It’s been years since I’ve sent a Christmas card. So I decided to adapt a recipe of life from Julia Child. Instead of Christmas cards, she and her husband Paul sent Valentine’s Day cards. I can’t promise even that much regularity, so I’ve decided to send Happy New Decade newsletters, beginning with this one!
Deux Mille Dix (pronounced duh meel diss) is the French way of saying 2010 in our quaint little sovereign state of Fleur-de-Lys Farm, ruled by King Nicholson I, our esteemed and perfectly loveable yellow cat. (Chances are you’ve never met Queen Dot, who lives in the upper confines of our farmhouse and is only happy when our daughter Marina is home, which isn’t often enough.)
But Queen Dot had a perfectly lovely holiday … Marina was home for a month … semester break from Vesalius College in Bruxelles (the French, and much more beautiful, spelling of Brussels).
I started planning for Marina’s homecoming, if you can believe it, almost immediately after returning from a two-week visit to France and Belgium for Christmas 2009. I ordered seeds for Belgian endive, which we had eaten, prepared a half-dozen ways, while visiting Marina’s au pair family in Liege. On May 12, I planted the seeds in our kitchen garden, between the house and barn, next to the new rain barrels my husband Paul made. I use the kitchen garden for new or experimental crops because I pass by them so many times a day and can keep a close watch.
The Belgian endive, or chicons as they call them in French (pronounced chee kon – “the s is silent, Mom.”), grew tough looking, elongated leaves. They need plenty of water during the growing season, which is why I planted them near the rain barrels. But, if you recall last summer, there was so much rain I was almost wishing Paul built an ark instead of rain barrels. So I passed them daily, weeded occasionally, and waited. By Oct. 22, after a few frosts, I dug up the plants. I cut off the green leaves close to the crown, trimmed the carrot-like roots to 10 inches, potted them up in sand, and put the pots in the shop refrigerator next to Paul’s pickles, wrapped in black garbage bags.
I didn’t know the term then, but what I was preparing was a “culinary souvenir”. The word “souvenir” is French for “memory”. It wasn’t until I read my Christmas gift from Marina, “A Culinary Journey in Gascony” by Kate Hill, that I came across the expression “culinary souvenir”. It seems the perfect designation for a special dish you never forget, a memorable meal steeped in love to honor a family celebration, a culinary treat with a story.
On Dec. 5, I moved the first pot from the refrigerator to our cellar, watered the stumps and covered them again. I did the same to the second pot five days later. Everything I read said the chicons would form in 30 days, and I staggered the forcing so I wouldn’t get too many chicons at once. I continued to water them in the cellar, keeping them in the black bags so they would grow out creamy white and mild tasting. Each time I peeked in the bags was like spying on a secret fairy forest that only I knew about, underneath the floorboards of our home.
When Marina arrived in mid-December, one of the first things we did was rent the video “Julie and Julia.” We loved the movie: its French flare, its romance, its food. So when it was time to decide on our Christmas Day menu, Marina suggested Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon. Easy for her to say.
“Oh, that recipe is three pages long!” I complained, holding up a computer printout. And besides, I thought to myself, my twisted tongue can do no better than “Beef Burgundy”.
“I don’t care, I’ll do it,” my 19-year-old volunteered. Heck, she has been living in her own “kot” in Bruxelles all semester, knows her way around a kitchen, and can follow directions, thanks to some early Ikea purchases. No problem.
Well, if we were featuring Boeuf Bourguignon, I decided the whole meal would have a French motif. We would start, as we did while visiting her Liege family last Christmas, with foie gras (fwah grah). Marina bought a tin of foie gras for us during a visit to her paternal grandfather’s birthplace of Coutras, in the Bordeaux region of France. We’d have that on thin slices of Paul’s homemade baguettes, perfect.
The boeuf came from farmer Bruce’s herd just a few miles from our home. The carrots, shallots, potatoes, and garlic for the rest of the meal came from our fields. The chicons, inching their way in the basement, were still days shy of the menu. The salad was a repeat of our Christmas Eve tradition: field greens, orange segments, light green pistachios, ruby seeds of pomegranate, and my mother’s paprika-hued Sweet Fruit Dressing. Marina helped gather the goods for a cheese plate from France via Wegmans – goat, sheep, cow — one soft, one hard for each. That the bill came to $60 shocked both of us. But, the value of a culinary souvenir? Priceless.
The day of Christmas dinner was a casual affair. My mother and sister Leslie were visiting and took their places on stools on the other side of our kitchen workstation. We invited a friend, Lelayna, to join us for the cooks’ wine as we prepared dinner. Paul was busy stoking the wood burner in the adjoining room as we shared a story about our son Richard, spending the holidays in Brasil as a Rotary exchange student. He called on Christmas Eve to tell us it was so hot he shaved his head!
Meanwhile, I was sous-chef to my daughter as she churned through the recipe, step by exacting step, a culinary marathon. We decided to ham things up and took photographs of Marina wearing a toque her Dad won for his office pizza, a giant oven mitt, and her Local Yolk*el T-shirt. But the image in my mind, my culinary souvenir before we sat down at the table, is of Marina, with her long, delicate fingers, patting dry each chunk of boeuf, just as Julie had done in the movie, and Julia, before her.
The dining room table was set with my Italian grandmother’s crocheted tablecloth and china (not hers, but the same Sheridan pattern). The dinner was a fabulous blur of scrumptious tastes melting into the night. Prosecco, again in homage to my Italian heritage, was poured to top off the evening.
Throughout the holidays, we were able to share our farm bounty with Marina. We had lettuces, arugula, and kale throughout December, as well as a few horded Asian pears. Finally, on Jan. 11, two days before Marina was scheduled to return to Belgium, I harvested our cellar chicons.
Chicons au Gratin
6 Belgian endives
Juice of ½ lemon
2 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 cups milk
1½ cups grated Gruyere cheese
Fresh ground pepper
6 thin slices proscuitto
In saucepan, place endives in enough water to cover. Add lemon juice and pinch of salt. Cover and simmer for about 25 minutes, or until tender. After cooking, keep 1 cup of liquid for sauce and discard the rest. (Novice’s Note: At this point, my pale green endives turned a murky beige. I think that’s what the lemon juice was to prevent. I’m not sure why it didn’t work, but it didn’t matter because later I wrapped each bundle in a blanket of proscuitto.)
Heat oven to 400° F. Melt butter in saucepan and add flour, cooking for about a minute and stirring well with a wire whisk to eliminate clumps. Slowly add milk, continuing to stir. Add cup of reserved liquid until sauce is smooth and thickened. Remove saucepan from heat and add ¼ cup cheese. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.
Butter a baking dish large enough to hold a single layer of endive. Wrap each endive with proscuitto and place in dish. Cover with sauce and remaining grated cheese. Bake for 15 minutes. Finish by broiling to brown cheese, but watch carefully to prevent it from burning. Serves 6.
The dish is too rich and creamy to have often, but the chicons tasted like the finest artichoke hearts I’ve ever eaten and there was plenty of creamy sauce left over to mop up with chunks of Paul’s bread. Yum.
As I look back on the extended holiday, it was a series of culinary souvenirs, and I know the coming year will bring more of the same. For Marina, her culinary souvenirs might be mixed up with some auditory nightmares – her mother mispronouncing everything French. Bonne Deux Mille Dix! Laurie Lynch
News from the Igloo on the Hill: The girls (and two handsome roosters) are doing well. They especially enjoy soaking up the sun when it peeks through the gray January sky and gobbling delicious scraps Jorga drops off.
Looking Ahead: We placed our Easter Peeps order a few weeks ago. We reserved two French heirloom breeds, our favorite Cuckoo Marans, dating to the 1800s and known for their dark brown eggs, and a new breed for us, the Crevecoeur, a type of hen from Normandy which sports a black-feathered “tophat”. But the highlight of our order is the Golden Campine. These hens are banded in black and gold stripes with golden-feathered collars. Best of all, the breed originated in Belgium. Both the Crevecoeur and Golden Campine are “globally endangered” and lay white eggs. By raising these chicks, we are not only promoting heirloom breeds but hope to show that shell color has nothing to do with the quality of the egg inside. Interestingly enough, when Marina was emailing with college friends over the holidays, they chuckled when they heard her mother was ordering Belgian chicks … the rooster or “chanticleer” is featured on both the flag and coat of arms of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. And, lest anyone think I’m slighting Richard in the chicken category (he would never think that), I’ve never seen any Brasilian chicken breeds in our poultry catalogs. However, our order is never complete without the blue-egg-laying Araucana, a breed of chicken discovered in Chile.
Written in Slate: You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right. – Maya Angelou