Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Sacrament of the Present Moment (Biscotti and Coffee)

Demitasse and biscotti on the counter in the kitchen
at the House which shall be Unnamed

Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.

--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

For the past week, the pace of my life has accelerated into what can only be described as absurdity. And taking this perspective on it kept me sane through more than a few jammed days and nights. In fact, this week reminded me of my old life, when staying up all night several nights a week was nothing unusual.   Meanwhile, I have been re-reading a beautiful book, in which  I could  manage only a few lines before dropping off to sleep in utter exhaustion.  The contrast between the beautifully contemplative book, which is titled, appropriately, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean Pierre de Caussade, and the frenetic pace of my recent week, has left me a little breathless.  My daughter, whose school projects have kept us both extremely busy, and made a normally easy going and full-of-fun girl stressed and anxious, ended up the week completely exhausted and  ill.

On Saturday, she came into the sitting room where I was working by the fire on some embroidery for the faces of some Christmas dolls I am making, and said, "Mom, I want you to come with me for a few minutes."  What greeted me was this beautiful little silver tray of demitasse and biscotti, set on the marble counter in the kitchen.  We make biscotti, she and I, as a kind of grace note in our lives. It is a leap of faith of a sort, grounded on the Hope that there will be a quiet moment into which the little Italian cookie will bring grace and respite, a retreat of sorts. It is a simple thing, Gift, really, but it brings much joy and pleasure, and even a little wisdom!  I put it in lunch boxes, wrapped like a gift in waxed paper tied with French baker's twine, along with a flask of coffee, in the hopes that my husband will take a small break in his frenetic day and Breathe.  We serve it after school at tea at the marble table in the kitchen, which is a kind of ritual.  My daughter's gift of stolen time, in effect, her insistence on Kairos time (which  flows gently, allowing us to be in the present moment) rather than Kronos time (the relentless march of minutes and hours), was arranged in such a lovely fashion that I had to take a photograph of it before we carried it into the drawing room by the big hearth, and spent a quiet half hour chatting. I thought how well my daughter is practicing her growing womanly magic: making of life art (which is a theme of this blog), and her art brought both joy and respite, carved out of seeming absurdity a Gift, when she herself was heavy laden.  This is the nature of Gift, to offer oneself, yes? Talking together, it occured to me that this was a piece of heaven breaking in, making some wholeness, or shalom, of all the absurdity in a manner not unlike Grace.  Grace weaves together the brokenness of our lives into a whole that makes sense only in context.

Family meals are similar, I believe. Carved out in the midst of a busy and stressful day, amid the rapid passing of time, dinner is an oasis of calm and pleasure, in which it is possible, candles flickering and wine flowing, to take stock, to let down one's guard and Be Present.  I have come to believe that this kind of respite is an essential element in life, and no less in family life. Without the table, my family would surely have disintegrated long ago.  But it is equally critical in the life our our spirit, I believe. 

What is this context in which Grace makes sense of broken pieces, in which time is reordered? Though I am a great lover of life, I have never been immune to the occasional call of ennui, or the sense that at the root of life is a kind of agony of decision, springing from the grounded, temporal nature of our daily lives as contrasted with the sense that TIME, and change through time, getting older, and not having time for everything, is an omnipresent and painful feature of our life experience.   My beautiful cousin wrote about this recently, in a Facebook post, in which she reflected on the sense of time lingered loss on Halloween night, with only grown up children and none to costume or squire round the neighborhood for treats or with whom to curl up and watch movies.  In the past, my answer to this sense of ennui was to posit on my life a meaning of my own making, increasingly filled to the brim with impact and breadth.  But now, I am learning, or rather relearning something I discovered long ago: that there is an existential aspect to stepping out in faith in the face of despair, but it is not by filling in every corner.  It is by savoring the corners I already have and surrendering my hours to a series of Present Moments.  We know that at some point our time is going to run out, and at some point, time as we know it will stop for us. And since we know time is limited, that we choose one thing, by necessity limits another.  The answer is not to choose it all, as I once did, so as not to leave anything out.  That is not possible anyway.  It is not even possible always to know that what we have gained exceeds what we have lost when we choose. Loss and Gain, gain and loss.  This was the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's argument, when he posited the idea that we are suffering from a sickness, a sickness unto death.

This was such a week. I ended up the week not at all sure about the choices I had made with my time, or those I had allowed to overwhelm the time of my daughter.  In talking with my Spiritual Director (you can access his blog and wisdom at http://www.theelvesareheadingwest.blogspot.com/ ) about this, he suggested he would like to see a blog on my reflections on the week.  Notice how he phrased this, leaving little option. I find amusing that his directives usually leave little room for squirming out, which prior to his counsel I was quite accomplished at doing!  But as he is a man not easily dismissed, and he is tenacious, I sat down yesterday to ponder his request.  I do this lest his direction be treated with something other than the reverence it deserves (muttering aside), so I take my best shot.  We are counseled to have reverence for those who give us spiritual guidance, not for their sake, but for ours. This does not mean blind faith. The concept of reverence is something I have spent a lifetime rejecting in one form or another, but I am learning it is the the key to an open heart.  To have reverence is to cultivate a teachable spirit. So if we are to learn and to grow, reverence is the key to approaching what is given to us with a kind of surrender, with the heart of a child.

So as Kierkegaard says of our human condition, if this sickness unto death is the cause of our "agony," what is its cure? According to Kierkegaard, it is to become passionately committed to one of the options, delibertately chosen.  Life is upside down, he said.  Man is finite, God is infinite.  Man is a sinner, God is merciful.  When we recognize this, we may despair. Or we may recognize that it is just this realisation of the human condition that gives us the ability to leap into faith and accept the Grace that makes us whole, that makes sense of our battered and beautiful lives.  Christ came and died to restore the created order, or Logos, in a world cast askew (turned upside down) from our choice to separate from Him, to seek knowledge rather than wisdom.  Hence our lives as battered, reflecting our separation from Life, but also beautiful, reflecting the poetry imbedded in creation. It is essential for each of us to recognize this, Kierkegaard argues, and to act on it, to give over our sense of control over time and destiny utterly, to surrender to Grace and Love.  It makes the Leap into faith a leap into Life measured by a time wholly Other.   And as our time is reordered by eternity, so even the desires of our hearts are changed.

Jean Pierre de Caussade, in his beautiful book, said it similarly.  He said that God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment. "There remains one single duty. It is to keep one's gaze fixed on the master, and to be constantly listening.  The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment, in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon."  This is not harsh rigidity or stringent mortification, but joy, freedom, serenity--wholeness--that which answers (but not eliminates) the pain of our humanity.  We are set free not to be enslaved, but to LIVE in eternal time. God asks, Caussade says, only our hearts. Only. It is All, for without our hearts open, how shall we Live in Grace?

What is even more remarkable about what Caussade wrote is that if this is true, nothing is secular.  Since God's activity permeates even the most trivial, "we look not for the holiness of things, but the holiness in things", for heaven breaking in the moment.  Even time itself is a holy sacrament, for time is but the history of divine action!  We worship a living Lord, not a static ritual.  It is also not the religion of the specatular or the "big deal," but rather the small corners of life that call to us minute by minute. In this way, we are before God in such a way that his grace might be effectual: we are open to Life measured not in minutes, but in eternity.  We begin to See.

So, try your hand at making biscotti, at carving out moments to cultivate an openness to Grace?  Biscotti  really is very easy to do.  As to the Present Moment, that takes some practice, and I am only learning its ways.  But like me, you can keep a jar of biscotti on your counter, if you like, to remind you to take a moment out and celebrate the sacrament of the Present moment, or as a subtle and charming reminder to those you love to do the same.  I don't like to make them too large as they are often sold commercially, for a small two or three bites is a perfect foil for a glass of wine (like the Italians do) or a cup of tea or coffee.  These twice-baked Italian cookies are a seductive snack at any time of day.  The word biscotti is interesting in itself. It has more than one meaning.  The root stems from bis and cotto: bis meaning "more than one" and cotto meaning cooking. Twice baked, once as a log, and then after having been cut into diagonal strips, returned to the oven for a second baking, they are delicious.  It doesn't take a lot of equipment to make them, and the making is itself a kind of ritual of time.  A wonderful aspect of them is that you can vary them with the seasons, just as we eat.  We can serve them simply in summer, with almond as flavor, and then add cranberries in the autumn, and candied orange peel or cranberries at the holidays. Try adding this ritual to your day. You won't be disappointed.  And let me know what you discover?

I think my favorite, however, is a simple recipe with almond and orange, which is never overpowering or cloying.  For this recipe, I am indebted to Lou Seibert Pappas, though I have made several modifications. Put about 1/2 cup of nuts in a pan and roast in a preheated 325 degree oven until golden, which should only take 8 to 10 minutes.  In a mixing bowl, cream togeither 1/3 cup of butter and 3/4 cup of sugar until very light and fluffy.  (Creaming well is one secret to great cookies).  Beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract and 3 tablespoons of grated orange zest (less if you like).  In another small bowl, combine 2 1/4 cups of all purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, a little grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add to the creamed mixture and mix until well blended.  Chop almonds into small pieces and fold these in.  Line a baking sheet with parchement paper and divide the dough into two or three flat "loaves"or logs.  Bake in the center of the preheated 325 degree oven until golden, about 20-25 minutes, depending upon your oven.  Transfer to a baking rack with a long, flat spatula and let cool for 5 minutes.  On a cutting board with a serrated knife, slice diagonally at about a 45 degree angle about 1/2 inch thick.  Lace the slices flat on the parchement lined baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes.  Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container.  Enjoy!

Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Desires of the heart and body (Garbure and the Palais Royal)

Tonight for dinner, my plan is to make a garbure, which is a lovely French soup from Gascony, which I first ate with my grandparents, and once ate in Paris, seated at an enchanting courtyard restaurant on the edge of the interior garden at the Palais Royal.  I love the gardens at the Palais Royal, and the elegant structure of the oasis inside one of the busiest parts of the city. The restaurant du Palais Royal is situated under the elegant arcades, facing the magnificent gardens.  More recently, I have heard from friends that the food was a little disappointing, but when I have eaten there it has been  unfailingly lovely, certainly not the best food in Paris, but well executed and delicious. You can imagine yourself seated here for lunch: the setting is spectacular! 
Tables on the edge of the garden at Restaurant Palais Royal

It was an early autumn day, and I had been walking.  If you have been to Paris, you will know that aside from sitting in cafes and people watching, there is little more deeply satisfying than a liesurely promenade except a leisurely promenade punctuated by a stop at a curbside cafe!  Having walked all morning, I was ravenously hungry, as I am one of those who prefers a large "bowl" of cafe au lait for breakfast with a considerable amount of milk, and very little else.  If I eat anything at all before 11, it might be a piece of toast or occasionally a tartine, but that's about my limit.  Do you make cafe au lait? I know the current fashion is for espresso and the little Nespresso, which I adore after lunch or dinner, always "natur", without any milk.  But for breakfast, I only want a large cafe au lait bowl of French press coffee, ground relatively fine, and allowed to steep briefly. It's creamy sweetness even without milk is the perfect antidote for my sleepy wakefulness. But I always blend it with half hot milk. So attached am I to this each morning that I have been known to pack my little Boden press on holiday, just in case the apartment I rented didn't have one handy.  If you haven't tried this, get a glass one (I like the Boden Chamboard, or the original French Melior, which they still make all glass and metal, rather than the plastic version) and make yourself an au lait (half French press, half hot milk) for breakfast tomorrow.  A person can lose himself or herself in a bowl of cafe au lait.  I like it best in a bowl like this:

I have them at The House which shall be Unnamed as well as at my holiday house in Big Sur.   My children also drink cocoa from these bowls, and though I make all sorts of bacon, fried eggs, sausage, coddled eggs, omelettes, poached eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes and waffles, etc., for breakfast for my family each morning (not for me), there is really no better fare than a tartine made with a crusty baguette, with French or Vermont butter and apricot jam and a big bowl of cafe au lait. For me, eggs are best at lunch or dinner.

I recall very clearly the menu that day at the Restaurant Palais Royal, which I had ordered from the prix fixe offerings on the chalkboard. I was hungry for bistro food, and I remembered this little bistro in the gardens as I walked, thinking longingly of the peaceful and elegant surroundings, and the ordered, structured garden with all its baroque symmetry and form, which seemed a perfect respite from the crush of traffic and noise.  I remember especially that I was ravenous, and all I could think about was having a bistro lunch that wasn't too rich, but was satisfying and comforting.  Are you ever truly hungry? I have been meditating on hunger and thirst of late, thinking about that for which I truly hunger in my life. Hunger is an interesting teacher.

I have leaned much from my longings, especially considering how these longings, or the desires of my heart, subject to Grace. are gradually changed. Lately I have been wondering if I have spent most of my life masking my longings in some form or other through one idol or another, which failed to satisfy. Or alternately, I ran from them, so as not to face them or what they might mean.  But God draws us to himself like the lover that he is.  When many of the things we have long taken for granted are stripped away, we are left with our hearts freed of all the "stuff," which can be illuminating. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled," and I will admit to long being puzzled by this. I wonder what it means, and why he chose to liken a desire for righteousness to someone approaching the table, as if he or she were about to be nourished.  It is interesting that the word beatitude comes form the Latin Beatitudo, meaning ‘contentment’. In these various Beatitudes Jesus seems to be pointing to a profound truth about life, that true happiness or contentment seems to have very little to do with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, rather it springs largely from our thinking and attitude towards life and towards our 'neighbors' and towards God. It has to do with the desires of our heart.

So is Jesus exhorting us to be perfect? I don't think so.  The only Being truly righteous is God himself, so it is this Life Giving Food we are exhorted to seek, as if we are to be nourished at the God's table?  Even more fascinating, Jesus doesn't stop at hunger, but also speaks of thirst, for to be denied water is to die far more rapidly than from hunger. So in the words of Jesus, echoing those of the prophets and the psalmists before him, hunger and thirst are likened to the desperate longing for God, the fulfillment of which is the difference between spiritual life and death, and the remedy is the table where he is Present among us.  At the "table," the Eucharist, we are given his body and blood, in essence, his Life.  We are promised his Presence.  On this we are told to feed.

In Dante's Inferno, that magnificent poem that struggles with all these questions, the essence of repentance, or turning towards God, is not a simple asking of forgiveness for sin.  It is  that the human will is turned toward God and away from all things that are not God, or "no God" as the theologian Barth would say. A genuine turning towards God is not about restraining sinful desires; it is about changing desire.  The brilliant medieval theologian, St. Augustine, on whose thoughts much of Dante's work was based, said it well:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will. The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4). There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet. Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say. Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say." --Augustine, Homilies on John's Gospel
Sweet bread it is.  God replaces our desires by showing us himself, which is infinitely more lovely and sweet than anything we have known. When he draws us to himself, by showing himself to us, we begin to desire him. Our desire has changed, along with our hearts.

One of the good things about walking, is that these thoughts seem to swirl around naturally, connected as we are to our bodies and their longings!   Proof that I am still achingly human in every sense! Or perhaps I am just food obsessed!   So as I sat down to the beautiful little garden table, I put my pleasure for the next hour and a half in the hands of the competent waiter, and ordered the chef's menu. This, too, I remember thinking that day, is a kind of metaphor for allowing ourselves to be fed just that which we need, rather than what we think we need.  The menu began, elegantly, with a little surprise, an amuse bouche, which I believe was a little canape with some truffle butter and shaved duck confit. The first course, or entree, was a little frisee salad with bacon de sanglier, a bacon made with boar, which was very delicious, and a very fresh poached egg.  Those of you who love French food will recognize this as Frisee aux Lardons, which is a lunch in itself, but this was of very modest proportion, just a tiny round of frisee tossed with the boar bacon, with a perfectly round poached egg on top and a drizzle of vinaigrette.  Many years later, I saw this exact dish served at The French Laundry in almost an identical presentation, and I always wondered if Keller ate at the Palais Royal, sitting in the garden, seeking inspiration for his menu.

Next came the garbure, that delicious soup I had eaten long ago.  It was as wonderful as I had remembered, made with duck, or even better, goose confit.  A soup born of want and desire. It was delicious, a soul satisfying elixir of well being.  In cookbooks of the 19th century, according to Richard Olney, garbures are panades; thick soups I often make for my family, more akin to a gratin, baking layers of dried bread when I have an overflow, onions or leeks, homemade stock and cheese in a slow oven until a fantastically delicious and unctious.  You used to be able to get this wonderful dish as a side to roast chicken at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco when Judy Rodgers was cooking, long baked in the wood fired oven.  Glorious. I can't replicate the smoky nuance of that oven, but I have come pretty close in my own Viking oven.  And someday I hope to have a brick wood fired oven in Big Sur.   A garbure from Gascony transcends a  mere soup; it is a stew that is thick enough to support a spoon upright!  The meal-in-one comes from southern Gascony, where in the pine forests of Les Landes and the foothills of the Pyrenees, a hearty soup is needed to fight the winter fogs and rains.  Coming from the rainy Northwest corner of the United States as I do, what could be more perfect?

Would you like to try this for dinner? It is important that the vegetables be absolutely fresh. It will make a difference.  When you have finished the soup, take some little slices of baguette cut on the diagonal, top them with a little of the puree which has been reduced in a pan with some butter or duck fat until it has the consistency of mashed potatoes, and top with some grated gruyere cheese and gratinee them in the oven (you can use your broiler, but watch it carefully) to serve with the soup. Along with a crisp green salad and a little fruit tart (I plan to make an apple tart tonight), this is a wonderful autumn dinner.  Below is a simple version of this soup, the number of variations of which are huge. If you don't want to cook the dried beans yourself, you can buy canned cannelini beans, but you will sacrifice considerable flavor for the convenience.  It will still be a good soup, however!  If you can't find duck or goose confit (you can order it from D'Artagnan if you look online), you can also use ham or bacon.  If you use bacon, saute the bacon first, using the bacon fat to sweat the vegetables, and add it back in, partially cooked, when the beans are added, leaving some fully cooked to add as garnish.  I am indebted to Anne Willan and to Jeanne Strang and to Richard Olney for the ideas behind this recipe, which I have altered some from their versions so as to make one fitted best to my taste.

Put about a cup of dried white kidney beans, such as cannelini, in a pot with water to cover and bring it to a boil.  Cover the pan, take it from the heat and leave it for an hour or two so that the beans will soften. Do not add any salt. Drain the beans, put them back in the pan with a clove studded onion, a carrot, a handful of thyme, bayleaf and parsley, tied together with kitchen string so that it can be removed.  Bring to a simmer and cover, cooking until the beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, adding more water if the pan becomes dry.

Meanwhile, melt two tablespoons of butter or a similar amount of duck fat in a soup pot over low heat.  Add in the thinly sliced white parts of three leeks; two large carrots, thinly sliced; a turnip, thinly sliced; 1/4 head of green cabbage, shredded; two stalks of celery, thinly sliced; three garlic cloves; and three waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced.  Season with salt and pepper and cover the pan, sweating the vegetables over low heat, taking care not to let them scorch, about 20 minutes or so, until tender.   Don't brown them.  While the vegetables are cooking, shred two legs of duck or goose confit, discarding the skin and bones. 

When the beans are done, drain them, and add them to the vegetables along with the shredded confit, two quarts of chicken or veal broth (not beef broth) and cover and simmer again for 20-30 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender.  Now taste and adjust the seasoning.  At this point, I usually puree the soup with a stick blender, but this is not necessary. It is simply a matter of taste.  Just before serving, reheat the soup gently stirring in a tablespoon of butter and a little chopped parsley.  You can put a few lardons of bacon, cooked to crisp, on top as a garnish if you like.
Garbure, served rustic style
As for the "restes" of the lamb steaks, which I promised to address, here are some wonderful ideas you can use: stuffed peppers and tomatoes, in the style of Provence, with onions, cumin, thyme, pepper, tomatoes and rice. Bake the rice and lamb mixture in the tomato or pepper shell at 350 for about 40 minutes.  Serve with a salad. Or you can make gyros, with cut up lamb seasoned with a little thyme and cumin, tzaziki sauce, tomatoes, lettuce (I like arugula), caramelized onions, and feta cheese wrapped in flatbread.  I like mine with a provencal tomato sauce made with basil, tomatoes, garlic, dijon mustard, sherry vinegar and olive oil.  Or you can make a Shepherd's pie, with a little lamb ragout made with onions, a little stock or demiglace thickened with buerre manie (butter and flour worked together to a paste), lamb, tomatoes and thyme, topped with fresh made potato puree and baked.  Of course there are a hundred more. Let me know if you want more ideas.

Happy Cooking mes amis! And a lovely weekend to you. Tell me what you like to do with leftovers, and whether you cook extra amounts just so you can make something with them. Wishing you all contentment of the best sort this weekend, food for body and soul.  A bientot!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons from a Master

The Storefront in Paris

Yesterday's New York Times Dining section (which I love to read) featured an article on Jacques Pepin and his new book, about to be released, The Essential Pepin. Since I began to cook seriously in the 1980s, nearly 30 years ago now, I have loved Pepin as a teacher and master. There is no better chef.  I remember well his early books, La Methode and La Technique, and I spent months and months working my way through each until I had mastered the techniques he demonstrated.  Even today, when I cook, I hear his voice in my head, exhorting this or that method.  The original books were combined several years ago, and are now sold as one volume: The Complete Techniques. He is by far the best of the best of teachers, and his consistent insistence on mastering technique to release your artistry has been a source of inspiration and correction to me for many years. It is important to have Masters, I believe, and selecting the right ones is as important as having them, if not moreso.  I think this has been true in my spiritual life as well, and I have tried to be more deliberate about this more recently.  I know that my cooking is indebted greatly to the wonderful masters at whose feet I have learned, and the same might be said for any appreciation I have for what it means to Live a life hidden in Christ.  Having guides along the path is tremendously valuable.

When someone tells me they want to learn to cook seriously, Pepin's Complete Techniques is the first book I give them. Inevitably, there is some disappointment, because it doesn't seem sexy to practice julienne or making stock when the making of complicated recipes is so much more exciting and rewarding, but this is exactly what will lead to great food.  Pepin himself apprenticed as a teenager in an array of French restaurants, to learn the basics, and he has written about the hard years of long hours and stressful work that honed his skills.  Properly cut vegetables not only look beautiful, but cook evenly. Great stocks and reductions are the secret to the complex and deep flavors of the professional kitchen. Sometimes I think it is particularly difficult for Americans, as we are trained in a culture of immediate gratification, and we are not always willing to invest in a long term apprenticeship that will yield results over time and requires patience. I spoke recently to the owner of a cooking school targeting housewives and weekend cooks, and she told me that it has been difficult for her because all her students seem to want are recipes that can be done quickly and learned quickly, and they don't want to invest any time in learning and mastering technique. I think this is often the case spiritually, too. We want quick results, mountaintop experiences, instant spirituality that's easy and "enhances" life rather than Gives Life, and we are often unwilling to embrace the idea that spiritual growth comes most often through difficulty rather than ease.

Mastering the basic skills, along with learning to shop frequently, seasonally and carefully are the basic building blocks of great food   In the New York Times article, Pepin mentions chefs I admire particularly, and says "All the great chefs I know--Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongericten--they are technicians first."  If you want to be a great cook, start with the basics.  By all means have fun, and cook with all your senses engaged in pleasure, but it can be terrific fun to master these skills and practice them at home while you are cooking dinner at night or a feast on the weekend.  My kids have great fun doing this, and are anxious to finish their homework so they can help cook dinner. My nine year-old daughter is now quite skilled using a chef's knife and though her mother is often anxious that she will cut herself, she is careful and competent, holds the knife properly and uses her fingers properly. My theory is that children will use knives any way; they may as well be taught how to do it properly and much more safely!

Another thing Pepin taught me early on, before I began working in kitchens and with chefs, was the importance of a very sharp knife. Without a sharp knife, kitchen tasks which should be easy and easily mastered are virtually impossible, and worse, they will damage the food you are attempting to cut or carve or filet or bone as well as pose a safety hazard. Most people know this is true, but life is pressing, and time to sharpen knives can often be difficult to carve out, especially when dinner is cooked on the fly and the time is critical.  But this is why it has to be viewed as a priority. If there is one thing I fail to do enough, it is to sharpen my knives.  Contrary to what most people think, a dull knife in the kitchen is far more dangerous than a sharp one.  A sharp knife should glide through a tomato with ease, and if you have a chef knife and can't use it to cut tomatoes, it is not sharp.  From this book on technique, I learned to sharpen knives using a grinding stone, but my husband is still far better at this than I, and I usually use a steel to sharpen the edge before each use, while he uses the grinding stone periodically to keep them in shape.

A friend often reminds me that it is important to have around you friends who are close enough to sharpen you as well, challenging you, holding you accountable, lending a ready ear for confession.  I have found this to be especially helpful in my life, and went too long without it, too prideful to reveal any weakness. It is akin to trying to cook with dull knife.  The resulting dish will suffer. Proverbs 27:17 says that "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."  As hard iron, steel will bring a knife to a better edge when it is properly whetted against it: so one friend may be the means of encouraging another to reflect, dive deeply into, and illustrate a subject, without which whetting this would not occur.  This is the basis for the concept of having a spiritual director, really nothing more than a very good friend, in whose faith and heart you have great respect, who can advise and challenge you in your walk. Ideally, perhaps they are further along in their growth, but this is not always possible. Scholars have often wondered if the Roman lyric poet, satirist and critic, Horace, who had studied Greek literature and philosophy in Athens, had seen this proverb in the Septuagint ( the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) when he wrote his "The Art of Poetry, an Epistle to the Pisos," saying:  "Ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum, Reddere quae ferrum valet, exors ipsa secandi."  (Hor. Ars. Poet., ver. 304.)  "But let me sharpen others, as the hone gives edge to razors, though itself have none."

Several years after I began to cook seriously, when my career began to be rewarding enough for me to start thinking seriously about a batterie de cuisine that would serve me well and long, I consulted Pepin again, and he was insistent on buying the best.  I still remember his comments about how some people will think nothing of spending a small fortune on a restaurant dinner without blinking an eye, but won't spend the same amount on a few pieces of equipment that might make every dinner substantially more enjoyable and delicious. It is amazing how much difference the right pan can make to a result. Making delicate sauces in a pan that won't cool rapidly can be nearly impossible, and pan searing in the wrong pan can make mush rather than caramelization.  Of course, I had read all the reviews of the various options, as well as cooked with all of them in various places. I knew I didn't want to cook with aluminum because of potential health concerns as well as the often graying impact it can have on food, so I was choosing between copper (Mauviel, French of course!) and stainless steel (All Clad, which I like very much).  It was Pepin whose comments on both convinced me to buy copper. I now have a very large collection of copper pans and pots, gratins and bowls, and though they require a little more effort to polish, they are worth it, in my view. I even have copper pots and pans in my holiday house in Big Sur, where I cook as much as I do at home and where I have more time to do wonderful feasts, which is great fun, in a small, but well equipped kitchen by the Big Sur River, with the sound of the river faeries keeping me company.

I made my first few copper pan and pot purchases on a trip to Paris, at one of my favorite stores, E. Dehillerin.  Long Paris’ legendary cookware store, the visit of which is a step back in time, Dehillerin is a ramshackle shop with high ceilings, wooden plank floors and open shelves where merchandise is stacked haphazardly and appears not to have changed much since it was founded in 1820.  I love these sorts of shops.
Two aisles at E. Dehillerin, wherein I once heard a lady,
the wife of an American professor, lecturing the staff, in very laboured
French, on the lack of proper organization of the store!  The shopkeeper
 suggested that the store had survived and prospered as long
as it had because the French preferred it this way!

The reports of rude behavior from the overall-clad staff are legendary, but I have never found this to be so. I have spent hours in this store, nearly every time I have been to Paris, and the staff were always polite and helpful. I think perhaps if the many American housewives who flock to this shop, often disappointed in the appearance, accustomed as they are to Williams Sonoma (which is a wonderful shop as well) or Sur La Table (though it is not dissimilar to the old and far more wonderful Sur La Table) and their impressive marketing and merchandising, might do well to try a few niceties in French when they arrive.  It is unlikely there will be olive oil tastings at a central kiosk, but the selection of cooking tools, implements, pots and pans is unrivalled.  I suspect the reception would be altogether different.  I still have those beautiful copper Mauviel pans I purchased that first day I visited, as well as a chinois and a tamis, and I remember even more the groans from my husband as he was carrying the heavy bags and wondering how we were going to get them in our bags on the return flight!  Copper pans are heavy! Several years in a row, I would set aside a part of my bonus for a little gift for myself, and I nearly always purchased more copper pans and pots until I had the pieces I needed, and a few I loved!  Look them up: http://www.e-dehillerin.fr/en/index.php

A wall of copper pots, pans and molds at E. Dehillerin

And now to FOOD!  Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Pepin, however, was not technique, as important as this is, but his ability to cook wonderful meals using up all the little bits of leftovers from other dishes. Although my grandmother did this as well, Pepin always fascinated me with his ability to make beautiful things from the "restes".  Several times a week, I use his canape technique to make elegant and gorgeous little open faced sandwiches from a pullman loaf, to serve with an aperitif before dinner, using up bits of leftovers not enough of which is left from which to compose a meal.  My family adore these, and as I have written before, my son is now very skilled at making them, and his combinations are often amazing.  Often, I make a bechamel sauce, which is a white sauce, or a roux with stock. Then I add bits of meat and sauce leftover from a dinner to it, and fold it into buckwheat crepes, which I make from an old French recipe, and gratinee them in the oven. Served with a salad, this is a wonderful supper. Leftover cheese fondue can make lovely croque monsieur or madame sandwiches, and one night I made about 30 of them, all devoured by visiting friends of my children, staying unexpectedly for dinner.  These sandwiches also make wonderful afterschool snacks, if your children are like mine and prefer something "substantial" before any sweet.  I thought I might talk a little bit today about the concept of "restes" (leftovers) and how you can use a great weekend dish to make several meals or parts of meals during the week, wasting nothing.

On Sunday I cooked Ossobuco Milanese, which means, simply, braised veal shanks cooked in the style of Milan.  There are other kinds of braised veal shanks, which are also delicious, such as the white one which uses anchovies, which I like very much,  but my family particularly loves the Milanese version, which uses tomatoes in the braising liquid.  This is a sublime dish, perhaps the greatest of all braises, and it really is very easy to make and almost cooks itself after the initial browning of the meat. If you haven't made this dish for your family or yourself, you should learn to make it.  I have tried many different recipes, but I like best the old recipe of Marcella Hazan in her book The Classic Italian Cookbook with some alterations I have developed over the years.  I agree with her that gremolata, which is a condiment I adore, does not add to the glorious balance of the dish and the subtlety of the veal, and is better suited to other things. One of the things I do is to remove the meat, and then puree the liquid with a stick blender.  The vegetables thicken the sauce naturally, and the result is spectacular. You can do this with any braise, and you will find the resulting balance is worth the effort.  If you allow the liquid to cool a little first, you can remove some of the fat as well, if you wish.  With the ossobuco, I served risotto milanese, which is a risotto made in the style of Milan, a very simple and gorgeous risotto flavored with saffron. My daughter is very skilled at making risotto now, and she stands on a stool over the big Viking range, stirring away and adding stock.

Ossobuco Milanese with risotto Milanese: Scrumptious!
After this delicious dish was consumed, there was a considerable amount of leftover meat, braising liquid and risotto. So the next night, I seared some sliced mushrooms on very high heat, not moving them until they were turned, cooking them in small batches, to which I added seasalt after they were turned. I then added to the pan the "restes" of the ossobuco, and all that wonderful braising liquid,  warming it gently, and made a batch of fresh egg noodles in the way my grandmother did, tossing them with creme fraiche after they were cooked in salted, boiling water.  I put the mushroom and ossobuco sauce over the dressed noodles on a big white Apilco platter, and we had a very delicious (and untraditional) version of Stroganoff, a dish I don't usually make, but for which my son asks.  This could be done with many other braises as well, to great advantage. I also regularly make macaronades with the braising liquids, baking the macaroni, moistened with the braising liquids and some gruyere cheese in a gratin dish, sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs and butter and chives and baked.  When I go away for the evening to supper club or to dinner with friends, I invariably leave some sort of gratin in the oven for my family, along with a big green salad, some crusty baguette, a fruit tart and a cozy table set in the kitchen, candles and all.  And my husband, after a long day, always feels fortunate for a night with the children that is nearly all prepped, leaving him free to enjoy their company. They don't feel deprived!  More often than not, the gratin (I adore gratins of all sorts) is a macaronade, made from braising liquids from Sunday dinner.  Easy and fast.

You will have noticed I haven't mentioned the risotto. First of all, most restaurant risotto is not worth ordering. It is precooked and given the risotto "treatment" at the end, but, although it can be tasty, it is simply not the same dish at all. So if you don't make risotto, teach yourself to do so. It is a wonderful meal that can be a terrific means of using up little bits of meat or an abundance of garden vegetables. There are three things I love to do with leftover risotto. The first is to fry it in little cakes for breakfast, over which I serve a poached egg.  Try it, you will find yourself making extra just to have it this way, and it's good for dinner too. The second, is to make little risotto cakes, adding fresh chives and a little egg and breadcrumb to bind the cake, sauteing it lightly until nicely browned in a pan with some olive oil.  I usually serve this with aioli for a little sauce, and a green salad with a garlicky vinaigrette. Again, this is a lovely supper dish and takes on a new flavor cooked this way  It is often more delicious than the original.  Finally, I love to make arancini, "little oranges," literally translated. I add an egg again, to bind the risotto, then form them in little balls and roll them in seasoned breadcrumbs, and saute them in olive oil or deep fry them in peanut or vegetable oil. These can also be served with a little aioli as an appetizer course, and when I make them, my children as well as any visiting urchins, devour them rapidly!

Last night I cooked some grilled leg of lamb "steaks" for dinner, with socca pancakes flavored with cumin, olive oil and thyme; annie's tomato jam, and grilled asparagus. As my son, the great meat eater, was not home, there was a considerable amount of leftover lamb. Tomorrow I will describe what I plan to do with this lamb, and the many choices it offers for delectable dinners. 

Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot and a salute to Jacques Pepin!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Blessed Be the Ties that Bind Our Hearts in Love (Food Sticks to the Soul)

This past weekend, I attended a wonderful gathering in celebration of the birthday of a beloved aunt.  It was a beautiful day, spent with many cousins and two aunts, both good cooks, who greatly impacted my childhood and who have always been guiding lights and inspirations for me, not to mention a constant source of great fun, many treats and much love as I was growing up. From one, I inherited a love of making stocks and broths, and she is to this day the family expert in how to draw out flavor this way to make the most delicious soups from scraps and bones, and all her nieces and nephews ask for her soups.  She still makes killer whipped potatoes which are light and airy and scrumptious, and the best cucumber salad.  From my other aunt, I learned to entertain and how to set a beautiful table and make guests feel at home, and I spent many a happy hour as a child "helping" her (and learning from her) to set up a baby shower or ladies luncheon, writing names on place cards in my best writing, or folding napkins. Or better yet, laying napkins in a fan-like fashion, which as a child, seemed an impossible task, and I was determined to master.  This has become something of a family joke, and into my adulthood, I would be given "napkins and straws" as my contribution to a gathering table! I was expected to learn to master various things, but never allowed to take myself too seriously in the process. One of the wonderful things about family, is that even if you become a chef, you will not be allowed to take yourself too seriously in matters of food!

In my American family, as in my French-Swiss family, delicious food marked family times, and there were many family times. Sunday dinners at my grandmother's after church were occasions for all the aunts to feature their cooking skills, often in my grandmother's compact kitchen all at the same time! I remember many happy hours helping my grandmother to roast chickens or a side of beef before everyone arrived.  Her table seemed to extend endlessly, and she was legendary for the hoards of kids who practically lived at her house when my father and his brother and sisters were growing up and her wonderful spaghetti and crab feeds and parties.  Food was never so precious or taken so seriously that the children weren't allowed to help, yet it was treated with respect and my American grandmother was a superb cook in the best Midwestern tradition.  She cooked the Wednesday night church supper for years, and these dinners are still the stuff of legend, for she could cook feasts with inexpensive ingredients, having grown up in a very large family with lots of very tall brothers who were big eaters and expected to eat well. And she didn't buy mixes or instant ingredients or used canned soups to pump the flavor. She knew how to draw it from the fresh ingredients, and for years she had a terrific kitchen garden, which for years my father came to help her cultivate. She was a constant student of a good meal, and never stopped learning. As I began to cook seriously, and entertain her sisters and brothers at my house for lunch or dinner on occasion, she was always very keen to know what had gone into this dish or that, how it was cooked and what particularly would make it sing.  I remember once I served venison with a sauce made with Chartreuse, and she adored it so much that I brought her a little bottle of Chartreuse the next time I visited.  She wasn't formally trained as a cook, but she had as keen an eye for a good dish as anyone I have ever known. And she wasn't the least bit pretentious about her cooking ability, which was widely recognized.  She took food seriously and herself lightly.  She was full of Grace.

My aunt for whom the weekend party was planned teased me on Saturday, food-obsessed as I am, that my children, who will (most of the time) eat just about any food and vegetable with gusto when cooked well (and I don't mean well done), when last at one of these gatherings, went directly and with evident enthusiasm for the hot dogs, chips and soda pop, easily passing over the salmon and the other delicacies lovingly prepared.  To my children, rarely privileged to enjoy these treats, there is little more fun than a chance to indulge in all the "normal" (as my son calls it) foods of childhood, from which they lament their great deprivation.  Nothing beats a good burger from "Dave's", the neighborhood butcher who grills them outside his shop on Saturdays (this may be true). In fact, I think my son knows their schedule of delectables quite well, and his new found freedom on his bike has put his lawn-mowing earnings to use for a host of similar treats.  I think this is very fun, and I am really glad that they can appreciate a good ossobuco as readily as a good brat, and know that both have their place in the life of someone who embraces life with both arms open.

When our children were small, we observed a few guidelines. We never cooked a separate meal for them, but instead cut up, minced, ground or otherwise made the food we were eating edible for whatever age they happened to be.  And unless we were having a date night, we always dined with them, except when they were just babies, pulling the old wooden high chair up to the dining or kitchen table. They enjoyed the table as did we, and participated in the conversation as their ability allowed.  Bits of meat went into the mini food processor with some gravy to make a delicious baby food, served with mashed potatoes and pea puree. My mother was famous for making little plates at Sunday dinner, dotted with all sorts of tiny bits of food, of which to this day my children still speak longingly.  She would give my daughter tasty bones on which to chew when she was teething, and my daughter is now the undisputed marrow queen of our house, with her very own marrow spoon so as not to miss one morsel. We bought baby food only one time, when we were driving to our holiday house in Big Sur and feared our daughter would starve en route for lack of something she could ingest.  She refused to eat it. I still remember her in a restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon, eating bits off of all our plates and giving me a look of utter disgust when I gave her a spoonful of some sort of baby food to eat. Not having been weaned on this stuff, she was not accustomed to the salt less, tasteless and texture less fare, and she wasn't having any of it, thank you very much!  As our children grew, we simply reduced the spiciness of the food we prepared and adjusted the seasoning so as not to serve them highly spiced food until they were a little older, gradually increasing it as they grew.  And from very early on, we involved them in the cooking. That's about it.

As my children are older now, they will have a little wine with their water on Sundays, just as I did as a child when visiting my European grandparents, and they love to sip champagne and wine and comment on its nose or bouquet, and they have great fun poking fun at pretentious wine that doesn't match its marketing.  French and Italian food is very child friendly, for the most part, and suited to a developing palate.  We tried to cook with as many organic and hormone free/antibiotic free/nitrate free foods as we could find and tended to eliminate anything that had a high pesticide residue and couldn't be found organic, served a lot of grains and complex breads, and loaded up on fruits and vegetables.  We bought nothing processed.   I do cook with both olive oil and butter, and don't believe in any of those supposedly "healthful" substitutes, and my kids don't take vitamins. They eat them in their diets and their annual physicals show their blood work is exceptional.  For most of the years of their childhood, we had a large kitchen garden very much like those of both my grandmothers, which they helped to grow and cultivate.  And they regularly admired the beautiful food which sat on my counter in white French porcelain bowls: heirloom tomatoes from the farmers' market, seasonal fruit, onions and shallots, artichokes from Carmel, etc They grew up eating everything, and both are now reasonably adventurous eaters who look forward with relish and delight to dinner each evening, love to go to the farmers' market and help select the food. Both like spicy food, my son the spicier the better!  My son loves raw oysters and foie. gras and my daughter thinks moules marinieres is about the best food on the planet.  Both will consume a bucket of clams and love to make cheese plates for the cheese course, trying all but the ripest of cheeses with figs or grapes. But both will eat a bag of chips with relish, and given any chance, will order a burrito at the snack bar at the swimming club, smacking their lips.  Mostly, I wanted my children to love food in moderation, with passion, but without the tangled love-hate (secret guilt) relationship to food that many Americans seem to have.  Nor did I want them to be a slave to precious "gourmet" food, however much they love beautiful, and beautifully cooked food.  Food is about pleasure. And family. And Love. I wanted all these memories of food and family to act as their lifelong muses, as they have for me.  But that this is so, does not mean that we don't take food very seriously. I just don't want them to confuse this with taking themselves very seriously. Easier said than done, for sure, as I 'm still learning this myself!

My house tends to be a magnet for hungry kids, and on any given night after school, the refrigerator wars for the leftovers or a piece of gingerbread or pie are legendary.  I have not noticed that most kids are naturally finicky eaters. Of course, I am often told this, apologetically, by parents embarrassed by their kids, but it has not been my experience. Once we rented a house with some friends in France, and I was told, since I did all the cooking for the two weeks, not to worry about cooking for their children, as they would only eat one or two things.  This was true the first day. The second day, the kids came into the kitchen and asked if they could help. They started shelling fava beans and dipping them in oil and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Yum! They said. They rolled out fresh pasta and cut it on the big harvest table. They pitted fresh cherries they had hand picked in the market for a clafouti, which is a dessert cake. They ate most of the courses that night. The next night they came in the kitchen again. They went out to the garden to harvest fresh rosemary for a braised chicken and chopped it with a mezzaluna. They shelled fresh beans for a little stew they helped cook.  They cut up plums from the market for a tart, tasting everything. By the fourth night they were eating everything and anything. No more special dinners cooked only for them. This has played out over and over again with the friends of my children.  Children recognize good food, and if they have a hand in making it, and it isn't too precious, they will eat with enthusiasm.  But the chef, who can teach them to take their food seriously, can't take himself or herself too seriously. It might not be perfect for the little hands still learning technique, but it will be glorious. For their hearts will be open and engaged, and that is the best way of all to learn.

It is not the grand fetes, or feast menus, that my children most value. Or even sitting in the kitchen when I host a benefit dinner at my house, trying all the courses.  Or even the culinary masterpieces of a Christmas Eve cassoulet or a tower of artfully composed salad topped with tomato sorbet and tuiles, which I adore as much as anyone.  As is often the case, children are wise in a way that sadly fades as we grow into our lives.  They have the ability to live openheartedly, to approach the world with trust.  They don't take themselves too seriously to make fun wherever and whenever they can, to be open to Joy.  It strikes me that this is the attitude we need to approach food, but moreso our spiritual life in Christ. As with cooking, we may be dedicated to the fundamentals of spiritual growth, but the deep magic comes by being unfailingly generous in our application of it.  The goal is not to be perfect or even to achieve perfect food. The goal is to cook from the heart with a with respect for the ingredients and the process of cooking, and a heart open to learning.

It is the same with our growth spiritually. We are not meant to be perfect, and being perfect isn't even the right goal.  In fact, if our goal is to be perfect, we have missed completely the Life that is ours.  Jesus said  that without the heart of a child, we can never enter the Kingdom of God. A child's heart is teachable, open to joy, aware of challenge and sorrow, trusting that all manner of things will be well in the end, however arduous the journey.  And I submit that it is the everyday lessons, just like the everyday foods, that most open our hearts, not the grand religious experiences. We are to be determined to open our hearts to God's love, but not take ourselves too seriously in our many failed attempts to walk in His steps.  We may walk in faith with a sense of awe, but as for ourselves, we know that in the end it is all Grace. And we step out in Joy, grateful for that "blessed sin" that brings us to the feet of God and lets Him love us.

Happy Cooking, mes amis. Tomorrow, some more recipes.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Soul Food and Soul Searching (Love and Discipline)

An appetizer at Per Se Restaurant, New York

Last night was supper club with the amazing and amazingly lovely women who meet once a month at rotating houses to enjoy each others' company and each others' food.  Several of us carpooled, as the house is some distance away, and the conversation in the car as we made our way to the house on the Sound, caused me to feel as if I had been transported to heaven for a few hours: it was rich and soul-filling, and ranged from food to cooking technique to philosophy to politics to family dynamics to the pleasures of sex in a long-term marriage.  I knew the evening was going to be magical, if only because of the conversation in the car.  As we arrived, the lights across the water were twinkling through the big glass doors, and Everything was beautiful. I just wanted to stop and breathe in the pleasure.  From the moment we walked in the door, the atmosphere was one of an autumnal harvest celebration: deep burnt red leather sofas, huge natural rock hearth, gorgeous colors. The hostess has an artistic soul, I am coming to understand a little, and her house and table echoed all the richness of the season, which complemented perfectly the deeply appealing food: it said welcome in every aspect. It was a rich evening, with a progression of immensely appealing food (braised short ribs and gorgonzola polenta and mixed herb gremolata with shaved brussel sprouts and shallot saute) and served as a good metaphor for the richness of the conversation, which was broad ranging and full of Wisdom.  The evening wound to a beautiful close with a sublime dessert: a tartlett each, which one of the women had fashioned, made with apples, a young chevre (goat cheese), artisanally produced dark honey and puff pastry: not too sweet and very light, it was fantastic. 

One of the conversations we enjoyed as the evening waned was about how to raise a son to be a good husband and a gentleman, which, of course, appeals to me greatly as I am rather old-world (surely you hadn't guessed!), and have this hope for my own boy. Time will tell!  As several of the women have college-aged sons now (I had children late in life, so my son is a younger 12), it was wonderful to hear their perspectives and gain the benefit of their wisdom about what best contributes to the making of a good man. Their answer? Hands down, it was the example set by the father in the way in which he treats the mother, the boy's experience of love in its fullest sense in the family (such that he doesn't go looking for it in the wrong places and takes his time), and the mother as the son's first true love, setting the bar for all the womanly virtues to which her son might strive to deserve in a woman of his own: gentleness, grace, the humility of true strength, warmth, hospitality, the nobility of service and sacrifice, the sensuous approach to life that brings pleasure and makes art of life for her family, the caring and nurturing of those beloved which holds them to the standard of Love.  Art.

What is this Love to which they might aspire? It is to be blessed: to be disciplined and nurtured in what it means to be meek, to have the teachable spirit that is necessary to inherit the earth, if not the wind; to be poor in spirit and rich in faith;  to mourn and know the opening of the heart;  to hunger and thirst after justice; to be a lover of the peace that is Shalom, wholeness; to live the Beatitudes as a way of being, pure in heart.  This is love: the discipline that speaks far more powerfully than the word, because it is Word, Logos, Truth Alive in our experience of reality that points to a much greater Reality. Our hostess last evening was such a woman, and her art was abundant and apparent, yet she is strong and steely, as feminine as a woman could be, yet full of Otherworldly strength.  A woman richly jeweled in this way, as our hostess surely was last night, is a prize beyond measure, to which her son will strive to measure up.  For in a good man, a woman like this can only cause him to want to be a better one.  Bottom line, though, having said all of this, the collective wisdom of the women with older sons was clear:  it is a man who teaches a boy to be a man by the way he treats a woman. It is a woman who teaches a boy what he should seek in a woman and the kind of man he needs to be to attract such a jewel. 

This set me to thinking about love in general, and its power to open hearts, and how its power might be manifest in boys who might not have the benefit of this kind of homelife.  One of the women at the dinner described how her son's school feeds and houses families with nothing to eat and nowhere to lay their heads, and the way in which the kids are involved in cooking the meals.  This, too, caused me to wonder about the work of some philosophers and theologians I have been reading of late, who argue that to know any kind of love truly, however flawed it is in worldly terms, is to glimpse heaven in a way few other things provide, though the glimpse is shrouded.  So I have been wondering how it is that love is glimpsed from the perspective of a young boy who lives a life more like hell than heaven. My son has recently expanded his exposure and is interacting with kids from different walks of life much more frequently and regularly than he has in the past. It has made for some very searching conversations at the dinner hour. The principal of his school is a man on a mission, a real leader dedicated to creating true opportunity for the students in his care, and his knowledge and highly disciplined care for each of the several hundred students under his watch is prodigious and legendary already, though he has only just been asked to ply his magic on this school. It is my son's first foray into a large public middle school, having attended private school until now, and likely to again in high school. He wanted to engage a broader cross section of kids, to meet some "normal" kids, and his parents thought that these three years would be an opportunity for him to do so, and to gain from the experience a perspective which he has not yet had in his rather gilded life up to now.  We spent a lot of time with the principal this summer, understanding the school and his approach, and decided to let him attend.  He is a big boy, tall and strong, and able to look out for himself rather well all of a sudden, and we set some academic goals for him to keep his perspective focused, which thus far he has largely met as he is highly motivated to stay.

What has surprised us is the empathy our son has acquired for the plight of kids whose home life can only be said to be hideous, and it has caused him to reflect upon what kind of young man he is becoming and of what stuff he is really made.  He asked me the other night how a kid growing up with no love could come to know Love, and this set me to thinking about the true work of Love in a world broken, and tortured, yet beautiful.  He has described how he sees so much beauty in the hearts of some kids who have such a hard shell by necessity, and how it is that Love Himself gets to kids whom Santa appears to have forgotten. Big Stuff for a sixth grader, but it is time. For Love, there is all the time under Heaven.  I asked the principal about this and his answer was that the school is his mission field, and Love needs to be practical and focused and engaged, highly disciplined. On any given day you can find this man in the lunchroom or the breakfast service, living out his faith in Love, sleeves rolled up, talking with the kids.  He is often outside after lunch, playing ball with the kids.  He seems to know the math scores of my son's latest test as well as the essay a young girl without much family support has just submitted. Art that would cause a practiced eye to stop and stare lines the wall of the school, and the talent apparent is as staggering as the bar is high and the subject matter telling. All this is an example of a quiet and highly disciplined grace the strength of which is profoundly active in the world. Art. What you do for the least of these you do for me, Jesus said.  He is there with the stranger at the door, the child in the night: Love Manifest.  A good man, a principal, asking a boy about his math test.

The hour was very late when I finally arrived home, well near midnight, after what has been a week of late nights and early mornings. But it had been such a lovely time that I couldn't go directly to bed. So I poured myself a little cognac, and sat down by the fire in the library to read the Dining section of The New York Times, having saved it from the day before.  The article I had wanted to read was about Per Se, the East Coast offshoot,or urban interpretation of the French Laundry in Napa, the art of Thomas Keller, a chef I have long admired and from whom I have learned much. When first I encountered him, I was a little put off by his approach to food, which seemed more laboratory than love, and his obsessive precision impacted me in much the same way as Lance Armstrong's scientific approach to cycling discouraged the French. Where was the love? Where was cooking with the senses?  I feared it seemed more like a chemistry experiment, if not highly pretentious. But I have changed my mind.  The glorious gardens next to the Yountville restaurant are a symbol of all that is well with life, and the highly disciplined approach Chef Keller takes to food has allowed his dishes to reach a kind of sublimity that the New York Times Writer argues "would make a fine argument for the metaphor of transubstantiation." There is little doubt the food is highly sensuous. In discipline, is art unleashed? It is given freedom, that allows the Love to flow.

I thought of that principal at my sons school and his disciplined approach to the kids, which speaks only of Love. He is on to something, in much the same way that chef Keller is.  Love without discipline is squishy and not the stuff of Heaven, however much it may breathe the same air.  Cooking without technique is a similar fallacy of affection. Love is Sensious and Steely, Engaged and Lofty. Love is tied to the ground and telling of what can be. Surely Love is as much discipline as art. Or, said another way, it is the discipline acquired that frees the art.

Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cooking from the Heart, and Other Ways to Roast a Chicken

In my corner of the Northwest of the United States, the weekend was rainy and wet. No sooner had I hung my sheets in the sun-streamed morning to dry in the fresh air, than the sky clouded over to black and poured forth its tears. So much for trying to hang on to that lovely luxury of line dried and lavender-ironed sheets I love so much in summer.  Actually, I do hang my sheets out even in winter, if the sun is shining and there is a little wind, but living where I do, it is far less often than I would like.  That pleasure foregone, I determined to enjoy fully one of the autumn pleasures of home.  I decided to cook from one of my favorite cookbooks, which I had brought back from my summer house in Big Sur, and see what fun might be had from "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," written by Suzanne Goin, a young and richly experienced chef whose restaurant, food aesthetic and cookbook I particularly admire. So this weekend, I planned a series of menus from the autumn  chapters, pulled some great wines from the cellar, and tucked in for a weekend of pleasure.

I own hundreds of cookbooks, and when I started thirty years ago to cook seriously, I worked my way through dozens of them: Julia Child, Simone Beck, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Mireille Johnston, Fredy Giardet, Joel Robuchon, Roger Verge, Madeleine Kamman, Paula Wolfert, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, Pierre Franey, Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, Jacques Pepin, Lynn Rossetto Kasper, Lorenza di Medici,  Pino Luongo, Andre Soltner, Charlie Palmer, Georges Perrier, Alain Ducasse, Michel Roux, Les Freres Troisgros, Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello, to name only a few.  I tried to be the student of each, and to cook with a heart open to what they might have to teach me. One of the things I learned, both from books as well as from working with many chefs, is that while there is time honored technique, once mastered, it is a point of departure, and there are many views of how to best execute the "same" dish.  A good example of this might be roast chicken. I have tried dozens of methods, including the proclaimed "best" from Joel Robuchon, as well as many others. I have brined, salted, stuffed with lemon and onion and herb, stuffed under the skin, covered the breast skin with cheesecloth soaked in butter, roasted upside down and flipped, roasted on a rotisserie, spatchcocked in a cast iron pan, roasted on a little roasting pin, finished roasting with the oven turned off, etc. The list is endless.  Each chef whose approach I tried proclaimed the last word on the roast chicken.

I still think the best roast chicken I ever ate was at the house of my cousin Suzie, in a beautiful farmhouse in the country near La Chaux de Fonds, in French Switzerland. She was not a trained chef, but she made the most delectable tarts, a talent she learned from Tante Marguerite, the stern lady whom Suzy and my mother fondly called "La Terrible", and who taught them to paint china with exacting standards, so ladylike they were compelled to hold their brushes in perfect alignment and dared not breathe.  But Suzie was (is) a cook in the best bonne femme tradition, and she was a sensualist. She cooked from her heart. She roasted that beautiful bird on a little rotisserie, and it was succulent, flavorful and fantastic.  She served it with a mass of frites, and an apricot tart for dessert, and dinner was splendid.  It didn't hurt that she had a good relationship with her neighbor, who raised chickens, and sang them lullabies as they slept at night. Happy Birds. Of course, every good cook has his or her own way to roast a chicken, and are some superior to others? Absolutely.  Have I eaten a lot of poorly roasted birds in great restaurants? Yes. Is there only one approach that will yield a succulent bird with crisp, flavorful skin and tender meat? No. The most important thing is the quality of the bird, a necessary but not sufficient element.  Even a good cook can ruin a beautiful bird.  Some home cooks (but none I admire for their cooking aesthetic) try to substitute those birds injected with an awful saline solution, and who knows what other chemicals, cooking them in plastic bags. I always feel I am eating a chemical factory, not to mention what is released from the so-called "Safe" bags. And yes, perhaps the bird is moist, but invariably a spongy moistness and nearly always overseasoned. Chemicals are a modern marvel, and can make even the real food ultimately inedible.

At some point in cooking, technique has the potential to become art, and if you remain locked into the technique, your food will never truly sing.   It will be craftsmanlike. But not art.  At the same time, I think the discipline of mastering the technique is a far better way to learn to cook than the way most people learn, simply following one recipe after another in a long line of "gourmet" (a word I dislike) adventures. I also think it is critical to learn to cook with your senses engaged, and to read the food with all these senses fully employed. I have eaten with many who consider themselves great cooks, but they really have no idea what they are doing. They follow recipes, but they do not understand the underlying principles they apply, and they move from one Bon Appetit directed dinner to another. Is it possible to learn to cook this way? If you are very astute, and disciplined, perhaps. You will learn to follow recipes well. If you pay attention, you will learn what works well and what doesn't, and why. But you will not learn to make food sing.  I do not believe this is an effective way to teach someone to cook well.

I am aware of the point in which this happened to me, the point at which I felt the mastery of technique freed me rather than bound me.  Gradually, through discipline and practice, I began to learn my own ways of cooking, how best to draw out flavors, how to cook a given meat or fish so that it is perfectly done or achieved the marriage of flavors that suited my own taste.  I learned how much salt I liked with beef or chicken, how to salt potatoes, and what approach yielded the creamiest gratin.  I could tell a piece of meat was ready to be turned by how it sounded. I knew when a roast or a cake was done by how it smelled.   I began to understand what I liked, and to learn to listen to my own aesthetic and not be intimidated by the chefs around me, while still learning from them.  Perhaps what I am trying to say here is that when the technique becomes the master, commanding slavish devotion, a cook will never really learn to cook from the heart any more than following one "gourmet" recipe after another will likely lead to food that sings, unless the writer is very, very skilled. But having come through the discipline of technique, a cook reaches the point where it can be applied to all manner of things having little to do with the original recipe in which it was practiced.  In fact, mastering techniques that can be applied to many different cuisines is the mark of an accomplished cook. The cook is free.

I am attempting to teach my children to cook first with their senses, and have largely eschewed recipes with them, except when they are baking (which is art of a different sort). The other night, my son, who is 12, walked into the kitchen and said to me, "Mom, that meat is just now done, I can smell it."  He was right. The pork loin was pitch perfect, moist, succulent and 120 degrees. He could tell by how it smelled and before the oven door was even opened.  Last night, he was making fresh pasta, and he took the pasta dough after it had rested and said, "Mom, this is going to be perfect pasta: I can tell by the way the dough handles.  It was.

So in approaching the recipes from a cook we admire, it is important for us to remain teachable, to have open hearts to what might be learned, and not be so locked into our own approach that we are closed off to that of another talented artist. That is how I approached the delicious food of Suzanne Goin.  But neither should we be bound and gagged by what is written on the page or directed.  In many cases, I disagreed with something here or there, and since all great cooking is at the margins,  I made little adjustments, as all chefs do, in order to make the food my own, in order to make it sing. But I tried to do this without sacrificing what it is she might teach me, for I am quite certain her food sings on its own without my assistance! The food was spectacular.  In the blogs that follow this week, I will describe what I cooked and what I learned in the process. But I can say that my family ate exceedingly well, and each dinner was a celebration of life.

It occured to me, as I was cooking Sunday dinner, that gorgeous loin of pork of which I spoke, that much the same could be said of our spiritual journey.  My spiritual director, in counseling me about this or that spiritual discipline I am undertaking, reminds me that none of these are ends in themselves and when we make them so, they become idols in place of the Life which flows through us from the Living God with whom we live and breathe and have our being.  He reminds me that contemplative prayer, for example, is not a formula meant to open our hearts if we follow each step exactly, but a means of being present to Grace and open to Life.  Jesus came, and died, that we should be free, not enslaved.  He came to bring us Life Abundant! The curious thing is that the spiritual disciplines which aid us in our walk, help to free us, or at least they should.  They free us in a manner not unlike that of the cook, who has learned the rigours of the technique and is set free to create a celebration at table. Life then becomes a banqueting table, at which we sit under his banner of Love.

Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Diddle Diddle Dumpling, and other rhymes of the heart

Salzberger Nockerl

Since my children have been under the weather, and never one to discount the impact of an appetizing meal on an ailing child, I asked the resident urchins yesterday what they would like to eat for dinner.  The response was resounding, in unison and enthusiastic: chicken and dumplings.  I'm not even sure they drew a breath before they answered. Of course it makes sense: it is a kind of ultimate chicken soup, and few these days would discount the curative benefits of this elixir of health.  At the very least the wonderful, rich broth and the comfort of the delicious dumpling offers a comfort virtually unmatched.  Nearly every American I know has some fond recollection of eating chicken and dumplings as a child, as if the dish itself could recall the safe harbour of grandma's house, even the memory of which is enough to cause someone to wax lyrical about what is essentially a very simple food.  But you would be disappointed if I did not say that even the simplest of dishes is worth doing well.  The dish can absolutely sing if done with care.  My son came to the table after his first day back at school, weary and worn, not yet fully recovered. The candles were blazing, the beautiful Finzi suite, Love's Labour's Lost was playing in the background, and as we sat down to say grace, he commented that he felt better already. His eyes were dancing. That is the magic of dinner.

Sometimes to offer comfort is the best way to heal the body and the soul.  I wonder that to "love our neighbor" is often far simpler than we imagine, and may be best charaterized by a bowl of soup or the offer of a comforting dinner.  My father, who was tall, athetic, a hiker and mountaineer of some renown and even greater drive, had the habit of bringing stray Pacific Crest Trail hikers he met on the trail home for dinner to give them a break from the relentless pounding of miles gained from Canada to the Mexican border.  My mother would cook them a feast, and I still remember the absolute delight on their faces, having eaten little more than oatmeal for the past few weeks. In our efforts to assure our children fit into our cultural values of self reliance, independence and strength, we often overlook how important are the simple comforts, the memory of which can last a lifetime and bring a different kind of strength to the challenges of life: the knowledge that we are loved and cared for, which opens the heart to the acceptance of love from God himself.  I think a child who has been well loved and comforted has a greater not lesser ability to embrace all of what life asks and offers, and can more fully appreciate that God loves us with a passionate devotion that would overwhelm our experience if we could but embrace it.  By comfort, I do not mean coddled, but we often confuse the two and lose a great gift we might offer them.  My spiritual director often tells me, independent sort that I am, that self reliance is not a value to laud, because it is our dependence upon each other which allows love to flow. I bridled at this at first, and thought him naive.  The more I learn, the more I realise that he is correct in this, as he has been in most things spiritual. But it took me time to come to realise just how much this is true. In a simple bowl of chicken and dumplings, is a whole world of love to a child, a deep recognition that to accept love is to let it flow. And that is grace, amazing grace.

As for the dumpling, it has set me thinking about  its place in both cuisine de bonne femme and haute cuisine. When I lived in that magical, gilded city of Vienna for a time, I was constantly fascinated by the absolute devotion throughout Austria for the dumpling. Even climbing in the Austrian Alps, and reaching a high alpine hut after more than a 10,000 feet climb, I was dumbfounded to find that the hut offered as one of its specialties the Salzburger Nockerl, that delicious confection so beloved in Austria, more souffle than dumpling, but classed as one even so. Of course I indulged, having just conquered the summit hut. It was a sweet, lemony delight, with a curious history.  Created in the 17th century by Salome Alt, the beautiful mistress (and discerning hostess) of the archbishop of Salzburg (eek), this soufflé is formed to look like the three hills that surround the city (Mönchsberg, Kapuzinerberg and Gaisberg).  It is nearly impossible to resist, which I assume was its intent, schooled as she no doubt was in the art of pleasing a man. I will admit to having found this story somewhat entrancing, and if you see the photo at the top of this page, you will not fail to note the sensuous quality of the dessert. I first enjoyed it at a Gasthouse (guesthouse), seated at a long communal table, after having eaten the most delicious Wienerschnitzel, and sated as I was, it was still enormously appealing. Yes, and it did bring to mind what other desserts the lady had in mind for the evening it was served, and which was clearly suggested. Food has great potential for this, artfully orchestrated.

My grandmother used to make the tiny dumplings called Spaetzle, or Knöpfle as she called them, which literally translate as "little sparrows" and are tiny noodles dropped into boiling water and delicious with braises so as to soak up all that delicious sauce.  My children love these, and the translation, and I like to serve them when I make a braise of lamb shanks, or even with a braised pot roast.  The Italian dumpling, or Gnocci, is a favorite at my house, too, and I make them from both potatoes and from ricotta, and even sometimes from polenta.  If you learn to make them well, so they are light, like little pillows, rolled against the back of a fork or a little wooden board with tiny grooves, you will fall in love with them, and the making of them, which is great fun.  My children are very adept at making these now, and rolling them, and we often have them in production on the marble table in the kitchen, delighted as they are to help.  There is a wealth of lore about them, and I am often told by this person or that that there is only one way to make them and to do otherwise is not to be a member of the cognoscenti.  But I have followed the way of the Italian Nonni in various places in Italy until I could make them rapidly and so that they were tender and light, and while it is true that the baked potato is probably the best way to make them, I often make them when I have leftover mashed potatoes, and they are wonderful this way, too, if you use a light hand with the flour and don't overwork the dough. Nothing is wasted, and the "restes" from last night's feast can make an altogether new feast tonight. A little nutmeg in the ricotta gnocci is delicious, too, and there are cold, rainy nights when a big platter of gnocci with a sage and brown butter sauce is as comforting and delicious a dish as one could imagine. I have lots of herb plants on my window sill, and if I am ever without sage in the autumn, my children will quickly query how we are to have gnocci with sage butter sauce?  It is as if I have spurned a sacred tradition.  The liturgy of family ritual has been desecrated.  Every good home cook has the ability to make of a meal a love affair, and blow a kiss to those he or she adores, and maybe even some not so adored, but who might become so at table.

When I have bits of white fish, and want to serve an elegant entree course to begin a meal, I make a French dumpling called a quenelle.  These are especially delicious, delicately poached, and can be sauced with all manner of deliciousness: buerre blanc, a nage, a tomato reduction, as a beautiful garnish to soup, or my favorite, sauce Nantua, which is a bisque-like seafood sauce made from the shells of lobster. shrimp, or classically crayfish, which my son likes to catch for me in the river which flows through our Big Sur property.  I once made hundreds of these for a benefit dinner for 24 I hosted. and for which I was chef, at my house. That was a logistical challenge, which my husband, ever the clever expeditor, managed to solve. These dumplings are made from pate a choux, or cream puff pastry, mixed with the fish, flavored, shaped into quenelles with two spoons, and then lightly poached.  They are worth learning to make if you want to have an impressive and light start for a grand occasion, but more often than not, I serve them to my family to use up bits of fish.  Or sometimes, if a friend gives me a good whitefish he has caught, or I buy some flash frozen wild, line-caught fish at Trader Joe's in the freezer section, I make these for dinner, and serve them atop soup with some grilled levain toasts for a light supper.  Learning to shape a quenelle is worthwhile, too, and can make for an elegant presentation of other foods, such as ice cream, potato puree, or a finely chopped ratatouille as garnish.

If you care to make Chicken and Dumplings for dinner for your family, you might like to try my approach. It is a little more work than the traditional boiled chicken method, but the result is superior, in my view, and worth the added effort.  I am a big fan of Southern cooking, especially for Sunday dinners, and have huge stacks of Southern cookbooks, which I adore as much for the traditions as the food, and will talk about in this blog in the weeks to come. If you want to read some delightful books about a southern cook and grande dame of Charleston, get hold of the books by Emily Whaley, which are tremendously fun. She describes her childhood on a plantation owned by her amazing grandmother, and the food and adventures she enjoyed there as a child.  Even more fun to read about is her coming of age and how she learned to cook herself, married as she was eventually to a Charleston attorney of some renown, who enjoyed eating well.  She is witty and great fun, and reading her books I felt I was seated in her Charleston drawing room and she and I were chatting over a glass of sherry.

To make the chicken and dumplings, buy some chicken backs and necks, which are very inexpensive, and bring them to a simmer in a big stock pot, beginning with cold water, some fresh thyme, parseley and a couple of bay leaves, a few peppercorns, some coarse seasalt or kosher salt (but not too much), a carrot, broken in half, a stock of celery, an onion, a garlic clove if you like, and the tops of any leeks you may have, which I save for the stock I make every week. Once it is boiling, turn it down to a bare simmer and let it go, covered, for about an hour and a half, skimming off the top any impurities which rise to the surface. Meanwhile, get some chicken breasts (3 or 4, ideally about 1 per person) with the skin on and bone in, and roast them in a pan, brushed with a little olive oil and salt and pepper in a 400 degree oven until just slightly underdone. Let cool, take off the skin (my kids fight over it), and shred the chicken into good sized chunks.  Scrape the chicken fat and drippings (especially the fond) into a dutch oven and in this saute some finely chopped onions and carrots and celery (a mirepoix, as the French call it, or soffrito, to use the Italian term). When soft, add some fresh thyme and a little sage, finely chopped, and a handful of lightly chopped parseley.  Add the strained stock to your dutch oven and simmer very lightly.

Meanwhile, make the dumpling mix. Don't overmix this, and use care just to fold the ingredients lightly until the wet dough comes together.  This recipe will feed 4, but I usually double it at my house, as my son is now quite tall and nearly 13, and he is beginning to eat more than his share! Take 1 cup cake flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon coursely ground pepper and whisk together. Add a large egg, lightly beaten and 1/4 cup whole milk. Fold lightly and add in some chopped fresh thyme and chives.  I like to add some frozen or fresh green peas to the simmering broth at this point, as well as the shredded chicken, and then drop in the dumplings, a spoonful at a time, to cover the broth. Cover the pan and simmer very lightly for 5-8 minutes, and then uncover it for a few more until the dumplings are floating at the top of the pan and cooked through.  Serve with a big green salad for a comfort food dinner your family isn't likely to forget any time soon.

Here's to a weekend of comforts for each of you and for your families.  Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!