Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Button Phenomena

Seven years ago today, you drew in your first breath.

When you were only a few hours old, swaddled in hospital linens, I was sitting at the lunch table with a wine merchant in a Bouchon in the old town. I remember I had the “gratin d’andouilette” and pondered this formidable sausage and its condition. I recalled, as you took your first bath, that it used to have a milder flavor, and more chew, and in my opinion, was more interesting when it was made from veal. No matter, seven years ago I had this shallow dish of chitterlings, seasonings, mustard and cream. They're back to making them with veal now. It seems that some problems always straighten themselves out eventually.

The day you were born, in 2009, I was still open. I was standing on the edge of a precipice, staring out to the familiar vista of my beautiful city, in a state of waiting, silence, but also an influx of ideas, and most of all hope. I did not know you were coming. The waiting had evolved through long years of holding my arms out to catch you at their instruction, the persistent writing of letters to tell them that we weren't giving up. The big question had already fully changed from a resigned "Why?" to a more positive "When?". The years and dossiers dragged out, strung along bureaucratic corridors. I had begun, in order to cope, to see my world, this city, this ancient teeming town, my home, through a filter of detached curiosity that was central to my condition. It was a fruitful time.

On the day you were born, after duly noting a window full of pastry with the intention of focusing on les bugnes lyonnaises, I walked across the footbridge across the street from the courthouse over the Saone River to the Quai Saint Antoine, my market, the place where I felt very at home. The Tuesday market had packed up and was gone, and someone had lost a button. I took a picture of it.

It was the first day of your life.
It was the first day that my waiting was over, and I didn’t even know it.
I just noticed and pondered the button phenomena: these little lost things (coins, buttons, tokens, pebbles, parts of watches) that God seems to strew in my path as signposts, flags. For an instant I sensed something very important may be in the works. Thus the photo.

This is all in retrospect. When they place a baby in your arms and this time you don’t have to give it back, something happens. The world goes from being an immense place radiating from all sides and angles to being one small central focal point. Everything flips. You no longer receive, you give. You are still the same shell, but you are now filled with living breathing, pulsating matter. The question is, if this baby is the pearl of my oyster, do I pluck it out, slurp up the oyster, wash it down with wine, slip the pearl into my pocket like a button (is this something a man might do?) and continue on my journey of receiving, or do I come to a stop and start with a plan about how I'm going to help the pearl to grow?

You are seven today. You got a new scooter, a trottinette, the present you chose to open before school. This year, you are learning to read. You will learn so many wonderful things. And your maman? This is the year she is putting herself again into a receptive state. She is practicing herself again to a state of conscious open reception.


Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Simple and Perfect: Velouté De Cresson

At sundown we'd balanced our yogurt jars on the window sill and lit candles in them. After supper, it was time to go for a stroll. My son was happy to do this and found the simple candle-lit homage to be as delightful as the booming music, hi-tech projections and effects we've been herded through in the past here in Lyon.

There was a simplicity to it, perfection. A little bit like the night we eloped in Los Angeles, months before the big to-do in France. That night, I put on a dress I'd bought during a lunch hour for $39.95, put my hair up in a chignon, tied it will a little bit of tulle, and quietly prepared to be wed. I dabbed a bit of perfume behind my ears, tied some more tulle around the stems of the white tulips found on sale at the grocery store on the way home from work that day, and went downstairs, where he was writing down a mathematical formula on a piece of scrap paper.

We got into the old Toyota with the dent and broken trunk lock, and drove into the hills from Westwood to Bel Air. Margie, my office mate, was waiting on the front steps, all dressed up. We were ushered into the officiant's home office, cluttered with books, where he said something about many rainbows, and after signing some papers, it was done. She'd bought us a bottle of champagne. We went straight home and opened the door, and he managed to lift me up and carry me 3 or 4 steps before he put me down again. There we were, a married couple, looking joyfully into each others eyes by the light of the street lamp that shined into the kitchen, feeling only love for each other.

Last night marked 16 years and one day of official marriage, and although we generally wait until summer to celebrate, I prefer the elopement anniversary even better, because there are no expectations, no stressful planning, just love. Last night, lighting the candles with my son, I felt that freedom and joy. Strolling through the neighborhood, it came again. How it just came together. No production.

With that, it is my pleasure to share with you a recipe that also fell into our market basket this week with my students, naturally coming together with barely any planning. My kitchen notebook states it came from Chef Pascal Roussy, who is just now wrapping up his first year under the title of Maitre Artisan in his field. Watercress is only available in the autumn and winter in Lyon, disappearing for about 8 months of the year. I wait until the local farmers start to offer it before making this soup.

Recipe: Velouté De Cresson
French Cream of Watercress Soup

Serves 4

1 bunch of watercress
250 g or a half-pound of potatoes
1 fresh medium leek
50 grams or 5 tablespoons of butter
750 ml or 3 cups of water
1 egg yolk
50 grams or a generous dollop of crème fraîche
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
lemon juice, optional
roasted seeds and nuts, optional

Remove the leaves from the bunch of watercress, and clean them in abundant fresh water.

Peel 250 grams of the potatoes, then cut them into 1 cm or 1/2 inch cube. Wash them under running water and strain. Clean the white part of the leek, by slicing lengthwise and rinsing to remove all sand and grit. Mince fine.

Melt 50 grams of butter in a 3 liter saucepan. Add and cook the leek for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly, not allowing to brown. Add the watercress leaves, and cook them slowly over low heat until they wilt. Add 75cl or 3 cups of water, add the potatoes, stir to combine, and add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low. Cover, and let simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Remove from heat and blend the soup with a stick blender until it is smooth and velvety (velouté). Bring the velouté to a boil. In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg yolk with the dollop of crème fraîche. Off heat, delay the egg yolks and cream into the velouté by pouring a bit of the hot soup into the egg and cream mixture, then transferring it back into the soup and whisking it in. Taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if necessary, and brighten with a teaspoon of lemon juice, if you think it will improve it. Return to low heat and heat just to steaming. Do not let the soup return to a boil.

Dress the soup into warmed wide shallow bowls, sprinkle with roasted seeds and nuts if desired, and serve with crusty bread and a glass of crisp St. Véran. Note: you can replace the crème fraîche with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, if that is more convenient for you.


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Touchstone: Bourgogne

Looking for Burgundy in Lyon is a fruitful exercise. When you narrow down the dishes that do Burgundy justice, they appear in one form of another over and over again, year after year on café menus here. How can they not, when we have the abundance of Burgundy tumbling onto the market stalls all year? When we seek inspiration in the seasons and the market, it is inevitable that we're going to choose the best from all of the distinct regions that Lyon is privy to by association. So many of the dishes served here are not only local, but distilled into a collection of the best coming from each point of the compass surrounding this great city.

Escargots de Bourgogne are at home on the Lyonnais table. Platters are slid onto tables, dishcloth covered hands pulling back, leaving the dish sizzling on checkered woven cotton and white linen tablecloths alike, ready to be devoured with their fresh spring garlic and chopped herb seasoned garlicky butter. We dutifully sop it all up with a rich spongy pinch of poolish-fed baguette. I fell across the perfect beurre d'escargot butter quite by accident when browsing through a collection of local recipes, then another. Several cook's notebooks referred to one source. Paul Bocuse, of course. I questioned the use of almond flour, wondering what on earth that might contribute. But it serves a little bit like a megaphone for the flavors of the earth, carrying them, pronouncing them to well harmonize and mingle with the aromatic seasoned butter. With a sip of a local white sparkling Burgundy wine, the moment becomes a touchstone of sorts, one that crystalizes an important idea. It shines brighter and comes easier in retrospect. We savor it, and each other, and the sun streams into the kitchen. We are in Lyon.

While we're chopping up bunches of fresh herbs and mincing the season's fresh spring garlic shoots, grating the nutmeg and such, I always like to slice a naked escargot into pieces, to be tasted alone before we stuff the rest into the shells with the prepared butter and pop them under the broiler. There is a silence that falls across the kitchen when I pass out the escargot forks. I explain that it's very important to taste now, that any well prepared escargot de Bourgogne is going to taste fresh and earthy, that it's going to give us something very special: In fact, when we put them into our mouths, we are reminded of just what it tastes like, the terroir of this rich and varied land.

Recipe: Escargots de Bourgogne

You can always find locally processed escargots in Lyon. Escargots de Bourgogne are considered to be a special occasion dish that are commonly served during the winter holidays in many regions of France, but in Lyon, they are available and readily consumed year-round. It is about as rare to find any restaurant that processes their own live escargots as a place that makes their own cheese or cured meats. It's not unheard of, but just not common since the experts local to Lyon like Maison Malatre, have got it down to a science. The escargots are first isolated from food source for several days to empty their digestive tracts, then they are boiled in their shells, removed from the shells, further processed by hand to remove inedible parts, then slow simmered again in an aromatic and herbal broth before being preserved for distribution. It is rare these days to find average home cooks going through this process, although some families have their traditions.

3 dozen medium simmered escargots
3 dozen clean dry escargot shells
200 grams butter
4 grams fleur de sel, or 3/4 tsp
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
10 g fresh garlic, minced
8 g shallot, minced
10 g fresh almond flour
20 g parsley, finely minced

Stuff one escargot, tail first, into each shell. Combine the butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg, almond flour, shallots, garlic and parsley and work them together until thoroughly combined, but without crushing the minced herbs so much that the butter turns green. With a butter knife, gently fill each shell to the brim with the seasoned butter. Place in trays or balanced on piles of sea salt, with the opening facing up to ensure that the butter doesn't flow out when it melts. Put the trays of snails under the grill or broiler and cook until the butter is sizzling and the snails are hot. Serve immediately with a splash of cold sparkling Burgundy white wine or Champagne.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Lamb Chops

The pickings were slim at the market. I was going to be teaching a class where we just cook together through to lunch time, based on what I find. I dropped my son off at school and only had 45 minutes before class. I had to be quick. I walked the length of the market and reached the end. Nothing. Nothing looked fabulous this morning.

There was a surge of some early autumn vegetables over the weekend, and I'd been looking forward to working with these ingredients, notably beets and watercress. I wanted to do a beet, goat cheese and watercress dish as a starter, and then follow with a nice egg dish. But the beets and the watercress had withdrawn from the scene this morning, and they were not the only things missing. It seems that a lot of producers like to take their vacation during the period after the summer harvest and before the autumn harvest begins. So we had some filler stands with ho hum standards, and my egg people were missing.

My egg people being gone was a serious problem. These are the only people who consistently give me fabulous eggs. I am talking about eggs laid yesterday, the ones that plump up into perfect ovals when poached. I had to start asking people about their eggs, and got shaky answers each and every time. "Tuesday" said one, looking off over my shoulder just long enough for me to know, without a doubt, he was telling a story. I finally settled on some eggs, wasting precious minutes.
"Where is your tarragon?" I asked the lady who provided me with my fines herbes.
"Sorry, some lady bought it all, she had to have 3 bunches this morning, none left." She rolled her eyes and so did I. This continued all the way back down and I realized I had done the whole market I still didn't have a starter.

I decided to shift my poached egg dish to a starter and go with a meat dish. Côtelettes d'agneau en aïado, which is aromatic herb marinated lamb chops I like to do with three sauces, a fabulous garlic sauce similar to an aioli but cooked, a buttery plumped reduction sauce from lamb stock, and a sweet onion and predominantly chervil based green sauce using Claire's secret olive oil. I got closer to the meat stand where the idea for the chops came from but saw he was one of those circular saw butchers that wear lab coats, the ones that use power saws, producing cuts addled with ugly to deal with bone schrapnel. That would not do.

I then remembered the butcher I sometimes go to when my producers on the market don't have what I need. I entered the shop.
"Bonjour madame, do you have any lamb chops?"
"Yes, we do. Honey, the lady wants lamb chops."
"How many?"
"Eight." I was thinking that would be fine. Eight lamb chops.
"Coming right up!" he called. I had 20 minutes at that point to finish this transaction and get down to the kitchen, open up, and print out recipes. I heard him bumping around downstairs. I looked at my watch and smiled at the butcher's wife.
"I'm teaching a class in 20 minutes." we both laughed. There was a silence.
"The lady's in a hurry!"
Up came the butcher with a lamb on his shoulder. He proceeded to carve into the lamb, removing the cuts he needed to get to the chops. "The lady's in a hurry, the lady's in a hurry" he sang, removing a shoulder, the heart, trimming and slicing with what looked to be a small razor sharp paring knife. He brought down a hack saw and pulled no more than two strokes to get through one bone, cut out the strip of ribs, and trimmed the end with a cleaver. His tools hung from the gorgeous hooks that looked like miniature metal bulls horns lined up in neat rows above him. I recalled that my favorite old butcher, a man who has retired and now lives in the neighborhood, used to suspend his meat on those kinds of hooks when he broke down the animal. But this one used it for his tools.
"Is this what you want?" he asked, coming out with something that looked alright but not what I had in mind.
"Can you give me the little ones? The little cute ones that look like a miniature côte de boeuf?"
"Oh, sure." He went back in and came out with a gorgeous trimmed lamb chop. I asked for some nice and thick and some nice and thin. I like it when I can stand the thick ones up on their end and the thin ones kind of lean along the side. Perfect.

I noted that the price was not that much higher than what I pay the producer for my lamb chops. The whole class was gathered in pairs along the street, waiting for me, although class would not start for another 5 minutes. I ushered them all in and we all had a cup of coffee while I printed the recipes. It came out that one of the students who had registered at the last minute was celiac, so instead of an autumn tarte, we went with some vanilla bean enriched îles flottantes for dessert. We had a delightful morning. The eggs were probably at least 4 days old, but I will take that up with him tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcard: Lyon Croix Rousse

One of the workshops I will begin offering again on a regular basis at the rentrée is Herbs in French Cooking. Starting this fall, I'll be gathering up armfuls of fresh herbs, all the common ones used in French cooking and some that are wild or not so common but find their way to my markets when they are in season. We go through them one by one and by the time we've rubbed at least a dozen different fresh herbs between our fingers, we'll be ready to cook with them. There's something profound that happens when we get all these herbs and turn our attention to them. One of my favorite things to do with lemon verbena right now is to infuse it into a crème pâtissière, and serve it with strawberries. It is one of those combinations that leaves us all speechless as we greedily scrape the parfait glasses clean.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Foraged Things

This morning, strolling the market, I noticed the foraged Spring things have finally made their way to town. Tonight we will enjoy fresh morels in cream on our own hand cranked pasta, and tomorrow a rabbit, nettle and potato soup. We had a full day of clear bright sun today for the first time in weeks, and it completely filled the kitchen, putting a definitive end to the chill of this year's winter that wouldn't let go. While we chopped and stirred our way through this morning's class, surrounded by picked edible plants exploding with life, I felt relief and peace spread into my bones, the kind that comes with the promise of a new season. New onions braced in my hands under icy running water, tonic and crisp. I have leftover gibelotte and my weekend has begun.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Simple Poached Pears

Poached pears keep well and are nice sweet touch to serve in their syrup when you've just had a family supper. Add vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, and you've got a poire Hélène. If you're feeling more ambitious you can dice them and add them with a dash of Poire William to a creme bavarois for a charlotte. If you want something in between, you can choose small pears and then use them whole to accompany petit pots de crème that you've perfumed with any other of the fresh herbs that are coming to market. The pears above eventually went into a tarte Bourdaloue. Martin Sec, Bosc, or Conference pears are all good for poaching.

Simple Poached Pears

4 small pears, not too ripe
2 cups white wine (or water with a dash of lemon juice, if you like)
75 grams granulated sugar
lemon zest (optional)
1/2 a vanilla bean (optional)

Put the white wine or water & juice and sugar into a small saucepan big enough to nestle the pears into. Add the vanilla bean and lemon zest and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Peel the pears and slip them whole into the liquid and let it simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the pears to cool in their juice. Keep them in the refrigerator in a non-reactive container. These will keep for at least a week.