Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self?
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once upon a time, we were poor as the proverbial church mouse, yet living quite happily and abundantly in our frugality. We marketed together, eyeing prices, buying seasonally and planning out our meals. We loved to cook and did so in our little kitchen whose wide French windows opened out onto a tiny stretch of lawn, a handkerchief-sized garden. The sun would flood in through those windows as we stood and chopped, minced, breaded, stirred and simmered. Our few cookbooks, our past travels and my days spent working as an interpreter in a cooking school, listening and watching a series of chef-instructors, were a constant source of inspiration and recipes. We went out for the occasional couscous at the neighborhood Moroccan restaurant, but we were more than content, actually quite tickled pink to play house in that little doll-sized abode on the outskirts of Paris. Not only did we stay within our meager budget, but we were well fed and satisfied.
When we met, he was working part time in order to allow himself a few days a week to devote to his photography. He lived in a communal house in the outskirts of Paris and owned exactly one mattress tossed on the floor, a worktable and chair, his camera and darkroom equipment. I moved in with my two battered suitcases and between the two of us we had all that we needed to be happy. A few months later, we were married, expecting our first child and had moved into our tiny dream house. We both worked part time yet the money was enough for our needs. We each left for work in the morning, or I saw him off to spend the day shooting, the evening in our livingroom-converted-darkroom. A day off, we took the train into the city to visit a museum or the gardens or drove further out for a jaunt in the woods and then back again. And we cooked.
Food has always been a necessary part of our life together in more ways than one: nourishment, yes; a connection to our past, our separate cultures and heritages, indeed; but it has always been a great pleasure for us to cook as well as eat, to cook for each other and for friends and family and cook together side by side. Food and cooking as love, the heart and soul of our home.
As humble as our beginnings, the food we cook has never had to be fancy to be special. Big one-pot stick-to-your-rib stews of inexpensive cuts of meat, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and carrots simmered until fork tender, tagines, crêpes or savory tarts, frugal yet scrumptious and filling dishes, leftovers that taste better than the day they were made. It is true that at times our grocery bills have gotten out of hand, our food budget exploding like a crazed, fiery asteroid; we give in to temptation or allow a lazy complaisance to set in and we turn to restaurants, take-out or ready-made. And then we look at that big, bad, glowing black hole in the budget (or so it seems) and the numbers scream at us to slow down and rethink the whole thing, reign it in and start all over from the beginning. Channel that couple who slept on a mattress in that big old run-down house in the ‘burbs or that snug little three-room doll’s house on that narrow strip of a street.
Rice pudding is nursery food in old English novels. Riz au lait is the sweet, frugal treat my mother-in-law made for her children to satisfy their sweet tooth as much as fill their tummies. Riz au lait, the Frenchman’s rice pudding, simply milk, rice and sugar, stirred long on the stove and spooned into bowls, is comfort food at its finest. We decided to kick it up a bit by cooking in rum-soaked raisins and more rum, the perfect mate to vanilla.
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TRADITIONAL VANILLA RIZ AU LAIT
COFFEE LATTE RIZ AU LAIT
Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying.
The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.
― Elise Boulding
RUM RAISIN RIZ AU LAIT (RICE PUDDING)
2 Tbs raisins
3 Tbs dark rum
7 oz (200 g) uncooked (round) rice for risotto or pudding
3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk + ¼ cup more if needed to think the pudding
6 –7 Tbs (90 - 100) sugar or to taste
1 vanilla bean
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter
Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with the rum for about an hour before making the pudding so the raisins are softened and soaked with rum.
Place the rice in a fine mesh strainer or colander (so as not to lose any rice out the bottom!) and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.
Put the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.
Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with 3 ¼ cups of the whole milk, 1 tablespoon of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth. It should not be al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry. Add the raisins and the rum about 10 minutes before the end of the cooking. Add more milk if the rice becomes too thick and gluey rather than smooth and creamy and heat through.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and only half of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls.
The riz au lait is best eaten warm. If refrigerated, simply reheat for a very short amount of time in a microwave.