Husband flew down to the south of France last Monday. He joined his sisters to say a final goodbye to his mother, Madeleine. Her last wish, this simple, homey, old-fashioned woman, was to be cremated, her ashes blended with those of her husband and her brother and the ashes strewn into the wind. She was a woman who asked very little of others, who gave much, gave what she could, and her passing, though expected, was sad indeed.
I was in the kitchen with my mother-in-law shortly after JP and I had announced that we would be getting married, helping her with the dishes after a Sunday lunch and she leaned towards me and confided “We knew it was serious when he brought you home to join us for Christmas dinner; just the very act of him bringing you here to meet us and we knew. He never brings girls home!” And we bonded just like that. Of course, there was the ritual pulling out of black and white photographs of American soldiers, the army men who liberated their northern French city at the end of the war, who brought them chocolate and cigarettes and made them feel proud, happy and secure once again. The tiny photos with the signature and a personal note written across the back was an object of pride and memory for these good, grateful people and it was shown to me excitedly as they recounted tales of meeting those Americans, the only Americans they had ever met before me some forty or so years later. They were tickled pink.
And I gave them their first grandson, a gift indeed.
They accepted me with all of my oddities, my stumbling, imperfect French, my American ways and my Jewish religion, accepted me as a welcome part of their family. Over the years, I spent innumerable weekends and vacations in their home, innumerable Sunday lunches at their table eating blanquette, poulet roti frites, pot au feu or roast beef. Innumerable summer afternoons up in the branches of the big cherry tree in their yard or my arm stuck deep into the raspberry bushes tenderly pulling off each bright red berry, playing boules, petanque with the kids, bare feet in the soft grass. Innumerable Christmases watching the boys hang decorations and tinsel on the tree, set up the tiny crèche (that my little Jewish son explained as “Marie, le bonhomme, le bébé et les animaux”…), exchanging gifts.
What a treat for the little boys to spend holidays and vacations with grandmère and grandpère out at the house on the hill, in the lost little village of barely 300 souls surrounded by green and cows and countryside. They were spoiled as only indulgent grandparents can spoil. We were living in Italy and as soon as Clem was old enough to fly unaccompanied, at the grand old age of 4, we began sending him north. Two years later he was joined by his baby brother, the fragile one, the persnickety one. I warned Madeleine that he was a tough one to deal with, especially in all matters food. I sent her a list of his likes and dislikes and she laughed and told me not to worry, she had years of experience dealing with children. A week or so later, I called to check in, and check up on the boys. “How is Simon doing?” I asked, worried out of my mind. “Is he eating?” “Oh!”, she assured me, “I have absolutely no problem with Simon! He eats everything I give him…clean plate at every meal!” “Oh, what are you feeding him?” I asked, wondering what I had been doing wrong for all these years. “White rice! I ask him before every meal what he would like, he answers ‘rice’ and I make him rice and he cleans his plate!” she said, without a hint of irony in her voice, proud as a peacock.
She and I were as different as night and day, our backgrounds, our upbringing, our ideology and outlook on life, but we got along like a house on fire. She was kind and gentle, as smart as she was simple and straightforward and offered advice when I asked for it. We may have disagreed on how to raise children, feed and clothe them, but she loved the boys and they loved her and their relationship was perfect. She sat them at the kitchen table and let them help her cook, peel vegetables and press pâte sablée into the pie dish. She and my father-in-law taught them card games and board games with the patience of saints, racking up hours upon hours of rummy and scrabble, boggle and belotte, treating the boys as intellectual equals. Mornings spent in the vegetable garden with grandpère, afternoons in the tiny plastic swimming pool or sitting under the cherry tree looking at comic books, always rewarded with an ice cream. Over the years, my boys learned so much from their grandparents, mostly the joy of spending time with another generation.
When JP arrived back home, I had prepared a hot meal for him, a cross between his simple lamb curry sautée and his Sweet and Savory Lamb Stew with Raisins. A hot meal, a warming, soulful, filling meal to welcome him home and comfort his weary body and his sore heart. Dessert was my Ricotta Tart with Pears (this week’s Plated Stories’ recipe). Clem joined us and we dined as a family to the shimmering glow of the Hanukkah candles.
LAMB CURRY – SAUTÉE DE MOUTON AU CURRY
Stewing lamb (shoulder, neck, chops, etc) for 4 – about 800 g to 1 kg – in large chunks
Margarine + olive oil for sautéing
About 2 Tbs flour
1 large yellow or white onion, peeled, trimmed and coarsely chopped
½ red or green pepper, cleaned, trimmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/3 to ½ green chili (mild or hot, as you like), trimmed, seeds removed and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed but left whole
1 Tbs tomato paste
2 tsps good curry powder
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 medium long or round zucchini, peeled and cubed
2 Tbs golden raisins
Heat about a tablespoon each of margarine and olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven until hot and steaming. Add the chunks of lamb and brown on all sides. Remove the lamb from the pot onto a plate when browned.
Put more margarine and olive oil in the hot pot and add the chopped onion, red or green pepper, hot chili and the garlic clove and sautée, stirring often, until the onion is tender, transparent and beginning to color around the edges. Remove and discard the clove of garlic. Add the flour and, stirring continuously, cook for another 2 – 3 minutes until it no longer smells like flour. Deglaze with a bit of water (melt and scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pot) and then stir in the tomato paste, the curry powder, the bay leaf, salt and pepper. Add the lamb back to the post and add water just to cover. Bring to the boil then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
At the end of 30 minutes, add the cubed zucchini and the raisins, cover the pot again and cook for another 45 minutes to an hour or until the meat is fork tender.
When the lamb is tender, check the sauce: taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt or pepper as needed; if the sauce is too watery, simply allow to simmer uncovered for a bit until it thickens.
Serve hot over rice or couscous grains.
Take a bigger bite ...