Asparagus… or the meaning of food

Food is so many things. It is nourishment. It is connection with others, with the earth, with our bodies. And food is childhood. Deep in the learning curve of this blogging endeavor, my brain is all widgets and gadgets and html and links these days (when I’m not obsessing over how to best photograph an artichoke).  And it occurred to me there was this strange link between certain foods and childhood memories. You think of a food, and click, you’re back in your mother’s kitchen, with its smells, its feel. Not just a cerebral memory, a very visceral one. Well, when I see white asparagus, click, my brain goes right back to Sunday lunches at my mother’s apartment. The spring. The cool weather. The radishes. The cream sauce.

Marcel Proust wrote a vastly more eloquent version of this idea in In Search of Lost Time, in the famous Madeleine scene, where taking a bite out of the little French cakes brings him back to his childhood:



“[…] When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”


(I found this translated quote here, where you will also find a more extended version of the scene)

I just love the idea that taste and smell are “souls”… I suppose my goal is to be creating lots of originating links in Pablo’s brain when cooking for him, imprinting tastes and smells he will click back to, later in life. A way to leave a mark as a parent, strangely.

So Proust had Madeleines, and I have (among other things) asparagus. White asparagus, to be precise. Yes, I know. They make your pee smell weird. But their flavor and texture are so unique (and so different from their green cousin). My mother prepared them lukewarm, in a creamy sauce. With fresh tarragon.

I have adapted my mother’s recipe for Pablo (and us as well), to make it on the healthier side, using sheep’s milk yogurt instead of cream.

It makes a great finger food (a bit messy with the creamy sauce… but messy is the word of the hour… or year). And it is a wonderful opportunity to familiarize baby with the flavor of tarragon. I cannot think of a happier (tastier) place for tarragon to be!

The contrast between the warm asparagus and cold cream sauce is something interesting and new for baby, and the texture of white asparagus is very unique as well. It’s healthy, tasty and pretty to look at… Nourishment and sensory experience, two for the price of one!

 

White asparagus tips with tarragon sauce

Age: I offered asparagus tips (white or green) as a puree, boiled and mixed with potato around 6 months. As a finger food, I offered them plain (boiled, not steamed, so they’re less bitter) around 8 months, and with the yogurt sauce around 9-10 months.

A bunch of white asparagus

2 tbsp of plain sheep’s milk yogurt (Bellwether farms has a very creamy kind)

Some lemon juice

A pinch of salt

Fresh tarragon

Peel the asparagus: Cut off the foot of the stem, and with a small knife, remove the shiny film covering the bottom two thirds of the asparagus (not going all the way to the tip, see picture above.)

Put the asparagus in boiling water for about 12-14 minutes. Use a knife to make sure they’re done, when they’re very soft.

Deposit the asparagus on a paper towel to absorb the moisture. Let cool to lukewarm.

(Or reheat if you want to refrigerate and eat later).

Yogurt sauce: Mix the sheep’s milk yogurt, lemon and salt (adjust quantities to taste, though go very easy on the salt for baby). Cut up the leaves of tarragon with scissors, to make their fragrance and flavor come out, and stir into the creamy sauce.

Cut the very tips of the warm asparagus for baby (they’re less stringy, keep the rest for the grown-ups!) and pour some of the creamy sauce over them.

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Strawberry rhubarb apple tart recipe

The other day, as we were enjoying a family dinner, my husband spotted a recipe book on the table and started to look through it as we were eating. (It happened to be the amazing and ever so appetizing Small Plates & Sweet Treats by Cannelle et Vanille’s creator, Aran Goyoaga). As we were eating, we started to get excited about the many recipes we were going to make off that book.

“You’re really turning into a Frenchman. Talking about food while eating”, my mother commented.

Indeed this is something French people love to do. Talk about food while eating food. Going on and on about it in fact!

I realized that unknowingly, the French are actually practicing mindful eating.

“Focus on the task at hand”, our teachers, or mothers, or grandmothers said. I guess this was another way to ask us to be mindful. To be in the moment with whatever we were doing.

This has been something I’ve been very consciously practicing with Pablo. Trying to stay away from outside distractions while at the table whenever possible. So while I do occasionally indulge Pablo with a small toy if he’s particularly tired and impatient at dinner time, I try as much as possible to keep our family engaged with our meal, with each other in conversation about our day, with the food we are eating (or will be eating), the cooking of it, the shape, flavor, color, texture of it. A lot of playfulness can arise with the “crunch crunch” of the butter lettuce, the fun of making a mini-kebab by prickling a piece of tomato with a piece of hearts of palm on the fork, or Pablo’s new favorite game, calling every item on the dinner table “Monsieur” : Monsieur Patate, Monsieur Radis, Monsieur Pain (Mr Bread) etc. (Yes, barely bearable cuteness ensues.)

I remember reading about mindful eating in Karen Le Billon’s book, French Kids Eat Everything, as one of her strategies to convert her picky eaters. It’s not about hiding broccoli in some pasta or baked good, or trying to distract our children into eating well, or rushing through meals to get them over with. It’s about showing them that eating is a pleasure.

And to find that out, you’ve got to pay attention while you eat.

Pay attention to how the food feels, how it tastes. Be mind and body (aren’t our best, happiest or most fulfilling moments in life when we are engaged both mind and body?). I remember how she described making a game of eating a chocolate mousse as slowly as possible, as a family, and talking about the experience together. What a clever idea to get kids engaged in the wonderful, vastly underestimated, communal, cultural and pleasurable experience that is the family meal.

Beyond easy and quick recipes, convenience and logistics, beyond calories and “healthy eating”, making cooking and eating about connection and pleasure, vs obligation and nutrition, is the core of this education of taste journey I’ve been documenting here. A journey that makes our life so much richer, each and every day.

Sharing today a seasonal variation to the French classic tarte aux pommes. It’s the first year I am experimenting cooking with rhubarb and its lovely flavor. This is really two recipes in one: one for the compote, which can be made on its own. But should you have a couple of apples lying around, the tart is a delicious way to put them to good use. Basil goes surprisingly well with strawberry and rhubarb, and adding it to the spelt crust was a fun, and successful, experiment.

Strawberry rhubarb apple tart on basil spelt crust

Serves 6-8

Prep time: 45 mn
Cook time: 15 mn + 35 mn

Age for babies: The compote by itself is great for a baby from 5 months on, though be sure not to use honey for a baby under 12 months. Add just a sprinkle of sugar. What you don’t use within a couple of days can be frozen for a couple of months (individual serving containers make it easier).
The tart can be given in small pieces (as long as no honey was used) from 8-10 months.



For the strawberry rhubarb compote

Yields about 2 cups.

2-3 stalks of rhubarb
1-2 cups of strawberries
2 tbsp of sugar (or honey)
1 tsp lemon juice

Peel the rhubarb by making a diagonal incision at the top and pulling off the stringy part. Repeat from both end, until all strings are gone (you will be taking off the pink part.)

Then cut the rhubarb in small pieces, place in a bowl with half the sugar (or honey), and let macerate at least 15 minutes. (The rhubarb with produce some juice in that time).

In the meantime, wash and cut the strawberries.

In a pan, place the rhubarb and its juice, strawberries, remaining sugar or honey and lemon juice. Cook over medium high heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring often.

Mix in food processor or blender until very smooth. Pour through a fine mesh strainer, pressing with a spatula, for added smoothness.

For the basil spelt crust

1 cup (150g) spelt flour
5 tbsp (75g) butter, softened and cut up
4-5 large leaves of basil, minced
1.5 tbsp ice water
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt

In a bowl, mix the flour, minced basil, sugar and salt.

Pour the dry ingredients on a work surface. With your hands, work the soft butter into the flour mixture, by rubbing your hands together, until you get a sandy texture. Then place the flour/butter mixture in a circle with a whole in the middle.  Place the egg yolk and water in the middle, and mix with your hands until you obtain a ball of dough.

Then fraise the dough: flatten the ball into a rectangle (of sorts), and with the heel of your hand, press the dough, little by little, onto the work surface. This is very simple (and therapeutic!), but a picture is worth a thousand words on this one, so you can get a visual here. Do it a couple of times.

Wrap in plastic and place in the fridge for 10 minutes.

To put it all together

2 apples
4-5 oz rhubarb strawberry compote
2-3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp butter +  for mold 

Preheat the oven at 375°F.

Butter a tart pan (preferably with removable bottom).

Roll dough onto a lightly floured surface so it’s slightly bigger than your pan.
Press the dough into the pan, pressing the sides with your thumb.

Spoon and spread the compote over the dough.

Peel and core the apples, reserve the peel. Slice them thinly. Gently place the apple slices on top of the compote, in a circular motion around the pie pan (I can never do this perfectly by the way, there’s always an odd piece of apple that doesn’t fit!)

Sprinkle with a bit of sugar, and add a few bits of butter throughout.

Place in oven for about 30-35 minutes, until the apples are soft.

While it’s in the oven, boil 1/2 cup of water with the apple peel and sugar for about 10/12 minutes.

When you bring the tart out of the oven, brush some of that syrup over the apples for a nice gloss.

Let cool and eat warm, or cold.

Making Speculoos cookies and a children’s trifle

We got back from our month-long trip to Greece and France, and I must admit it has
been a bit of a challenge to adapt back to “real life”. Probably because this
intense month of bonding with friends and (re)discovery and experience felt
more real than our so-called “real life”. Most of our time was spent
focusing on things that really matter, and very little time on menial things.
It just always makes me wonder, “What if life could always be this pure and
intense?” Part of me feels energized and motivated from the trip, and another
part feels sad, nostalgic and daunted by the mountain of things to do. I
must start cooking and writing in hope my spirits will lift.
In the meantime, I shall reminisce about a week in Normandy spent with our
friends Christelle and Jean-Max and their children, Calista, 9 and Philéas, 5.

 

 

These children are what I would
consider very French children (the kind Karen Le Billon talks about in her book). While they love pasta and sweets and French
fries, they are also quite the foodies. I was delighted to hear them critique
their school lunch menus (which are amazing by American standards, but
considered mediocre by most French parents), saying the food left to be
desired, the pasta was too greasy, and the meat overcooked. Philéas declared he
only liked a particular brand of Camembert cheese (he also went through a phase
where he declared himself a “cheese vegetarian”). And Calista professed her
love of cooking. When I asked what they liked to cook, they mentioned one of
their favorite desserts: the Speculoos trifle. At my puzzled look, they asked,
“What, you don’t know what a Speculoos is?” I was soon initiated. It turns out
a Speculoos is a very simple, yet tasty, cinnamon spice cookie, as widely known
as Oreos in the US.
It’s from Belgium
originally, but has become a favorite of the French (and of Amélie Poulain in the French film,
Amélie).

So we decide to make home-made Speculoos to use for
the trifle. The children bring out the ingredients, Philéas mixes, Calista knows
all about making a well in the dry ingredients to pour the wet. As we shape the
dough, Calista suggests adding more butter, as it is too dry. She’s correct,
that does the trick. We are in Normandy
after all, the land of cream and butter. In doubt, add more.

Watching Philéas getting so excited about making tonight’s
dessert, and Calista licking the bowl of cream, I feel thrilled at the idea of paying homage
to their gourmet spirit in this space. Their mother is a dear childhood friend of mine,
we’ve known each other since we’re 11, and the thought of our children cooking
and eating together couldn’t make me happier.
This dessert is very easy to make for children, and it is a wonderful refreshing treat for the whole family. The cookie softens
under the yogurt and the fruit adds a splash of sweetness. It is a reasonably healthy
treat, which I will make in Los Angeles,
if only to be transported back to Philéas and Calista Land, for a trifle in time.

Calista & Philéas’ Speculoos trifle

For the cookies (Prepare dough one day ahead)

(Original recipe found here)

2 cups all-purpose
flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

½ cup (100 g) butter,
melted

In a large bowl, mix the flour, brown sugar,
allspice, cinnamon, salt and baking powder.
Make a well (hole) in the middle of the dry
ingredients and add the lightly beaten egg and melted butter.

Gently mix together (easier done with both hands)
to form a tube of dough that holds together (if too crumbly, add a little more
melted butter).

Wrap in plastic and keep in the fridge overnight or
more.

Preheat the oven at 350° F.

Cut into ¾ inch slices. Place them on a baking
sheet over parchment paper.

Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Let cool.

(Recipe invented by Calista, 9, and Philéas, 5)

3 cups of Greek yogurt (use the creamiest you can find, and avoid 0% fat)

2 tbsp of crème fraîche

(*Alternatively, you can easily find and use whole
milk plain yogurt with cream on top)

2 tbsp Brown sugar

4-5 cups of cut-up fresh fruit (For us, it was 5
peaches and nectarines. Use what’s available in season, pears and apples in
winter, stone fruit in summer. Organic canned fruit could also be used)

Speculoos cookies
Lay Speculoos cookies flat to cover the bottom of a
serving dish.

In a bowl, mix the yogurt and cream. Then add the
brown sugar and mix.
Pour the yogurt mixture on top of the cookies, and
use a spoon to spread it evenly.

Place the fruit on top and place in the fridge
until ready to serve.

Peach lavender custard recipe

There is something both fascinating and somewhat irritating about seeing things come full circle. I grew up in a village in Normandy, France, where I spent minutes, hours and years devising plans on how to leave the land of cream and apples, go to a bigger city, a bigger country, elsewhere. And I eventually made it to the next big town, then to Paris, then to Los Angeles.

Now, here I am, reading through wonderful food blogs, many of them describing the simple life on a farm, eating what you grow, the return to the soil, and I find myself irresistibly charmed by the whole idea. Did I go around in a circle all these years? I suppose it is what I learned, where I failed, the joys and sorrows and experiences along that circle which make up my path thus far. All to find myself longing to get back to where I started, appreciating now what I took for granted then. Maybe that’s what wisdom is all about. Finding my way back to the apples.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love big cities, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, among many. I love the mix of culture, the open-mindedness and diversity and vibration of a city, each in its idiosyncratic way. But I realize now more than ever, and perhaps because I now have a child, that I need the soil. I want the basics, the elements. Soil, water, fire, air. I want to get back to what’s real, and I want my son to experience those things fully while young. Instead of a disconnected view of a world of instant gratification, I would like to teach him to appreciate the genesis of things. The genesis of a crunchy sweet apple.
This is why I have felt so incredibly fortunate and privileged to meet Eric & Franka who invited us to spend a day with them, their son Dexter and their cat Pépé, harvesting fruit (ok, Pépé didn’t do much harvesting, but Dexter and Pablo did help!) at their wonderful place in Topanga Canyon, the newly formed Gopher Springs Farm.  In the middle of Los Angeles in this haven of Topanga, is another little haven: on the grounds of an old school from the 1930s, a pink house with an oddball history, surrounded by old fruit trees and land (a rare commodity in the city), inhabited by a trio with a vision to build a life of farming here. A life I admire and which we were fortunate to share for a day.
That day starts with harvesting apples. Three different kinds on the property. Then onto the peaches and nectarines. The apricots have already been harvested, partly by the local coyote. The plums aren’t ready yet. As Franka points out, their fruit trees (apples, plums, peaches, nectarines, figs, apricots, persimmons) are the old kind, planted in the 30s probably, the fruit tastes wild and natural, for lack of a better description. “Like in Europe.”
 

They’re building this place from the soil up. Eric speaks of his compost, of the importance of good, rich, healthy, nurturing, giving soil. And he works at it, patiently and lovingly, this compost is going to be a life source. Vegetables and fruits will grow strong and flavorful and juicy in it. The idea just makes me want to plant my hands deep in the rich soil and just feel its potential. This is one potential you can really count on.

They’re also building from the air down. He speaks of bees, he knows so much about them. He’s not a beekeeper, he’s a bee-charmer, devising ways to make the bees want to set up hive and produce honey here, and pollinate the fruit trees. It’s already working, the trees are more bountiful this year than ever before.

Franka and I sit under the nectarine tree, talk about being expats, living improbable lives here in LA, lives we would have never imagined as kids. Meanwhile, 13 and 14 months old Dexter and Pablo help picking the apples, take a single bite out of each one they grab, before handing it to each other. Sharing an apple under the tree. I think this makes us all feel happy and warm inside. We’re all thankful to be spending this vacation day of sorts together.

Voltaire said it. “We must cultivate our garden”. I understand how profound that phrase is so much more fully than ever before. What a breath of hope and joy to see someone truly practice that. That is most definitely what is happening at Gopher Springs Farm, and I look forward, like the patient (or impatient) gardner-in-training that I am, to watching them grow…

Some things we saw: horses, frog, rabbit, mouse, artichokes, woodpecker hole, wild fennel.

Some things we heard: donkey, crickets, bucket of rainwater splashing, toddler babbling, toddler grunting, toddler giggling.

Some things we did: harvesting, eating, talking, wagon riding, laughing, cooking, sweating, laughing, smiling.

Some things we made: friends, and peach lavender custard.

Peach Lavender Custard

Age: Obviously this is for the whole family, but you can offer this at 8-10 months. This is a little bit on the sweet side, so not an every day dessert for baby, but a nice introduction to custard and lavender, for special occasions.

Note: It is pretty healthy as far as desserts go, with the help of the coconut milk, and the protein from the eggs balances the sugar & fat contents.

Makes 6 ramekins

1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk

1/4 cup + 2 tbsp cane sugar

Scrapings from 1 vanilla bean (split lengthwise and scraped)

2 tbsp edible dried English lavender buds

4-6 ripe, cut up peaches

Preheat the oven at 325°

Combine coconut milk, cream, sugar, vanilla bean scrapings & lavender buds. Bring to a light boil, remove from heat and let steep for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks. Take six ramekins and place a few pieces of cut-up peaches into each ramekin.

Pour the milk-lavender mixture through a fine mesh colander into a bowl (press the lavender with a spoon in the colander to squeeze the flavor out of it.)

Pour the whisked egg yolks through a fine mesh colander (not the same one, or wash it up first) into the milk-lavender mixture and whisk until combined.

Pour the milk-lavender-egg mixture into each ramekin, on top of the fruit.

Place the ramekin in a deep baking dish, and pour boiling water up to the level of the custard mixture inside the ramekins, being careful not to pour any water inside the custards.

Place in the oven for about 30-35 minutes, until set.

Let cool, and serve at room temperature or chilled.

(Optional: Sprinkle some cane sugar on top and torch for a caramelized top crust)

Nectarine Shiso Ice Cream





One thing about motherhood I didn’t expect, was the friendships you make with other moms you meet along the journey. And one of those friendships, with wonderful Hiromi and her son Dylan, brought me one of my favorite herbs: shiso, fresh from her garden. Shiso, also known as perilla (more useful information on the herb here), is often served in sushi bars as garnish. It is a member of the mint family. When I describe its flavor, I say it is somewhere between basil and mint. But that doesn’t do it justice. It has such an elusive taste that seems to elevate the texture and fattiness of raw fish, but also flavors steamed rice wonderfully. Like lavender, it has a powerful scent, and I’ve been wanting to make ice cream with it for a long time. So when on a hot Tuesday, I met Hiromi in front of the organic fruit stand at the Farmer’s market and she handed me those beautiful shiso leaves from her garden… well, the idea for peach-shiso ice cream presented itself. Life is serendipitous that way sometimes. Or at least, a lot of recipes are.

Pablo had never had ice cream before, and I really wanted to make it homemade, as the ice cream sold in stores is so high in sugar content, and I am wary of sugar more than anything else. The amazing thing about babies and toddlers, is their ability to both enjoy very mild, subtle taste (plain yogurt, plain tofu), and very strong and flavorful things (olives, pickles, blue cheese) at a young age. But if we introduce an overload of sweet flavors at the outset, how can they possibly enjoy pure and subtle flavors, like a simple vanilla ice cream? Conversely, if we wait until they’re older to introduce what we consider to be strong or odd flavors, we take the chance they might reject them for being too unfamiliar. So my strategy has been, from the very beginning: 1/ to avoid anything too sweet (big fan of plain yogurt), 2/ to offer whole foods with every category of flavor (bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami), without the preconceived notion that because he’s a baby, he won’t like it. Exposing him to those flavors (as well as their smell, since smell is an essential component of taste) while still very young (from 6 months on, depending on any allergy risk) has been a key part of my strategy. 3/ To get him to taste the foods pure first, 4/ To keep trying and offering over and over again if he doesn’t seem to like something.

I imagine his tastebuds as these very sensitive and delicate sensors, not to be overloaded or crushed, but to be challenged and exposed to a variety of things (I suppose you could say the same of raising a child, couldn’t you?)

This ice cream definitely fit the bill for exposing Pablo to the subtle flavor of shiso, combined with the known flavor of stone fruits and dairy. It has a very mild taste, it is not that sweet (the only sugar comes from the honey). You taste the fruit first, and the shiso stays as an aftertaste. The whole family enjoyed it, I gave it to Pablo for his afternoon snack (“le goûter”) with a couple of small oat cookies.

Nectarine Shiso Ice Cream

Age : 12 months and up (mostly because of the honey).

6 nectarines (or peaches, white or yellow, whichever are the ripest and sweetest, I mixed both for this batch)

20 leaves of shiso

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

1 cup coconut milk

1/3 cup honey + 1 tbsp for drizzling over the nectarines before roasting

Preheat the oven at 400°F.

Cut the nectarines/peaches in half (remove pits now or later), and place in a roasting pan, cut side up. Drizzle with honey. Roast until golden brown and tender, 30-40 minutes.

Let cool completely, peel the nectarines and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

In a large sauce pan, combine the shiso, cream, coconut milk and honey over medium heat, until it barely boils. Remove from heat, cover and let the shiso steep for about 10-15 mn.

Pour shiso-milk mixture through a colander into a bowl. Press the shiso leaves with a big spoon to let all the flavor out of them. Discard the leaves. Let cool and refrigerate a few hours or overnight.

When the fruit and ice cream base are nice and cold, mash the nectarines grossly, add them to the base. (Note: You can also combine the base with the fruit when cool, but before refrigerating for a few hours or overnight, to let the flavors of the fruit steep even more into the base.)

Churn in the ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

If you like it very creamy, eat it right away. Otherwise, freeze and it will harden.

Alternative to shiso: You could use the exact same recipe with mint, for a peach or nectarine & mint ice cream.

PS: Just added “ice cream” to the food sign list, check it out!