The glorious, pert toadstools sat in their wooden crate with irresistible allure. Spots of soil coyly speckled their feet, and the caps, taut and proud, gleamed up at me. I had to have them. Cepes, baby brown portobello, shiitake, white button. Delicate, seasonal delights that deserve the utmost care in preparation.
A bunched-up square of kitchen paper swipes off grit. The caps are sliced generously and set aside to meet their buttery fate. The stems, roughly chopped and reserved for tomorrow’s mushroom velouté soup.
I turn my attention to the sidekick: my first attempt at potato gnocchi. 2 boiled potatoes worm their way through my food mill. Tines of a fork distribute a pinch of salt, snowdrifts of parmesan, one beaten egg, and just enough flour to bring the dough together. Pillowy soft and satiny, texture of the dough feels gorgeous under my fingertips. I set a large pot to boil generously salted water.
Next door, butter hisses, and in goes minced garlic to start the symphony of aroma. The sliced caps tumble in with a gentle sprinkling of salt. Their meaty juices release into the pan, the smell is glorious; a steam treatment, good for the pores. Once the liquid dissipates and a rich brown fond develops at the bottom of the pan, stir in a bit of broth. When it simmers, I add a generous glog of cream, a damn good scrape of fresh nutmeg, ground black pepper and coriander seed: the warm earthiness of the spices will make the dish even more savory. Finish with a generous sprinkling of parmesan and stir in baby spinach, set aside to receive my gnocchi.
I roll out my tube of dough, cut into tiny pillows, and run them over the back of a fork. My gnocchi resemble irregular projectiles, but no matter. Dropped into the water, they swim aimlessly for just under a minute, until they puff slightly and bob to the surface. About 15 seconds after each ladleful rises, they are spooned straight into the creamy mushroom sauce. More finely grated parmesan to finish.
At first bite, F and I are in bliss. Soft, tender gnocchi are enrobed in the unctuous, rich sauce. Umami, brown and savory. The earthy warm fragrance of my dish marries with the crisp evening air and musky odor of leaves once again underfoot.
This is the glorious bounty of autumn.
A wild strawberry plucked from a vine in the garden, savored as I pass through on my way to work.
A finger of amber rum in the afternoon out on my terrace, with my feet up on the table.
A midnight homemade kebab and fries, a decadent treat. We sing “cheers” as we toast our meaty, saucy sandwiches together, and dip crisp fresh fries into mayonnaise and ketchup. Sinfully, deviously improper. The naughtiness of a midnight pig-out session, once in a blue moon. Not good for the heart, but good for the soul.
The pleasure on our friends’ faces as they taste my cooking; it was well worth adding that extra pat of butter, for a luxurious creamy texture.
A warm bowl of my butternut squash soup on a brisk morning, dusted with a pinch of cumin, fleur de sel, snipped fresh chives. Finishing with a dollop of cream gives an unctuous touch to a hearty lunch, creating an appetizing presentation.
The finishing touch: a gesture for pure pleasure, a reward for being human. Celebrating the artful, deliberate stimulation of our innate sensory pleasures. Indulgence that makes life deliciously beautiful.
As for the resulting light padding that these transgressions produce in the thigh-booty-stomach tri-zone area: I’ll walk it off later.
Lying snuggled in the comforters, with double the space and pillows because F’s gone off to work. Bye sweetie, I’ll be having breakfast in bed… Sucka…
Going for a walk as the day starts warming up, basking in the best golden sunlight of the day.
Making thoughtful, well-prepared meals.
Taking that precious 3pm nap.
Tasting a fine Irish whiskey at noon if I feel like it.
Unburdened by the clock.
Deep breaths, birdsong.
Love, love, love.
Breakfast in bed on a weekday: A gloriously sloth gesture. Unabashed hedonism at its finest. Be it only a slice of toast and hot coffee, no matter. Simplicity is preferred. Makes the mundane seductive. Overindulgent.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
Tonight, I’m back in the kitchen. Today’s mission: risotto from leftovers. I’ve got a half-package of lardons (unsmoked matchsticks of bacon), one slightly manky onion, a couple handfuls of salad greens, and a few lonely frozen asparagus spears, languishing in the freezer.
First, fill up my stock pot with some fresh water. Throw in a couple stock cubes; it’s not as good as stock from scratch, but they ain’t bad. (Hey, I’m a working woman. Who’s got time to simmer stock during the week?) To give a more homemade flavor, I toss in 5 whole peppercorns, a crushed clove of garlic, and the ends of the onion and shallot I’ve just chopped. Let it steep while I get to my risotto.
In a pan, I start by browning my lardons, rendering out that delicious pork fat. Once they look tantalizing enough to eat, I remove them from the pan. On the way, one of those little guys may have accidentally fallen into my mouth. Oops. Add a touch of olive oil. In go one small minced red onion and a few garlic cloves, and a pinch of salt. Sizzle until fragrant, then in with my rice. Keep that pan moving, stir that rice around until those grains start to gleam. Now comes my favorite part: deglaze with the last glugs in a bottle of white wine. The whoosh is satisfying, and while the pan is simmering, I’m scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Oh, what lovely flavor!
Now comes the process of lovingly ladling my stock into the rice, then stirring. One ladleful after another, I’m imbuing this mixture with flavor, and feeding those grains of rice until they puff up. Partway through, I add my secret ingredient: a damn good scrape of nutmeg.
Add my chopped asparagus spears and lardons, finish the rice.
The finale: a tablespoon of crème fraîche for that unctuous mouth feel, and two generous handfuls of peppery rocket. If I had chives, I’d snip some of those bad boys over the top.
I serve up two heaping bowlfuls; F is wide-eyed like a little boy in anticipation; the aromas from the kitchen have gotten him salivating. To add heat, we sprinkle Espelette pepper over the top, and dig in.
A lovely moment of kitchen alchemy, a moment to myself during the week.