Back in the [bread-baking] groove

Summer is looking a bit care-worn by now, even though this year, for the first in many, the grass has stayed a bright Irish-green throughout, and our little patch of herbs is so abundant that it looks downright provençal. I can see a few leaves starting to turn here and there, and, although I will keep the sun-loving geraniums to their last bloom, I know it’s soon time to trade them for mums.

Heat-averse, I stayed away from the oven most of the summer. In the last week, I realized how much I’ve missed making bread. Time to get my groove back. Partly to use up what I had on hand, I started with a no-knead semolina. I mixed the dough in my bread bucket, using my trusty dough whisk (there’s the King, back in my kitchen again!), on Friday morning and refrigerated the dough. Earlier today—Sunday—I formed the loaves, brushed them with a slurry of corn starch and water, slashed, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, and set them to rise while the oven heated up.

I’m accustomed to letting loaves rise on a parchment-coated peel, then sliding them, parchment and all, onto the pre-heated stone. Alas, I remembered too late that I was out of the pre-cut parchment that comes in so handy for making bread and baking cookies. I coated the peel with corn meal, but because some bread dough is wetter than others, and this one was, I still had a hard time maneuvering the loaves onto the pre-heated stone.

However, as Shakespeare so wisely advised, “All’s well that ends well.” Is there anything more luscious than the scent of baking bread? The crust browned and crisped nicely. I could hardly wait to try it. Five minutes after taking the loaves out of the oven—a bit too soon, I concede—I sliced off the heel. The crumb was decent. Slathered with butter, it was good, as only fresh-baked bread can be. Not my best effort, but not bad for a three-month lapse. We’ll enjoy it toasted for breakfast, with cheese for lunch, and with soup tonight. I’ll stash the second and third loaves in the freezer for another day.

Three loaves to the good, and I’m back in the groove.

Routines like this are as comforting, and comfortable, as a pair of mukluks in a November chill. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m gearing up.

This time, last year…

Because so many of us are feeling the need for respite right now, it seems a good time to share photos from our last visit to New England. It appears that 2017 will be one of those rare years that we don’t go north. So much the better to have beautiful images to rely on when skies are gray, literally or figuratively. 

 

 

 

St. Martin… a love affair

We have been fortunate enough to have made many trips to Sint Maarten/St. Martin, so much so that over the years, it became more like a second home than a vacation spot. The exotic became the sweetly familiar as we got to know the people of that remarkable little island—half Dutch, half French, all heart.

Although the Dutch side has more trappings, it was the French, St. Martin, that captivated us.

It is where we both had our first taste of French culture, of being immersed. Marigot—on the French side—is where my classroom French took the leap to real conversation, thanks to my dear, dear friend Dolly, who always knew how to reframe a story for me when she could see I wasn’t getting it. It’s where I learned everyday words you don’t find in textbooks. Like tapissier, traiteur, and impasse—upholsterer, caterer, and alley!

It’s where we would sit early in the morning, at the Croissanterie, watching the marina come to life.

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Where our friend Asha’s son, Dino Jagtiani, become one of the most celebrated chefs in the Caribbean—but never lost his sense of what matters.

Where lovely Elisa—and her assistants over the years, especially Vera and Fanny—taught me how Italians dress. And where Serge sold me those gorgeous shoes.

It’s where Mercedes and Mona would greet us in the little store, introducing us to their families, chatting about school and clothes and how to make peas and rice. And Eva grinned from ear to ear as she shared her son’s affinity for soccer and math.

It’s where Christophe, that perennial fixture, always found us a good table at lunch. And John, his moto buddy, regaled us with stories of his native Denmark and the time his daughter saw the queen.

And it’s Grand Case, Baie Rouge, and Cupecoy, Pic Paradis, Fort Louis, and the butterfly farm, and horses on Galleon Beach. It’s the old Match—not the fancy new one—and the store near the bridge with the poulet rôti.

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It’s “Mrs. Mario” feeding leftover gnocchi to the tarpons leaping out of the water next to the terrace. It’s the flamboyant tree and hibiscus and plumbago—everywhere—and the mongoose we saw in the Terres Basses one Sunday.

It’s everyone dressed up in their Easter best, headed to church. And the neatly uniformed  kids, walking happily along the road to school. It’s the woman whose tiny Yorkie, Madison, kept watch in her children’s store; the pharmacie, where we found French remedies you can’t buy in the US; and Maison La Presse, where we bought stationery and Paris Match. It’s slipping into the skin of a place you grow, very quickly, to love.

So much more, so very much more, than lying on a beach.

We have heard that St. Martin is “95% destroyed,” that lives have been lost. At this writing, we believe that many of our friends are well and safe but… Jose is en route.

The French say, “Bon courage!” when someone is facing a hard patch. I can’t even imagine the trauma of living through and after this terrible storm, with a second on its heels.

Bon courage, nos amis. Nous les aimons bien.

Cover photo: Fort Louis, standing tall over Marigot.

In praise of celery

The approach of fall always makes me want to cook. For one thing, it’s the high point of the harvest. For another, temperatures drop to a more reasonable, less humid level. What follows is the first of my fall culinary musings.

We have a friend in Virginia who is a very fine cook. She gives traditional Southern fare, like Brunswick stew, her own little twist, often lightening up the dish to suit more health-conscious diners but never sacrificing flavor or texture. I once asked her how she did it. Her reply was immediate and to the point.

“Celery,” she said, in her elegant Southern drawl. “It’s highly underrated.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Celery has long held a certain eminence in fine cuisine, irrespective of its welcome crunch in a Waldorf, potato, or chicken salad. The mirepoix, that French staple, is a fine dice of celery, carrots, and onion—a combination also used in the construction of many Italian soups and sauces. The Cajun cooking staple known as the Holy Trinity—a term I learned from Emeril Lagasse in the early days of the Food Network—is a fine dice of celery, onion, and green pepper. Spain and Germany have their own versions, which you can read about in a fascinating post by Lindsey Howald Patton on the Serious Eats blog. You’ll note that some of these combinations substitute celery root or use leek instead of onion. One could also easily trade the onion for shallots, for a more elegant flavor.

What set off this rather unlikely post was an article I found in my inbox not long ago, from the online magazine TASTE. It was all about celery, and it was surprisingly interesting. It made me want to head to an antique shop in search of a celery vase. Read the article here.

Celery and olives, sometimes with carrots, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas with raw fennel, were always on my parents’ table for special occasion dinners. Celery is in just about every soup that I make. Celery as a vegetable—as opposed to a base ingredient or crudité—is given much more respect in French cuisine. Any vintage cookbook will provide recipes. And, of course, so will our darling Julia Child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a note

It’s a surprisingly cool day for the end of August. Typically, we have summer weather right through September. But nothing about the weather seems typical now, least of all the great tragedy of Hurricane Harvey. Our hearts remain with the people of Texas today. We wish for your safety and the rapid return of bright, blue skies.  And—not to jump on the virtue bandwagon—we hope that many will find it in their hearts to help out in any way they can. 

Yarn on the farm

Dear knitting friends,
I love watching your fingers deftly move yarn over and under, around and through. I love that you are never “just sitting,” that even your leisure time is productive, and that every piece you turn out, right down to those dishcloths that last forever, is one-of-a-kind. I love the subtle click of the needles and watching the fat ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller, down to a single strand.

Whereas being in the presence of a chronic texter agitates me, in the company of a knitter I am serene. Knitting is cozy and old-fashioned—there’s a ball of comfort in every woolly skein.

My New England cousins knit and crochet, as did our aunties who have since passed. My BFF has been knitting elegant sweaters since we were in high school. My daughter-in-law’s mother knits for those in need.

My Aunt Lea taught me to knit when I was about 12. She tutored me patiently, through a loden green crew neck sweater—knit a row, purl a row, with a knit one-purl one ribbing. I did well enough, but a dropped stitch was my nemesis; I got my adolescent Italian up whenever I had to rip out a row and start over. Over the years, I made a hat or two and a few afghans, but I never tackled a sweater again. Hopefully, my demi-retired life will allow me the time to become a better knitter.

When my New Hampshire cousin visited recently, she was knitting the cutest socks. She told me that turning the heel was the “most exciting part” and with great enthusiasm showed me as the little puff of a heel gradually took shape. She asked if there were any nearby places to buy yarn that was “like the old days, when you could feel and smell the lanolin.” [I should point out that she knew by name the sheep who was responsible for her last sweater, and that when I introduced her to my knitting BFF, it was as if they shared a secret language.]

I wasn’t optimistic about finding a fresh-from-the-sheep yarn store here in Central Pennsylvania, but  I dug in and searched just in case. And guess what? I was wrong. Just half an hour away, we found a yarn shop on a terraced farm nestled in the woods, stocked mostly with yarn from its own fiber mill. There were goats and angora rabbits and other four-legged friends. We each bought enough of the “hodgepodge” yarn—the mill odds and ends from various animals— to make a scarf. I’ll share it with you when mine is done.

Our trip to Blue Mountain Farm and Fiber Mill and its yarn store, A Knitter’s Dream, from which you can order online, was another one of those serendipitous, “right under your nose” discoveries. Gifted, committed artisans are everywhere. these days.  What’s right under your nose?

 

 

Book club… the morning after

I read many different writers and genres. These days it is mostly, but not exclusively, fiction. Sometimes, the novels that earn the most critical acclaim fall flat with me because in my mind they are generally overproduced, or over reliant on artifice. I much prefer storytelling so tight and well crafted that it doesn’t need contrivance, storytelling that helps me, by subtle association, to understand who I am and where I came from.

I love beautifully expressed, poetic sentences; but I love honest irony, good humor, and even a little healthy cynicism just as much. I love characters I wish I would meet on the street, characters I know I will miss when the book ends. I love it when place itself is a character. I love it when a wonderfully imagined book inspires me to imagine in turn. I love it when a book makes me cry—not in a maudlin way, but because my heart has truly been touched, or because I see some small piece of myself or my history in what I am reading.

I didn’t even have a book club in my life until the last few years. Now that I do, I freely admit that I’m not the world’s most compliant member. My attendance is erratic—real life, as I am fond of saying, intervenes—and I am stubborn about my personal book queue. In fact, I’m probably just a tad elitist when it comes to the books I want to read and when I want to read them. That’s the eternal English major in me. If I have a book queued up that I’ve been dying to read, it will probably supplant most book club selections.

Book clubs take a fair amount of heat. I myself disparaged them for years, thinking I couldn’t possibly enjoy reading based on a group-prescribed agenda. But our book club is friendly and forgiving; we all contribute suggestions, and the monthly selection is pulled out of a hat. Nobody cares if you haven’t read the book, but most of us usually do.

Because reading for me has always been an “individual sport,” I never would have pictured myself liking a book club. Two years or so down the road, I’m grateful that I gave our book club a chance. At its best, it has forced me out of my queue into the wider world of other genres, other writers, other people’s preferences. At its best, it’s almost like being back in a favorite class again. The warmth of the members, of course, is not insignificant, and the patience of those who coaxed me to show up continues to be deeply appreciated.

Last night, after a lively and insightful discussion that in the end made me like the book I’d just read less than I thought I had, the question was raised as to whether we should switch to bimonthly meetings. The group’s response was an overwhelming NO. I was both surprised and delighted at the ensuing comments. That “no” wasn’t about the wine; it was about the books. Friends, there is hope.