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. 

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