Wednesday, December 18, 2013

With Love for my Mom

I know how lucky I am and you can bet your bottom dollar that I am grateful.

For I'll tell it to you straight, my Mom is beautiful, funny, smart and incredibly loving.

She loves to be silly.

Just the sound of her voice on the phone makes me smile but she prefers it if she can make me laugh right off the bat.


She has stood by my wonderful Sister and I through good times and bad, the glamorous and the sad.

She showed us about simple love and it was she who taught me to find happiness in those hidden moments. That yes, the taste of cherry jam counts.

My Mom transferred her fondness for four-legged creatures to us with the instructions that they are to be welcomed as part of the family...

...and encouraged us to follow even our wildest childhood dreams. 

To be true.

We did and do, she cheers.

I am proud to be a contributor to the amazing D.A. Wolf's incredible "blog" (for it is far more than that, she delivers original, thought-provoking content seven days a week) Daily Plate of Crazy. When DA asked if I would like to participate in her series on Mother-Daughter relationships, I nearly shouted out a "Yes!" Oh, this meant so much for me to do. So if you enjoyed this introduction, I would be so very delighted if you would take a look at my post here:

Thank you again for asking me to write this DA, it was a reminder that the best gifts rarely come in boxes. 

I love you, Mom!

For you...

PS. My Mom reminded me of a story that I had nearly forgotten from when I was in my 20s and a little Miss Manhattanite Hipster. I was with a group of girlfriends at a swank martini bar and a few rounds in the subject of Mothers came up. Well, as each girl told her story, the scenarios became increasingly fraught with tension and complexity. All the while I was sitting there thinking, "Oh my, I hope something happens to change the subject before it is my turn. I only have nice things to say!"

Wishing you all a week full of joy...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The rabbit and the fox in the Camargue

"We both know that Ben runs like a rabbit when but did you ever notice that Kipling trots like a fox?" Remi asks as we watch our dogs from a distance. We all are winding towards the Étang de Vaccarès, the sprawling lagoon that tears a hole in the middle of the Camargue, the region that runs from Arles to the sea. It is wild country and so welcomes two savage beasts like the puppers. And as it has been over a week since they have been able to get in a decent walk due to rolling, bitter Mistral winds, they are both in peak form.

Bound up energy bursts forth in all directions. Yes, Ben's back paws swing from side to side when he is skipping joyfully, just like a bunny. But Kipling is truly unpredictable and is transformed as soon as he is released from the boundaries of his in town existence. The Collie in him shines out to the tip of his tail, which remains flipped proudly over his back. When he spies birds or chevreuil - of which there are many here in one of Europe's largest protected natural areas - he springs straight up in the air, four paws off the ground. He is so quick that my camera can barely catch him. Luckily, the birds outsmart him every time, swooping and swirling in mockery.

Kipling takes off on his own adventure (although he is getting better, much better at not running away entirely)...

 ...but Ben tends to stay near as he always has. I see his contentment in his sniffs and Golden smile.

Amazingly, the water is not too cold for either of them and I can see that both appreciate its stillness, so different from the Mediterranean's restless surge. They exchange land for lake easily, appropriate in this countryside where the limits between the two are often blurred.

They tread lightly over fisherman's nets spread amidst the garrigue to dry in the sun, inhaling a symphony of scent as they go.

And then they run and run again, a physical declaration of Hello. We call them over and over, just to have the pleasure of seeing them find us from far.

Remi and I wander quietly, each with a camera in hand. But my gaze is too fixed on the dogs and my sweetheart to notice much else.

 What joy they give me, our little band of four. 

When we make the whistle that it is time to head back, they follow; stopping each in turn to take a last look at this newly loved place before hopping into the back of the car to settle down to rest. I know what they cannot. That we will return because we can so easily. How fortunate we are to live in such a truly special place where beauty could be - and yet is never - taken for granted. Not by us. Not by a long shot.

Have a wonderful rest of your weekend. I am heading out to assist Remi for a photo shoot in Lyon and should be back in a few days (any restaurant recommendations? The lovely Ann Mah has made some excellent ones here or see her book, which would, indeed make a wonderful present)...

Not to worry, Ben and Kipling will be in amazing hands...

And no, I haven't forgotten the holidays entirely, we just haven't had the luxury of giving ourselves over to them yet. But if you are looking for a little celebratory libation this weekend, why not give a Lavender Ice a go? This evening's interpretation was made with Irish Whiskey and I can tell you that it might be better than the original. 


PS. We like to call Kipling "Scrappy Jaloux" because he is both scrappy and yes, jealous. So this is for him...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The good, the bad and...vegetable bacon

I blame Elizabeth Minchilli, I do. Now, some of you might know who she is - yee of good taste! - a woman who wears many hats well but is principally a truly fine author and blogger. While she has written six design-oriented books (including two with her husband, the Italian architect Domenico Minchilli, for those hoping to restore their own little bijou under the Tuscan sun), her blog focuses largely on the food and drinks that occupy her daily life in Rome and Umbria. And can I get a little "Hallelujah" about that? For, along with Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, she gives me ideas that I actually use and not just dream about wistfully.

But back to the blaming. Now, Elizabeth is a fellow redhead so technically finger-pointing of any kind is breaking some sort of cardinal Sisterhood of the Redheadedness rule but I can't help it. You see, a while ago she mentioned the wacky idea of roasting cabbage. Now, it's true, I have been on a severe roasting binge as of late after much smacking the forehead of the "Really? It is that easy?" variety. But come on, cabbage? Eww. Who likes cabbage? It's stinky. But as my favorite veggie guys were selling ones bigger than my head for only one Euro, I thought, "Why not?"

Oh my goodness, it is maddeningly delicious. Truly. So much so that I made up a small test batch, ate it while it was still warm, made another that I threw into vegetable bouillon for one of the richest without being rich soups that I have had in many a moon and yet still had to have it for lunch again today. You see, something that appears to be as innocent and vitamin packed as what you see in the first photo transforms in about fifteen minutes into buttery smoke on a plate...also known as...vegetable bacon. It's official, I am obsessed.

I imagine some of you might be thinking, either politely or grudgingly, "Heather, you just wrote a food post. Can you get back to Provencey please? Don't you understand that Christmas is only two weeks away and that every second is precious?" And I will and I do but I would have felt terrible if I had let another day pass without sharing this discovery. So feel free to use at will, cabbage is flexible and it will also be happy if you do a fusiony thing with soba noodles, a little celery, sprinkled cayenne, soy sauce and sushi vinegar. Or whatever. Just trust me, give the roasting a go, get creative and let me know what you think.

So that was two-thirds of the title which leads me to...the middle part. Uh oh. "The bad." You see that photo of cheese. Guilty as charged. Just as the immortal Becky Sharp proclaims in Vanity Fair, "I'm no angel." 

But Elizabeth has also led me to reconsider my expat whining that comes forth on many an occasion: "I miss waaaffles...I miss stuuffing...I miss..." You get my drift. Somehow it truly never occurs to me to just try and make an approximation. I know that it won't really be the same, just as my hilarious friend NK admits at Bread is Pain, so I hesitate. While I won't even try my dearly loved Grits & Bits waffles...stuffing seemed like a doer and when my Sister sent me a photo of a family classic, "Grandma Roxie's casserole" I knew that action needed to be taken. Of course, it turns out that I could easily buy everything needed to make one very fine batch of classic herb stuffing.

I was going to share this recipe with you to be used for Thanksgiving leftovers but wisely assumed it was not needed. However, you might be looking for something of the "just put it all together and get it done" factor right about now, one that has been slightly transformed from its 70s origins:

Make your  homemade version of Stove Top, butter a casserole, line it with the stuffing.
Cover the stuffing with shredded chicken or turkey breast.
Sauté coarsely chopped mushrooms in onion or shallots, when done stir in cream with s&p to taste.
Drizzle additional cream or crème fraiche.
Cover with a mountain of shredded emmenthal cheese.
Bake until the cheese browns.
Drool while it cools then serve.

Although she was related, I can't say that Grandma Roxie was my Grandma but I thank her for this casserole...and for not putting crushed potato chips on top of it. 

Speaking of food appreciation, I have one more idea to share with you that I loved, this time from Stéphane at My French Heaven. It is, as he claims, "A challenge for the real foodies out there" and involves a taste test of a single food item to awaken the senses and to return to really appreciating its essence. 

From his blog...

"The rules:
  • You may only use one produce + salt + butter or olive oil or lemon
  • If not scolding hot, you will eat with your fingers! We want the most symbiotic, raw experience possible!
  • The main ingredient has to be in season or available year round (like eggs)
  • No garlic, vinegar or ginger or anything that could overpower the taste of the main ingredient
  • You’ll have to eat this alone or with other foodies. No kids allowed! When I say kids, I mean anyone who could distract you from the experience. Husband, best friends or wives can be considered kids in this scenario :0)
  • Eat with your eyes closed if possible!!! This will really help you be more aware of all your senses
  • If at all possible, eat something you fished yourself, grew in your garden or picked in the woods (be careful with berries and mushrooms!). This will bring this experience to a whole other level…"
But there really is more to it than that so please take a look (not to mention discover his lovely photography):  I tried it with a piece of unadorned ripe avocado and the results were surprising. Plus, technically, since the cabbage was only roasted with olive oil and coarse salt, that counts and we all know how I feel about the cabbage. 

Admittedly, I have had a case of the Mean Reds - as Holly Golightly would say - as of late, in my case, one of the Holiday Blues! So this post is my equivalent of comfort food. I am doing my best to shake myself out of it, including listening to happy music (alas, "I'll be home for Christmas" only induces prolonged sniffling). This is what I had on repeat while writing this post:

With my Best from Arles,
Keep Calm and Carry On,

Monday, December 9, 2013

Vintrépide, my new favorite restaurant in Aix-en-Provence

When I finally met Jennifer, who creates Gustia - one of the most under-read and wittiest food blogs on the web - at an expat luncheon last year it was friendship at first sight. We talked for hours until, shivering on the sidewalk in front of the now closed restaurant, we promised to meet again. But Jennifer and her "Hubby" are tireless travelers who split their time between homes in Canada and Monaco, so a year flew by before we were able to get together, on this occasion with each party meeting up roughly half-way in my beloved Aix-en-Provence.

Now, I am no fool. I let Jennifer pick the restaurant, Vintrépide. She is not a Food E - such as yours truly - but rather the real deal, having trained at Le Cordon Bleu for baking in both Ottawa and Paris, the Cordon Vert in the UK plus at the Peninsula Academy in Hong Kong - all of which she puts to good use for her charity Cakes for a Cause.  

Amazingly, Remi and I were the first to arrive (ah, yes, just a tiny tendency to be late here, tiny). We were given a cordial welcome and settled in to the sparsely decorated yet light-filled dining room. As soon as I caught a glimpse of the menu, I did a little "yesssss" happy dance. Every. Single. Dish sounded great. Now honestly, how often does that happen? And at decent prices? For such a touristy town as Aix, it sounded too good to be true.

Much hugging (ah, to be lunching with fellow North Americans!) and excited chatter ensued upon our friends arrival. Kirs were consumed and a bottle of big red was opened to air. It was nearly as an afterthought that we hurriedly placed our order so as to get back to the rapid fire conversation. 

However, the four of us were hushed silent by the arrival of our entrées, so promising were the plates. Remi and I both ordered the foie gras, served lightly sautéed with poached pears. With its silky texture and yet firm bite, we agreed that it was exceptionally good.

Jennifer and her Hubby, both long-standing vegetarians, choose the poached egg floating in a frothy mushroom emulsion and were delighted by the surprise bonus of black truffles shaved on top. Don't you love watching the "melt moment" when a fellow diners face swoons with contentment? I do and they did.

Vintrépide is a new restaurant (barely five months old) and is just a two man operation, with a maître d'hôtel in the "front of house" along with the chef, both of whom work overtime to keep their guests in good humor. They are young and yet have plenty of Michelin-starred experience. I was impressed at how accommodating they were for our veggie-only friends, something that is not always a given in France. While Jenn and her Husband tucked into pillowy ricotta and spinach ravioli topped with baby market vegetables, Remi and I shared two different choices.

 I ordered the lotte, or monk-fish, as soon as I heard that it was wild-caught and not farm-raised (as are all of the fish that they serve, the other ingredients used at Vintrépide are locally sourced). You wouldn't think that would be such a rarity to find this close to the Mediterranean but you would be wrong. The fish itself was positively lush, the preparation simple and yet très goûteux

Remi chose the cannette, or female duckling, which was accompanied by caponata-topped panisses. Again, the cooking was perfect, very juicy on the inside with just the right amount of pleasingly crackly skin. As with the foie gras, it was a nice example of sucré-salé, or salty-sweet, played with a light hand.

Because we are gourmande (to read a charming description on the difference between French 'gourmandise' and Anglophone 'gluttony' please click here), we brave ladies carried on with desserts that received a satisfied nod even from Jennifer. 

We didn't leave until 4pm! Doesn't that say everything? It was a Saturday, I had popped back to chat with the chef and he assured me that it was fine as he had much to prepare for the evening. So we stayed. And laughed. A lot. It was wonderful. 

We instantly felt right at home at Vintrépide. And that, along with an amazing rapport qualité-prix (price for the quality) using such uber-fresh ingredients, not to mention a varied but reasonable wine list, is why this is my new favorite restaurant in Aix. As Jennifer suggested, if they are able to keep this up, perhaps they will be garnering a Macaroon of their own in the not too distant future...

48 rue du Puits Neuf
13100 Aix-en-Provence
Tél.: +33 (0)9 83 88 96 59
Reservations are suggested for Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Bon appétite! 

PS. I want to also send a very heart-felt "merci" to all of you for your comments on my previous post. They left me so moved as to be uncertain how to respond other than saying, "Thank you."

Friday, December 6, 2013

Spirit lighting up the sky

In 1994, I landed my first professional acting job. I was able to join Equity, the union for theatre actors and was thrilled beyond belief. I was set to play the role of Isabelle Dyson in Athol Fugard's complex and moving drama "My Children! My Africa!" at the South Jersey Regional Theatre. When I arrived, I  was introduced to my fellow actors - Maduka Steady, who is from Sierra Leone and Seth Sibanda, who is from South Africa, where the play is set. It sounds odd to say it now but at that young age, despite being surrounded by African-Americans in New York City, I had never actually met anyone from Africa before.

We attacked the rehearsal process with vigor. The days were long but incredibly rewarding. It was Maduka's first stage production as well (although he had previously appeared in the film "Lorenzo's Oil") and we both had much to prove. A friendly sparring arose, which was perfect as it was also the basis of the friendship that develops between our characters, both 18 year-olds - Isabelle, who is from a wealthy white family and Thami, an honors student from "the location," a black township. Each is struggling to find their place within the rule of apartheid and are further linked by the guidance of Thami's professor, Mr. M. Mr. M has pushed Thami hard and has the highest of hopes for the change that he can bring. He is a harbinger. The three hour play unfolds with the crackle of electricity in the air and that same tension was most certainly present in 1994.

As is common in many small American regional theaters, the actors were put up together in a house. I was given the main bedroom, being the only woman in the production, while Maduka and Seth shared a room upstairs. In the evenings, we would eat together and share stories. I would often try to continue speaking in Isabelle's accent in order to master the difficult timber. Each time that I did, I would eventually stop and ask Seth how I was doing. His response was usually the same: "Very good for a  South African that was raised in Ireland and spent a considerable amount of time in Japan." We laughed so hard.

One morning when the show was already up and running, I was awoken by the sound of the television in the living room. Seth and Maduka were watching in silence. I tried to understand what I was seeing on the screen. Finally, Seth spoke, "He has won." It was official, Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress had won the elections. Apartheid would end. I remember watching Seth stand there, a gentle man but strong as a mountain. We didn't shout with joy or dance in celebration, there was too much history behind this moment. 

Of course, it was with great pride that we finished the run of the play, including performing as a benefit for Amnesty International. One evening after the curtain had fallen, I was about to head back to the house, tired after an especially bracing show. The stage manager called out to me, "Heather, there is someone waiting for you out front." I walked towards the young woman standing by the foot of the stage with trepidation. "Hello?" She turned to me and I could see that her eyes were shiny with emotion. " might sound odd but...I just wanted to tell you something...that your this play...well, it changed my life...the way I have thought about things. I wanted to thank you for that." It was very brave of her to say and I thanked her in return. That comment - along with the exceptional experience of having participated in such an important play at such an important time - ended up changing me forever as well.

This morning, December 6th 2013, I pulled down my old script of "My Children! My Africa!" from a spot high on the top shelf of the bookcase. I had learned of Nelson Mandela's passing the night before. I was thinking to Isabelle's soliloquy that closes the play:

"...You gave me a little lecture once about wasted much of it you'd seen, how much you hated it, how much you didn't want it to happen to Thami and me. I sort of understood what you meant at the time. Now, I most certainly do. Your death has seen to that.
My promise to you is that I am going to try as hard as I can, in every way that I can, to see that it doesn't happen to me. I am going to try my best to make my life useful in the way yours was. I want you to be proud of me. After all, I am one of your children you know. You did welcome me to your family. The future is still ours, Mr. M."

Nelson Mandela made the world his family and made it a better place for us all.

Thank you, Mr. Mandela for proving the power of Hope.
May your spirit continue to shine bright in the sky.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Snow on the lavender fields - a Christmas cocktail in Provence

It is so quiet in La Buissonade that all I hear is my breath flowing in and out. We are at our cottage rental in the Luberon and Remi has taken the dogs to go mushroom-hunting. I am doing yoga on the floor of the bedroom next to the heater - salutations to the sun despite the steady drizzle of rain falling on the other side of the plate glass door in front of me. Swan-dive forward, lift my heart, back into a high lunge, hover in plank and lower to the floor. When I peel up into cobra I am stunned to see the rain has morphed into a loose wet snow that gathers force as I continue. When I finish, my seated meditation is simply watching the flakes fall fast and furious. 

In the late afternoon, we pile into the Range Rover to go "see the snow" for on the upper hills it has stuck, stubborn. There is nothing to say as the car rolls along through villages illuminated by puffing smoke chimneys and not a soul to be seen. Nor as we pass the great oaks, the truffle trees sleeping. When we stop, it is for a reason. The moon has risen.

We know how special it is to see this icy dust on the lavender fields...

...the flowers warmed from yesterday clutch the snow like diamonds, jewels to the heart.

We stomp our feet and clap our hands to stay warm. Puffs of breath, that same in and out, escape like smoke through our grins. But it is beautiful. Finally, the bitter cold forces us to head back to the cottage but that moon is burned in my mind.

The following morning I awake with an idea for a cocktail. Now, not that I have the habit of imbibing with breakfast - ok, only in New Orleans - but I have had a theme hovering in my head, knowing that in the beginning of December, I would need to create one for the holidays for the By Invitation Only Series. Nothing could be more inspiring than the snow on the lavender fields under that bone hollow moon.

And so here it is, the Lavender Ice. 

It is so simple as to barely merit the title of cocktail. To prepare your glass, line the rim with honey then coat it by turning it upside down in a plate sprinkled with powdered sugar. There is your snow. Then prepare your liquid with 3/4 cold vodka to 1/4 lavender syrup (if you have trouble finding some, it could be easily made with simple syrup and lavender flowers heated, strained then cooled). I prefer my martinis stirred not shaken - sorry Mr. Bond - but do as you please. A stalk to lavender flower is the perfect garnish.

The result is simply wonderful if I do say so myself. The lavender gives a fairly smoky finish so as to balance the sweetness of the honey, making it appropriate for both men and women, plus it is festive without being gimmicky, there are no bells and whistles here. None are needed.

For we all know that the finest moments of the Holiday Season are just that, moments. Of love, of giving, of being together with an open heart. I have already had a great gift in those few truly happy moments with Remi at our own little party of two. So perhaps I am good for Christmas this year... 

...but tell me, what are you doing for New Year's Eve? 

To join what I imagine will be a truly festive party this month at By Invitation Only, please visit Splenderosa by clicking here.