of here tomorrow, so that’s the principal reason for our visit.  But that aside, it’s the annual Salon d’Agriculture that really drew me.  I’ve been wanting to go to that for years, and the fact that it’s right now, right here, was way too good to pass up.

The Salon is the chance for French farmers to strut their stuff.  There’s serious judging, emphasis on saving ancient breeds, like this Salers beauty, and thousands and thousands of animals patiently ignoring the mad influx of strange humans into their lives.

I probably shouldn’t say this in a family blog, but the Salers have really cute butts, with their blond pompom tail tufts.  Actually, most of the breeds were really cute.

There were Blondes d’Aquitaine,

Bazadaises,

Aubracs,

Charolaises,

Pie Rouge des Plaines,

Normandes,

Vosgiennes, and dozens of other breeds.  I could go on and on, my photo file’s overflowing with French cowdom, but I really do think there’s a limit to what I can ask of you.

Although I’m pretty sure you’ll love this big boy.  We had the chance to watch the judging of the Parthenaise bulls, and I was inordinately proud of myself for having picked the winner out of the field of five mega-bulls, each one weighing in at right about a ton.  This is a meat animal, and they were being judged for their qualitiés boucher, which is all about the meat, and not about their beautiful curly ruffs or their buffalo-like heads, but still.  I guess I know bull when I see it.

A big emphasis of the Salon is on the future farmers of France, and this stand was designed to encourage young people to go into farming.

French farming is in something of a crisis, just as American farming was some years ago, as more and more small farms are lost to big agribusiness.  But whereas it’s probably too late to save the small American family farm, France is still very much an agricultural nation, and there’s a huge push to save today’s farmers and make it possible for young people to stay on the farm.

Every evening of the Salon you can visit the milking parlor, and there’s a milk bar to buy fresh milk, which was always swamped with thirsty visitors.

If you missed the real thing you could see milking demonstrated on a plastic cow,

and there were also goat milking demonstrations, although the only time you could get anywhere near the stand was between the actual shows. Have I mentioned that this Salon is evidently one of the most popular events in Paris? There were at least 100,000 people there yesterday, which made for an exhausting crowd.  And it lasts for 10 days, although I don’t know if it’s always as as busy as it was during our visit.  And we didn’t even begin to see everything, for in addition to cows there were

sheep,

including some with newborn lambs,

pigs with baby piglets, and also goats, draft horses, dogs, cats, fish, and birds, that we didn’t have time to see.

The spirit of internationalism was alive and well, and there were stands with food and agricultural information from many countries, including Japan,

Russia,

and Tatarstan, where as soon as I asked if I could take his picture this guy ran and got his drum and struck a dramatic pose for me.

There was a planted stand showing how barley and hops make beer,

and a workshop showing kids how to pot plants.  And…and…and…I give up, you’ll just have to go next year and see for yourself.

It’s a prize-winning event, and I could have happily spent another day there. But you know what?  We have to pack.  Again.  We’ve spread out all over this Paris apartment like we meant to stay here forever.  But no. Jour J, which is the French equivalent of d-day, is tomorrow.  The day we leave France, which now feels like home to us, and head back to the Pacific Northwest, a strange new world.

I’m on my way, and I’m bringing a cow.  That should make the transition easier, don’t you think?


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