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!
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 GospelSweet 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.
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!