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Monday, March 23, 2009

MY YEAR OF PROUST

What most people know of Proust, if they know anything at all, probably has do with his now much-publicized reference to that wonderful rich cake-like cookie called a Madeleine. Proust is Marcel Proust of course, a French literary figure of the early 20th century who is known for writing autobiographical novels about his youth and his observations of the aristocratic life in Belle Epoch France. A key scene in one of the stories is when, as an adult, he is served a Madeleine, the taste of which allows him to remember and vividly portray to his readers the circumstances in which he had enjoyed the delectable cakes in his childhood. He describes how just one taste made him so happy and how he recalled details about visits to his aunt and her house, the room and garden where he last experienced the taste of a Madeleine cake.


I came to Proust a little differently, and with no knowledge or experience with madeleines. I came to him by way of an Adult Education course catalog listing which said “Reading Proust”. The course description included the name of the book that was currently being read, the fact that the reading was aloud, and that there was discussion on the reading. What a luxurious idea! I had never read Proust, but it seemed to me that to read him would be the ultimate in basic and cultural literacy. As an English Literature major I was familiar with the works of Shakespeare, and Chaucer but it had occurred to me that my education was not completely rounded out. That I could do with some other influences. Spanish or French writers for example.So I signed up and showed up, ready to learn at the appointed time and location. The city of Santa Barbara has adult ed. classes in various locations throughout the city. This one was at a beautiful little Spanish style center which had its start as an elementary school but was probably deemed to be too small to be effective for that purpose now. The campus had nice lawns and large stately pepper and olive trees. A gorgeous setting and an auspicious beginning for a new literary adventure, I thought.

Finding my classroom I walked in and saw a collection of interesting and distinctive looking individuals, most over 60 years of age None fit any particular mold or look, particularly if I had a stereotyped image of older people. They all looked comfortable with themselves, and in particular did not appear to be of the“beautiful people” style that many associate with a place like Santa Barbara. The dress style was casual and in some cases carried to sloppiness. But then there were the casual elegant women who wore scarves and shawls and interesting hats. The teacher had all the markings of an ex-hippie from the 6o’s, longish hair, camouflage shirt worn over an emblem t-shirt and Birkenstocks worn over socks on his feet. I later learned that he was, in fact, much older than I thought, but of the type just the same. Amazingly, this particular class had been going for 35 years and quite a few of the people in the class had been there for most of it, coming and going over the various seasons. Apparently the reading was on-going, one book giving way to the next, in the way Proust had written them. I learned that even though there are several separate books, Remembrance of Things Past, In search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way, The Germantes Way, and others, they are essentially like one continuous story.

I came in, gave my name, signed the roll sheet and took a seat, making sure to not be too close to the front, lest I be called upon. After the formalities of the new season and roll-taking, the teacher started right in, assuming, rightly in most cases, that the attendees were up to speed with the current story, and familiar with Proust in general.

It seemed that only I was not. The teacher himself started in reading. The stories had to do with our main character in the book which, I was to learn, was Proust himself in literary disguise.. From time to time the teacher would stop reading to explain or comment on something just read. After a while, he would pass the task of reading to a volunteer, who would also pause to comment from time to time. Proust’s stories, like all good literature, did not exist or stand alone, but reflected the society at the time. History, politics and especially social mores were all revealed in his words.

The class was two hours long, with a short break in-between hours. The time flew.The readers pronounced the French impeccably and in their added commentary frequently gave more detail than was apparent, or even called for. They knew that stuff inside and out. Many recalled their own visits to France over the years and the places mentioned in the book. They drew parallels between the past as depicted in the story, and the present that they themselves had observed. I felt, looking at some of them and their ages, they might well have visited or inhabited Paris in the authors’ time so listening to them was magical transport from the everyday.

Ultimately, I am unsure what was more compelling for me; the stories in the book or the other “students”. The stories were, in my opinion, stilted flights of fancy. I found Proust’s character to be somewhat tiresome but of course greater intellects than mine would energetically disagree. Nonetheless, I came away from there feeling that I had had a very unique experience because of the others in the class and my exposure to their perspective. If the purpose of a school is to educate, I did get an education, just not the expected one.

These days it’s easy to indulge in those tasty little cakes that evoked such poignant memories and so inspired Proust without going all the way to France. They are as close as your local Starbucks or Trader Joe’s, available in tidy cello packages. But for those purists who would have the real thing, this version of the recipe is rumored to be the closest to Proust’s “squat, plump little cakes”. You can make your own and your own memories.


Madeleines
Makes about 20

2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon lemon peel
pinch of salt
1 cup all purpose flour
10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375. generously butter and flour pan for large (3 X 1 ¼”). madeleines
(A metal mold with scallop-shaped indentations)
Using electric mixer, beat eggs and 2/3 cup sugar in a large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, lemon peel and salt. Add flour; beat until just blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.

Spoon 1 tablespoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 16 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pan. Repeat process, buttering and flouring pan before each batch. (Can be made 1 day ahead.)

Dust cookies with powdered sugar

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Simple Gifts

I have a recipe for memories. At least for my memories. You probably have one for yours. Mine is one I found a while back that seemed close to something I remember my mother making, though not from any recipe. She just called it fideo and this recipe calls it fideo soup. Fideo is a thin noodle and calling it soup sounded different, but the preparation seemed similar so I made a copy of the recipe, intending to try it someday.

Well, the someday came unexpectedly. We had been away on an overnight “getaway” to Coronado Island, which is an hour and a half’s drive away from us so easy to get to. I say getaway but observe to myself that we really have nothing that must be gotten away from. Nonetheless, we did. Coronado is a small island linked to the city of San Diego by a large bridge but has a separate and distinct identity. The town area is small and walkable, with all the necessary amenities for a nice visit. For me that includes a place to have coffee, a nice glass of wine or cocktail, a bookstore, appealing restaurants and a few clever shops for browsing. Coronado has all of that in spades. The place to have a nice drink is the bar at the venerable Hotel Del Coronado, a place we do not stay at, not being inclined to want to part with the amount of money they require for those historic lodgings. But we can have entrée to the feeling of being there for the price of a drink, and be there to watch the sun set, since the bar is perfectly sited for that.

But no matter how entertaining it is to go away, it’s always nice to return and slip into the comfort zone that is home. And with that, the enjoyment of other things like simple food, frequently the opposite of what was enjoyed while away. Not having cooked or even thought of cooking while we were gone, now it sounded like a nice idea. And I happened to have what seemed like the ultimate comfort food recipe, one like mom used to make. I was set. After checking to be sure I had the ingredients required, I started cooking. I was pretty confident I could do it because after all I had seen my mother make this a million times. That’s all I really needed to know. Or so I thought.

The recipe tells you to break up the fideo into small pieces. I recall seeing her do that in one or two easy steps. So I started breaking up the little pasta “nests”. They don’t break tidely, I found. I had fideo scattered all over the stove, counter and floor of the kitchen. Then once it was broken, I had to sauté it in olive oil. No problem. I had seen her do that too. I did not reckon with the sheer volume of pasta, however. There was a lot! All confined in a small space - which was actually a pretty good sized pot. It was a lot trickier than I thought, getting it all browned but not burnt – as cautioned.

The rest went pretty smoothly. The tomatoes, garlic, onions made a nice sauce. The recipe calls for pureeing all the sauce but I recalled that mom did not puree her tomatoes but instead chopped them roughly before adding them to her pasta, so I reserved about a two tomatoes worth of chopped tomatoes rather than puree them all with the sauce, then added them to the mix with the pasta. I thought it made a more textured soup.

When all was done and the flavors melded, as the recipe states, I was transported back to my mother’s kitchen. This was not her exact recipe, I know. But close enough. It is comfort food of the best kind. Not just what it is, but all the wonderful feelings that came with it, both the making and the eating.

I may just have to rename this recipe Mom’s Fideo Soup.

Fideo Soup
Serves 4

Ingredients:
1/2 c Olive oil or 8 tablespoons
-unsalted butter
12 oz Fideo, vermicelli or angel
-hair pasta, broken into
-1-inch pieces
4 Dried or canned Morita or
-Chipotle chiles;
2 lbs Italian Roma tomatoes
8 Garlic cloves,; peeled
1 lg Onion,; roughly chopped
1/2 c Water
2 tbs Salt
6 cups Chicken or vegetable stock
1 bunch Cilantro, leaves only,
-chopped for garnish

In large saucepan or stockpot heat 1 tblsp oil, add onion and sauté 5 -10 minutes,add garlic, saute lightly and set aside. Add remainder of oil to the pan, add pasta and saute until golden, stirring frequently and being careful not to burn. Stir in chilis and cook for 2 minutes longer.
Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, garlic, onion, water and salt in a blender. puree until smooth. add tomato puree and stock to browned pasta. Cook over medium-low heat until the noodles soften and the flavors meld, about 20 minutes. Serve hot with cilantro as garnish.


Notes: This made a thick hearty soup or a soupy pasta, depending on how you look at it. I did not see fideo at my local Bristol Farms so bought angel hair pasta instead. Apparently the reason for sautéing the pasta has to do with keeping it from swelling up as much as it does for its more standard use so make sure it is all browned as noted. I think I did not brown mine enough and so it sort of grew. I suspect that it would be possible to make enough of this for the recipe with 8 ounces of the pasta which is actually a more typical packaging amount than the 12 ounces suggested here. I may try that next time.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Life, the Universe and so on

Life has a way of slapping you every so often. I was going to say slapping you down but that’s not really true, in most cases. It’s more like “attention must be paid.” It can be relationships problems, family issues, money, car problems or any other type of thing that gets in the way of living the life that you think you should. In my case, right now, it’s health. Good health is one of those things I have been blessed with, for the most part, other than the usual stuff. But I have made the amazing discovery that when you get past a "certain age” which I suppose varies per person, health issues increase.

I have done my share of whining about this state of affairs with those who might care. After a while I get tired of the subject and hearing myself and move on. My mother’s mantra was “adelante” or “go forward” and that’s what I always strive for, and mostly succeed.

And, I have happy news to share; I have discovered the secret of life. I won’t keep you waiting, the secret is, drumroll please – upbeat music and cooking. What, you expected something more complicated or mystical? But that’s good news people, it can be that simple. I emphasize “can be” because I am fully aware that for some it won’t be.

But, here it is. It is a sunny Saturday afternoon. (It is California after all.) I am listening to an old Joe Jackson Body and Soul CD turned on loudly because I am the only one around. I am roasting potatoes and parsnips I just bought this morning at the Farmers Market. Roasting vegetables always smell wonderful, in my opinion, and I sample as I go, dancing in between tastes and tasks.

I am happy.

The process is the fun part but I am also anticipating the eating part which comes later – with a nice Pinot Gris. Yum yum.

I don’t guarantee results but I know happy music, dancing and cooking nice food go a long way towards making almost anyone feel good. Even more so when there’s no one watching, you can let it all out.

So go find music that makes you want to sing or dance along. I’ll provide the recipe.

See, that simple.

Roasted Vegetable Galette

Ingredients
One 9-ounce sheet of puff pastry, chilled *
6 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
Six 1-ounce fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme
8 oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry 1/16 inch thick. Cut out a 12-inch round and transfer it to the cookie sheet. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Arrange the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and bake for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes are done, slide them to 1 side of the baking sheet and scatter the potatoes on the other. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and golden and the tomatoes are lightly browned. Let cool.
Turn the oven up to 400°. Spread the leeks on the puff pastry round to within 1 inch of the edge. Top with the tomatoes, potatoes and thyme. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edge is puffed and golden. Scatter the olives over the galette, cut into wedges and serve.


make ahead
The recipe can be prepared ahead through roasting the toppings stage. Refrigerate the pastry and toppings overnight. Bring the toppings to room temperature before assembling and baking.
* I use a 10-oz. regular galette dough for this recipe. I frequently have one in the freezer since when I make them my recipe makes two.

ps. The recipe doesn't call for parsnips but since I like them and found them at the FM today I added 2, cut in rougly 2" cubes and roasted with the potatoes. You could probably do this with turnips too if you like.
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