WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?
A game of cat and mouse, this trying to find the time to skype with a friend, a book agent. Meanwhile, I put words on paper and as the moment approaches to place it on the blog, the fear washes over me and I turn to something else, tucking the words, the bits and pieces of the story away for later. Doubt. Oh, not the doubt of writing the story, but opening up my reasons for telling that story. Which are complex and abundant. Fine line between indignation and telling my truth?
In so many ways I have lived the dream, lived out the fantasy of picking up and moving to France. I’ve roamed the cobbled, fabled streets of Paris, eaten my fair share of croissants, dined on oysters in Brittany, taken the boat to Porquerolles, stood in the Cathedral in Strasbourg, looked out over the beaches of Omaha and Utah before heading to Barfleur for moules frites. I’ve sipped Champagne in Parisian brasseries, taken clients into the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants and now live in the city of Jules Verne and Jacques Demy. I have even spent close to seven years in Italy and taken a bumpy ride to Nigeria. I married the romantic Frenchman, raised two multi-cultural sons and have lived happily ever after.
I do not want to perpetuate the myth about France and the French as have so many women who, like I, picked up and moved here. And wrote about it. Too many of those books smack of a sheltered existence, of hobnobbing with the privileged few, of feigning a poor bohemian existence while enjoying the luxury of money, connections and a well-planned life. Too many are the recounting of a fairytale, the story of a young woman playing ragtag American while buying her silk wedding gown and putting down the deposit on a first apartment or sitting in a well-appointed kitchen in the 8th with a selection of well-dressed françaises exuding confidence, perfection and Chanel. Too many are the all-too entertaining fable of a perfect life, humorous Frenchmen, quaint country villages and extravagant, delectable meals.
Rather, mine is the story of a girl who drops everything on a whim, fed up with her going-nowhere, underpaid life in New York city, bundles up her belongings in trash bags and dumps them on the curb outside her Brooklyn apartment, empties her meager savings account, packs two battered suitcases and flies off to Paris not so much for an adventure as on the search for a new life. Shy, a tad angry, fed up and running away from herself, she heads to France because, well, she studied French in high school, didn’t she?
The tale I have to offer is one of a girl hunkering down in an unfamiliar country out of stubbornness and safety, learning the rules while stumbling through the ins and outs of a new language and strict social guidelines, all a great mystery, fumbling and mumbling and tripping over her own feet (when said feet are not firmly inserted in mouth) more often than not. It is the story of an odd upbringing, an idyllic childhood shrouded in darkness and pain, joy and curiosity; a chronicle of times lived unexpectedly, illness and death, love and marriage, parenthood and an accidental, unpredictable education in life.
I have indeed lived an adventure albeit one that caught me by surprise, an extraordinary tale for my readers. Many hold up my marriage as an object of desire, a model of the ever-elusive "perfect marriage", yet perfection can be an illusion. We met accidentally, married hastily dressed in flea market finds and sharing a home-cooked meal with a handful of friends. We faced the world together with nothing more than an eclectic education, curiosity, one double mattress and love.
Romance and adventure in which real life sometimes gets in the way.
And as I toss a flurry of words on the page and wonder what to share with you here and how, I cook. Although the middle of May, it is still very much winter in Nantes. Chilly days punctuated by rain, we turn to the warmth and comfort of soups and stews, thick, rich and hearty. I recently pulled an old favorite of mine out of the archives, dusted it off and served it up hot and flavorful. Spoon yourself a bowlful, pull up a chair and savor, accompanied by a good book.
3 – 4 medium onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
1 Tbs sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tsp smoky paprika
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
3 Tbs or 2 small cans tomato paste
2 Tbs balsamic vinegar
4 cups (1 liter) chicken stock
2 lbs (1 kg) boneless lamb shoulder
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 or 3 carrots, trimmed, peeled and sliced into thick coins
Fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
6 ½ - 7 oz (200 – 300 g) white mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned and quartered or chunked
1 - 2 Tbs 15 – 30 g) margarine or butter
7 oz (200 ml) heavy cream, sour cream or Greek yogurt (sour cream or Greek yogurt will add a wonderful tang)
In a large pan or Dutch oven with a lid, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and the sugar and, stirring, sauté over low or medium-low heat until the onions are caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. Once the onions are caramelized a deep golden brown, add the minced garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute.
Stir in the sweet and smoky paprikas, the thyme leaves and the bay leaf. Sauté an additional minute, stirring constantly.
Add the tomato paste and stir until everything is well blended. Add the balsamic vinegar and deglaze, scraping up the brown bits of onion and tomato stuck to the bottom of the pot. Add the chunks of lamb and the sliced carrots and toss to coat. Salt and pepper. Toss in a handful of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Add the chicken stock to just cover. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover the pot and simmer for 1 hour 15 minutes.
Before this cooking time is up, sauté the chunks of mushroom in butter or margarine in a small saucepan until tender and golden on the edges. Add to the goulash at the end of the 1 hour 15 minutes then allow the goulash to continue to simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Once the goulash is off the heat, stir in the cream or yogurt and serve immediately over fresh pasta, preferably pappardelle or other wide, flat ribbon-type pasta.
I have also prepared this lamb goulash with herbed biscuits baked atop the finished goulash.