Apr 1 2012

By the Book

I sliced the eggplant into medium-thin slices, slimmer than the recipe suggested, but more to my bite-sized liking. De-facto would appreciate the efficiency of it; I’d only used one of the eggplants he brought home from the market. Not that our budget is so tight but rather he appreciates an intelligent economy of things.

The recipe called for baking the slices after they’d been breaded. After ten minutes in the oven they looked dull, melancholy. I quickly pulled out a frying pan and lined the bottom with olive oil. When it was hot, I dropped each of the austere eggplant slices in, smiling at the percussion of popping oil. I could sense the vegetable’s heavy sigh of relief, almost stunned at how close it had come to giving up its life to be a flavorless, mediocre meal. The infusion of fats would satisfy its desire to come to a tasty end, and frying made the house smell heartier. Now I was cooking.

Lately, though, I haven’t. The string of extended voyages placed De-facto as the primary care-giver for long stretches of time last fall and winter, and even though I always returned ready to roll up my sleeves, somehow the wooden spoon had been handed off like a relay baton. He’d gotten used to cooking dinner. In the absence of me taking the reins – or one of the reins as we’ve always shared this household task – he kept hold of them. Six o’clock would roll around and I’d ask not, “what do you want for dinner?” but instead, “what do you want to do for dinner?” A distinctly different question. If he’d answered with, “what I want to do is for you to cook,” I’d have complied without complaint. But since he seemed to be on a streak in the kitchen, I didn’t mind one less responsibility.

Except I missed cooking. He’d be at the stove braising a whole chicken before stuffing it and besieging it with potatoes and onions and vegetables. Short-pants would be standing on a small stool on the other side of the kitchen island, slicing mushrooms. I’d want to elbow my way back into that world of salt and butter and herbs, to cover my hands with flour and wince at the just-chopped onions on the cutting board. I didn’t complain, it’s a lovely thing to be cooked for and De-facto’s food fills the belly well. But I missed conjuring up my own culinary creative juices.

Reading Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is what stirred the pot. My friend the Pastry Ace, who also happens to be a pâtissière and chocolatier – I’m sure she could cook anything but those are her current specialties – loaned me the book last fall. As a chef, she loved the story of this woman’s kitchen history, and the detailed tales of meals well conceived and prepared on the route to opening the restaurant Prune in New York city. As an avid reader, she loved the wordsmithing and thought that I might appreciate the writing, too. Having now finished the book I can attest – it’s a delicious read.

It took me months to get into it, though. Not that the first words and chapters aren’t appetizing. But I think many mothers might appreciate this syndrome: little or no time to read for pleasure during the day when the brain is actually alert. Once the kids are in bed and the dishes are done, the laundry folded, and I’ve slipped between the taut white sheets of my bed, it’s pure pleasure to switch on that reading light and open one of the books on the pile. But not even two pages later, my eyes droop and I’m startled awake as the book falls open on my chest. I’m always disappointed not to be able to read further, but the intoxicating serenity of sleep descending makes me smile with my eyes half open as I lean over to shut off the light.

It means I’ll go months before finishing a book, although at any given time I’m in the middle of five or six. And when weekends are too busy, the books gather dust. Until this weekend; I sat in bed for hours devouring the pages of Hamilton’s memoir. Short-pants, who’s reading the junior version of Three Cups of Tea for the tenth time – she’s an avid re-reader – climbed in next to me and we turned pages in tandem, wordless side-by-side as we consumed voraciously the words of our novels.

There are several passages in Blood, Bones & Butter that made me close the cover and hold the book close to my heart, like I had to savor it before I could read on. I’d open the book again, re-reading the paragraphs, admiring the combination of words that blended together, comma after comma, phrases pieced together to convey what happened to her and how she felt about it in perfect measure.

My sister gave me a cookbook for Christmas,
The Family Meal by Ferran Adrià, celebrated chef of El Bulli. I’d thumbed through its pages, treasuring the images of the ingredients, and the pragmatic rationale behind each menu. But it went on the shelf, with the other volumes of recipes, because as I said, I haven’t been cooking. That is until I was in the heat of Blood, Bones & Butter, when I pulled that new cookbook off the shelf, determined to use it. “I’ll make dinner tonight,” I told De-facto, stretching open the binding of the unexplored book. I flipped through its pages, again admiring the artistry of these simple meals – or so they were designated: the menus weren’t for Adrià’s Michelin-starred cuisine, but for the meals served to the restaurant staff prior to the dinner service.

And here it happened, what always happens. Inspired by a cookbook dish – in this case a menu – I realize too late that my kitchen is not properly stocked to prepare the recipe. I lack too many key ingredients even to fudge it. Cooking at this caliber requires advance planning, and my spontaneous return to the fold of kitchen service hadn’t include such a plan.

The most creative cooking is probably conceived when we must work with the limitation of what’s left in the pantry. The box of more-than-a-year-old lasagna noodles deserved some attention. There were two eggplants and just enough tomatoes to make a sauce. I called De-facto, who’d run out to do an errand, pleading with him to pick up some mozzarella and parmesan. I turned the oven on and pulled out that wrinkled apron.

The systematic chopping and dicing, the attention needed to carmelize something perfectly, the on-the-spot decisions to follow a recipe or improvise, it’s like an active meditation. Even when things go wrong and the pan is too hot or the croutons don’t transform into breadcrumbs as easily as you’d hoped, the problem solving required forces a mood of concentration and creativity that can be terribly satisfying. It’s nourishing for the soul.

At the table De-facto raved about the aroma and celebrated the novelty of something different to eat. The girls weren’t as inspired. Buddy-roo pushed the large noodle around her plate, eating the steamed broccoli that accompanied it, but laying her fork down on the rest.

“It’s just a big pasta,” said De-facto, “you love pasta.” She scrunched up her nose at the eggplant. It made me think of something my father used to say, when I refused his favorite delicacies, Welsh rarebit and pig’s feet. “You don’t know what’s good,” he’d say.

My lasagna wasn’t by the book, but it was good. It was a tasty change of pace from our habitual menus. It was good to be in the kitchen again. It was also good to finish a good book and return it to a good friend. Now if I could just open that new cookbook again, before I make the next shopping list, maybe there are a few good meals ahead.


Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.


Jul 24 2009

Good and Hot

Man, it was hot. The sticky, close, humid kind of hot. The serious dog-days-of-summer kind of hot. And guess what came to mind? Potato salad.

The sliced onions were soaking in vinegar and I was making chunks out of potatoes and setting them to boil. I was probably pursing my lips the same way my mother does when she’s concentrating (her sister does it too) and I started to wonder about this urge of mine, inspired by the heat wave, to make a potato salad.

I remember, growing up, how we handled the heat of summer. We’d all walk around the house in our underwear – it’d be too hot wear clothes. We’d put screens in every window and pray for even a slight breeze. My brother would pull the Twister mat out of the box and take it outside, laying it flat on the small slope by the dining room window. He’d hose it down with water so my sister and I could take turns sliding down and cooling off. We’d jump up, covered with grass, running to escape a direct hit from the hose as he’d chase us around the yard. And my mother, she’d make a potato salad, chill it in the fridge all afternoon, and serve it for dinner with a thick slice of cold ham and little French’s mustard on the side. It was the perfect hot summer supper.

It makes sense, then, that I would associate potato salad with a heat wave. But what explains the urgency I felt to make it? This wasn’t a casual, “you know, it’s a bit hot, so maybe a cold potato salad would be a good option for dinner tonight.” No. It was visceral, almost instinctual, like some restless genetic coding was agitated and would not be silenced until I started peeling potatoes.

Last week, my mother-in-love cooked up a pot of homemade soup after roasting a chicken the night before. She added onions and green beans and even some fresh carrots pulled right from our country garden. The aroma filled every room in the house and made us feel hearty. When I offered Buddy-roo a bowl, she turned up her nose. I said to her, “You don’t know what’s good.” De-facto shot me a puzzled, what did you just say? kind of look. “Don’t mind me,” I told him, “just channeling my father.” That was my dad’s standard response when we didn’t appreciate his favored delicacies, like creamed tuna and peas on toast, Welsh rarebit, and gherkin pickles.
shadow_of_her
Without thinking, I say and do the same things my mother and father said and did. There’s nothing deliberate about it; it’s entirely automatic. The actions are involuntary. Or the words just trip out over my tongue. It isn’t until after they are spoken that I realize I’ve said exactly what she said, or he said, all those years ago in a very different time – but probably in the exact same circumstances.

I suppose nothing brings you closer to your parents than the act of being a parent yourself.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, my potato salad was perfectly chilled and I scooped it onto the dinner plates that Short-pants had put out when she set the table. Buddy-roo stabbed the potatoes with her fork. “What’s this?” I could tell by her expression that she was suspicious. “Potato salad,” I said, “try it.” She carved away the tiniest piece possible on the tip of her fork and tasted it. “I don’t like it,” she whined.

“You don’t know what’s good,” I told her.

But I bet she will someday – some hot, summer day – in about thirty years.