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Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Simple Farmhouse Christmas

Christmas Eve supper for me is macaroni and cheese. I can put it together fairly quickly and, once it’s gone into the oven, turn my attention to preparing for the next day. My only suggestion for mac and cheese, since everyone has his or her own way of making it, is to use a flat-bottomed whisk like the one above to stir the Béchamel sauce for the perfect velvety texture.

The more familiar wire whisk also had a job to do on Thursday evening, as I’d decided to make a quiche for our now-traditional Christmas Day breakfast in bed. Since David likes cold, day-after quiche better than fresh-out-of-the-oven quiche, that meant I could make it the night before. Havarti cheese, plenty of soft, sauteed onions, chopped spinach, mushrooms, and then (the whisk’s job) beaten eggs, milk, heavy cream, and Swiss cheese. I’ve had more photogenic crusts than this one – it was a little skimpy on the edges – but except for its look, it was a complete success.

Yes, heavy cream in the quiche! Shocking, I know. But I could hardly wait for the next morning and a special, not merely a café au lait but un café crème, the most luxurious beginning possible to a festive day. We live in a simple old farmhouse, and my kitchen is tiny, but bottles of Shetler’s milk and cream in the refrigerator make me feel rich!

For several years we have not traveled on holidays. I feel a need to be in my bookstore as much as possible when other people’s relatives are coming home to Northport, and then (though it would have been no problem this year) there is the unpredictable nature of weather in November and December. Short driving days, dark coming on early, crowded highways, possibilities of ice and snow, added to the possibility of book-buying customers -- all this conspires to keep us at home. It makes for a quiet Christmas, but we’ve adjusted to it.

Not long ago I had to have presents under a tree in the living room and, like an impatient child, would wake early and fret until I could get David out of bed, into his robe, and out to the living room to open presents. Finally I faced reality: I was a child no longer, and he had no desire to leave the coziness of bed for the chill of another room. Opening presents by a tree didn’t mean much, if anything, to him. So I capitulated. Now we have breakfast and presents in bed, where we are as cozy as cozy can be, and where this year our new windows and freshly painted bedroom walls added to the morning’s splendor.

The pack had a luscious day of lying around. I had a good book to read in bed (The Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok), NPR gave us soft instrumental and chorale music for a while before changing over to stories, and Sarah, having gone for a big walk with me up the hill before breakfast, was content simply to be with us.

Lamplight on the walls was lovely, as were random patterns of willow branches outside the window.

Later we went for a long, slow ride in the car, finishing up with a walk for me and run for Sarah. I threw sticks, and she chased after them. The temperature was dropping, though, and the sun lowering to the horizon, and we were all content to be going back home again, where oranges and pistachios graced the table and kept human appetites in check during the remaining time before dinner.

When I had asked David what he wanted for Christmas dinner, he said not to go to any trouble, which was fine, but I still wanted to do something out of our ordinary run of meals. My solution met both requirements. David loves pork ribs (which we almost never have at home) and doesn’t like anything at all done to them – no marinade, no sauce, no nothing. Just very well-done, crispy ribs, slow-roasted in the oven, and nothing could be easier than that, I figured. He requested double-baked potatoes, another rarity in our house, and that was fine, too.

I forgot to photograph my holiday vegetable dish once it was put together, and that’s a shame, because it could not have been prettier: broccoli, red pepper, walnuts, vinaigrette tossed together. The pepper can be sauteed in olive oil at the start of meal preparation, but the broccoli should be steamed only just before it’s all tossed together and brought to the table, to keep the vegetable bright green. The colors should sing!

Two kinds of cranberry sauce, the tart with orange for David, the sweet cooked kind for me. Simple, traditional.

Dessert was simple, too. (I confess we had already had homemade shortbread and spice cookies for dessert with our breakfast. Thank you, friend Sally!) You can see we are a Shetler’s household, but finding their eggnog custard ice cream at NJ’s was a delightful surprise. Square of Lindt dark chocolate tucked into each small dish.

So, only two meals for us on Christmas, and we refrained from having seconds. We got outdoors for scenery and exercise and fresh air. We lazed around like pashas. It was a lovely, lovely day. We felt deep gratitude. Even without snow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Of Loaves and Fishes

It was Sunday, December 6.

Sunday again. Bread day. I decided on a light rye, more unbleached white flour than rye but a full three cups of rye and then molasses in place of sugar for an extra kick. But you’ve seen my bread before, and I had posted to this blog only Sunday morning, so I wasn’t feeling pressed to put anything new together right away. Instead, resting on my (scanty) laurels seemed in order.

Moving as usual between one kitchen project and another, however, I could not resist photographing the beautiful lake trout my friend Susan had urged upon me. She had more than enough, she said, and needed space in her freezer for other things. 

Look at this fish! Would you have to be asked twice to accept it? And then, of course, I realized that I had, coincidentally on the first evening of Hannukah, a very Biblical kitchen conjunction of foodstuffs, loaves and fishes. The beginning of the holiday and the unplanned Biblical theme in my kitchen sent me to the shelves to pull out a book.

How do you use cookbooks (if at all)? I have some that are my everyday, pedestrian, basic, go-to reference works, such as Cooking for American Homemakers, first published by the Culinary Arts Institute in 1950; The Joy of Cooking; and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook

And then I have my Paris kitchen daydreaming-and-looking-for-inspiration cookbooks. The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors, by Jeff Smith, is one of my favorites in the latter category, the best American cookbook I know for Ethiopian recipes, as well as other surprising national, regional, and ethnic dishes from around the world, along with (gift from friends) The Philosopher’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook, by Francine Segan. Yet another is The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking, by Marlena Spieler, with recipes from practically every country in the world where Jews have ever lived. Spieler begins the section on bread with these introductory sentences:
At the Jewish table, a meal begins with a blessing over the bread. Bread is one of the most basic foods in the Jewish diet.
Oh, the beautiful breads! How long has it been since I made bagels? And here are recipes for kesra from Morocco, Middle Eastern lavash, pitas and flat breads, Russian potato bread, and Moroccan seed bread. Stollen – that I have made but not for many, many years. Ditto for breadsticks. A world of bread is reaching its arms toward me yearningly! -- No, no! Another time! Tonight only rye bread is on my agenda!

Meanwhile, I decide to improvise with the lake trout in an attempt to please both David and myself. To please myself, I will bake it in the oven, and for him I will devise a light breading involving Parmesan cheese, first dredging the trout in beaten egg, then coating with a mixture of flour, cornmeal and Parmesan. David thinks everything is improved by the addition of Parmesan cheese; to him, its place on the table is as basic as the presence of salt.

Bread dough rising, lake trout popped into the oven, it’s time to saute up some diced onions and mushrooms in butter and olive oil to serve as garnish for the main dish. (Capers and shallots would be good, but those got used up at Thanksgiving and are not yet replaced.) A few tossed greens on the dinner plates for salad. As to a side dish, there’s no space or time (see previous post addressing constraints) to do anything else on the stove or in the oven, so acorn squash, halved and dotted with butter and brown sugar, goes into the microwave. Was it enough? More than.

Although a Pisces, David does not carefully distinguish, as would a Frenchman, among a wide variety of fresh- and saltwater fish. They are all “fish” to him and not usually his first choice if there’s “meat” instead. But this lake trout? Caught in our own Lake Michigan and prepared, if I do say so, to perfection? Well, it raised the bar when David pronounced it “the best fish I ever ate.”

If the rye bread has half as enthusiastic a reception, I thought as I watched the clock and kept my nose tuned to aromas from the oven, it will have been a very satisfying and productive day in the kitchen.
Good bread should have a fairly crisp crust and a soft interior, generally with irregular, slightly glazed holes. Almost no bread should be served hot, and rye bread – the loaf – is best when slightly stale. ... Cool, sweet butter is the best accompaniment. – James and Kay Salter, Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days

Postscript: The bread surpassed my hopes and was everything I dreamed it would be. That doesn't always happen, but it's awfully satisfying when it does.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

On the rue de Vaugirard

Au coin

Forgive the poor quality of this first image, cropped and blown up from a full-size print, itself of unexceptional quality. It was on the rue de Vaugirard (the longest street in Paris, my taxi driver warned when I gave him the street number, he trying to ascertain that I really did know where I was going), in the sixth arrondissement, that I encountered my first Paris kitchen. It was the kitchen of the first apartment I ever saw in Paris, the first Paris building I’d ever been in other than the train station, le gare du Nord.

For years I had been hoarding a few days a year of vacation time, never spending all I had available, until at last I had enough vacation time to go to Paris – for the first time! – for an entire month. All alone! I was going to have, at last, an adventure I had dreamed of all my life. “Where are you staying?” one friend asked. Airily I dismissed the question. I would find a hotel when I got there. The friend was aghast. Most of my friends were aghast, truth be told. One person, I was told years later, predicted that the city would “eat her alive.” “Her” being me, of course. Others told me I would hate Paris because Parisians were rude and hated Americans. I dismissed that silliness out of hand, sure that Parisians would love me, because I would be so happy to be there.

I did not take Paris by storm, but on that first visit I formed a friendship with a woman of my parents’ generation, a friendship that endured to the death.

Back home, the friend who had asked where I would be staying had been in Paris the previous year, and he contacted a woman from whom he had rented a room, although I already had plane tickets and would be arriving on the last day of April (2007), to stay through the month of May, whether or not that particular room might be available. Madame replied that she had only one month still available for the entire year – the month of May. I was in!

It was an exhausting flight on Icelandair, from Chicago via Keflavik to Luxemburg, where there was a long layover in a train station with waiting room seating accommodations only for first-class passengers. I hunkered down on the floor with my bag, willing the hands of the clock to move. Hours later the train to Paris began boarding, but I still had nowhere to sit: I had a ticket to ride but no “reservation,” a separate expense that would have guaranteed me a seat. Without a reservation I had to stand up, exhausted, swaying, almost until my destination was reached.

Midnight. Back in Michigan it was 7 a.m. I had been awake for two nights already. Yes, I assured the taxi driver, I was certain of the house number. And I had the all-important code that would get me into the building.

Un escargot
A beautiful stairway led up to the apartment of Madame Hélène P. Up and up and up I went with what now felt like a bag of cement. On her door was a little handwritten note, saying she was downstairs on the first floor, visiting a friend! I staggered back down, taking the bag along, unfamiliar with the city and the building and its inhabitants and customs. Mme. P. and her friend, Mme. L., tried to urge on me a cup of tea, a bite of something to eat, but all I had strength to do was to fall on a bed, and so, back upstairs and into – my room!

The room she rented out by the month – under the table, bien sûr, since the apartment was rent-controlled but because only with the income from the room could she manage to survive – was much larger and more generously furnished than her own bedroom. I had what seemed an enormous bed with small tables on each side, a fireplace surmounted by a mirror, a large table for writing, and a closet. The bathroom, c’est-à-dire, la salle de bain (not la toilette, which was in a separate, small, windowless room on the other side of the kitchen), with large tub and shower and bidet and window and rack for drying hand-laundered items, was between the two bedrooms, but my landlady seemed to regard it as mine, for some reason. Because I was a paying guest. When she asked me once, apologetically, if she might have a bath, I was shocked. “Mais vous êtes chez vous!” I told her. It was her home! And yet, dependent on her sub rosa rental income, she wanted her renter to be happy.

Hélène et Sirius, son chat
How could I not be happy? That first morning, hearing French voices through the open windows, the thrilling, chinking sound of spoon against coffee cup, the cooing and purling of pigeons and occasional flutter of their wings!

I would go out every morning, having studied my map and bus schedules and chosen a direction and one or more destinations for the day, but I only took a camera with me two or three times, near the end of my time there, because more than anything else I wanted to be where I was, immersed in the sensations of the moment and not viewing objectively through a mechanical lens. In the evenings, Mme. P. and I would sit together at her dining table, which also held her small television set, and she would watch tennis matches or work crossword puzzles, and I would write letters home, but our conversations gradually became more important to both of us. Hélène spoke no English, which was ideal from my perspective, as it forced me to rely on and improve the high school French I had been struggling to retain for so many years. We generally had a dictionary or two on the table between us, as well as a pad of “bloc-notes,” that peculiar paper the French seem to favor which instead of being simply lined for writing is broken up into a blue grid of small squares. If either of us could not make out what the other was trying to say, we would resort to pen and paper.

I saw myself in that era of my life as remarkably independent and self-sufficient. Hadn’t I gotten myself across the Atlantic Ocean, and wasn’t I making my way around a cosmopolitan world city day after day, all alone, in an acquired second language? Mme. P. saw me, I later learned, as “fragile,” and in a number of small ways she took me under her wing. When I brought home a bottle of red wine one evening, wine I thought incredibly cheap, she told me not to waste my money so extravagantly, that she would keep a bottle filled for me from her supply of bulk wine. She cleared a shelf in the refrigerator for me and kept a bottle filled with wine for me on that shelf. Next she offered to take me to the nearest neighborhood produce market, her favorite, one alas! now replaced by modern apartments. And after carefully noting my generally frugal (apart from that first bottle of wine) and tidy ways, she extended kitchen privileges to me. Cooking in Hélène’s kitchen did not come automatically with room rental. It was a privilege that had to be earned.

Another “alas!” is that I have no photographs of the kitchen, nor did I keep any kind of record of what I cooked in it. I remember an artichoke one evening. Another time I returned alone to the market Hélène had introduced me to and requested an avocado of a Vietnamese vendor. “Pour manger quand?” he asked. When I intended to eat the avocado determined the one he would choose for me. I also had a little beguin (a weakness) for all kinds of French sausages and related products. The variety dazzled me.

Later I would come to know the wonderful market street of the ninth arrondissement, la rue des Martyrs, and when to pronounce or not pronounce the final ‘s’ of the word plus when buying a tranche of cheese, the difference being more or no more.


About halfway through May, Hélène and I had progressed to addressing one another by the familiar tu, and it’s hard to say which of us was more touched by the conversational intimacy. For me it marked a first; for her, it might have been one of the last. When I returned to Michigan, we began an exchange of letters. And earlier this year, when I plucked I Know How to Cook, the English translation of the basic French cookbook, Je sais cuisiner, off my shelf, out fell letters from Paris.

I was transported. My friend, who died at the age of 90 about a decade ago, was alive again as I re-read the letters. The last one, I realized more than I had when first I received it, was one she knew would probably be the last she would write to me. It expressed how deeply she valued our friendship, how much I meant to her, but she also admitted that she had little desire any more for her own life, that she had become “a bit of a spectator of the end of [her] life” (un peu spectateur de ma fin de vie), though she retained her love of nature – the sky, clouds, cats, and “animals in general.” Always she closed sending kisses to my dog, a dog she knew only from snapshots.

I saw her last in September 2000, but Hélène is with me still, in my little Paris kitchen in my old Michigan farmhouse. It was Hélène who encouraged me to eat asparagus with my fingers, peasant-style (Hélène was artistic, well read, politically and socially well informed, and the same year I met her I began graduate studies in philosophy, but both of us came from peasant stock and were proud of that heritage), and even now, in spring, when Michigan asparagus is so tender and green, I wish I could have introduced my Parisian friend to the way we know the vegetable here Up North.

Ma chère amie, Hélène, tu es encore dans mon coeur et vraiment dans ma vie quotidienne. Quand je faire du pain, quand je bois du vin, je pense à toi.

The kitchen in my Michigan farmhouse, small as it is, overflows with dear, ghostly presences, and for that I am grateful. I would not have it any less crowded for the world. Here is the pasta maker given to me by another friend back in the 1970s. I think of her every time I use it. She died this year, but she also is alive in my Paris kitchen.

Pasta maker from Linda

Homemade noodles

Noodles and gravy

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Not-French Bread, Confiture de Maison, & Good Old American Meat Loaf

Many home cooks with kitchens in Paris, France, have to deal with time constraints, along with limited space in which to work. The same is true for me in my little Paris kitchen in Leelanau County, Michigan. If I were a bookseller in the French capital, I might live above or behind my shop, but as it is, my bookshop is in the village, so I go to work “off the farm” most days.

The economic base of our township is mixed, agriculture and tourism. I try to cater to farmers and other local readers, as well as out-of-town visitors, but there is no denying that summer tourism is what makes my business survival possible at all. Summer means being open seven days a week. Hence the neglect of what I used to be able to call – when I was younger and my energy went further -- my gardens.

But when cold weather comes (not that it’s been very cold yet this year, but that’s another story) shopkeepers get to slow down. My bookshop is now closed Sundays and Mondays, and after January first I’ll start taking Tuesdays off, too. More time for writing, which is important to me. More time outdoors with Sarah! More time goofing off with David! And – more time in the kitchen!

Already Sunday is my designated bread-baking day. 

Each week I bake two loaves, using the slow, old-fashioned method (no bread machine, no food processor), and enjoy each step, from dissolving the yeast in warm water to mixing to kneading to pulling the beautiful loaves from the oven. And while the dough is rising, there's time to make, for instance, applesauce. 

Two loaves last us all week, and then some. The end of a loaf of white bread went into stuffing for our Thanksgiving bird, and leftovers from that bird made delicious sandwiches on the following Sunday’s oatmeal molasses bread. The heel of a loaf from Week #3 went into the meat loaf I’ll get to in a minute.

But what a special treat! This week I had a day off on Friday! Bruce came in to mind the store for me, and I finally had a chance to make jam from fruit picked many weeks ago. I’d picked strawberries first, then black raspberries, and finally, in September, blackberries, all of it going into the freezer whole. 

When the last of the bramble fruit season was past, I cooked raspberries and blackberries down and strained the juice, which then went back in the freezer, adding the mashed strawberries only on jam-making day.

While the jam was working itself up to a boil, there was time to cube homemade bread for meat loaf. I did not dice the onion, however, until the jam was cooling in its jars, for fear of contaminating my sweet fruit project with onion odor.

Et la voilà! Jam in jars! Confiture en boîte! Now back to the dinner meat loaf, which as you can see is not a classic pounti from the Auvergne, that delicious loaf containing Swiss chard and prunes, but the simple American throw-together loaf I learned at my mother’s knee: ground chuck, ground pork, bread cubes, rolled oats, diced onions, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, and, yes, catsup. I divided the mixture in two – one loaf for the oven, the other for the freezer.

What’s left of the cooked bramble fruits, beyond what was needed for one jam recipe, will go for berry syrup, but -- another day’s project, that.

The meat loaf was delicious. Perfect! Comforting to think there’s that second loaf in the freezer for dinner on another, busier day. And this Sunday’s bread project will be light rye, but I probably won’t photograph it. Because there’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for this blog almost since I first began it, and that is about the very first kitchen I came to know in Paris, France.

Alors, à bientôt, mes amis – et bon appetit!