Category Archives: On the Street Where I Live

A Whiter Shade of Sauce — Especially for Your Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole

More recycling form Daily Gullet!

 

A Whiter Shade of Sauce 

It’s never inspired a wild fandango, let alone cartwheels cross the floor. Calling it Béchamel doesn’t make it chic and rolling the ls in balsamella won’t make it sexy. It’s White Sauce, pale, pure and reliable, the Vestal Virgin of Escoffier’s Mother Sauces.

 

It’s a Mama sauce, a Maman sauce, a Mom and Mummy sauce. . There’s no macaroni and cheese, no creamed spinach, no creamed potatoes or onions without White Sauce. No lasagna, no rissoles, barely a scalloped potato. No soufflés. No crap on clapboard. No sauce for chicken fried steak or salmon patties. No choufleur gratinee or cute little coffins of chicken a la King. No éclairs, cream puffs, or Boston Cream Pie, because isn’t pastry cream white sauce with sugar, egg and vanilla?

 

 

In this order, place butter, flour and milk in a saucepan, some salt, maybe a twist of beige from the nutmeg grinder –all it calls for is some attention with the wooden spoon and an eye to the size and activity of the bubbles. The proportions were way simpler than the multiplication flashcards by father drilled me with in third grade. My mother called them out over her shoulder as she cleaned the big can of salmon and chopped parsley.

 

Forty years later she would have said “Listen up!” or if she’d been Italian, maybe the stern “Ascolta!” I remember: “One tablespoon each of butter and flour for thin, two for medium, three for thick. Keep stirring. Watch the heat – you don’t want to burn it.” Some Maternal Units would never besmirch the snowy stuff with black pepper – though not my mother, Julia Child was passionate about thee white pepper only rule. I like the black specks, (always) a grating of nutmeg, and (often) a pinch of cayenne. When I have extra time I add a fillup of my own: I throw a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and a few fresh tarragon leaves into the milk, warm it up to the small bubble stage, then let it cool down and let everything infuse. I strain out the herbs before I add the milk to the roux and ponder what a great idea the bouquet garni is, and what a clever cook I am.

 

Research is fun, and I stacked up my reference books on the kitchen table — otherwise known as my study. First: let’s get the history out of the way. It will surprise no one who buys that story that all French cooking started as Italian cooking that Catherine di Medici‘s Italian cooks introduced it to the French when she married Henri II in 1533. Well, could be – but why do Italians call it balsamella, not caterina? Larousse Gastronomique tells us about Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel, who got a plum job as Louis 1V’s Steward of the Royal Household. “The invention of béchamel sauce is attributed to him, but it had, no doubt, been known for a long time under another name. It was more likely to be the invention of a court chef who must have dedicated it to Bechemeil as a compliment.”

 

And who was Louis’s chef de cuisine? Francois Pierre de la Varenne, that’s who!. Varenne(1615-1678) included a recipe for Sauce Béchamel in his Le Cuisiner Francais. I wonder if it was a printing error in the first edition that dropped the i in the Marquis’s name? I hope the Marquis was flattered enough to give Francois a shift off.

 

But as I pulled books at random from the stack and read recipes, the room was humming harder as the ceiling of my self-respect as a food historian flew away. The formula for a white roux and milk sauce reads like a formula for papier mache binder. Careme starts with a veloute made from white veal stock then pumps it up with a liaison of eggs yolks and cream, with a walnut-sized piece of butter and “a few tablespoons of very thick double cream to make it whiter. Then add a pinch of grated nutmeg, pass it though a white tammy [sic] and keep hot in a bain marie. ‘

 

Let’s fast-forward eighty-odd years to Escoffier’s Le Guide Cuilinaire (1907   ) translated by H.L Cracknel and R.J. Kaufmann. (John Wiley and Sons, 1979.) Um: meat? Yes, the ‘Scoff adds chopped lean veal, two sliced onions and thyme to the roux and milk mixture, allows” them to simmer gently for two hours, and pass through a fine strainer.” Maybe Cesar Ritz liked the veal gelatin.

 

While Escoffier was wowing London, Charles Ranhofer was chef de everything at Delmonico’s in New York; the late nineteenth century’s Achatz, Keller and Waters combined. He was a white-whiskered tyrant with more energy than a grill cook at the Billy Goat Tavern under Wacker Drive. He’s his take on béchamel, on page 293 of his 1183 page master opus The Epicurean:”

 

“This is made by preparing a roux of butter and flour, and letting it cook for a few minutes while stirring, not allowing it to color in the slightest; remove it to a slower fire and leave it to complete cooking for a quarter of an hour, then dilute it gradually with half boiled milk and half veal blond. Stir the liquid on the fire until it boils, then mingle in with it a mirepoix of roots and onions, fried separately in butter, some mushroom peelings and a bunch of parsley; let it cook on a slower fire and let cook for twenty-five minutes without ceasing to stir so as to avoid its adhering to the bottom; it must be rather more consistent than light. Strain it through a fine sieve then through a tammy [sic] into a vessel.”

 

Not content with the veal presence and the mushroom peelings, Ranhofer adds a mirepoix of root vegetables? Will the madness never end?

 

Let’s fast forward thirty years and hop the train from Manhattanto Bostonto check out Mrs. Fanny Merrit Farmer’s cooking school and her The Boston Cooking School Cookbook – my edition’s from 1913. Fanny infuses a cup and a half of veal stock with carrots, onion, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns for twenty minutes. (So much for any pretensions I may have had about steeping a few herbs in the milk.) “Melt the butter, add flour, and gradually hot stock and milk. Season with salt and pepper.”

 

The Rombauer Ladies don’t include a recipe for béchamel in the 1975 Joy of Cooking. If you look it up in the index you’ll find “Bechamel sauce, see White Sauce.”  You know, the recipe with the roux and milk and salt and pepper?  What I’ve called Béchaml since I was a hoity-toity teenager in the kitchen? Maybe Joy set the modern formula for Béchamel in this country; it’s awesome they called it White Sauce.

 

James Peterson’s recipe in Glorious French Food (2002) requires: shallots, celery, a carrot, a garlic clove, thyme, bay leaf and “4 oz. (115 g.) of prosciutto end, pancetta or veal and pork trimmings.” C’mon Jim, am I making aa sauce or a stuffing for ravioli?

 

If there’d been a waiter with a tray, I would have called out for another drink. I felt like someone who’d spent her life telling people how to make pate by grinding up Spam, or insisting that Mario Batali told me that he heats up Chef Boy-R-Dee at home when he wants pasta that’s really authentic. Or a schoolmarm who’d been teaching creationism forever, saw the light, and realized she’d been talking up her ass for years with her skirt tucked into the waistband of her pantyhose .Had I never made a Béchamel sauce?

 

In my not Smithsonian-sized cooking library I found the writer who, for the first time, called White Sauce Béchamel.  I’ll give you a hint: the year is 1961. Want another? Her kitchen is on view in the Smithsonian. You got it: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. Julia, Louisette and Simka are my first in-house references for “plain” Béchamel Sauce.  But: in a preface about Sauces Blanches, the Gourmettes say: “Sauce Béchamel in the times of Louis XIV (yeah Varenne,) was a more elaborate sauce then it is today. Then it was a simmering of milk, veal and seasonings with an enrichment of cream, In modern French cooking a béchamel is a quickly made milk-based foundation requiring only the addition of butter, cream, herbs or other flavoring s to turn it into a proper sauce.” The recipe doesn’t mention butter, cream, herbs or other flavorings. .

 

And now that there is no reason and the truth is plain to see, the word “Béchamel” will never again pass my lips. I’ve never known squat about real Béchamel:  I’ve known about White Sauce. And along with my grandmothers that’s what I’ll forever  call it: White Sauce.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under A Couple of Bucks, Food, History, On the Street Where I Live

Object of the Day: Tisket! Taskit! Check Out My New Basket

Some goofball once said something like: “Pleasure postponed is pleasure doubled.” I’m not all about instant gratification; that two day UPS hang time is about perfect. The fine folks at L L Bean backordered my bike basket for a friggin’ month and a half.  Shipping, as always, was free.

Oh, I love it. I regret that I can’t photo style it with a baguette and a bunch of bluebells — my package of English muffins and bouquet of rogue goldenrod doesn’t hit that hip lady in Amsterdam vibe. Or the Miss Marple vibe. Or the wife of an investment banker in Nantucket vibe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty bucks isn’t too much to pay (free shipping!) for a rich fantasy life and a vehicle in which I can return library books, is it? It’s so much prettier than the woven  pink plastic woven dealio that carried my textbooks home from high school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love its retro convergence with my air horn. I love that it attaches to the handlebars with doll-sized leather belts : no screwdriver required. I love that I can remove it in a snap, and it’ll become my farmer’s market shopping bag.

Mostly I love that I’ve constructed the bike of my dreams. No gears. A comfortable saddle. The ability to sit up straight and watch the world, not the road. Serious exercise for legs and butt.  A Keystone Cop kinda air horn. And a basket I’ll take to TJ’s and load up with flowers, wine, and cheap snack food.

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Filed under Body, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, How Cool is That?, On the Street Where I Live, Worth it anyway

Apron of the Day: Pumpkins and Reindeer

I’m in production mode.

I was stunned to realize, as I pulled my apron inventory from my warehouse (that would be the linen closet) that I didn’t have one stinkin’ holiday apron  on hand. I blew whatever money that came from my last apron sale on Christmassy fabric (oooooh, I have some cool yardage!”) and pondered the possibilities of the reversible apron.

For The Season, I’m expanding into mother/daughter, grandmother/granddaughter, doll aprons — even wine bottle aprons. But value is important, so I’m thinking: one side can be holiday based but the verso should be a print that can be worn year-round. What do you think?

As it happened, I found a yard of fabric from my stash that handles the two fall holidays that feature pumpkins — plus the print is so terrific that it could handle twelve months a year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The life-sized reveal:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(If you crave some Asian pears, c’mon over and strip the tree.)

This is the witty Christmas side — I love these reindeers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willow put in an appearance, but didn’t climb into the shoot — note the windfall pears. Sigh.

 

 

 

 

 

I love this apron, red rickrack and reindeer:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So let’s crowd source this. If you’re buying a Christmas cookie- baking, gravy- stirring, hors d’ouevres -passing  Christmas apron, would you like the reverse to be a pretty print you could wear year-round?

 

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Filed under A yard of fabric, Apron of the Day, Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, Holidays, Needlework, On the Street Where I Live, Reversible Aprons, Sewing

Bye Bye, Big White

Today I waved good-bye to my favorite car, ever. All those of you remembering that Sprite or Mustang or ’67 Chevy will guffaw when I do the big reveal.

Please chuckle  — don’t guffaw!  The car I’ll miss the most is a 2001 Ford Focus.

Why? Well, for starters I was ten years younger, and the last decade has been the most challenging of my life. After years of Escorts and Mirages, the Focus felt big and luxurious. For the first time in my life I had power windows, air conditioning  a CD player and one of those clickety things. I drove it on icy roads at midnight returning from work, so warm and so trusting of my front wheel drive. We traveled to Ottawa dozens of times, a book on CD whiling away endless hours on the 401.

What I’ll always remember the Focus for is providing one of those too rare moments of transcendence. I was driving home alone in a snowstorm after a convivial evening with friends. The windshield wipers thwapped, the snow drifted down in fat flakes like the flocking on a Christmas card, and Vladimir Horowitz was blasting a Chopin Ballade from the radio. Apart from Vlad, the night was silent, as most snowy nights are. I was in my warm capsule of peace and joy, and I don’t mention words like peace and joy unless I mean it.

Six months ago Big White’s battery started to give us problems, Lou’s cool Tiburon decided to swim to that eternal junkyard and we bought our peppy Little Blue Toyota. As neither of us has what you might call a Day Job, the Focus sat in the driveway because we couldn’t start it and we didn’t need it.

On a rainy day late last week Lou came back from the mailbox with an note enclosed in a baggy. It read : “I was wondering if you would be interested in selling this car? If so, call or text me. Kevin.”

I called Kevin. He has a friend two streets over and — good grief! — he had fond memories of his own old Focus. He was thinking about giving it to his sixteen-year-old brother for the kid’s first car. Of course he asked “Do you have the title?” Yipes.

We spent ten hours on Saturday tearing through every cursed piece of paper we’ve accumulated for the last five years. I mean every single damned piece. The veins in Lou’s temples throbbed. I’d checked the Secretary of State’s site for the form to get a new title, and I offered up the idea of the 95 buck fee. Note: We finally cleaned up that stack of mail.

Lou had gone to the grocery store to pick up the two indespensibles: toilet paper and cat food. Kevin rang. He was forty-five minutes from a viewing and he asked again: “Do you have the title?” Nope, Kevin, but we’ll take care of it.

Lor love a duck. As I was sweeping the stacks of redundant paper from the dining room table (AKA Mission Control) the Great Being cut me a break. We’d been through the stack ten times, but there it was in plain sight: the title.

I was thrilled to tell Kevin I’d found it  when he came over and tried to start Big White. Big White wasn’t cooperative. We lowered the price. He said he’d get back to me.

Today Kevin and his charming  father arrived with a stack of bills and a trailer.  Bye bye, Big White.

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Filed under Cheap and Cheerful Object of the Day, History, On the Street Where I Live

Poached Pears

There are some recipes that never, ever fail. Let’s consider the pear, a fave of mine because they’re one of the few fruits that can ripen on the window sill. (Except of course, my Asian pears from the backyard tree, which don’t taste like pears, never ripen and are used principally as compost fodder and wasp nectar.)

 

Lou was lured by the price: Bosc pears at a dime apiece. I love the elegant, slim-waisted Boscs, but these were tween pears; undersized, skinny and sullen. Oh, and harder than a cheap lip gloss.

 

I should have lined them all up on the kitchen windowsill to ripen, but I spared just two. I don’t need dessert every night, but last night I was feeling the poached pear love, so I peeled, seeded and poached. I know that any but my maddeningly useless Asian pears can be poached into something good, even skinny Boscs.

 

So: you don’t need good red wine, never a problem in my house. I slapped those pear halves in a pan, covered them with a slop of Châteaux Cheepo, dumped in too much sugar, some cinnamon and a couple of cardoman pods. I tastds the liquid, realized it was way too sweet, then added the grated peel of a lemon and all it’s juice. Those hard skinny pears took almost an hour to poach – the unlooked for bonus was a deep, thick, first-boil caramelly sauce.  Even with sullen pears this worked like a dessert charm: if I’d been working with ripeBartlettsthe result would have been so much better.

 

I chilled the pears and warmed up the sauce. I tucked some ricotta into the scooped out belly of the pear halves, drizzled them with honey, then spooned the thickened sauce over everything. That spot of green garnish is a lemon balm leaf, chosen because it was pitch dark, the lemon balm surges outside my back door, and I’d have had  to stagger in the dark to find the mint.

 

Oh man, they were good, and I remembered that Julia had taught me about poaching pears when I was a cooking neophyte in my twenties. Talk about cheap and cheerful, ageless and accessible. (White wine works well too.) Next time I’ll sub Greek yoghurt for the ricotta and I have a hunch it will be better. I wonder if I should have added some mint, or rosemary to the poaching liquid? Nemmind, I have four poached halves in the fringe, and two whole pears on the windowsill.

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Filed under Food, History, On the Street Where I Live

My New Wheels!

Ain’t she a beauty!

Lou asked me what I wanted my my birthday. You know, that’s getting harder as I get older. When I was fifteen years younger and a little better off, my answer was “Go to the silver room at Tiffany and buy me a bracelet.” He did, and I have a lovely collection. Much older and much poorer, I was stuck, but just for a minute.

“Bring me a bottle of Guerlain’s Jicky, or buy me a bike. A real bike, not like the ones we sold for ten bucks each three years ago. I want something with a seat that doesn’t split my buttocks like some creep in an S&M blog. No gears. No hand breaks.”

I was describing the red CCM I learned to bike on when I was ten. Sure, riding up the steep coteaux in Trois-Rivieres was real work, even for a fit twelve year old. But I wasn’t forcing my weight on aching wrists, staring at the pavement, as I did on my zillion speed racing bike. I could look around me, checking out traffic and the Dairy Queen and Notre Dame des Sept Allegresses. I could signal with my thumb on the handle of a bell, and I could carry my homework home in my bike basket.

You know how you can pull up a supremely happy moment as if it were a (to continue the retro tech thing) slide? Another birthday, long ago, when Honor was, perhaps, three. I was working as the supervisor of the Junior Lingerie department of Carson Pirie Scott on State Street, and because I worked later than he did, Lou would pick me up in the red Ford Fiesta. On that birthday evening, I crossed Wabash to wait for my ride, and looked south. Lou was riding a red bicycle up the sidewalk, with my daughter perched on the handlebars, her blonde curls flying. They were both grinning, she was squealing, the  El  clattering above us. He strapped the bike to the roof of the Fiesta and we drove back to 1208 W. Lexington, where he gave me a martini and his other present, a Mahalia Jackson LP. I stood on the back porch, looking over the unrivalled Chicago skyline, a tiny bit buzzed and feeling the Spirit run up and down my spine while Mahalia sang “Born in Bethlehem.”

I’ve had great birthdays, but that one is my favorite. Young as I was, I knew there was powerful magic happening. And I loved that bike. When we moved to the ‘Ville we were a one car family, so in decent weather I’d ride to work (in a dress and heels) along the Prairie Path. Sometimes I glowed when I arrived at the Unisys Training Center, sometimes I arrived wet from a a shower, sometimes I showed up with a bouquet of wildflowers.  Once I arrived home with the magic pastoral terror of the great outdoor god Pan, because a red fox had fled before my wheels.

The bike got stolen, and I endured twenty years of racing bikes and mountain bikes, eyes downward, wrists aching. ‘Lor love a duck, I’m not an athlete, I just like to pedal about, go to the library, feel the burn in my thighs and see and smell the flowers.

Lou received my rigorous standards for the bicycle of my dreams, and he met and exceeded them. (It was cheaper than a bottle of Jicky.) This bike could have been ridden by Miss Marple or Twiggy.

Daisy detailing, whitewalls with sky blue trim.

Note: No gears, no brakes. I’m going to buy a basket and a bell and I’m going to cruise around, no hands, looking up and looking around.

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Filed under Body, Machines, On the Street Where I Live, The 'Ville, The Great Outdoors, Worth it anyway

Charlene’s Exterior Design

There’s nothing cheaper and more cheerful than having a neighbour who imagines charming seasonal decorations, executes them with originality and charm, and pulls all eyes from her neighbor’s house – the one with the overgrown garden and the peeling paint.

You’ve heard me write about the Simpsons. BigDale,Viet Nam marine, career cop and now the dude who cools the ring at Fermilab – Cerne needed him, bad. Little Dale, Warrenville’s own Indiana Jones, is now between Machu Picchu  and Easter Island. The gorgeous Christina, mother and florist. Then there’s Charlene, my confidante of what, Char? Thirty years in August?

Char, Big Dale’s “Bohunk Accountant,” a thrifty smart Bohemian girl. Char, the interior decorator, who’s done so much more with her house than we ever could. She keeps a freaking spotless house. She’s been my catsitter since before Lady Gaga was born. We can be holed up in wintry weather, then meet up at the mailbox and catch up. Big time.

She decorates the outside of her house for every holiday – Flag Day, Valentines Day, Christmas, She caught little girls cutting the plastic eggs off her shrubs this Easter, and they had no defense except “They so pretty.” Charlene tapped her invisible store of seasonal; stuff and handed the little girls a few eggs of their own, They returned the pilfered eggs.

Char is in 4th of July mode. You can’t see the other spread of bunting from this pic, on the north side of the fence, but I adore it. I notice a brand  new flag. And I love the details on the front porch. That’s what I love about her seasonal decorating: even at Christmastime, the real goodies are on the front porch to delight me, other friends and the UPS man.

When I ask where she picks up her props she says something like “Flea Market.” Or “Five for a dollar at TJMaxx.”  It’s weird – I never see her tying all those Easter eggs to her shrubs, or hanging the fresh bunting or running up a new flag – it always happens like magic.

 

Now for a few pix:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This tin basket is reimagined every other week, it seems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This stands to the right of the front door. I mean, where does she find this stuff?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patriotic cushions, patriotic kitty.

Thanks, Charlene for treating your neighbors with your charming, original decorations. I think you should go into business.

Um, here’s our pitiful, overgrown weedy take on the red white and blue:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So thank you, Char: you’re the ‘Ville’s Martha Simpson.

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Filed under Free, History, Holidays, Home, How Cool is That?, On the Street Where I Live, The 'Ville