Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Intrigue of "The Big Sleep"

Thanks to Riana over at These Days in French Life, I came across this fascinating op-ed piece from The New York Times... I have to say, this really got me thinking... And I know we live in an entirely different day and age, of course, and that we are meant to supposedly "move forward" in our approach to modern life, but who's to say that sometimes that act of moving forward might not -- or cannot -- involve a few elements of stepping back in time as well? Or learning from our ancestors and their slower approach to life in order to better preserve the world we live in? And perhaps we could learn to better appreciate our families, all those we love, by detaching ourselves just a bit more from all the material things that tie us to today's society?

I haven't put Riana's lessons to good use yet in my own daily activities, not nearly as much as I'd like, and I fully admit to succumbing to big-city temptations far more often than I should these days... (Yeah, I like some of the finer things too, I won't deny that!) But all that she has accomplished in her Slow Year has really inspired me in my own approach to life, and I will be putting these aspirations into action more and more with time. On that note, I really have conflicting feelings about Sarkozy's approach to certain elements of French society, and how things should change... I've always been a bit "on-the-fence" about my political leanings, and I've never spoken out about them here on my blog, perhaps out of fear of confrontation or disagreement (I've always hated arguments, although I know that French society is basically built on the beauty of debate!). And there are in fact some elements of Sarkozy's proposals that, in theory, make sense and seem to -- perhaps (do you sense my hesitatation here?) -- point us in the right direction. But why is it drummed into us from an early age, in today's society, to work, work, work -- hard and long -- to make more money so that we can, in fact, "be happy"? I know that in today's world we obviously all need to make money, to make a living, to get by, to survive -- but why does this have to be at the cost of our own personal happiness and fulfillment? Why does money have to be ultimately equated with our happiness? More and more I'm questioning this concept, realizing that my own happiness comes from the simplest of things. I'm already tired of the rat race at 33, and I don't even have a particularly stressful job! I'm tired of running after the "almighty dollar" -- or Euro in my case -- I want my happiness and fulfillment to come from those simple things. I know, I know -- you're all going to sigh and say, "You poor thing, but unfortunately, my dear, that's just not the way the world works!" And I guess you'd probably be right...

Or would you? I still have a problem with it. I just don't think I'm wired that way.

And don't get me wrong: I know there's nothing wrong with working hard, being ambitious, accomplishing incredible things. I just don't think I was necessarily cut out to be one of those people. I admire those who do set goals, who make so much happen, who get ahead and make great names for themselves. And I'm certainly not criticizing them. I think it would be great if there could be a better balance of both these kinds of people in the world... And I certainly don't expect anything to be handed to me on a plate, without any effort -- I of course realize that working hard brings great reward as well. But what's so wrong with spending more time with our families instead of working all the time, having in fact different values? Isn't that what a work-life balance is all about? Can we ever escape from this race?

My boyfriend has long said that he agrees with a lot of Sarkozy's principles, but I just don't know if this "work more to earn more" concept really applies to us -- that's the irony of this whole thing! I see how hard he has worked for years in a thankless job that has exhausted him and made him wonder about his own future. But at the same time, his philosophical side has allowed him to find happiness in the smallest, simplest of things, most notably the time he spends with his family and on vacation, away from the craziness of urban city life. It's a contradiction in action: obviously we have to work in that big city to be able to benefit from the comforts of the vacation away, but isn't there a better way of reconciling the two? And I just don't know if I necessarily want to "work more to earn more" myself as I get older... I believe I want more time to treasure the precious, valuable things in life, things that sometimes slip through our fingers faster than we all realize. When my boyfriend's mother passed away less than two years ago, that fact came into focus much sooner than any of us expected -- his father had worked very hard for many years to provide for his family, and after retiring, he planned on spending more time with the ones he loves, doing other things that he loves as well. But then he lost, far too soon, the one person who meant the most to him in the world... These are the curve balls that life throws at us sometimes, but it still makes me question our way of life.

I know that we all must struggle with these questions, and that in a way you may find these reflections of mine fairly clichéd and idealistic -- unrealistic to say the least. And I don't even know if there's a real "point" to my ramblings here today... Except to say that the "stop to smell the roses" approach is one of the main reasons why I fell in love with France! It was what made me feel comfortable here so many years ago, what made me feel at home. I have never really been able to put my finger on it exactly, never been able to describe to my family what kept me here. But I really think that this sense of wonder, this appreciation of the beauty of things around us without feeling compelled to have more at all times, finding happiness with less -- this is one of the primary things that keeps me here.

And to be honest, I'm sometimes a bit frightened that all of that is going to change, and faster than we realize -- far too fast for our own good. I feel lucky to have been able to experience some wonderful things in this country over the last 5-10 years, and very blessed in many ways. And of course I know that France is in need of reform, of improvements on many levels -- but what country isn't? My greatest fear is that this country may become a place that I no longer recognize, a place that it was never meant to be. Do we really want France to turn into another form of America? Please don't misunderstand me: I'm proud of my roots and my heritage, as well as the freedom and democracy that my native country represents, but I call France my home today for a reason. Wouldn't transforming France entirely ruin everything that we have come to know and love about it?

Sorry for this rambling tangent... It was just inspired by the article, and for once I really had to get my thoughts out there.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Now HERE'S a Nice Way to Cheer Me Up...

He had me at "Lunch?" Talk about reading my mind... And raising my wilted spirits, boosting my morale -- all that jazz... The way to a woman's heart is apparently through her stomach as well, at least in my case anyway!

When the phone rang at my desk around 12:30, I picked it up expectantly, recognizing my boyfriend's cell phone number on the raised screen. Perfect timing. It was so nice to hear from him, and even though most of our calls and exchanges throughout the day are completely mundane and inconsequential, this one bode well: he wanted to know if I would like to join him for lunch. After a dentist's appointment in the morning, he had decided to stay in the city a bit longer before taking his time getting back to our apartment in the western suburbs. He had a day off for once, a rarity, and it felt like a real luxury for us to share this time together. We hardly ever go to lunch together, as our lunch hours never coincide and I have to take the métro or bus to get to him anyway, but this time was an exception. Plus, most days I bring some leftovers from home, easier to warm up in our office kitchen and enjoy quietly with a book or with a few colleagues (plus, far more economical, of course!).

We felt like naughty schoolchildren -- or at least I did... When he suggested the brasserie, I couldn't help but say, "Is that really reasonable?" I knew it was exceptional, but it still felt forbidden somehow... But really, how often do we do this? We've been trying to pay attention to our budget, but some days just call for a treat. Today was definitely one of them. After grumbling into work this morning, fighting the crowds at St. Lazare along with hundreds of thousands of other commuters, I definitely needed something to cheer me up. Le Diplomate fit the bill, as it has a couple other times in the past (I'll never forget the time the waitress managed to save me a slice of rapidly-disappearing strawberry tart -- she will forever remain a favorite in my heart! And she still remembers it too...).

We first shared a foie gras aux figues -- heavenly! Really excellent, the best foie gras I've had in a long time. And then on to a fricassée de faisan avec jardinière de légumes... We enjoyed the meal with a glass of red wine, St. Emilion for me and St. Amour for him (I only opted out of the St. Amour because it was served chilled; I just don't like cool red wine! Otherwise, the romantic name is tempting, trust me. OK, you can call me cheesy, I don't care!). And then we shared a fondant au chocolat for dessert. So we managed to make the meal a bit more reasonable by sharing both the entrée and dessert. Still, it was far more expensive than anything we'd usually spend, with a hefty pricetag. But the meal was a nice moment of calm and happiness in the middle of an otherwise hectic period for me right now. So I honestly don't regret one second of it... On the contrary, it brought a broad smile to my face, and put me on a high that I'm sure will last...

At least until I make it back to the Gare St. Lazare to fight my way to the train back home tonight!

** On a sidenote, I managed to get a train around 7:00 last night, and even snagged a seat, which was darn near miraculous... But the only little bémol (I love this expression!) was that as I maneuvered my way down the train's stairs to get off at my station 20 minutes later, I only then realized that I had forgotten my umbrella under my seat (what was I thinking?!). Argh, another umbrella shot to the wind! But it's not as if it was one that I had attached any sentimental value to... I picked it up at Target in the U.S. last year, but it was super-practical in my bag and easy to use. What made me smile once again was when my boyfriend said, "Just think that someone who probably really needed that umbrella figured it was their lucky day." Isn't that a nice way to look at things?!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mon petit déjeuner idéal

Well, this is basically how I like to start out my day on the weekend -- truth be told, I'd love to be able to indulge in this kind of breakfast every day of the week, but in spite of getting up extra early I still can never manage to squeeze in enough time to eat more than a few slices of bread with some coffee before heading off to work. Sundays are my exception, though, and the photo above shows what I love to enjoy, slowly and preferably with a good book (or with my boy!), before lazing around the apartment or heading out, depending on my mood and my motivation level.

This photo was obviously taken a few months back, early September I believe, when it was still peach season, or the end of the season anyway... In today's case, the peach was replaced by a pink grapefruit (complete winter addiction, I can't seem to get enough of them!) and the coffee by a hot chocolate... I can't let a Sunday brunch go by without my oeuf à la coque -- although years ago I would have probably shrunk away in horror from a soft-boiled egg, these days I love scooping out the eggy goodness. Sea salt and freshly ground pepper make it all the better.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a tidbit from one of my favorite meals of the day -- of course, I'm a complete gourmande and love eating any meal, but breakfast just about tops the list for me. Funny thing is, back in the U.S. I loved breakfast too, but it usually consisted of bagels and cream cheese with orange juice, perhaps some coffee too. When I go back home to visit, I do love to have bagels then, but I don't necessarily miss them all that much over here, given the fact that the bread is so good. I've become a bit of a bread snob, though, because not just any ol' baguette will cut it for me anymore -- I like the good stuff! Perfect with salted butter and fig jam, my favorite. The baguette in the photo above is a multigrain one, and my boyfriend and I go out of our way to pick it up from a boulangerie that's not as convenient, but has just about the best bread in our neighborhood. So it's worth the walk in the cold...

Speaking of which, I'm off to toast myself up some warm baguette now, and to prepare some lentil soup. I need something comforting on this freezing Sunday! I plan on staying inside all day long... And if I'm feeling motivated enough, I might just make an apple-pear crumble with ginger. Ohhh, and I even have some speculoos in the cupboard -- the perfect crumble topping! Wake me up when it's time for breakfast again...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Velouté de butternut aux épices

* UPDATED - now with recipe! *

Last Thursday was All Saints' Day, a holiday here in France, so I had a quiet day at home with my boy. Halloween came and went this year and I hardly even noticed, which is unlike me. I usually love to take in the decorations and even attend a party or two, but that just wasn't in the cards this time around... I didn't hear from a friend of mine who usually holds an annual Halloween fête, so perhaps this year something came up -- last year I had a good time dressing up as a chat noir, but unfortunately I didn't yet have a camera so I wasn't even able to immortalize the hilarious moment. I had gone all-out with the makeup, so the look was pretty convincing. A friend of mine did take a photo, but then I never got to see it... Oh well! I sometimes miss the Halloween fun from back home in the States, and although in recent years the French have gotten more into the holiday, it's true that it just isn't quite the same. Granted, there's a lot of commercialism in the holiday itself, particularly in the U.S., but it's still a great opportunity for kids to have a blast dressing in costume. When I used to work in children's books I helped out with organizing a big annual Halloween party, and although I was always stressed about my own costume, I loved seeing the wee ones dressed to the nines, wearing face makeup and enjoying the candy.

Thursday afternoon I took my time preparing a wonderful new recipe (I tend to be very long in the kitchen anyway -- my boy always jokes that we don't eat before midnight some nights, which is only a slight exaggeration!), a spicy butternut squash soup that was rich, creamy and delicious. I have to credit French Saveurs magazine for this little gem, and I'll be sure to include the recipe here later today, once I get my hands on it again. This time around I also had a little helper, because a friend of my boy's came over with his son and he joined me in the kitchen. He watched me making my way around the tiny space, curiosity piqued, and asked all kinds of questions. When I opened up the squash and started cutting it into cubes, he seemed fascinated -- so I asked him if he'd like to help out a bit. "Why don't you start by scraping out all those seeds?" He willingly obliged, and concentrated on pulling out every last one of the seeds with his fingers and putting them in a small bowl. We toasted the seeds in a small pan with some salt, and after cooking down the squash in a mix of chicken stock and coconut milk, we puréeed the soup in a blender, added in the toasted squash seeds, some poitrine fumée, which is basically the French version of bacon, and some fresh cilantro leaves. Valentin, my kitchen aide, rinsed the cilantro while standing on a stool over the sink, as you can see in the photo, and pulled the leaves off the stems. He did this so carefully, and I was blown away by how meticulous he was about everything. When we served the soup at the end, he was thrilled by the result -- even if the curry and the ginger made it a bit spicy! "Ca pique, mais c'est pas grave !" He didn't seem to mind too much, and ate half a bowl on his own, adding in some extra seeds from time to time. The seeds reminded me of the pumpkin seeds my grandmother would roast in the oven when I was a little girl.

I had such a good time making this soup with Valentin, I couldn't resist starting over again on Sunday with a new batch. I had bought two butternut squash at the market last week, so I had enough to make two rounds. Unfortunately, for some reason the second squash had barely any seeds! Good thing I didn't use that one to make the soup with Valentin... Here he is, super-proud of his efforts. He's quite the little cook! Wish I had started this young...

Velouté de butternut aux épices
(Spicy Butternut Squash Soup)
"Délicieusement onctueux !"

1 medium-sized butternut squash
(the recipe doesn't specify weight, but I think that the average-sized squash would do -- the soup only serves about four small bowls, and it is very rich)
1 tablespoon of curry powder (more or less -- this is actually a lot of curry powder, so the second time around I only used 1/2 tablespoon -- depends on how spicy you like it!)
1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder, or 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
50 cl of chicken stock
1 small onion
10 cl of coconut milk or light cream (crème de fleurette) (again, depending on how creamy and rich you like it)
a few fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons of grilled or toasted squash seeds
4 slices of poitrine fumée, or bacon
30 g of butter
Salt (which I actually found unnecessary with the chicken stock and the bacon slices)

Peel the butternut squash and cut it into small cubes. [Also, reserve the seeds inside the squash -- you can toast these later in a small pan, with some salt if you like.] Peel and finely chop the onion. Warm up the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven and cook the onion on light heat for about 3 minutes, until it is transparent or a bit soft. Add in the ginger and curry powder and cook for another minute or so, while stirring. Add in the butternut cubes and cook them for about two minutes, again while stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula. Pour in the chicken stock and the coconut milk or cream. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and allow the soup to simmer for 20 minutes (until the squash cubes are nice and tender).

While the soup was simmering, I dry-roasted the squash seeds in a pan and then did the same with the slices of poitrine fumée until they were nice and toasty-brown and a bit crunchy.

Mix the soup in a blender or with an immersion blender (I know a regular blender is more high-maintenance, but I find it gives me better results, and the texture of the soup is creamier), add some salt if necessary. You can then serve the soup with a slice of the bacon in each bowl, or you can slice up the bacon into tiny pieces. Sprinkle on a few cilantro leaves and some toasted squash seeds, and voilà -- creamy, spicy butternut goodness!

* I found this recipe in French Saveurs magazine, november 2007.