I have a confession to make. I have a bit of fluff on the side. I’ve had it for many years now — and the flame of my passion never diminishes. The love burns in my soul, aches in my flesh, and ignites my nerves.
Why am I revealing this now, and in such a public way? As you may know, the Displaced Nation is dedicating many of its October posts to the joys of moving to France and learning French cooking.
I take this as a sign that the time has arrived for me to own up to my own rather torrid relationship with La Belle Cuisine Française — she of infinite variety, who makes hungry where she most satisfies.
Admittedly, I do feel a little guilty talking so openly about our affair while my husband, who is Japanese, is away on a business trip. (Because I’m so practiced at hiding it, I think he assumes that, like him, I would always choose Asian food over Western, Italian over French.)
But there you have it, my little secret. And now that it’s out in the open, allow me to report on my most recent tryst — a Parisian lunch I hosted in Manhattan yesterday using the recipes of Elizabeth Bard, who will be featured on this blog next week. A former New Yorker who now lives in Provence with her French husband, Bard is the author of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes.
Friday, Oct 7 — plotting my assignation
I download Bard’s book to my Kindle and retreat to bed — mais oui! — for a read.
I am instantly enchanted. Bard is a woman after my own heart: she went to Europe to study and then fell head over heels for the culture, a man, the food…
I’m having a hard time choosing among Bard’s recipes, though.
The guest list is easy: my sister (who will go into the hospital on Wednesday for an operation, after which she won’t be able to enjoy food for a while) and two foodie friends, a couple, with whom I’ve collaborated on some lovely meals.
Except this time I’ll be going solo, especially as my husband is away (though maybe that’s just as well as he tends to dismiss French food out of hand, and therefore out of kitchen, for being too rich and creamy).
Actually, it’s the main course I’m dithering about — not the starter or the dessert.
I know I want to do mussels for the opening course as that’s one of my sister’s favorites, and Bard has a classic recipe for Mussels with White Wine and Fennel (and fennel is now in season).
I see that on her Web site, Bard has a recipe for Spicy Chocolate Pots with Fresh Figs — and quickly decide to make that my dessert. Like most sane people, I consider chocolate (along with champagne and oysters) to be the perfect food for revving up the libido.
And figs — Bard says that every autumn, around this time, she stages her own mini Figapalooza. I like the sound of that orgy. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Bible got it wrong: Eve must have seduced Adam with a fig, not an apple. Didn’t he cover himself up with a fig leaf afterwards?
Speaking of apples, the recipe of Bard’s I’m most attracted to for the main course is her Pork Tenderloin with Four Kinds of Apples. The only thing holding me back is that my sister has a pet pig. For a moment, I imagine being able to persuade her to partake of this forbidden meat. “Oh, go on, just one little taste…” But then I realize how offended I’d be, as a dog owner and lover, if I were invited to lunch at a Korean household and they were serving dog.
No, not a good idea. So I opt for Bard’s Pasta with Fresh Peas, Arugula, and Goat Cheese for my main. To be honest, I feel a little sheepish about it. Surely my infatuation with La Belle Cuisine should drive me to my boldest feats of exploration and invention?
But then I remember Bard’s story about her husband-to-be inviting her to lunch at a Parisian restaurant that specializes in du porc noir de Bigorre. She refuses to indulge, even (especially?) when the waitress tells her he’s a happy pig, ordering the cassoulet instead.
Pasta it is, even though the only thing French about it involves topping the pasta with extravagantly big gobs of goat cheese.
Saturday, Oct 8 — shopping for just the right ingredients
I head to the green market in Union Square very early, my two dogs in tow. Just before I reach the Patches of Star Dairy stand, which sells fresh goat cheeses and goat cheese ice cream, one of them, my cocker spaniel, scavenges a brussels sprout and someone asks me if he is a vegetarian. (I wonder if his English springer spaniel heritage is kicking in, and he’s registering his disapproval of my love affair with France?)
Other green market finds include freshly picked arugula (also for the pasta), onions and fennel (for the mussels), and heavy cream (for the dessert).
I see some blue salvia at the flower stall that remind me of postcards I’ve seen of Provence, and appropriate these for the table decor.
I still need to get peas (they aren’t in season), so leave the dogs at home and go out again. Bard makes a curious observation at the start of her pasta recipe:
Five years ago, if someone told me I would take this much satisfaction in shelling my own peas, I would have laughed out loud. How times have changed.
I guess I’m not quite there yet (or perhaps I was there when I was younger — am I getting too old for these affairs?), as I find myself heading to the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street for a bag of freshly shelled English peas (yes, English — apparently there are limits to my love).
Actually, waiting on the line at Trader Joe’s on a Saturday is almost as tedious as shelling peas, and I almost laugh out loud — but then console myself by noting that I’ve also managed to score the bow tie pasta. It’s not whole wheat, though, as Bard recommends. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen whole wheat farfalle, TBH. (I wonder where Bard gets hers?)
It still remains to get fresh pesto (from the Italian specialty store on E 11th St), Green & Black’s 70% organic chocolate and ras el hanout for the dessert. I find both of these items at the Indian grocery around the corner from Little India. The ras el hanout is labeled “couscous spice” and smells appropriately exotic.
I stay up late infusing the ras el hanout in the heavy cream and melting the chocolate in that mixture for the dessert. Heaven!
Sunday, Oct 9 (morning) — final mad preparations
Another early start. I swing by the East Village Cheese store for a fresh whole wheat baguette, and then it’s off to the green market at Tompkins Square Park, to buy fresh mussels at the fishmonger’s.
There’s a spring in my step as I approach his stall. I am a woman in love, a woman possessed. Little do I know that disaster is about to strike — he had only a small supply of mussels and sold them all first thing.
Aïe. I stumble away from his stall trying to hide my tears. But then, American ingenuity kicks in: why don’t I try using Bard’s recipe but for little neck clams, which are in large supply? I go back and discuss with the fishmonger, who’s a friendly sort, très sympathique. He ends up giving me 40 clams for the price of three dozen.
But I’m not out of the woods yet. I have forgotten the figs — those delectable little fruits that ooze with flesh and seeds when you cut them open. Despite trying three grocery stores, I can’t find a single fig in the East Village — and this is fig season. Go figure!
On this ingredient, I cannot compromise. I text my foodie friends who are coming to the lunch (they live in the West Village) and ask them to scour the shops for the fleshiest, freshest figs they can find. They come through for me, confirming my long-held belief that West Village is the city’s epicurean center.
Sunday Oct 9 (1 p.m. onwards) — ah, quel plaisir!
My sister and friends arrive, the wine (initially the Muscadet I’m cooking the clams in) flows, and conversation does as well, ranging from tales of our misspent youths to the Wall Street protests.
I produce the first course, and it’s judged a big success. Does anyone mind that it’s clams and not mussels, I ask? All agree that it’s the broth that counts — and the broth, a mix of fennel, onions, garlic and white wine, is divine.
Despite being a little tipsy on the wine — we have now progressed to a bottle of red from the family domaine of Robert Sérol, au cœur de la Côte Roannaise — I manage to make the bow tie pasta al dente. I stir in the peas and the pesto, divide among four plates and then dollop on the lightly salted chevre. My guests and I gorge ourselves on this latest creation, exclaiming as several nuances emerge and caress our taste-buds — oh là là!
I suggest that we take a short break before the dessert. My cocker spaniel is nipping at my pant legs — signaling that it’s time for the guests to go home as he needs my full attention (and some treat toys with the leftovers).
But my other dog, who is mostly poodle, is having the time of her life (bien sûr), making several rounds with the guests for extended petting sessions.
Enfin, it’s back to the table for my chocolate dessert, which, I’m sorry to say, falls a little flat because — absolument incroyable! — it’s too chocolatey. Is that our fault (we don’t know chocolate from chocolate) or could the recipe use some sugar?
But the purplish-brown figs, which are ripe and ever-so-sweet, save the day.
Over little cups of coffee we all agree that my Parisian lunch at the hands of Elizabeth Bard has been an affair to remember.
Monday, Oct 10 — the morning after
My husband calls in the wee hours of the morning. He is now in Tokyo, with another week to go on his business trip.
“How was your Sunday?” he asks.
“Well, I had some my sister and some friends over for a little lunch,” I reply, thinking to myself: what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
I go back to bed and awaken several hours later, at around 8:00 a.m. I lie there for a few minutes, basking in the afterglow of yesterday’s tryst.
When I at last rouse myself and face the mounds of dishes still to be done, I realize that this little flirtation of mine has its costs (not to mention my exhaustion at having to clean the apartment).
At least the hole in my pocketbook isn’t too bad. I reckon this particular fling has cost me around $80, including the wine — not bad considering what it would cost for four people to go out for a proper French lunch in Manhattan.
Hmmm… I wonder if I can fit in one more quickie meal before my husband gets home on Friday?
As Mario Cuomo, former New York State governor and father of our current governor, once said:
When you’ve parked the second car in the garage, and installed the hot tub, and skied in Colorado, and wind-surfed in the Caribbean, when you’ve had your first love affair and your second and your third, the question will remain, where does the dream end for me?
Touché — only I don’t think he’s ever been seduced by French cuisine à la Elizabeth Bard?
Images (top to bottom): Friendly fishmonger at Tompkins Square Park; little neck clams in fennel; an enthusiastic canine participant; chocolate pot with figs.
STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post on classic displaced writing.
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