Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Chestnuts Won't Be Rushed

It isn't home without a little clutter

The Artist and I no longer travel on holidays, not wanting to chance heavy traffic and possibly treacherous driving conditions. My son and a couple old friends were with us for Thanksgiving, which was very pleasant, but December brought winter in full strength, and all I wanted for Christmas Eve and Day was time at home in front of the fire. So after our holiday breakfast of waffles, and after I’d treated Sarah to a morning holiday bath (“Some treat!” she seemed to say with her eyes) and settled her in front of the fire with a good, fresh beef bone, and after I’d made the cranberry-orange relish and stashed it in the fridge for later, I settled down to work with chestnuts.

If there is a faster way to prepare fresh chestnuts for soup or purée, I don’t want to know about it. The slow, repetitious cutting with a knife of that little x on each nut, very carefully, one at a time, and then moving them, again one at a time, from the waiting bowl to the x’d bowl, ready for roasting, can be either meditative or sociable, depending on what’s going on in the cook’s immediate surroundings. In my case, on Christmas Eve, I was very aware of the Artist cheerfully working away in the bathroom to replace a faucet washer (he was wonderfully good-natured about it!) and our dog lying contentedly on a towel in front of the fire with her bone. I felt surrounded by and filled with love and contentment. Who would want to rush on from such a feeling?

While chestnuts are roasting in the oven, and afterward, while they’re cooling, the cook is free to do something else for a while -- and if it’s a holiday, and the rest of the family doesn’t need her attention or assistance, she may just pick up a book and read! Because, just as there was no rushing the preparation for the oven, so there is no rushing the roasting or cooling processes, either. It takes the time it takes, that’s all.

Peeling can be a little messy, but it can be done sitting at the table, and again there is no hurry involved. It’s interesting to see variations in color as roasted chestnuts emerge from their shells. Some are like ivory, veined with brown, others darker all over as if by a deep stain. The nuts are buttery soft, even before boiling.

Looks like a squirrel has been at work here

Finally, as the nuts simmer in chicken broth (simmering almost always gentler for anything than boiling, unless “a full rolling boil” is explicitly called for), the water gradually turns a soft brown, almost a cocoa color, and this will be the color of the eventual soup or puree, lightened with the addition of cream.

Somehow I neglected to photograph the final chestnut product in white china bowls. Instead we move from empty bowls to main dish prep to plated shrimp and sesame noodles. The important thing is that it all came together as planned, despite the leisurely pace of the day, and that made it an ideal holiday for the cook.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Memory's Lasting Perfume

When snow arrived this week, I brought my rosemary plants into the house. Rosemary is a tender herb, native to hot, dry climates like Provence, and will not survive a winter outdoors, so one of my Friday projects was to strip the fragrant leaves from the longest stems for winter drying. Because the resident Artist, in his home office, has the only south-facing window in ou4 old farmhouse, that is where the remaining trimmed plants are resting for the time being.

My friend Helene referred to her dining room windowsill of plants, fresh herbs and a few pots of blooms, as her garden, and early on during my stay with her we established our mutual love of growing things. Years later (and years into our transatlantic correspondence), when I came to live here in the farmhouse, I would sometimes sit out by my vegetable garden at sunrise and write a description of the scene to my faraway friend, who was kind enough to praise my laborious essays — truly, attempts — in French. 

At last one year I received no answer to my last letter for a worrisome length of time and got a disturbing recording when I called her phone number. I telephoned her downstairs neighbor, heart pounding. Yes, Helene had died. She was then, after all, 90 years old by that time and had had health issues for all the years I’d known her, but the shock was no less painful for being unsurprising. And Mme. Lamy could not help telling me, over and over, that Helene had “suffered terribly.” Each time she said it, I recoiled from the painful stab of that awful phrase. But Mme. Lamy also told me, several times, how happy Helene had always been when the mail brought a letter from me, and I take comfort still in knowing I gave her some little bit of joy now and then. 

Rosemary is good for flavoring vegetables and meats, especially suckling pig, veal, lamb and game. It keeps its pungency well when dried. Use this herb with moderation, as it has a very strong aroma and flavor. - Ginette Mathiot, in I Know How to Cook

Never in my life have I prepared suckling pig or veal, but I do love lamb, and there is no cooking or even living without vegetables. 

The New Putting Food By (not that “new,” actually, as my third edition has a 1982 printing date) cautions that rosemary must not be dried at higher than room temperature and dries best away from light. Just as well. Moving the rosemary-drying operation upstairs means not adding one more project to our crowded downstairs living space, where my apple-drying project continues in full swing evening after evening. 

Rosemary is one of the flavors (un des parfums) in the beloved French mixture called “herbes de Provence,” which sometimes includes lavender, too, along with other herbs. It was in Paris that I came to know and love and require herbes de Provence in my cooking on a regular basis, and so for that reason, along with my memory of my friend’s windowsill garden, Helene is very present to me as I handle these sharply fragrant leaves.

Is there someone in your life whose day would be brightened by a letter from you?

Her letters brought joy to me, too

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Evening Called For a Treat

For more than a couple years after I planted them, my little apple trees bore no fruit. Should I have fertilized and watered the trees? A friend from an orchard family said they shouldn’t need such coddling. Then one year they produced not only spring blossoms but summer apples, ripening at the weeks went by. And now the crop is so heavy, I’m glad I only planted two trees, because what would I do with more? Especially since I still can’t resist gathering wild apples, too, when I come across them.

Only the beginning!
Most of the apples I harvest go into the dryer. It’s a slow, laborious process but also pleasingly meditative work, and the keeping of dried fruit is a snap. Apples seem forgiving rather than fussy, too, when it comes to thickness of slices to be dried, and I like a fruit that accommodates me rather than making its own demands.

On Halloween, however, with a fire in the fireplace and the wind howling around the old farmhouse, a departure from usual routine was indicated. Something simple and rustic. Out came lard and flour and two knives. A pinch of salt and a few tablespoons of cold well water. Then to roll out a single piecrust and drape it into a small casserole. Into the deep declivity went sliced apples with a little flour and sugar, cinnamon, and (last but not least) small bits of butter. Finally the crust drapery was pulled over the top and pinched together, snugging the apples cozily inside. No recipe, just old peasant grandma at work in her farmhouse (Paris) kitchen.

Hot from the oven
We do not have dessert every night, but certain times of year bring on cravings, and cravings that unite so well with harvest should never be denied. Dinner was delicious chicken gumbo, and that deserved noting, but I'd made it the night before and couldn't find my camera.

My bedtime reading on Halloween was Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard. That was cozy, too. And who knows? Some of the recipes sound so good they may inspire me to pay more attention to this blog, which I have shamefully ignored since May.

Cream would be nice poured over this, too....

Monday, May 1, 2017

Thirty Years Ago Today

Thirty years ago this morning I awoke in Paris to the sounds of cooing pigeons and the voices of Frenchwomen at their morning household chores coming through tall bedroom courtyard windows. On the nightstand beside my bed was a pot of lilies-of-the-valley. I had arrived at midnight the night before, exhausted after two nights without sleep, a transatlantic flight, hours crouched on the floor of the railroad station in Luxembourg (waiting room with benches only for first-class passengers), a train ride made mostly on my feet (I had a ticket but not a seat reservation), and, after a confusing taxi ride in the dark, a climb with heavy bag to the third floor of 39 rue Vaugirard, where I found a note on the door telling me that Mme. Pillet was downstairs at a friend’s apartment. Down I trudged to find her. Back up again. Did I want something to eat? Wasn’t I hungry? No, I needed to fall into bed as quickly as possible before I keeled over onto the floor!

In the morning I woke refreshed. It was a sunny morning. The soft pigeon sounds, the flute-y women’s voices, the sweet chink of spoons against china cups—purling, murmuring--seemed too beautiful to be real.

Hélène made coffee for me that first morning but warned me she would not do so regularly. She did, however, as she realized I would not be a slovenly renter, extend to me kitchen privileges not accorded to all who stayed in the room, and by the end of the month, when it came time for me to leave, we were close friends.

Being there. Nothing at all like looking at pictures or watching a movie or reading a book or imagining! The ancient city filled with lilies-of-the-valley, pots and bouquets and corsages of them everywhere. The Seine sparkling in the sun.

And so on May Day I remember that morning 30 years ago. A day to celebrate friendship, a holiday from work. For me, a dream come true that lives on, cherished, in memory.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Start With a Blood Orange

Blood oranges are not unique to Spain, but I always think of them as Spanish, from my first encountering them in Paris, and then I think also of strawberries and the protests from French farmers and agricultural workers one year over strawberries imported from Spain in what I thought of “The War of the Strawberries.” Oranges, of course, need a warmer climate than strawberries (and so we have Michigan strawberries but not Michigan oranges), but let’s stick to oranges today. Strawberries will come in good time.

Les sanguines. Blood oranges. The name is strong and yet poetic, evocative, calling up associations and mysteries far beyond citrus.

Blood orange fruit segments are a deep garnet in color (darker than Ruby Red grapefruit), and the thick orange rind surrounding the juicy pulp usually bears a deep red blush, too. They are delicious as well as beautiful, but it was the beauty and the magic of the name that first drew me to them. Some objects, like some places, simply have irresistible names, and if the objects are beautiful, too, why try to resist?

Now, to my amazement, blood oranges have come to Northport, where they are at present no more expensive than the more ordinary oranges. A dollar apiece for either kind! Cheaper than a candy bar! Too special, though, I can’t help thinking, to be merely sliced into sections for a snack. And a single blood orange goes a long way when used in a salad, half of one sufficient for two people’s salad. It dresses up mundane Romaine remarkably, along with some crumbled goat cheese and works well with a raspberry vinaigrette. 

But a blood orange inspires me to go beyond lettuce and cheese, and so my salad the next evening began with cubed cold tofu and sections of blood orange cut into thirds, which would probably have been good enough; however, I had a bit of leftover fruit salad – orange and mango and grated coconut – so I tossed that in, too, along with freshly sprouted mung beans, finally dressing the whole and tossing with a light application of sesame oil.

That would have been the end of it, except that I also found the tiniest dab of chopped cabbage and kale to sprinkle over the top for bright green contrast and added crunch. Perfect!

NOW it's done!
What inspires you in the kitchen as spring comes on? Or do you find it too hard to stay indoors?

(Bring outdoors in)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lent Is Over!

“Do you need to stop at NJ’s for anything?” David asked as we were returning home along Lake Leelanau on Monday after wrapping up the last of our tax work (a day early!) in Traverse City.

“Yes! I need a gallon of milk.”

“What do you use so much milk for?”

Well, I haven’t been using it since Mardi Gras, because I chose to forego coffee and wine for Lent and my favorite breakfast drink at home is café au lait made with Shetler’s whole milk – and I must say that doing without coffee was much harder than abstaining from wine, though this year I did not make the mistake of adding chocolate and potato chips to the list of absentions. But okay, I made it, and the lovely hand-warmer mug a friend gave me for my birthday was just perfect for renewing my café au lait tradition on a chilly April morning.

If I were actually in Paris, there would have been a fresh, warm, crispy croissant to go with the café au lait. Such a chilly Michigan morning, though! Perfect for a steaming bowl of hot corn grits topped with butter and local maple syrup. More than a fashionable Parisian woman would have to start the day, but it works for me.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Eat Hearty When Winter Roars Back

One side done!

When balmy, 50-degree weather gives way to fierce winds, blowing snow, and a bare sixteen (yes, 16) degrees above zero, it’s time for the Paris kitchen to serve up a hearty, Midwestern American breakfast. Not just any old pancakes, either, but stick-to-your-rib griddle cakes.

They start with cornmeal, and cornmeal for me is corn grits from Bob’s Red Mill, an employee-owned company (since Bob's 81st birthday) producing some of the best food products in the United States. You can order directly from them online, but I don’t. Their products are carried at Tom’s Market in Northport, the Leland Mercantile, and of course at Oryana Co-op in Traverse City. Buying local preserves local jobs and keeps money circulating in local communities. This goes for food, books, and anything else that is available where you live.

The best! And so versatile!
My corn griddle cakes started with a cup of boiling water poured over a cup of corn grits, and while that was calming down (the recipe said to let it sit 10 minutes), I sifted flour (1/2 cup) and baking powder (2 tsp.) in one bowl and mixed milk (1/2 cup), an egg, and 2 tbsp. sugar in another. That is, I'm pretty sure about those proportions, but you might want to check your cookbook, because I didn't bring mine to work with me today.

About that sifting business. I learned to sift flour in my mother's kitchen, and the lesson was reinforced in junior high home economics, but then for decades I pooh-poohed sifting. And got by fine without it. Now, however, I have a little sifter and take pleasure in using it. Little things can give a lot of pleasure in a little kitchen. Besides, even a hearty corn griddle cake should be as light as it can possibly be.

I preheated my old griddle well, not wanting to sacrifice the first cake to the dog, despite her pretty, pleading face. (She always gets the last little bite on my plate.) Having the griddle hot is important for good griddle cakes, as is not overmixing. Mix just enough and no more.

Perfection! So elusive!

Leelanau syrup! Last spring's!
When they come off the griddle, slather on more (organic) butter and some good local maple syrup. If you make the cakes large, as I did this morning, one will be enough for breakfast, but the rest can go in your lunch box. You’ll need them on a day like today!

It is not spring yet this year in Leelanau County.