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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Little Things

Loose change

Here’s a sad truth: I have not been back to France since the adoption of the euro. Another truth, not sad at all, to my mind: I have never in France during the winter. Spring, summer, fall, yes. Never winter.

The street markets, like the one on the rue de Buci, and all the little food shops that spread out onto the sidewalk along the rue des Martyrs -- what happens to them in the winter? I never thought to ask. Who can tell me?

On my first visit to Paris I rented a room for a month and was charmed by every little thing I encountered. The landlady’s hand-lettered sign on the apartment door: “Attention au chat,” for instance. With my love of the French language, it didn’t take much to put me in raptures. Another example. Space had been cleared for my things in the closet in my room (you see what a luxurious apartment this had once been, in that it had closets), but up above, on shelves, were large cardboard boxes marked “Vêtements d’été” and “Vêtements d’hiver.” My landlady (who became a dear lifetime friend) would have been astonished had she known how many times I smiled at those boxes and quietly whispered to myself the magic phrases (“Summer clothes” and “Winter clothes”).

Little things. Another dear friend, with whom I have exchanged only handwritten letters for almost thirty years, occasionally encloses in her letters a page from her daily Zen calendar. The last one she sent was from January 18 and reads: “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” It went along with a little pep talk she had given me in her letter. Sometimes I need a pep talk, especially in winter, a season that often finds us, here in the old farmhouse, “down to seeds and stems,” as I used to say until someone told me that was a drug reference. Now I say instead, “We’re eating our seed corn.” The image is different, the reality no easier. But I do find comforts in my little farmhouse kitchen, my Paris kitchen, as I call it, and I love being able to bring comfort from the kitchen to the farmhouse table.

Shallots and garlic

Garlic, ginger, and shallots. Those are certainly little things, but they pack a punch, especially the garlic and ginger. Shallots are more delicate and deserve to be showcased rather than overpowered by stronger flavors. I won’t be discussing them further today but couldn’t resist photographing them with the heads of garlic....

Here’s a tip: If you keep a gingerroot in the freezer and only take it out when you need fresh ginger, you’ll find it easy to pare and grate. Take from the freezer as well some of that garden squash you harvested, roasted, and mashed before the snow began to fly. Ginger will perk up the squash like magic, along with cumin and curry powder. (Spice jars and tins – more wonderful little things!) Finally, either chicken broth or coconut milk or some of both turns vegetable and spices into a beautiful and warming dinner starter.

Other soups are a meal in themselves. One evening while preparing that night’s dinner I also made meatballs with fresh-ground Italian sausage, bread crumbs (homemade honey whole-wheat bread), egg, and I forget now what-else. Put the meatballs on a cookie sheet, spaced so as not to touch, and baked them in the oven instead of using a skillet, in order to have time and space to continue the more imminent meal. Intended for a future meal, they could have been frozen, but this time I put them in the refrigerator to use the next day.

The following day, however, I did go to the freezer for scraps of vegetable ends and peelings and leftover chicken bits to simmer in water with onion and garlic for hours, making a good broth. 

Late in the day -- limp, soggy vegetable matter moved on to compost collection -- I added diced tomatoes and rinsed cannellini beans to the broth and sprinkled with herbes de Provence. (Cooking in stages means being able to clean up as one goes along, very important in the small kitchen.) A generous handful of farfalle (bow tie pasta) I cooked separately in water, then drained and tossed back into its pan with a little bit of olive oil.

The addition of Italian sausage meatballs and farfalle gave the finished soup a hearty winter heft. When one broke into a meatball with a spoon, new flavors were released into the broth, and all the little things came together in a most satisfying way. And two or three meatballs per bowl of soup suffice, so a single batch of meatballs will stretch over at least three meals – more, if you live alone.

 “Little drops of water, little grains of sand.” A little ginger, a little garlic. Little blessing from friends to brighten dark winter days.

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