week 4: st. george's international school

We take the elevator down to the garage, buckle into the long-term-rental Volvo wagon, drive ten minutes out to the suburb of Hamm, and march the boys onto the small, tidy campus at the top of a hill. Their lunches have been fretted-over and packed into shiny new hard-plastic boxes that are packed into new nylon lunch-bags that are packed into new backpacks, which also contain the new indoor shoes--high-top heavy-felt slippers--that we bought the previous weekend at Le Bon Marché in Paris. We enter the assigned door at the end of the corridor, find the assigned classrooms; we say hello to the teachers, exchange final hugs and kisses. Then the little boys turn away and launch into their new worlds, barely a glance back at us; I am suddenly overcome by my irrelevance.

Alex's teacher is Mrs. Fyfe, Sam's is Mrs. Foulds; these are pronounced Fife and Folds, like a medieval-music-themed laundromat. Within a week, the boys start saying things like "rubbish bin"; Alex compliments his brother, "Well done, Sam, well done." This is what happens when the American school, here called International School of Luxembourg, has no room for your Ecuadorean-accented-Spanish-speaking New Yorkers: they attend a St.-Somebody's school and quickly become little Englishmen. 

I collect the boys at the end of that first day, and they greet each other with relieved smiles--this is really the first time that they've been apart in school, and the first full schoolday they've ever experienced--but initially no talking. After a minute, Alex breaks the silence. "Sam," he says, without looking at his brother, "do you have any friends yet?" Sam glances at Alex, shakes his head, and keeps walking. "I have one," Alex says, nodding in agreement with himself. "But I don't know his name."

a recipe: macaroni and cheese

I ask Madeline if she wants anything from the farmer's market. "Yes," she says, "there's a guy who looks like he specializes in Comté." I walk over to the square, where this guy isn't hard to find: his sign says, "Ici on spécialise dans le Comté," and he's standing beside an intimidating round of Alpine-looking cheese that must be 2 feet across and approaching 100 pounds. He also has a few baskets of bread, and a refrigerated case that holds a handful of other, neglected cheeses; but the big Comté is out in the open, on a board, ready for action. "Moyen," he says to me, which is "hello" in Luxembourgeois or "middle" in French.

"Moyen," I answer. "Le Comté?" I keep my Luxembourgeois-French sentences pretty brief and straightforward; and perhaps "sentences" isn't entirely accurate.

He nods, picks up his guillotine--a long, curved blade with handles on either side--and places it on the cheese. "Ça?" He counters my five syllables with one.

And I respond with no syllables--a mere nod and a smile--without really considering the question, until he leans onto his guillotine and slices off a gigantic section of cheese. I assumed his Ça? meant that he was asking me to confirm which cheese I wanted, but now I realize that my assumption was asinine; in actuality he was asking me if I wanted him to cut the thing where he'd placed the blade. And this is how I came to buy 2-plus pounds of  Comté.

So when that first week of school rolled around, and I felt like making the most comforting of all comfort foods, I had a decent supply of Comté. But I didn't think Comté alone would make a good mac-and-cheese--too nutty, not sharp enough, and, as far as the boys are concerned, too white--so I combined it with aged Mimolette, whose butterscotch assertiveness and deep orange color create the flavor I want and the appearance my kids prefer. There are no boxes of Annie's here in Luxembourg; there's not even Kraft. So the boys will have to settle for farmstand Comté combined with vieille Mimolette. 

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Powdered mustard, optional
3/4 pound cheese (see below), grated
Salt and pepper
1 pound small pasta
1/2 cup bacon lardons, for gilding the lily, and breadcrumbs plus butter plus grated Parmesan, for yet more ornamentation

In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the foam dissipates, throw in the flour. Whisk for a minute. Add a splash of milk and whisk for a few seconds; add another splash and whisk some more. Add 1/2 cup and continue to whisk. And now make a decision: thick cheese sauce, thin cheese sauce, or in the middle? For thick, you need about 2 cups milk total; for thin, use an entire litre, as they'd spell it here at St. George's. Whichever amount you use, whisk all the milk for a couple of minutes, until hot and slightly thickened; don't let it boil.

Now, if the cheeses you're using are relatively mild--like Comté or Gruyère combined with an American Cheddar--then you might want to use some mustard for a bit of kick: a teaspoon of mustard powder, dissolved in a teaspoon of warm water and then dumped into the thickened milk. But if you've got a salty, assertive Mimolette or a farmstead English Cheddar or an aged Gouda, you don't need the mustard. I usually use a combination of cheeses: one nutty Alpine with a lot of butter content, and one salty cheese with tang and sweetness. Whatever you're using, add the shredded cheese into the hot milk, and stir until all the cheese has melted and the mixture is smooth. Taste, and add salt and pepper if you want (but skip the salt if you're going to add the bacon). Keep the cheese sauce warm over very low flame, stirring frequently.

Boil and drain the pasta. Pour it into the cheese sauce, stir until well-combined, et voilà!

If you want to make this extra-decadent, and if you have bacon lardons lying around (as do I, and everyone else in Luxembourg; see Week 2), fry them over medium heat in a small dry skillet until firmed-up and the fat has rendered. Drain on paper towels, then stir into the cheesed pasta. To go really nuts, pour this mixture into a casserole. Then toast a handful of breadcrumbs with a pat of butter in a skillet, tossing around for a minute or two, till golden (but be careful: golden breadcrumbs quickly turn to burnt ones). Top the noodles with the toasted breadcrumbs, then sprinkle the whole outfit with Parmesan. Broil till the topping is lightly browned, and preschedule a week's worth of green salads to follow. 

week 3, part i: pictures of little boys in paris



week 3, part ii: paris

"You're right in the middle of everything!" "You can get anywhere so quickly!!" "You'll see all of Europe!!!" These were the encouraging things we heard from friends—from ourselves—when we announced that we were leaving NYC for a place that might be a city in Germany, or perhaps in Switzerland; or was that Liechtenstein? Whatever Luxembourg was, everyone agreed, it's certainly smack in the middle of Europe, somewhere. Maybe close to Paris?

We now know: it's two hours on the TGV. So our second weekend in Luxembourg, we went to Paris. Highlights: 
  • The best playground we found is in the Jardins du Luxembourg (irony!). You have to pay to enter the aire de jeu, but you're not in Paris to save money, are you? Of course not.
  • Astoundingly and I must say tragically, there are no real playgrounds in the greenery along the Champs d'Elysees.
  • Sam insists that Orangina is "too spicy."
  • Stores that specialize in comic books and action figures are on rue Dante, in the 5eme. This too is probably not why you're in Paris, but you're a grown-up; if you were a non-grown-up, this might be exactly why you're in Paris. 
  • There's nothing as great as being able to control the subway doors BY YOURSELF!
  • You wait a long time to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower; you climb a lot of stairs to get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Both are worth it. The aquarium at Trocadéro, on the other hand, is decidedly not, unless you're obsessed with undersea-themed feature films, because, oddly enough, the Paris aquarium seems to be mainly a half-assed museum of genre cinema.
Not similar to our last visit. Then, we wandered around the Marais, we bought brocante at the flea market, we went to the one-guy museums (Picasso, Rodin, etc.), we had a six-course, four-hour dinner. This time, we barely glanced at the museums as we cruised by them on the Batobus; we had a lunch in a chain restaurant where Alex refused to relinquish the plastic hippopotamus-shaped toothpicks that came inserted in his hamburger. 

So by the time Monday morning rolled around (toothpicks still in Alex's possession), and Madeline was off to the "future of" conference that was our excuse to be in Paris, we hadn't yet had a truly good meal. I wanted one. And I remembered sitting in a SoHo brasserie with its owner, meeting about his cookbook. We’d finished discussing our business, but there was still coffee on the table, and neither of us was in a rush. Madeline and I were going to Paris a few weeks later, so I asked his advice on where we should eat. His face lit up. “There’s a little brasserie on the Île St-Louis,” he said, “called, I think, the Brasserie Île St-Louis. It was one of my models for this place.” He looked around his restaurant. “You must go there.” 

That was seven years ago. So now, Monday evening, the boys and I get to Île St-Louis on foot from “the superhero store," where after much debate (about 30 minutes, no exaggeration) we bought a Superman for Sam (because of initials) and a Batman for Alex (because five of them were not enough). Madeline hasn’t arrived at the restaurant, and I don't want to squander any well-behaved-in-a-public-place time until we're ready to put food in our mouths, so I forego a table. I tell the boys to just plop down and play with their new toys on the sidewalk, right there at the foot of the Pont St-Louis, across the little slip of Seine from Notre Dame. They start enacting some type of drama, during which I learn that Batman is Superman’s father. At one point, the two superheroes are separating, turning in for the night. Sam is using the high falsetto that means he's speaking in a non-Sam role; this is how he talks about a quarter of the time. “Good night, Dad,” Sam says as Superman. “I love you.”

Batman is walking away. Alex pauses Batman, turns the action figure around to address Superman: “I love you too."

The river is shimmering silver in the gloaming, and warm windows pop up in the endless procession of stone buildings that line the banks; Paris is as breathtaking as ever. Madeline and I ate better, as a rule, the last time we were here. But back then, I had no idea that Batman and Superman exchanged I-love-you's before bed, which is ample compensation for the loss of Michelin stars.

a recipe: slow-roasted rosemary-garlic pork shoulder with applesauce

We are shown to a table—a little RESERVÉ placard in the middle of the red-checkered cloth—by a familiar-looking waiter, in a room full of other familiar-looking waiters. Our first priority is to scour the menu for something the boys will eat. The most likely possibility seems to be pork with applesauce. But I'm a little worried that I can't translate the words that surround porc, which, as it turns out when the dish arrives, signify that what we've ordered is a cured hock, with a creamy gravy as well as the applesauce. The boys consider it warily, then don’t much enjoy it, eating only as much as they think they must to be rewarded with ice cream, from the renowned Berthillon across the street. As they grimace at the delicious pink meat sitting regally in its ramekin, it occurs to me that I make a roast pork that the boys eat with gusto. So I'll make it this week, back in Luxembourg (back home? can I call it that, yet?), and we’ll be able to enjoy one of those rare meals at which all four of us eat the same thing.

Rosemary, minced
Garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Pork shoulder, trimmed of any ridiculously thick deposits of fat, but still left well-larded
Onions, sliced thin
Apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks

Combine equal amounts of rosemary and garlic with generous portions of salt and pepper, along with a drizzle of olive oil, and mash into a paste. Rub it all over the pork, and set aside to marinate for as long as you can spare.

Line a roasting pan with the sliced onions, place the pork on top, and pop it into a low oven; I like to do this at 200 or 225 F, which means it's going to take somewhere like a full workday to cook. This is the point of this dish. The lower the temperature, I think, the juicier the end result. Turn the thing every few hours, to crisp up the outside uniformly. Although I'm typically a stickler for measuring internal meat temperatures, I don't bother with this cut and method, and it has worked out fine; but if you're worried about erring too much in either direction, take out the meat when the center hits 150 F. 

Meanwhile, put the apple chunks in a saucepan with a drizzle of water. Set over low heat and cook until the apples break down completely, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. I happen to think that applesauce isn't particularly improved by cinnamon, salt, or pepper, but nor have I ever really harmed it this way; sometimes, though, it could definitely use a few pinches of sugar, especially for tart apples like Granny Smiths. Whatever you add, mash up the apples when they're mashable, and there you go.

Take the finished pork out of the pan, and remove the onions with a slotted spoon; save the onions for serving. If you want to make gravy: set the pan atop one or two burners over high high heat, add a cup of water or stock, and scape up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Cook until reduced and thickened; if you're the type to add butter, then add butter. Season with salt and pepper, then strain to remove any large, charred pieces of rosemary and garlic. This pan gravy only works hot, but the meat with applesauce is good at any temperature, especially if the pork is sliced very thin.

week 2: the swimming pool

On Monday, I take the boys to the municipal swimming pool. My mother-in-law Suzy has returned to Pittsburgh; Madeline has started full-time work; school has not yet begun. So I am alone with Sam and Alex most of every day, here in this foreign place. We go to playgrounds and markets, to cafés and gelaterias. When we buy things in small shops, the women at the caisses give candy to the boys.

When we get to the pool, we find out, amid tears, that Monday is the hebdomadaire closing. So we return on Tuesday. We pay our fee, use our paper tickets to pass through a turnstile, and start to wander through what I realize--just a second too late--is the women’s locker room. We find a gender-appropriate changing room. We figure out that we must use a ticket to release a key to secure a locker. Later, we will have to use the same tickets to exit. These multifunctional tickets are what Alex will later describe to Madeline as the highlight of the adventure; he calls them “credit cards.”

Off to one side of the big pool, there's exercise equipment, and more up on a balcony. I need exercise, but I’m not sure how to go about finding a gym. Perhaps this swimming-pool setup will do. A few days later, I hightail it back to the pool, for a test. An unmistakable sign (pictogram as well as words) forbids shoes, so I carry my sneakers to the machines, where I assume I will be able to wear them. But the three people I see exercising are barefoot. Damn. I step barefoot into an elliptical machine and start the Sisyphean climb, my soles immediately, painfully imprinted with the bubbled Braille of the footpads. The other barefoot exercisers trickle away; two new women show up. I watch them closely, carrying their sneakers. They pull on footwear! Joy. I will be able to wear mine, as soon as I work up the courage to dismount and lace up.

But then a lifeguard shows up, literally wagging his finger. He engages the women in a spirited conversation that begins in German, then turns to French, and fluctuates between simmering resentment and withering hostility. At one point, the lifeguard gestures at me, and says something about what Monsieur is doing, and they all look at me, the women with suspicion and a hint of anger, as if I'd betrayed them. I give a weak smile, trying ridiculously to communicate to the women that I'm on their side, but without signaling to the lifeguard that I'm against him, at least not personally, it's just that I too would rather wear sneakers. That's a lot to pack into a single smirk; I probably look like I'm experiencing intestinal discomfort.

Upstairs, then.  The strengthening machines are a bewildering hydraulic system. The disappointed shoeless women join me. Then two guys. All of us are trying to figure out these machines, and not succeeding to anyone’s satisfaction. After I use a stomach-torturing contraption, one of the men asks me a question in rapid-fire French, the gist of which seems to be whether it's supérieur or antérieur. I feel my own stomach to see where it hurts. “Supérieur,” I answer. "Merci," he says, but I think my answer wasn't what he'd hoped.

In the shower room, I can’t figure out how to get the hot water on. So I assume that there isn't hot water here, and I take a quick cold shower. As I’m toweling off, a female lifeguard comes into the male shower room. “C’est chaud, ou non?” she asks, without apology or prelude.

I’m pretty naked. I shake my head. “Non.”

“Froid? Seulement?”

I nod. She shakes her head, frustrated. Just as abruptly as she arrived, she hurries away.

This was not the ideal workout experience, but it could've been worse. Now I’m dressed and standing on the rue des Bains, around the corner from the supermarket. I have my gym bag as a sac, thank god; you need a sac when you go to the market, because they don't give away bags, and buying the disposable plastic ones is clearly akin to slapping children, and the big recycled sacs are expensive. So it's a constant struggle to remember to bring a sac whenever you think you might want to buy something, which is always, and half the time I don't have a sac. But now I do. And I don’t have any little boys' hands that I must hold for the walk home, and I have enough time before Madeline has to return to the office, and I know where I am, where to go, without needing to consult a tattering map. This feels a little bit like real life, like I’m leaving the Equinox on Prince Street and going to Dean & Deluca, hair wet, a small duffel on my shoulder. This, I’ve done hundreds of times in New York; I can do this here too. So I go buy the ingredients to make something I’ve made hundreds of times.

a recipe: tagliatelle with ragoût de haché mélange et tomates

The Alima market is on the far side of the centre shopping district, in the courtyard of a building on the avenue de la Porte Neuve, ten minutes from our apartment. The courtyard entrance is flanked by a leather-goods store and an eyeglass boutique, and no sign; if you didn’t know a supermarket was in there, you wouldn’t find it.

All the supermarkets here offer a stupefyingly wide selection of packaged precut pork-belly, in lardons or cubes, smoked or un-. I'd never considered dicing slab bacon to be a task that needed shortcutting, but then again I'd never used them for every meal, which I suspect is what goes on in this part of the world. But despite all the diced bacon, what the butcher counter does not have, equally mystifying, is ground pork or veal. It does have something called “Haché Mélange,” whose label claims “boeuf, porc, sel, epices.” This combo suggests upscale dog food, but at €7.80 per kilo, I think--I hope--it's too expensive for that. So I buy it. 

I'd rather have the pork and veal, but I'm too intimidated to walk into a real butcher. I’ve looked through the big windows of the boucheries on the Grand Rue: they're intimate shops. Once I get started, I will visit one of these every few days, for who knows how long. I'm not yet prepared to begin those long-term relationships with strangers. 

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound slab bacon or pancetta, cut into lardons, or bought that way, if you live in Luxembourg
1 pound ground veal, pork, beef, or combination
1 medium onion, small-diced
2 carrots, small-diced
2 celery stalks, small-diced
2 bay leaves
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
3 cups Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, and their juices
Salt and pepper
1 pound fresh tagliatelle
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a Dutch oven, heat a slick of the oil. Add the bacon and cook until firmed up and the fat has rendered. Remove to a large bowl, leaving the fat behind. Increase the heat to high, add the meat, and cook until lightly browned, breaking it up with your spoon. Remove to the bowl, again leaving whatever fat remains. Reduce the heat to medium. Add another slick of oil, then the onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaves. Cook until wilted. Pour in the wine, and scrape up the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. When most of the wine has evaporated, pour in the stock and the tomatoes. Bring to a vigorous simmer.

Return the bacon and ground meat to the pot, along with any juices in their bowl. Adjust the heat to maintain a low simmer, and cook for at least an hour, preferably two. If the sauce gets too thick, add water. If you need to leave home, just turn off the stove and put a lid on the pot. In New York, where I knew how to control my oven, I’d set it at 225°F., shove the pot in there, and go out for the afternoon. Here, though, I don’t know how the damn thing works; so when the boys and I go out to buy a baguette and the inevitable pastry-bribe, I turn off the heat. When you're nearing dinnertime, add salt and pepper, let cook a few minutes, and taste again for seasoning.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the noodles until they’re on the firm side of al dente. Drain. Return to the big pot over low heat, and sauce. Cook for a minute, stirring, so the pasta can absorb some sauce and finish cooking; add a splash of the cooking water if it all gets too thick. Stir in the cheese.

week 1: new kitchen

I am confronting the oven. It has no numbers. In TriBeCa, the oven offered a wide choice of numbers, in Fahrenheit. I knew things would be different here in Luxembourg; I wanted things to be different here. I am fully prepared—eager!—to do my cooking in Celsius. I have long admired the roundness of water boiling at 100°. But this dial offers no Celsius numbers. What this dial offers are Beleuchtung, Ober-Unterhitze, Unterhitze, Grill, Grill klein, Auftauen, Intesivbacken, Umluftgrill, Heißluft plus (inexplicably, there's no plain-old Heißluft, without the plus), and Schnellaufheizen. I speak no German, and I keep forgetting to buy a German dictionary. Sometimes, I bring the laptop into the kitchen to use online dictionaries. But I often mistype—especially the likes of ß and anything with an umlaut—and end up with the vastly unsatisfying, “Your search term yielded no results,” which sounds like the recap to a pathetic night of unsuccessful carousing.

I ponder my choices. I like the sound of Intesivbacken, which, like so many German words, seems to have a built-in exclamation point. But something called Intesivbacken is probably too strong for the minor task at hand, which is reheating a chicken. The chicken is a little one, bought from a truck at the farmer’s market that sold three things: little rotisserie chickens, big rotisserie chickens, and sliced roast potatoes. I choose Grill, for what I know even as I’m setting the dial is an idiotic reason: it’s the most familiar of the words. I am actually thinking to myself, while turning the knob: you are being an idiot.

All the appliances in this slender, hypermodern kitchen are made by Miele, as are the cabinets, which include those humongous pot-and-pan-sized drawers I’ve always lusted after, and a shallow spice rack behind a door above the cooktop. Every square inch—make that centimeter—is utilized. I slouch against the counter, admiring the kitchen and the view out its window (picture above). Then I catch a whiff of something. I glance at the oven, from which smoke has begun to slink. I open the door, and the liberated smoke billows out. My head darts around in a panic, looking for the smoke detector, because what I don’t want is to infuriate the neighbors, who we haven’t met yet. There's no smoke detector in here. And if there's none in the kitchen, I’m guessing there is none anywhere. Whew.

The chicken is now extra crispy, but salvageable. I tentatively lean my head into the oven, and see that the coils on top are glowing bright red. Grill, I have now discovered, is broiler. I will learn, one mistake at a time.

a recipe: haricots verts with caramelized onions

On our first morning in the apartment on rue de l’Eau, all five of us—the boys, Madeline and her mother, myself—walked a couple of minutes through the misty drizzle to the Place Guillame II. The boys played semi-supervised in a small playground while the grown-ups wandered around, seeing what was what. There were a half-dozen green grocers of varying size and popularity. An unvisited fishmonger, a wildly popular butcher, two stands each for cheeses and olives.

When I wasn’t paying attention, Madeline and Suzy bought a jar of jelly. And apparently the guy at the jelly stand—or near the jelly stand, the precise proximity is not clear—was also selling onions, which is not your typical one-two farm-stand punch. Not regular round Spanish onions, nor red ones, but rather long ovoids. Big, dense ovoids, with thick yellow skin. If I understand their story correctly, the guy seems to have lured them with slivers of raw onion with a taste of jelly, maybe on bread, maybe not; again, I wasn’t there. But the upshot is they bought what I think is a kilo of these onions, and a jar of jelly. I now feel obliged to do something--something simple, because I don't have much in the way staples--with at least a token portion of the 2.2 pounds of odd-looking onions.

Yellow onion, sliced thin
Haricots verts, washed and trimmed
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a medium skillet. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat for at least 30 minutes, but more if there’s time, until the onions are deeply golden and very sweet. When the pan dries out, which it will do every 10 minutes or so, sprinkle it with water and stir. 

Meanwhile, blanch the haricots verts until easily pierced with a fork but not soggy. Drain, run under cold water to halt the cooking, and drain again. Set aside. When it’s time to eat, raise the heat on the onions to medium-high. Add the green beans to the skillet, toss with the onions until reheated, and season salt and pepper.