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4.30.2007

So longed-for, so sighed-over

Hi, guys.

Thanks for keeping the place so warm and tidy while I was gone. It’s good to come home to you.

Three weeks, gone in a blur. It’s hard to know where to start.



I remember saying to people sometimes, during the year or so that I lived in Paris, that the city felt like my second home. In retrospect, it seems funny that I should say that, since I hardly even know where my first home is. I guess it should be Oklahoma, technically, since that’s where I was born and raised. But it doesn’t really seem right. Let’s be honest: when you grow up in a place known pretty much exclusively for being shaped like a frying pan in silhouette – a frying pan that, I might add, somebody chucked squarely and carelessly into the middle of Tornado Alley, where it gets held to the fire each spring – it’s not terribly hard to leave. My parents were from the East Coast, so Oklahoma never really had a shot. My parents raised me to know that I would leave, and that, in fact, I was supposed to. It never even occurred to me to stay. I was too busy making plans. I think that’s why I’m such a sucker for Born to Run. Swap out Bruce Springsteen’s motorcycle and the back streets of mid-seventies New Jersey for an airplane and mid-nineties Oklahoma, and you’ve got me. Not quite so sexy a story, of course, with no chrome wheels or wind in my hair, but you get the idea. Six days after my nineteenth birthday, I was gone. I spent the next four years in California. Then I went to Paris, and now, Seattle. I’m still not sure where home is. I have a hunch that I’ve hit on it, but I can’t be sure. My second home, though, is still the same. I’m predictable. Paris.



There’s been so much said and written about Paris that it’s daunting to hazard a statement of my own. That city just has something. I can’t think of any other place so idealized, so longed-for, so sighed-over. My Paris isn’t always such a sweet one, brimming with kisses à la Doisneau, but I like it better that way. It’s the place where I’ve been loneliest, and where I’ve been happiest. Sometimes I’ve been both at the same time. It’s where, at twenty-one, I met my first love in the belly of a lighthouse-boat-cum-club on the Seine, and where, six weeks later, when he stopped calling, I sat on a bench at the Champ de Mars and filled an entire Kleenex mini-pack with my snot and tears. It’s a place where even crying feels romantic somehow, where heartbreak makes you feel like a part of history. It’s unrequited love. It’s who and where, for a long time, I wanted to be.



Paris is an incubator, and a catalyst. It’s where I feel most awake. It’s where, at twenty-five, and in the span of a few summer weeks, I decided to leave graduate school, broke up with a boyfriend of three years, drank my first gin and tonic, scattered a Ziploc baggie of my father’s ashes into the Seine, ate scandalous amounts of Comté and pâté, and, at the suggestion of a very wise friend, decided to start this blog. That city means business. For a place that clings vehemently to its history, it has certainly helped speed along mine.



So it seemed intuitive to go back there this spring. I’ve never been particularly cuddly with the idea of change, and this year is nothing but. It’s all the good kind, of course – a wedding! a book! – but sometimes a girl needs a little incubating, so to speak – not to mention ten days with her mother, a solid supply of baguette sandwiches, some stinky cheese, whites from Cheverny, reds from the Côtes du Rhone, and a jaunt down to Lyon for some old-fashioned, fat-rippled cuisine de bonne femme, which, for future reference, is immensely fortifying. Mom and I even shared our first blood sausage, served in a quaintly dented silver dish with a bed of caramelized apples as brown and translucent as a tarte Tatin. I quite nearly set up camp right there, atop the checked tablecloth. Second home, you know.

So it was good to go back. But I have to tell you, it’s also good to be back.


4.09.2007

A safe bet

I thought it was over. I really did. After the disappointment of that coconut pie, it would have only been fair. With all the work that thing took – not to mention the woe that came with eating it – I figured I’d more than filled my monthly quota of culinary downers. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It was only the start of what turned out to be a very, very sub-par week. I don’t usually like to air my dirty kitchen laundry around here, but it’s piling up so high and fast that I’ve got nowhere else to put it. It would be comical, if only it weren’t quite so sad. I can hardly even muster the energy to write about it in complete sentences. Witness:

Monday: Made lunch for two friends, one being the co-owner of a favorite local restaurant. Failed to properly puree the carrot soup, leaving it oddly lumpy, like a vegetal oatmeal, and overbaked the lemon cake. Cringed while my companions dutifully ate.

Tuesday: Gave leftovers of aforementioned lemon cake to Brandon for breakfast. Nearly choked him with a dried-out crumb. Had a friend to dinner. Made a rhubarb clafoutis with the texture and appearance of a kitchen sponge. Ate it anyway.

Wednesday: Sought refuge in dinner out with a girlfriend. Got a little weepy.

Thursday: Tried again with my comrades from Monday’s lunch, this time at the restaurant. Had a delicious meal, along with, unfortunately, a glass of prosecco, two types of red wine, and three varieties of dessert wine. Closed the restaurant, danced to Blondie and the Rolling Stones, ate ice cubes in a futile attempt to sober up. Began to suffer.

Friday: Hung over. Managed, with some bad curly endive and Brandon’s help, to make a truly awful salad, something I had previously thought impossible. For dessert, tried a madeleine recipe from a favorite cookbook. Nothing special. Not even worth eating. Let the leftovers sit on the counter and go stale.

Saturday: Went to dinner at the home of a friend. Distracted her so thoroughly with my chatter that her Persian rice, with its many types of expensive fresh herbs, wound up irreparably scorched.

Sunday: Tried a recipe for milk chocolate brownies from a recent issue of Gourmet. Hovered excitedly over the oven, only to find them completely mediocre. Worse than boxed brownie mix, tasting neither of chocolate nor, really, of anything else. Ate two, because I was desperate. Set the rest out for the trash collectors.

See what I mean? So sub-par, and so sad. By the middle of the week, I was sufficiently wigged out that I made Brandon look up the lunar calendar. I was desperate. I’ve never bought into the folklore about full moons – that they bring insanity and crime and disasters and what not – but after last week, I’m not so sure. Monday, it turns out, was a full moon. It would be awfully nice if that explained all this. That way, in the future, at least, I might know when to stay away from the kitchen, if not food as a general category.

But anyway, all this is not to say that there weren’t at least a couple of decent moments in the last seven days. I don’t mean to be a total downer. There were some high points, in fact, and both of them involved asparagus.



This is yet another of those situations when I worry that I’m giving you a recipe that’s entirely too simple and old-hat, but seeing as I love it – and given that it was one of the few good things I got my teeth around last week – I’m going to do it anyway. The inspiration for this dish comes from a classic French preparation: poireaux vinaigrette, an elegant salad-of-sorts composed of cooked leeks and a mustardy dressing, smattered with a hard-boiled egg chopped fine as snow. It’s a dish I first learned from my host mother in Paris, and one that’s made a home on my table in the many years since. Sometimes, in the spring, I like to trade the leeks for asparagus – the fat spears, preferably, blanched to emerald green. That’s what we did this week, in fact, and it was so good that we ate it twice.

To best complement the asparagus, we mixed things up a little, trading my usual dressing for a lemon vinaigrette with a dab of garlic. The key is to serve it all with the spears still warm, when their flavor is mellow and sweet and their flesh still porous to the citrus and oil. It’s the perfect way to send up spring’s newest crop – casual, unfussy, and clean-the-plate good, and with its longtime comrade, the lemon. It’s what we’ll be eating for the next little while around here. Because, you know, no matter what, it’s a safe bet.

___


I hope this will keep your bellies full for a while, friends, because I’m leaving town for a few weeks. (It has nothing to do with escaping the disasters of last week, I swear. It was in the works long before then.) First, on Wednesday, I’m headed to the IACP conference in Chicago. Then, on Sunday, I’ll catch a plane to Paris with my mom for a pre-wedding mother-daughter bonanza, wherein we eat loads of chocolate and chaussons aux pommes and pâté and cheese, walk until our feet are sore, sit in cafés, visit old friends, say hello to David and Clotilde, and more generally spend some time ensemble before I become a Mrs. in July. I’m so excited, I can hardly sit still.

I’ll be back in three weeks. Until then, I hope you’ll content yourselves with asparagus. It’s not much, but it’s the best I could do.



Asparagus vinaigrette

This dish can be as simple or as frilly as you want it to be. I’ve called below for a hard-boiled egg and lemon zest as garnish, but just as often, we eat it without. In fact, we’re usually pretty low-key about it, eating the asparagus plain, with our fingers, and dipping it in the vinaigrette as we go. Whatever you do, be sure to choose asparagus with plump, firm spears. I like to use somewhat fat ones here, but any will work, so long as they’re flavorful and in season. To prepare them for cooking, trim or snap off their woody ends, and give the spears a quick rinse in cool water.

As for the hard-boiled egg, I have a new favorite method to share. (I can’t remember where I learned it, though - somewhere on the Internet - so if it’s yours, please accept my apologies.) I put the egg in a small saucepan, covered it with cold water, and brought it to a boil over medium-high heat. When it began to boil, I pulled it off the burner, covered it, and let it sit for 12 minutes. Then I rinsed it in plenty of cold water. The white was tender and the yolk bright yellow, with not one single nasty bit of gray in sight.

1 bunch asparagus
Salt
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. white wine or champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. fine sea salt
5 Tbsp. olive oil
Scant 1/8 tsp. pressed garlic
1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped (optional)
Zest of half a lemon (optional)

Fill a 12-inch skillet with water to a depth of about 1 inch. Add a good dose of salt, and bring the pan to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus, spreading them out in a single layer, and cook just until they turn bright green and yield to the tooth, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Drain into a colander, and briefly run cool water over the asparagus to stop them from cooking. They should still be warm. Dry them gently on a paper towel, and transfer them to a serving platter. Set aside.

In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt. Add the oil, and whisk well to emulsify. Taste, and if necessary, add a bit more oil. Depending on the flavor of the oil and vinegar you use, you might need a teaspoon or so more oil. Add the garlic, and whisk to combine.

To serve, drizzle the vinaigrette over the asparagus, and top, if you like, with hard-boiled egg. If you choose to use the lemon zest, sprinkle a couple of pinches on top. Alternatively, serve the asparagus plain, with the vinaigrette and other optional toppings on the side, so each eater can dress it to their liking.

Yield: 4 side-dish or starter-size servings, or 2, if you’re us

4.02.2007

Consolation prize

Oh people. What a time I’ve had.

So, remember that fresh coconut pie I mentioned last week? The one I recalled so fondly ten full years after first tasting it? The one that you begged to hear more about? Well, I called my mom, and I got the recipe. Then I bought a coconut. Then, yesterday morning, Brandon and I drained, cracked, chipped, peeled, and grated the thing, a task only marginally easier than breaking into an armored truck. Then, after sufficient rest and recuperation, I made the pie. And it wasn’t very good.

Even now, a day later, I still feel sort of sad. I hardly know what to say. In the pie’s defense, I think we grated the coconut a little too coarsely. We did it in the food processor, with the grating blade, and the resulting shards were on the thick side – less like standard shredded coconut and more, let’s say, like those jumbo matches, the long, fat kind you’d use to light a gas stove or grill. Consequently, the coconut never really cooked in the oven. It wilted a little, but that’s about it. The finished pie tasted alright, but it had an odd, starchy crunch that reminded me of Swiss chard stems, and soggy twigs, and undercooked potatoes. None of which, I should note, makes a nice dessert. It wasn’t awful, but it was wonky. You know it’s bad when you prefer a pot of lentil soup to a slice of coconut pie. Seriously.

But all’s well that ends well, as they say, which brings us, for better and for worse, to this week’s recipe. I know it’s kind of crappy of me to give you yet another lentil dish, but I didn’t set out intending to, I swear. Blame the pie, not me. Anyway, it’s a very good recipe – and with coconut, no less! – so I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.

A couple of weeks ago, back when we were talking about lentils and rice and onions around here, Julie wrote to tell me about a soup she’d made, a green lentil soup with Indian spicing from the cookbook Once Upon a Tart. I was very intrigued – not only because of the bottomless supply of lentils in my pantry closet, but because a copy of that same cookbook had been sitting on my shelf, ignored, for years. I’m not sure why, either, because Once Upon a Tart, the bakery that birthed the book, is a lovely little spot, a place where I once shared soup and scones with my mother and father and sister on a chilly late-December afternoon in New York. The book was long overdue for a little attention, and a good, healthy crack of the spine. So, with a nudge from Julie, that’s what I gave it, and in return, it gave me a very, very good soup.




The only thing it lacks, I’m afraid, is looks. I tried to spare you by eating most of it before the photo shoot, but still, it’s not pretty. Lentil soup is not something to make when you want a handsome meal. It’s something to make when you want a satisfying one, along with, say, a cold beer, some crusty bread, and a few Muscat grapes from the icebox. This particular take on the lentil theme is unusually good, one for the keeper pile. For a homely thing, it’s almost delicate – elegant, even, trailing a lacy perfume of spices and coconut milk, a whiff of India and a slip of Thailand. It reminds me in some ways of dal, but better than any I’ve made at home, and with a Southeast Asian bent. And until I can have my coconut pie the way I remember it – which, with some tweaking, damn it, had better be soon – well, it’s a pretty darn good consolation prize.

___


Also, I know that many of you have seen me and Brandon on the Food Network recently, and before another day goes by, I wanted to thank you for writing to me with your cheers. Pretty crazy, isn’t it? Our video is part of a series of short promotional segments called “The Power of Food,” in which everyday people share stories about the ways that food impacts their lives. In our case, we tell the story of how we met – through this website, of course, but more specifically, because a friend of Brandon’s did an Internet search for a lemon yogurt cake recipe, came upon Orangette, read for a while, and then told him about it, saying, “I’ve found the woman for you.” As it turns out, she was right, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sometimes I can hardly wrap my head around it. Cake is a powerful thing. I’m telling you, never, ever underestimate what it can do.

Our segment airs during commercial breaks, so be on the lookout between ads and you just might see us. A longer version of the video will be online soon is available online, and you can watch it here. (And no jokes about that funny blinking I was doing, okay? I was nervous.)

We hope you like our story as much as we like living it. Thank you for being a part of it.



Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices
Adapted from Once Upon a Tart

If you’ve got some decent vegetable stock lying around, this thick, warming soup comes together in a snap. It’s delicious eaten plain, but I also like it with a squeeze of lime, and Brandon, Mr. Hot Sauce, likes it with sambal oelek. It would also be lovely over some fragrant rice, maybe jasmine or basmati, and with some cilantro sprinkled around. If you’d like to see how Julie, who first told me about this recipe, makes this soup, hop over to her thoughtful write-up here.

Also, about the butter: if you want to use less, I think you could. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll bet it wouldn’t make a wink of difference, flavor-wise, if you added all the spices in the beginning, with the garlic, rather than adding some then and some later. That way, you could nix the clarified butter – a bit of a fussy step, anyway – and scratch three tablespoons of butter from the recipe.

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 ½ tsp. turmeric
6 cups vegetable stock, preferably from this recipe
1 ½ cups French green lentils, picked over for stones and other debris
½ tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
A pinch of nutmeg
A few grinds of black pepper
1 ¼ cups coconut milk
¼ tsp. fine sea salt, plus more to taste

In a soup pot or Dutch oven, warm 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is translucent. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the garlic, thyme, and turmeric. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is lightly browned and very soft.

Add the stock and the lentils, bring to a simmer, and cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft and tender.

In a small saucepan, warm the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When the butter is entirely liquefied, there will be a foamy white layer on top. Skim it away and discard it. What you’ll have left is clarified butter – a clear, yellow liquid – and a bit of white sediment at the bottom of the pan, which are the milk solids. Carefully pour the clarified butter into a small bowl or cup; then rinse the sediment out of the pan. Return the clarified butter to the pan, and place it over medium heat. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper, and warm them, stirring, until they are very fragrant, a minute or two.

Pour the clarified butter and spices into the soup. Add the coconut milk, and stir well. Cook for about 15 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste, and adjust the salt as necessary. Serve.

Note: Like many things with complex spicing, this soup improves with time. It’s great on the first day, but it’s even better on the second.

Yield: 4-6 servings