week 11: mit frites?

It was cooler than we'd expected for September 2nd, our first full day in Luxembourg. Nevertheless we sat outside, at a café facing the grand duke's palace (pictured), tired and chilled. We ordered sandwiches. The waitress asked, "Mit frites?" a quick little hodgepodge of Europe in one compact package. Which can also be said of Luxembourg.

We are doing our small part to stir the melange. I take French classes and Madeline takes German, both at Berlitz; once a week, the boys go there too, for French, which they also learn daily at St. George's (along with no small number of Britishisms). Admittedly, none of us is attempting to learn Luxembourgeois, although the other day Alex happily sang, like an aria, "Moyen, moyen, moyen!" when the supermarket cashier bestowed him with the local greeting. She rewarded his enthusiasm with a tweak on the nose.

Outside the classroom, I no longer begin every single interaction with the humiliating "Parlez-vous anglais?" The answer is invariably, "A little," overly modest, and so then there I am, living in Europe and talking in American with someone who probably speaks five languages. So now I've begun to forge ahead in bad French, then rarely understand what people say to me in return. Sometimes, that doesn't matter much; I end up buying a bit more cheese than I'd wanted. At a furniture store, I thought I'd be walking out with a rug, and even had a shopping cart, otherwise empty, for this rug. It wasn't until the transaction had apparently ended, and the clerk and I were exchanging confounded looks--he thinking I should leave, me thinking I should have a rug in my cart--that I realized I'd ordered the rug, which will arrive who-the-hell-knows-when; whilst I was trying to translate something, he blithely pushed on, and I never again caught the thread. Instead, I just smiled and left, empty-handed; this is not unusual.

On the other hand, at a play-date last week, I spoke French most of the time. This was at the house of Alex's so-called best friend, Lorenzo (how can Alex's best friend not be Sam? If ever there were a best friend, it's Sam, to Alex). Lorenzo's mother Sonia speaks passable English, but I suspect she doesn't understand anything I say (much as I can speak a little French, but can't comprehend nearly any of it). Sonia speaks Italian, which is not in my repertoire, and also some French. So we settled on this: she spoke in English, and I spoke in French. Our conversations ended up being far less sophisticated than the four-year-olds'. But we managed.

an american recipe: chestnut stuffing

When I began cooking in the early nineties, I worked as a copy editor at Doubleday, and so I used the recipes from the manuscripts that crossed my work desk. A book called Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare by Jane Sigal was my go-to source, then later Alfred Portale's tall-food-oriented Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook, which was also a favorite restaurant; it's where Madeline and I dined the night we got the keys to our first apartment together, the rickety place over the wine shop on Hudson Street. When we began to have people over for dinner, I started making ridiculous multi-component entrees from Gotham, often involving duck. For side dishes, I'd scour other books from the office, such as Michael Lomanaco's '21' Cookbook, where I discovered non-Pepperidge Farm stuffings. I think there are four stuffing recipes in that book (I can't check, because '21' didn't make the trip to Luxembourg), and I tried each, a number of times. But never on Thanksgiving Day. For thirty-nine years, cooking Thanksgiving supper was the job of other people in my family, or Madeline's. My job, as I understood it, was to show up and eat. 

Until yesterday. No one on this continent is going to cook a turkey for my family, if not I. So I found some cranberries, and a small dinde (about six pounds, the size of a big chicken), and mixed up a stuffing for the first time in maybe a decade. After my 21/Gotham phase in the mid-nineties, I spent nearly all my cooking energy on European food--Italian, French, Spanish--and ignored American. Now that I live in Europe, though, I think I'll start making stuffings again, tossing a little something foreign into the cultural hodgepodge around here.

Bread, preferably 1 or 2 days old, sliced
1/4 pound slab bacon, cut into lardons, optional
Unsalted butter
2 medium onions, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
1/2 pound button mushrooms, diced
1/2 pound (or more, if you like) peeled chestnuts, diced
Salt and pepper
3 eggs
1 cup chicken stock
Coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Set the oven on as low as possible. Cut the crusts off the bread slices, then cut the slices into 1/4-inch or 1/2-inch cubes. Spread on a couple of baking sheets, and let sit in the warm oven until completely dried-out, which will take just a few minutes if the bread was old, but maybe as much as a half-hour if not. You want to end up with 3 or 4 cups of bread cubes. (Stuffing, as much as anything, is an inexact science.) 

Meanwhile, in a sauté pan over medium-low heat, cook the bacon until firmed up. Remove from the pan, leaving the fat behind in the pan, to which you should add some butter. Toss in the onion and celery and sauté until wilted, but still some crunch to the celery. Remove from the pan, and replace with the mushrooms. Cook over high heat, adding some more butter if needed, until browned. Add the chestnuts and toss. Then merge all the sautéed stuff together with good doses of salt and pepper.

Increase the oven to 350°, or whatever it is for whatever else you're cooking; I don't think it matters much. At this point, your bread should be dried, and out of the oven. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the chicken stock. Add the dried bread cubes, toss to coat, and let sit for 10 minutes. Then, if excess egg/stock has collected in the bottom of the bowl, toss it out; if the bread doesn't seem moist enough--utter judgment call--sprinkle with some more stock. Add the sautéed vegetables, a fistful of chopped parsley, and stir everything together. Pack it into a Dutch oven, and spread a few pats of butter over the top. Cover and bake for 30 or so minutes, until cooked through but not dried-out.  If you want a brown crust, turn up the heat, remove the cover, and cook for a few minutes to crisp the top, but don't let this go on too long, or you'll end up with dry stuffing. 


week 10: a snapshot of winter's arrival

"It's a-snowing!" Sam announced, first thing yesterday morning, pointing at the window. It's the week before Thanksgiving, and big fat flakes were fluttering, nesting into the needles of the evergreens, into the brown leaves that still remain in the deciduous trees (how often do you see snow in leaves?). But then the sun came out, and the temperature rose to the high thirties, and Saturday's snow melted.

Sunday is cold and windy, the sky a steely flat gray, the temperature struggling to break freezing, and losing. In the afternoon, the boys and I drive across town to the Bertrange neighborhood, to visit an indoor playground. I read in the cafe area, where half the parents are drinking beer or wine; one guy has a carafe of red, a plate of pasta, and a laptop in front of him. When we head home at four, the sky is already beginning to darken and flurry. I build a fire, return the pot roast to the oven. By five, the flakes are being blown horizontal, the tree limbs swaying. We have an early dinner, then the boys have a bath, and get into their cozy pajamas, and all the while the snow continues to fall. I put on a ski jacket and chunky gloves, and go for a walk. 

Luxembourg is, everyone agrees, fairy-tale. In the snow, it's doubly so. The steeply pitched roofs with their dormer windows, the wrought-iron street lamps, the tiny plateaus and ravines of the cobblestones, all collecting their own dustings and piles. The deep gorges are cut hundreds of feet down to the little streams, with sweeps of blanketed lawns that are dotted with trees and bordered by thick woods; tonight they have the aspect of ski slopes, a bonsai-size resort. The gorges allow for a profusion of long-distance vistas, vast sky-fulls of swirling white. There's never much in the way of automobile traffic, especially here in the centre, where half the streets are pedestrian-only. In this little blizzard, cars are even fewer and farther between, the streets unplowed and -salted. It could be the nineteenth century, or earlier. 

At the Place Guillame, two minutes from home, a cluster of Christmas-market stands have already opened, in anticipation of what's clearly going to be a city-consuming market; scores of log-cabin stalls have been arriving all week, filling the Place d'Armes, spilling eastward in the rue de Curé, colonizing the Guillame, along with a basketball-sized tent garishly adorned with color-gelled lights. The half-dozen stands surround an outdoor fire in a big drum and a teepee filled with picnic benches. They are selling Nordic nicknacks, sweaters, glogg, plates of poached salmon with dill sauce. Some of the girls who work the stands are throwing snowballs; a big fluffy dog peers out the flap of the teepee; a handful of people warm themselves at the fire, drinking glogg. In the open plaza, a toddler is wearing her snowsuit for the very first time, slipping and falling in the fluffy two inches. I head home. The whole town smells like burning firewood, smoke pouring out of every chimney. Including my own. 

an incredibly short recipe: radishes

Dinner is a non-notable pot roast with carrots, turnips, purple potatoes, and red onions; the meat and vegetables are great, but the sauce just isn't, and that's something I'll need to work on. We have a crisp salad on the side, and a small plate of bright pink oblong radishes, white at the very bottom of the bulb and its long, stringy tail. I bought these at the farmer's market yesterday, for no good reason other than they were there right in front of me as I was requesting my other fruits and vegetables--you don't handle and choose your own, but request, say, "Deux cents grams des haricots verts, s'il vous plait, madame," and get what you get. The seller first assesses the buyer, then she chooses a quality of produce commensurate with her assessment of the buyer. I have no idea what I rate.

Astoundingly, Alex is willing to try the a radish. He dips it in salt, takes a bite, considers it while he chews, his brow furrowed. "I like it," he says, nodding. He takes another bite. "Even without the salt, I like it." Sam is thus encouraged to take a bite, but grimaces and shakes his head; Alex wants us to add radishes into his school-snack rotation. If I'd been challenged to a wager beforehand, I would've bet a lot of money against this outcome. 

Coarse sea salt
Good butter

You can dip them in the salt. You can cut a slit lengthwise, and slip into it a sliver of butter. You can do both. If you prefer an Italian version to this French style, you can dip them in good extra-virgin olive oil, maybe a little bowl of it that's been liberally seasoned with salt and pepper. And by all means, I guess, try it on a four-year-old; you never know.


week 9: the automotive life

In our defense, it's a very tight squeeze at the entrance to the sous-sol parking: a narrow passageway that bends a sharp 90 degrees, on a steep incline. That may not justify the three separate incidents on two rental cars of scraping the cars' sides against the walls; nor the dozen times we've allowed trunk doors to slam against the ceiling.

On the other hand, the damages could've been much worse; the driving here is treacherous. I'm not saying it's like Rome, where it's hard to believe that the whole city isn't lying around on the cobblestones, bleeding. The traffic here is not anarchic; it's orderly, and calm. When stoplights turn yellow, drivers come to a controlled halt; people don't engage in high-speed car-to-Vespa conversations; there's no yelling. The hazards here are not driver-borne. Our challenges are created by the topography, the architecture, the climate. There are an awful lot of close-quarter turns circumscribed by walls--stone walls rising from narrow streets with absolutely no shoulders, sidewalks, or anything to separate the horizontal driving plane from the vertical crashing/scraping/sideview-mirror-wrenching planes. There are "streets" the width of modest alleys; some of these passages are two-way. There are medieval walls whose narrow arches one must drive through (such as the one in this picture, which we drive through every day); there are mountain switchbacks, right in the middle of the city. There are hills and gorges and pea-soup-dense fog; on most days, there's precipitation; when the sun is out, it hangs low in the sky, blinding. 

Plus, to be honest, neither Madeline nor I understand what most of the traffic signs mean. And there's a wigged-out law called Priority Right, which Madeline has point-blank refused to entertain. (It may come as a surprise to you--it certainly came as a surprise to me--that there are two distinct madwoman qualities to my wife's driving: 1, she's inexplicably eager to ignore traffic laws; and 2, she engages in tactics that I can only fairly describe as evasive maneuvers.) Priority Right means you have to yield at intersections to any vehicle approaching from the right--i.e., you yield to traffic that's aimed at a side-impact collision with the passenger. Priority Right's role is amplified by the general absence of traffic lights: on the eight-minute drive from our apartment in the heart of centre to the boys' school, we don't encounter a single light. So there are a lot of judgment-call intersections. Which makes it fun sitting over there on the right, at semi-blind intersections in the fog.

And to ensure that the automotive life remains interesting, we just bought a bigger car--bigger than the Volvo we were renting, and indeed bigger than the Volvo we own in the United States of Absurdly-Large-Cars. (This might be related to my moving to Europe to not smoke cigarettes.) We returned the rental to the airport, which is the only place to rent cars here; what with the scrapes on the sides, and the fallen flakes from two months' after-school pastries in the backseat, and the pervasive smell of apples--we left a half-bushel in the trunk, for a month--I imagine Hertz  was overjoyed to see this vehicle reinstated to their fleet. 

Our new car is a used Audi, which seems to be the sponsoring brand for the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg--the grand duke and his entourage drive around in a fleet of blue ones, and today at school pick-up, I parked between two other Audi wagons. Alex, not particularly paying attention, tried to get into the wrong one. Then in the correct car, parking at the bakery to buy today's pastries and begin the process of filling this clean backseat with pastry droppings, he announced, "I don't want to get out of this new car." He played with the ashtray, which the boys call their garbage cans. "It's so lovely." Yes, it is; for now.

a recipe: agneau aux haricots

One morning last week, the dashboard thermometer announced that it was an even 0 degrees. Granted, that's Celsius; but still, not balmy. It's stew weather, is what it is, and I've been making a lot of them, filling big heavy Le Cruesets, sliding them into the low oven for whole afternoons, the aromas of slow-cooking meats permeating the apartment, the common hallway, the stairwells. And then taking the lid off, the steam billowing out, maybe some hot liquid slopping over the side as I stir up the delicious mess . . . 

The best of my recent efforts was this dish, lamb with beans. For the lamb, I found a nice-looking hunk of epaule, with bone. This big piece of shoulder isn't something I remember coming across in New York, but it will now be something I look/ask for: gristle-free but still fatty enough to be juicy, tasting very lamb-y yet without gaminess. For the beans, I used a big can of flageolets, because (1) I live in a place where you can buy that sort of thing, and (2) as I've mentioned before (and will surely mention again), I'm none too good at day-before planning, which you sort of need to do if you're going to cook dried beans. I imagine that good dried beans, properly prepared, would make a better dish. Especially if they were those wonderful Tarbais beans I found at Kalustyan's last spring, and used to make Madeline's birthday cassoulet. But this dish was pretty damn good with the canned beans, if I may say so myself.

3+ pounds lamb shoulder, cut into large chunks, or stew meat
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
4 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 small can Italian plum tomatoes and their juices
1 pound dried white beans, soaked and boiled as per convention; or 1 big can of 'em
Dry but robust white wine
Bouquet garni

Generously season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat a slick of oil in big Dutch oven over medium-high flame. Add the lamb, leaving plenty of room, and brown all over; this took me two batches, about 10 minutes total per batch. When all the lamb is browned, and set aside in a bowl, pour off all but a light coating of the fat/oil that remains in the pot. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic, and cook for 5 minutes, till the vegetables are lightly browned. Push everything to the sides of the pan, spread the tomato paste into the empty space, and let it cook for 1 minute. Pour in the tomatoes and break them up with your wooden spoon.  Add the beans. Pour in 1/2 bottle of wine; the liquid should just about cover everything. If it doesn't, add more wine. Put the lamb back into the pot, and tuck the bouquet garni in there too. The lamb should be entirely (or almost entirely) submerged; if it isn't, add water, stock, or wine until it is. 

Now comes the big braising choice: stovetop or oven. This is a personal matter, and, as with religion, I'm loath to get into any arguments. But I now semi-understand my oven: I translated every setting, writing the English on a Post-It affixed to the oven door, along with a little Celsius-Fahrenheit conversion chart. So I now know, for example, that Heißluft plus at 150°C. = convection oven at 300°F. Which is a great setting for a stew, speeding up the process vastly while still working at a tenderizing, safe temperature. This isn't a situation I can confidently set on my electric cooktop. 

Anyway, however you're doing it, cook until the lamb is as ultra-tender, stirring it around from time to time. In the convection oven, this took about 2 hours; on the stovetop over very low heat, I'd be prepared for nearly twice that. When the lamb is ready, the rest of the contents of the pot might still be a little watery. Set it on the stovetop over high heat and reduce until it's thickened; I also whirred an immersion blender (the straight translation from the German is the much more colorful "stabmixer") in there for a half-minute, pulverizing some beans into a thickening agent; before you do this, I'd find and discard the bouquet garni.


week 8, part ii: mrs. duxbury goes to rome

There are two Mrs. Duxburys. One is a normal-sized Englishwoman whose job title is headteacher at St. George's School; she's the principal. When children are very bad, they are sent to Mrs. Duxbury's office; when they're very good, they are presented with a certificate signed by her. Alex received one for "being very helpful"; Sam's was for--and I quote verbatim--"careful and accurate measuring of a shoe with cubes" (?!). 

The other Mrs. Duxbury, we recently learned from Sam, is much smaller. She's about three inches tall and made out of plastic, manufactured by the German toy company Playmobil; she might be Native American, or an Alpine milkmaiden, it's tough to say. She has son who's a motorcycle-ambulance driver (I can't wrap my mind around out how a motorcycle ambulance is helpful to society, and might have to go visit a large German city, to see how it works), and a husband who's a motorcycle policeman. The three of them and their two motorcycles, along with a wooden step-stool and something that seems to be a dais, accompany Sam everywhere during our four days in Rome. Wherever we arrive, Sam asks, "Can I play?" Then he unzips his backpack and unloads the Duxburys. He stands up the Mrs. on her stool, behind her dais; sometimes he gives her a megaphone; sometimes he also arranges a tiny plastic painting on a tiny plastic easel, off to the side, beyond the motorcycles. 

Sam sets up this tableau in the Piazza San Pietro (bottom photo), while we await the pope for his Wednesday-morning blessing (we've come to see the interior of Saint Peter's, but, apparently, you can't do that on Wednesday mornings, so we hang around in the fantastic plaza, in a surreally a-religious soccer-match atmosphere). Sam sets it up in a trattoria in Trastevere, where the amatriciana is superb (middle), and on the Spanish Steps (top), where we rest after our unsuccessful quest to find a playground (if there are any playgrounds here, the Romans are certainly hiding them well). He sets it up inside the Colosseum, and at the foot of the Trevi Fountain; in the Piazza Farnese cafe where we breakfast, and in the wine bar near the Campo de Fiori where we have a glass of rosso with other celebrating Americans, Wednesday night. Mrs. Duxbury constantly supervises the boys, allowing us to finish our meals (sometimes not just one but two courses!) without having to flee in a flurry of antsiness. What more can you ask from a head teacher? 

a recipe from rome: bucatini alla carbonara

Unsurprisingly, the pasta in Rome is sublime. And it's not just the sauces that are superlative, it's the noodles themselves, whether dried or fresh, which are universally cooked less than I'm accustomed to for a run-of-the-mill al dente: firmer, chewier, more substantial in the mouth. This seems particularly true of my favorite noodle, the gloriously thick strands called bucatini; it's tough to go back to spaghetti after you've had bucatini. 

Bucatini seems particularly perfect for carbonara, which, I can't help thinking every time I see a plate of it, is the opposite of diet food: pasta with fatty chunks of pork and whole eggs and also additional egg yolk, not to mention cheese. I think the extra yolk might be gratuitous, and I've skipped it once or twice when I didn't have enough eggs on-hand. But it's ridiculous to skip it for dietary reasons; if you're making diet-conscious decisions, you're clearly eating something else. 

Olive oil
1/2 pound sliced guanciale, if you can find it, or use pancetta or other unsmoked lardons
Eggs and egg yolks (see below)
Freshly, coarsely ground black pepper
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano, or both
1 pound bucatini or perciatelli

First things first: put a pot of salted water on to boil; the sauce preparation happens quickly. Heat a slick of oil in a very large saucepan over medium-low flame, then add whatever pork product you're using. Guanciale is the traditional choice, but I haven't found these pork cheeks here in Luxembourg (and they weren't terribly easy to come by in NYC either); on the other hand, as you may remember from past postings, it's practically easier here to find pre-cut lardons than bottled water; they're even available in gas stations. Anyway, when the fat has rendered and the pork is firm, turn off the heat, but leave everything in the pan.

In a very large bowl, beat 3 whole eggs with your choice of (a) 1 egg yolk, (b) 2 egg yolks, (c) a 4th whole egg, or (d) nothing. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and then grind a lot of black pepper into the mixture. When you're tired of grinding, take a rest, then grind some more pepper. This is what I learned in Rome: this dish is better with a lot of pepper. Then beat in a few tablespoons of grated cheese.

By this point, your water should be boiling and your pasta should be in it. When the pasta is on the shy side of al dente, drain. Add it to the pan with the oil and pork, and toss over low heat until the bucatini are coated.  Then pour all this into the beaten eggs, scraping out the pan. Mix quickly but thoroughly, toss in some more cheese, and mix some more. Serve with all due haste, in reasonably sized portions. 


week 8, part i: pictures of little boys in rome

From the top: with the post-election newspaper; Alex with his own gladiator in front of the Colosseum; finishing off some gelato; Sam on the Spanish Steps; Alex having spaghetti on the Piazza Farnese; in front of the Pantheon; Alex on the Ponte Umberto I, St. Peter's in the distance; and everyone inside the Colosseum.