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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Je n’ai pas envie de cuisiner

10 novembre 2016

Vraiment, je ne veux que pleurer. Le temps fait beau, la vie quotidienne roule, comme toujours, autour de moi et en moi, et rien n’a changé, et tout a changé. Que Dieu nous protège! Il faut ne pas pleurer. Je ne veux que pleurer.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Because Winter Is Coming Again

For the second year in a row, the countryside failed to yield up much in the way of wild grapes. Grapevines, yes. Everywhere! But grapes? One measly cluster along a road where I've gathered grapes by the bagful in past years. 

The usual berry-picking spots around our farmyard held back fruits, too. And so – no 'blackstraw' (my blend of strawberry, black raspberry and wild blackberry) or mixed fruit jam this year. In fact, no jam at all.

But it’s been a plentiful apple season, I’m happy to say, and I’ve gotten in a good couple sessions of peeling, slicing and drying apples for the winter. 

My son visited, and we harvested apples together
Five such layers deep
Without sulphur, they brown slightly. Fine with me!

Applesauce, too, has appeared regularly on the farmhouse table. Purée de pomme, the French would say, but I generally leave mine chunkier, in keeping with its rustic origin: wild apples or those from my farmyard trees, gathered in a basket or string bag, and brought back to my tiny country Paris kitchen. Nothing fancy.

Friends of mine have recently returned from a trip to France, and I am eager to hear their stories and see their vacation photos. They visited many bookstores, I’m happy to say, and brought back treasures in book form. While they were in the capital, I’m sure they noticed that French provincial cuisine is as common as the haute variety. The population of Paris, like that of New York, has always drawn from throughout the country and around the world, so Paris restaurants and Paris kitchens are often not fancy at all. Not big, either. Modest, like mine.

Bookshop my friends visited in Paris, France

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Leaving the Kitchen Behind

Balmy air and soft breezes pull me outdoors on summer evenings. They inspire me to pile charcoal briquets on the grill, if only for a couple of pork chops or a small cluster of burgers. On tired and/or hot evenings, however, a skillet in the kitchen and dinner on the porch work out fine, too, as did salmon cooked in a pan, accompanied by yellow rice (courtesy of a friend), and chopped fresh salsa over all.

The rice and salsa worked with chicken thighs and curried yogurt the following evening. That was easy.

And yet sometimes the most dedicated Parisian cook (and we established long ago that I am not that dedicated) wants to do nothing more than sit outside in the fresh air at a cafe table. That's how David and I spent part of Wednesday afternoon in Traverse City while Bruce manned the bookshop counter back in Northport. 

Table in the shade by the side of the Boardman River
Iced peach tea, coffee, and chocolate and lavender "morsels"

View across the Boardman and highway to Grand Traverse Bay

Leaving the kitchen behind does not always demand leaving town. On Thursday, in Northport, at midday, a friend stopped in on her way to the Garage Bar & Grill, right next to Dog Ears Books, and she did not have to twist my arm at all to persuade me to put a sign on the door and lock up for half an hour. We were in heaven! Stella! That took me back to Paris!

Susan had a burger; I had roasted sweet potato. We both had sunshine!
The last day of August, the first day of September: perfect days to relax outdoors, in the shade or in the sun, and let someone else do the kitchen work for a change!

Forager eager for leftovers

Sunday, July 17, 2016

How to Scramble an Egg (or Two)

Blank, eggy stare

I owe today's hot tip not to my French cookbook but to my sister Deborah. We were having breakfast at a local restaurant, and I asked her how it was that restaurant scrambled eggs come out so soft and creamy, so unlike mine at home. She told me the eggs are only briefly and gently beaten, so that not a lot of air is incorporated. That made sense, so I decided to try it myself. I had inadvertently left my camera at the bookstore overnight so couldn’t document the attempt, but here’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

(1)        I chose a small pan and limited the trial to two eggs.
(2)        Before-pan scrambling – in a bowl – was accomplished with a fork.
(3)        When butter in the pan was melted, I turned down the heat and slid the eggs in.
(4)        I did not stir but watched the edges and gently folded the eggs over from outside to center when it was obvious that the edges were cooking.
(5)        Watching and folding were repeated until the eggs were no longer runny.

The result was pronounced, by He-Who-Adores-Being-Served, “Perfect eggs!”

A few days later (I kept forgetting), I looked in my French cookbook, fully prepared not to be surprised if there were no directions in there at all for scrambling eggs. The morning meal in Paris is generally café au lait and croissant, and I’ve seen French men and women add cigarettes to the classic Continental breakfast, never did I see anyone in France starting the day with eggs. When eggs are cooked in a French kitchen, they are generally baked or poached or hard-cooked or incorporated into a quiche, but none of these methods is applied to the breakfast table.

Surprise! I Know How to Cook, the English translation of Je sais cuisiner, does present a recipe for scrambled eggs. Sadly, however, I cannot recommend it. I don’t object to the addition of milk (and maybe I added a smidgen of milk to my eggs before they went in the pan; truly, I do not remember), but beating butter into them seems entirely unnecessary, and “stirring constantly for 12 minutes” sounds like terrible advice. Twelve minutes would cook eggs to death!

French cuisine holds pride of place in the world of cooking, but there are some things Americans do better: fresh, green spring asparagus are immeasurable more delicious than the fat, anemic white Continental objects, and while the French know sorbet, no one can argue that sorbet takes the place of real, creamy ice cream. Scrambled eggs? Faites vos oeufs, comme je les ai fait moi, à l’américaine.

Recreated for illustration

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Rhubarb-Strawberry Pie with French Lesson

(Front porch light) 

Out on the front porch this morning, using my two-knives method to cut lard into flour to make piecrust, I started thinking about the two French words pâte and paté. The first, pâte, is pronounced close to the English word pot and is used for both pastry and pasta. (The little accent circonflex – that little pointed cap over the letter ‘a’ – is your clue. That particular accent is a historical trace; it tells you that in Old French there was once an ‘s’ following the vowel, an ‘s’ that has been retained in English and Italian.) Paté, pronounced as two syllables, with stress on the second, is a “paste” of ground meat and fat, served spread on toast rounds or crackers.

Ready to roll

Whenever I think of either of these two words, I remember that I used to pronounce them the same way, using the meat pronunciation erroneously for the piecrust term. I’ve got them straight now and have given you the clue.

But once I start thinking about the accent circonflex it’s hard to stop, and the next word I always think of is théâtre, but today I had a new thought about that word. French, Italian, Spanish – all are Romance languages, i.e., rooted in Latin. So I begin to think of God and the stars. Is that possible? Nope, guess not. Too bad. I like my etymological origins story better....

Some people like a flaky piecrust, while others prefer crumbly. A famous piemaker of my acquaintance thinks crust is secondary, pretty much just a container for the filling. Really???

My switch to lard is still recent, but I’m happy with the results.

I’m also very pleased with this little pie safe my sister found for me. I’ve been needing something like this for a long time.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Domestic and Wild Peppery Foraging

Wild mustard

The little farmhouse kitchen, redolent in winter of soup and fresh-baked bread, lively with stirring and bubbling, falls still as summer comes on, with bookstore and yard and garden demanding unceasing attention.

Few Parisians can afford the space for private gardens. For outdoor relaxation they depend instead on large public green spaces, such as, near my old friend Hélène’s apartment, the Luxembourg Gardens. (A world in itself, that!) But even without a burgeoning potager (kitchen garden, as the English call it), Hélène cultivated pots of herbs in a sunny window. And by the way, it’s smart to restrain perennial herbs in pots, no matter how much ground you have available, as some of them, given garden room, will develop Napoleonic ambitions and try to take over your entire world, making much more otherwise unnecessary work.

Taking a leaf from Hélène’s book, then, and because time and energy allowed me to reclaim only about half of my former vegetable garden, neglected for the past two years, I have done some of my food planting in containers this year – tomatoes, radishes, even collards (I have my doubts about the collards in a container, given the size of a full-grown plant, but if we eat away at the outer leaves fast enough, perhaps they can be kept in check) – as well as, among the flowers, nasturtiums, a colorful edible addition to summer salads.

Tomato plant and radish seedlings

Radish thinnings
Our first summer salad supper was Thursday evening. The radishes needed thinning, and the young sprouts were far too tasty to throw in the compost pile. Since the thinning task coincided with the last blooming of a local wild mustard – another delicate, edible, peppery cruciform, much like the spring’s toothwort in flavor – radish sprouts and pepper blossoms made a nice addition to the green salad, strewn atop after Greek dressing had been drizzled over lettuce and tomatoes.

Ah, summer! Supper on the porch! Flowers on the table and on our plates! Now, if ever, come perfect days....

Saturday, May 7, 2016

From Spring Woods to Farm Kitchen

You’re probably expecting, from my subject heading, either morels or wild leeks, but I want to introduce you to a less well-known Up North spring delicacy. It is the humble cutleaf (or cut-leaved) toothwort (also known as crow’s toes or pepper root), found from eastern Canada to Florida.

You can walk in the woods for years without noticing it, as I did. Then one day you make the identification, and from then on you watch for it eagerly every spring. Here is a site that keys it as a Brassica, i.e., a member of the mustard family. Its name has apparently been changed, just like my old childhood friend Brontosaurus, whose new name will never be lodged in my long-term memory. -- Whoa! Here’s good news for my generation: Brontosaurus is Back!!! Well, I'm glad I looked that up!

Anyway, toothwort. I am bound and determined to keep in the mustard family. Look at the four-petaled flower, and try to deny the family relationship.

My point – and I realize I’m taking forever to come to it – is that the peppery leaves and flowers of toothwort are a welcome change from the store-bought lettuce (and even kale) we’ve lived on all winter. I went to the woods on Friday afternoon and picked me a nice mess.

I chose the bland smoothness of tofu to offset the peppery greens. (If you don’t make your own tofu but live in the Grand Traverse area, the best available can be found at the Oryana Food Co-op in Traverse City.)

I dressed my salad with a little olive oil and very small dash of balsamic vinegar, whisked together with a smidgeon of Grey Poupon. And that was that, except for a sprinkling of hard-cooked egg yolk on top. If you don’t care for tofu, you might substitute the white from the hard-cooked egg – an easy exchange.

We seem to have strayed far from Paris today, but it’s that time of year – time to get out into the northern Michigan woods. Although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that toothwort or something like it can be found in the forests of Europe. We are, after all, at about the same latitude, and many of our plants are common to both continents. And who knows better than the French about foraging in the woods for kitchen treasures?

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Friend's First Trip

My friend Ed is going to France for the first time in June, not only seeing the sights but also studying French and taking a cooking class. You'll be able to follow his adventures here. I certainly plan to tag along via his blog.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

David's Madeleine Moment

Okra, tomatoes, onion, herbs

You know what I’m talking about -- Proust’s narrator in Remembrance of Things Past and the memories of the past that suddenly flood through him, bringing his past alive when he tastes the little madeleine cookie-cake dipped in tea, the taste that brings back an entire era of his life.

My own first, strongest sense experience of Paris was audible. The first morning I awoke at 39 rue de Vaugirard, Paris came to me through sounds: the flutter of pigeons outside the window, voices from other apartments, and the dear, unmistakable, thrilling chink of spoons against bowls and cups as neighbors took their breakfast café au lait. China and spoons, flutterings and cooings, and high, birdlike women’s voices. Next came the heady perfume of lilies-of-the-valley, because that morning was the first of May, and the little white flowers were everywhere.

Sounds and smells, the latter so closely related to taste. The sound and feel when one cracks the crust of a warm baguette...its warm, mouth-watering aroma...then the give of the mie and the satisfying taste.

My first visit to Paris in 1987 was necessarily frugal, and David’s, in 1992, was similar. Simple meals, prepared at home in the evenings....

And now to the present: Monday, April 25th was a cold, blustery spring day in northern Michigan, with a strange, unsettling east wind and the dismayingly regular sound of the furnace blower. I had done a frugal, meager, end-of-winter grocery shopping in Northport and found canned tomatoes on sale, so our supper was to be leftover buckwheat noodles and gravy, stewed chicken, and a simple vegetable dish of canned stewed tomatoes, frozen okra, chopped fresh onion, and a sprinkling of herbes de Provence. Those vegetables were David’s madeleine.

He went into a trance.

“Did you make this up from scratch?”

I admitted the stewed tomatoes had come from a can.

“It takes me right back to Paris! I found a brand of canned okra and tomatoes at a little neighborhood store, and many evenings that was my supper. Sometimes with a baguette, sometimes not. Is there more?”

He decided he didn’t want any chicken at all, just a third helping of the stewed vegetables.

“What was the name of the street you lived on?” I asked.

“Boulevard Beaumarchais, number six,” he said dreamily, savoring his last bite.

Without trying, I had hit upon something important. For this post, not having photographed the dish as it came to the table. I used a second can of tomatoes in my assembly of ingredients above, to show you how simple it was, but I know the effect on David depended on the conjunction of his memories with the look and smell and taste of the food.

What is your madeleine? What taste or sound or smell carries you back in time?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Company? The Kimchee Won’t Be Ready!

I’ve been reading about the GAPS diet that a couple of my friends have been following, a diet that eschews sugar (okay with me) and processed foods (okay) and grains (not so okay for me) and goes heavy on protein and vegetables and fruits and good fats (all okay). It’s more complicated – some cheeses good, others bad; some nuts good, others bad – but you’ll have to look up the details for yourself. What I want to highlight in this diet, all about encouraging good gut bacteria, is that fermented foods are supposed to be very good

I was inspired. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on this blog, and it’s also been quite some time since I’ve tried anything new and adventurous in my little kitchen.Well, what could be more adventurous (especially for a non-Korean) than homemade kimchee?

I went to one of my favorite cookbooks, The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors, by Jeff Smith, and was not disappointed. Jeff Smith has great Ethiopian recipes in this book, so I figured he would have the staple of Korean cooks, the dish by which prospective Korean brides are judged by the prospective husband’s family (or so I’ve read). Smith’s American version begins with cabbage from California’s Napa Valley.

Fresh grated ginger, fresh grated carrot, and finely diced garlic all play supporting roles. The finely diced radish was my improvisational addition.

The same crushed red pepper flakes that excite pizza or Mexican cooking or Szechuan dishes have a place here, too, but I started with a small amount. Ingredients can often be added to dishes, but subtracting them is usually impossible. As a friend of mine said years ago, “There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.”

I had bought ingredients for a simple chili supper when David announced that he had invited a friend. My sister, visiting from Illinois, is fine with chili. But a guest? The kimchee will not be ready for days! My sister and I had to go out shopping for scallions, just to get it together!

Friend called. Still sick. Didn’t think he could be sociable through the evening. Fine. We’ll be roasting a turkey in a couple of days, and by then the kimchee should be ready.

How will it taste? I’ll let you know!

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Mixing It Up" on a Snow Day

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nothing at all Parisian about it: A spring snow day is pure Michigan! Yard and fields and orchards and woods white again, driveway drifted over, landmarks obliterated, winds battering farmhouse and outbuildings. It took us only about ten seconds to decide to stay home for the day.

All the best meals start with an onion – or in today’s case, three onions, since two of them were already exhibiting plant life’s “force that through the green fuse” ever strives to reach again for the sun. I cooked up the onions before fixing on their ultimate destiny. Maybe onion soup, but then again maybe not....

A session of bookkeeping brought on a virtuous glow, and I wanted a reward. I wanted cookies! The trouble was, I didn’t really feel like making cookies -- but they don’t make themselves. At last I found a recipe that would do, with modifications, for a non-shopping winter-spring day. It is very seldom I have sour milk on hand, and having it that day is what turned the tide. I knew it would come in handy for something.

The cookbook called them “rocks,” the recipe calling for a cup of chopped nuts. My modification was golden raisins and a handful of mixed dried fruit (cherries, cranberries, and blueberries), with whole wheat flour substituted for one cup of the white. Cinnamon and ground cloves deepened the color of dough already featuring brown sugar, and the sour milk made the cookies puff adorably in the oven, with slightly crispy bottom edges.

Tea time!

The snow day was not a gourmet day in my Paris kitchen or our old farmhouse. It was a comfort food day. As it happened, the freezer yielded up a previously cooked chicken breast, the pantry shelves a can of stewed tomatoes, and fresh ginger, garlic, and spices from the Middle and Near East gave character to the developing dish that had begun, so modestly, with three onions.

At last, served on brown rice with chopped cilantro, our mixed-up blizzard day dinner came to the table.

We had had primarily an indoor day, spent with long books (one for each of us) and only occasional sorties out into the wild storm. Soon enough, the rushing spring and summer seasons will be upon us! And so, in northern Michigan a spring snow day is a special gift from Fate, and rather than culinary challenge, I took the storm as an opportunity for comfort and indulgence – one last retreat from strenuous activity before the nonstop season of work begins.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Senses in the Kitchen, at Work and at Play

No doubt synesthesia was born long ago in the wild past of our early evolution, but it is just as surely reborn in the kitchen. When you see fat leeks in the grocery store produce section or smell the earthy freshness of dainty wild ones in the woods, don’t you already feel their smoothness in your mouth? What about the color? My eyes see green, but my mind reads purple, the smooth purple of an eggplant, and my ears hear the rich, dark music of a bassoon or a cello.

Leeks, along with daffodils, are associated by the Welsh with the Feast of St. David on March first. I missed the day again this year. The first of March is too early to look for leeks and daffodils in northern Michigan. So let’s come back indoors, back into the kitchen, and sift through memories and towels.

I am hopeless when it comes to sewing. My mother loved to sew – sewed new dresses for my sisters and me all the time when we were little -- and couldn’t understand how trying to follow a pattern could reduce me to tears. I was proud of my skill in threading the machine, both top and bottom threads, but had not joined 4-H in order to make aprons and skirts! In my mind, 4-H membership was the first step to getting a horse!
Horses = Heaven!
Sewing = Heaven’s Opposite!

Not realizing the difference between farm clubs and city clubs, I was in for a big disappointment. Anyway, it’s impossible to sew and read a book at the same time. I’m talking about real books, with pages to turn. So other than replacing the occasional button, I don’t sew.

And yet, I adore fabric. Beautiful fabric with a good “hand”  attracts and pleases me. I love those very thin, very lightweight cotton shirts that feel like silk against the skin, and I love soft cotton tea towels and much-washed tablecloths. Old-fashioned potholders and “dishrags” made by friends cleverer than I am with their hands increase my pleasure in the kitchen.

Kitchen work, I believe, is such joy because it engages all the senses, along with the hands and the mind. (Somehow I don’t resent putting down a book to work in the kitchen.) Fresh ingredients and finished dishes delight the eye, and anything sizzling in a skillet calls the ears into play, as does the plop-plop-plop of cranberries in a saucepan. Aromas, ah! There are even smells other than those of the food: my electric blender, for instance, gives off metallic whiffs I associate with our old family electric train of childhood.

As for taste, that hardly needs to be mentioned, does it? But touch, too frequently given short shrift in kitchen writing, is for me a principal element of cooking’s joy. Touch comes into play most obviously in the making of bread, as kneading bread dough brings together the work of eyes, nose, and hands. Piecrust requires a lighter touch, but the rolling out of the dough, folding and lifting and fitting to the pan, and finally the fluting of the crust’s boundaries with fingers and thumbs all call for direct unmediated contact of hands with material. 

Besides handling food, washing dishes in hot, soapy water and taking up a soft cotton towel to dry them bring feelings of deep luxury and an opportunity for peaceful meditation that would be ruled out by a dictatorial dishwashing machine. Fortunately, there’s no room in my little Paris kitchen for such a machine.

And let’s bring Paris into our musings before we part company for the day. Do you eat asparagus with knife and fork? Next time, try picking a spear up with your fingers for that first bite from the tender tip. You may dip in melted butter or lemon juice of Hollandaise – or nothing at all! My dear Parisian landlady and friend gave me permission to eat asparagus with my fingers at one of our first dinners together, and with that gesture we celebrated our common peasant heritage. I do it now both for the tactile pleasure and in memory of my old friend.

Once in my presence a little French boy was reprimanded for eating with his fingers, “like a wild tiger,” as his mother put it. The phrase captivated me. Moi, je mange comme un tigre sauvage!

There is still snow on the ground, but soon we will have wild leeks and fresh local asparagus again....