Monday, December 08, 2008

arcane december

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My friend and neighbor, Photographer Lowell Snowdon Klock clicked her shutters and sent me photos

The mysterious nature of this time of year couldn’t have been more evident than during last week’s shining conjunction of Venus and Jupiter playing with the new crescent moon in the southwest sky just after dusk, bigger than life, just moments after that late afternoon sun had blazed there and made its fiery descent. Devastating!

This week, on Friday, the moon will be full at noon, and Uranus, Mercury, Mars and Saturn will be at the four points of the sky, right over the Guts of the Universe, otherwise called, by some, the Great Attractor. Don’t take your eyes off it!

It’s the perfect time to remake the acquaintance of an old friend.

...a friend comes to stay...

An old friend has come to stay, for good this time, I think, and she is nothing as I remembered. Oh, she can still cook – some of the earthiest, most elegant, yet down home dishes I’ve ever tasted with eye or tongue. Like Grandma cooked, but without the flour, and with a good deal more butter, a twist of wine, a kick of herb.

We’ve had Pot-au-Feu, the French boiled beef, rendered with technique so simple and transparent that the finished product is divinely so. That was followed by Boeuf Moroton – the perfect follow-up for the ‘leftover’ beef from the Pot-au-Feu.

She offers a garlic soup with up to a head of garlic for each person, depending upon our need, and a sugar tart made of yeasted dough and a bit of filling that flicks off the fingertips like water dampening clothes for ironing. All favorites of Parisians and people in the north of France, she tells me.

For she is French, of course, and generous with her secrets if you will only pay attention. But what I remember as a compact little thing with old-world shadows around her eyes, gray-streaked hair pulled back into a neat chignon, her pretty brown wool cinched snugly between pillowy bosom and ample hips, proves instead to be an angular tall person with jeweled fingers and a wisp of white hair, with faded velvets hanging from her shoulders and slim hips, a little like my old friend, Ms. Bomblatt who, like she, proves to be much more agile in the kitchen than she looks. But such is – not the failures of, but the permutations of – memory.

The last time I saw her was about 1995, and she was lent to me by Chef Stanti at the Inn. I used her mercilessly, not only for the Pot-au-Feu but for a lovely cabbage stuffed with, among other things, chestnuts, from the Auvergne – the central region of France – and a Breton poundcake (Gateau Breton), that was too delicious, from Brittany, for whose raisins I substituted, later, green tomatoes, and made a good thing of for a book.

What I like about my old friend is that she does not skimp on the things that make food taste good. She is unapologetic when ordering a teacup of rum to 6 large egg YOLKS, and 1 cup of the best butter you can find, to the 2 ¼ cups of flour of this poundcake. She does not make it every day, but when she does she will not skimp. No pale imitations for her.

On the other hand, another thing I like best about her is that she can take good simple ingredients like that homely cabbage and turn it into a silken offering, saying, “As far as cooking is concerned, poverty can be a hard but effective taskmaster. For it is a curious fact that the richest regions do not always produce the finest cuisine,” but that the poorest may.

Ever since I returned her to Chef Stanti over a decade ago I have regretted that I did, for when I questioned him about her he could not remember her. He squinched his eyes thoughtfully, but “No, No, do you not mean...?” and he would mention someone else I was not the slightest bit curious about. I could not remember her name and, as you see, I could not even remember what she looked like. It was hopeless.

But not too long ago I looked up one of her recipes from my files – the Tarte au Sucre, actually – and there I had included her name. I googled her, and found her, and ordered her back here poste haste.

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...memory versus reality...

I had been expecting a large book, and thick, a brown-covered compendium of classic French recipes, serious, about the size of that Complete Shakespeare we all have mouldering in our bookshelves. But “France, A Culinary Journey” must have been one of the first oversized, over-beautiful books to’ve been published, or at least one of the first in my experience, because I did not categorize it as I would now, at first glance, as mostly a pretty face with mediocre skills. And no earthly good because I don’t have a free counter big enough to lay it on. Open, at least. It’s not even a coffee table book – it’s a dining table book! The only other one I own of that size and breadth is Provençe, The Beautiful Cookbook, and the only reason I own that is that it was compiled and written by Richard Olney, who is one of my favorite writers and one of the best food minds, in my own mind. It, like France, was published by Harper Collins.

She, or rather it, that is, France, A Culinary Journey, is divided into sections of that country, with comparatively short but in-depth intros into the geography, history, farming, and people of the region. Then, with no further ado (or would that be adieu) – dives directly into the serious recipes, the techniques of which are marvelous.

Each section is written by a different person or team of persons, and they may be individuals but are not the least idiosyncratic but together make a seamless whole, as though each had been asked to seek out the most classic and true foods of each region, and paid accordingly, so that each truly did not fall prey to worries about time and expense, but were free to do their best work. See if you can find a copy: France A Culinary Journey: Classic Recipes from the Regions of France, and invite her or inveigle her, or pay her to stay forever.

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Pot-au-Feu

The broth of this is a sparkling, clear, flavorful distillation of the ingredients. Absolutely wonderful.

The following is another distillation, of the authors’ – in this case, Philip and Mary Hyman – words and my own. Mostly theirs. Mine I would bold, but I’ve also extracted, so just read this and trust me:

The goodness of a pot-au-feu depends on the cuts of meat, the quantity and quality of water and, especially, the proper salting of the water in which the beef is cooked. Use about 1 ½ quarts of water for every 2 pounds of meat, and 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt for every quart of water (this is the most important thing). Only a few rules apply to the vegetables: cabbage is never cooked in the broth, and potatoes are best boiled separately. Only a few simple root vegetables are cooked with the meat, the amounts being left to the discretion of the cook.

A Pot-au-Feu should be served with a wide range of condiments – cornichons and other pickles, mustards of all kinds, and freshly grated horseradish – and a little coarse sea salt should be sprinkled over the meat and vegetables on each plate.

Leftover meat and vegetables can be served cold with a mustardy vinaigrette and the meat can also be made into another Parisian favorite, boeuf miroton.

  • 4 ½ to 6 pounds of boiling beef, such as thick, lean short ribs, brisket or chuck. (I used a 3 pound eye of round.)
  • 1 ½ quarts of water for every 2 pounds of meat
  • 1 teaspoon of course salt for every quart of water used
  • pinch of peppercorns (maybe 6 for every 2 quarts of water
  • bouquet garni: 1 bay leaf, 2 thyme sprigs, 2 parsley sprigs
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 1 onion stuck with 3 cloves
  • 1 lb carrots quartered
  • 1 lb young turnips, quartered
  • 2 lbs. leeks, halved, or quartered if large, tied into 2 bundles
  • 6 celery stalks, halved and tied into 2 bundles
  • 1 lb starchy potatoes (russets)
  • 6 1 inch sections of marrow bones tied inside a cloth (I omitted this)

Place the meat in the bottom of a large pot and add the appropriate amount of water. Bring to a boil, skim off any foam that rises, then add the salt. Skim again, if necessary, then add the peppercorns and all the vegetables. Bring to a gentle boil, cover and cook over very low heat for 3 ½ to 4 hours. About 30 minutes before the cooking time is up, add the marrow bones, and cook the potatoes, if using, in a separate pan in boiling salted water.

Lift the meat, the vegetables and the bag of marrow bones out of the stock and keep warm. Discard the bouquet garni, the garlic, and the onion, and strain the stock. Leave it to rest for about 15 minutes, then skim off as much fat as possible. (Do not discard the fat. It can be used to make boeuf miroton.)

Reheat the stock and serve as a first course. Place the meat on a large platter, top with the marrow from the marrow bones, surround with vegetables and serve with an assortment of cornichons, vinegar pickles, mustards such as Dijon or Meaux, coarse salt, and a little extra stock for those who want to moisten the meat and vegetables.

Serves: 6


Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Tart)

I think of this as something served to children in their nursery by their governess, but it is an elegant dessert for grown-ups, too, and might even bring a nostalgic tear to the eye of someone who has experienced it in the aforesaid manner.

Pastry :

  • ½ teaspoon dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  • 2 cups (8 oz) all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup (4 oz) softened butter

Filling:

  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter, in small pieces

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Place the flour in a mixing bowl, sprinkle with salt, make a well in the center and place the sugar, egg, butter, and yeast mixture in the well. With a fork, whisk all the latter ingredients together in the well, then begin to incorporate the flour, working very quickly with the tips of the fingers until a smooth, homogeneous dough is produced. Pack the dough into a ball, cover with a damp cloth and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Roll out the dough and line a 10 inch pie pan or flan ring, then roll the edge of the dough toward the inside to form a sort of rope around the edge. Prick the dough base all over with a fork.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

For the filling: Mix the milk and egg together. Spread the sugar in an even layer over the bottom of the tart – it should be about 1/8 inch thick.

Flick the milk and egg mixture over the sugar, using a pastry brush or fork, or the tips of the fingers, as if sprinkling laundry to be ironed. Place dabs of butter all over the top and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry has browned lightly. Serve warm or cold.

...what’s cooking, rutland?...

More good delicacies will be coming our way when Ann Clark, of Ann Clark, Ltd, a company that makes cookie cutters in a multitude of shapes and sizes that have found an enthusiastic audience world-wide, is the next guest on What’s Cookin’ Rutland, the PEG TV Show that will be taped next Monday evening, December 15th. We’re making it a cookie swap for those who would like that sort of thing, and if you are one of those people bring a dozen of your favorite cookies to the taping.

Ann will share a few of her favorite cookie recipes and techniques while chatting with host, Whitney Lamy.

The show is taped at PEG TV Studios in Howe Center starting at 6PM. Doors open at 5:30 for the seating of the live audience. A $10 donation is suggested, and reservations may be had by calling 508-813-8114 or emailing whatscookinrutland@gmail.com

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A shoreham sun setting over a winter cornfield, by me