Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Making sourdough bread in various places

Back in Avignon, I've got my starter for sourdough bread. It's been alive now for a few years and as I make bread weekly, it is refreshed regularly. I've got my stash of multi-grain flour, the honey from my beekeeper, the sea salt, etc., It's a very regular and dependable act for me to make bread in Avignon. My bread comes out nicely airy, with a good crust, sweet, tender... mmm my mouth waters as I think of it. I store my starter in a glass jar in my fridge, which is pretty new and not too cold, but cold enough. (My renters found it not cold enough for their milk, so they turned it into an igloo, but that's another story). I change jars for the starter relatively often, so they are clean, etc.,

I started a starter at JP's last year, during one of the school vacations when I was there longer than a weekend. However, I don't use it too often, and thus don't refresh it very regularly, and in any case, his fridge is way less cold than mine. This, plus the fact that his oven is rather dinky-- can we say simple and minimal needs' bachelor?-- and that I'm often up to other things there and might forget the rising bread (most particularly as I've tucked it out of sight so it isn't on the counter in his way), leads to some less than successful bread making attempts at his house. In general, the bread is heavier and more acidic at his house, lighter and sweeter at mine. So, it's edible, but not truly mouth-watering and yummy.

Here in Michigan, I've got a starter going, and I made one good batch of bread, but the second, well, I wasn't there to plop it in the oven at the ideal moment, and the air is cooler so the rising was difficult to time, and there is more humidity... My second batch turned out heavy, dark and more acidic. It's not bad, but it is akin to the dark, grain-filled Norwegian bread that is often sold in health-food stores in France.

So, what to learn? Sourdough and starters, the rhythm necessary to bake good bread, the attention to time, temperature, humidity, ovens, all are variables that shift the final product. A basic fact is that I live most often in my Avignon home and thus have figured it out. Whereas these other homes find me flitting in and out. Or, is it in the air? the atmosphere? Can one take this as a symbolic of something more?

A parable for the ages

As I read to Leo from Alexander the Great the other night, we came to a chapter where Alexander climbs deep into the Caucasses mountains and comes to the cave where Prometheus is chained. As they speak, Prometheus tells Alexander a tale:

There was once a son of a merchant who lived well in a small town. One night he dreamed of a well in a garden with black roses, in a village far, far away. And at the bottom of the well, he learned there was a sack of gold. So, he decided to pack up his belongings and set out in search of this sack of gold in the far off garden. He traveled far, and he suffered many set-backs. He was set upon by brigands; he became ill; he lost his belongings; he endured hunger and exhaustion. At long last he arrived in the far off village. But there, he was viewed as a poor beggar, and as the poor receive a poor welcome throughout the world, so did he in this village. He was picked up by the local authorities for disturbing the peace. However there, his luck changed a bit, and one of the soldiers took pity on him, remarking that his behavior was not that of a typical beggar. And to this man the merchant's son told his story, from where he came from, to his dream, and to his arrival in this state. The soldier looked at him and laughed. Only two people follow such dreams, fools or children, or both, said he. I took had a dream once of a well with carved lions atop it, and at the bottom of the well was a sack of gold. But I put that aside to live in the real world. The soldier then gave the merchant's son such as was necessary to cloth him properly and set him on his way back home.

Once home, the young man went straight to his house, and through this to his garden, and there, he took a ladder and put it down his well, atop which there were carved stone lions, and at the bottom of the well he found the sack of gold, and from this point, lived comfortably ever after.

When I told this to my mother the following day, she said to me, "so, where is home for you?" Good question. Where is my personal garden?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cool Breezes up North

Despite the nightly rain storms, the slow and heavy mosquitoes, and the cooler temperatures, we are out and about daily. A summer of fires in the fire place, oodles of monopoly games, puzzles and legos and cards. Just to reassure those not of this area, it is unseasonably cool this year, and the agricultural schedule is very much upset. Normally, there would be fresh corn, zucchini and yellow squash at the farm next door by mid-July. The cherries are very late -- to give you an idea, there is a cherry festival over the first weekend of July here every year, and this year the cherries had to be imported from Eastern Washington! Global warming is to be renamed as unusual climate shifts.

It's apt though, to spend vacation vegging with a good book, baking cookies, making hot chocolate for a crew of children. With time on my hands I'm plunging into a classic -- George Elliot's Middlemarch. Leo and I are making slow headway through his Alexander the Great, and Mom is finding time to drill some English spelling into his head.

Previous summers found us on the beach for hours every afternoon. Such is not the case this year. But no one seems worse for wear. Then again, we who've arrived from Provence have already had three months of lovely sunny weather. It's hard to believe that the locals here have only recently put away their heaviest sweaters (fleece, light sweaters and jeans are still very much part of our wardrobe). Yes, I spent the month of June in tank tops, shorts or light skirts, but not so my friends up here. I still drool when I think of the gorgeous tomatoes I was slicing up into salads not so very long ago....

Today, at long last, the sun is shining, the tennis court has dried off, and a boat trip to Long Island (a lovely sandy spot on our lake) with a simple packed picnic is the plan. I'm hoping to find a moment -- the first of this trip -- to wack at some tennis balls with Ma this afternoon, as well as Leo.

I get short notes from Provence from various friends, but mostly, it seems a far off world to us right now. We're all getting our "American fix" in through trips to the cinema, popcorn, Grandma's brownies and Michael Jackson memorial magazines (for Leo). And yet, I've had no cravings for my classic junk food purchases (unfrosted blueberry pop tarts, white cheddar cheese popcorn, and cream-cheese frosted carrot cake). Any significance in this?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Evolution of a Self

The more we live, the more we grow. The more we travel, the more we learn. The more trials, stumbling blocks, frustrations and sadnesses we experience, and if possible overcome, the more our confidence could grow; or, the more our sense of humility and gratefulness for our place in this world is deepened.

Perhaps trite, perhaps a bit over much. But, there's a reason my closest friends are women who've lived through difficult separations, women who are at times struggling, and yet always find it in themselves to be generous, to listen, to come to another's aid. Who can judge another? Whose right is it to be the arbiter of what is truly acceptable?

I've had one of those cross cultural moments (yet again). I love living in France, but I am tempted to live in the States. This makes sense. It's the world I come from, and a world I hope my boys will know and perhaps love as I do. I'm still toying with the question of where they will some day go to college, and where I'll be best able to communicate values and structure to them.

So, I'm tempted by America, and in that case, Americans? Yes, if I could live a whole life, and bring my children into a home with a traditional "archetypal" family. I'd like to provide them that. The articles I've read in the past months tend to stress that above all, children need structure and reassurance post-divorce. Far worse to move your way through multiple love affairs, encouraging the children to grow attached to a new 'almost' parent, and then have it all fall apart. Second marriages, recombined families, these can be wonderful or, add to the mess of emotional confusion. So it's rather risky either way.

Thus, living in Avignon, taking in boarders, adjusting to my current life. All this is pretty much okay for my boys as I'm there, and I'm consistently there, and my rules and requests are clear and understood. So, do I accept the virtues of my current arrangement (love on the weekends, family during the weeks), or listen to that little voice inside who wishes I could put all that together into one package?

To that end, I am confronted by the complex person that I am, and the reactions I inspire in others. To put it simply:

In France, a first impression sees that I am female, blond(ish), a bit flighty, and American. Any notion of substance or past education, etc., come later, though I do always get the "if only I could speak English like you speak French" comment.

In the US, I come across as hyper-verbal (perhaps joyously speaking my mother tongue which I master just a bit better than French?), East-Coast and Waspy. It's a visual thing, but also a family thing. In any case, I apparently intimidate and overwhelm. Watch out for the babbling blond....

And so, I fall back on playing monopoly with my two very amused and happy boys. Realestate moguls both, they left me indebted to the nth degree, till I begged out of the game.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Summer Reading

Leo and I have our projects. Reading and Writing are at the top of the list. Not surprising, after all my stress and the various tests for learning disabilities and such that he's been through recently.

His teacher has given us two books to read this summer. A young person's Alexander the Great and the Odyssey. Both, normally, adapted for young readers. We've begun with Alexander and as we most painfully and slowly work our way through it I am relearning grammar, seeing words and sentences with another eye, and living through Leo's level of comprehension and frustration.

Three sentences devoted to a hydraulic column, references to Alexander's chief scientist, indirect pronouns in a third sentence making reference to the said column further back in the paragraph. Is it any wonder he's having a hard time? The glories of the battles, the achievements, the mystical nature of the visits to the oracle, the witch that is his mother... few of these details can penetrate through the dense and yes, at times beautiful language. I struggle alongside. I translate for him (should I be doing this for a French-born child?). I put the information into simpler phrases, and stress the imagery of what is being communicated. I want him to be able to then write sentences in his own words that summarize what we've learned. To bring back to school in September his own version of the book, ready to check and use as his teacher does whatever she's planning on doing.

When I read with Leo I return to the imagery whenever possible. In my classes for the Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner teachers' training, we stressed holding the images in our minds to facilitate story-telling, and the importance of putting images into the children's minds through words and actions.

Leo and I have had our breakdowns this week -- thirty minutes of severe unhappiness, weeping at his self-described stupidity which I strenuously, lovingly, achingly denied. Oh how hard it is for him! Writing just doesn't come easily. And reading: Well, he's reading in both languages, but in French it is hard, it is not flowing into his brain as it should. It requires re-reading, going back over and working through each sentence, each paragraph. He feels terribly at a loss, and declares that he's ready to give up and simply become a street sweeper.

And then, glory of glories, we had a beautiful breakthrough last night with English. Thank you to the Anglo-saxon world for so much marvelous children's literature. We plunged back into a book we'd begun this spring; he reading a paragraph, and then I. In this manner we read a chapter or two. And then, I was ready for my bath. I was tired; it was dark; and the weather is chilly. Well, he followed me in (once I'd chastely covered my privates) and began reading to me aloud from our dragon book while I soaked in my soothing hot water.

Proudly, delightedly, he acclaimed his newfound ease at reading aloud with as much pleasure and speed as when he reads silently to himself. And I added, you are also reading the punctuation, the periods, the commas, the question marks, the quotation marks. He's reading with feeling, comprehension, and the pleasure of story-telling.

Yes, I was tired, yes, I might have read my own book quietly in what is normally a rather private moment. But, I would never dare dampen burgeoning enthusiasm, and self-confidence.

Day by day, hope blossoms again.

Water Sports; into the Woods

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Adjusting to being here

Sometimes, it just takes time. The belief goes that you get over one hour, i.e. one time zone, of jet lag per day. Thus, from Provence to Michigan, six days should do it for my head, sleep rhythms, hunger, meal times, etc., But, does the same theory work for cultural dislocation?

Six days into being here, I feel just about almost here. I'm learning to chill (re-learning). I'm enjoying that cleaning here means sweeping out the sand, brushing off the window seats, and wiping down some counters: marvelously minimalist.

One historical murder mystery done, and a pile waiting to be slowly and leisurely enjoyed. Early mornings peacefully sipping my tea, reading old New Yorkers, Newsweeks, catching up on the Book Review. Then a quiet walk in the woods. No cell phone attached to my ear, no agenda, simply the birds singing amidst the swaying branches.

My eyes are seeking out tree-climbing trees. Why are there so few in these woods? When I was a child, there were more, weren't there? But now, the firs seem few and far between, and the ever taller deciduous are resistant to the small arms of a child eager to scramble and discover. Neighbors pass me with their dogs, their walking sticks. The early morning walk on these dirt roads is a favorite amongst us all.

When I roll out my yoga mat, the loons are calling, laughing in the distance. Then comes the peck, peck pecking of the woodpeckers, and lastly, the cawing of crows, no doubt reacting to the prowling of my mother's cats. I've put a yoga pod cast on, and the jarring sounds of the Philadelphia based voice directing my movements is a bit invasive, even though I follow it calmly. As I look up from half-moon stance, I see the trees sway. The mosquitoes are a heavy, slow-moving breed, but numerous. I leave a very non-zen cemetery around me as I swat, kick, slap through upward and downward dog.

And yet, it is all starting to feel right. This is my history, a world I know and love. I've been so rarely here over the past few years. I've worked so many summers at the b&b, doing the cooking classes, the teen courses, and more. It is a deep and distant part of myself that is getting a chance to re-emerge.

It's me, and it's other, and it's awakening as I watch with joy my sons re-discover the lake, kayak for the first time, rule the roost, and my mother, flapping those flippers through the water.

Now, I've got to get over my hot weather toes and get into the water myself. It's almost as disorienting to go from 90(35) degree weather to 65 (20) as it is to adjust to all the shifting cultural clues and elements.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Where do I belong?

I arrived in Northern Michigan Friday evening, just two days ago. It is beautiful. My children are happy as munchkins, blending in with their cousins (Leo has now scorned his smaller French bathing slip for the preferred American-style shorts, or jams as they were called in my day). They are most happily adjusting to the rhythms of tennis in the morning, pancakes or muffins by Gramma, outings to the dunes or on the lake, and large, boisterous family dinners around pork roast, barbeques, spaghetti and lots of pies and ice cream.

And it is wonderful to be here. So why do I find myself out of sync? I adore my cousins. With them the conversation flies, stimulating, funny, cogent. We cover the quite a range: politics, life experiences, good books, dogs, horses, kids. We listen, we share. It's just neat to be together again, whatever generation we belong to. It is when I leave the family compound that I feel askew, awry, out of sorts. Part of me is thrilled to be at the local mac store, with these super-helpful and very bright young folk helping me sort out my difficulties (alas, no, I cannot correct the country code lock on my Macintosh DVD drive by purchasing an external DVD drive. I can no longer watch American DVDs with this machine). Ditto the downtown book store with their warm home-made scones, their piles of books by local authors, signed and awaiting purchase. It is a friendly and marvelous place I've come to. I adore the local organic coop -- and am planning on picking up some more organic cotton socks there this year.

But, I am startled by the sheer size of so many people walking down the street (sorry!). How politically un-correct of me. But it is startling to see so many large bums in pastel shorts; so many bellies overhanging their jeans. My eyes are startled, and my ears are adjusting to the different range of accents. Have I become so European? Back in Provence, I feel soft and chunky. Here, I'm as slim as they come (well not like a young girl of 12, but still, for 43, I'm doing ok).

Back in Provence, when things are a touch too much, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I've romanticized this corner of North America: Its wineries, great restaurants, beautiful outdoors, great organic scene, numerous green, energy-efficient homes. It is a place I hunger for, and I entertain the possibility of moving her, for a year? for more? But the huge roads, the huge trucks, the abundance of over-sized ice cream portions, the pink fluff served on French toast, the French named restaurant which has decisively misspelled its name (Amicale). Yes, I'm a bit freaked out today. I've only just arrived. So, I just need to take it slowly, right?

I'm way psyched about the Michael Moore sponsored Film Festival at the end of the month. I'm adoring the quiet of the woods, the family tennis, the books, the chance to simply chill. Other years, I've taken advantage of the outlet malls to get clothes for the kids. But for some reason, I'm feeling overwhelmed by the extra-friendliness of everyone. Gosh but they're all super-nice here. It's almost surreal.

Sometimes you forget what an alternative "normal" feels like.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Theater in Avignon

Just before departing for the States to be with my family amidst the woods and lakes of Northern Michigan, I revisited my city on the opening day of the celebrated Festival d'Avignon. I, unfortunately, had neglected to put the chip back into my camera, so the following images are all cell phone quality. Sorry! however, the vibrancy, joy, excitement and hoopla were fully present. We wondered down the main drag to the tourist office to grab the large book of "festival-off" offerings -- always interesting, rarely expensive, and happening at all hours of the day.

A short time settled in a cafe, the book at hand to flip through, artists and hired hands putting flyers in our hands, we contemplated the evening's offerings. It was uncontested that we view the performance of my renters -- five enthusiastic parisians of all sizes and shapes commentating the festival, but what would come next? Chinese dance? comédiens déjonctés? Penis monologues? Jean Cocteau? Shakespeare in French put to music? The options were infinite.

In many ways though, going to a small theater and viewing actors on stage is great, but, watching the live theater as it unfolded in the streets and on the squares... now that was truly worth the trip.

Sunflowers: the field of choice

Surrounding my home, covering the plains between Maussane les Alpilles and St. Martin de Crau, rolling away into the distance on the road from Arles to Tarascon, sunflowers. It is a tourist's paradise. They are at their peak. My renters were enchanted. Along the roads, cars with distant license plates stop to release the shutter-happy travelers, capturing this moment on film (or digital as the case may be).

And yes, I joined them, if only to share with my distant friends. It is rather spectacular, and even after years of this ferocious display of yellow, I am in awe of the majesty of these heads proudly following the arc of the sun.

If only they would stay this way. However, the sad truth, is they will stay in the fields, unharvested, till late this summer. The seeds are ready when the heads have shifted from this lovely bright tone to a dark brown, dried by the summer heat, bending over, called by gravity to face the earth. My August renters will have these in view from the pool. Ah well. All life must follow its course.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer vegetables inspire

Shopping at the market this morning I spotted eggplant, and gorgeous tomatoes. Yesterday I'd unearthed some potatoes from the vegetable garden. And suddenly, the urge to have fried eggplant and a fresh, long-cooked tomato sauce just overwhelmed me, or at least some variation of such. Early, very early, in my time in Arles, Erick prepared me his Aubergine en Estrasses, aka La Riste d'Aubergine. It was a revelation. Never had eggplant been so delectable.

My mother had attempted fried eggplant when I was a child. Somehow it never went over. She dipped the thick round slices in eggs, then bread crumbs, and fried away, I don't know in what oil, likely a Crisco product. They were bitter sponges of oil, with, progressively, more and more burnt crumbs upon them. Now, don't get me wrong, Ma can cook, but this was not a dish she had mastered, and I found it pretty darn inedible. So, eggplant and I, well, we took awhile to get acquainted.

Then there was the eggplant in black bean sauce at the Chinese restaurant where I was hostess nearly every weekend through high school. That was pretty good, with lots of garlic. Atop rice it made a meal. Yet, there again, the oil content was rather overwhelming and I'm sure it didn't help my figure.

So, along I came to Provence, by the Mediterranean Sea, to a land of summer vegetables. Yes, both the eggplant and the tomato were late-comers to these shores, the former from the new world, the latter along the silk and spice routes. But oh how they have adapted.

The craving for the nutty, salty flavor of the olive oil fried eggplant, paired with the sweet and intense flavor of summer tomatoes accosted me, and thus, my purchases followed suit. However, there were still those potatoes to consider, and a bit of sausage meat seemed tempting. Why not attempt a variation of a Moussaka? I've not my cookbooks here with me at my friend's, but I've my taste memories, and a few culinary skills to apply so, why not wing it? What follows is what I was inspired to do, and does not follow any existent recipe by an esteemed colleague.

I began by slicing the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkling them with salt to sweat -- layer by layer in a casserole dish, I laid down eggplant slices (about 1/4 in or a 1/2 cm), sprinkled on salt, and continued till I'd filled my casserole. Then I put this aside and forgot it, allowing the salt to do its work drawing out moisture and bitterness.

My attention then turned to the potatoes. I put these in some water to boil and soften. (a handful of small ones, all told 2 cups when riced).

Then I chopped three small onions and put them in a pan with some olive oil. As they sweated I pulled out my sausage meat (yes, this time round, I was more in the mood for sausage than ground beef) and added it to the onions. While these browned a bit, I chopped up my ever so red tomatoes. The onions nicely sweated and the sausage mostly cooked, I added the tomatoes to the sauce pan. I then smashed with the side of my knife and chopped finely 3-4 garlic cloves (about 1 tablespoon plus of garlic). I went down the outside stairs to pluck some bay leaf from the tree, and added these to the mix as well. The heat drew out the liquid in the tomatoes, and the sauce began to cook down.

I then got out a thick bottomed frying pan and began a béchamel sauce. I had a memory of a smooth mashed potato topping on Moussaka. So in went a nice chunk of butter, then a tablespoon or so of flour, once I'd blended these together with the whisk I poured in a cup and a half of milk, relatively slowly, whisking all the while. For once I made a béchamel in a frying pan not a sauce pan. I think I'll continue doing this. The process goes a bit faster, and keeps me beside it, thus limiting chances of forgetfulness, sticking on the bottom of the pan, etc., Once the sauce began to thicken a bit, I sprinkled in some grated gruyère cheese, and a few leaves of oregano from outdoors. I whisked till it was all just blended, then turned off the heat and let it sit.

Meantime, my potatoes were cooked (I just gently tested them with a knife, to see if they were tender). I put them in some cool water so I could handle them, and then put them through the vegetable mill to rice them. These I added to the béchamel, and blended together.

I could then turn my attention back to the eggplant. I'd only let them sweat the time it took me to handle the other manoeuvers. Erick would have been sure to let them sweat at least an hour and a half, if not two, till properly wilted. Ah well, perfection is attainable by some, and others make do with the time at hand.

So, as I learned from Erick, I rinsed these eggplant in lots of running water, squeezed them out and laid them on a dish cloth and tapped them with another till all the droplets of water were pressed out. I poured some olive in a frying pan -- enough to nicely cover the bottom. I turned on the heat, and 3 to 4 slices at a time I fried for just over a minute a side -- I wanted them lightly browned, but not too. I used my tongs to turn them, and then lift them out of the frying pan, letting a maximum of oil drip off before transferring them to a colander to continue draining. I continued till I'd finished all the slices.

All along my tomato sauce was simmering and concentrating. mmmm.

Now, all my separate ingredients were ready and I put it all together: In a square baking dish a layer or two of eggplant, then some of my sauce with sausage, another layer of eggplant and sauce, and then topped off with the smoothed potatoes (to which I'd added a bit more milk as I saw them thicken when cooled). I grated a touch of nutmeg on top, sprinkled some paprika and hot pepper, and then into a hot oven for 30 minutes till the top was nicely browned.

(not the most elegant of presentations, but it was yummy!)

A proper lunch for a summer's day, no? and my vegetable cravings soon to be sated. Mmmm

Here is Erick's original recipe for the fried eggplant and sauce:

Riste d’Aubergine/ Aubergine en Estrasses - Fried Eggplant in tomato sauce

A dish so simple and yet very rich in flavor and pleasure. Its second name “en estrasses” makes reference to the appearance of the wilted and fried eggplant (esstrasse means an old dish cloth).

Preparation time : 1-2 hours to sweat the eggplant; plus 45 minutes -- though if you’ve a bit more for the sauce, it can only get better.

One kg eggplant (2.2 lbs)
salt for sweating the eggplant
1/2 - 1 cup olive oil for frying

For the sauce :

3 tblspns olive oil
One onion sliced
One kg tomatoes (2.2 lbs) peeled and chopped coarsely
3 garlic cloves crushed and chopped
3 bay leaves
one tiny dried hot red pepper (cayenne, bird’s tongue)
fresh water as needed

Slice the eggplant in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick lengths, leaving on the skins. Layer in a rectangular casserole dish, sprinkling liberally with salt to sweat. After an hour or so, rinse well under fresh running water, and tap dry.

While the eggplant is sweating, start the tomato sauce. In a large sauce pan pour in the olive and add the onions. Simmer till translucent (sweated), approximately 2-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook till they release their juice (5 minutes or so). Add the garlic, the bay leaves, and the pepper and let simmer. -- A note here, I prefer to use a tiny hot pepper in my tomato sauces rather than black pepper. I find that black pepper becomes bitter when simmered over a long time (like black tea) and in the end, adds only a bit of “hotness”. Whereas, the tiny red pepper raises all the flavors in the sauce, never too hot, but just more lively. -- As needed, add fresh water (especially if you’re working with a sauce pan without a lid). This has the added benefit of allowing you to cook the tomatoes longer and therefore have a sweeter richer sauce flavor when you serve it. Do not let the liquid reduce to a thickness that would encourage the bottom to burn. You want a relatively liquid sauce. Cooking time can be an hour or more. The general rule with tomatoes is the more they simmer, the less acidic they’ll be. Towards the end of the cooking time, take a potato masher and crush the chunks of tomato in the sauce, this will thicken your sauce and smooth it out.

Your sauce underway, check your eggplant. If it’s well wilted, rinsed and tapped dry, pour the olive oil into a deep frying pan (you want at least a 1/3 inch or 1/2 centimeter of oil in your pan). Let it heat up (a minute) and then start frying the eggplant slices, as many as fit into the pan easily, turning when lightly browned, and then remove them to a platter with a paper towel on it to absorb extra oil. Continue till all the slices are done. Set aside till you are ready to serve. To serve the dish, ladle the hot sauce on the eggplant in a deep serving dish, each person receives 3 or more slices with accompanying sauce. Enjoy!

Monday, July 6, 2009

My new bathroom sink

OK, it's no big deal, and it's been two weeks now, but finally, I've the photos, and I just wanted to put these up. Banal, personal, random. Yes, I admit it. Perhaps it's a girl thing? Fixing up a house and putting my personal stamp on it? At long last?

When I purchased my house in Avignon, it had particle-board based tiled surfaces in which were placed sinks -- both in the bathroom and the kitchen. These, were pulling away from the walls, the tiles were buckling, and the faucets were rusting in this ever-worsening environment of spongy woodishness. So, after two and a half years, I at last changed them.

I am very lucky that one of the mainstays of my Avignon existence is a dear and talented plumber (patient and willing) I've known since before Leo's birth. Few friends are so useful.

Changing the kitchen area was pretty easy. It now has two large round sinks, and a lovely wooden work surface -- covered in innumerable coats of organic hard oil. (see earlier post)

The bathroom was another matter. I was inspired by the bathroom choice of friends who live in the Vigan -- up in the Cévennes. They had found a bottom of a hutch, chopped holes in the top, placed their sink(s) and faucet(s) and used the shelves below for toiletries, etc., Neat, funky, personal, and easy, right? There are so many second-hand furniture places in the area, Emaus, Troc de l'île, Troc Souris, etc., that I just figured when it was time I'd make the rounds, pick up a suitable piece of furniture, and voila, it'd be easy. No IKEA neutral modern bathroom for me.

The first step went as planned. I went to three stores before finding a 1930s hutch with a reddish marble top, in a lovely solid red-toned wood. There was a mirror to go with it, and a top cabinet, but these I figured I'd get rid of, and/or deal with once I got the piece home. It was just 150 Euros -- a steal, right?

Once home, the challenges began. My nice round copper sinks (which were the only part of the former arrangement I rather liked) weren't going to fit. The piece was too shallow to take them, and cutting round holes in marble is not an easy or inexpensive task. Okay.

Next step, find a sink that would fit in this particular piece of furniture. Divided in three sections, the center hole (above a nice drawer) was 62x 40. I got onto Google, and away I went. And, I found it. IKEA had a sink that was 61x 41 -- the top measure, the bottom was smaller. So, with Pascale in my passenger seat on her own mission to purchase small rugs to put under yoga mats, off I went for a very long morning to IKEA (it's an hour plus drive from Avignon to the closest IKEA in Vitrolles, just outside of Marseille). Sink in hand, back home I came by 2pm, ready to get to work (or rather supervise said work).

The piece of furniture is too tall to be in the bathroom says Patrice. Hunh? Let's saw off the legs. No biggie, right? Hmmm. Patrice the plumber does as I ask, but grumbles a bit. And the faucet? Oh, can't we use these nice ones that were with the old sinks? Well, IKEA sinks are supposed to go with IKEA faucets, so that's easier said than done. -- Please?

A good bit of time and dexterous scrambling later, all is in place. There are aspects of the arrangement that are really pretty cool -- my bathroom is far "cleaner" than it used to be, with fewer items in view. The red-tinged marble is beautiful and practical. Unfortunately, rather than two sinks there's now only one, which is a shame. However, it is long and thus two people can still brush their teeth at the same time. Patrice tucked a length of oak behind the hutch, to deepen it and permit air space for the plumbing along the wall behind. I brushed a few coats of organic hard oil on it all to protect from splashes, toothpaste, etc.,

The renters -- particularly the Parisian theater artists -- think it's way cool, as did my girls Lucille and Magali before they left. Girlfriends find it lovely. Men go harrumph. JP commented that normally, when you brush your teeth at the sink, your feet go under the piece of furniture, so this would be an issue. Oh. Jonas happily steps onto the IKEA kid stool I've had for ages. So at least for him, the height doesnt' seem to be an issue. And other short people are welcome to use the stool too.

Yes, yet another example of a stubborn and somewhat artsy/funky woman getting her way, with some grumbling yet helpful men alongside. Here's the before and after:

A difficult moment with my elder son

There is a constant I suppose when you've two children (or more I'm sure) that they will bicker and this will drive you crazy, or not, depending on your achievements in the world of zen meditation and your state of sleep-deprivation. Sunday morning we were up at five. I came to pick the boys up at their father's at six to head to the TGV station in Avignon. It's an easy drive, and they, being so eager to see Gramma and their cousins, were ready to leap into the car -- is this why we forgot to double check to see if they'd packed their tooth brushes and bathing suits? In any case, it was an easy trip, at least the first forty-five minutes of it. Leo babbled to me about his week, and Jonas piped up a bit as well. Leo had had a glorious time at the beach with friends and Jonas had watched oodles of TV -- what's new? Neither had put a brush to their teeth since I'd last seen them Friday morning at school eight days earlier. I dared not ask about baths.

Before getting in the train, it began. I offered the two of them each a book for their trip, and Leo, rather than looking at his, pushed it aside and wanted to read his brother's. Ticked off that Jonas preferred to look at the images of his book than to have his brother read the text to him, he sulked, tried to rip the book out of his hands, and sulked some more.

"Leo, remember when you were little? you liked looking at the pictures too and figuring out the story yourself. Why not let Jonas do so? then afterwards you can read the text to him."

"But I didn't have a big brother to read to me, so he should let me read to him."

hm, touché, yet how to explain that it was a good thing that his brain learned to decipher imagery and create his own imaginary tale? That the text is great, but not necessary?

Onwards. In the train, I was able to avert immediate melt-down by reading a magic treehouse book to Jonas. This one was on the Civil War. These books are simply marvelous and as a family we are devouring them. Leo enjoys listening in when I read to Jonas -- occasionally replacing me if I'm unable to finish a book --, and he learns perhaps even more than his brother. Being raised in France, the American Civil War, our history of slavery, the realities of that brutal time is completely foreign to them.

An hour later, book finished, the early rising starting to weigh upon us all, I suggested to Leo that I read him some of the new book I'd offered him. Not particularly interested, he permitted me to, but wasn't into it. And not being into it, and having his brother right in front of him, the bickering and teasing and toe stabbing and kicking, etc., etc., began.

Jonas has that classic younger kid way of putting up with just about anything and not complaining. Go ahead Leo, twist my foot, step on it, push back my toes, that doesn't hurt. (I remember something of the same between me and my older brother...). Leo pushed harder, twisted harder, and then when there was no reaction forthcoming, went to give him a kick in his privates. OK, time to intervene, that's enough. But nothing I say seems to work -- cajoling, threatening, nudging, distracting, menacing. I switched seats, and at last they shifted to a game of cards. From that point till our arrival at our destination (a not quite four hour ride), they managed to stay somewhat well-behaved.

But once there, it started again. And of course, it is two-ways. Jonas provokes, Leo reacts. Leo hits, Jonas hits back. The middle finger is pointed, hair is pulled, bags are dumped, kicks are given, insults spoken... des gros mots en profusion.

And here, I lose it. It's noon, we've been up since 5, I'm tired, they're behaving abominably, and I return to my mantra: "Leo, the strong one learns not to react, to ignore, to let pass the insults and provocation. The strong are above all this. A strong horse simply lays back his ears, bears his teeth and stares down his opponent. He doesn't need to kick and bite. To be strong, you need to be above all this, learn to control your reactions. Or otherwise, it is your little obnoxious brother who is the stronger."

For Leo, nothing could be harder. How can he ignore an insult? How to not react? It's impossible. He has to get in the last hit, tap, or insult. It is his right as the elder, he must, or where goeth his pride?

"No, when you are reacting on the fly like this you are putty in the hands of your opponents, you are the weaker, you must get control of your emotions..." I'm getting a bit carried away, and then, I say the unforgivable, "if your father had learned to control his emotions -- it's called being politique -- things wouldn't be so difficult right now for him."

Ok, where did that come from? Perhaps the letter from his lawyer yesterday morning? and our rather tense discussion about it at 6AM? Why spew that at Leo?

And I got what I deserved: Out of the mouth of my babe, "it's your fault, you left Daddy, you spent too much money to buy the Avignon house. We wouldn't have so many problems if you'd stayed with Daddy."


The screens on the back of the airplane seats will change the images in their heads long before they arrive in the US. But, for me, it will resonate, and the truth of what Leo thinks and feels is there to consider, and, somehow, deal with.

At last a bit of baking

Since I left my house in Avignon on the 27th, I've barely cooked. What with the numerous errands at the French family services (aka CAF) and Sécu, touring guests around the Lubéron, the Pont du Gard, and to the cheesemaker's, and more housekeeping for the switch of renters this Saturday, cooking has just not been on the top of my list. That said, when it is 35C outdoors (over 90F), food, particularly cooked food isn't that appealing.

When I switched homes on the 27th, I arrived with some odd perishables, and pantry basics. I turned some old bananas that had defrosted in my freezer during its move, turned raw milk, and the basics for baking into banana bread. A bit heavy, but quite edible, this served as my breakfast and our snack food for the week. Otherwise, salads, left-overs, a couple of cookies, and lots of water dominated my diet.

Today, a day after bring the boys to the airport to fly to the States to see my mother, I slept in and contemplated the house, the fridge, my culinary state.

With the heat outside, bread baking is not an easy option. In my Avignon house, I've a large and very efficient fridge (though my renters chose to up the intensity of its chilling power, and left me an igloo to defrost Saturday!?), and I'd succeeded in making my no-knead bread by putting the second rise in the fridge to limit the acidic flavors. Here at the mas however, I've neither the oven, nor the fridge... bread is desired, but I'm not too keen on attempting it in such poor conditions. Ah well, an experiment for next week. Ice is always an option, right? Whoops, there's only one ice tray in the freezer. Ice is a relative option.

So, the banana bread consumed, I decided to make use of what was left of my turned milk and started out by making some good old-fashioned biscuits this morning. Yum! they're good. Sour milk biscuits with baking soda. I blended in some butter, a bit of palm oil and salt with the 65grade organic baking flour (what a baker would typically use for a baguette here, the closest you come to all-purpose).

My father was from Kentucky, and I've some of the most delectable taste memories that involve sour milk biscuits: flaky, not too high, perfect golden topped white rounds. Cora-Mae, the peaches-n-cream complexioned ball of short softness from across the river in Virginia, was my father's family cook throughout his childhood and mine. As old as my grandmother, she welcomed us to her kitchen (our favorite place) when my brother and I visited the grandparents in Louisville. Every morning, we had her biscuits for breakfast -- toasted, with butter melted on top, alongside sausage and eggs made to order. Goodness, were we spoiled! On many a trip we begged for a stash of those biscuits to bring home to New York with us. And Cora-Mae never disappointed!

Ever since, the art of biscuit making has been honed and tested by my brother and myself. He being the scientist, all is carefully measured, notes of each test are jotted down, and he has been the bearer of the perfect recipe for a good while now. Myself, I've read Shirley Corriher's discussion on biscuits, tried different flours, different recipes, different tricks, and now, I just wing it. I believe I must have lived a life centuries ago and been one of those old grandmas who never measures, as now, I continually test my visual and textural senses when baking, far more than my mathematical skills.

To each his own.

As such, I really can't convey to you the exact recipe I used this morning. Approximately 3 cups of flour with perhaps a 1/4 cup each of palm oil and butter, a good pinch of salt, a teaspoon of baking soda. I worked the fat in with my fingers, and then just moistened with my sour milk. Once moistened, I then put rounded lumps on my baking sheet, the size of two soup spoons or so, tapping my hands in flour to work more easily, and baked them at 200C (385F) for a half hour in the tiny apartment size oven of JP. In my own oven, I'm sure the cooking time could have been halved. However, I've made it a habit to stick nearby when I bake, to keep an eye and my nose alert to the "done" signals. Thus, success.

Lunch was salads and quiche. Can't go wrong there, right? a few zucchini, an onion or two, bacon, eggs, milk and grated emmental cheese, in my whole wheat crust and we're all set.

The only problem with baking in the summer, is heating an already warm house... air conditioning not being de rigueur here. Oh well. Tonight it will cool down again, and we'll open all the windows. Perfection is unattainable, I seek it not.

And oh dear, my carrot cake experiment was far less successful. Perhaps I should have added a third egg?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Money: saving it and spending it

I was a very good home economist this year, or so I believe and so my collection of monthly receipts confirms. I managed to feed my horde of 5 kids and myself mostly organic, lots of fresh vegetables, and quite a few yummy treats on an average of 200E a month or just under. I started out the year by spending a whopping 450E at the organic wholesale market on the basics, filling the larder if you will:

15 kilos of various flours
3 cases of pasta (12 packets of spaghetti, 10 bags of fusilli and 12 boxes of lasagna)
3 kilos of green lentils
5 kilos of brown rice
5 kilos of basmati rice
3 kilos of couscous
3 kilos of quinoa
10 kilos of grated gruyère cheese (which I promptly stuck in the freezer)
a case of sweet butter (ditto, into the freezer)
10 boxes of rice cakes (6 packs to a box)
3 liters of soy sauce
3 liters of cold pressed sunflower oil
3 kilos of brown rapadura sugar
3 kilos each of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
a case of crushed tomatoes
a case of plain tomato sauce
a case of ketchup
a case of plain puffed rice cereal
3 kilos of 5 mixed flakes (for granola, breads, galettes, etc.,)
and 30 eggs (something I try to get twice monthly)

plus household supplies:

5 liters dishwashing liquid
5 liters laundry detergent
6 liters wc liquid

I didn't need to return to the organic wholesale market for a while after this-- flour is the only ingredient I go through really fast making weekly batches of bread, brownies, muffins, pancakes, quiche, tarts, etc.,. Come December, I started spending somewhere between 50 Euros and 100 Euros monthly on organic basics.

I then made a pass by the huge grocery store near school, Auchan, for sponges, gloves, tea and coffee, chocolate, strawberry jam, salt, dog food, etc.,

Weekly I pick up fresh fruit and vegetables from the local farm (about 15-20 Euros a trip), jars of honey from Sophie, the beekeeper (a kilo lasts a month plus with us -- at 10 Euros a kilo), and on average twice monthly I collect 8 to 10 liters of fresh raw milk from the farm down by Erick's house. This the kids drink fresh, in hot chocolate (a breakfast standard till it became simply too hot), in cereal, and when it goes off, I use it to bake muffins, cakes, biscuits, soda bread, and more.

Once every ten days or so, I fixed animal protein. I keep a stash of some bacon or ham around for quiches, fried rice, etc., and then pick up a nice chicken or rabbit, or even tasty sausages or org. hamburger to enliven meals.

My girlfriend Pascale, returning to Switzerland once monthly with her boys to see their father, brings me back huge quantities of recycled paper for the WC and paper towels. Enough to last the year, and no more than 25 Euros for the year's budget.

With the above, we made do. Dinners were variations on a theme: lots of grains, vegetables and either cheese or eggs as a protein. Breakfast was generally my slow-rising multi-grain bread, but also the occasional batch of pancakes or soda bread. They were all addicted to basic strawberry jam, so this became a weekly staple. Throughout the winter I made large batches of vegetable soups with whatever was in season. All but Leo (not a lover of soups) ate their way through onions, fennel, turnips, rutabagas, squash, cardoon, cabbage, celery root, beets and (easiest of all) carrots. Lentils were a hit with some, not with others. Quiche was a very popular option, as long as there was nothing green in it. Squash required some hiding (a great addition to mac-n-cheese!) and went into cakes and muffins as often as on the table in its more identifiable form.

The nights I just couldn't face cooking -- generally after my weekends at the winery, or a particularly long day touring with clients -- it was pasta and salad, or even bread and butter and salad, or bread with melted cheese and and slices of melon. There were no complaints from the masses.

Afternoon snacks varied from the simplest: rice cakes with jam or honey or chocolade (an organic nutella); to whatever I'd been inspired to put into the form of a muffin -- with a constant stash of turned milk or whey, baking soda, organic sugar and flour, eggs and vegetable oil, I simply played around with extras like chopped dark chocolate, bananas, apple sauce, spices and carrots, cocoa, vanilla, apricot jam... whatever was at hand and tempted me. The rare batch of brownies never lasted too long, but there I had to resist all personal temptations to add spices or coffee... my boys were inevitably terribly distressed if the flavor wasn't pure chocolate. Vanilla was the only permitted additive. Fruit, particularly as spring and summer made their appearances, was a constant. During the winter, we went through kilos of tangerines and oranges.

Lasagna was quick and easy, and I always had the ingredients on hand. Chicken with honey and spices could be stretched into at least two if not three meals.

As for drinks. I didn't buy either fruit juices or sodas, ever. It was water, raw milk and my batches of home-made syrups with the garden herbs (mint, lemon verbena, elderflowers, lemon balm) and organic sugar. I enjoyed my evening glass of wine (a benefit of having a vintner as a friend). And voila.

If there were indulgences, they were rare, but appreciated: a case of organic chocolade was an investment at nearly 50 Euros, but the kids do adore it. And I brought back stashes of Tazo black chai from the States as my morning beverage.

When I decided to limit dairy in my diet due to my constant sniffles, I purchased a case each of rice milk and soy milk, plus bars of palm oil from the organic wholesaler. The former, being simply to add to my tea or for the occasional bowl of my home-made granola, last quite a while in their sterilized containers. The palm oil is great for baking, helping my tart doughs be flaky and my chocolate cakes purer in flavor.

And now. The house is nearly empty. I put what was left of the dry goods under the stairwell and brought the perishables with me to the winery. JP and I ate the last of my two kilos of organic lamb from Gaetan's father yesterday.

Come September, I'll start over again, with a different set of boarders, my kids a year older, and perhaps a different weekly rhythm of English classes, translations... we'll see. The first year could be classified as a successful experiment in living simply yet well. Non?

Just in case you're wondering, nearly all the recipes for the above mentioned foods (and house staples) can be found in earlier blog posts.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Leo as Dieu Pan

For the first time in his school life, Leo received the honor of the lead role in the younger grades' end of year play. They were three in his class who raised their hands, asking the teacher for this honor. And he was chosen. He was thrilled. Unbeknownst to me, this play which is a yearly event now for the school, resonated in his heart and he'd hoped as he entered into his 5th year class this September, that he might, just might, have this role.

It is and was a big deal. Leo is not at the top of his class and he knows this. As the French put it, "il galère." We're working with writing and reading therapists to improve his grammar and spelling skills, and simply to assist him towards a fluidity in the act. He is quickly exhausted by writing, and has as yet not grasped the necessity, nor the true usefulness of this act. The time spent learning French grammar, writing, and more in class is for the time being, time wasted. Little seems to have entered his head. The parts of speech, and the families of rules (i.e. the adjective mauvais is akin to anglais is akin to français), that these go from masculine (mauvais) to feminine (mauvaise). In French there are ten different ways the sound "a" is written. However, each (é, ais, ait, ai, ée, er, et, è, ez, et) has its moment and its place. As a child, I simply memorized what I was taught, good little girl that I was. But oh how complicated this grammar stuff is! and spelling in both English and French is as much about history, linguistics and roots as about pronunciation. Culture is communicated when we learn to spell, and one who masters a written language is viewed as cultivated, educated. It is a separator of class, and mindless, frustrating, useless and more as it must seem to a child who actually thinks and reflects to learn this strange thing called grammar -- rather than obediently, unquestioningly learning as I did -- it could be that which impedes his ambitions later in life.

Leo is living this duality, this frustration. On the one hand ever so aware of the kids that do well in class, and on the other, wearied and quickly discouraged when he attempts the school work before him. And yet, he is one of the eldest of the class, and he tries so hard to be good. He is a protector, a leader at heart. This dichotomy is a struggle. What is it to succeed? What virtues do size and age convey? His best friend in class is a year younger, and at least a year ahead of him in reading fluency and writing.

And yet, he received this honor. An honor that, had he not been able to memorize the 40 lines of the play, he could have shared with another. But this idea was not for him. He would do the work necessary to memorize his lines, and he would be present at each rehearsal with each participating class. The first grade (in which his brother Jonas is) were gnomes, spirits of the earth.

The second grade played mosquitoes and frogs, there to awaken the summer spirits.

The third grade were the hot salamanders, there to warm the earth and encourage the plants to transform flowers to fruit.

The fourth grade were the spirits of the air, carrying seeds to new destinations.

And the fifth grade was divided into fauns (the boys) there to taunt man and stimulate him to better,

and ondines (the girls), the spirits of the water, there to moisten the earth.

Leo, as Dieu Pan, led them all, asking of each spirit what he or she had contributed to the earth, to life on this day of the St. Jean, the Solstice. He asked, he approved, he guided, he led. And with grace, he intoned, he scolded, he praised, and he went upon his way.

We were there, his father and I, ever so proud. And he looked to us, smiling shyly, happy, proud, and concentrated on his role. Oh, he fell out of character occasionally when he wasn't speaking, but he popped right back when he spoke his lines. The teachers of the school, who've known him, watched him, and discussed him (he's a favorite case) were impressed, proud, and as one put it, eager to watch him grow up. With such a moment of glory behind him, there will be great moments before him.

As his mom, I praised him, but I also reminded him that I was there to watch his little brother too. Yes, he has the lead, yes, it is a huge honor and I'm prouder than proud, but this is Jonas' first play, Jonas' first line, and Jonas' first act in the school tradition. I am ever so proud of them both, and there is enough to go around, truly. No need to insist that the lime light be his. It already is. But, graciously sharing it would be nice too, no? ... we're still working on it.