A recipe is rather like a piece of music. Although the notes may be read and reproduced faithfully the result can still be crude, mechanical or just uninteresting.
Notes from My Fictitious Mazet
Recently I bought a home in Vancouver, Washington and found myself with the unenviable task of having to move yet again. Hopefully for the last time but who really knows. If I did my calculations correctly, at best I shall be carted off to the nursing home drooling uncontrollably in a snug pair of Depends by the time the last house payment is paid. At worst, I will be found by bill collectors thoroughly mummified with a glass of pastis in one hand and a tartine of tapenade in the other.
A chef’s childhood is similar to that of a military brat. Every new assignment means yet another uproot for the entire family. New friends replace the old ones, different schools for the kids and a new community to discover and explore. In our case, it also meant moving two thousand cookbooks, 3,000 menus and a battery of copper pans large enough to fill even the Frenchest of all classical kitchens. The benefit is coming across books I had forgotten we owned. Maybe forgotten is the wrong choice of words, what I really mean is disremembered. This particular move unearthed a collection of books from one of Provence’s greatest gifts to humanity, Roger Verge. His poetic words speak of an older, gentler time. When the quality of our foodstuffs really mattered and simplicity ruled the menus of both homes and restaurants alike.
At times I feel myself an old school gentleman amiably at odds with modern times. I like progress fine, but often find myself longing for a less convoluted world. A place of simple pleasures where the dark side of technology has no grip. Perhaps like a pendulum we have swung too far on somethings and forgotten the simple joys of the table. Let’s harken back to when people cared more about what and how they ate than checking facebook. A time when it was understood that carrots are not picked past a certain size or that nature only gives us two, maybe three pickings of green beans before they become too woody to be enjoyed anymore. Even if you do not garden, care must be taken in selecting your vegetables. It’s not good enough to shop for the cheapest. Each ingredient has an apex and should be celebrated in its due season. Selecting quality vegetables is only a small aspect of eating. A great meal is so much more, it is an emotion.
In “New Entertaining in the French Style”, Verge tells a story of an old man he meets who tells him the history of where Verge’s restaurant stands. It is the site of an old olive oil windmill. The old man recounts his youth when he would go to see the miller. On the way he would gather young dandelions and wash them in a nearby stream. “The miller gave us a pignate or crock filled with olive oil that had just flowed off the millstones. We rubbed the bread with garlic, dipped it in the pignate and chewed all this along with dandelions in coarse salt. Add to this a shot of our wine from the hills! And so you see, my little one. I am not sure all your clients relish all your complicated stuff as much as we did that very simple food.”
Have you ever picked up a book and at once felt so acutely aligned with the author’s disposition that it almost made you cry? Like you found a kindred spirit who verbalizes your emotions and captures your very essence with every stroke of their pen. Every word brought me one step closer to my Southern French roots. I sat deep in quiet silence. Unable to move. Not wanting to stop the moment. Books are so much more than simply a collection of words. They are glimpses into an epoch and the author’s soul.
Reading stories of his favorite aunt Celestine shopping a farmer’s market made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of my own youth and watching the competitive way my mother shopped. A trip to the market is anything but a lazy morning stroll best done with a chai latte in one hand and a scone in the other. To the French, shopping is a full contact sport not for the faint of heart or the timid. You will get eaten alive by the veteran grandma’s. Serious cooks get to the market early and scope out the farmers. The vegetables and fruits are surveyed along with the opposition. Getting the best ingredients for your table is the prize. Bunches of tender carrots are stripped out of small children’s hands and elbows fly as shopping carts are strategically used to divert the competition around a display. Broken bones, dented shopping carts and hurt feelings are accepted collateral damage. Oh I learned from the very best and it has become well integrated into my character.
Every Saturday I pull up to the Portland farmer’s market at PSU and promise myself I will be a nice shopper today. I often repeat this mantra several times parked in my car hoping it will take root. But every Saturday once the caffeine kicks in and the adrenaline gets running I revert to my aggressive mode. Once again I find myself unable to slow as I fly through the market leaving a trail of bewildered Portlanders in my wake. With the wind in my hair I hear a chorus of “hey dude, chill, you are being so agro” (best said in as valley girl a voice as you can muster) echo in the air behind me. The French method is so completely opposite that of an average Portlanders. I apologize Portland, maybe it is time for anger management classes.
“If you love good food, you can cook well. In fact I would go so far as to say you must love food to cook well.”
Roger Verge begins his book with this sage advice. “A recipe is rather like a piece of music. Although the notes may be read and reproduced faithfully the result can still be crude, mechanical or just uninteresting.” There has to be something more that defines a great recipe than simply kitchen science. I have long said give two cooks the same recipe and the same bag of groceries and you will end up with two different dishes. Science does not count the most important factors, the human and their emotions. “If a recipe is a musical composition than you have to give it voice. A cook is creative, marrying flavors in the way a poet marries words, combining flavors, and inventing new and subtle harmonies.”
He finishes the forward saying “A recipe is not meant to be followed exactly – it is a canvas on which you embroider, Improvise and invent. Add the zest of this, a drop or two of that, a tiny pinch of the other. Let yourself be led by your palate and your tongue, your eyes and your heart. In other words be guided by your love of food, and then you will be able to cook.”
Roger Verge created a very simple olive tart in tribute to the old gentlemen mentioned earlier. In homage to Verge and the South of France I made his olive tart for lunch today. I suggest you try this humble dish at home yourself. I made slight modifications to the recipe but mostly it is his masterpiece of simplicity. As Verge says “Courage, my chefs! To your stoves!”
- 1-3/4 cups flour
- pinch herbs de Provence
- pinch of baking powder
- pinch of flake salt
- ½ cup olive oil, use a good one
- ¼ cup of cold water
- ¼ cup of olive oil
- 1 sweet onion, finely chopped
- 1 bunch Swiss chard, or young dandelions with their tender roots
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 farm fresh eggs
- 2 tablespoons of heavy cream
- one grating of nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped
- 6 ounces of pitted Nicoise Olives
- On your counter, mix the flour, herbs de Provence, baking powder and salt.
- Make a well, and pour the olive oil in slowly. I added the oil in several pours mixing it into the flour a bit as I went along.
- Add the water and work the dough till it forms a ball. If it is too sticky add a bit more flour, if it is too dry add more water.
- Refrigerate and let rest for one hour. In the meantime prepare your filling.
- Heat olive oil in a large saute pan. Add onion and chopped Swiss chard stems.
- Saute a few moments, till the onions gets slightly translucent, then add garlic.
- Chop the chard leaves and add. Continue cooking till it dries out, about five more minutes.
- Mix the eggs, cream, nutmeg and chopped thyme. Add to chard mixture off heat.
- Roll you tart dough out to about 12 inches.
- Crimp the edges and pour filling in.
- Rough chop the olives and arrange on top.
- Bake for 25 minutes at 475 degrees.
- Let cool slightly and enjoy with a nice strong pastis!