One of the best things that ever happened to me, culinarily speaking, was brought about by a ruptured appendix.
I was in a hospital room for over a week, dopey from morphine after emergency surgery. My mother thought it would be the perfect opportunity to fill out applications for a summer abroad. (She also thought that would be the time for me to learn to knit a sweater. Lumpy, ridden with holes, very strange colors. I refused to wear it of course.) Crossing my fingers for Paris, I blearily filled in the applications, dreaming of croissants, Croque Monsieur and hoping I’d learn to love coffee so I could order a cafe au lait in a real Parisian cafe. (Je voudrais un café au lait s’il vous plaît!)
Weeks later, the letter with my assignment arrived. A family with 4 girls – fantastique! The charming little village nearest the farm was too far to walk to from the house, though. No swanning around town drinking coffee for me. Hmmm. A photo fell from the leaves of a long letter I could barely understand. Seated around a rustic wooden table under a brick arch, a large happy family. The girl in the foreground was blowing her nose dramatically. A little girl sat next to the father(?), peeking out from under a large plaid napkin which was on her head. At the head of the table, an elderly lady beamed, arms crossed. A cheerful woman looked over her shoulder toward the camera, could that be the mother? A begging dog with pointy ears sat in the foreground. Several bottles of wine, some mineral water and some cheese in white paper wrappers littered the table cloth. Not surprisingly, it didn’t look at all Parisian.
Six weeks later, jet lagged, I found myself sitting at that same table. Mme Sabin, smiling but speaking no English, had picked me up from a square in Toulouse. It was dark when she arrived, all the other kids had been picked up already. We’d driven in silence, the awkward teenager kind, under a black and starry sky to the farm, in one of those very French cars with the sardine top. Now, she stood at the stove preparing a potato and onion omelette, all smiley as she was in the photograph, pointing at things to see what I wanted. With the omelette steaming on a plate in front of me, she cut some baguette and set it out with butter and plum preserves. After dinner she brought out the largest basket of fresh cherries I’ve ever seen. There might be ten unforgettable meals in my life and that is one of them.
Mme. Sabin was cooking all the time for her large family and all the farm hands and she clearly had a system to get it all done. We might refer to this as her culture. What else do you call it when the necessity of cooking for so many people marries so well with what is at hand? All the vegetables came from the garden. Often we had rabbit that she trapped there. Chickens certainly came from the hen house. The milk we picked up across the road. Every other day the bread man would deliver baguette, and sometimes croissants in his little white truck. On Sundays, we had Kir and pâté on little toasts under the willow tree on a stone table built around the trunk. It sounds like a stunning lifestyle magazine spread but it wasn’t all prettied up like that. Life on their farm was very beautiful, but also matter-of-fact and practical.
Lunch always started the same way. Soup in a wide plate. (Is that why I always go on about a wide soup plate? Possibly.) A potage of vegetables from the garden and potatoes. Water – just that, not broth. I was used to Campbell’s, ramen noodles with their little foil MSG flavor packs. At home, our soups spoke of salt and flavor enhancers. At home we never had anything puréed. Nothing ever such a rich and varied green. Nothing tasting so cleanly vegetal. On the farm I learned to clean my bowl with a piece of baguette, tasting every last drop. And to follow it with an aged cheese that tasted complicated, barnyard-y; always beckoning “just one more taste!”.
It was only after I returned that my mother told me the real story of how I ended up on the farm. Apparently, hopped up on morphine, I’d reversed the order of my preferences, putting an agricultural family at the top of my list, and Paris at the very bottom. The program director was very surprised by my choice but said nothing. I was incredibly lucky.
A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a very nice lady who served a puréed soup her husband had made using vegetables from their CSA. He has spent time learning to cook in France. She served it in wide bowls with baguette alongside. I took one bite and suddenly, like traveling in time, I was right back on the farm. The long table with the red checked cloth, littered with wine and water bottles, and the white paper wrappers from a funky aged cheese. How very nice it was to go back.
Potage Parmentier – a variation on a recipe from Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can substitute many kinds of vegetables in this recipe. Chard, lettuce, zucchini. Any soft leaves should be added at the end. Any cabbages or kale towards the beginning. Trust that you will need only water and salt to achieve a soup with great flavor.
- 5 potatoes – Yukon gold are my choice, peeled and sliced
- 4 leeks, sliced white and tender green
- 2 rutabagas – medium sized, peeled and sliced
- a bunch of watercress, cleaned
- 2 1/2 quarts of water
- 1 tbsp sea salt
- 1/2 c. heavy cream
- 12 slices baguette, sliced and carefully browned in 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp butter over medium high heat
- Put the potatoes, leeks, rutabagas, water and sea salt into a heavy bottomed soup pot and bring to a boil. Partially cover and simmer slowly for 40 minutes or until you can easily mash the vegetables with a fork.
- Add the watercress and simmer 5 minutes more.
- Purée the soup with an immersion blender.
- Just before serving heat just until simmering and add the cream.
- Serve hot with croutons. (I am a slave to homemade croutons, although plain baguette is also very nice.)