Written For Edible Santa Barbara - Autumn 2018
The train left Paris precisely at nine o’clock in the evening, snaking its way out through the suburbs into the countryside, its swaying motion and rhythmic clickity-clack lulling its occupants to sleep. Lying on a bunkbed in the sleeper car, I would peer out into the darkness, counting the hours until we arrived. At each stop in the now somnolent towns, I would mentally trace the journey we were making, snaking our way across France, through Dijon, then Lyon to Valance, finally up towards the alps, past Gap, reaching Embrun at day break where they would change the locomotives for the final climb into the upper alpine valleys. As we neared our destination, we’d lower the windows to breath in the breath-taking mountain air; in winter, so cold it would catch it your lungs; in summer, the air was filled with a cornucopia of aromas of pine and wild grass and we’d hear the song of cicadas as we slowly trundled by. We crane our necks up to the mountain tops and familiar valleys to catch the first glimpse of Briançon, the last stop on the line.
My grandmother always met the train which chugged into the station at 8 am. After the hugs and exclamations of delight at seeing each other, we’d drive home for breakfast where, waiting on the table, would always be a Craquelin, a pearl sugar coated brioche bread from Petit, our favorite baker. Next to it would be some butter and her home-made apricot jam. We’d lightly toast the slices, slather on the jam and then, there would always be a moments’ pause. Would it taste the same? would the lightly sweetened dough melt in your mouth the same way? There was a tangible joy when it did, and we savored every morsel.
The highlights of the days that followed would be the parade of our favorite dishes, a simple grated carrot salad, a hachis parmentier (French Shepard’s pie), escalopes a la crème, and her legendary lapin a la moutarde. Far away in London we longed for her food. The very idea of that succulent, mustard sauce would send us into rhapsodies. The anticipation was part of the magic. Don’t we all have dishes that create that sense of longing? Perhaps it’s a nostalgic, sepia-colored-tinged memory that makes a certain dish taste so special. For us, just describing her food set our taste buds tingling creating a satisfaction so deep it nourished us.
I miss my walks through the markets and visits to purveyors with my grandmother. By her side I learned how to pick vegetables and fruit, and to use and work with the food of each season. My love of farmers markets stems from those childhood days in France. I still have that eagerness each time I arrive at the market to see what new treasures I’ll find, particularly as we head into the latter part of the year when our calendars are filled with one celebratory meal after another.
During the holiday season I sense that everyone is on high alert, wandering through the bustling aisles, long shopping lists in hand, seeking out just the right juicy item to enhance their festive tables. It is at these times that we want to please those around us even more. Surely, that is part of the pressure, and the excitement of preparing meals for special occasions. As the holiday markets take on a festive air with an abundance of flowers and seasonal specialties piled up on the farmer’s tables, I often run into friends discussing their menu ideas, how they will prepare this year’s turkey, exchanging recipes and jotting down cooking times on any scrap of paper that comes to hand. I’ve had conversations with complete strangers as they too offer their advice or ask questions about how to prepare a particular dish. Having not grown up with Thanksgiving I am constantly curious about what everyone is making, and I delight in this sharing of our collective culinary knowledge as it builds everyone’s repertoire and nourishes our imagination.
Anticipation: what a delicious word! When used in the context of food, it conjures up savory and sweet sensations, a promising taste of things to come … the aroma of a freshly-baked, fruit-filled pie, the tang in the air as cranberries pop and release their fragrance, the sizzle in a pan as shallots sauté, the fresh fragrant burst of chopped herbs, the melting butter in pillowy mashed potatoes. All this anticipation starts with the raw ingredients. If you wind back the highlight reel that is the finished spread of a holiday feast for example, it begins with the shopping, the choosing of just the right vegetables, fruit, piece of fish or meat. It is in the very act of gathering that we fuel our imagination and get those gustatory juices flowing. Have you ever spied the first pomegranates or persimmons of the season and jumped at the chance to make something with them?
I do, I often get carried away at the market, seduced by the light filtering through the market umbrellas, entranced by the color and fragrance of sweet blood oranges, tempted by cascades of golden crunchy persimmons, bushels of Brussels sprouts, elegant long thin leeks, waterfalls of pale parsnips, sudden sproutings of wild mushrooms after the first rains of the season, and intrigued by knobbly mounds of Jerusalem artichokes and exquisitely beautiful Fibbonaci-esque Romanesco broccoli. These sights and aromas make me want to jump into the kitchen and get cooking.
Coming home with laden baskets the serious task of preparing these feasts begins in earnest. At home this usually means making stocks for soups and sauces and shaping dough for tarts and pies the day before the main event. Over a cup of coffee early on Thanksgiving morning I’ll write out the prep list, haul out the ingredients from the packed fridge and get started. I begin with the stuffing whilst my daughter makes the cranberry coulis. As we chop and stir, the kitchen fills with the aroma of sautéed onions, the spritz of orange zest and the sound of sizzling spicy sausages. We always chat about past meals, our favorite part of the day, and of course constantly review the menu taking shape in our hands. Phone calls come in from around the country from friends and family. I am always struck by the connective thread that ties us all together as we all prepare this meal, even if we are thousands of miles apart. The flurry of activity builds to a crescendo as the dinner hour approaches, the turkey is roasting, succulent smells drift through the house, potatoes are mashed, vegetables are seasoned and salads arranged. The guests arrive, we gather around the table and the feast begins.
This annual ritual: the shopping, the laying of the table, the cooking, the gathering together and feasting is at the very essence of its appeal. There may be slight variations but the dependable tradition and the array of dishes is an anchor for many of us.
A few years ago I retraced my journey to the alps and Briançon with my son. He had heard stories about my grandparents, especially about the meals around their table. We even found Craquelin, which I toasted, slathered with butter and jam. It didn’t quiet taste the same to me though. I pondered this as we munched on. We were not in my grandparents’ home, nor was the jam made from the fruit in their garden, yet he now savors this sensory memory as part of the culinary traditions of our family. Does the memory of a dish make it taste better? Or does it just evolve with time?
The two Marcels, Proust and Pagnol, penned lyrical prose about the delights of gastronomic familial gatherings, Pagnol in his evocative descriptions of Mediterranean feasts in La Gloire de Mon Pere and Le Chateau de Ma Mere, and Proust, famously for, amongst other things, dipping madeleines in tea. I realized that the delight we take in those memories is not just in the taste of the food itself, but the context in which they were experienced. As Julian Barnes wrote in Flaubert’s Parrot, ‘Happiness lies in the imagination, not the act. Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.’
Wild Mushroom and Persimmon Ragout
As often happens, I will read about a dish or see a tempting photograph that makes me think, “I have to try this.” About a year ago, I came across a recipe that called for mushrooms and persimmons. The flavor combination sounded intriguing, however persimmons were not in season. Months later, the market was filled with these lovely fruit and I thought, “Ooh, I know — I’ll make that dish.” But could I find that recipe? No! I searched high and low, but to no avail. Finally, I set about creating my own version. Thank you, whoever you are, for putting these two items together and inspiring me. The combination is terrific!
Serves 8 people
4 tablespoons butter
5 king trumpet mushrooms — halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced on the bias
4 oz shitake mushrooms — stems removed, caps sliced in half if small, or in strips if large
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small red onion — thinly sliced
1 bunch small green onions — thinly sliced
1 large Fuyu persimmon — halved, then thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano — chopped
1 tablespoon lemon thyme — chopped
Salt and black pepper
Roasted Duck with Apples, Parsnips and Leeks
A lot of people tell me that they never cook duck because it’s too difficult and too messy. Eat it, yes; cook it, never. There is an easy solution: duck legs. They are quick to prepare and the result is rich, succulent and buttery.
Duck pairs well with fruit. The sweetness of the fruit cuts the richness of the duck meat. Add to this the earthiness of the parsnips, the melting sweet onion flavor of the leeks, and you have the makings of a scrumptious autumnal meal. The dish multiplies easily in case you’re having masses of people over for dinner and can be prepared well in advance, leaving you time to chat with your guests. I like to serve this with a little green or watercress salad.
Serves 8 people
8 duck legs — trimmed of excess fat
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
4 medium apples — peeled, cored and cut into eighths
8-10 small parsnips — peeled and halved lengthwise, then thickly sliced
1 large or 2 medium leeks — rinsed clean, ends trimmed then cut into ½-inch thick slices
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence or vegetable herb mix
When I hear the word clafoutis, I think of my grandmother and my aunt. Both made the classic version with cherries and also a version with apricots. I adore them both. I’ve tried many fruits, including peaches, nectarines, plums and berries, but my new favorite is made with pears. It’s FANTASTIC. You know how some pears have that slightly grainy texture? Well, it’s the perfect foil for the creaminess of a clafoutis batter. This is a dessert that will make you smile, and if there’s any left in the morning, it’s pretty good alongside a cup of coffee.
Serves 8 – 10 people
3 cups milk
8 oz sugar (1cup plus 2 tablespoons)
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 oz unbleached all-purpose flour (2/3 cup)
5 large eggs
5-6 pears — peeled, cored and chopped into ¾-inch chunks
“The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”
? Andy Warhol