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.

Pin It

Baked apple & goat cheese…

It occurred to me recently that this period of my life, though I experience it now as complicated, and somewhat overwhelming, struggling to find balance, to find time, constantly juggling, dealing with uncertainty, learning to be more grateful, more in the moment… this period of my life might just be the one I will remember the most fondly when I’m 80 (if I get that far.)

This has happened to me before: to look back on certain times of my life with great fondness, when I know I didn’t consider myself “happy” or “satisfied” at the time. Conversely, times I do remember thinking were fairly happy, sometimes escape me completely, as if meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Youth is relative, and youth is blind to itself.

So I try to capture this thought and stay with it: what if this time of my life, right now, turns out to be one of the happiest, when all is said and done? That could potentially be depressing, as I could think, “This is it?” “That’s as good as it’s going to get?” “That’s not the picture I had in mind”.

And there’s the rub.
That freakin’ picture we have in our minds of what life, and people in our life, are supposed to be like.

Or… I can hang on to that image of myself as an 80-year-old woman, smiling back at this time of my life with great fondness. And I can actually listen to her.

She’s telling me this time is rich, with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, its wonders as a new parent, a new blogger. This time is complex, a bit stormy, definitely no flat sea around here. But I think 80-year-old me would smile and say, “Who wants a flat sea of a life anyway?”

Sometimes my expectations, my stresses, the whirlwind of life, make me forget her, and her wisdom. But if I can just reach out to her in those moments, she will teach me to be grateful for this time. The good thing is, I’m starting to really hear her voice now. Instead of hearing the voice of 10-year-old me telling me what my life was supposed to be, I am starting to hear the voice of 80-year-old me, telling me there’s no “supposed to”, telling me life is so much more than that. Setting me free to actually live my life and know myself as I evolve and grow.

There’s a sentence at the end of A life, by Guy de Maupassant, translated here from French by yours truly:

“Life, you see, is never as great nor as bad as we think.”

There’s a way to understand that sentence that is not as depressing as one might first believe. Life is just not what we think it’s going to be. And that doesn’t make it a failure. It’s okay. I wish I’d known that earlier. But I know it now.

So what brought on this philosophical debate in my brain, this Ghost of Helene Past, Present and Future of sorts? A recipe for an apple goat cheese millefeuilles. Of course it is.
(Millefeuilles is just a fancy name that means ‘a thousand leaves’, typically a dessert, a Napoleon, but also used for anything with multiple layers.)

See, when I saw this recipe in a tiny French recipe book called “Papillotes” (a series of recipes, savory and sweet, all cooked in parcels in the oven), I looked at the picture, and set out to make it, because frankly, apple and goat cheese, how could I go wrong? In my head, it looked just perfect.

I am learning that I’ve been getting the meaning of “perfection” all wrong. We say perfection can’t be reached when we can’t make life fit in with the picture we have in our head. When that picture is in fact much too narrow and simplistic to do real life justice. Perfection is everywhere. Life is perfect, by its very existence. Our expectations, ever so limited, narrow-minded, blind-sided, one-dimensional, are what is imperfect, though they may serve a purpose for us, like dealing with our issues.

So, making this millefeuilles, I certainly was reminded things never go the way you think. The apple wasn’t perfectly shaped. The goat cheese was a pain to slice thin, it got chalky in the middle and fell apart. But determined, I moved forward. Sometimes a “what the heck” attitude gets you through stuff where you head might not.

And the result was… delicious. Not like the picture, in the book or in my head. Not “picture perfect”. But “life perfect”. Because I made it. Because I shared it. Because the contrast of semi-crunchy apple and half-melted goat cheese is scrumptious. It was a highly satisfying three-in-one salad/cheese/dessert course (in the framework of the typical four course French family meal).

What can I say, another life lesson in the kitchen…

A quick note about cooking “in a parcel” in general, called “en papillote” in French (i.e. cooking a hermetically wrapped preparation in the oven). It’s a great and easy way to cook a whole range of foods. Not only does it protect natural foods from too much heat, but it also cooks à l’étouffée, meaning the foods cook in their own steam, infused with all the flavors and scents from the spices and condiments used. It’s both a quick and gentle way to cook, which helps preserve a lot of vitamins. On top of it, it is so much fun. Pablo was just delighted when I presented it like a “surprise package” or a “gift-wrapped treat on a plate”. We opened it, and he went “wooow” when peeking at its contents and inhaling the delicious scents. I have been quite obsessed with this method of cooking recently, and will be sharing many more recipes in the near future.

Apple & goat cheese millefeuilles (napoleons) with honey and walnuts

Inspired from Papillotes by Martine Lizambard

Serves 2

Prep time: 20 min
Cook time: 15-20 min

Age for babies: It’s just baked apple and goat cheese basically, no reason why a 10 month old can’t try this, if you think he/she can handle the apple, as it is softened but still a bit crunchy. Do skip the honey if you give before 12 months.

1 apple, washed and dried
6 slices of aged goat cheese*
1 tbsp soft butter
2 handfuls of lamb’s lettuce (or other lettuce), washed and spun dry
A few walnuts
2 tbsp honey
2 tbps vinaigrette
Oven-safe parchment paper
Kitchen string

*Note about the goat cheese: I recommend using an aged goat cheese for this (though not very old, it should still be soft in texture), as opposed to fresh goat cheese. I used “bûche” here (found at Whole Foods in the US). Otherwise, I have fallen in love with the cheeses made by Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, you could use any of their aged goat cheeses. (I have found some of their products in Whole Foods, though not consistently). I hear Laura Chenel also has a “Cabécou”, which you might be able to find and would work for this.

Slice the goat cheese (make 6 slices, ideally the slices are slightly larger than the circumference of the apple).

Slice off the top of the apple (where the stem is), then core the apple. Slice the apple into six pieces.

Preheat the oven at 350°F. Cut 2 square pieces of parchment paper, and butter the center of each one.

In the center of each parchment paper square, place three slices of apple, and three slices of goat cheese, alternating. Gather the corners of the parchment paper, and close the parcel hermetically with kitchen string.

Place in a baking dish in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. (The apple will soften but remain somewhat crunchy).

Meanwhile, in a salad bowl, toss the lettuce, walnuts and vinaigrette. Put the salad in two serving plates.

Remove the parcels from the oven and let cool for about 5 minutes before opening.

Deposit them delicately on top of the lettuce. Drizzle with honey.

Baked eggplant, figs & goat cheese… & the meaning of sharing

I’ve made this analogy here before, but I often think of parenting as blindly planting wild seeds in a garden, and waiting to see how and when they will grow into something. I don’t think we teach our children so much as we are their model. The seeds contain all the complexity of our behavior,demeanor, focus and interests as parents. We can’t just will the fruit into being. We must plant, nurture and patiently wait. 

When it comes, the fruit is all the sweeter. 

And such a precious fruit is ripening within Pablo right now.

Pablo has started to share food. I mean that at every meal or picnic, he makes a point of taking some of the food in the main serving platter, and makes sure that everyone is served. He wants to give a piece of the  pie gratin, or salad, or cheese, as the case may be, to each person at the table. He does this as a task of importance and seriousness.

I am really of the mind that there’s no such thing as teaching sharing, and that making children share (especially infants and toddlers) teaches them absolutely nothing (except that sharing is an annoying but apparently necessary part of life). Sharing is sharing only if it’s completely spontaneous and voluntary, if it comes from the heart. The art of sharing is truly one of those fruits that grow unexpectedly, when you model it and let it happen naturally.

Unexpectedly indeed, for I hadn’t realized, that each time we sat down together at the table to share a meal, every time we shared the same dish we all ate, every time I offered Pablo to taste something from my plate at a restaurant, every time we cooked for the whole family, we were unconsciously modeling sharing. And Pablo assimilated it in this intrinsic way, so that it seems completely natural to him that everyone at the table should get their share so we can all eat together. 

I guess my point is this: a child will learn so much more about the real meaning of sharing by having a home cooked family meal, than by being forced to share his most prized possession. 

And with or without children, sharing a home-cooked meal with loved ones is such a deeply communal and connective experience. It is an active act of sharing and togetherness (no wonder Michael Pollan says “the family meal is the nursery of democracy”.)

I keep talking about life lessons at the table and in the kitchen. And wow, these lessons just keep appearing before my eyes, yielding my amazement and gratitude.

This is one of those very seasonal, extremely easy, delicious melt-in-your-mouth recipes with all the flavors of late summer. I hope you will enjoy sharing it with people you cherish.

Oh, and since we’re in a sharing kind of mood here :-), below the recipe is our weekly menu. Hope it can spark some ideas for your family.

Baked eggplant, with figs, cherry tomatoes & goat cheese

Serves 2-3

Prep time: 10 min

Cook time: 35-40 min

Age for babies: 10-12 months (though simple roasted eggplant with some goat cheese could be given from about 8 months)

1 eggplant

Olive oil

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes

8 small figs

Pepper

Preheat the oven at 400°F.

Wash the eggplant, cut off the top, and slice lengthwise.

Make incisions through the flesh but not the skin with a knife (three in each direction). Brush with olive oil.

Place in baking pan on parchment paper, flesh side down (skin up).

Bake for about 20-25 min. The skin will start to shrivel a little.

In the meantime, wash and half the figs and tomatoes.

Take the eggplant out of the oven, and set your oven to broiler.

Turn the eggplant halves over, place the figs and tomatoes on top. Place pieces of the goat cheese on top. 

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper.

Place in the broiler for about 10-12 min, until the cheese is melted and golden.

Serve while hot! Bon appétit!

On to the week’s menu:

Cheeses of the week: Following French tradition, I always offer a little bit of cheese at the end of every meal, between the main course and dessert. Rotation this week: Danish blue cheese, Port Salut (cow cheese), goat brie and Petit Basque (sheep).

DessertsAt lunch, I offer a fruit yogurt (or plain yogurt with fresh fruit), but at night, I prefer sticking to plain yogurt (regular homemade* whole milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk and Greek yogurt for extra protein) to avoid too much sugar before bedtime.

If you would like a particular recipe on the menu, feel free to contact me! (I marked with a * the recipes that will be the topic of upcoming posts).


MONDAY

Lunch – Picnic at the park
Cucumber, hearts of palm, cherry tomatoes, cold chicken, avocado, goat cheese, grapes and cherries

Goûter (4pm snack) – Mango

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Baked eggplant with figs and goat cheese (above!)
Main course: Oven roasted pork tenderloin in mustard sauce, with blue potatoes

TUESDAY

Lunch – Picnic at the park again
Green beans, cauliflower, blue potato salad + roast beef + Babybel cheese, plums & cherries

Goûter – Peach

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Authentic Greek salad
Main course: Duck breasts with braised radishes and cherries*

WEDNESDAY

Lunch at the park 
Cold pea & herb salad, cherry tomatoes, ham, goat gouda, nectarine

Goûter – Nectarine

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: French radishes with salt & butter
Main course: Quails eggs en cocotte with smoked salmon, leek and zucchini from La Tartine Gourmande (this was so spectacular I can’t wait to make it again!)

THURSDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Grated carrots with orange juice dressing
Main course: Mushroom caps stuffed with cream of sardines

Goûter – Passion fruit

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Golden beet warm goat cheese salad
Main course: Pan-fried creamy turkey breasts with summer vegetables in parchment from Just One Cookbook

FRIDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Green asparagus with vinaigrette
Main course: Sauteed shrimp with lime and coconut quinoa

Goûter – Peach

Dinner 
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Cucumber salad with creamy yogurt tarragon dressing
Main course: Trying this tomato cobbler from Food Loves Writing, soft boiled egg

SATURDAY

Lunch
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Tomato, basil & onion salad
Main course: Steak tartare, butter lettuce with fresh herbs

Goûter – Plum

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Artichoke custard
Main course: Clams in fennel shallot broth from Cannelle & Vanille

SUNDAY

Lunch OUT


Goûter – Cherries

Dinner
Appetizer / Finger Foods: Corn coconut chowder
Main course: Caramelized fennel, goat cheese, kale clafoutis (crustless quiche)