Sunday, January 16, 2005

Yearning for the Lubéron

As we are thrust, once more, into the icy arms of winter, I seek my sustenance, cuddled under a stack of warm, soft flannel sheets and downy feathers, from books. Specifically, I am speaking of the books of Peter Mayle. His beloved Lubéron beckons to me, from his novel, Hotel Pastis to his memoir, A Year in Provence.

No matter how much I try, I cannot separate the weary face of the late British actor John Thaw, who played Mayle in the English mini-series, from the man I read about in these books. Such is the danger of "seeing the movie" before reading the book. Nevertheless, his is a warming presence in my mind's eye and I welcome it.

And my dreams of Provence! Even now, I can hear the wind whistling outside my very windows, as the panes rattle ever so slightly in their frames. It may be, in reality, a Canadian cold front shushing down through the Ohio River Valley, but, for me, it's the legendary Mistral blasting through the south of France. My house, although somewhat lacking insulation, is still superior to Peter's stone farmhouse. At least (knock on wood!), my kitchen pipes haven't frozen yet!

Still, I long for warmth and springtime and the re-birth of all the rosemary and lavender, with their almost resinous fragrances, lining the paths to my imaginary garden. Grey-white foliage plants that thrive in sun, hedges of rosemarys, lavenders, and sages, mingling with heirloom roses: the beautiful Bourbons like the incredibly fragrantMadame Isaac Pereire, the richly pink, camellia-like Louise Odier, the red-and-white striped Variegata di Bologna; the fine Gallica, Duchesse de Montebello; and the wonderfully fragrant Hybrid PerpetualThe Reine (des Violettes).

We shall meet there and dine beneath the darkness of the starry night as the warm breezes rustle the leaves in the trees. The Cotes de Ventoux is lovely, but no more so than the company we keep.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Dinner with Pamela

Last month my friend Pam treated me to a wonderful dinner at a lovely downtown bistro called Aioli. Owned and operated by a young female chef named Julie Francis, Aioli is a charming place, seating 73, painted in purple and gold with a bright mural on the back wall. It is intimate without feeling claustrophobic with a small bar near the entrance, white-clothed tables and a few horseshoe-shaped booths. After being seated in a booth, we studied the dinner menu intently. Pam is from a large and close-knit Italian family and, like me, loves to eat (and talk about food while dining). When the waiter returned to tell us the evening's specials, our eyes lit up. Soupe au potiron (pumpkin soup) was on the fire that night, garnished with a jumbo chipotle pepper-spiced shrimp and creme fraiche. How could we resist?

I had fallen so madly in love with pumpkin soup on my first visit to Paris a few years ago, I had it twice. The first time was at dinner with my friend Jef in a tiny restaurant near the Bastille, called Le C'amelot. Owned by chef Didier Varnet--one of Christian Constant's former acolytes at Les Ambassadeurs at the Hotel Crillon--this soupe au potiron seemed just the thing for a cold winter night. I didn't know what to expect when it arrived in its small tureen, but it was creamy and savory and possibly potato-based. It seemed almost like a hot pumpkin vichysoisse. The other time I had it was after a long trek to the Pont Neuf. Standing on the Left Bank, I looked across the Seine toward Le Samaritaine. It was lunchtime and I was starving. A solitary diner, I made my way up several floors by elevator to the store's gorgeous Art Nouveau restaurant, Le Toupary. To my delight, while taking in the restaurant's breathtaking view of Paris, the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, my pumpkin soup arrived. Served hot again, this time in a small bowl and fragrant with a light dusting of Chinese star anise (anis d'etoile), somehow it seemed lighter and more delicate than the first. In any case, I now find that I am always on the prowl for a new bowl of pumpkin soup. And, despite the name of this recipe, it is certainly not just for Halloween in my book!

Pumpkin Soup for Halloween

2 pounds fresh pumpkin, cubed
1 quart homemade chicken stock
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons creme fraiche or heavy cream
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper

Bring pumpkin, stock, and sugar to a boil in a 6-quart stockpot over high heat. Cover and boil for 18 minutes. (Pumpkin should cook quickly to avoid bitterness.)

Puree soup in food processor or with hand blender until smooth. (May be prepared ahead of time to this point; cool and refrigerate.)

Before serving, return to boil; skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add creme fraiche and bring back to boil. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve in warmed shallow soup bowls.

Makes 4 servings.

from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, copyright 2001, published by Harper-Collins

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Could It Be Magic?

Musée de la Curiosité et de la Magie, 11, rue Saint Paul, 4me arr.

It was cold, it was rainy, it was grey--but it was also Paris and, at last, my dream come true.

The flight from Cincinnati had been direct and uneventful. My seatmate was a French teacher from Cleveland named Mary. She regaled me with stories of her days as an exchange student in France, the most memorable of which involved the question of whether the confiture contained preservatifs (condoms!) ;-). (I suppose that was still better than ordering poison when one really wanted poisson!) I was glad to have such an amiable companion. Conversation distracted me from the vast expanse of water below and when talk waned I studied my trusty Virgin Guide to Paris or tried to sleep. I was relieved to know that my friend Jef was going to be at Charles de Gaulle to meet me and shepherd me safely to my hotel.

When the plane finally landed and we debarked, I was surprised to find that we were still far from the terminal and were entering a strange bus, seemingly on stilts! Once everyone was crammed inside, the bus was miraculously lowered to the ground and proceeded on to the terminal exit. After clearing customs and picking up my bag, I saw Jef, wearing a dapper Borsalino hat, patiently waiting on the other side of the divider glass.

After dropping off my bags at the Hotel Beaumarchais on the rue Oberkampf, we took off on a walking tour of the district. Jef was a knowledgable and enthusiastic guide, taking the time to explain a brief history of the Cirque d'Hiver as we passed by on our way to the rue de Turenne and the Marais. Jef drew my attention to the beautiful facades of the buildings and, pointed out the ones with huge double doors, tall and heavy, leading into courtyards. He said it was always worthwhile to try the door and see if it was open for often there were interesting and unusual things to be found inside.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

In Praise of Trader Joe's

I was so excited a couple of months ago when I read that Cincinnati was going to be home to a new Trader Joe's--our area's very first. I'd been reading about this foodie heaven for months as I'd scoured food blogs and message boards for an evening's entertainment. The produce section, while somewhat limited in its scope, also seemed to fill in the blanks, so to speak, when it came to hard-to-find ingredients. What pleased me the most, though, was that the quality was so high, while the prices were relatively low. Nowhere else could I find whole radicchio (weighing approximately 9 ounces when I weighed it at home) for only $1.69 each, and selling at my local grocer for $6.99 a pound! And here was a 2 pound bag of blood oranges for $1.99; and pre-packaged mâche (also known as lamb's lettuce) and beautiful asparagus...

Not to mention my beloved pains au chocolat, wild rice by the pound, lots of delicious free food samples, and the famous house wine label, Charles Shaw, AKA Two Buck Chuck. Due to Ohio's antiquated liquor laws, however, what qualifies as Two Buck Chuck in California, costs more like $3.39 in Ohio--but, hey! It's true. The Merlot is a really good value.

And here's a really easy salad to help add some sunshine to your grey winter day:

Blood Orange-Asparagus Salad with Mâche

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed
1 4-ounce package mâche or 1 6-ounce package baby lettuce mix
2 blood oranges
1/4 cup shelled natural walnuts, toasted* (optional)
1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)

Blood Orange Vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons fresh blood orange juice or regular orange juice
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons walnut oil
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Whisk orange juice, vinegar, and oils in small bowl till blended well. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper.

Steam asparagus for 4 to 6 minutes or until crisp-tender. Rinse in cool water; drain well and set aside.

Using small sharp knife, cut off peel and white pith from oranges. Working over small bowl, cut between membranes to release orange segments. Divide mâche or lettuce blend among 4-6 plates. Arrange asparagus spears and orange segments on each. Sprinkle with walnuts and/or pomegranate seeds, if desired. Drizzle dressing over salad and serve.

*Note: To toast walnuts, spread them in a shallow baking pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown, watching carefully and stirring once or twice to prevent burning.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

In Appreciation of Maxime de la Falaise

Many, many years ago, when I was a mere embryo in utero, I'm sure, I remember magically absorbing the contents of VOGUE magazine, yes, the very ones with Twiggy or Jean ("the Shrimp") Shrimpton on the cover! I discovered the Berenson sisters, Marisa and Berry, the granddaughters of the great Italian designer and creator of Shocking Pink, Elsa Schiaperelli, on the pages of a regular feature called More Dash, than Cash or suchlike. Loulou de la Falaise was Yves Saint Laurent's muse and also frequently featured in VOGUE. Loulou's mother, Maxime de la Falaise, née Maxime Birley and sister of Mark, founder of the legendary Annabel's in London, was a contributor to VOGUE in those days, writing an engaging column about her friends and--of all things--food!

Maxime's monthly column: Food in Vogue was my favorite thing to read. She was part of a jet-setting circle that cut a wide swath through the cultural life of the time: Andy Warhol; Lillian Hellman; Truman Capote; Francesco Scavullo; George Balanchine; Jackie O! It was a dizzying, star-spangled group, but what I loved about her column was that, in addition to being made privy to a little bit of her life behind the scenes, she wrote quite entertainingly about food...and the recipes were usually simple and quite easy to make. Her long out-of-print book, Food in VOGUE is one of my very favorite standbys. Here are a couple of good recipes to try:

Babe Paley's Candied Tomatoes

6 tomatoes, unpeeled, sliced 1/2" thick
3 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
Salt to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream

Dredge tomato slices in flour. Heat butter in skillet, add tomato slices with about a teaspoon of brown sugar sprinkled on top of each slice, plus a bit of salt. When lightly browned, turn the slices and sprinkle with brown sugar and salt again. Remove them to a hot serving dish before they get too soft and untidy. They are very good as is, but even better if you pour cream into the pan with the remainder of the butter and sugar, stir to thicken slightly, and pour over tomatoes. Serves 8.

Lily Auchincloss's Marinated Loin of Pork

Center cut of pork loin, weighing about 3 1/2 pounds

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Bourbon
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon powdered ginger or a few slices of peeled fresh ginger root
1 clove garlic, sliced thin

Mix marinade and pour over meat in a flat dish. Marinate for at least 3 hours, turning meat from time to time.

Preheat oven to 350' F.

Transfer pork to baking dish, reserving marinade. Bake 1 hour, basting occasionally with marinade. Slice in thin slices. Serve with applesauce and mashed potatoes, and have sharp English mustard on the table. For a salad, tomato slices, zucchini slices, onion rings, and green pepper slivers, mixed with a sharp vinaigrette; or you might serve a salad of watercress or arugula, dressed simply with salt and a little olive oil.

Serves 6.

From Food in VOGUE by Maxime de la Falaise, copyright 1981

Monday, January 03, 2005

"little shell of cake, so generously sensual..." -- Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

I really don't know what has gotten into me, but it seems I find myself thinking more and more frequently these days of baking. And, trust me, this is not what I would ever decribe as my particular "area of expertise". Maybe it's just the change in the weather, but I am reading cookbooks like novels and finding inspiration everywhere. It may come from the pain d'épice recipe in Bernard Clayton's The Breads of France or Myrtle Allen's Ballymaloe House Brown Bread from James Beard's Beard on Bread. But, now, I am remembering a batch of little sponge-like lemon cakes I made once many years ago.

I had bought the madeleine plaque on impulse, attracted by its lovely curving scallop-shell indentations, as much as by the memory of reading about madeleines as described by Marcel Proust. While his ""seashell cake[s] so strictly pleated outside and so sensual inside" were often made with a fragrant hint of lemon zest, the ones below feed a chocoholic's dreams. These cake-like "cookies" are springy and light and may be eaten, as Proust did, dipped delicately in tea or, if you prefer, coffee. Either way, they are sure to please.

Chocolate Madeleines

1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant coffee crystals (optional)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 stick (2 oz.) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon brandy (optional)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus 2 yolks
Powdered sugar for decoration

Pre heat oven to 375° F. Brush 12 madeleine molds with soft butter, evenly coating bottom and sides. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, coffee, baking powder, salt and set aside.

In a small bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the butter, adding the vanilla, rum, and granulated sugar. Beat well. Add the egg and yolks, beating to mix (it will look curdled). Beat in dry ingredients just until mixed. Place a rounded teaspoonful of mixture into each of the molds. Do not spread, it will run by itself.

Bake for 12 minutes until madeleines spring back when touched lightly. Cool one minute, then invert onto wire rack to cool completely. Dust lightly with confectioners' sugar or cocoa powder if desired. Makes 1 dozen.

From Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Christo Wraps Again!

Le Pont Neuf, Paris, 1985

I would love to see the Maysles Brothers film, Christo in Paris, documenting the impressive ten year journey leading up to the successful wrapping of Le Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. There's always been something curiously infectious about Christo's vision and spirit that draws in both the volunteers who help to make his dreams come true, as well as the visitors who make the pilgrimage to marvel at the finished sight.

And now, Christo, and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, are about to begin work on their newest challenge: The Gates, the largest public art installation in the history of the city of New York. Consisting of some 7,500 gates, gaily dressed with saffron-yellow fabric panels along 23 miles of pedestrian walkways in Central Park, The Gates will only be on view for 16 days. Twenty-six years after its initial conception and many revisions later, the project has drawn 1,100 loyal and enthusiastic workers from 45 states. As always, the artists are providing their own financial backing for the project, estimated to cost $20 million, much of it raised through the sale of Christo's artwork, including preparatory drawings for the project.

The New York Times reports that Each worker gets a special "Gates" uniform (to keep) designed by Christo. Jeanne-Claude declined to describe it, saying she was afraid that if she did, there would be a rash of knockoffs for sale. And, you know, I'm sure she's right. I know I certainly would like one!

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A Restaurant for the New Year!

A fragrant bowl of garlic soup

And a Bonne Année to all! And with that wish, may I present you with my secret weapon for restoring one's soul after a night of carousing: Mecklenburg Gardens' Garlic Soup.

Once upon a time, back in the mid-1980s, there existed a heavenly restaurant in Cincinnati called Mecklenburg Gardens. Founded in 1865, by a German immigrant named Louis Mecklenburg, it went through several incarnations along its path to being revivified by the members of an ashram, who purchased it and restored the building to its former glory, complete with its old grape-vine covered biergarten. Under the ashram's management and Rob Fogel as chef, Mecklenburg's initiated its splendid and unique New's Year's Eve Reveillon celebrations and was awarded the Mobil Four Star Award for Excellence in Fine Dining along the way. This Garlic Soup, there made with roasted vegetable stock, was one of the restaurant's most famous dishes:

Mecklenburg Gardens' Garlic Soup

2 cups beef stock
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1 teaspoon tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of fresh or dried thyme
1 egg
Slice of toasted bread
Grated Gruyere cheese
Chopped parsley

Bring beef stock to a boil. Add garlic, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and thyme. Slip in egg, unbeaten. When white begins to set, pour soup into oven-proof bowl. Cover top of bowl with the bread and cover with cheese. Place under broiler till cheese is melted with a brown crust. Garnish with parsley and serve. Makes 1 generous serving.