Around My Table

“Living well is the best revenge.” That saying kept running through my head Saturday night as I sat in my living room talking with new friends, drinking wine, eating a homemade feast from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. While this wasn’t the original intent when I planned this dinner weeks ago, at least to the seven of us sitting there, it was the best possible response to Friday’s horrific news from Paris.

The coincidences surrounding this dinner made it feel like fate. It started with two articles: the first from Serious Eats about cookbook clubs (a combination potluck and book club with everyone bringing a dish from a chosen cookbook), the second a New York Times claim about the “death of the party,” blaming its demise on everything from the Internet (…huh?) and helicopter parenting to the real estate market and craft beer.

Around the table

I’ve been looking for more excuses to play hostess and am always looking for a reason to try new recipes (especially from my ever-expanding cookbook collection that gets neglected in favor of whatever’s popped up on the Internet lately) . So I left a comment on the cookbook club article saying I’d love to start one in Chicago and for anyone interested to email me.

Inviting strangers into my home with a vague hope that we’d all have some common interest in food–not something my normally introverted self would take on. But I didn’t want to leave it to chance that someone else would start a group and hope they’d invite me. Between the half-dozen people who emailed me and several other food-loving friends, I gathered about 15 people who were equally excited about the idea.

Sharing wine

I chose Around My French Table as the inaugural selection for the “Cooking the Books” club since it had a huge variety of recipes and Dorie Greenspan’s recipes are almost always fool-proof (and, of course, I’ve become a bit of a Francophile over the past year). I found out one of the people who emailed me from Serious Eats was from France and that the date I picked, November 14, coincided with the first French Restaurant Week in Chicago. Fate, I thought.

Then I heard the news on Friday and my heart broke.

Suddenly this dinner was so much more important than just meeting new friends and eating delicious homemade food–or maybe it was so important for exactly those reasons. The attack in Paris targeted those simply enjoying life with friends and loved ones–a dinner out, a concert, a soccer match. If there’s one thing I can do in response, I thought, it’s this: I can bring a handful of people together to share a meal.

So I braised short ribs, set out candles, found good party music, chilled bottles of wine–not to avoid what had happened, but to control the one thing I could when everything on the news seemed determined to show how little control we have.

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The dinner itself was everything I hoped for. Every dish was outstanding (I think that speaks both to everyone’s cooking skills and the recipes) but more importantly a group of near complete strangers with such varied backgrounds turned almost immediately into a dinner of dear friends, laughing, eating, and drinking like we’ve known each other for years. Of course the conversation revolved around food–what tweaks we made to the recipes, what inspired us to make a particular dish, what else we want to try. There’s something to be said for a group of people that can collectively nerd out over the kind of butter used in a dish.

Dinner is served
Pumpkin flans
Short ribs
Bread

Every bite was delicious
Credit to Sarah for this picture! Her plate looked much tidier than mine.

Sarah, our resident Frenchwoman, made a comment at the end of the evening that meant everything to me, though: after spending the better part of the past 24 hours on the phone with her family and friends, she was glad to have this dinner to look forward to. This was what she would be doing with her friends on a Saturday night in Paris.

Cheese plate
Dessert
I still can’t watch the news. It’s all too much–the posturing, blame, and misplaced anger, the sights and sounds and overwhelming pain–and too similar to so many, too many, other stories lately. But I can find and share food and comfort with friends. It might be a small thing, but when the world seems hellbent on making us afraid of enjoying life (and of welcoming strangers into our lives), it’s the least I can do.

Good people and good stories

Heavy thoughts aside, this dinner was incredibly fun and I can’t wait to do it again (Smitten Kitchen cookbook is on the docket for January!). Here’s what we made and a few thoughts on each dish:

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Vive la Madeleine

What dessert or sweet treat defines Paris? The internet is littered with lists, debates rage, and more often than not, the macaron is crowned king (or queen, perhaps not an enviable role given Paris’ history). I would argue the madeleine, quietly observing from the wings, deserves its moment to shine.

A little bump

Delicious and beautiful and delicate as they are, macarons are also known for their fussiness and fanciness; they have a notorious reputation for tempermentality should you take on the challenge of making them yourself. Madeleines are confident in their simplicity, needing nothing more than a dusting of powdered sugar or basic sugar glaze.

Madeleine prep Lemon sugar

Madeleines, like Paris, have a bit of je ne sais quoi about them, just enough to make things interesting, but not intimidating if approached with the right attitude. Madeleines are, in fact, very approachable and not particularly complicated–you probably have every ingredient in your cupboard or fridge.

But they require a bit of dedication and a dedicated pan (madelelines are not madeleines if they’re baked in cupcake tins), a little patience, and some home-cook magic to create their iconic little bump. Madeleines also will not wait for you; once baked, their window of perfection is short, and it’s really best to cede to their schedule for the best experience–you’ll really be glad you did.

Whisk until right before your arm falls off Adding butter

The buttery, lemony, sweet little cakes themselves are pillow-soft but sturdy enough to stand up to a dunk in a cup of tea (memorably so, if Marcel Proust is any authority). If you look at a macaron sideways, its delicate shell might crack and crumble. The madeleines traditional shell shape is their one nod to decoration, but even that is relatively simple by necessity–too intricate and the detail is lost or they stick to the pan.

Flour-y shells Post rest

On the other hand, maybe the madeleine is best left out of the spotlight to be enjoyed by those who know what to look for. Maybe it doesn’t need a chain of ultra-high-end stores, fancy boxes, or a cult following, but just a pretty little plate and a pot of tea at a beat-up wooden table surrounded by friends and good conversation. Sounds like perfection to me.

Odd man outPerfect petite madeleines

And simply because no discussion of the madeleine would be complete without it:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Madeleines Continue reading

Cassoulet

First, a note–before I made this, Chicago was well on its way to spring. It was 70 degrees, my winter coats and gloves and scarves were all put away. The day this went in the oven? Four inches of snow. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement or indictment. You’ve been warned.

Halfway there

There’s a particular kind of meal best served out of the dish it was made in, at a table crowded with full wine glasses, ready plates, and even more ready appetites. The kind of meal that lends itself to lingering at the table long after the food is gone, though the glasses never seem to run empty.

After my trip to Paris last fall, I’ve (hardly unexpectedly) been on a French food kick and all winter, the one dish I’ve been craving, but never quite got around to making until last week, is about as French as it gets and, I think, perfectly speaks to that kind of meal–cassoulet.

The basics Brined onions

If you’re not familiar with cassoulet, it’s a rib-sticking, richer-than-stew but not-really-a-casserole dish of white beans, chicken or duck, sausage, salt pork, broth, and a ton of garlic. Every person who makes it has their own recipe–which is of course the “right” way (the right way usually coinciding with the way they had it growing up–though in cassoulet’s case, it actually has a whole academie).

Salt pork Sausage Browned bits and onions

The dish has an intimidating reputation, even to me–see above re. L’académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There’s the duck confit (which many recipes include instructions to make yourself), a very specific type of bean, the multi-day cooking time, etc., etc. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’m not advocating for a microwave version (I probably made a Frenchman roll over in his grave just by typing that), but, as with any dish borne out of using what you have and stretching it to serve a crowd, it can be–and was!–simple (and, if not exactly fast, at least doesn’t require a lot of standing-at-the-stove time).

Brined beans and a few vegetables Partially cooked beans Almost good enough to stop right here

I’ve had this recipe kicking around since October, but my favorite part isn’t the recipe itself (though it’s what I used and what I modified below), it’s the article that precedes it. It addresses perfectly the intimidation factor and how to make this the way I imagine it was made at the beginning–with ingredients you have or can pretty easily get, allowing for adjustments as needed, and to your own tastes. And pretty much however you make it, it will be amazing.

To unintentionally prove a point, I actually screwed up when I made this. In hindsight, I should have added more water while it was cooking, there should have been a bit more broth-yness to the beans by the time it was done. Ideally the crust forms from the liquid, not the beans or chicken. Not a problem–it was still delicious (and totally devoured and I basically had to stop myself from picking off all the crispy chicken skin bits) and I will make adjustments next time.

2 hours later 4 hours and done!

Cassoulet Continue reading

Dining and Drinking in Paris, Part 2

A long overdue continuation…When last we left our intrepid travelers, we were enjoying oysters on an upturned wine barrel, crepes with hard cider, and bread…oh, the bread.

Rain on its way

In today’s episode, two of the most quintessentially Parisian moments of the trip.

Nothing looks quite like a rain-slicked cobblestone street in Paris. An impromptu stop escape a downpour on our last evening, my friend Pam and I tucked into a corner table of a random cafe for an aperitif (Aperol spritz for me) and to watch the city hustle home.

Rainy cobblestones

Halfway through my drink, an older gentleman at the next table started speaking to me in French. I think he was telling me to button up my coat or wrap my scarf tighter against the wind and rain that kept sneaking in under the awning. Once he figured out the only way I could communicate was with a smile, he laughed and managed “I really must learn English sometime.”

Replying with “Your English is much better than my French” only earned me a confused look. Second try: “Your English–” and a thumbs up and a smile. “My French–” I shook my head “no” and made a rather disgusted face and he cracked up. He wished me bonsoir with a smile before he left. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip.

Then it was a mad dash through the rain to get ready for…

Chez Denise
My last meal in Paris. I can only hope I’m a good enough writer to share how perfect this experience was–not just the meal, mind you, the experience. It was everything. A little hole in the wall restaurant in the heart of Paris; you’d walk right by it if you didn’t know it was there. A zinc bar, dark wood, red-checkered tablecloths. The 90-year-old owner and her red leather-bound book thicker than a phonebook filled with decades of hand-written reservations. Continue reading

Je suis Charlie

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Image credit: Maxime Haes

This isn’t the kind of news I usually talk about here, but the attack and murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo yesterday was so deeply disturbing I felt compelled to add my voice to the outraged millions.

I write about food. That’s hardly a controversial topic, and a pretty privileged one at that, but I have the opportunity to write because others actively push the limits of and fight to protect freedom of expression–including those who satirize and mock in the extreme. I, we all, benefit from their efforts regardless of personal politics or religious affiliations. Those who operate on the edge make it possible for the rest of us to have–and express–our own beliefs.

Relatedly, 2014 was one of the worst years for the rights and safety of journalists. Journalists attacked, kidnapped, and brutally murdered like James Foley; journalists arrested and held by state governments–it’s unconscionable. There is no free society while the truth-tellers are silenced.

I won’t pretend that, based on the few days I spent there, I know Parisians or the French in any deeply meaningful way to speak to their character as a city or a nation, but I see and hear their response, and the response by the world, and it says enough. And while I’m sure it’s small comfort to the families and loved ones of those who were killed, there’s immeasurable power in turning such a crime into a rallying cry.

Charlie vit.

Dining and Drinking in Paris (Part 1)

There is no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Paris for me was the food. I mean, come on. It’s a food culture practically built on bread and cheese, two of my most favorite food groups.

As I mentioned, I went to Paris with a pretty comprehensive list of places to eat that covered everything from hole-in-the-wall falafel stands to old school French bistros to small plates and wine bars. These are just three of best places I ate during the trip (another post to come shortly with more, but I figured 1,500 words was quite enough to start with): Au Petit Versailles, an amazing cafe; Breizh Cafe for spectacular crepes and cider; and Le Baron Rouge for wine and oysters.

Petite Versaille

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cooking Inspiration (and a Theatrical Interlude)

I won’t bury the lede here: last weekend I met Dorie Greenspan and now I have a new cooking hero.

One of the great things about having a passion is constantly discovering how much more there is to learn. In my research on Paris (…at some point I will talk about something else, I promise) I realized how much I really don’t know about French cooking. As much as I adore Julia Child, firmly believe cheese is a food group, and really don’t think a meal is complete without bread of some kind, French cuisine has just never been something I’ve made a conscious effort to learn about. Needless to say, that’s changed.

I discovered one of my favorite shops, The Spice House, was doing a booksigning with Dorie Greenspan to promote her new cookbook on French baking, Baking Chez Moi, the weekend after my Paris trip. I knew very little about her, really, but the timing was too perfect, I had to go. The signing was great fun, not least because there was champagne and delicious little treats made by the students at the French Pastry School.

Baking Chez Moi

As soon as she started speaking, I knew it was fate–I had just finished my last macaron and she said this was the first of her 11 cookbooks in which she was finally convinced by her editor to include a recipe for the Parisian sweet (or is it American now? though I categorically object to framing it as “macarons are the new cupcake”). I anticipate a baking project…

More importantly, Dorie was everything I always hope cookbook authors will be: obviously passionate about the topic, incredibly knowledgeable, and imminently kind. To give you a clue exactly how kind, I bought two of her (not insubstantial) cookbooks before the event in hopes she’d be willing to sign both. Not only was she happy to do that (and wrote the sweetest custom inscription when I told her I just got back from my first trip to Paris, which always earns extra points in my mind), she actually apologized for making me hold both cookbooks while I waited in line. And she was happy to take a picture with me (I need a do-over on that one).

Inscription

Dorie Greenspan

And on a totally different subject (not food- or Paris-related for a change), I went to the opening night of Drury Lane Theater’s production of Camelot last week. I love musicals and it was a nice way to stretch my “on vacation” feeling a little bit longer. The show was great fun and well sung and acted; Lancelot was a cutie; the theater was small enough that everyone had a really good view of the stage (always my struggle when buying theater tickets in downtown Chicago without cringing at the price). If you’re in the Chicago suburbs looking to see a show, check it out. (The theater comped my tickets but my thoughts on the show are my own.)

Camelot

Next post, a new recipe: a simple, beautiful French dessert!

What’s Cooking Wednesday: J’adore Paris

Oh do I have so much to share with you all. I’m currently sifting through 2,000 pictures from my four-day trip, but the short version is this: as soon as I landed yesterday, I would have happily turned around and boarded another eight hour flight for one more glass of wine, one more freshly shucked oyster, one more walk along the Seine, one more stroll through the market, one more excuse to say “bonjour.”

J’adore Paris.

eiffel