Sunday, April 26, 2009

We are civilized!

There were many times during my stay in France when I felt as if my new friends did not quite believe that Americans know much at all about food, wine and the finer arts of living. I even felt apologetic at times, explaining my American lifestyle. I shocked everyone when I told stories of lunchtime at school. I eat in my classroom Monday through Friday with my 12 seventh grade advisees. At the middle school, we make them stay in to eat for 20 minutes before they can go out to play. We do not have a cafeteria. No 1 1/2 hour lunches with a glass of chilled rosé and adult conversation. As much as I love my advisees, I do miss that. I still smile when I think of the summer of 2007 when I cooked for mon équipe, the men who were remodeling the 5th bedroom at the B&B in Arles. I thought I'd been dropped onto a movie set or into a book entitled How the French Really Live... Conversation ranged from airplanes to music to movies to philosophers to politics to the Tour de France. Then at the end of lunch, everyone retired to a separate sofa or chair for a 20-30 minute nap. Back to work around 3:00 pm, quitting time around 6:30 pm, a drink at the café and then either home for dinner or leftovers in the kitchen with us. Two children on the train I took from Arles to Paris in November didn't believe that I was American because I wasn't fat. They were traveling with their grandmother and we sat together. She was embarrassed that they said that loudly enough for me to hear. I assured her it was quite alright and that we truly aren't all obese.
Since I returned from France in December, I've given eating and food much more thought than I ever did. My son Grant was very happy to have me home and cooking for him again. Pasta and freshly grated Parmesan cheese was one of the first meals waiting for him when he came home from basketball practice. I visited most of the grocery stores in Durham and Chapel Hill to see what they offered in the way of cheeses and meats. I read every label on the bottles of French wines at Wine Authorities to see which ones were from Provence. I even recognized a couple of them. I am sure that most of my friends were ready to strangle me the next time I started a sentence with When I was in France... or In Arles, we... I have experimented with new recipes. I've tried quite of few of Chef Érick's recipes on my own. I have even stopped following recipes as closely as I did before my sabbatical, adding a little of this or a little of that on my own.
Just recently, I have come to the realisation that we are not as barbaric as the French believe. The Durham Farmers' Market is amazing already and it is only the end of April. This past Saturday, there were strawberries, onions, radishes, and several varieties of lettuce already for sale. I bought basil, thyme, sage, tarragon, rosemary, lavender and parsley for my eagerly anticipated back deck herb garden. I bought them from Tim and Helga MacAller who own Four Leaf Farm. Tim taught at Durham Academy one year and I renewed my friendship with them through Pat and Joan Fox. There were cheeses, soaps, buffalo steaks, fresh farm eggs, pottery, handmade baskets, flowers, bread, and pastries for sale at various booths. Our Farmers' Market is downtown in Central Park. I cannot wait to see what each Saturday will bring. I plan to go to the Carrboro market next Saturday as well.
I've been to Dorette Snover's for a wonderful dinner. Pâté with spicy mustard, couscous, cauliflower casserole, grilled salmon and lemon sorbet. We went to dinner Saturday night at Nantucket Grill in Sutton Station here in Durham. We sat outside, listening to live music and spent a couple of hours enjoying the company of Steve's sister, Cindy, her husband, Rick, their son Aaron and his girlfriend Megan. We all had fish in some form, from Cindy's blackened salmon salad to Steve's sea bass to my pasta with scallops, calamari and shrimp.
On Friday afternoon, after school, Yolanda invited me over for what we call Wine & Whine. It is simply an excuse for us to get together and get caught up. Wine a necessity, whining optional. We were in her kitchen, talking while she pulled out St. André cheese, bread and a bottle of Domaine Pinchinat Côtes de Provence rosé. Yolanda is an art teacher and has an incredible eye for color. After she arranged the bread and cheese, I grabbed my camera from my purse (I still never leave home without it!) and took the photo for today's post. How elegant. And just for sitting on her back porch on a late April Friday afternoon.
I still am not a chef. I am not a food or restaurant critic. I have found ways to incorporate food into my life other than simply eating it. I've been to the Durham Nativity School to teach 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys how to make crêpes, Tarte Tatin and real whipped cream. I've shared recipes with some of my 7th graders who already love to cook. I even have an advisee who brings me asparagus from his garden! Merci, André! I've read Julia Child's My Life in France and found a copy of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home at the Durham Academy Used Book Fair. I helped Dorette with a corporate event and she has asked me to help with two weeks of her cooking school this summer. I've called my sister to ask for her banana pudding recipe. And last, but certainly not least, I have been asked to write a column about local food for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper. This time for pay! How cool, n'est-ce pas? Life is full of unexpected surprises, opportunities and new friends.
Tomatoes will be in season soon here in North Carolina. The following recipe is found in Recipes from Provence, a compilation of recipes pout together by René Husson and Philippe Galmiche and published by Éditions Fleurines. Madeleine Vedel translated it into English from the original French, Recettes de Provence.

Tomato Tart
Tarto à la poumo d'amour
(in Provençal)

Pie crust (I buy mine at the grocery store-- refrigerated ones you can roll out)
500 gr (1 lb) tomatoes
200 gr (10 oz) strips of Swiss or Gruyere cheese
100 gr (1 cup) grated cheese
1 sprig of thyme
Dijon-style mustard
olive oil
salt, pepper

Peel, seed and slice the tomatoes in rounds.
Put the pie crust in a pie pan and spread a nice layer of mustard on the bottom.
Lay the cheese strips on top, then cover with the tomato slices. Salt and pepper.
Sprinkle with the grated cheese and the crumbled thyme.
Drizzle olive oil over all.
Place in a hot oven (about 350 F) for 40 minutes.

Serve warm, as an appetizer or first course, with a glass of chilled rosé.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reliving Italy

Here we are in Tuscany and Florence... you have to have lovers kissing in photos in France or Italy!

I've decided two things this morning... well, actually it is afternoon now, but I started thinking about this in the morning, so that counts. Thing #1: Create your own paradise wherever you are however you can. At this very minute, I am sitting in sunny North Carolina on a deck overlooking High Rock Lake. I am listening to Michael Buble on iTunes, sipping Weingut Michlits Pinot Noir 2007 frizzante rosé, a bubbly organic pink wine from Austria recommended to me by Randy at Wine Authorities. My two buddies, Martha and Monette (it is Monette's lake house) are off at the Childress Winery in Lexington, NC hosting a bridal shower for the daughter of a deceased friend. As much as I love these two amazing women, getting me away from home for an entire weekend was not easy (this is unbeknownst to them-- well, it was until I started writing about it!). I love my new home in Durham. Steve and I had talked about going to the Durham Farmer's Market to buy herbs for my planned herb garden, then heading to Cary for Great Grapes, an outdoor celebration featuring wineries from all over our state and later cooking something on the grill. My weekends with him are relaxed now and always include a trip to the grocery store for our weekly shopping, a chore I used to hate. We've discovered it's much more fun to share the job on a quiet Sunday morning. (We even share cleaning the house in this second phase of our relationship-- he is a darned good househusband! I am the bathroom cleaning pro after my experience in Arles, he does the floors beautifully.) Anyway, Martha and I left Cary after watching game 1 of a baseball doubleheader against Cary Academy. Her son pitched the first game. (He hit a home run in the second one, but we missed it. There goes her Mother-of-the-Year bid for 2009...) My son is the best center fielder in Durham Academy history, not that I am prejudiced or anything. We arrived at the lake around 8:00 pm, ate pizza, drank wine and visited with Trudy and Dan, friends from Lexington. I downloaded Martha and Monette's photos from our week in Italy and then put them together with mine to create a slide show. This is our designated It-Lee Reunion Weekend. We stayed up until 1:30 am laughing at our pictures and reliving that week in Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Cinque Terre, with a couple of days in Arles and Marseille thrown in before they left me mid-way through my sabbatical. So, I have at this very minute, created my own little paradise. I have indeed put on sunscreen but will end up sunburned anyway. To say that I am pale, is an understatement.
That leads me to Thing #2. Do not allow what you look like to interfere with potential fun. I am nearing my 51st birthday. I have not been very active since returning from France. No long, strenuous walks at Duke, no pilates classes. Settling back into wifedom, motherhood and teaching full-time takes every waking minute of my time. Add in cold, rainy weather, darkness by 5 pm for a couple of months and I've become mushy. At least mushier than I want to be. Therefore I very reluctantly dug out my black swimsuit, the same one I wore on the beach of Monterosso and along the French portion of the Mediterranean Sea. I make no excuses for being mushy... menopause, hyperthyroidism, busy schedule (ok, ok, so I am making a few excuses here). However, I decided to not let that stop me from putting on the swimsuit and sitting out in the sun right now. Last night Martha, Monette and Dan talked about a friend from high school who will not attend their reunions due to the fact that she has gained weight. She has gone from being the high school homecoming queen to a middle-aged mom carrying around extra pounds. Why do we women allow the numbers on the scale to rule our sense of self-worth? Sure, I would love to look just like Diane Lane. (I've chosen her to play me in the movie version of my unwritten book. Martha can't decide who will play her. I haven't asked Monette yet.) But I don't. I am me. 50 and a little mushy. I love my (highlighted- thanks to Sarah at Studio K) hair. I love my green eyes. I could do without some of the wrinkles and under eye circles that surround them. But I am me. A work in progress!
Book update: I finished Julia Child's My Life in France and am afraid I have become a Julia fanatic. I really want a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both volumes, no less. I can't wait for the movie Julie and Julia to come out in August. It stars Meryl Streep as Julia. The book by the same name is a great read. The movie is a combination of the two books, according to USA Today this past week. I am now reading The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo. She researched the life of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the woman behind the stunning Veuve Clicquot champagne empire. Ghislaine and I visited their cellar in November on our trip to Reims. It was actually Betty Goolsby, my traveling companion who has unbelievably good taste, who introduced me to Veuve Clicquot yellow label champagne. It was the summer of 2006 in Paris. Yolanda Litton, Betty and I were walking back to our hotel, Les Jardins d'Eiffel, off of Rue Cler. It was late, around 11:00 pm, but Rue Cler doesn't go to bed early. We found a little table at a café (I get nostalgic every time I walk past that table and tell whomever is with me about that evening) and Betty ordered the whole bottle of champagne. We consumed every single drop, fell in love with the cute young guy at the table next to us wearing the amazing cologne (we didn't have the nerve to even ask him what it was-- can you even believe that?) and then decided to bring the glasses back with us. Closet kleptomaniacs that we are. Sorry, girls, the secret is out.
Another summer movie I look forward to seeing on the big screen is My Life in Ruins with Nia Vardalos. She plays a tour guide who needs to get a life. She was the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She has a wonderful sense of humor and writes about raising an adopted child who has the same gift of humor in the May 2009 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. I'll bet her mom is laughing at the fact that her daughter finally understands what she herself went through. Mildred, my mom, spent years wishing I would have a daughter who would never shut up... Sorry, Mama!
Since summer is coming and I can hardly wait for fresh vine-ripened tomatoes and zucchini, I will leave you with Julia Child's recipe for Ratatouille and Chef Érick's recipe that uses the same ingredients but in casserole form. And, if you haven't watched Walt Disney's movie by the same name, rent it! It is one of my favorites!
Bon appétit!

From Julia Child

Ratatouille perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence and is certainly one of the great Mediterranean dishes. As it is strongly flavored it is best when it accompanies plain roast or broiled beef or lamb, pot-au-feu (boiled beef), or plain roast, broiled or sauteed chicken. Equally good hot or cold, it also makes a fine accompaniment to cold meats, or may be served as a cold hors d'oeuvre.

A really good ratatouille is not one of the quicker dishes to make, as each element is cooked separately before it is arranged in the casserole to partake of a brief communal simmer. This recipe is the only one we know of that produces a ratatouille in which each vegetable retains its own shape and character. Happily a ratatouille may be cooked completely the day before it is to be served, and it seems to gain in flavor when reheated.

For 6 to 8 people

1/2 pound eggplant
1/2 pound zucchini
A 3-quart, porcelain or stainless-steel mixing bowl
1 teaspoon salt
A 10- to 12-inch enameled skillet
4 tablespoons olive oil, more if needed
1/2 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
2 (about 1 cup) sliced green bell peppers
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, if necessary
2 cloves mashed garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound firm, ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded and juiced (makes 1 1/2 cups pulp)
Salt and pepper
A 2 1/2 quart fireproof casserole about 2 1/2 inches deep
3 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper

Peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8 inch thick, about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends and cut the zucchini into slices about the same size as the eggplant slices. Place the vegetables in a bowl and toss with the salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain. Dry each slice in a towel.

One layer at a time, saute the eggplant and then the zucchini in hot olive oil in the skillet for about a minute on each side to brown very lightly. Remove to a side dish.

In the same skillet, cook the onions and peppers slowly in olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and season to taste.

Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8-inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until tomatoes have begun to render their juice. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices, raise heat and boil for several minutes, until juice has almost entirely evaporated.

Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of the casserole and sprinkle over it 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, then half the remaining tomatoes and parsley. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.

Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the rendered juices. Correct seasoning, if necessary. Raise heat slightly and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes more, basting several times, until juices have evaporated leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil. Be careful of your heat; do not let the vegetables scorch in the bottom of the casserole.

Set aside uncovered. Reheat slowly at serving time or serve cold.

Le Tian Provençal - Mixed Summer Vegetables Provençal

The Tian is the name for the red clay baking dish of Provence, now primarily made in Spain. These dishes are now being exported to the States. They are wonderful for baking and roasting in the oven. Be sure there’s enough liquid in the dish to prevent drying in the oven, and when you remove the dish you can place it directly on the table. It holds its heat and looks nice.
(I brought a medium-sized one home from Arles in my carry-on bag-- merci, Chef Érick!!)

Preparation time : one hour ; Cooking time : 30 minutes

2 fat eggplant
3 zucchini
4 tomatoes
1 bell pepper (color of choice)
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup of olive oil
Grated cheese (in France, often it’s often gruyère, or Parmesan)

This recipe has two stages, some of the vegetables are pre-cooked, fried in olive oil, and others are put into the tian fresh.

Cut the eggplant in rounds and salt liberally, set aside to sweat for an hour. Cut the zucchini in rounds, the tomatoes likewise, set aside. Mince the onions, and chop the bell pepper in small pieces, set aside.

Take out a large frying pan and put in olive oil, fry lightly the minced onions and bell peppers, simply melting them down, reducing them, to a smooth caramelized mixture. Remove with a slotted spoon and layer on the bottom of the oven-proof casserole dish. Next fry the zucchini rounds, a minute per side, in the oil. Put aside.
When the eggplant rounds are nicely sweated and rinsed of their excess salt, tap them dry and then fry them a minute each side as well, set aside.

Crush and chop the garlic, and put the entire tian together. Place the onion and pepper mixture on the bottom, then start layering the eggplant rounds (just one layer thick), and then the raw tomato rounds, and a bit of the chopped garlic, crumbled bay leaf, a little salt, and then a layer of zucchini rounds. Start again till the tian is full and you have used all the vegetables.
Sprinkle the top with the cheese and place in the oven for 30 minutes at 375F/180C.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday reflections and Millefeuille

I sit here, monitoring after school study hall, gazing out the window watching the JV softball team practice and the dogwood tree blooms beginning to open. It rained this morning, typical since this afternoon my son's varsity baseball team has a game. Steve, my soon-to-be un-ex husband called to tell me that he had ripped the navy blue pants I admired on him this morning. He was dragging the baseball field when it happened. I imagine his tennis shoes will need to be washed again tonight, along with Grant's muddy baseball pants. Jake's checking account was recently overdrawn again so we dealt with that drama. I did my part by going on-line and setting up his account so that he can track his expenses instead of relying on the ATM to give him his inaccurate balance. (Strange when the 50 year old mom is the computer savvy one instead of the 21 year old college student, n'est-ce pas?) Steve did his part by going to the bank and asking them to please remove part of the exorbitant fees (they did so, I am happy to report). We both talked to Jake, together and separately. The one thing we were always able to do well together was parent our children, even when the marriage wasn't on track.
Yes, I am back smack in the middle of "real life." Do I long for the days in Arles when all I had to worry about was getting the towels and sheets dry? Ah, oui. But am I sad to be back in the role of wife, mom and middle school French teacher? Absolument non! I feel like me here. I didn't always feel like me in Arles. I wasn't speaking my native language. Expressing one's feelings in another language is not easy. I felt as if all my new friends only knew half of me. They didn't even know that I could tell jokes and even remember the punchline occasionally.
For Christmas, Martha gave me a book hot off the press named I'll Never Be French (no matter how hard I try) by Mark Greenside. I loved this book written by an American who goes to spend a summer in Bretagne and falls in love with it. Who wouldn't fall in love with Bretagne or any other region of France, for that matter, after spending time there? But I identify with the title and I have come to terms, finally, with the fact that that's okay. I could have stayed in Arles. Physically, that it. Emotionally, never. I belong here and am happy here.
I just finished another book whose title could be my autobiography. A Pig in Provence by Georgeann Brennan. I admit to being green with envy most of the way through the book. She and her husband bought a home in Provence (very rustic- no electricity or plumbing for a while) and she made great French friends and learned to cook wonderful Provence specialities. She runs a cooking school and hosts writing workshops during the year. When I win the lottery... As I read it, though, I realized just how lucky I am that I can read it and think to myself-- "Pardon, madame, but we made brandade de morue differently!"
Now, I have begun Julia Child's My Life in France. What a treat to read a couple of chapters before falling asleep every night. Another American who moved to France and fell in love with the people, the food and the country.
I am not alone. I am much changed by my wonderful six months in France in 2008. I will never be the same. Just as the three authors mentioned above were changed by their experiences. They were all able to buy homes there, though. There's the difference. Oui, when I win the lottery...
The Durham Farmer's Market opened this past Saturday. I was thrilled to see that it has grown since my last visit a couple of years ago. For sale was goat cheese, little pots of herbs and garden plantings (I have grand plans to grow my own herbs on my back deck to use in my cooking experiments this summer), lamb, soaps, honey, homemade bread (we were too late for that, unfortunately) and other wonderful goodies. I can't wait until the vegetables come in!
In looking back through the blog last week, I realized that I had not posted the recipe for my 50th birthday cake, the beautiful and delicious Millefeuille that Chef Érick made for me. So, I will make up for it now and post the recipe. The photo does it justice!
Bon appétit!

Millefeuille Cake

This is a dessert that can be made very simply, or livened up with fresh raspberries, blackberries, blueberries…. Or chocolate shavings.

Ingredients for 8-10 portions

3 sheets of flaky pastry (this will be 2 boxes of Pepperidge Farm flaky pastry dough found in the freezer section of the grocery store or you can make your own)

For the cream:

1/2 liter whole milk (one pint)
4-5 egg yolks (depending on the size of your eggs)
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
optional flavoring: vanilla bean, nutmeg., sweet orange essence, lemon rind/zest

Plus 1/2 pint whipping cream whipped till stiff (this is optional- you can use just the cream, if you wish)

Heat the milk in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. While the milk heats, mix the egg yolks, sugar and flour in a mixer until light yellow. When the milk is hot, pour it slowly into the egg mixture whisking all the while. Then pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and whisk until it starts to bubble and thicken. The addition of flour will prevent the eggs from curdling too quickly.

When thickened, remove from the flame, put the sauce pan and place in the refrigerator to chill. (Lining the pan with plastic wrap makes it easier to remove and easier clean-up.)

Lay your flaky pastry sheets* out on baking pans, poke holes throughout to prevent them from puffing in the oven and bake at 400F / 200C till golden brown. (15-25 minutes). Remove the sheets from the oven and let cool.

Take the pastry cream from the refrigerator and fold in the chilled whipping cream, if you decide to use it. Place one pastry sheet on your cake plate, spread a layer of cream, then lay the next sheet, spread a layer of cream, then the final sheet. You can place raspberries, strawberries or blueberries on the cream, if you wish, before adding the next layer of pastry. You can finish off the millefeuille with powdered sugar or a glaze of powdered sugar and lemon juice and/or Grand Marnier, or sprinkle fresh berries, or melted chocolate. Chill until ready to serve.

*It is difficult to neatly cut millefeuille once assembled, you might want to cut the sheets ahead of time and make individual size millefeuille. The dessert is best when the pastry is quite fresh and crunchy, and just assembled. But, if you make it ahead of time, the pastry will wilt just a bit from the humidity of the cream filling to make it easier to cut. Another option is to put it in the freezer for a couple hours before serving, and then cut it with a slightly warmed knife