Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wonder Bread

My husband flew home from Copenhagen with Rugbrød lovingly wrapped in brown paper and tucked in his carry-on bag. Rug what, you say? This dark, sour, rye bread is a staple of the Danish diet and the pallet upon which smorrebrød, their delicious, sometimes elaborate, often humble, open-faced sandwiches are served. Some of you may be familiar with my bread tourette’s and therefore may not find it surprising that this loaf, warm from a Danish bakery, carried over the ocean, is a gift of true love.

Packed with cracked rye kernels, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and weighing nearly three pounds, it is three times the weight of Milton’s multi-grain bread and mustn’t be confused with pumpernickel, which is steamed, and like language (German, Swedish, or Norwegian), it has a distinctly different flavor. Rugbrød (try saying it with your mouth closed like the Danes) would be my choice of sustenance if I were stranded in the wild, given that I could use it to crack nuts or build a raft. It is a complete package. One slice for breakfast spread with butter and honey, or two slices in your lunch box with goat cheese, cucumbers and dill, or a soft boiled egg with radishes, and you may not feel hungry till the next afternoon. Then again, at dusk, just before the day vanishes, what could be better than an open-faced sandwich of liver pate and pickled red onions with a cold beer on the patio? Let’s keep it simple tonight and save the gastronomical somersaults for another day when the light isn’t so pretty.

Over the next week, we will most likely carve this brick to feast morning, noon, and night. When it’s nearly gone, we’ll crumble the end piece for the sparrows, and think back on it with a real nostalgia. How wholesome it was! How it comforted me! How it was, yes, the best bread of my whole life and all other beloved bakeries would understand my brief betrayal.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Gone are the days I could shield my son from the news. Driving to basketball practice with four boys on Monday afternoon, he turned to me “Did you hear, mom?” “Hear what,” was my response. Blood stained scenes of the Boston sidewalks and maimed runners had already traveled across their screens and my urge to reach for his phone and shut it off, or better yet, hurl it out the window, was too little, too late. All I could do was keep my eyes on the road, my hands trembling at ten and two—please, let me carry these children safely, please. “Do you have your seatbelts on?” I asked. Were they five years old? Did I seriously just ask them that?

At eleven and twelve, they’re still like puppies, scrambling over each other’s conversations, eager to tell me where, when, how they heard about the Marathon bombing. I struggled for something to say, but I wasn’t fast enough so I drove and listened. It occurred to me that they had received this news with a good measure of detachment, drawing parallels to other horrors of their times.

I was supposed to be baptized on nine-eleven, but my parents cancelled it.
So you mean you weren’t baptized?
Yeah, maybe a week later.
Dude, do you remember water splashed on your head?
Yeah. I was, like, whoa, what’s going on?
How could you possibly remember that?
My mom told me.
Dude, my cousin was in a restaurant and they had to evacuate cuz there was a bomb.
Did it explode?
Nah. It was just a bomb scare. Some nut called and said he’s gonna blow up the place.
Who does that?

Good. Good for you, I thought, for wiping away the terror, for dismissing these maladjusted nuts and insisting that we return to normal as quickly as possible. In the decade since their birth, they have grown accustomed to this cycle of horror as routine, but it hasn’t diminished their trust in us, or in the world, as large and compassionate. I wanted to pull over and just hug them.

Afterward, I watched them saunter leisurely to the gym, jostling and slugging each other playfully. Was I going to sit there in the car for two hours and wait for them? It didn’t seem like a bad plan. Rage and sorrow made it hard to move a muscle. It was a beautiful afternoon. A lacrosse team was running laps on the track. I had my running shoes in the trunk. The only logical thing to do was to see if I could keep up with them.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Bone to Pick

                                                   Paul Cezanne Still Life with Onions 1896

If you live in the Bay Area you know we had a heat spell this week with temperatures in the upper eighties. Our heat is coy—stopping by unannounced at lunch time, gone by sundown, always leaves you wondering if he’ll be back, if it was something you said, if you need a sweater. At noon, it was eighty five degrees—not a day I would have chosen to make French onion soup. If it were up to me, we’d have Popsicles for dinner.

Since my son read a short story by Roald Dahl about a young boy who muses about onion soup, he’s been asking me why I haven’t made it for him. He’s right to wonder. After all, I ran a French restaurant with onion soup on the menu year round. Even in July I wouldn’t dare take it off the menu lest I face a revolution. A third reminder came last night before he fell asleep “How about that onion soup?” What is wrong with me, I wondered, this is the simplest, most delicious creation in culinary history and I’ve denied him? The thing is, it’s not so easy to find a bowl of authentic onion soup—even cafés in France keep it on their menus for tourists and serve boiled bouillon cubes with three strands of limp onions, forgotten pieces of baguette that fell behind the counter, and a sad sprinkling of what could be string cheese.

Even the butcher was surprised by my request for beef bones when almost everyone will surely be firing up their grills tonight. It didn’t take long for the house to heat up with ten pounds of knuckles roasting in the oven and I do love the sweet smell of caramelized bones. If you’re going to make stock, you might as well make a couple of gallons—at least it seemed like a good idea before the two stock pots came to a boil on the stove. I took a cold shower, then prepped the onions. If you saw the movie Julie and Julia with the one and only Meryl Streep, you may remember the mountain of onions she sliced to earn her stripes. Well, that’s how much you need for a pot of onion soup. If you think you have enough, keep going. Do you have a pot big enough to sauté a wheelbarrow of onions? Yes you do. Grab your big belly pot and throw them all in there, or do it in two batches if you must—like spinach, they shrink as they cook. Add a whole clove or two and a bouquet of thyme and bay leaf (just one). If you’re an impatient person you probably haven’t read this far so it doesn’t seem necessary to mention that now is the time to work on your taxes or fold some laundry, because this part takes a while. Slowly, another sweet aroma will overcome the scent of that rich broth simmering on the back burner. I like to stick my head in the pot when the onions are just turning golden and have a good sniff, then drizzle a little honey to hush a sweet tooth. When I was an apprentice, my chef used to say I was capable of making even pickled herring sweet. “Mon dieu,” he’d cry every time I reached for the honey pot.

The honey is like a sigh. You’ll know when you hear it to open a bottle of good red wine and drench the onions, saving a glass for yourself. Here, the onions will look gloomy, overcast, but not for long (long enough to fold some more laundry, strain your beef stock, toast some croutons), as they will simmer from murky to a glossy crimson, ready for their broth. Let everybody meet and greet, but not too enthusiastically—think British restraint—a gentle boil for a half hour and your soup is ready to be ladled into bowls. I do love the classic ones with the stubby handles that allow you to slide them under the broiler (salamander, for you colts). But first, drop in your croutons (please, make your own), layer some shaved Gruyere cheese, and let it melt—as in bubbling and dripping over the sides. Then wipe your brow and call the cubs to the table—if the heavenly fragrance hasn’t beckoned already. Hopefully you will have extra croutons because those warm bones from your stock are cannons loaded with marrow. Lacquer a spoonful on toast to savor and swallow this magnificent reward.