I am back


I am back in New York. My bags are unpacked and I have done my laundry, which is an event, because there is no washing machine at my house and I am too cheap to take it to the cleaners. It has been a few days, so I am waking up at 4:30 in the morning instead of 2:00.
I am cooking the most basic things I know. Chicken pot pie and pea soup. I could use a roast beef and popovers with buttered and honeyed carrots. Macaroni and cheese. A pork chop. Butterscotch pudding and whipped cream. I might pop some corn in a pan and drown it in butter.
Saturday I have to put my chef suit on and French it up, but until then I just want home.
In case you are in the mood to travel, Saturday’s Plan:

Amuse bouche.
The beauty of Gabriel Hamilton’s food stirs my insides, so to get me going I am starting with her Planked Tomatoes and browned butter

Then I will walk in with the First.
Buckwheat galette, Roquefort, schmear of cold unsalted butter under a rip of fresh basil or I am going to stir the roquefort into a little heavy cream and finish it with creme fraiche. It will settle people into their chairs.

Second.
Pan seared and roasted chicken with so many cloves of garlic and wild mushrooms
Braised leeks

Salad and cheese course.
Greens with fresh herbs and classic vinaigrette
Cheese—I have to wait and see what moves me at Murray’s
Marrons Glace—there is never a guarantee guests will like these, but at this point in the meal they need the boost of getting fired up talking about how much they love or hate, oversugared chestnuts

Dessert.
Apple tart and creme anglaise

I am thinking of serving a red wine pear sorbet in the living room when they come in the door. Risky, but it is good to remind people there is another way of doing things.
Knee socks are cute with a skirt. It doesn’t always have to be stockings.

First day flashback

Montsoreau market this morning in the rain. My students asked me if we were going to cancel. “Cancel?” I don’t even carry an umbrella. I think I was a farmer in my past life, or the principal in the “before” ad for Noah’s Wife Wear. I gave them an extra 15 minutes with their coffee, and then we made our way over the single lane bridge to the village. We found every vegetable ever invented for Fall in the French countryside—-cauliflower, parsnips, as many onions as you can think of, pumpkins in the shape of fat raindrops, tomatoes of every shape, and horseradish root.
I will wait til we get to know each other before I buy the horseradish; it always makes me cry. Which of course happened anyway when I saw the pink mushrooms. I was unprepared for them. It was windy and the rain was coming down, and there they were under a little umbrella shelter, just as pink and ruffled as they could be. I told the vendor she was beautiful. She was.

Call me Minnow


I know for my swagger that I am easily mistaken for Mr. Schwarzenegger if you squint, or possibly “Mama” from that Carol Burnett skit.
But the truth is, there is a list of things that scare the bejeezus out of me.
Bears.
Wild boar when it is pitch black outside and I am walking on my own.
Any fish that brushes by me in the water—I don’t care if you are a minnow—stay on your side of the pond.
Insurance forms.
Taxes. I would rather give you all of my money than worry that I overlooked paying some tax, leaving myself wide open to jail time.
I am definitely afraid of jail time.
Love used to be on this list.
But it is not anymore.
Definitely cooking if I feel it involves a test, spoken or unspoken.
I am about to go to France, and France is a test. I know how to cook. I do not know all of the cheeses and all of the wines. I cannot identify all the fish off the coast of Normandy, and I have never fattened a goose for its liver. And about one thousand other things. They would struggle to mistake me even for a minnow in a restaurant kitchen in Paris.
But I can make a boeuf bourguignon that you want more of. And a tender cheese soufflé. I am confident of my coq au vin and of my delicate whole fish stuffed with herbs and packed in a salt crust with a silky side of beurre blanc. I can make a rice pudding hum with the scent of vanilla bean and caramel.
Which isn’t much; none of it. Unless you are coming home. And it is waiting for you.

Show ‘em what you got

I just parallel parked in front of a packed house at the Fizz bar, in Lisciano Niccone. Lisciano Niccone has a total population of 64 people. Not that many, but a tough crowd to impress. Parallel parking is all I have got.

I have been coming to Lisciano for 25 years, but they don’t really believe I am an actual cook; I am an American.
I arrive to work in Italy without my child; never completely acceptable.
I speak Italian like a problematic car with a good paint job.

So, nothing. All I have got is the parking.
I did it in one fell swoop.

Unusual around these parts only because although they are only 64, they have a parking lot next to the bar for at least 100; more if people drove with a buddy. There is loads of parking around the fountain in the center and up the side streets you can park where you like. So there is absolutely never actually a need to parallel park.

There is no need to ride two ponies while standing up, wearing a pink tutu, but people do it.

I ate leftover osso bucco and risotto for dinner last night, with a side of fresh fennel. Dinner of champions.

Teeny tiny sea shell


I have decided on my days off between teaching, to go camping at the beach.
It is called Fiorentina della Pescaia.
There is an ancient fort at the top of the village and a row of restaurants along the shore below. My favorite is a place at the very beginning of the rocks that divide an inlet from the sea. The dining room is nothing but windows wide open to the water and salty air, and tables and chairs that look like they have been recycled at least twice. Fishing boats anchor alongside and the flapping and snapping catch is loaded directly into the kitchen. I don’t know what the kitchen looks like behind those swinging doors.
There can’t be much more than a massive bucket of teeny, tiny clams, a bucket of butter, a barrel of fresh parsley, one of garlic, a pasta pot loaded with baskets of spaghetti, a load of hot pans ready for the clams and somebody with a good arm and a loud mouth, for throwing everything together and then yelling that it is ready.
Unless you are allergic, there is no reason to get anything other than spaghetti alle vongole.
It is perfect every time. Along with, I get a half carafe of slightly fizzy white wine. No dessert. When I am done, I like to just sit for a minute with the tablespoon of espresso, heavy with sugar that sinks to the bottom of the cup and then get up and walk along the beach in the dark.
The ocean always brings me back; like they used to promise in those Calgonite commercials.
Next to where I sleep at home, under the lamp, there is a teeny, tiny little shell to remind me.

Where to find me

To get to the room where I sleep at La Macchia from the back door, you first pass through a small entry hall with a bathroom, then through the room where the riding equipment is kept, the walls lined with saddles, bridles, and whips, then through the hall with the winter kitchen to the right, and the main steps to the left. Keep walking straight on, to pass through the telephone room, where all the fencing gear hangs on three of the four walls, and where the door to the larder is all the way to the back and to the left. It is packed with homemade marinara, marmalade, beans, and pasta. Keep going, through the holding room, where platters are held for service in the dining room or great room, depending on the size of the crowd; those are the two doors to your left. The two doors to the right are my bedroom, and a tiny bath with a tinier tub. My room is huge. Massive wooden beams on the ceiling and a bed fitted with cotton sheets as heavy as wool blankets. The windows are eight feet high and even though they are on the first floor, they are twenty feet from the ground.

Below me is the cantina where the olive oil and wine is kept. There is a chariot down there as well and an old convertible Volkswagen bug. There is a press for olive oil, with massive stones and a hook up for the mule, but it is not used anymore.

There are guests visiting at La Macchia from England, and tonight is their last night. There are 36 rooms in this house, and even though they were sleeping directly above me, for their first four nights, I had no idea they were here. I have heard movement up there before when there was most definitely no one else in the house, so I don’t pay attention. The house was built in 1300; possibly before, but that is as far back as the family bible shows record of. If ghosts are going to rumble, this is the place.
I have the honor of being considered family, so as the rest of the family was off to the beach for the weekend, I was asked to look after the guests.

I will cook. I am going to make a mushroom risotto, osso bucco, and a salad of arugula, peaches, chive, red onion, and mozzarella. From there, I don’t know. I have to lift myself from this seat to have a look at what is left in the village market.

Cold enough at night to wear my sweater to bed

It has been sunny since I got here, with a thick fog in the morning that coats your arm hairs. Mountains of clouds wash through and occasionally drop rain, but never for more than an hour.
The group drove off to San Gimignano with a visit to a winery. They only stole one glass and bought enough wine to put in a few more rows of grapes.
Tonight: Chianina steaks and sausages. Roasted planked potatoes with a spill of cream, fresh sage and garlic baked covered, and then rip the foil off the pan and broil til crusty brown as soon as the meat is off the grill.
Until the steaks are ready: naked eggplant, and mozzarella with tagiasche olives and basil.

At the end, a chocolate flourless cake with a little espresso, covered with gently whipped cream with vin santo tipped in.

There is a kitten that jumps me every time I sit down by the stove to watch the eggplant under the broiler, and has taken ownership of my lap.

Pork chop

I used to carry home with me, like a turtle carries its shell. From one place to another. I was a human RV.
But today, as I was driving over the mountain to Camucia to buy more groceries, I got homesick. I had to pull over to the side of the road, because my eyes started to flood.
I rerouted up to Cortona for an ice cream cone for lunch at Snoopy’s. Then was back on track to get my 10 liters of wine pumped, a piece of Gorgonzola dolce for my pasta, and back over the mountain to Trabalza for pork chops, cut in front of me, the way they do.
Even though it is raining, if I shove the chimney of the grill just outside the overhang from the tobacco tower, I should be all right.
We are doing a lemon tart for dessert with just the tiniest bit of mascarpone stirred into the curd.

Grand Jete


When I was 14, my chores included clearing the table, doing the dishes, laundry, dinner on Tuesdays and cleaning the upstairs bathroom. I earned 35 cents a week. To make up for what I considered not enough pay for hard labor, I babysat. I was fierce. I baked with toddlers and I took the big kids for field trips on the public bus. When the parents got home, everybody was sleeping and the house was clean. I couldn’t be touched. I owned Kenyon street, Oxford, and North Beacon, and worked an average of four nights a week. I spent next to nothing. I liked the feeling of money in the bank.

It made my step father nervous.
We were in direct competition for who was the boss of me.
He didn’t have a regular job and I assume he had no money in the bank. He knew he was losing. I bought my own clothes, my own shoes, shampoo and snacks. I could have bought my own food if I had to. I said nothing about school, and never had a complaint come back from the office. I left the house early and came home late. My mother was tired. She worked.

My total control lasted until my first kiss. It was at Jackie Maurer’s on Halloween night, and it was the best thing that had happened to me since my first grand jete. The feeling of flying through the air in a full split, had been replaced.
I was in a constant shudder of hope that it would happen again, right there in the middle of the day. School didn’t suffer, it just got harder to walk the hallways. Even after I accepted that the one who had kissed me would never look my way again.
Inside me though. Inside was a forest with no floor. I was devastated. I couldn’t understand it. How you could love someone from the truth of who you had never dared to share, and they were unmoved.
When you are 14, you don’t question the love you feel, only the love you don’t receive.

It shook the waters of me that had been previously undisturbed. I could think of nothing else but how undesirable I must be. Not in a sad way. I wasn’t sad about it, I was just trying to face the facts. There was something about me that must not be right.
I went shopping. I took the bus to the suburbs where I thought the answer might be. I poked around with my skinny butt and fat wallet in the Junior Miss section. Typically I bought stripes and solids. Painters pants or kakis. Work clothes from the Army/Navy. But I was on a mission for another kiss. I thought a maxi dress would be too much. I picked out a pair of blue grey thin wale corduroy flares and a peasant blouse sprayed with tiny flowers that oozed pink and satin ribbons. I matched it with my Frye boots and a lavender cream shadow for my eyes. I felt I might turn the world and Jacques Q. upside down.
I had forgotten though, about the in house contest. When I came down the stairs in the morning, I was unprepared for comment from the stands.
My stepfather could feel the weakness. He could feel it without touching, that my skin was thinner. I still have a fear of losing my callouses.

“Well you look like a whore in uniform.”
Coming from a God fearing man that believed in good manners.

I lost being the the boss only for a tsunami of seconds. And then I collected myself.
I stayed silent. I turned my left heel into my right arch and anchored my left hand to the same hip. I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. Then I left.

Every night that I was assigned dinner, I made a slightly underdone, barely warm, potato and cottage cheese casserole. And then I would catch the bus for the late class to grand jete across a solid linoleum floor.

One thing

It can be just one thing, that turns the whole kit and kaboodle around. It could be a song or a kiss or a bicycle; depends on what is happening I suppose.
I was standing in front of one the most boring pieces of poultry on the God given planet, vacuum packed skinless, boneless, chicken breasts. There is not one thing to get excited about. Not the plastic, not the pink, not even the price. Because I am 100% sure that I am going straight to Hell if I buy one more piece of chicken that is not organic for my son, the price is steep. I had already given him chicken for lunch and somehow, I was stuck standing in front of the chicken again. As if there was not one other thing that was possible to make. And then I remembered that I had a beautiful, blue and grey striped can of Spanish paprika. Flooding right behind that thought was butter and onions with a side of dirty rice and sautéed, garlicky, asparagus.
Mango for afters.
Once you find the NEW paprika, not pre war or pre 1999 paprika, get a hot, heavy pan going. Season the chicken breast well on both sides, with kosher salt. Pound them to level thickness with the side of your fist. Drop a little olive oil in the pan with some rough slices of yellow onion. Sear the breasts on one side until he edges have gone white. Flip. Sprinkle on some of your paprika, not buckets, just enough to make some magic; a dusting, and only on one side. Give it a knuckle of butter. Flip the chicken again and swirl it around with a few thyme sprigs and or a bay leaf until it is JUST cooked through. Serve with the dirty rice and asparagus and why not, poached marinated leeks with a grating of hard boiled egg.