Friday, June 30, 2017

The Ear of the Heart and the Elixir of Life (A High and Lovely Place)

It's telling that Dante, so early in his journey, speaks of the inner voice that has grown faint, perhaps from too much silence.

On the surface, this reference to Silence seems strange indeed.  The inner voice is silent. Yet, it is silence, that often calls the inner voice to the surface.  The inner voice is silent because of an absence of Silence.

When first I began to frequent monasteries, and to learn about the Benedictine way of living and being, the silence was deafening.  Too much noise.  I wanted to cup my hands over my ears, so much did the noise seem to suffocate me. In the stillness, I heard only a cacophony of voices. None of them really my own.

Of course, that was entirely the point.

In the early days of talking with these monks and also working with my spiritual director, they both regularly said to me, "Annie, Slow Down. Be Still."  Be Still, and Know that I am God (Ps. 46:10). Dante clearly hadn't been that still for some time. (Nor had I).  I didn't know that one must listen with the ear of the heart. I didn't even know how to listen with the ear of my heart. But that comes later.

One of my favorite places in the world is a valley in the French Savoie, La Grande Chartreuse. You can get there from Geneva, where I once lived, and it's not far from Chamonix. It is a valley of great silences and great beauty and where the snow capped peaks of the French Alps are visible to the naked eye, beckoning. I've done a fair bit of climbing there, around Mont Blanc, and stayed in huts along the routes.  I supposed those beckoning voices of the high alps were a kind of clarion call to my heart.  They hearkened spaciousness. They seemed to promise to draw me into the depths.  Deep calling to deep.

I first read about this magical valley in my all-time favorite cookbook, L'Auberge (Inn) of the Flowering Hearth, by Roy Andries de Groot.
 Describing his approach to the valley, he titles it "Journey to that High and Lovely Place." It is a place of intense beauty and great silence, a silence so utterly deafening as to call to the surface that faint whisper, that still, small voice. The Voice of Stillness.  If you would like to have an experience of this, watch the spellbinding movie about the monastery here, Into Great Silence.  Not for nothing is it referred to as "La Vallee du Desert."

At the Auberge, de Groot discovers a mountain cuisine, both rustic and refined, without any hint of artifice. He describes quail cooked over the living room hearth, and dripping onto little toasts. He also speaks of alpine potato pancakes, which remind me of the Rosti my French-Swiss grandmother cooked for me as child, and which I often ate myself in these high mountains.  Would you care to try them? They are delicious, especially with the addition of a little bacon.  The French changed the recipe a bit from the Swiss version, but they are both delicious. Here is his recipe:

Serves 4

4 medium russet potatoes
3 eggs
4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 T. fresh parsley, finely chopped
½ t. fresh rosemary, finely minced
4 T. clarified butter
2 T. vegetable oil
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper to taste
2 T. heavy cream, more or less
Bake the potatoes until done. Cut open and scoop out the pulp. Place in a 1-quart mixing bowl, mash but not too much; add eggs, scallions, garlic, parsley, and rosemary. Add cream, just enough to be able to form patty-like mounds of the potato mixture.  Shape the pancakes about a quarter inch thick and two inches across. Heat 3 T. of the butter and 2 T. vegetable oil in heavy sauté pan about 10 inches in diameter, assuring you have enough oil to cover the pan. Form patties about ¼ inch thick and 2 inches wide.  Carefully place the patties in the butter/oil in the skillet. Fry until brown and crisp on both sides. Serve hot.

Legend has it that the river "Le Guiers," (pronounced gay) bound up with this high and lovely place, rises from two separate rivers, about six miles apart, in the high alps. One, de Groot describes, is on the slopes of the Dent-de-Crolles, the other at the foot of the Cirque de Saint-Meme.  Both these rivers tumble down the mountains onto the high plateau.  There, like an adolescent boy and a spirited girl, they tumble.  The boy river is said to be dreamy, lazy and slow, with jade green waters and deep, smooth pools. His name is Le Guiers Mort.  But he is hardly dead. "In Spring," de Groot writes, when the melting snows flood down into the valleys, he is as wildly alive as any torrent.  (Remember my post about the French language?).  His floods have destroyed villages and again and again drowned the cattle and ruined the crops.  The other, the girl river, has the reputation of being spirited and wild--of running a course of speed and violence, plunging, frothy, white.  Her official name is Le Guiers Vif.  Yet, she is hardly so alive during the summer droughts.  She can be as dead as the lily pond in cemetery.  Boy and Girl finally meet and merge at a village called "Entre-les-Deux-Guiers.  By then, they have already completed the work for which we must be grateful.  They have cut a path for us through a wall of rock almost five thousand feet high."  No still waters they. But they cut deep.

St. Bruno founded the monastery in 1085. The Romans had called the area "catursiani", meaning “little house where one is alone in an isolated and wild place.” (More on this later). And from this word comes “Chartreuse," the sweet green liquor distilled at the monastery there by "Les pères Chartreux" from a secret recipe.  The story of these monks, Groot describes, possessed of a secret process known only to them, and living at the top of their high valley in complete silence and isolation, is a saga entwined with the history of France, and a romantic one.
The recipe for Chartreuse came from a mysterious manuscript donated to the monks in 1602 by Marshal d’Estrées, a courtier of the French king, Henri IV. Today, the distillery, which makes the elixir from over 130 medicinal plants, both the yellow (lower sugar) and green (traditional) variety—is located in nearby Voiron.

Reading about Dante's journey, which eventually led to the climb into the heavens, I was reminded of this "High and Lovely Place" of Silences. Can you imagine yourself, making an ascent into this alpine valley? I love how de Groot describes his ascent, how the gorge opens out into a wide, wild valley, rising to a high plateau, and how this reveals the first glimpse of the great Alpine "massifs" (where I have climbed), looking like an immense and impregnable fortress, wreathed in pure white mist. I remember this view, and the granite walls that rose up, sheer and straight for almost five thousand feet, from the floor of the plateau.  De Groot says that behind this unscalable wall the white peaks mount higher still. I remember thinking about Dante when first I saw it.  This must have been how he felt when he had his first glimpse of the heavens, the one that pulled him out of his fear and despair. Deep calling to deep.

In the next blog post I will tell you why the valley is called "La Vallee du Desert," and we will speak more about silence.  But for today, I wanted to comment about listening.  Benedict, the founder of the first monasteries, opens his "Rule," the document for monastic living, with the word "Listen". Dante learns this when he meets Virgil, his guide, and realizes his life depends upon his ability to listen to him. "Listen with the ear of your heart," Benedictine exhorts.  These Benedictine monasteries, where I have learned to listen, are famous for their hospitality and the welcome of the open door. But we forget at our own great loss that it is not only the hospitality of the open door that aids our journey, but more importantly, the welcome of the open heart. As we travel, dear Reader, examine your heart.  Is it open? We have yet to cross the pass into the valley.

Leave a comment if you'd like! I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Rest At the Banqueting Table of Hope (even at the threshold of hell)

One thing Dante knew, almost from the beginning, is that he was in the midst of a battle for his life.  Having once gained a glimpse of the hill beyond, he only just begins to climb when he is confronted and his path utterly blocked by three fierce beasts.  I think it's true that at midlife, if we are not too sleepy, as he says he was before he landed in exile, we begin to see that a battle rages within us for freedom.

This is a battle I recognize. If we are very, very lucky, like Dante, and have lived a bit, at some point we might awaken enough to see that the objectives and attitudes that have characterized the first "half" of our lives (Dante was 35) no longer really satisfy. I say lucky because one thing we are experts at doing, is convincing ourselves otherwise. Life is fine. I am fine. And we are masters at distracting ourselves from the fear that all may not be well. Our distractions are numerous and create "addictions" and "attachments" that keep us from facing our own abyss.  And we are so very good at it.  Yet, if we are open to Mystery, to use Jung's language, we begin to see that the ego, the center of the rational consciousness, is not master in its own house, that we are stumbling around in the dark and that our former goals (power, position, respect, family, success, etc.) are not what we once imagined them to be.

After the death of my father, more than ten years ago now, and the beginning of a pretty spectacular tumbling in my life, an Anglican priest friend wrote to me to ask if he could be of any assistance. I blithely responded that I had no need of any spiritual direction: after all, I read the same books and had a similar background as he. Those beasts were breathing down my neck, and my response was proof positive of it!  But I was heroically, spectacularly, distracted. And I meant to keep it that way. (Fortunately, my friend did not back down and bow out, but that's another story).

The Franciscan priest and prolific author Richard Rohr, in his book "Falling Upward," writes about this dilemma:  "None of us go into our spiritual maturity completely of our own accord, or by a totally free choice. (Dante surely did not). We are led there by Mystery, or what religious people rightly call grace...Most of us are never told that we can set out from the known and the familiar to take on a further journey.  Our institutions and expectations, including our churches, are almost entirely configured to encourage, support, reward and validate the tasks of the first half of life."  And to begin to live out a different truth and walk a different path is damned uncomfortable for those steeped in the validation of the first.  Thomas Merton, the American monk, and one of my armchair mentors, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find that when we get to the top, our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Dante was exiled. And that was a very great grace, a Mystery he stepped into, seemingly unawares (asleep).  And that Mystery was leading him in the battle for his life.

Ok, I've had a lot of Mystery.

As Mark Musa (the translation of the Divine Comedy I am using) writes in his notes to Canto I, "When he (Dante) starts to climb the hill his path is blocked, by three fierce beasts: first a Leopard, then a Lion, and finally a She-Wolf (more on these beasts of burden in a later post). They fill him with fear and drive him back down to the sunless wood.  At that moment the figure of a man appears before him; it is the shade of Virgil, and the Pilgrim begs for help. Virgil (the Guide sent to him) tells him that he cannot overcome the beasts which obstruct his path; they must remain until a “Greyhound” comes who will drive them back to Hell. Rather by another path will the Pilgrim reach the sunlight..."

There is no freedom, or yet peace, without facing down the beasts within. Yikes.  A battle rages.

Dante awoke to a dark wood, and he was so heavy and full of sleep when first he stumbled from the narrow way.  He recognized that the path to this freedom was the narrow Way, and he knows he had stumbled off of it. The dark wood is the threshold of the whole journey, writes Helen Luke, in her wonderful book "Dark Wood to White Rose," but it is also an immediate threshold to an immediate gateway, through which we must pass in a direction that leads away from our goal.

Moreover, as Dante discovered, we are incapable of finding it alone. We need friends on pilgrimages. We were never meant to walk alone.  Helen Luke argues that no man or woman can safely cross the dark gate of the shadow world without knowing that some deeply loved and trusted person has faith in his courage to come through.

Finding oneself in such a place, on the threshold of this pilgrimage can surely be terrifying. But there is only one saving path: to admit that one is completely lost (blessed are the poor in spirit), and to force oneself to look up and away for a moment from our self-pity (from being turned in our ourselves) and absorption in the ego and to affirm hope. (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven). Remember, Dante looked up.  We learn, struggling in our dark wood, says Helen Luke, "that we cannot hope to find wholeness by repressing the shadow side of ourselves, or by the most heroic efforts of the ego to climb up, to achieve goodness.  The leopard, the lion and the wolf will not allow it, Thank God."  It is when we admit our powerlessness, that the guide appears, as it did for Dante.

The soul has many secrets, Rohr argues, and most are revealed only to those who really want them. (Seek, and you shall find).  And one of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down.  Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.  Dante asks: "Tell me how you dared to make this journey all the way down to this point of spacelessness?"  And his answer? "Because your question searches for deep meaning."

To be spiritually free, we have first to go all the way down.

For a start, it's clear that Dante was going to have to travel through his own hell in order to reach the point where he might start climbing.  He had been full of an interior slumber. But before he could even begin to walk, Dante forced himself to open his eyes, to awaken from his 'sleep' and look with eyes wide open at his fear.   He also begins to appreciate that "while I was rushing down to that low place, my eyes made out a figure coming toward me of one grown faint, perhaps from too much silence."  This is a recognition that his conscience, or his voice of reason, had been long silenced.

The message is pretty clear, I'd say.

But he was not without Hope. Dante not only forced himself to look back with wide open eyes at his fear, he rested awhile. So, dear Readers, do not despair. Take Heart. (Did you know the word courage means to take heart?) There is rest for the weary.  Since journeying on this path, many years back now, I have wondered about the Psalmist's claim that The Lord is closest to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18). More recently, I have begun to see that there is Rest in the midst of the battle with the enemies within us. And that rest is a great big banqueting table. When Dante looks up, his fear begins to subside. And then he rests in the company of his guide.

When we walked, my father and I often recited Psalm 23, and the great line of that poem "He sets a table for me in the presence of my enemies" has long fascinated me. Of course it would. One thing we did on those long walks was to feast. We brought canned crab and cocktail sauce (guilty pleasure with packs already heavy).  Sometimes we packed in wine. We dined each evening, even when our feet hurt from walking and our bodies ached for sleep. At the Table is the connection, and the restoration, and the Rest that gives us sustenance for the journey.

The theologian Samuel Wells in his book "God's Companions" argues that one of the most important symbols (for icons help us to peer into Reality, like a window) of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Rublev icon, known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," which depicts three divine persons gathered around a table for a meal together. Remember Abraham went on a journey, in search of God.  He left all he knew and made a pilgrimage.
There is an empty place on the viewer's side of the table, which seems to offer an invitation to come and dine.  The heavenly banquet is the most characteristic symbol of the life of the Kingdom, and Jesus himself enacts these banquets himself in his many significant meals with sinners, strangers, crowds and disciples. These are invitations to join the feast with God.

If the enduring image of the Kingdom is a banquet, this hardly suggests that the pilgrimage is without its food and daily bread and wine. And I, for one, believe that in the fullest sense, to dine together in this way is sacramental living. It is to participate in the great mystery of the heavenly reality while still on earth.

So come and dine with me as we journey. Pilgrimages require friends and tables. Don't walk alone. Those glimpses of Heaven did a lot for Dante and gave him Hope for the walk ahead.  What are you serving at your table tonight?  Leave a comment, Dear Reader, and tell me what you think of the journey thus far.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

L'air Fragile

The French have a way of saying something that implies multiple levels of meaning. It is why the French language often can be so intimidating. At first, learning the grammar, and putting together simple phrases, one wonders why all the fuss? It seems quite simple, really. And then the hammer falls. Not unlike the American patriot and President John Adams, discovering on his first visit to Paris that the ladies at table had him for lunch, despite his French.  He hadn't realized he was on the menu.  In French conversation, one can easily find oneself swimming in these murky waters until one eventually realizes that one is well out of his or her depth. And then, perhaps, there is hope in that recognition.  It is a kind of spiritual discipline to learn French. One must lay aside one's ego for a time if any progress is to be made, and embrace the humility of not knowing. One can begin.

The phrase about which I write is "L'air fragile."  "Elle a l'air fragile," the French might say, for example, of a young woman.
In our post and third wave feminist-infused culture, we might too easily discount this comment as unnecessarily dismissive of women's strength, but as is often the case with the French, who are not bound by such silliness, and rarely underestimate women,  the meaning is far more profound and has far more to say about the kind of strength that endures. To possess a fragile air is a great compliment: it suggests an openness to life and its teachings, a vulnerability to love and learning and trust that we often lose as we age, so well fortressed are our hearts. If only we could see that we are all beginners.  If we had any perspective at all, we might come to realize that we are all only ever beginners, something my spiritual director used to tell me all the time.

I find this especially true of cooking. It has been many decades since I first learned the grammar of cooking, since French chefs in various restaurants yelled at me for my technique and my habits.  And after a time, one wonders why all the fuss? It seems quite simple, really.  And then. Yes, and Then. I remember eating at a restaurant in Crissier, near Geneva, whose chef, the wonderful Fredy Giardet (one of my culinary heroes), cooked a simple salmon dish. That food was a revelation to my young eyes, and a lesson for my young heart. I realized that to cook simply is an art of very great measure, and to coax the best from one's food is far more complex, far more difficult than I had imagined. It is the work of a lifetime. It requires the narrow way. The way of the easy yoke.  It requires "L'air fragile." And it is the most difficult thing in the world.

The great chef Alice Waters tells a story of serving a perfectly ripe melon in her restaurant as a entree, or starter. The guests were disappointed. They wanted something dressed up, perhaps not realizing that there is a long-respected and lauded art in France associated with a perfectly ripe melon.
However many wonderful things one might do with a melon (and my favorite is to serve it with Beaumes de Venise muscat wine in the cavity), there is nothing as sublime as a counter-ripened melon at perfection.  But achieving this is anything but easy, though it is simple. Of course, this is not a new idea. Richard Olney, another of my culinary mentors, wrote a book about Simple Food. (All his books are worthy). In the preface, Olney concedes, after a considerable treatise on the pitfalls of categorization, that simplicity, without doubt, is a complex thing.

One of my favorite chefs of the current milieu is Naomi Pomeroy.   Her book, "Taste and Technique" is a masterpiece of this philosophy, and her food ethos and aesthetic are endlessly appealing.

If you want to begin to cook really well, start at the beginning. Take time with your technique and don't presume. Instead, approach cooking with "L'air fragile," much as she does, treating the ingredients like the gift they are, respecting them, learning what each can teach you, and working on each element of preparation to understand the nuance.  Be like a child. To that heart, is open the kingdom of God.

Tonight, at Table, I am going to serve a "Confetti Salad," which seems a celebration of all things summer, and serve it with grilled salmon. This dish is a lesson in treating each of the glorious ingredients as works of art, and combining them to create a symphony. Richard Olney liked this metaphor of the complexity of conceiving a larger symphony--a simple menu, and transforming each element into an uncomplicated statement that will surprise or soothe a gifted palate, drawing from various elements to form a new harmony.  If you want to try it, click on this link for the recipe and see for yourself if you can achieve harmony.

That old and beautiful Shaker hymn, "Tis a Gift to be Simple, Tis a Gift to be Free" is a reflection of what Dante begins to understand as he raises his head to the hilltop beyond. My father used to tell me that our 30 mile day hikes were lessons in perspective, and as I have become older, I have learned that this is true.  He also, often, told me to look up. Sometimes we are so consumed with the pounding of our own feet we forget to look up. Now I am wondering if he was thinking about Dante when he said both things. It wouldn't surprise me.

"I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled in morning rays of light sent from the planet that leads men straight ahead on every road.

And then only did terror start subsiding in my heart’s lake, which rose to heights of fear that night I spent in deepest desperation." (Canto I)

In looking up, in focusing his eyes on the hilltop, our friend and fellow pilgrim Dante begins to have acquired a little perspective, and this perspective is an antidote to his fear.  Looking up is also the antidote to escaping the chains of our own egos. We are not simply "incurvatus in se", to quote Augustine, or "turned in on ourselves."  Look up, yes. But how to become free? Stay tuned. We've only just begun to walk.  And not yet to climb.

Leave a comment if you like, dear Reader. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Dantean Pilgrimage Begins (Introduction)

Its been a long time since I've written in my blog, and I have decided to revive it. Will you join me At the Table with Annie?  As before, these posts will be musings on life, food and theology, but with a very specific direction for a time: the pilgrimage with Dante.

I'm writing from the secretary desk in my bedroom, which is a sympathetic spot possessed of outlook and comfort, and a certain amount of splendor, just enough to awaken the senses to Beauty, and hopefully not to dull them with over-indulgence.  My desk is quite inviting, filled with all the little momentos that have made up a life thus far: photographs in little silver frames, letter writing supplies and a French blotter. Someday I'm going to have a big antique pine table as my desk, with a very simple white pitcher of garden roses for inspiration. As I have become older, my tastes have simplified and my aesthetic has become more relaxed. I have less need for the stuff that accompanies my journey, or perhaps life has edited the clutter, or I don't have as much need for props. That would be encouraging. But for now, this desk is a pleasant place to perch.  Above me are shelves of books filled with many treasures marking other inquiries over the years. That, too, is an encouragement.

I spent the morning working in my vegetable garden, which I am reconfiguring this year to include planter boxes on either side of my parterre garden. I designed this vegetable garden with Andre' le Notre as my inspiration and guide: only the parterres are visible from the road, the rest of the garden hidden by a sleight of hand wrought of careful changes in elevation.  This is not a bad metaphor for what I am undertaking in this blog: what is visible in life is only a very small part of the Real Story. The planter boxes have been built for me by my son to replace the French intensive row crops I have planted in the past, he having convinced me of the new plan's superiority. The sun is now out after a cloudy morning, and a cool breeze blows off the water and into the place where I live.  I need the cool breezes today.  Dinner is planned and prepped, and will be a savory clafoutis with leeks and corn and dark leafy greens served with an ombre heirloom tomato tartine with basil mayonnaise and cut into wedges.Today is cool and sunny, suggesting summer but not heat, so a baked clafoutis will not go amiss and the tomato tartan will still remind us that summer is upon us.  These keepings are comforting in a world in flux.

It is with this flux, both in the world and in my life, that I begin my summer pilgrimage with Dante's Divine Comedy. I have most of my adult life cultivated a habit of choosing a summer reading theme each year.  But this year, which has been especially challenging, it seemed more of a pilgrimage was in order, a kind of Way made by walking.  You may know that this is the 750th year anniversary of the publication of this great work by a brilliant spiritual master. Dante Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy, was born in Florence in May 1265, and recently, even the Pope has heartily endorsed reading it as a spiritual guide in this commemorative year. It has been more than 30 years since I have read it, and when I did I was too young to understand it as a spiritual guide. I hadn't been battered about by life yet, and I was still largely living a charmed existence, and still pursuing existence before essence.  But we'll get to Sartre later.

For most of my adult life, I have been fascinated by the concept of pilgrimages. This may be in part because of the long and arduous, yet spiritually rich trek my father and I made one year during a college summer on the Pacific Crest Trail throughout Oregon. We hiked 25+ miles a day with 50 pound packs, and it was arduous "walking" (as he called it), with little water, lots of heat, and little shade in some places. Yet, afterwards, I remembered only the things it taught me, save the red rock trails through part of Oregon, which I'll never quite forget. From the Middle Ages, the concept of a pilgrimage has tended to imply an endpoint or goal, such as a holy shrine that allowed the pilgrim to return home with a sense of accomplishment. I'll admit it: this has appeal. It is the appeal of the Camino, which I have longed to do since I first read about it 30 years ago. But the Celtic concept of pilgrimage, the peregrinate, is very different. It is not undertaken at the suggestion of a monastic abbot, for example, but because of an inner prompting in those who set out, a passionate desire or conviction to make an inner journey, wherever the Spirit might lead. Thomas Merton, one of my armchair mentors, taught his novices at his monastery at Gethsemene using Abraham as the exemplar of life as a journey: we go, leaving home, in search of God. 

When I learned about Benedict's "Rule", which he wrote to inform the new monastic life he was founding, I, like Benedict, wanted to be a peregrine (purposeful wanderer), not a gyrovag (aimless wanderer). Sometimes, this necessitates a guide, rather like the map my father and I used when we "wandered" (his words, as if it were an afternoon stroll, hah!) on the mountain trails. And thus, my friend and I, who have for the past year "walked" our way through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, have discovered that our pilgrimage was very rich indeed. (This was my forth time all the way through, and each time has been its own very distinct adventure.). Having completed the exercises, we looked about for another pilgrimage  and decided to walk with the purposeful meanderings of Dante, who, at midlife, found himself in a dark wood, and embarked on a journey that rescued him from exile and saved his life. 

And so opens the great epic poem: " Midway through the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off the straight path."  It's quite clear that Dante, having been battered by his Florentine life, having suffered political and personal ruin, and found himself exiled and alone, is facing a midlife crisis of the most profound sort. He writes that he finds himself in a wood of "wilderness, savage and stubborn,"  and that he found it a bitter place.  Eventually, we all come to this place, however artfully we keep this abyss at bay.  Recognizing that we are exiles in our own world is bitter indeed.  It is also a sign of great hope, for it is the human condition we finally embrace. And from that first step sings a choir of Hope, painful though it is. Dante doesn't stop here, either. He writes that if he would show the good that came of this recognition, and of the place itself, he must talk about things other than the good. He realizes that he has become sleepy, having strayed and left the path of truth.  But when he looks up, and raises his head momentarily out of his fear, he sees in the morning rays of light the planet that leads men straight ahead on every road. Hope.  But we have only just begun to walk. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Sacrament of the Present Moment (Biscotti and Coffee)

Demitasse and biscotti on the counter in the kitchen
at the House which shall be Unnamed

Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.

--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

For the past week, the pace of my life has accelerated into what can only be described as absurdity. And taking this perspective on it kept me sane through more than a few jammed days and nights. In fact, this week reminded me of my old life, when staying up all night several nights a week was nothing unusual.   Meanwhile, I have been re-reading a beautiful book, in which  I could  manage only a few lines before dropping off to sleep in utter exhaustion.  The contrast between the beautifully contemplative book, which is titled, appropriately, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean Pierre de Caussade, and the frenetic pace of my recent week, has left me a little breathless.  My daughter, whose school projects have kept us both extremely busy, and made a normally easy going and full-of-fun girl stressed and anxious, ended up the week completely exhausted and  ill.

On Saturday, she came into the sitting room where I was working by the fire on some embroidery for the faces of some Christmas dolls I am making, and said, "Mom, I want you to come with me for a few minutes."  What greeted me was this beautiful little silver tray of demitasse and biscotti, set on the marble counter in the kitchen.  We make biscotti, she and I, as a kind of grace note in our lives. It is a leap of faith of a sort, grounded on the Hope that there will be a quiet moment into which the little Italian cookie will bring grace and respite, a retreat of sorts. It is a simple thing, Gift, really, but it brings much joy and pleasure, and even a little wisdom!  I put it in lunch boxes, wrapped like a gift in waxed paper tied with French baker's twine, along with a flask of coffee, in the hopes that my husband will take a small break in his frenetic day and Breathe.  We serve it after school at tea at the marble table in the kitchen, which is a kind of ritual.  My daughter's gift of stolen time, in effect, her insistence on Kairos time (which  flows gently, allowing us to be in the present moment) rather than Kronos time (the relentless march of minutes and hours), was arranged in such a lovely fashion that I had to take a photograph of it before we carried it into the drawing room by the big hearth, and spent a quiet half hour chatting. I thought how well my daughter is practicing her growing womanly magic: making of life art (which is a theme of this blog), and her art brought both joy and respite, carved out of seeming absurdity a Gift, when she herself was heavy laden.  This is the nature of Gift, to offer oneself, yes? Talking together, it occured to me that this was a piece of heaven breaking in, making some wholeness, or shalom, of all the absurdity in a manner not unlike Grace.  Grace weaves together the brokenness of our lives into a whole that makes sense only in context.

Family meals are similar, I believe. Carved out in the midst of a busy and stressful day, amid the rapid passing of time, dinner is an oasis of calm and pleasure, in which it is possible, candles flickering and wine flowing, to take stock, to let down one's guard and Be Present.  I have come to believe that this kind of respite is an essential element in life, and no less in family life. Without the table, my family would surely have disintegrated long ago.  But it is equally critical in the life our our spirit, I believe. 

What is this context in which Grace makes sense of broken pieces, in which time is reordered? Though I am a great lover of life, I have never been immune to the occasional call of ennui, or the sense that at the root of life is a kind of agony of decision, springing from the grounded, temporal nature of our daily lives as contrasted with the sense that TIME, and change through time, getting older, and not having time for everything, is an omnipresent and painful feature of our life experience.   My beautiful cousin wrote about this recently, in a Facebook post, in which she reflected on the sense of time lingered loss on Halloween night, with only grown up children and none to costume or squire round the neighborhood for treats or with whom to curl up and watch movies.  In the past, my answer to this sense of ennui was to posit on my life a meaning of my own making, increasingly filled to the brim with impact and breadth.  But now, I am learning, or rather relearning something I discovered long ago: that there is an existential aspect to stepping out in faith in the face of despair, but it is not by filling in every corner.  It is by savoring the corners I already have and surrendering my hours to a series of Present Moments.  We know that at some point our time is going to run out, and at some point, time as we know it will stop for us. And since we know time is limited, that we choose one thing, by necessity limits another.  The answer is not to choose it all, as I once did, so as not to leave anything out.  That is not possible anyway.  It is not even possible always to know that what we have gained exceeds what we have lost when we choose. Loss and Gain, gain and loss.  This was the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's argument, when he posited the idea that we are suffering from a sickness, a sickness unto death.

This was such a week. I ended up the week not at all sure about the choices I had made with my time, or those I had allowed to overwhelm the time of my daughter.  In talking with my Spiritual Director (you can access his blog and wisdom at ) about this, he suggested he would like to see a blog on my reflections on the week.  Notice how he phrased this, leaving little option. I find amusing that his directives usually leave little room for squirming out, which prior to his counsel I was quite accomplished at doing!  But as he is a man not easily dismissed, and he is tenacious, I sat down yesterday to ponder his request.  I do this lest his direction be treated with something other than the reverence it deserves (muttering aside), so I take my best shot.  We are counseled to have reverence for those who give us spiritual guidance, not for their sake, but for ours. This does not mean blind faith. The concept of reverence is something I have spent a lifetime rejecting in one form or another, but I am learning it is the the key to an open heart.  To have reverence is to cultivate a teachable spirit. So if we are to learn and to grow, reverence is the key to approaching what is given to us with a kind of surrender, with the heart of a child.

So as Kierkegaard says of our human condition, if this sickness unto death is the cause of our "agony," what is its cure? According to Kierkegaard, it is to become passionately committed to one of the options, delibertately chosen.  Life is upside down, he said.  Man is finite, God is infinite.  Man is a sinner, God is merciful.  When we recognize this, we may despair. Or we may recognize that it is just this realisation of the human condition that gives us the ability to leap into faith and accept the Grace that makes us whole, that makes sense of our battered and beautiful lives.  Christ came and died to restore the created order, or Logos, in a world cast askew (turned upside down) from our choice to separate from Him, to seek knowledge rather than wisdom.  Hence our lives as battered, reflecting our separation from Life, but also beautiful, reflecting the poetry imbedded in creation. It is essential for each of us to recognize this, Kierkegaard argues, and to act on it, to give over our sense of control over time and destiny utterly, to surrender to Grace and Love.  It makes the Leap into faith a leap into Life measured by a time wholly Other.   And as our time is reordered by eternity, so even the desires of our hearts are changed.

Jean Pierre de Caussade, in his beautiful book, said it similarly.  He said that God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment. "There remains one single duty. It is to keep one's gaze fixed on the master, and to be constantly listening.  The only condition necessary for this state of self-surrender is the present moment, in which the soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon."  This is not harsh rigidity or stringent mortification, but joy, freedom, serenity--wholeness--that which answers (but not eliminates) the pain of our humanity.  We are set free not to be enslaved, but to LIVE in eternal time. God asks, Caussade says, only our hearts. Only. It is All, for without our hearts open, how shall we Live in Grace?

What is even more remarkable about what Caussade wrote is that if this is true, nothing is secular.  Since God's activity permeates even the most trivial, "we look not for the holiness of things, but the holiness in things", for heaven breaking in the moment.  Even time itself is a holy sacrament, for time is but the history of divine action!  We worship a living Lord, not a static ritual.  It is also not the religion of the specatular or the "big deal," but rather the small corners of life that call to us minute by minute. In this way, we are before God in such a way that his grace might be effectual: we are open to Life measured not in minutes, but in eternity.  We begin to See.

So, try your hand at making biscotti, at carving out moments to cultivate an openness to Grace?  Biscotti  really is very easy to do.  As to the Present Moment, that takes some practice, and I am only learning its ways.  But like me, you can keep a jar of biscotti on your counter, if you like, to remind you to take a moment out and celebrate the sacrament of the Present moment, or as a subtle and charming reminder to those you love to do the same.  I don't like to make them too large as they are often sold commercially, for a small two or three bites is a perfect foil for a glass of wine (like the Italians do) or a cup of tea or coffee.  These twice-baked Italian cookies are a seductive snack at any time of day.  The word biscotti is interesting in itself. It has more than one meaning.  The root stems from bis and cotto: bis meaning "more than one" and cotto meaning cooking. Twice baked, once as a log, and then after having been cut into diagonal strips, returned to the oven for a second baking, they are delicious.  It doesn't take a lot of equipment to make them, and the making is itself a kind of ritual of time.  A wonderful aspect of them is that you can vary them with the seasons, just as we eat.  We can serve them simply in summer, with almond as flavor, and then add cranberries in the autumn, and candied orange peel or cranberries at the holidays. Try adding this ritual to your day. You won't be disappointed.  And let me know what you discover?

I think my favorite, however, is a simple recipe with almond and orange, which is never overpowering or cloying.  For this recipe, I am indebted to Lou Seibert Pappas, though I have made several modifications. Put about 1/2 cup of nuts in a pan and roast in a preheated 325 degree oven until golden, which should only take 8 to 10 minutes.  In a mixing bowl, cream togeither 1/3 cup of butter and 3/4 cup of sugar until very light and fluffy.  (Creaming well is one secret to great cookies).  Beat in 2 eggs, one at a time, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract and 3 tablespoons of grated orange zest (less if you like).  In another small bowl, combine 2 1/4 cups of all purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, a little grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add to the creamed mixture and mix until well blended.  Chop almonds into small pieces and fold these in.  Line a baking sheet with parchement paper and divide the dough into two or three flat "loaves"or logs.  Bake in the center of the preheated 325 degree oven until golden, about 20-25 minutes, depending upon your oven.  Transfer to a baking rack with a long, flat spatula and let cool for 5 minutes.  On a cutting board with a serrated knife, slice diagonally at about a 45 degree angle about 1/2 inch thick.  Lace the slices flat on the parchement lined baking sheet and return to the oven for another 10 minutes.  Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container.  Enjoy!

Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Desires of the heart and body (Garbure and the Palais Royal)

Tonight for dinner, my plan is to make a garbure, which is a lovely French soup from Gascony, which I first ate with my grandparents, and once ate in Paris, seated at an enchanting courtyard restaurant on the edge of the interior garden at the Palais Royal.  I love the gardens at the Palais Royal, and the elegant structure of the oasis inside one of the busiest parts of the city. The restaurant du Palais Royal is situated under the elegant arcades, facing the magnificent gardens.  More recently, I have heard from friends that the food was a little disappointing, but when I have eaten there it has been  unfailingly lovely, certainly not the best food in Paris, but well executed and delicious. You can imagine yourself seated here for lunch: the setting is spectacular! 
Tables on the edge of the garden at Restaurant Palais Royal

It was an early autumn day, and I had been walking.  If you have been to Paris, you will know that aside from sitting in cafes and people watching, there is little more deeply satisfying than a liesurely promenade except a leisurely promenade punctuated by a stop at a curbside cafe!  Having walked all morning, I was ravenously hungry, as I am one of those who prefers a large "bowl" of cafe au lait for breakfast with a considerable amount of milk, and very little else.  If I eat anything at all before 11, it might be a piece of toast or occasionally a tartine, but that's about my limit.  Do you make cafe au lait? I know the current fashion is for espresso and the little Nespresso, which I adore after lunch or dinner, always "natur", without any milk.  But for breakfast, I only want a large cafe au lait bowl of French press coffee, ground relatively fine, and allowed to steep briefly. It's creamy sweetness even without milk is the perfect antidote for my sleepy wakefulness. But I always blend it with half hot milk. So attached am I to this each morning that I have been known to pack my little Boden press on holiday, just in case the apartment I rented didn't have one handy.  If you haven't tried this, get a glass one (I like the Boden Chamboard, or the original French Melior, which they still make all glass and metal, rather than the plastic version) and make yourself an au lait (half French press, half hot milk) for breakfast tomorrow.  A person can lose himself or herself in a bowl of cafe au lait.  I like it best in a bowl like this:

I have them at The House which shall be Unnamed as well as at my holiday house in Big Sur.   My children also drink cocoa from these bowls, and though I make all sorts of bacon, fried eggs, sausage, coddled eggs, omelettes, poached eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes and waffles, etc., for breakfast for my family each morning (not for me), there is really no better fare than a tartine made with a crusty baguette, with French or Vermont butter and apricot jam and a big bowl of cafe au lait. For me, eggs are best at lunch or dinner.

I recall very clearly the menu that day at the Restaurant Palais Royal, which I had ordered from the prix fixe offerings on the chalkboard. I was hungry for bistro food, and I remembered this little bistro in the gardens as I walked, thinking longingly of the peaceful and elegant surroundings, and the ordered, structured garden with all its baroque symmetry and form, which seemed a perfect respite from the crush of traffic and noise.  I remember especially that I was ravenous, and all I could think about was having a bistro lunch that wasn't too rich, but was satisfying and comforting.  Are you ever truly hungry? I have been meditating on hunger and thirst of late, thinking about that for which I truly hunger in my life. Hunger is an interesting teacher.

I have leaned much from my longings, especially considering how these longings, or the desires of my heart, subject to Grace. are gradually changed. Lately I have been wondering if I have spent most of my life masking my longings in some form or other through one idol or another, which failed to satisfy. Or alternately, I ran from them, so as not to face them or what they might mean.  But God draws us to himself like the lover that he is.  When many of the things we have long taken for granted are stripped away, we are left with our hearts freed of all the "stuff," which can be illuminating. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled," and I will admit to long being puzzled by this. I wonder what it means, and why he chose to liken a desire for righteousness to someone approaching the table, as if he or she were about to be nourished.  It is interesting that the word beatitude comes form the Latin Beatitudo, meaning ‘contentment’. In these various Beatitudes Jesus seems to be pointing to a profound truth about life, that true happiness or contentment seems to have very little to do with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, rather it springs largely from our thinking and attitude towards life and towards our 'neighbors' and towards God. It has to do with the desires of our heart.

So is Jesus exhorting us to be perfect? I don't think so.  The only Being truly righteous is God himself, so it is this Life Giving Food we are exhorted to seek, as if we are to be nourished at the God's table?  Even more fascinating, Jesus doesn't stop at hunger, but also speaks of thirst, for to be denied water is to die far more rapidly than from hunger. So in the words of Jesus, echoing those of the prophets and the psalmists before him, hunger and thirst are likened to the desperate longing for God, the fulfillment of which is the difference between spiritual life and death, and the remedy is the table where he is Present among us.  At the "table," the Eucharist, we are given his body and blood, in essence, his Life.  We are promised his Presence.  On this we are told to feed.

In Dante's Inferno, that magnificent poem that struggles with all these questions, the essence of repentance, or turning towards God, is not a simple asking of forgiveness for sin.  It is  that the human will is turned toward God and away from all things that are not God, or "no God" as the theologian Barth would say. A genuine turning towards God is not about restraining sinful desires; it is about changing desire.  The brilliant medieval theologian, St. Augustine, on whose thoughts much of Dante's work was based, said it well:

Do not think that thou are drawn against thy will. The mind is drawn also by love… “Delight thyself in the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thy heart” (Psalm37.4). There is a pleasure of the heart to which that bread of heaven is sweet. Moreover, if it was right in the poet to say, “Every man is drawn by his own pleasure,” –not necessity, but pleasure, not obligation, but delight, -how much more boldly ought we to say that man is drawn to Christ?…Give me a man that loves, and he feels what I say. Give me one that longs, one that hungers, one that is travelling in this wilderness, and thirsting and panting after the fountain of his eternal home; give such and he knows what I say." --Augustine, Homilies on John's Gospel
Sweet bread it is.  God replaces our desires by showing us himself, which is infinitely more lovely and sweet than anything we have known. When he draws us to himself, by showing himself to us, we begin to desire him. Our desire has changed, along with our hearts.

One of the good things about walking, is that these thoughts seem to swirl around naturally, connected as we are to our bodies and their longings!   Proof that I am still achingly human in every sense! Or perhaps I am just food obsessed!   So as I sat down to the beautiful little garden table, I put my pleasure for the next hour and a half in the hands of the competent waiter, and ordered the chef's menu. This, too, I remember thinking that day, is a kind of metaphor for allowing ourselves to be fed just that which we need, rather than what we think we need.  The menu began, elegantly, with a little surprise, an amuse bouche, which I believe was a little canape with some truffle butter and shaved duck confit. The first course, or entree, was a little frisee salad with bacon de sanglier, a bacon made with boar, which was very delicious, and a very fresh poached egg.  Those of you who love French food will recognize this as Frisee aux Lardons, which is a lunch in itself, but this was of very modest proportion, just a tiny round of frisee tossed with the boar bacon, with a perfectly round poached egg on top and a drizzle of vinaigrette.  Many years later, I saw this exact dish served at The French Laundry in almost an identical presentation, and I always wondered if Keller ate at the Palais Royal, sitting in the garden, seeking inspiration for his menu.

Next came the garbure, that delicious soup I had eaten long ago.  It was as wonderful as I had remembered, made with duck, or even better, goose confit.  A soup born of want and desire. It was delicious, a soul satisfying elixir of well being.  In cookbooks of the 19th century, according to Richard Olney, garbures are panades; thick soups I often make for my family, more akin to a gratin, baking layers of dried bread when I have an overflow, onions or leeks, homemade stock and cheese in a slow oven until a fantastically delicious and unctious.  You used to be able to get this wonderful dish as a side to roast chicken at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco when Judy Rodgers was cooking, long baked in the wood fired oven.  Glorious. I can't replicate the smoky nuance of that oven, but I have come pretty close in my own Viking oven.  And someday I hope to have a brick wood fired oven in Big Sur.   A garbure from Gascony transcends a  mere soup; it is a stew that is thick enough to support a spoon upright!  The meal-in-one comes from southern Gascony, where in the pine forests of Les Landes and the foothills of the Pyrenees, a hearty soup is needed to fight the winter fogs and rains.  Coming from the rainy Northwest corner of the United States as I do, what could be more perfect?

Would you like to try this for dinner? It is important that the vegetables be absolutely fresh. It will make a difference.  When you have finished the soup, take some little slices of baguette cut on the diagonal, top them with a little of the puree which has been reduced in a pan with some butter or duck fat until it has the consistency of mashed potatoes, and top with some grated gruyere cheese and gratinee them in the oven (you can use your broiler, but watch it carefully) to serve with the soup. Along with a crisp green salad and a little fruit tart (I plan to make an apple tart tonight), this is a wonderful autumn dinner.  Below is a simple version of this soup, the number of variations of which are huge. If you don't want to cook the dried beans yourself, you can buy canned cannelini beans, but you will sacrifice considerable flavor for the convenience.  It will still be a good soup, however!  If you can't find duck or goose confit (you can order it from D'Artagnan if you look online), you can also use ham or bacon.  If you use bacon, saute the bacon first, using the bacon fat to sweat the vegetables, and add it back in, partially cooked, when the beans are added, leaving some fully cooked to add as garnish.  I am indebted to Anne Willan and to Jeanne Strang and to Richard Olney for the ideas behind this recipe, which I have altered some from their versions so as to make one fitted best to my taste.

Put about a cup of dried white kidney beans, such as cannelini, in a pot with water to cover and bring it to a boil.  Cover the pan, take it from the heat and leave it for an hour or two so that the beans will soften. Do not add any salt. Drain the beans, put them back in the pan with a clove studded onion, a carrot, a handful of thyme, bayleaf and parsley, tied together with kitchen string so that it can be removed.  Bring to a simmer and cover, cooking until the beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, adding more water if the pan becomes dry.

Meanwhile, melt two tablespoons of butter or a similar amount of duck fat in a soup pot over low heat.  Add in the thinly sliced white parts of three leeks; two large carrots, thinly sliced; a turnip, thinly sliced; 1/4 head of green cabbage, shredded; two stalks of celery, thinly sliced; three garlic cloves; and three waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced.  Season with salt and pepper and cover the pan, sweating the vegetables over low heat, taking care not to let them scorch, about 20 minutes or so, until tender.   Don't brown them.  While the vegetables are cooking, shred two legs of duck or goose confit, discarding the skin and bones. 

When the beans are done, drain them, and add them to the vegetables along with the shredded confit, two quarts of chicken or veal broth (not beef broth) and cover and simmer again for 20-30 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender.  Now taste and adjust the seasoning.  At this point, I usually puree the soup with a stick blender, but this is not necessary. It is simply a matter of taste.  Just before serving, reheat the soup gently stirring in a tablespoon of butter and a little chopped parsley.  You can put a few lardons of bacon, cooked to crisp, on top as a garnish if you like.
Garbure, served rustic style
As for the "restes" of the lamb steaks, which I promised to address, here are some wonderful ideas you can use: stuffed peppers and tomatoes, in the style of Provence, with onions, cumin, thyme, pepper, tomatoes and rice. Bake the rice and lamb mixture in the tomato or pepper shell at 350 for about 40 minutes.  Serve with a salad. Or you can make gyros, with cut up lamb seasoned with a little thyme and cumin, tzaziki sauce, tomatoes, lettuce (I like arugula), caramelized onions, and feta cheese wrapped in flatbread.  I like mine with a provencal tomato sauce made with basil, tomatoes, garlic, dijon mustard, sherry vinegar and olive oil.  Or you can make a Shepherd's pie, with a little lamb ragout made with onions, a little stock or demiglace thickened with buerre manie (butter and flour worked together to a paste), lamb, tomatoes and thyme, topped with fresh made potato puree and baked.  Of course there are a hundred more. Let me know if you want more ideas.

Happy Cooking mes amis! And a lovely weekend to you. Tell me what you like to do with leftovers, and whether you cook extra amounts just so you can make something with them. Wishing you all contentment of the best sort this weekend, food for body and soul.  A bientot!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons from a Master

The Storefront in Paris

Yesterday's New York Times Dining section (which I love to read) featured an article on Jacques Pepin and his new book, about to be released, The Essential Pepin. Since I began to cook seriously in the 1980s, nearly 30 years ago now, I have loved Pepin as a teacher and master. There is no better chef.  I remember well his early books, La Methode and La Technique, and I spent months and months working my way through each until I had mastered the techniques he demonstrated.  Even today, when I cook, I hear his voice in my head, exhorting this or that method.  The original books were combined several years ago, and are now sold as one volume: The Complete Techniques. He is by far the best of the best of teachers, and his consistent insistence on mastering technique to release your artistry has been a source of inspiration and correction to me for many years. It is important to have Masters, I believe, and selecting the right ones is as important as having them, if not moreso.  I think this has been true in my spiritual life as well, and I have tried to be more deliberate about this more recently.  I know that my cooking is indebted greatly to the wonderful masters at whose feet I have learned, and the same might be said for any appreciation I have for what it means to Live a life hidden in Christ.  Having guides along the path is tremendously valuable.

When someone tells me they want to learn to cook seriously, Pepin's Complete Techniques is the first book I give them. Inevitably, there is some disappointment, because it doesn't seem sexy to practice julienne or making stock when the making of complicated recipes is so much more exciting and rewarding, but this is exactly what will lead to great food.  Pepin himself apprenticed as a teenager in an array of French restaurants, to learn the basics, and he has written about the hard years of long hours and stressful work that honed his skills.  Properly cut vegetables not only look beautiful, but cook evenly. Great stocks and reductions are the secret to the complex and deep flavors of the professional kitchen. Sometimes I think it is particularly difficult for Americans, as we are trained in a culture of immediate gratification, and we are not always willing to invest in a long term apprenticeship that will yield results over time and requires patience. I spoke recently to the owner of a cooking school targeting housewives and weekend cooks, and she told me that it has been difficult for her because all her students seem to want are recipes that can be done quickly and learned quickly, and they don't want to invest any time in learning and mastering technique. I think this is often the case spiritually, too. We want quick results, mountaintop experiences, instant spirituality that's easy and "enhances" life rather than Gives Life, and we are often unwilling to embrace the idea that spiritual growth comes most often through difficulty rather than ease.

Mastering the basic skills, along with learning to shop frequently, seasonally and carefully are the basic building blocks of great food   In the New York Times article, Pepin mentions chefs I admire particularly, and says "All the great chefs I know--Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongericten--they are technicians first."  If you want to be a great cook, start with the basics.  By all means have fun, and cook with all your senses engaged in pleasure, but it can be terrific fun to master these skills and practice them at home while you are cooking dinner at night or a feast on the weekend.  My kids have great fun doing this, and are anxious to finish their homework so they can help cook dinner. My nine year-old daughter is now quite skilled using a chef's knife and though her mother is often anxious that she will cut herself, she is careful and competent, holds the knife properly and uses her fingers properly. My theory is that children will use knives any way; they may as well be taught how to do it properly and much more safely!

Another thing Pepin taught me early on, before I began working in kitchens and with chefs, was the importance of a very sharp knife. Without a sharp knife, kitchen tasks which should be easy and easily mastered are virtually impossible, and worse, they will damage the food you are attempting to cut or carve or filet or bone as well as pose a safety hazard. Most people know this is true, but life is pressing, and time to sharpen knives can often be difficult to carve out, especially when dinner is cooked on the fly and the time is critical.  But this is why it has to be viewed as a priority. If there is one thing I fail to do enough, it is to sharpen my knives.  Contrary to what most people think, a dull knife in the kitchen is far more dangerous than a sharp one.  A sharp knife should glide through a tomato with ease, and if you have a chef knife and can't use it to cut tomatoes, it is not sharp.  From this book on technique, I learned to sharpen knives using a grinding stone, but my husband is still far better at this than I, and I usually use a steel to sharpen the edge before each use, while he uses the grinding stone periodically to keep them in shape.

A friend often reminds me that it is important to have around you friends who are close enough to sharpen you as well, challenging you, holding you accountable, lending a ready ear for confession.  I have found this to be especially helpful in my life, and went too long without it, too prideful to reveal any weakness. It is akin to trying to cook with dull knife.  The resulting dish will suffer. Proverbs 27:17 says that "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."  As hard iron, steel will bring a knife to a better edge when it is properly whetted against it: so one friend may be the means of encouraging another to reflect, dive deeply into, and illustrate a subject, without which whetting this would not occur.  This is the basis for the concept of having a spiritual director, really nothing more than a very good friend, in whose faith and heart you have great respect, who can advise and challenge you in your walk. Ideally, perhaps they are further along in their growth, but this is not always possible. Scholars have often wondered if the Roman lyric poet, satirist and critic, Horace, who had studied Greek literature and philosophy in Athens, had seen this proverb in the Septuagint ( the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) when he wrote his "The Art of Poetry, an Epistle to the Pisos," saying:  "Ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum, Reddere quae ferrum valet, exors ipsa secandi."  (Hor. Ars. Poet., ver. 304.)  "But let me sharpen others, as the hone gives edge to razors, though itself have none."

Several years after I began to cook seriously, when my career began to be rewarding enough for me to start thinking seriously about a batterie de cuisine that would serve me well and long, I consulted Pepin again, and he was insistent on buying the best.  I still remember his comments about how some people will think nothing of spending a small fortune on a restaurant dinner without blinking an eye, but won't spend the same amount on a few pieces of equipment that might make every dinner substantially more enjoyable and delicious. It is amazing how much difference the right pan can make to a result. Making delicate sauces in a pan that won't cool rapidly can be nearly impossible, and pan searing in the wrong pan can make mush rather than caramelization.  Of course, I had read all the reviews of the various options, as well as cooked with all of them in various places. I knew I didn't want to cook with aluminum because of potential health concerns as well as the often graying impact it can have on food, so I was choosing between copper (Mauviel, French of course!) and stainless steel (All Clad, which I like very much).  It was Pepin whose comments on both convinced me to buy copper. I now have a very large collection of copper pans and pots, gratins and bowls, and though they require a little more effort to polish, they are worth it, in my view. I even have copper pots and pans in my holiday house in Big Sur, where I cook as much as I do at home and where I have more time to do wonderful feasts, which is great fun, in a small, but well equipped kitchen by the Big Sur River, with the sound of the river faeries keeping me company.

I made my first few copper pan and pot purchases on a trip to Paris, at one of my favorite stores, E. Dehillerin.  Long Paris’ legendary cookware store, the visit of which is a step back in time, Dehillerin is a ramshackle shop with high ceilings, wooden plank floors and open shelves where merchandise is stacked haphazardly and appears not to have changed much since it was founded in 1820.  I love these sorts of shops.
Two aisles at E. Dehillerin, wherein I once heard a lady,
the wife of an American professor, lecturing the staff, in very laboured
French, on the lack of proper organization of the store!  The shopkeeper
 suggested that the store had survived and prospered as long
as it had because the French preferred it this way!

The reports of rude behavior from the overall-clad staff are legendary, but I have never found this to be so. I have spent hours in this store, nearly every time I have been to Paris, and the staff were always polite and helpful. I think perhaps if the many American housewives who flock to this shop, often disappointed in the appearance, accustomed as they are to Williams Sonoma (which is a wonderful shop as well) or Sur La Table (though it is not dissimilar to the old and far more wonderful Sur La Table) and their impressive marketing and merchandising, might do well to try a few niceties in French when they arrive.  It is unlikely there will be olive oil tastings at a central kiosk, but the selection of cooking tools, implements, pots and pans is unrivalled.  I suspect the reception would be altogether different.  I still have those beautiful copper Mauviel pans I purchased that first day I visited, as well as a chinois and a tamis, and I remember even more the groans from my husband as he was carrying the heavy bags and wondering how we were going to get them in our bags on the return flight!  Copper pans are heavy! Several years in a row, I would set aside a part of my bonus for a little gift for myself, and I nearly always purchased more copper pans and pots until I had the pieces I needed, and a few I loved!  Look them up:

A wall of copper pots, pans and molds at E. Dehillerin

And now to FOOD!  Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Pepin, however, was not technique, as important as this is, but his ability to cook wonderful meals using up all the little bits of leftovers from other dishes. Although my grandmother did this as well, Pepin always fascinated me with his ability to make beautiful things from the "restes".  Several times a week, I use his canape technique to make elegant and gorgeous little open faced sandwiches from a pullman loaf, to serve with an aperitif before dinner, using up bits of leftovers not enough of which is left from which to compose a meal.  My family adore these, and as I have written before, my son is now very skilled at making them, and his combinations are often amazing.  Often, I make a bechamel sauce, which is a white sauce, or a roux with stock. Then I add bits of meat and sauce leftover from a dinner to it, and fold it into buckwheat crepes, which I make from an old French recipe, and gratinee them in the oven. Served with a salad, this is a wonderful supper. Leftover cheese fondue can make lovely croque monsieur or madame sandwiches, and one night I made about 30 of them, all devoured by visiting friends of my children, staying unexpectedly for dinner.  These sandwiches also make wonderful afterschool snacks, if your children are like mine and prefer something "substantial" before any sweet.  I thought I might talk a little bit today about the concept of "restes" (leftovers) and how you can use a great weekend dish to make several meals or parts of meals during the week, wasting nothing.

On Sunday I cooked Ossobuco Milanese, which means, simply, braised veal shanks cooked in the style of Milan.  There are other kinds of braised veal shanks, which are also delicious, such as the white one which uses anchovies, which I like very much,  but my family particularly loves the Milanese version, which uses tomatoes in the braising liquid.  This is a sublime dish, perhaps the greatest of all braises, and it really is very easy to make and almost cooks itself after the initial browning of the meat. If you haven't made this dish for your family or yourself, you should learn to make it.  I have tried many different recipes, but I like best the old recipe of Marcella Hazan in her book The Classic Italian Cookbook with some alterations I have developed over the years.  I agree with her that gremolata, which is a condiment I adore, does not add to the glorious balance of the dish and the subtlety of the veal, and is better suited to other things. One of the things I do is to remove the meat, and then puree the liquid with a stick blender.  The vegetables thicken the sauce naturally, and the result is spectacular. You can do this with any braise, and you will find the resulting balance is worth the effort.  If you allow the liquid to cool a little first, you can remove some of the fat as well, if you wish.  With the ossobuco, I served risotto milanese, which is a risotto made in the style of Milan, a very simple and gorgeous risotto flavored with saffron. My daughter is very skilled at making risotto now, and she stands on a stool over the big Viking range, stirring away and adding stock.

Ossobuco Milanese with risotto Milanese: Scrumptious!
After this delicious dish was consumed, there was a considerable amount of leftover meat, braising liquid and risotto. So the next night, I seared some sliced mushrooms on very high heat, not moving them until they were turned, cooking them in small batches, to which I added seasalt after they were turned. I then added to the pan the "restes" of the ossobuco, and all that wonderful braising liquid,  warming it gently, and made a batch of fresh egg noodles in the way my grandmother did, tossing them with creme fraiche after they were cooked in salted, boiling water.  I put the mushroom and ossobuco sauce over the dressed noodles on a big white Apilco platter, and we had a very delicious (and untraditional) version of Stroganoff, a dish I don't usually make, but for which my son asks.  This could be done with many other braises as well, to great advantage. I also regularly make macaronades with the braising liquids, baking the macaroni, moistened with the braising liquids and some gruyere cheese in a gratin dish, sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs and butter and chives and baked.  When I go away for the evening to supper club or to dinner with friends, I invariably leave some sort of gratin in the oven for my family, along with a big green salad, some crusty baguette, a fruit tart and a cozy table set in the kitchen, candles and all.  And my husband, after a long day, always feels fortunate for a night with the children that is nearly all prepped, leaving him free to enjoy their company. They don't feel deprived!  More often than not, the gratin (I adore gratins of all sorts) is a macaronade, made from braising liquids from Sunday dinner.  Easy and fast.

You will have noticed I haven't mentioned the risotto. First of all, most restaurant risotto is not worth ordering. It is precooked and given the risotto "treatment" at the end, but, although it can be tasty, it is simply not the same dish at all. So if you don't make risotto, teach yourself to do so. It is a wonderful meal that can be a terrific means of using up little bits of meat or an abundance of garden vegetables. There are three things I love to do with leftover risotto. The first is to fry it in little cakes for breakfast, over which I serve a poached egg.  Try it, you will find yourself making extra just to have it this way, and it's good for dinner too. The second, is to make little risotto cakes, adding fresh chives and a little egg and breadcrumb to bind the cake, sauteing it lightly until nicely browned in a pan with some olive oil.  I usually serve this with aioli for a little sauce, and a green salad with a garlicky vinaigrette. Again, this is a lovely supper dish and takes on a new flavor cooked this way  It is often more delicious than the original.  Finally, I love to make arancini, "little oranges," literally translated. I add an egg again, to bind the risotto, then form them in little balls and roll them in seasoned breadcrumbs, and saute them in olive oil or deep fry them in peanut or vegetable oil. These can also be served with a little aioli as an appetizer course, and when I make them, my children as well as any visiting urchins, devour them rapidly!

Last night I cooked some grilled leg of lamb "steaks" for dinner, with socca pancakes flavored with cumin, olive oil and thyme; annie's tomato jam, and grilled asparagus. As my son, the great meat eater, was not home, there was a considerable amount of leftover lamb. Tomorrow I will describe what I plan to do with this lamb, and the many choices it offers for delectable dinners. 

Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot and a salute to Jacques Pepin!