B has been working hard on learning Hebrew the past few weeks with the eventual goal of reading the Old Testament. I’ve been working less hard, spending my time buying books that relate to my dissertation and putting them in stacks, working on my origami, and marveling at B’s capacity for filling notebooks with lists of words and conjugations for hours on end. I spent the last few lazy afternoons reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which my mother loved when it first came out in the 60s and I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It was pretty great, though it made me thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t born in a different generation. As I have a penchant for loving jerks in literature, my favorite character was Norine Schmittlapp, the nemesis of “the group” and the closest thing to a real radical that McCarthy’s 1930s New York has to offer us. Even so, her portrait is terribly bleak, if surprisingly funny. After her first marriage fails, she marries a wealthy Jewish banker whose family has changed their name from Rosenberg to Rogers, a fact that she shares with “a particular kind of relish” with her aghast acquaintance Priss.
In fact, Priss’s chance encounter with Norine near the end of the novel was one of the best and sharpest parts of the book. Priss meets Norine in the park, where Norine is pushing her infant son Ichabod (“‘Aren’t you afraid he’ll be called ‘Icky’ in school?’ she asked impulsively. ‘He’ll have to learn to fight his battles early,’ philosophized Norine. ‘Ichabod the Inglorious. That’s what it means in Hebrew. No glory.’”) around naked in his expensive stroller. Norine casually pats her son’s penis, a practice that scandalizes Priss, who is terrified of arousing her own toddler son and would almost rather “he be dirty than have him get an Oedipus complex from her handing him.” Norine insists that Priss come over to her lavishly furnished but disheveled home that nevertheless the site of a well-regarded bohemian salon. There, Norine recounts to Priss her affair with another woman’s husband and is brashly matter-of-fact about her sexual proclivities and experiences. When Priss attempts to describe her (or more accurately, her husband’s) behaviorist theories of child-rearing, Norine condescends the poor woman. “‘You still believe in progress,’ she said kindly. ‘I’d forgotten there were people who did. It’s your substitute for religion. Your tribal totem is the yardstick. But we’ve transcended all that. No first-rate mind can accept the concept of progress any more.’” When Priss accuses Norine of having abandoned her political radicalism, Norine declares that she leaves politics to her husband Freddy:
“Being a Jew and upper crust, he’s profoundly torn between interventionism abroad and laissez faire at home. Freddy isn’t an intellectual. But before we were married, we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists. Some of the basic books. So that semantically we can have the same referents.”
According to Norine, Freddy tolerates this curriculum requirement because
“Freddy’s philopregentitive; he’s interested in founding a dynasty. So long as I can breed, I’m a sacred cow to him. Bed’s very important to Freddy; he’s a sensualist, like Solomon. Collects erotica. He worships me because I’m a goy. Besides, like so many rich Jews, he’s a snob. He like to have interesting people in the house, and I can give him that.”
In her own self-diagnosis, Norine’s only real problem is “her brains”:
“[I was] formed as an intellectual…Freddy doesn’t mind that I can think rings around him, he likes it. But I’m conscious of the yawning abyss. And he expects me to be a Hausfrau at the same time. A hostess, he calls it. I’ve got to dress well and set a good table. He think it ought to be easy because we have servants. But I can’t handle servants. It’s a relic, I guess, of my political period. Freddy’s taken to hiring them himself, but I demoralize them, he says, as soon as they start in the house. They take a cue from my cerebralism. They start drinking and padding the bills and forgetting to polish the silver. […] I’ve been trying to turn over a new leaf, now that we have a new house. I start out with a woman who comes to massage me and give me exercises to relax. But before I know it, I’m discussing the Monophysites or the Athanasian Creed or Maimonides. The weirdest types come to work for me; I seem to magnetize them. The butler we have now is an Anthroposophist. Last night he started doing eurhythmics.”
When Priss asks if Norine really regrets the Vassar education the women shared, Norine declares “ ‘Oh completely…I’ve been crippled for life.’”
Of course it’s obvious to both Priss and the reader that Norine’s real problem is not her cerebralism but her narcissism and anti-Semitism, which become apparent when calls her own husband a “Yip” and asks Priss with more than a touch of anxiety if she thinks that “Ichabod looks Jewish.” Norine is the great satirical monster of the text, a totally unsympathetic character that is an ingenious cipher for the other women’s anxieties, be they about housekeeping, sexual prowess, education, or parenting. But in her own right, she is such a riveting mess, with the neck-rings on her blouses and her dirty polar bear skin rug; her theories about underlying lesbian drives, oral gratification and penis-envy that are coupled with her brassy declaration that “Freud is out of date”; and her ad hoc parenting cues taken from anthropological texts about the Pueblo Indians. She wears little Ichabod in proto-Baby Björn to a funeral and declares that it serves the same function as a papoose, allowing her to give Ichabod the experience of death early, rather like the mumps. She serves enormous wedges of chocolate cake to the children for lunch. I rather loved her.
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s my boyfriend’s newest obsession with acquiring Hebrew or reading about old-school New York and the dangerous shiksa Norine for the past few days, but I’ve been longing for some serious kosher deli food. I usually get my fix in Paris with a quick trip to Florence Kahn (24 rue des Ecouffes at the corner of 19 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris, Métro St. Paul), a fabulous Jewish traiteur in the Marais with one of the best tile mosaic storefronts you’ll ever see.
Inside, you’ll find an amazing selection of fresh bread and pastries, pickled herring and other smoked fishes, blinis, pickles, goulash, latkes, and pierogis, as well as house-cured and smoked pastrami, corned beef, and tongue. My go-to choice:
The Big Pletzel Sandwich. That’s really what it’s called, meaning ordering it always feels kind of silly: “Je voudrais un Big Pletzel Sandwich, si’l vous plaît.” For about seven euros, you get an enormous fresh bun filled with layers of homemade pastrami, pickles, roasted red peppers, fresh tomatoes, and some kind of unidentified special sauce. You can get it warmed up and take it to go, or you can sit in their lovely outdoor seating and watch the rue de Rosier hoards line up at L’As du Falafel. Florence Kahn is a great alternative to falafel if the lines at L’As are daunting or if you want a real carnivore fix. It’s also a lovely place to buy the fixings for a picnic or an easy dinner, like this one I made earlier this week:
I bought the blinis and the glorious lox at Florence Kahn. I gave the blinis a quick shake in some melted butter in a pan, and added some crème fraîche, capers, and red onion that I had in my fridge. Much fancier and more delicious than it had any right to be, especially given how easy it was to prepare.
The one thing I hesitate to buy and reheat, however, are latkes. Somehow preprepared or frozen ones are never quite right, even if you fry them in oil. Ever since I saw a soggy tray of them at Florence Kahn, I’ve had proper latkes on the brain. Today I pushed up my sleeves and got to work. I’d never made them before, so I got some ideas from Epicurious and the food section of the New York Times online. I settled on this compromise recipe (based on what I had on hand):
9 all-purpose white potatoes, peeled, grated, and drained
½ of a white onion, grated
1 shallot, grated
3 eggs, beaten
¾ cup of baguette breadcrumbs (you’re supposed to use matzo meal, but all the kosher stores are on vacation, just like the rest of Paris in August)
Salt and pepper
Canola oil for frying (I used extra virgin olive oil, because my kitchen is too small for ingredients I rarely use)
Applesauce and sour cream for serving (crème fraîche if you’re on this side of the pond)
After peeling and grating for what seems like forever, incorporate your potatoes, onion, shallot, and eggs together. Then, add breadcrumbs (or matzo meal) gradually to soak up the excess liquid. Salt and pepper to taste.
Heat up about two tablespoons of oil in a deep frying skillet. When crackly, add a heaping tablespoon of the batter to the oil, patting it down with the back of your spoon to form a thick pancake. Fry each side 2-3 minutes or until golden brown and lacy at the edges. I was able to fit three latkes in each batch, and each batch took approximately one Róisín Murphy jam to cook. I incurred only two minor splatter burns in the whole process (the cost of doing business if you ask me). I may or may not have been pretending to be Polly, the most sympathetic member of The Group, who cooked grandiose meals every night for her publisher lover (scandalous!) on her tiny hotplate.
Drain on papertowels.
Keep the earlier batches warm, either in a low oven (aren’t you a fancypants!) or in a covered pan.
Serve with sour cream and applesauce, preferably to a bewildered student of Hebrew, who will likely seem very impressed at your labor-intensive weekday lunch.
My blog might suggest that I lead a louche life of perpetual dining out, which is hardly the case. In fact, despite the absurd percentage of my monthly budget that I devote to food (and books about psychoanalysis), I actually am living here on a pauper’s salary. This means that I eat most of my meals at home. I was quite the adventurous cook when I was living in States, probably because I had proper American kitchens at my disposal. While I was thrilled to find my Marais apartment on account of its enviable address and unheard-of wall between bedroom and living area, I was pretty dismayed to discover the pathetic excuse for a kitchen that they’ve installed in this bitch. We’re talking two glorified hotplates that they have disguised as burners (two settings: scorching and off), a mini-fridge, and a sink. All in one crappy, drippy stainless steel unit. Initially I figured that this would be the death of my culinary aspirations, but I’ve actually gotten pretty handy in my miniature kitchen. As the weather has gotten hotter, I’ve been forced to bust out some of my best summer dinners. I’d never presume to be so culinarily skilled as to tell anybody anything about cooking, but both B and M thought that this might make for an interesting entry and I’m nothing if obliging of my two best readers. And as someone who has certainly Googled “dinner ideas please help!” at one point or another, I thought I’d add my voice to the chorus. So here’s what I like to pull together on a hot evening. While some of these ingredients are rather special, I’ve seen most of them at this point at the City Market in rural Utah, so I don’t think I’m being too much of a Coastal Elite by posting these recipes. Tweak to your taste and enjoy!
1) Carpaccio-Style Bresaola
There isn’t much I love more than a proper raw beef preparation, be it a steak tartare or a beef carpaccio. But for whatever reason, I’m pretty squeamish about preparing raw beef for myself or my friends. I guess at the end of the day I just don’t want to poison anyone. Enter bresaola, that lovely wine-colored, air-dried and aged salted beef that you can find in the deli section of your local market or Italian specialty store. In both French and American grocery stores, I usually go for the Citterio brand for Italian cold cuts. They cost more, but they are usually better than whatever your supermarket is shilling. And no, Citterio isn’t paying me to say this, but if they would like to pay me or send me crates of cured meat, I certainly wouldn’t complain.
This “recipe” is stupid easy and I can’t even believe that I would condescend to my dear reader’s intelligence by writing it out, but here we go.
A package of bresaola (or approximately 4-5 slices per person)
Two large handfuls of baby arugula per person (Is anyone still buying tough bitter adult arugula? Stop that immediately.)
A wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano (Don’t worry, you won’t use it all. Is anyone still buying pre-grated Grana Padano? Stop that immediately.)
Some extra-virgin olive oil (I’m not particularly snobbish about this, surprisingly.)
Take a pretty salad or dinner plate. Lay out the bresaola slices evenly on the surface. I like to make it look like a flower, though I’m sure nobody has ever noticed this. Deposit handfuls of baby arugula in the middle. Leave the edges of your bresaola peeking out for aesthetic interest. Grate big flakes of parmigiano-reggiano over the top using a proper cheese grating device, or like me, an all-purpose vegetable peeler. You can do all this even a few hours beforehand. Then, right before you serve it, drizzle olive oil over the whole thing and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with lemon wedges and forcefully encourage your guests to squeeze said lemon slices over the top. If you are feeling fancy or improvisational, you can add all number of things to this dish, including capers, finely sliced red onions, or diced tomatoes. Don’t be surprised if your friends think you are more sophisticated that you actually are if you serve this on a weekday.
For the summer meal pictured, I served carpaccio-style bresaola with pre-packaged oil-marinated anchovy filets and mini-calamari, demi-sêche tomatoes (have you eaten these yet? They are revelatory if you always felt, like I did, that fully dried tomatoes were too chewy), ricotta with fresh mint and crusty bread, and Campari spritzers (recipe below). Everyone seemed unduly impressed despite the totally minimal preparation time on my part.
2) Terry’s Mother’s Tabouleh
One of the more idiosyncratic things about my dad is that he is a big believer in hitchhiking. He hitchhiked across the United States in his younger days and New Zealand in his first year of retirement, and still doesn’t hesitate to throw out a thumb if he finds himself in need. He’s also pretty unflagging in picking up hitchhikers, which I guess you have to be if you are buying into the whole operation. When I was a kid it wasn’t especially strange for him to bring home someone for dinner who he had picked up along the side of the road. Perhaps more remarkably, he has befriended many of these people over the years and they have stayed in touch over time and distance. One such fellow, a Lebanese guy named Terry, ended up becoming a dear friend of my family and a regular attendee at my mother’s epic Thanksgiving dinners when I was a child. Among the many lovely things he gave my mother over the years is his mother’s tabouleh recipe, which has been a standby at potlucks in our circle ever since. I like to make this at the end of the month when I’m feeling a bit more cash-poor as it filling, cheap, keeps for a couple of days in the fridge, and works well as both a light main course and as a side dish. My mother will probably kill me for sharing this with the world, but it’s really good and worth the ink.
1 cup bulgar wheat, uncooked
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use extra-virgin olive oil because it’s all I ever have)
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (fresh squeezed)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (Italian flat-leaved)
2 teaspoons fresh chopped mint (or you can use dried mint if the fresh stuff costs fifteen dollars at the market and you aren’t savvy enough to have a windowbox herb garden like yours truly)
1 bunch of chopped green onions (including white tops)
3-4 ripe plum tomatoes, diced
Pour the boiling water over bulgar wheat in bowl. Cover with a towel and let stand for one hour. Drain well if there is any excess liquid. Add tomatoes, onions, herbs, and oil, and stir. Then add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste and blend well. Chill for at least four hours before serving. I usually double the recipe because it just gets better over the next few days in the fridge.
3) My Mother’s Gazpacho (tweaked slightly)
I’m sorry, but I just have to say it: my mother’s gazpacho is better than your mother’s gazpacho. It just is. I’m sorry. Your gazpacho is runny and sad. My mother’s gazpacho (especially since I tweaked it) is gazpacho for a new generation. I don’t care that you are from Spain. I don’t care what Gwyneth Paltrow says, Spanish food is usually bland city. This is awesome, and I’ll fight you if you say any differently.
3 large tomatoes chopped and peeled (or not peeled, if you are lazy like me)
1 chopped yellow or orange bell pepper (My mom’s recipe calls for a green bell pepper, but let’s be honest here. Yuck! Who eats green bell peppers anymore? They should be reserved solely for convicts and B’s limb-quiveringly good gumbo).
1 English cucumber (these seem to hold up better than the hothouse varieties)
1 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1-2 finely diced raw jalapeno peppers (Less if you’re a wimp, more if you agree that Spanish food could use some heat.)
4 cups tomato juice
3-4 tablespoons of good balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Combine all the veggies and the juice. Then add vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Now, if you’re a purist, puree the whole mess in batches using your food processor or blender. Or, if you’re a renegade like my mom, leave it alone and watch your guest marvel at the delicious crunchiness of the vegetables. Or, if you’re a sad compromise formation like myself, puree half of the soup and then reincorporate it into the chunky half. Either way, let it marinate in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Then, immediately before serving you can add any of the following to the top:
Ripe avocado slices
Cooked shrimp (Aren’t you fancy! My mom always served small salad shrimp, but anything you can find will do nicely.)
Sautéed Scallops (I like the bay scallops for this, as they are bite sized. Actually, in my opinion, bay scallops don’t get nearly as much play as they ought to!)
Crab meat (Okay, so you’re really fancy! You can buy some pretty killer canned crab meats now, especially if you look in the refrigerated section of high-end markets.)
Croutons (Make your own by liberally dousing cubes of nice bread with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread them evenly on a cookie sheet and stick sheet under the broiler, shaking every minute so they brown evenly.)
4 and 5) Canned Fish Sandwiches
Are you on the canned fish bandwagon yet? No?! Immediately block out a few hours of your life to browse the website for the Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine. In addition to being all things that a good blog should be, this wonderful website is full of recipes and serving ideas for one of the cheapest, healthiest, and yummiest things that you just might not be buying at your local grocery store. I’ve always been a big fan of sardines and have recently become an anchovy fanatic. But I don’t think I ever quite realized how versatile they are and how many different kinds things you can incorporate these omega-3 fatty acid, calcium, protein, and vitamins D and B12 packed foods. And if you’re squeamish about the bones and skin (FYI, that’s where all the nutrients are!), you can buy really lovely sardine filets these days. Spend a few extra bucks on your cans and you’ll be surprised how sweet, tender, and totally delicious these guys can be. They are still one of the cheapest animal protein sources you can buy. The Sardine Society’s website is full of reviews of both American and French brands, so give it browse before you go shopping.
One of the best things that came out of reading the Sardine Society was Alton Brown’s Sardicado Sandwich. Alton Brown usually annoys me, but I quite enjoyed this clip from his show, probably because I too spend a lot of my time proselytizing about the virtues of sardines to the people I love. I tweaked the recipe a little bit based on what I had in my kitchen. I used a fresh baguette sliced lengthwise instead of sourdough (I’m in France, remember?) and balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar in the dressing. Finally, I had some dreamy sweet plum tomatoes that I sliced and put over the top, an addition I’d highly recommend.
I also am pretty sweet on what I’ll call Cefalù Style Anchovy Sandwiches, the prototype for which I ate while we were staying in Cefalù, Sicily. It’s a simple combination: good anchovies (I usually buy the kind in oil, but am curious to try these Ortiz salt-packed one that all the foodie blogs are nuts for), drained half-dried tomatoes, and thin slices of pecorino cheese. Place the three of these on the inside of a baguette and wrap the whole thing tightly in plastic wrap for an hour or so to marinate. Then, before serving add some fresh arugula.
As for drinking, my ideal summer cocktail is three things: fizzy, seriously boozy, and kinda sweet. There’s nothing better than a whiskey and ginger ale on a hot evening. Or, experiment with making Bavarian Radlers (beer and sparkling lemonade) at home. If you’ve jumped on the Aperol and Campari bandwagons (judging from my Google results, many of you have!), I’d encourage you to fool around with the basic formula of an Aperol/Campari spritz. While the basic formula combination is Aperol or Campari, Prosecco, and soda, I like to add citrus juice instead of soda (clementine, tangerine, blood orange, and pink grapefruit are all really nice with these flavors).