Monday, February 17, 2014
It’s the weather. While the United States is under siege, under snow, under a frigid polar blanket of white, we have been wet. The rivers across Brittany rise, seething and angry, well up and spill over their banks, defy their restraints and swallow up roads, cars, shops, bridges and buildings. The rain, the tempestuous rain, fills our days and our nights, beating against the windows, wind rattling the panes like ghosts come aknocking, threatening us the same retribution. For what?
We are stir crazy. Locked in the house, day after day, month after interminable month (how long has it been raining?), and though it is most cozy and comfy and despite that we have loads of work and looming deadlines and need to stay inside in front of computers, we are most definitely going stir crazy. The occasional burst of sunshine, the intermittent spots of light, a change in the weather has us looking longingly out the window (once we realize, in our sudden surprise and disbelief, that yes the rain has momentarily stopped) and we briefly discuss the possibility of digging out our rubber boots, packing a snack, leashing up the dog and heading out to the vineyards for a walk. Break the boredom, stretch our legs, clear our heads.
And then it starts again. Spattering across the window ledge, speckling the panes, the watery yellow sunlight slipping back behind the steel gray clouds, the sky, once again, a smear of haze.
Sigh. Stir crazy.
Standing at the stove, stirring rice in the big pot with an aged, weathered, worn wooden spoon, one of many sticking up out of the canister like so many lollipops, I think of Nonna Anna. I had been making risotto for a couple years before I met her, recipes taken from a small, thin cookbook filled with a dozen variations on the theme, yet does one really understand risotto before seeing someone like this matriarch, a woman who has been making risotto for decades, a woman who has stood in front of a stove stirring a big pot of rice more times than I can even imagine?
She instructed me, woman to woman, mother to mother, to stir, stir, stir. She showed me that risotto must be creamy and smooth, not dry. She let me in on the secret that the grains of rice should melt in the mouth, not be al dente. Risotto, I learned, should be comforting as it is filling.
Risotto. White or yellow in the winter, lemon in the summer. Topped with mussels or paired with osso buco. Sweet rice pudding, much the same thing, all that stirring of rice, this in milk and sugar and vanilla, stirring, stirring, stirring, rich and velvety, comforting and soulful.
Rice and a wooden spoon. Stirred.
Stir me up
I adored winter in Florida. On school days, we would wake before dawn, the skies outside still an inky black, frost hovering around the edges of the plate glass window, and dash to the tv to watch the clocks. A wall of “clocks” like the clocks on a schoolroom wall above the chalkboard, big white-faced clock ringed in a black plastic case, were lined up elbow to elbow: time, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and who knew what else. Dad would have the tv already switched on, the mesmerizing dance of those clocks already tuned in. The camera would span the clocks in a slow sweep… time, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and the rest, from left to right and back again, right to left, and so on and do forth forever. I would scurry through a cold breakfast, poptarts or a bowl of cereal, get dressed snugly, warmly for a chilly Florida winter, ready for school. Air blown from my mouth, wisps of white, the air visible in the cold, hop on my bike and pedal to school.
But winter weekends, I would wake and scamper to the kitchen for I know that I would find my mother stirring a tremendous quantity of oatmeal in an old aluminum double boiler.
Stir. Stir. Stir. Do you want some oatmeal? I would grab a bowl and spoon what was left of the oatmeal into that bowl then place a pat of salted butter squarely in the center, watching as the heat melted the butter into a small neon puddle. A dusting of brown sugar, a splatter of cold milk, a handful of raisins and I would stir.
Not a creature was stirring? I often am. Béchamel, pastry cream, cake batter, stir, stir, stir. I seem to do a lot of stirring in this house, in my kitchen. By hand. Stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk, stirring sweet, creamy concoctions until they thicken, stirring wet into dry until blended and homogenous. Stirring oil in a steady stream into yolks or stirring hot milk into eggs to warm. Stirring onions until they caramelize and stirring big pots of this or that into sauces or stews.
I don’t mean to cause a stir. I actually love stirring. Long, slow and rhythmic or quick and vigorous, I love the magic of watching elements change, evolve, transform over time just through the simple action of stirring. Mayonnaise, vinaigrette, panna cotta, choux dough, polenta. Standing at the stove or leaning in towards the counter, bowl pulled in close, I stir, at once concentrated and absentmindedly. My mind can wander, words spring to mind and I write in my head as I stir.
Eggs, flour, oil, butter, sugar, spices, cans of this, a shower of that.
Now and then I have to call in my husband to kick something up, stir in the right amount of spices, stir in more salt, stir in some love. He often adds the flavor, the piquancy, the gusto, stirring in what I have left out. And while he is the better cook and I am the baker, he bows down to my expertise, my fluency in béchamel – stirring until thick and velvety, seasoned just right, which he then pours over a baking dish of steamed vegetables or endives wrapped in thin slices of smoky ham – and risotto, stirring until luscious and rich, his favorite thing.
I love making béchamel, standing at the stove and stirring is soothing and allows me time to block out the rest of the world and think. And béchamel, so simple, so rich, is so versatile and used in so many different dishes. This gratin is an absolute favorite dish in our home; inexpensive to make, a snap to put together once you have understood how to make a béchamel, the perfect side dish for grilled or roasted meats or a simple meal served with a salad. And so warming and comforting in the cold-weather months. This gratin is perfect using almost any vegetable or combination of vegetables; we particularly love cauliflower and add the potatoes so it is a bit easier on the palate and the tummy.
JAMIE'S CAULIFLOWER POTATO GRATIN
1 head cauliflower, trimmed and broken into large flowerets *
Several potatoes that stay firm while boiling **
About 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
About 2 or 3 cups grated Gruyère or Comté cheese
* Flowerets broken into small, bite-sized pieces will fall apart or crumble when being blanched or steamed. Pre-cook them in larger pieces and cut into smaller bites before tossing in the béchamel.
** How many potatoes, you ask? maybe about half to ¾ the quantity of cauliflower you use. Combined, the vegetables blended with the béchamel should fill a 13 x 9-inch baking dish or slightly bigger
4 Tbs (60 g) butter
4 Tbs flour
3 cups (700 ml) whole milk
1 small to medium onion trimmed and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme or 1 tsp fresh leaves
Large pinch nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the vegetables by simply cleaning and trimming the cauliflower and cutting into large sections and steaming or simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft or mushy; they will continue to cook in the oven, and peeling the potatoes and simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft. Drain. Once well drained, cut into smaller pieces and toss together.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Butter a large baking dish.
Prepare the Béchamel: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until bubbly. Add the chopped onion and toss to coat. Lower the heat slightly and cook, stirring, for about 3 or 4 minutes until the onion is soft and transparent and just beginning to turn golden on the edges.
Add the flour all at once and stir or whisk until the flour is well blended into the butter. Cook, stirring, for a 2 to 3 minutes. Then begin adding the milk, a little at a time, whisking to blend and allow each addition to thicken. As it thickens, add more milk and repeat until all the milk has been added and the sauce is beginning to thicken. Add the herbs, salt and pepper generously and allow to simmer very gently, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaf.
Pour the hot béchamel over the prepared cauliflower and potatoes and gently toss until the sauce is evenly distributed. Pour into the buttered gratin or baking dish and spread out evenly. Sprinkle the Parmesan and then the Gruyère/Comté evenly over the top of the vegetables all the way to the edge of the dish.
Bake in the hot oven for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and the cheese is a deep golden and browning as you like.