A Final Farewell from an Absent Friend

Plated Veal(1)

Veal Prince Orloff

Sad news will always find a way to catch up with you.

My husband and I were on a trip out to California last June to visit friends and tour Yosemite when one morning I opened up Facebook and discovered a three-month old message waiting for me. (I have generally been eschewing Facebook out of a kind of protest for its policy to allow political disinformation through its ad platform.) There in my messages inbox was a note from someone I had never heard of who informed me that the adult daughter of a friend of mine was trying to reach me and that I could contact her via her personal web site.

I knew instantly that my friend Judy had either died or was near death and that it had taken me three months to find out. I wrote to her daughter immediately explaining that I had just received the message and that I assumed she had some sad news to tell me. Yes, she replied. Her mother had died in February and she had wanted to invite me to her memorial that was held in April.

I was an absent friend at the end of Judy’s life and this reality will always haunt me. In my note to her daughter, I acknowledged my failure to be present for Judy. It had been probably five years since I had last visited her in New York. My explanation was that I had been busy helping my own parents through the end of their lives two states away. That’s the truth of it, but it is not an excuse.

I first met Judy back in 1997 or 1998. We were both Girl Scout leaders for a troop in East Harlem. Judy was exactly twenty years my senior and quickly became one of my closest friends as well as a role model for what it meant to be a single woman in the city.

When I think that she was eighty-two at the time of her death I have a hard time picturing her at that age. For me, she will perennially be in her sixties, a single woman with two grown daughters still working as a journalist and keeping up with a troop of pre-adolescent girls who gave us a run for our money on the best of days.  Maybe we do that with everyone we know who absents our daily lives—they remain frozen in time at the age when we first met them.

By the time I met Judy she had already lived a full life. I’m certain there were occasions when I would stop and marvel that my parents were only eight years older and yet Judy’s life experiences were so very different. To me, her life sounded exotic—yet I am certain that I assigned all kinds of romantic or idealized notions to her, filling in the blanks of her narrative that she would never reveal to me.

Like my parents, Judy grew up in the Midwest. But whereas my parents took a conventional route with a house in the suburbs and three children, Judy took the proverbial road less travelled. At college in Iowa where she was raised, she met a Hungarian immigrant several years her senior. The handsome foreigner offered her a different life and she took it. They lived in Havana just before the revolution and then in Paris in the early sixties, not long after Julia Child had lived there.

I was so curious about those times in Judy’s life. What was it like in Havana in the late 1950s, I asked more than once. My curiosity only grew when she told me that she and her husband flew home one Christmas and never returned because the revolution had broken out during their home leave. “Didn’t you sense it was coming?” I asked. To me, it sounded thrilling to have lived in Cuba at the time of such monumental social change. To Judy, though, she was just a young, naïve American woman happily living the life of an American expat. Later, I learned she had an American friend who had had an affair with Che Guevara. Notwithstanding what Judy told me, I had decided her backstory was something out of a novel—or at least a short story.

But what really piqued my curiosity was her relationship with her husband. As I said, he was a bit older and Hungarian-born. After living in Havana and Paris, they eventually moved to New York. The way I remember it, they were married for several years before Judy finally convinced her husband to have a child (a girl) and then several more years before he agreed to have a second child, another girl who turned out to be the apple of his eye.

One fine day, as Judy recounted to me, her husband came home and said he had just been offered a new job in Washington D.C. “Fine,” Judy responded. “You go ahead, and I’ll stay here in New York with the girls.” They never divorced but remained separated for the rest of their lives.

Having never worked a day in her adult life, Judy was determined to find a job and not accept any money from her estranged husband. Amazingly, she worked her way into journalism and was writing as a freelance business journalist for the International Harold Tribune when I met her. I admired her so much for her gumption and willingness to reinvent herself mid-life. Like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, Judy represented the triumph of a woman who overcame the limits of the patriarchy or at the very least, the sadness of a broken marriage.

Judy was a congenital optimist. When most might have found cause to complain about a situation, Judy would laugh and say either, “Well, there you are,” or “I won’t bore you with the details,” not wanting to impose. It was really her way of setting boundaries, and so I was left to fill in my own ideas about her life, most especially when it came to her marriage.

Because they never divorced and remained friendly—they often spoke by phone and her husband came to New York from time to time, presumably staying with her—I imagined that her husband still carried a torch for her. In the end, I believe she still loved him in her own way too.

When her husband was dying of cancer, it was Judy who brought him back to New York (in an ambulance) so that she could care for him at the end of his life. It clearly hit her hard. I remember her calling me to tell me he had died while I was on my way back to Belgium from a vacation in Provence (see what I mean about sad news always finding you?). Some months later, Judy came to visit me in Brussels and I have a vivid memory of the two of us sitting on the sofa in my apartment drinking a glass of wine (I think my husband might have been traveling on business) and she was telling me about her husband. It was the only time I had ever seen her get emotional. “He told me once, toward the end, that there had never been anyone else in his life like me.”

Judy and I saw each other several more times after that sad visit. But not long after my husband and I returned from Brussels she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I visited her in New York a few times in the early days of her illness and she seemed to be doing well. But then she had a fall in her home and her children, rightly concerned for her safety, hired an in-home aide. I stopped in to see her not long after the aide had been hired and was so shocked to see her looking so frail with a voice that sounded thin and weak. The aide served us tea and arranged a bunch of lilacs I had brought. We chatted for awhile, with Judy, every chipper, describing the ordeal of having fallen and lying in her apartment unattended for hours as if it were nothing at all.  “I won’t bore you with the details”…It was very unsettling to me.

As I looked around her apartment that day, I noted that nothing had changed. It was still the uncluttered, elegant, New York sophisticated Upper East Side apartment it had always been. It had an eat-in kitchen and  an L-shaped living room with space for a full-sized dining table that gave us less fortunate New Yorkers a good case of apartment envy.

In the eight years I knew Judy before moving with my husband to Brussels, I probably attended at least a half dozen dinner parties there. Judy enjoyed throwing dinner parties, but what stood out for me was that she always served exactly the same menu:  A starter of steamed asparagus with crumbled hard-boiled egg and vinaigrette followed by Veal Prince Orloff, straight from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Veal Prince Orloff—for those who don’t know—was almost as well-known as Julia Child’s more celebrated Boeuf Bourguignon. It is a throw-back to an earlier time when home cooks would stage elaborate dinner parties to impress the husband’s boss, or in-laws. In fact, the dish was featured in one of the classic episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show back in the ‘70s when Mary had to throw a last -minute dinner party for a visiting congresswoman. That’s how well-known Veal Prince Orloff was among the dinner-party-to-impress set back in the day.

Now I don’t know if Judy ever made Veal Prince Orloff as a way to impress her husband’s boss or even her in-laws, but what I do know is that when Judy found something that worked for her, she stuck with it. (I have some degree of certainty that all the furnishings in her apartment were the originals. When the seat cushions wore out, she did re-cover the chairs, but otherwise she stuck with what she knew, and if it didn’t exist anymore, she tried to get as close as possible.)

I imagine she first started making Veal Prince Orloff back when she was living in Paris in the early ‘60s. Once when I was visiting her on a trip back to New York while living in Brussels, I stayed in her guest bedroom (with the same girlish twin bed and furnishings that no doubt had been there since her daughters were children) and noticed her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the bookshelf. It was so well-worn the cover had come off and I bet if I had had the presence of mind to look up Veal Prince Orloff it would have been full of cooking splatters.


My own well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Veal Prince Orloff is a dish that takes the better part of a day to prepare, with multiple steps and side preparations like making mushrioom duxelles, soubise and velouté that generates a sink full of dishes.


Of course much of it can be prepared ahead of time which Julia Child helpfully points out in her recipe. Still, it is a dish that is a huge time commitment and one that has sadly gone out of fashion in the age of Alison Roman’s bestselling Nothing Fancy dinner party cookbook. Just before serving, the cooked veal roast is sliced thick, the mushroom, rice and onion stuffing tucked in between each slice and the cheese sauce poured on top before the whole thing goes back in the oven for warming and browning. It’s a real showstopper.

Platter of Veal

Veal Prince  Orloff, browned and ready to serve.

I once stopped by Judy’s apartment on the morning of one of her dinner parties and there she was in the kitchen, toiling away, her hair a tad unkempt, a slight dew on her face from the heat of the stove. I can still conjure the rich smells of slow cooking onion, mushrooms and roasting meat wafting through her apartment. It is one of the most indelible and cherished memories I have of her.

When I learned that she had died after the long, slow ordeal of Parkinson’s I thought back on all those dinner parties of Veal Prince Orloff. Her daughter, as thoughtful and generous as Judy, described her final years and the dementia that had set in while assuring me that she and her sister saw to it that Judy was able to stay in her home until the end with frequent visits by family and loved ones. Again, I felt I had let her down.

And yet, her daughter never faulted me for my absence. In fact, in her note she assured me of Judy’s affection for me and how happy she was when I met and married my husband. I have held on to these last remembrances and kind words for nearly nine months now.

Almost as soon as I learned of her death I turned to my husband and said I wanted to make Veal Prince Orloff to remember her. I have been holding onto that idea for the same nine months, not quite willing to execute it. My reasons are as unknowable to me as Judy’s marriage or her youth in Cuba or Paris. It may be my reluctance to let her go or even my guilt at not being there when it counted most.

But now, with the first anniversary of her death upon me, it is time to face all of this and make her signature dish. I have found over the years, that making a favorite recipe associated with a friend or loved one is like being in their company again. I can hear her laugh and see her standing over the stove in her New York kitchen and declaring, “Well, there you are.”  I miss Judy. Her husband was right, there will never be another like her.


Veal Prince Orloff: The Recipe


The recipe for Veal Prince Orloff can be found on page 355 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I would not be doing it service to try and re-write it in my own words.

I would, however like to make a few comments: I used a three-rib veal loin roast, boned, rolled and tied. It was the perfect amount for four generous servings. I asked my butcher for the bones, roasted them for about 20 minutes in a hot oven then tucked them around the browned veal in the pot to roast on the bed of softened onions and carrots.

Rolled Loin

Trust the recipe. While you might be tempted to add liquid to the roasting pot as you slide the veal into the oven, Julia (as always) is right. The veal throws off enough liquid as it cooks to provide the jus for the velouté sauce.

Roasted Veal

As for doneness, times have changed and we no longer cook veal to an internal temperature of 175 degrees. Everybody’s oven is different so cooking times may vary, but for my loin roast for four, I roasted it for 50 minutes to an internal temperature of 160 degrees for medium. It cooked further, of course, when I returned it to the oven for re-heating and browning with the cheese sauce and it was just right.

I also found that for the final browning and re-heating with the cheese sauce my oven did the job in 20 minutes, not the 30 to 40 minutes suggested in the recipe (and as you can see from the photo, even that was almost too long, but I have a Miele oven that has a browning function within the baking setting and maybe I shouldn’t have used it).

When we sat down to eat, we enjoyed a wonderful bottle of a 2007 Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills to accompany the veal. I have been hanging onto it for awhile and I couldn’t think of a better time to open it than in memory of Judy. We toasted her more than once.

Pinot Noir


































The Missing Link

Steak Diable2

Filet Mignon Diable

Long before I started this blog and began to write personal essays about food and recipes, I came to understand that food was the way into my stories. Others might use gardening or travel or any number of subjects as their point of entry, but for me, it has always been food.

Call it the Proustian effect, or the madeleine effect—I’m not sure what the nomenclature is exactly—but it is the link between food and memories that is well documented and actually has a scientific basis in fact. (Should you care to get all wonky about it, I came across the scientific explanation in a book review I wrote last year. If memory (wink-wink) serves me correctly our food memories are stored in a primitive part of our brain so there is no real mystery as to why food and stories go together.)

Memory has been weighing heavily on me of late. For one, my French writers class has been reading Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (So that You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood) by the Nobel prize-winning author, Patrick Modiano. Memory is a perennial theme in his novels. In an interview he gave at the time he won the Nobel for literature in 2014, he likened the slow building of the narrative in his novels to the way photographs used to be developed in a bath of chemicals, bringing the image into focus over time. Memory operates much the same way; what at first seems fuzzy gradually becomes more clear.

Just by coincidence, at the same time I have been reading Modiano, I have been working on a project to digitize all my old photos that have been stored in albums and boxes collecting dust. I have carried these photos with me over the years from one home to the next without thinking much about them. But now my husband and I have made the decision to move back to an urban setting in an apartment with half the space of our sprawling suburban home and I am determined to pare down.

Sitting at my desk scanning old photos is both tedious and emotional. It is a reckoning with one’s past that comes into focus little by little, like a Modiano novel.

Of course, a large portion of my trove of photos are of family. Many of them are of my sister’s children when they were at their most adorable, photogenic selves back in the 1990s. Back then, I was the single aunt whose attention was focused (there’s that word again) solely on them whenever I came to visit. For most of their childhood they knew me only as an unmarried woman. As I have pored over these photos of our times together I see more clearly now how jarring it must have been for them to suddenly have to make room for a man who appeared out of nowhere and had become the primary relationship in my life.

At the time, it felt hurtful that my niece and nephew (by then, adolescents) were unwelcoming, but now, looking at all those photos from their childhood I see that I was someone as special to them as they were to me. Suddenly they had been replaced (or they felt they had been replaced). None of us had the tools or the perspective to process any of this in the moment and, sadly, there was plenty of ill-will that resulted that has never been fully resolved.

But because I use food as a way into my stories, I got to thinking about food memories I might have shared with them. I have been racking my brain trying to come up with something to accompany all those photos from family vacations with my parents on Cape Cod to the numerous Christmases we spent together, and I have come up completely short. To me, that is astonishing.

I know that I cooked for them. I cook for everyone in my family (and now my husband’s family). Cooking is both recreational and an act of love for me. My sister, on the other hand, finds cooking a chore. She cooked in order to feed her family, but she had no interest in it beyond expediency. With that in mind, I know that when I visited I often brought recipes with me to relieve her of what she considered a chore and what I considered an opportunity to flex my culinary muscles.

And yet, I don’t recall a single meal I cooked for them. What I do remember is that my brother-in-law sent a message to me via my sister that I was not to cook anything with “voulez-vous sauce”.

My brother-in-law and I disliked each other from the start. Our mutual contempt vibrated just below the surface—or maybe it was always just above the surface, like an aura. We were the only two who were fooled by our efforts to conceal it.

In any case, mealtime at my sister’s house, was usually an exercise in power dynamics. It’s possible that by cooking I was trying to assert my dominance. But I have never used food as a weapon. It means too much to me. So, when my brother-in-law instructed my sister to tell me no “voulez-vous sauce”, it was clear to me he was trying to take control in the kitchen, while at the same time demeaning my interest in French food—and hence, me.

Maybe I stopped cooking for them altogether. Or maybe I have just buried those memories so deep they are forever gone, but for the life of me I can’t remember anything I made for them.

I do remember one final Christmas I spent at my sister’s house when my niece and nephew were in early adolescence. My parents were there too and I’m sure my mother must have made her famous sour cream mashed potatoes. I made something too, but I don’t recall what it was. What I do recall is that both my niece and nephew objected to it with such ferocity that it stopped the meal. What on earth I could have prepared that elicited that kind of full-throated reaction I don’t know, but it was breathtaking in its cruelty.

For a cook, to have anyone raise their voice in anger over what you have prepared feels like being kicked to the curb. No wonder I don’t remember what it was.

That night, as the yelling and screaming continued at one end of the house, my parents and I sat quietly in the living room talking about how stressful it was to be in my sister’s home. The fabric of her family that was merely frayed a few years ago seemed to be unraveling. It might have been that night, or maybe it was a few months later, but I made the decision not to go back again the next Christmas. Being alone during the holidays actually seemed preferable to being caught in the crossfire of my sister’s family drama.

Of course, that was not the last time I saw them. Over the years we have had our ups and downs (mostly downs I’m sorry to say). The children grew up and brought a certain measure of heartache to each of us but none more so than to their parents. My sister and brother-in-law suffered mightily. My nephew—who is now six years into recovery—was incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense and was expelled from university. As for my niece, well, she never got over my marriage. Her disdain for my husband is so great that we have had to sever our ties.

When I review all of the relationships I have had in my life and can find a connection to food with each of them and am unable to find a single connection with my sister’s family it feels downright perplexing and painful. I am left wondering if I have fooled myself. Food is my connection to my family and friends. Without it, there is a gaping hole.

Last month, my sister sent a text to me asking about a recipe for Steak Diable that she planned to make for my brother-in-law on Valentine’s Day. I carefully wrote out the directions for the recipe, which I learned from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent cookbook, Around My French Table. I was nervous. It contained a “voulez-vous sauce” and I didn’t really want to be associated with it. Still, my eagerness to share a recipe got the better of me, and channeling my inner Julia Child, I gave her my most explicit directions.

The next day, she called me instead of texting. “I just wanted to call and tell you over the phone how perfectly your recipe turned out,” she exclaimed. I was flabbergasted. “But there was ‘voulez-vous sauce’,” I said. “Yes, but I put it on the side and when he tasted it he said, ‘This is the best steak I have ever eaten.’ And then she said to me, “I told him, ‘My sister is a really good cook.’”

My heart swelled.

Filet Mignon Diable

(Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan)

Serves 4


4 filets mignon (1 ½ inches thick) at room temperature that have been pre-seasoned with salt and pepper.

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil

For the Sauce:
1 medium shallot, finely diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 Tablespoons cognac or other brandy
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
1-2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Pre-heat oven to 425°.

Pre-heat a cast iron skillet on the stove on medium high until it is very hot (3-5 minutes). Melt the butter and oil in the skillet and place seasoned steak in the pan. Sear the steaks on each side for 4 minutes and then slide the skillet into a hot oven for another 5 minutes, or until the internal temperature has reached 125° for medium rare. When the steaks are done to your liking, transfer them from the pan to a plate and tent them while you prepare the sauce.

Sauté the shallots and garlic in the remaining fat in the skillet over medium low until they are soft but not browned. Add the wine and Cognac and let boil for a minute while you scrape up the bits at the bottom of the pan. Then add the cream, mustard and Worcestershire sauce and taste for seasoning. Add any accumulated juices from the beef that has been resting to the pan and when heated through, turn off the heat and spoon the sauce over individual steaks to serve.

Filet Mignon Diable Printable Version




Cooking While Voting

Plated chicken

Fried Chicken Tenders

Like many people, this election cycle has galvanized me and spurred me to take the kind of action that normally isn’t in my comfort zone. I’m talking about canvassing—knocking on doors for candidates (happily all of whom are women in my local district) and having one-on-one conversations with people I never met in neighborhoods that are outside my bubble. The experience has surprised me in many ways.

Of course, it makes a difference to canvass with a friend. I canvass with Lucy, a friend I met a scant two years ago who has become one of my favorite people and proof that friendship can strike at any age in any place. Lucy has been in the political trenches since He Who Shall Not Be Named took office in 2017. She is one of those happy warriors who (along with many others) have been doing work for the rest of us. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

Because she is my friend and such a generous soul, Lucy has made space for me to ride the wave with her in the final weeks of this election cycle. I didn’t think I had it in me to join her in canvassing for a state senate seat, but I felt a call to action and figured with Lucy by my side and a clipboard in my hand I could manage it. It truly is so much better to get out there and do something than to stay home and read endless dispiriting articles online about our democracy in crisis.

The odds of having a real conversation with voters while canvassing are slim; most people are either not at home or don’t answer the door. But if during the course of a couple of hours on a sunny afternoon knocking on thirty-five or so doors you have a real conversation with two or three voters it is pure gold. I’m not talking about the quick, “Yes I support your candidate and plan to vote”, but the ones like we had with a couple in their early 70s who seemed to want to vote for our candidate but needed reassurance that the candidate would be just as diligent about coming to their neighborhood association meetings as the incumbent from the other party.

To me, this was a lesson in the late Tip O’Neill’s famous adage that all politics is local. When the incumbent answers a constituent’s call to get a pothole fixed or improve internet service, maybe his “A” rating from the NRA doesn’t count as much.

That said, we didn’t let that stop us. After learning that their association was 200 plus members strong and that the woman we were chatting with was the treasurer, Lucy called the campaign manager after we left and suggested that our candidate reach out to them, which we were told she would.

That’s the kind of encounter that makes canvassing for local candidates feel so worthwhile. It was a real rush.

The other kind of canvassing I have been doing is self-motivated. We need millennials to vote and every young person I encounter whether at the check-out, the hair salon or the coffee shop gets asked, “Do you plan to vote on November 6?” Some of them look kind of uncomfortable when I ask, but many of them emphatically tell me, “Yes!” It gives me hope.

So what does all this canvassing business have to do with cooking? Well, for one thing, we still need to eat after an afternoon knocking on doors. And on Election Night in particular we are going to need some comforting food to sooth our anxious minds and stomachs until the results are in.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to cook on Election Night for days. I made some comforting meatloaf and mashed potatoes last weekend, mostly because we were expecting a family visit with two little boys who love meatloaf. At the last minute, our niece and nephew had to cancel because one of the boys came down with a stomach bug. That left us with meatloaf and mashed potatoes all to ourselves (and a stash of leftovers in the freezer which, in my book, is added comfort). All of which is to say, meatloaf has already been done.

My go-to recipe for times when I’m looking for comfort is French Onion Soup, which I wrote about here. But for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel right this time. Still, as I wrote in that post, the smell of onions cooking on the stove reminds me of the security I felt as a child when my mother was in the kitchen making dinner.

It turns out that for many of us, our mothers’ cooking is the ultimate comfort food. With that in mind, I ran through a catalogue of my mother’s signature dishes.  One of them was her fried chicken, which she used to make for Sunday dinner. She took a whole cut-up chicken, dredged the pieces in seasoned flour and fried them in butter in a cast iron skillet on top of the stove and then finished the cooking in the oven. Nothing fancy, but served with gravy and mashed potatoes it always felt like a special occasion. In fact, my younger sister used to ask for it on her birthday.

There is something about fried chicken that is so universal and so good. Maybe it’s because so many moms have cooked it just like mine did, that I feel a kind of kinship with my fellow citizens and want to make it on Election Night.

Come to think of it, fried chicken is one of the first recipes I learned from my mother-in-law before my husband and I were married. It is one of her signature dishes as well and one that everyone in the family asks her to make. I’m told she used to make it with whole cut-up chicken the way my mother did, but somewhere along the way she switched to frying up a batch of chicken tenders in her electric skillet—long before Chick-fil-A came into existence. Tenders are easier to handle, cook faster, and—most importantly in my husband’s family—they are white meat, because, well, in his family dark meat is avoided like food that was dropped on the floor and licked by the dog.

I don’t know where their aversion to dark meat comes from, but white meat it is. My mother-in-law’s fried chicken tenders are pretty darn good. Her secret? There are two. First of all, she dredges them in a pre-seasoned flour she gets from Big Spring Mill in Ellston, Virginia. My mother used to season her flour with salt, pepper and a generous dose of sweet paprika and that’s what I taste in the Big Spring Mill seasoned flour, making my mother-in-law’s fried chicken taste like my own mother’s.


The other secret—well it’s not really a secret to anyone who knows how to cook good fried chicken—is that she uses a whole stick of butter. (Imagine how good the gravy tastes!)

Melting butter

When I first met my future in-laws my husband and I were newly engaged. At the end of our visit I dutifully went home with her fried chicken recipe tucked in my purse. Sharing family recipes is such a lovely tradition and as the newest member of the family I wanted to signal that I was open to their way of doing things. But when we got back to New York and I decided to make it for my then-fiancé one night I couldn’t quite bring myself to use a whole stick of butter. Instead, I decided to cut the quantity in half and used a mix of olive oil and butter. My soon-to-be husband took one bite, looked at me with an expression as serious as a heart attack and declared, “This is not my mother’s fried chicken.” Don’t ever mess with your mother-in-law’s recipe.

The experience put me off making the fried chicken for years, until this past summer. My mother-in-law is now blind in one eye and her vision is failing in the other. When we come to visit, she turns her kitchen over to me—both a sign that I am one of the family as well as an acknowledgement of her own limitations. Lately I am increasingly aware that our time with my husband’s parents is growing shorter. We came to visit last August shortly after I had come across my grandmother’s recipe for egg noodles (made with twelve egg yolks!) and I was filled with regret that I had never learned how to make those noodles with her. I didn’t want to have the same regrets with my mother-in-law, so I asked her to show me how to make her fried chicken. It was both a way to spend time with her on my own and ensure that through her fried chicken she will always be with me (and my husband) long after she is gone. If cooking is love, cooking with someone is even more love.

There is no substitute for cooking at the elbow of someone whose recipe is part of family lore. I have no doubt my mother-in-law’s fried chicken will be part of her legacy and so, I needed to learn it and pass it on. While we made her fried chicken together, I jotted down some notes:

Heat electric skillet to 380° (Medium high if using a skillet on the stove.)

One stick of butter for nine chicken tenders.

Press chicken strips firmly in flour. (I remember her gently telling me I wasn’t pressing firmly enough to coat the chicken well—I absolutely relished the correction because I knew I was getting good instructions.)

Melt butter in the skillet to bubbling and then add chicken tenders. Once the chicken is brown on one side, lower heat to medium or medium low so as not to burn the butter and turn chicken over to brown the other side.

Total time 15 – 20 minutes.

Plated chicken

My mother-in-law is not likely to vote the way I will this election cycle (or ever for that matter)—nor is my father-in-law or many others in my husband’s family. But when I make her fried chicken on Election Night, I will feel common ground.

Lucy and I still have a couple more afternoons of canvassing before it’s all over. I’ve invited her and her husband to share some fried chicken with us on Election Night before she goes off to her watch party with her band of committed political foot soldiers. It seems right that we share this comforting meal after so much that we shared out on the trail. As for me, I am happy to stay home and watch the returns with my husband. I’ve stretched the limits of my comfort zone for this cycle. Maybe I’ll have a second helping of fried chicken as the returns start to dribble in. My mom and my mother-in-law will be with me to the end. And Lucy will keep me informed about the outcome.















Of Tomatoes in Provence and a Little Boy

Caprese Salad

When I recently returned from Provence, a friend of mine asked, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” I was among a group of half a dozen women who regularly meet for coffee after our yoga class. Everyone turned to me and with just a hint of sarcasm I deadpanned, “Napping.” There was a split second of silence followed by a twitter of laughter. I could almost see the thought bubbles floating over their heads: “Why would you travel all the way to the South of France just to nap?”

Well, it wasn’t really napping I was talking about. Napping was just shorthand for saying that I went to France to unwind and relax. While some go on vacation to do things, I go on vacation to not do things. My husband and I have been to Provence several times. By now it is a place we know relatively well and we go there to absorb the place rather than see the place.

We rent a house so that we are free to set our own schedule and make some of our own meals. Our rhythm there is completely different than the one we follow in the States. It is a natural transition that settles in almost as soon as our plane lands in Marseille. We wake up later, have a leisurely breakfast of sweet, juicy melon (of the Cavaillon variety that is better than any melon I have ever eaten in the States), followed by slices of Comte cheese on hunks of baguette slathered with good French butter.

After breakfast we might take an hour-long walk up the hill to the tiny village of Joucas where this year we found some walking trails up behind the chateau at the top. Afterwards, if it is really hot (which it was for a few days) we take a dip in the pool to cool off before our showers. And then we talk about where we would like to go for lunch later and do we need to do any provisioning for dinner and where will we go to buy bread today (since the boulangeries alternate closing days). That just about sums up the most pressing part of the day.


After lunch with wine in some charming village or another, we repair back to the house, read a few pages in our books and then doze off in our lounge chairs in the shade by the pool. In the late afternoon, when the pool is completely shaded, we might take another dip to cool off and refresh after napping. Then we read our books and begin to think about apperitifs followed by a simple dinner on the terrace around 8 pm or so. Our heads hit the pillows at 11 pm and after reading a few more pages, we go to sleep and begin again the next day.

We had planned this year’s trip to Provence a few months after my mother died in 2017. We booked the house for three weeks thinking that by 2018 my father would either be gone by then as well or his dementia would be so advanced that he wouldn’t know that we were away for so long. When my beloved father left this world in March, just two weeks shy of the first anniversary of my mother’s death, it was both expected and sudden.

All of the experts had warned me that following my mother’s death, I should expect to see a rapid decline in my father. For couples married as long as my parents, the remaining spouse often dies within a year. It’s called the broken heart syndrome. After sixty-three years of marriage, my father was completely lost without my mother. He warned me over and over in the final year of his life that he wouldn’t be around much longer. I quietly nodded and said I understood, but really, I wondered how it would happen. Apart from dementia, my father had no life-threatening chronic disease. His mother lived to be one hundred years old, with advanced dementia and I thought my father was on the same trajectory. When he made it through the winter without contracting pneumonia (his respiratory system was his Achilles heel) I was sure he was going to be with us for the long haul, despite his advancing senility.

And then he began to have a series of falls. The first one came towards the end of January. He dislocated his shoulder. It was uncomfortable for him and because it was hard for him to use his walker, we were all worried he would fall again. But by the beginning of March he seemed to be back on track and we felt we had managed to get by without another fall. But my father had other ideas. He fell again on Sunday, March 11 and this time it resulted in a hairline fracture of his pelvis. Forgetting that he was injured, he tried to get out of bed by himself a few days later and fell again. That was on Wednesday. By the following Sunday, just one week after his first fall, he was gone. I often told my dad after my mother died, that we would stick together through thick and thin and I kept my promise to him. I sat next to him, holding his hand as he took his last breath.

In the end, his death took me by surprise and grief grabbed hold of me hard. When we left for France at the end of June, I was still withdrawn and not myself. I wanted Provence to be the reset I was looking for. It didn’t play out the way I thought it would.

For one thing, I saw my parents everywhere. As I said, I have had the great good fortune to spend time in Provence six times over the past twenty years. On two of those occasions my parents were with me. This year my husband and I would go to some little village and I would see a spot where my parents once sat and remark, “Remember when my parents sat over there eating ice cream?” Or on the Fourth of July when we unexpectedly ate very good hamburgers at the neighborhood bistro it reminded me of our trip to Provence in 2006 when my dad cooked hamburgers on the grill and we ate bad corn on the cob to celebrate Independence Day. “Remember that?”, I asked my husband.


Or the restaurant in Bonnieux (Le Fournil) where we had lunch one day and I saw the ghosts of my family happily eating dinner at a table on the other side of the fountain from where we were sitting. It was such a happy vacation and the last family vacation we took that included my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew. We flew home from Provence just two months before the towers came down on 9/11 and I will forever associate that trip with the last time the world seemed free and innocent.

Seeing them everywhere made me wistful and melancholy. It’s a process of mourning called decathexis. I began to wonder if Provence was no longer what it once was.

It wasn’t just my grief that made me question my feelings about Provence. My husband and I felt a shift almost as soon as we arrived. I keep a trip journal when I travel so that I can more easily identify photos and keep a record of favorite restaurants or walks—or in this case cross some off the list. And on our first full day, this is what I recorded:

Trip to the grower’s market at Coustellet for poulet rôti and produce. We both felt it was too crowded and were eager to leave despite having bought some lovely little plums and cherries.

Went to Goult for lunch—our favorite little village—and went directly to Le Carrillon where we have eaten before.  The food was utterly without interest—almost bland despite the pretty presentation, lovely décor and very friendly service. What also left the lunch wanting was that we were flanked by two groups of vapid, ostentatiously wealthy Americans—the kind one might find in the environs of Mar-a-Lago, not to put too fine a point on it. We came home wondering if Provence was losing its edge.

The feeling was hard to shake. Not only did we find the restaurants to be more ordinary and less inventive than we had remembered, but the bread was lacking as well. It seemed we spent half our time in search of a good baguette and always came up empty. (It pains me to say it, but we can get a better baguette in Philadelphia these days than we could in Provence.)

And then there were the crowds. In just the three years since we had last visited (at the same time of year), Provence seemed quantifiably more crowded. There were a couple of villages that we avoided altogether because of the surfeit of tourists.

Still, the beauty of Provence never gets old. The mountains, the colors, the light, the quiet, the smell of lavender, good olive oil and herbes de Provence. Those are the enduring charms of Provence. Those and the intense flavors of the produce that is grown there. Those little plums and cherries I bought the first day were the very essence of plum-ness and cherry-ness. Ditto the little potatoes and arugula I bought. (Not to mention the olive oil I purchased from the olive grower himself). Everything just tastes more of itself in Provence.


One Wednesday evening we went to the smaller version of the sprawling Coustellet grower’s market that is held on Sunday mornings. Wednesday’s market is a quieter, more contained affair that I appreciate for its more manageable scale. I was there to buy some good tomatoes to make a Caprese salad for our dinner after a heavy lunch. I chatted with the farmer telling her what I planned to make, and she happily explained the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes she grew. I asked her to help me choose tomatoes that were at their peak of ripeness to be eaten that evening. She seemed so pleased to be asked. I thanked her for her help and just as I was about to leave she stopped me, and said, “Wait. You will need some basil to serve with your tomatoes.” And then she reached down to a bucket by her feet and handed me a small bunch of basil with tiny leaves—a variety I hadn’t seen before. She smiled and wished us a good evening. No charge for the basil.


We went back to our house and I opened a bottle of rosé, sliced up the tomatoes, adorned them with some Burrata cheese, drizzled them with the good Provençal olive oil and then sprinkled the basil over them with a sprinkling of fleur de sel and a grind of black pepper and voilà, it was the most remarkable meal of our trip.

Caprese Salad

But while the Caprese salad shook some of the cobwebs loose, what truly pulled me out of my grief and into the present, was a little boy named Maurice. Maurice is the three year-old boy of our Belgian friends who stopped off for a few days on their way to a family vacation home further south in France. We hadn’t seen them since the last time we were in Provence three years ago. In the meantime, Maurice grew from an infant to a full-fledged little human being and his older sister, who is now five has blossomed into girlhood. And then there was the latest addition, a little girl who is eighteen months old and trying her hardest to be like her big brother and sister.

The friendship we have with our Belgian friends (from our time living in Brussels) is one of those beautiful mysteries in life. There is no evident reason for us to have the relationship we do. We live far apart, seldom see one another and struggle to communicate frequently during our time apart. My husband and I are also a generation older than they are and yet, there is something that draws us all together. We enjoy our time together enormously and seem to delight in the gift of our friendship.

When they arrived this year, the kids spilled out of their car, their parents unpacked a few things and we immediately sat down for a lunch of soupe au pistou that I had made in advance. It was as if we had all been together already for weeks.

Soupe au Pistou

But it was Maurice who had my full attention. He has big eyes with a smile to match and an adorable cowlick. He exudes joy and childhood delight in the world. And he is very, very cuddly. In short, I fell in love with him, and before long I started calling him Love Bug.

One evening, after the kids had gone to bed, the adults engaged in the age-old parlor game of guessing how each of the three children would turn out. The eldest will have to be in charge of something, the youngest (who is quite big for her age) will be a soccer star and Maurice—well, he has something different to offer the world. I’m going to call it love.

By the time our friends packed up their car, along with their children three days later I felt like my old self again. Healing comes in fits and starts and often in ways that are completely unexpected. Years from now, when I look back on our trip to Provence during the summer of 2018 I will remember it as a transitional holiday. A time when the magical gift of friendship, a few good tomatoes and a little boy named Maurice breathed life back into my broken heart.












Coq au Vin: Making Friends with the Past

Coq au Vin

Coq au Vin

For most of us cooks who’ve been at this for a while, there are certain recipes we return to over and over again. By now, I have a greatest hits list for every season. Sure, I’m always up for trying a new recipe—and given that I need to test recipes for my cookbook reviews I try quite a few—but the oldies but goodies are the ones that warm my heart. Those are the ones that are steeped in storytelling.

Yet as each season draws to a close I am ready to move on to the next . Now, at the end of winter I am already anticipating asparagus season and the spring lamb stew I make every year. But nature has its own ideas. The second nor’easter in five days slammed the East coast and dumped a pile of wet, heavy snow on the emergent daffodils.

The problem with these late winter storms is what to cook. I’d already made everything on my must-cook list for winter: beef daube, braised short ribs, lasagna, French onion soup. Check, check, check and check. One day it was warm enough to be out in the garden cutting back some ornamental grasses, the next I was stuck inside watching the snow fall.


When I sat down the day before the snow arrived to peruse my cookbooks for storm cooking inspiration, my husband—whose recipe suggestions are usually met with a puzzled look followed by a kind of guffaw on my part—gave a shout out for coq au vin. “What a great idea!”, I exclaimed (probably surprising him for agreeing so readily).

For whatever reason , I haven’t made coq au vin in years. It used to be a regular in my winter cooking rotation, but it fell by the wayside—perhaps replaced by beef daube which came along much later. Come to think of it, nearly all the recipes I now turn to in winter are post-coq au vin. Coq au vin came from a different era in my life, the time when I was single. I used to make it when I would invite someone for dinner at my apartment on the Upper West Side. The recipe, not surprisingly, came from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks, one of the defining cookbooks of my young adulthood in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Recipe in Cookbook

As soon as the idea of cooking coq au vin took hold, I did what I always do and ran through my mental catalogue of all the times I have cooked it before. And then I wondered why I had let the recipe go.

Before I met my husband I mostly cooked for myself. In New York I had the luxury of picking up something on the way home from work every day: a piece of fish or a chop to grill and of course some vegetables which I bought at a corner green grocer near my apartment. Occasionally I would purchase a single serving turkey pot pie from Zabar’s or a half rotisserie chicken from the place on Broadway and 86th just opposite my subway stop.

Once or twice a year I would have a small dinner party. I cooked one of three dishes: a lamb stew served with white beans from Patricia Wells’ A Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, a braised, stuffed loin of pork served with red cabbage I learned to make in cooking class and coq au vin. Up until now, the pork loin recipe is the only one that has survived, the others having been relegated to the neglected and forgotten pile, relics of a less happy time in my life.

When I married my husband at the ripe old age of forty-six, my world became so much more expansive. I don’t mean to say that my life as a single person did not have texture or richness. I traveled all over the world both for business and pleasure, I had many cultural experiences in New York with friends and I pursued a variety of interests. That said, I felt a persistent gnawing limitation as a party of one. But as part of a couple, the door to life somehow seemed that much wider.

It was certainly wider in the kitchen. With two people, my cooking universe doubled. All those recipes meant for families I had been assiduously clipping from the food section of the Times or bookmarking in my cookbooks were suddenly available to me. Those stored up recipes were something akin to a hope chest. Just as young women used to set aside linens or dishes or whatever might one day serve them when they set up housekeeping as a married woman, I collected recipes in the hopes that one day I would have a family to cook for.

Of course, by the time we married, we were too old to start a family. Still, my husband reminds me all the time that we are a family of two. And so I cook for my family. I love my little family. It means that when I cook something for just the two of us like lasagna or beef daube there will be leftovers for another meal. And leftovers is something else I love. It’s called emergency preparedness.

I don’t know what recesses of my husband’s food memory came up with the notion of cooking coq au vin during the latest storm—I’m nearly certain I only made it for him once years ago for a dinner party. But it was a homey, inspired choice. I was glad to make friends again with a recipe from my past.

Coq au Vin

Coq au Vin

Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julie Rosso & Sheila Lukins

Serves 4

What I like about this particular coq au vin is that it is made with white wine instead of red, making it a touch lighter. The original recipe is called Coq au Vino Blanco and calls for a dry Italian white wine. I’ve made a few changes here and there, mostly to the technique.

It is just the ticket on a snowy day while you’re waiting for spring to arrive.


2 Cups white pearl onions

6 slices thick slab bacon, cut into 1” pieces

1 pound white button mushrooms, stems removed, caps quartered

Pinch of sugar


1 medium yellow onion roughly chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter


¾ Cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sweet paprika

1 whole chicken cut into 8 pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil


2 cups Italian white wine

1 cup chicken stock

1 large or two small bay leaves

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with string or ½ teaspoon dried thyme



  1. Heat the oven to 400°


  1. Bring a medium pot of water to the boil. With a paring knife, make a small X at the root end of each pearl onion and drop the onions in the boiling water to cook for about 10 minutes. Drain, cool and peel off the skin. (I discovered that if you hold the root end in one hand and pinch the top in the other, the peeled onion will just squirt out at the root end. Makes for fast work.)

Onion Oekkung2

  1. Spread the bacon in a 12-inch cast iron skillet so that no pieces overlap. Slide it into the oven and cook for 20-25 minutes or until the fat has rendered and the bacon is cooked, but not crisp.


Browned bacon

  1. Remove the bacon from the skillet and place on a plate lined with paper towel to drain.


  1. Heat the skillet with the bacon fat on medium high on the stove and toss in the peeled and cooked pearl onions. Keep moving them around so they begin to brown and then sprinkle some sugar over the onions so they begin to caramelized (about 5 minutes). Remove them from the skillet with a slotted spoon and set them aside in a large serving bowl or casserole. (You’ll be adding other things to this bowl for later use so make sure it is large enough).

Caramelized Onions

  1. Toss in the quartered mushroom caps and keep them moving in the skillet as well until they begin to give up their juices. (You may need to add a bit of butter if the skillet seems dry). Remove them from the skillet with a slotted spoon and add them to the dish with the onions until later.

sauteed mushrooms

  1. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven on the stove over medium low heat. Add the chopped yellow onions and cook over low heat until the onions are soft and translucent. (About 8-10 minutes.) Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and add them to the dish with the pearl onions and mushrooms.


  1. With a whisk, stir together the flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a shallow dish.


  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium high heat.


  1. Dredge each piece of chicken in the flour mixture and shake off any excess then place the pieces, skin side down in the hot oil and brown all sides until they are golden.

Browned chicken

  1. Remove the browned chicken pieces to the serving dish with the other cooked ingredients. Drain off excess fat from the Dutch oven, return to the stove over medium high heat and add 1 cup of the wine, scraping up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan.


  1. Return the chicken to the Dutch oven in a single layer and add the cooked onions, mushrooms, pearl onions and bacon. Pour over the remaining wine and 1 cup of chicken stock. Tuck in the thyme and bay leaves.


  1. Cover tightly and bring to a boil on the stove, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked when tested with a knife or instant read thermometer.

Coq au Vin

  1. Remove the chicken and other solids to a warm platter and place in a 200° oven. Skim off some fat from the liquid, turn the heat up on the stove and reduce the sauce by half until slightly thickened. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve with mashed potatoes or egg noodles. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if you wish.

Coq au Vin Recipe Printable Version

Vinaigrette: Dressed for Success

Vinaigrette Ingredients

During the deep freeze that took up residence along the East Coast at the start of 2018, I hunkered down with one of the books I received for Christmas: At the Stranger’s Gate, a memoir about New York in the 1980s by New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik. Like me, Adam Gopnik and his wife arrived in New York at the beginning of the decade as newly minted adults making their way in the big city. In fact, we arrived within six months of each other. What’s more, our first apartments were three blocks apart, he and his wife at 87th and First Avenue and me at 90th and First. Surely we passed each other along the street, or brushed past one another in the crowded little green grocer at 88th (or was it 89th) and First.

I practically squealed with delight as he was describing Yorkville, the neighborhood that was my first home in New York. It still bore the marks of the predominantly German enclave that it once was. There was a little restaurant on the south side of 86th Street around Second Avenue where he and his wife dined called Kleine Konditorei and I used to frequent a German butcher on the same side of 86th Street called Schaller & Weber where you could buy all manner of German sausages and smoked meats.

We also shared the common experience of cockroaches living among us. They were a permanent fixture for those of us living in less-than-swanky digs back then. While I will grant that I lived in a palace compared to his 9’ x 11’ basement studio, my roommate and I lived above a liquor store which meant that all the cockroaches that arrived in liquor boxes delivered daily below us, made our apartment their first stop after emancipation.

From the vantage point of an insect-free home, I marvel at what we were willing to endure in order to make New York work. But that’s the point: Gopnik is describing what it was like to be young (and in his case, in love) in New York in the 1980s. Cockroaches came with the territory and we all knew it. We were there to take in a big city, culturally consequential, ambitious life. We lived off the hope that one day, we would live in a better building without vermin.

It’s the same story that is told over and over again. Like Ernest Hemingway in his rose-colored memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his youth in Paris, we tend to romanticize the hardships of early adulthood. Still, given the chance, few of us would go back to those days. I know I wouldn’t.

Unlike Gopnik, I did not have the benefit of being in love to see me through the transitional years of early adulthood. I was decidedly more financially secure, with a position in the management training program of a commercial bank that would ensure a long steady career up the corporate ladder if I so chose, but I lacked emotional support and suffered mightily from panic attacks and depression. We are never as whole as we outwardly appear.

In his memoir, Gopnik recounts the story of losing the pants to his one and only suit, which fell out of a garment bag on the way home from the tailor. It’s a story that becomes a metaphor for what it means to make your way in New York. “The city makes you the opposite of the emperor with the new clothes”, he writes.  “He walked around unclothed, and everyone noticed but him. In New York, you walk around naked from the waist down for decades, and nobody knows but you.”

I had a similar sartorial experience that became my own metaphor for those early years in the city. On one of my first solo business trips to South America I made the rookie mistake of checking my luggage on the overnight flight to Santiago, Chile. When I arrived on Sunday morning for a week-long trip that would begin with back-to-back meetings on Monday, I discovered that my luggage did not make the flight. I had nothing with me other than a few toiletries and my briefcase. With only one scheduled flight per day, my luggage would not arrive at my hotel until sometime in the afternoon on Monday.

There were no shops open on Sunday, so on Monday morning I quickly phoned to move my first meeting to late in the afternoon and headed to a women’s clothing boutique to buy something suitable to wear. Back in the mid-1980s, Santiago was not the cosmopolitan city it no doubt is today and the pickings were mighty slim. With little to choose from and no time to spare I settled for what was on offer, which was mortifying at best. It was a blue and black polyester dress with a huge white, Peter Pan collar and a big black bow. It made me look like a veritable cupie doll.

When I headed out for the day my only thought was, I hope I don’t run into anyone I know from New York. Of course, I did. As soon as I walked into the restaurant where I was having a business lunch I was spotted by some fellow bankers I knew who greeted me as I walked past their table. I desperately wanted to tell them that the dress I was wearing was not really mine, wondering what they must think of my get-up. But that’s not how it works. You pretend that what you are wearing is absolutely perfect and that you are a confident, competent businesswoman.

I was never so happy to see my suitcase as I was that evening when I returned to my hotel. The dress stayed in Chile, but the memory of being out in the world wearing clothes that didn’t suit me has stuck. And, like Gopnik, I was the only one who knew.

In the Venn diagram of my shared experiences with Adam Gopnik in 1980s New York, the overlapping area is not very big. We arrived six months apart, are the same age, lived in the same neighborhood, dined at a few of the same restaurants and we both shared an interest in cooking.

As it turns out, cooking is the one pursuit where not having pants, or wearing an ill-suited dress does not go unnoticed.

Every September back in the ‘80s, the legendary food writer and New York Times restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, wrote an annual round-up of cooking schools. After my junior year abroad in France and a couple of years cooking out of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was keen to learn more about French cuisine. When I came across one of those cooking school overviews, my heart began to race with excitement. Banking may have been my profession but cooking was my passion.

I chose to take classes from Henri-Etienne Lévy at his Upper West Side cooking school, La Cuisine Sans Peur. This is how Ms. Sheraton described him in her Times article: “Henri-Etienne Lévy is a gracious, almost courtly Frenchman who tailors his classes to the needs of his students…The delicious cooking is French, with the emphasis on sound principles and techniques, and the goal is learning to cook on one’s own not simply preparing specific recipes.”

And, as she pointed out, he took only four students per class owing to the small (yet orderly) kitchen in his New York apartment where he taught. It sounded right up my alley.

I’m guessing I took my first course in 1983 or 1984. It was an introductory course that covered all the basics like sauces, pastry dough (pâte brisée) for tartes and quiches, sautéing, poaching and roasting.

Chef Lévy was as advertised, a courtly Frenchman with closely cropped gray hair and a well-trimmed beard. He referred to each of us formally, as Miss Pleasance or Mrs. So-and-so. He had a wry sense of humor and spoke perfect English (which he pronounced with and English accent). His instruction was very precise, and as Mimi Sheraton pointed out, he did not provide written recipes, encouraging us to take notes and not get too hung up on exact measurements. I still have both of my well-worn, treasured notebooks from the courses I took from him.

Cooking Notebooks(1).jpg.exporting

The weekly cooking classes were casual and chummy among us students and something that I eagerly looked forward to each week. I took studious notes and paid very close attention to his demonstrations, memorizing his techniques so I could practice at home the next day. Of course, we ate everything he cooked at the end of the lesson which was, for me at that tender age, the best food I had ever eaten. Every week was a revelation. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.

But by far my most indelible memory is my first class. There we were, the four eager students, notebooks and pen in hand, keenly anticipating what we would learn that evening. After the congenial introductions that put us all at ease, Mr. Lévy pulled out a whole, raw chicken and began to break it down for us (his knife skills were mesmerizing). Then he put the carcass in a pot and talked us through making a stock.

What he did next was genius. He made a simple vinaigrette that—to my Midwestern palate used to bottled dressing—was an epiphany. Notwithstanding that I had spent a year in France (on a student budget) I had never tasted anything so good in my life. I remember the exact moment I tasted it and emoted with an enthusiasm that probably far exceeded such a humble offering, but I couldn’t help myself. (Mr. Lévy must have thought he had a live wire on his hands.) I can do this, I thought.

I realize how implausible that must sound, but it’s true. In hindsight, it was so revelatory because it was a lesson in the importance of quality ingredients. I doubt I had understood the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil for starters. Or authentic Dijon mustard. Or good vinegar for that matter. And finally, shallots (Mr. Lévy always pronounced it shə-ˈlät , instead of ˈsha-lət—which, it turns out, is the first pronunciation in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).

Demonstrating how to make vinaigrette was a lesson in knife skills (dicing the shallot), how to use a whisk, and the concept of emulsion (the mustard binds the oil and vinegar together). All of which are the building blocks of good cooking. And it is so easy to make.

The point is, just knowing how to make vinaigrette using the best quality ingredients you can find will give you confidence as a cook. And that was the genius of teaching us vinaigrette in the first lesson.

He went on to sauté a couple of boneless chicken breasts from the whole chicken he cut up at the beginning and served it with blanched, sliced cucumbers swimming in a sauce of warm cream finished with a little white wine and a splash of vinegar at the end. It was utterly simple and perfectly delicious (as Julia Child used to say). But it was the vinaigrette that was transformative.

Reading Adam Gopnik’s memoir about starting out life as a young adult in the New York of the 1980s sent me down my own memory lane. While he never explored the darker side of youth (and maybe he never really experienced disappointment or doubt or anxiety the way I did) but what he did capture was the hopeful side of being young and having life stretched out before you.

Late in the book, Gopnik describes an afternoon at the Frick with his friend and mentor, Richard Avedon (would that we all could have found as well-placed a mentor as Avedon). Standing in front of a favorite painting—Rembrandt’s Polish Rider—Avedon remarks, “My mother would bring me to see it when I was nine, and for a long time that picture meant everything in the world to me. I was that young man, and I was in love with him—with myself, my idealized vision of myself, what might be. I saw him as me, that possibility in life—everything lying ahead, and not yet knowing it, not looking at the road, but out. It sounds so grandiose, I know, when you say it, but the sense I had was so strong that someone else, Rembrandt, had felt everything I was feeling. I was so reassured by that picture.”

As grandiose as it sounds, that’s what those cooking classes meant to me. When I was in class, when I was cooking what I had learned from Henri-Etienne Lévy, I was never the person in the ill-suited dress. I felt so reassured.


A few words about ingredients since it makes all the difference. For Dijon mustard, I like Edmond Fallot, which is made—you guessed it—in Burgundy. Please don’t use Grey Poupon—the difference is enormous. As for olive oils, it is a matter of personal taste. First pressed (extra virgin) olive oils have a flavor spectrum from light and mellow to grassy to peppery. I keep a couple of good olive oils just for vinaigrette and use them according to the composition of the salad. I also keep a few bottles of good quality vinegar around. I have aged balsamic, red wine, white wine, apple cider and sherry vinegar. I buy several different vinegars from a company called All Things Olive. They sell olive oil too.

dressed salad

Yield: ¼ Cup

1 small or ½ large shallot, finely diced

1 teaspoon best quality Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon best quality wine vinegar

3 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

This is how Chef Lévy taught me how to make vinaigrette:

Start by dicing the shallot into small dice. Place the diced shallot (about 1 tablespoon) in a small bowl and then add the mustard and wine vinegar. Whisk them together until incorporated.

Add the olive oil and whisk until everything comes together in a smooth sauce. (My notes say that the minimum ratio should be 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but it is a matter of taste so do what you like).

If the oil doesn’t come together with the vinegar and mustard, add a little more mustard to bind everything together.

Add salt and pepper to taste and whisk again.


























Remembering Christmas with My Mother

Christmas China

When my mother was nearing the end of her life she began to withdraw from the world little by little with each passing day. She sat in her recliner with her eyes closed, but not always sleeping. She spoke in simple sentences and then almost not at all. My conversations with her became mostly one-way, although I’m sure she was listening. Once, when she was days away from death, I sat reading to her from her favorite novel. I looked up and saw that she was looking at me hard, as if she were trying to memorize my face for all eternity.

During those long, final months that eventually came down to weeks and then days and then hours, I caught myself on more than one occasion longing for the time after her death when I would be free to remember the happier times, when my mother was still my mother. In the end, of course, she died at her own speed, not mine.

Like many women, my relationship with my mother was complicated. Even in her final months, she never told me she loved me; there was nothing she had to say to me that I would cling to after she was gone. Introspection and dispensing life lessons were not in her emotional wheelhouse.

This came as no surprise to me and was not in the least disappointing. Over the years, she showed her love for her family in other ways, most especially in the kitchen. And at Christmastime, she excelled.

A friend of mine who is a working mother with a demanding job, recently told me that this year she was ordering in her entire Christmas dinner. She was so pleased that she had finally let go of spending her Christmas in the kitchen feeling cranky and short-tempered on a day when she would rather be playing games with her family. Spending time with her children on Christmas Day, she told me, was what her children would remember.

That may be true for her and her family, I thought, but it is exactly my memories of my mother in the kitchen on Christmas Day that I hold so dear.

It started in the morning and didn’t let up until the last dish was dried and put away in the evening. While my sisters and I were luxuriating by the fire, sorting through the rubble of Christmas morning and reviewing the stacks of presents we each received, my mother was toiling away in the kitchen.

First, there was a glass of orange juice and a slice of coffee cake to get us through the frenzy of unwrapping our presents. Then my mother would disappear into the kitchen to make us eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce made in the blender that was always a triumph. When I think back on it, I now realize what a feat it was to turn out ten servings (two each) of perfectly cooked poached eggs, toasted English muffins, Canadian bacon and the hollandaise sauce. That alone would have tested me, but my mother had the procedure down cold.

“Your eggs Benedict are ready!” she would call out from the kitchen. And then we would pull ourselves up from where we were sitting on the floor in front of the tree sorting through the Christmas detritus around us, and march into the kitchen, still in our pajamas, to collect our eggs Benedict as one by one, she would plate them on her special Christmas china.

We carried them to the dining room where she served every meal we ate on Christmas Day and for the entire week up until New Year’s. The table had been set with a red table cloth, her Christmas china and, for dinner at least, the good crystal and sterling silver flatware. Christmas was when my mother treated her family like guests.

When we sat down for breakfast, there would always be one more present for each of us at our places—something my mother had held back so that the childhood joy of opening presents would be extended a little longer. It was always something small, like a book or a little necklace or maybe our first bottle of perfume when we were teenagers. I always looked forward to that bonus present that, like the eggs Benedict, was an offering of love.

After the breakfast dishes were cleared—and let me just say that my mother may have spent all day in the kitchen, but my sisters and I were still required to do the washing up—we would retreat to our bedrooms to dress for the day. In my mother’s house that meant formally. When we were very small we donned a velvet dress and wore patent leather shoes. As we got older it was usually a skirt and sweater. The point was, if you were eating in the dining room, you had to dress up.

After a big breakfast, we skipped lunch. But around two or so in the afternoon, out would come what we referred to as ‘heavy hors d’oeuvres’, that would tide us over until dinner: shrimp cocktail, chips, and clam dip made from a packet of Lipton Onion Soup mix.  There may have been a few other offerings that varied from year to year, but shrimp cocktail and clam dip were de rigueur. My mother would set them out in the living room by the fire where we spent all of Christmas Day. Sometimes we would work on a jigsaw puzzle together as we listened to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album on the stereo. Other times we would just lounge, reviewing our presents again and again as we inhaled the shrimp and clam dip.

Then my mother would retreat back into the kitchen for the final push towards dinner. By late afternoon when the heavenly smells of the standing rib roast began to waft into the living room, we backed off the shrimp in anticipation of her Christmas feast. Dinner was the culmination of my mother’s long day in the kitchen. A red or green Jell-O mold, roast prime rib of beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, a green vegetable, buttered rolls and for dessert, crème de menthe parfait because, you know, it was green, white and had a red cherry on top. (Back then, seasonally appropriate food referred to the color.)

Year after year, my mother’s Christmas menu never varied. None of us would have stood for it. One year, though, everything nearly ended in calamity.

In my memory, it all happened on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Someone was emptying the dishwasher and pulled out a rusted potato ricer. My mother had always given us strict instructions about never putting the potato ricer in the dishwasher or it would rust, and yet one of us had taken a short cut and the consequences were obvious. “Who put the ricer in the dishwasher?” my mother bellowed. By then we were all standing in the kitchen with the full import of a rusted potato ricer the day before Christmas weighing down on us. “What was this going to do to our Christmas dinner?” we were all thinking.

Potato Ricer

My younger sister, to her credit, stepped forward as the guilty party. My dad immediately offered to run to the store for a replacement and without further delay, put on his coat and was out the door. In the meantime, my sister, knowing that the outcome of Christmas dinner was now hanging in the balance, began calling stores to find out if they had any potato ricers in stock. With just hours to go before closing time, she called one after another store who reported that the shelves were empty of potato ricers.

How could this be, I wondered? Was there really such a thing as a run on potato ricers in the days leading up to Christmas? She had one more store to call and then it was going to be game over. We hovered around her as she dialed the local hardware store in town. It was the kind of old-fashioned establishment with hardwood floors that creaked and moaned as you wandered the aisles stocked to the ceiling with all manner of inventory. My father was a regular there and often declared that it was the kind of place where “if they don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

We practically held our breath as my sister dialed. “Do you have any potato ricers in stock?” she queried when a clerk answered the phone. “Hold on a moment”, the clerk replied. The seconds ticked by as we anxiously paced in the kitchen. “No, we’re all out of stock I’m afraid. We just sold the last one.”

My sister hung up the phone and repeated the news. “They just sold the last one!” she cried. We were crestfallen. Christmas was ruined. No mashed potatoes. My mother’s mood began to darken as we all continued to just stand there in the kitchen, not knowing what to do next.

Suddenly we heard the garage door open and my father’s car pull in. The car door slammed, and seconds later my father opened the door into the house grinning from ear to ear brandishing a small paper bag which he held aloft in his right hand. “I got the last one!” he cried.

We dissolved into peals of high-pitched laughter that went on for minutes while my dad looked on quizzically. When we finally caught our collective breath, we filled him in on the phone call and then he burst into laughter, bringing on a fresh wave from the rest of us.

For the rest of the day and the next we began to tell and re-tell the story of the pre-Christmas run on potato ricers that has now become part of our Christmas lore. And every time, we laugh and laugh until our sides hurt.

Potato Casserole Recipe

Mashed Potato Casserole

At a certain hazy point, when we were no longer children, but maybe not quite adults, my mother jettisoned her traditional mashed potatoes and gravy for Mashed Potato Casserole. These are rich enough and flavorful enough that they don’t require gravy—a fact that must have greatly appealed to my mother who was famous for her lumpy gravy. It is also a do-ahead recipe, which means there is more time to spend with your family on Christmas Day if that is your wont.

This casserole is not part of my adult Christmas tradition. My once-per-year potato indulgence at Christmastime is potatoes gratin, loaded with cream and gruyere cheese. But I felt I needed to offer up a recipe from my mother’s stash. These are certainly more foolproof than potatoes gratin.

Serves 6-8


5 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes.

8 oz. package cream cheese

8 oz. (1 cup) sour cream

2 teaspoons garlic salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

4 tablespoons butter


Heat oven to 400˚

Cook potatoes in abundant boiling, salted water until soft. Drain and press the potatoes through the ricer into a large bowl or the drained pot used for cooking the potatoes (or use a potato masher).

Whip the riced potatoes with the remaining ingredients with a wooden spoon and spoon into an oven-proof dish. (Make ahead: at this point, cover and store in refrigerator for up to 3 days before proceeding.)

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for one hour, or until heated through.

Mashed Potato Casserole Printable Version





The Family We Choose

plated fish

Mustard Roasted Cod

With Thanksgiving just a week away, my thoughts are on family. I am reminded of the SNL Thanksgiving sketch from two years ago in which, when differing political views begin to threaten the harmony of the family meal, the little girl gets up from the table, turns on the boom box and blasts Adele singing Hello. Everyone drops their bickering and unites in lip synching. The sketch is called The Thanksgiving Miracle.

Of course, there are many families who do get along and don’t need Adele to keep the peace. I have spent far too much time ruminating over this subject. When I went back to the SNL sketch I think I may have hit on something: not enough people seated at the table to dilute the tension.

Take my husband’s family. It seems to grow by the day and there are—by my current count—twenty-two who will gather for this year’s feast at my niece and nephew’s house. That’s enough headcount to water down a lot of political differences (and anything else that may be simmering below the surface).

I haven’t attended a lot of my husband’s family holidays since we live two states away and have been occupied with caring for my elderly parents, but when I have, what strikes me is how well everyone gets along. They may not all agree on politics, but they do manage to unite around family holidays. I credit my in-laws with instilling a sense of decorum that does not put up with shenanigans at the table. No one would ever dream of provoking an argument or airing grievances in the company of my mother and father-in-law. (Or at least that’s the way I see it—I can’t claim to know the family as well as they know each other.)

My family, on the other hand, resembles the family on the SNL sketch (minus the unifying influence of Adele). With the addition of my husband, we were never more than eight at the table and that’s just not enough to diffuse the tension that exists between my sister and her family on one side and me and my husband on the other. Our relationship, like Trumpism, is based primarily on grievances.

We had our last Thanksgiving together five years ago. After that, it was just four of us: my parents and my husband and me. Last year was the final Thanksgiving with my mother, which also coincided with her eighty-ninth birthday. Now we are down to three.

I sometimes get caught up in a wave of sadness when I hear friends talking about their big family celebrations that (to me at least) seem so joyful and harmonious. They talk about their plans then turn to me and ask, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year, Penny?” “Oh, it’s just the three of us now so we might go out to dinner,” I quietly respond.

But I was recently reminded of the rewards of the other kind of family that exists in this world. You know the one I’m talking about, the family born of friendship. The one we choose and not the one we are born into.

Who’s to say why some friendships stick and others don’t. With the exception of family, all the relationships we have in life are circumstantial. If I hadn’t taken that job, or moved to that city, or gone to that school or accepted that date, then I wouldn’t have met so and so. It’s like the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow which explores two separate narratives based on whether or not the Gwyneth Paltrow character catches a particular train.

I first met Christel when we were both working for the same bank. She was based in London and I was based in New York. We shared a collegial meal on one of my trips to visit the home office in London. There was an instant rapport and when she came over to New York on business I returned the favor and entertained her in the evening. As she grew in her job as an economist, I requested that she accompany me on client visits up and down the east coast. This was how our friendship began to blossom.

A couple of years went by and then she began a romantic relationship with another colleague of ours that inevitably led to marriage. I was so touched to have been invited to her wedding which took place in Lima, Peru where she was raised. There was a small group of six of us that were friends of either Christel or Arne who made the trek down to Lima for a wedding that took place just after New Year’s in 1996.

I still talk about that wedding. The entire experience was so filled with adventure and tinged with romanticism. Christel, the daughter of a German mother and a prominent Peruvian father, was marrying a Swede. The friends who traveled to Lima were a global crowd that included two Swedes, a Brit, a Russian and two Americans. Her family arranged a side trip for us to Machu Picchu between New Year’s and the wedding which provided a way for all of us to get to know each other.

The wedding itself was completely over the top. It included a live band that played until nearly dawn and a table that appeared after dessert that held a large clam shell made of chocolate with little chocolates spilling out of it. I’d never seen anything like it.

I left banking altogether about a year after her wedding, but we stayed in touch and whenever I traveled to Europe for pleasure, I would also add a side trip to London so I could visit with Christel. She stopped off to see me occasionally in New York. When I got married in 2003, she was there together with her husband and little daughter.

Our friendship could have easily faded, as many do when you don’t live in proximity to one another. Or it could have gone the way of several of my relationships that—once I had another person attached to me—became relics of my past because the parties were unable (or unwilling) to accommodate my spouse.

But as luck would have it—and it is all luck—the sliding doors opened and my husband and I jumped aboard to find ourselves living in Brussels where we lived just two hours by fast train from London.

Over our three years in Brussels my friendship with Christel grew into something more. Now we were a foursome. When they visited us one year for Easter with their five-year-old daughter we showered her (by way of the Easter Bunny) with Belgian chocolates and once again proved that you can buy your way into someone’s heart through their stomach. Chocolates and the unforgettable meal we adults enjoyed at our favorite restaurant, have become a legendary part of our shared history.

We have now shared many memories together, though we live so far apart. In 2010, their twin boys were born in Pennsylvania, not far from where my husband and I live. It is a complicated story that finally ended their quest to have another child, and because of those sliding doors, we happened to be living close enough to share the joy of those early days. My husband was asked to be god father to one of the boys, which made us both feel like we were officially part of their family.

Being god father is a role my husband takes seriously. We try to schedule a visit at least once every twelve to eighteen months. Our visits are so routine by now that when we descend on our family in London we slide right into their daily rhythm as if we had always lived among them. It is noisy and joyful and sometimes chaotic but we soak it all up like a couple of dried up old sponges.

This year, everyone came to our house. Christel wanted the boys (who are always telling friends and strangers alike that they are American) to experience Halloween in the States. As it turned out, their school break coincided perfectly with Halloween. Our quiet house of two suddenly became a frenetic household of seven.

Our week was jam-packed with corn mazes and pumpkin carving, a vintage train ride and trips to Philadelphia to give the boys (now nearly seven) a sense of American history. We held a pumpkin carving contest at our house with my husband as judge that brought us all to tears from laughter. Of course everyone was a winner, from angriest, to meanest to most creative. We caught it all on video and it will become one of our most treasured memories in years to come.

On the morning of Halloween, we trotted out their costumes after a breakfast of—what else—pumpkin pancakes. My husband and I had had such fun costume shopping. We finally settled on cowboy costumes for the boys and a witches’ costume for their big sister along with some funny hats for us adults.

That evening we took them down to the best neighborhood for trick or treating we knew, thanks to friends who hosted us (and who fed the kids a hearty meal of mac and cheese because, you know, you don’t want them eating too much candy the first night). While I was happily eating my adult chili and drinking my wine, my husband had to remind me to hurry up so we could start the trick or treating (that’s why he’s the god father and I’m just the trailing spouse).

The neighborhood was as advertised. I had never seen so many people out trick or treating. There were lines all the way up the front porches of some of the houses. People had built fire pits in their front lawns and sat around drinking wine as the parade of kids marched by. We were all amazed. At one point Christel and I looked at each other and said, “I already have nostalgia for this moment.”

But for me, as the cook, my own special memory from that joyously raucous week came the very first night when, after an early morning start and a seven-hour plane ride with a five-hour time difference, one of the boys (the one who’s not usually known for his charm appeal) looked up from the plate of Mustard Roasted Cod that I had served, looked me straight in the eye, fork suspended, and said, “I really like this.”  My heart swelled. This, I thought,  is what it feels like to be among family.

panof roasted fish

Mustard Roasted Cod

Adapted from Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network

Serves 4


4 (6 oz.) fish fillets such as cod or halibut

8 ounces crème fraiche

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

2 tablespoons minced shallots, rinsed and patted dry

1 tablespoon capers, drained and rinsed

freshly ground white pepper


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Place the fish fillets in a shallow oven proof baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the crème fraiche, 2 mustards, shallots, capers, and freshly ground white pepper to taste. Spoon the sauce evenly over the fish fillets, making sure the fish is completely covered. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until the thickest part of the fish is flaky. Serve with the sauce from the pan spooned over the top.

I like to serve it over brown rice, but buttered boiled or mashed potatoes or celeriac would work nicely too.

Printable Version Mustard Roasted Cod Recipe

















We’ll Always Have Soupe au Pistou

Bowl of Soupe au Pistou

When autumn is barreling down on you like hurricane Irma it comes with an uneasy sense that the bounty of summer we are still enjoying will soon disappear. We may have grown tired of zucchini and green beans but we will miss them when they are gone.

Like many people, I suffer from an overwhelming sense of nostalgia when the light begins to change toward the end of August. The golden light of late summer, while particularly beautiful, is also acutely melancholy. Soon the garden that was humming with pollinators all summer will grow deadly still. The last of the corn and tomatoes and zucchini will be picked and one day soon, we will have our last meal of summer until next year.

In many ways, I love the changeover to fall fare like squashes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and all manner of braising greens. But before I give up on summer completely I want one last good taste of it—a final hurrah—that will lead directly into autumn.

My bridge into fall dishes is soup and there is no better use of the last of the summer bounty than that quintessentially summer soup, soupe au pistou. It is an everthing-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of soup that the good housewives of Provence must have invented back in the days when there was always a soup pot going on the hearth (I’m talking way, way back). Throw in a bit of this and that and you’ve got supper. (In fact, in French, the verb souper, meaning to supper, is derived from those big pots of soup hanging over the embers day and night.)

Of course, like bouillabaisse—or even corn chowder in the U.S—one person’s soupe au pistou is not another’s. That’s the beauty of home cooking. A loose recipe is the gateway to your own creation. Green beans, zucchini, diced potato, tomatoes, legumes, a bit of pasta, maybe some corn, whatever strikes your fancy. Some cooks put bits of diced ham in it, others not. Make it with vegetable stock, chicken stock or just water. You’re the cook. The finishing touch is the pistou, the French version of pesto.

My first experience making soupe au pistou was in Provence just a couple of years ago. It was one of those experiences ripe for nostalgia the moment it was over. It wasn’t just the place, or the ingredients, or even the authentic recipe (although they played an important role). Like most memorable cooking experiences, it had to do with friendships.

Anita and I have been friends since high school. We had exactly one year together in school to establish a bond that has seen us through more years than I care to admit. She was a senior whose father was transferred to Chicago from California during her final year of high school. I was a mere sophomore. Our common link was that we played clarinet together in band. That and our mutual love of French was what cemented our friendship.

When she went off to college we kept up a correspondence and met up during her winter and summer breaks. We both ended up majoring in French and each spent time studying abroad. We never lived in the same town again after that one year we overlapped in high school and yet I still count her among my dearest and closest friends. We have forged a long-distance relationship punctuated by brief, shared experiences that have been just enough to keep us going.

Two years ago, we met up for a couple of days in Provence while we were vacationing separately in France. My husband and I invited Anita and her husband to join us for a couple of nights at the cottage we were renting in the Luberon. Since we all had been to Provence before, the usual tourist stops were no longer high on our agenda. A languorous pace centered on food, wine and friendship was the reason we settled on spending a morning together making soupe au pistou based on a recipe that Anita had procured earlier on her trip.

In fact, the entire two weeks my husband and I spent on that vacation to Provence two years ago were one long, glorious stretch of languor. I kept a journal to chronicle those deliciously lazy days, including an entry on the day we made our soupe au pistou:

July 1, 2015

When you cook in Provence, everything tastes better and nothing is too much trouble—even in a kitchen that is minimally equipped. A soupe au pistou with all the authentic ingredients would be a laborious affair at home, but here in the Luberon, it comes together as if by magic.

With a shopping list in hand, a trip to a local farm at 10:30 a.m. for a lunch that will be served at 1:30 p.m. stretches out the morning as if we had all the time in the world.

Soupe au Pistou Recipe

4 pommes de terres moyen

500g haricots coco blancs

500g haricots coco rouges

500g haricots verts

3 courgettes

3 tomates

un bouquet de basilic

150g coquillettes

du parmesan

une tranche épaisse de jambon coupé en dès

“Are you making soupe au pistou?” the farmer’s wife asks. “Yes,” I reply. She smiles approvingly and eagerly helps me choose tomatoes that are the exact ripeness for the soup.

With friends to shell the beans while you cut up the ham and get the soup base going, the work progresses at a pace that allows you to appreciate the quality of each of the ingredients and build up the soup bit by bit.

 Soupe au Pistou Prep

The pistou is made by hand—no Cuisinart here—nor a mortar and pestle. I mince the new, green garlic (oh what a delicious smell) and then form a kind a paste with salt, using the flat of my knife. The basil I mince as well, add it to the garlic paste along with olive oil, parmesan and finally, the finely diced tomatoes and their juices, creating more of a slurry than a thick pesto-like paste.

The pot of soup in an old farmhouse kitchen with the cigales (cicadas) singing outside is the essence of Provence.

 Soupe au Pistou at Table

My husband cuts the bread, brings the pot of soup to the table on the terrace and with a glass of good, cool rosé we toast our good fortune and swallow another languorous Provençal day whole.

Days of languor, like soupe au pistou, should only be shared with those your love.


When I got my soupe au pistou going on my stove this year, I took a photo and immediately sent it to Anita with the caption “Just got this pot of soupe au pistou going on the stove. Wish you and Dick were here to enjoy it with us.” “That is too funny,” she replied. “Just before I got this message I was remembering our soupe au pistou adventure!”

2017 pot of soupe au pistou

You see? Summer may be coming to a close and our friends may be far away, but we’ll always have soupe au pistou. (I tucked some away in the freezer.)

soupe au pistou in freezer

Soupe au Pistou

Serves 6 – 8

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: 2 hours

What I love so much about this particular soupe au pistou recipe is the addition of the ham which gives a richness to the broth. I also like the addition of the finely diced tomato to the pistou which, in most recipes, is not included. You decide whether you want to include it or not.


2 thick slices country ham, diced (about 1 pound)

A small piece of salt pork (I usually skip this)

1 lb fresh white shell beans*

1 lb fresh cranberry beans*

1 lb green string beans, cut into 1-2-inch pieces

1 celery stalk, diced

3 ripe tomatoes (medium), peeled, seeded and diced

3 medium zucchini, diced

8 smallish potatoes, diced (I like the red-skinned Norland potatoes for this)

5 oz. elbow pasta


6 cloves garlic, minced

1 large bunch of basil

4 oz. grated parmesan

10 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 medium, very ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and diced into small dice.

*I can never find the fresh shell beans in the U.S. so either use 1 Cup total dried white beans, soaked overnight and cooked separately, or just open a can or two of Cannellini beans, garbanzo beans or whatever you like. Drain and rinse them and then add them to the pot.


  1. Fill a large soup pot with 12 Cups of water, add the ham and bring to a boil then simmer for 30 minutes.
  2. Add the vegetables, return to the boil, then simmer for 1 hour.
  3. Meanwhile make the pistou in a food processor. Whirr the garlic first, then add the basil, cheese and olive oil. Scoop it into a bowl and stir in the tomato and its juices.
  4. Add the pasta just before serving and cook for 10 minutes
  5. Ladle soup into bowls with a generous spoonful of pistou in each. Serve with crusty bread and a chilled rosé from Provence of course!

Soupe au Pistou Recipe Printable Version




My Grandfather’s Tomatoes

Tomato Display

For those of us with a devotion to tomatoes, the anticipation of the first harvest of summer is something akin to a child waiting for Christmas. Instead of sugar plums dancing in our heads, we have tomatoes in all their shapes, sizes and colors along with all the ways we are going to prepare and eat them.

While we are waiting, we are also reminiscing—in the old Proustian manner—of tomato seasons gone by. There was the surprisingly sweet heirloom cherry tomatoes my husband and I ate with abandon one August in Maine, or the memory of standing in my grandfather’s garden and biting into a tomato like an apple, still feeling the warmth of the summer sun on its skin. These are among the tomato experiences I hope to replicate each summer.

Heirloom Tomatoes


I credit my grandfather with introducing me to the wonders of tomatoes. It may seem odd to contemporary readers in this age of farmers’ markets and all manner of heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables, but back when I was growing up in the suburbs there was nary a home-grown tomato to be had. In our house, frozen vegetables and hard, tasteless, store-bought tomatoes reigned supreme. It was only on our annual summer visits to my grandparents in rural Ohio that I was treated to fresh vegetables.

My grandfather was a gruff man. Even when he laughed (which was infrequently) it was more of growl than a proper laugh. Just one low, short burst of a “haaaa” sound and he was done. Affectionate he was not, and when he did touch you it was more of a hard squeeze on the knee or a rough hand on the shoulder the sensation from which tended to linger long after his hand had been removed.

Still, I know he loved us grandchildren. He used to pick us up and put us in the back of his old blue 1950s era Ford pickup truck and drive us down to the dump (there was always a purpose to our outings). I can still conjure the smell of that slightly rusty flatbed and gasoline from the exhaust pipe as we drove (not to mention the garbage that rode along with us.)

Including my cousins, we were five or six screaming children having the time of our lives bouncing up and down on the country roads. My grandfather would be driving up front with the window down and his arm resting on the door looking back at us occasionally to make sure we were all accounted for. It was better than any amusement park experience that I can remember. We pestered him constantly to take us for a ride and he happily accommodated.

Like many from his generation, his life was full of hardship. When he was a young boy, his mother died. When his father remarried, his stepmother rejected him and his sister so they were raised by a maiden aunt. During the Depression, he was often without work and I imagine he must have felt some shame in not being able to provide for his wife and then-three children. I have a sense there was a lot of anger born of feelings of inadequacy that found its way into the household when my mother was growing up. He never talked about those years, but my grandmother told a few sketchy stories about hard times that left an impression on me.

I recently heard a partial re-broadcast of a radio interview with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s legendary editor at Knopf who died August 2. In it, she was describing the importance of food scenes in literature as a way to flesh out characters.  The point she was making was that—to borrow from Brillat Savarin—we are what we eat. In other words, what a character in a story (or any of us) eats reveals something about their nature. To learn that every Sunday night my grandfather would sit down to a sandwich of stinky Limburger cheese and sliced raw onions is all you need to know to understand his emotional make-up.

There is so much about our grandparents that will forever remain a mystery. We were not there for most of their lives. And when we were children, their lives mostly seemed to float above us, touching us only briefly, like the occasional butterfly that alights on our skin while on their way to other business. For me anyway, my grandparents were purpose-built to delight me and nothing more.

Now that they are long gone and I have the perspective of maturity I would like to know them better. I am left with guesses and nothing more other than my own distilled memories. Among them is my tomato memory.

I was visiting over a long weekend one summer after I had moved to New York as a young adult. It was in the morning of the day I was scheduled to fly back to the city and I had gone out to my grandfather’s garden to pick some tomatoes to take with me on the plane. The light on that late summer day was soft and golden and the air was warm enough that by late morning the dew had dried. With the sun on my face, I stood between the rows of neatly tended vegetables, the soft, tilled earth under my feet, and reached for a red, ripe orb. It was warm to the touch and just begged to be eaten on the spot.

When its warm flesh touched my lips just seconds from being plucked from the vine, I closed my eyes and made a mental imprint of the moment. For me, it was the essence of tomato-ness, a kind of Platonic ideal that has stuck with me all this time. I never captured it again, but I think of it every summer when the tomatoes start to ripen.

Of course, at the time I thought my experience was unique. But years later, I came across this wonderful passage in a translation of Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody (whose main character has a brief supporting role in her more famous The Elegance of the Hedgehog):

…”I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of Aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of a refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil….The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure.  The resistance of the skin—slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us:  a tomato, an adventure.”

Now that’s quite an homage, and one that any tomato-lover can appreciate.

How would my grandfather have enjoyed the best of the tomato season? In a humble BLT sandwich, of course.

sliced tomatoesBLT