July 2009


I used to cook an awful lot back in L.A. when a couple of us participated in a supper club. I would follow recipes to a tee. But now that I’m constantly moving around France, I can’t be bothered with lugging around recipe books. And why worry about getting your hardcover Julia Child cookbook greasy and tattered?

On the farm in the Midi-Pyrenees, the farmers I lived with rarely had time to go grocery shopping so they didn’t have a lot of basics. Instead, when needed, they would make their own béchamel and mayonnaise. They would eyeball everything, whereas I would have been an anxious mess worrying about the ratio of flour to butter to milk. Their ease at making sauces and French staples really liberated me from following recipes so compulsively. We also made a lot of impromptu meals, scrounging around for whatever we got from the weekly farmer cooperative produce exchange or going out in the yard (which was a huge plantation) for whatever was ready to be eaten (often leeks and green garlic). This allowed me to experiment with different produce. Swiss chard gratin? Why not? Raw beet salad? Skeptical at first, but it’s actually quite good.

I volunteered to cook as often as possible and I loved making savory tarts since they were so quick and could use whatever was in the fridge or pantry.

A savory tarte requires a few ingredients: puff pastry dough (if you want to make your own dough I recommend Julia’s recipe for quiche dough), two eggs and creme fraiche. Then you can get creative. Whatever you decide to put in your tarte, make sure you sauté it first. In a mixing bowl, beat in the eggs with the cream, add the cooked mixture and season everything with salt and pepper. Then pour it in the pastry dough lined in a tart pan. Sprinkle some grated cheese if you want. Some of the kinds of tarts I’ve made: leek, onion, slow-roasted tomatoes, lardons, potatoes, mushrooms, Swiss chard.

This zucchini tarte, however, is usually a big crowd pleaser:

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I like the idea of happy accidents in food. Take wine, for example. Some Greek peasant harvests some grapes, forgets it somewhere in a barrel for a couple of months and voila, it becomes this delicious beverage. Or what about the guy who cluelessly distilled it and went blind? Not so happy but definitely took one for the team.

I’m going to assume that cheese was also a product of serendipity. As a process that’s been around since 5000 B.C., it’s interesting that in the 21st century, we like to think of it as something precious and artisanal.

However, when Bettie, Mark, Joe and I went to a giant cheese factory in the Auvergne in January, it was quite the opposite: it was common and industrial. I’m not saying that condescendingly; people in France alone consume more cheese than an artisanal cheese maker could ever produce. Nevertheless, a tour following the amazing life of cheese was a treat. I love seeing how the things we eat are made and I’d never experienced it on such a massive scale. And now really, how often do you get to wear hairnets and plastic booties? We felt like mad scientists in a milk lab!

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