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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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Household Apple Harvest

Apple trees. Pie apples. Apple blossoms, apple pie, an apple for the teacher. Iconic fruit of temperate climates, the apple was my childhood icon, as well.

When I was growing up, we had a pear tree, a raspberry patch, and three apple trees, the largest of them our backyard shade tree and my personal fantasy world, a world whose nature changed with the seasons and my daily moods and fancies. Sometimes it was a tropical island, surrounded by ocean, and my little friends and I had to venture out to sea (“swimming” our arms through the air, which in our play was water) in search of sustenance. Another day the tree might be a rocket ship that Jimmy and I took to the moon or beyond, little green apples stuck on broken twigs (broken for the purpose, mind you) serving as control knobs and levers as we passed beyond the rule of adults in defiance of gravity.

Some of the sweetest times in the apple tree, though, were times I spent alone with a book. Stretched along a high, sturdy branch, hidden in greenery, high above the heads of anyone wondering where I was, I would lose myself in a story, the bare tree better than any treehouse could possibly be. A treehouse would be suspected of harboring a missing child, but a quiet, still child alone in a tree could be happily solitary for hours.

My mother made the backyard tree’s fruit into pies. Another tree downhill in the side yard was harvested for applesauce. As for the third apple tree, it was more notable for blossoms than for usable fruit, and while the side yard trees were climbable, they were too small to serve as solitary getaways.

Then there was the dreaded task in the fall of picking up fallen apples. The yard could not be raked, nor the grass mown, until the apples were picked up, and that job fell, naturally, to the children. Bushel baskets came out of the garage, and we were put to work. My sisters and I had to pick up not only good, sturdy fruit for kitchen and pantry – we didn’t mind that -- but also soft and rotten apples, apples gone to worms, apples stepped on and turned to repulsive brown mush.

Neither of my little home apple trees today would support the weight of much more than a robin, but they do bear fruit, and I also harvested apples from wild trees in the neighborhood, where the fallen brown fruit on the ground is winter food for deer and other wildlife. Last fall’s apples that did not become sauce went into the Paris kitchen farmhouse food dryer, which was, I must say, a great success. I did not dry a quantity sufficient to try making dried apple pie, but we have enjoyed for months now dipping into the big glass jar for a few slices to accompany afternoon tea. Some slices are thicker than others, some pieces rather than rings, but I've found that none of the differences affects the taste or the keeping quality of the fruit. Exactitude is not a requirement, it seems, when the project is drying apples, and I like that. 

In a world of rigorous demands, I like a “forgiving” project, one that tells me I’ve done a good enough job.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter Fare: Gophers and Stone Soup

Stones at mouth of Hurricane River

I was just kidding about the gophers. What I mean is waffles.

Warming plate while waffle iron heats

In Paris, France, waffles are street food. Hot gaufres are served up by vendors in parks who sell their food out of little carts, small mobile kitchens. Like ice cream cones, gaufres are favorite treats of small children but enjoyed by adults, also, perhaps especially by visitors from the American Midwest, to whom street food is a novelty. A favorite French waffle topping – there are many, but this was my favorite -- is almond paste, smeared on like peanut butter on crackers, then sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Out of curiosity, I checked in my French cookbook to see if it even contained a recipe for waffles. Would anyone in Paris ever make them at home? Well, there was a recipe, in fact, but in the section on cakes, on the page opposite fruit cake and jelly roll. It calls for fresh yeast rather than baking powder and also, to my surprise, includes rum, an addition that would never have occurred to me.

Last yummy bite!
For Americans at home in our own country, waffles are breakfast food, but they are a sweet treat here, too. The small, square depressions produced by the iron form a dozen or more tiny receptacles for melted butter and syrup. Jam is a delicious variant topping, and then no fork is needed. Dreaming of Paris, one can pick up a waffle section with fingers, confident of capturing every last morsel of confiture de pêches (thank you, Ed!) or, when that’s gone, good old Michigan strawberry-rhubarb jelly.

We are not talking here about an everyday breakfast, of course. Not the beginning of an ordinary workday. It’s holidays and Sundays that call out for the extra sybaritic excitement only waffles can bring to an otherwise cold, bleak winter morning.

Outdoors the temperature rests, stubbornly, well below the freezing mark, and wind blows fresh snow into blinding drifts. A frigid Sunday morning in January! What better day to stay home by the fireside with dog and books and movies?

Beautiful, beantiful beans!

More stones
Meanwhile, in the big cast iron pot that rested overnight on the cold porch is the bean soup that will be the evening’s hearty peasant supper. On Friday night, as I first covered the colorful beans with water to begin soaking, I thought again, as I have so often before, that they are as beautiful as wave-washed stones on the shores of Lake Superior. Stone soup? Why not? Dry beans lose their bright colors when cooked, but the flavors that develop are worth the trade-off.

Slow cooking. David is always encouraging me to use an electric slow cooker for dishes like bean soup or stewed chicken, but I resist. There is something about that ceramic pot and the way its unlifted lid -- one is instructed rather severely not to lift the lid during cooking! – the way, I say, that lid holds in all the dish’s moisture that, to my way of thinking, prevents precisely the rich, concentrated flavors that are my goal. -- Oh, dear, my italics are running away with me, escaping from foreign words and phrases to the equivalent of a raising of the voice! Yes, it’s true, my emotions are involved!

Where was I? Ah, yes, concentrated flavor.... And besides that, I like to lift the lid! I like to stir the contents of the pot! Stirring the pot makes me think of my grandmother at the stove, and I love remembering my grandmother! I even like to leave the lid off for periods of the cooking process as the bean liquor thickens and steam rises and an alluring aroma fills the old farmhouse. These are some of the joys of winter in Michigan: tastes and smells and leisurely activities mingled with memories.

Far from Paris, you see, I carry that city in my heart, along with the U.P. and Ohio and the Illinois prairie and the Arizona cow country and every other place I have ever lived and cooked and eaten, and in my mind’s eye I see again long-vanished scenes and am warmed by thoughts of family and friends and even strangers who shared those bygone days.

What is the point of having a day to spend at home if I am to deny myself the pleasure of stirring the pot?

Well-stirred bean soup

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

One Saucepan, Two Skillets

We spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home, watching a movie we’d seen a few years before, “Temple Grandin,” with Claire Danes in the lead role. It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, if not more so. Moreover, this time around, in light of our three months in southeast Arizona in early 2015, the ranch and feedlot scenes with horses and cattle were familiar and set me to dreaming of the high desert, and after the movie David and I reminisced about Willcox (which I always call fondly “my little cow town,” to differentiate it from Dos Cabecas, “the ghost town” where we lived), wondering what had transpired with this or that residential or commercial building, fondly recalling coffee on the front porch at Beverly’s, and in my drowsy, go-to-sleep, after-midnight thoughts I “sang” myself a mental map of a lullaby, sketching in my mind the main arteries of Willcox and the roads leading north to Bonita and Safford and southeast to Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua and remembering the scenery along those familiar ways. We even woke to a sunny new day and year with Arizona thoughts still in our heads, finishing each other’s sentences as the listener immediately pictured the speaker’s subject.

So it was late morning on New Year’s Day before I turned my attention to my compact little northern Michigan Paris kitchen. We were going to a party in the neighborhood later in the day, and I planned to take, as I had the year before, a big casserole dish of hoppin’ john. Not a last-minute project but one that needs time to “get good,” as my grandmother used to say.

Full disclosure: Besides a single saucepan and two cast iron skillets, there was a rice cooker involved the night before. I’d decided make rice for our Chinese shrimp and vegetable dinner, with the idea that a big enough pot of rice would give me a head start on the next day’s hoppin’ john. My only problem was having failed to check the household rice supply first. Oops! Not enough for a very generous casserole on Sunday! And so, improvisation had to come to the rescue, as it so often must do, in kitchens of any size. Luckily, I had a goodly supply of the rice-like pasta called orzo and so, deciding that could be mixed with the rice as an extender, my first step of the morning was to set water to boil in a saucepan.

Second step was to dice a big onion; third, cube several slices of good ham; fourth, put first the onion in one iron skillet to sizzle in butter and olive oil and then add the ham to same.

Here’s where the second skillet comes into the story. I had intentionally cut up more onion and ham than the hoppin’ john would need, and now, in the second skillet, went diced redskin potatoes and sliced and diced red pepper for a good, hearty, New Year’s Day breakfast hash.

Orzo cooked, I drained that and mixed it in the saucepan with the rice. Time to add the black-eyed peas -- thinking fondly, as I always do in connection with black-eyed peas, of my maternal grandpa, my mother’s stepfather from Tallahassee, Florida – and a little chicken broth, too, so the rice and pasta and beans don’t get too dry. 

This, by the way, is what I generally use for chicken broth in my little kitchen, and I didn’t start with dry peas, either:

Now we’re cookin’!

Little pieces of ham are getting nice and crisp. Potato cubes are browning nicely, too. Stirring and turning and taking deep breaths of the wonderful aromas, I am careful not to rush anything, but at last the moment comes to divide the cooked ham and onion, stirring about two-thirds of it into the potato and pepper mixture and the remaining third (along with a little more chicken broth) into the rice-orzo-bean mix.

The finishing touch to the hash was to crack, very carefully, three eggs on top and then put a lid over the skillet so the eggs would cook through. They cooked to perfection! Like an illustration in a cookbook! But I must have been too excited about my rare achievement of perfection – and also, admittedly, nervous about getting hash and eggs from the pan without breaking the yolks, which turned out just fine, thanks – to photograph the hash and eggs, so you must just imagine that picture, as you must imagine, too, the final presentation of the hoppin’ john in its casserole dish, ready to go to a party.

A lot of people toward the end of December couldn’t wait for the year 2016 to be over. I wasn’t one of those people. I felt the new year looming like a dark cloud and was not at all eager to plunge into it. But I can say now, gratefully, that in our old farmhouse and our peaceful winter neighborhood, 2017 got off to a lovely start. I hope yours did, too.

Bonne année à tout le monde!