THE MAN COOKS… AGAIN AND AGAIN!
My men are a unique bunch: they are handsome, wickedly funny, bright as all get-out, über talented and creative. But if they are anything at all, they are discreet. Not so much shy as shunning the limelight; they loathe being talked about, are uncomfortable being shown off; they are wary of my verbosity in front of my blog and social media accounts, mistrustful of how much I talk about them to my friends; they don’t appreciate being mentioned nor do they want their photos splashed across Life’s a Feast or my Facebook page; they simply do not want their private lives bared to the world. I am woman and they are man and rarely the twain shall meet, yet as I try and understand their vagaries and respect their wishes, I sometimes, well, let’s admit it, I slip up. Ooops! But how does one such as I write something as personal as a blog or even write at all without talking about the three most basic elements, the most important components of my life?
As winter rages outside…. Okay, I will admit that rages is a bit farfetched, for the temperature bounces up a few notches, then down a few, neither settling on frosty nor on balmy, less raging than hovering around some wishy-washy in between and the snow still eludes my every request – okay, let’s start again... As winter settles in gray and desolate, teasing me with much-yearned-for glacial weather and the promise of snow in her steely glance and misty afternoons, my husband and I spend most of our time huddled together in the apartment. So face to face, with him part of my every waking moment, I find it close to impossible not to talk about him. Especially when he is doing all of the cooking.
As you may know, we are Starting Over. After the long, arduous conversations, the hashing and rehashing, tossing ideas, thoughts, fears and dreams back and forth like two kids playing ball in the street on a dull summer afternoon, we came to the decision – and not for the first time in our many years together – that husband should leave his job (for a quantity of reasons) and it was time for us to recreate ourselves yet once again. Adventure awaits, the world opens before us in a multitude of possibilities. The lure of pleasure and the fulfillment of dreams enchants as a Siren’s song, seduces us with their dangerous, mesmerizing beauty. Galvanized by our various projects and simply delighted at having the time we aren’t each sitting in front of our separate computers to be together, we seem to be possessed by some reckless, crazy Utopia of an ideal world where we can get by doing just what we love doing and maybe, just maybe, have a positive effect on someone, somewhere. We may be deluding ourselves, it is true, but when have hard work and passion not come together to create something perfect? Or something close to it?
But back to the food. My husband has always loved to cook from his earliest years, and now that he is home he has been more than happy to take over the kitchen at mealtimes. Raised on hearty, wholesome, traditional French family cooking kicked up with his two years living in Morocco and enriched with the food he experienced during his travels across Europe, he has built up an incredibly rich repertoire of favorites. He saunters through the market choosing his purchases carefully, studiously, selecting only local, seasonal fruits and vegetables, planning dishes compatible with the weather and our mood. Poached whole sea bass or choucroute laden either with Alsatian sausages or seafood, a spicy couscous or exotic tagine, mussels marinière served with sizzling frites or an herbed côte de boeuf, lasagnas meaty and traditional or layered with smoked salmon, his talents are endless, his taste impeccable! Onions chopped, herbs ripped, meat sautéed, potatoes puréed, he has kept me happily fed for 25 years and he still never ceases to amaze me. Granted, his menu choices often defy my diet, but diet is a word that just isn’t in his vocabulary and any mention of that dreaded concept can work him into a fury. Raised on pot au feu, guinea fowl wrapped in tender green cabbage, creamy, cheesy potato gratin dauphinois and blanquette à l’ancienne, food is meant to comfort and soothe, fill one up and carry one through the rest of the working day. Salad is to end the meal not replace it, fruit accompanies a platter of cheese and a loaf of bread and wine is served at every meal. Yes, many a meal nowadays chez nous is made up of a large mixed salad or a healthy, light bowl of vegetable soup, but when one desires to cook a meal, well, one cooks.
So I pull up my chair to the table, tuck a napkin under my chin and dig in. The first mouthful a revelation, the second, a confirmation, the third and each after pure pleasure. I close my eyes and savor yet another marvelous dish and wonder that he can take the most humble of ingredients, toss in a handful of seemingly random this or that, sautée, simmer or bake and create such flavorful, inspiring, delectable dishes. And today’s is simple indeed: Cauliflower and Potato Gratin. This is the man who refuses to allow a cauliflower or a broccoli to cross the threshold into our home, bans each from the kitchen, forbids the cooking in any way, shape or form of such two who leave an acrid, pungent odor behind, trailing a whip of cabbage stench from livingroom to bedroom. Yet he loves the humble, elegant cauliflower, so excuses are made, reasons found for the occasional foray into cauliflower love. When he is feeling admirable, exemplary in his sense of responsibility, he will steam the flowerets and serve them in a chaud-froid style simply tossed still warm from the pot with a tart vinaigrette studded with finely minced shallots, lovely pale purple dots against the pristine white of the cauliflower, the vinaigrette giving a sparkling, clean bite to the mild vegetable. But when he is feeling decadent or when the weather is chilling us to the bone, he opts for something richer, creamier, more filling, a dish that leaves us content and replenished, protected against the harsh elements and the mad, mad world outside.
So, at the risk of making him upset or having him ask me once again to never speak of him on my blog, of being reprimanded for opening up our intimate details for all the world to ogle and dissect, I will say that I am married to an incredible cook, an incredible man. He began cooking when merely a boy in his maman’s kitchen while she worked, taking over entire meals while others of his age were going through their adolescent woes and rebellions. His passion for food has never stopped growing and lucky am I to have him cooking for me! Ah, but we were talking about a Cauliflower and Potato Gratin, weren’t we? Simply steamed potatoes and cauliflower, tossed in a luscious, thick, creamy béchamel and topped with both Parmesan and nutty Gruyère or Comté cheeses then popped in a hot oven to bubble and brown… nothing, dear reader, says Winter Comfort Food better than this.
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CAULIFLOWER AND POTATO GRATIN
Jamie & JP team up in the kitchen
1 head cauliflower, trimmed and broken into large flowerets *
Several potatoes that stay firm while boiling **
About 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
About 2 or 3 cups grated Gruyère or Comté cheese
* Flowerets broken into small, bite-sized pieces will fall apart or crumble when being blanched or steamed. Pre-cook them in larger pieces and cut into smaller bites before tossing in the béchamel.
** How many potatoes, you ask? I did not see how many JP peeled and cooked, but maybe about half to ¾ the quantity of cauliflower you use. Combined, the vegetables blended with the béchamel should fill a 13 x 9-inch baking dish or slightly bigger. Read this post about JP cooking au pif…
4 Tbs (60 g) butter
4 Tbs flour
3 cups (700 ml) whole milk
1 small to medium onion trimmed and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme or 1 tsp fresh leaves
Large pinch nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the vegetables by simply cleaning and trimming the cauliflower and cutting into large sections and steaming or simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft or mushy; they will continue to cook in the oven, and peeling the potatoes and simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft. Drain.
Once well drained, cut into smaller pieces and toss together.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Butter a large baking dish.
Prepare the Béchamel:
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until bubbly. Add the chopped onion and toss to coat. Lower the heat slightly and cook, stirring, for about 3 or 4 minutes until the onion is soft and transparent and just beginning to turn golden on the edges.
Add the flour all at once and stir or whisk until the flour is well blended into the butter. Cook, stirring, for a minute 2 to 3 minutes. Then begin adding the milk, a little at a time, whisking to blend and allow each addition to thicken. As it thickens, add more milk and repeat until all the milk has been added and the sauce is beginning to thicken. Add the herbs, salt and pepper generously and allow to simmer very gently, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaf.
Pour the hot béchamel over the prepared cauliflower and potatoes and gently toss until the sauce is evenly distributed. Pour into the gratin or baking dish and spread out evenly. Sprinkle the Parmesan and then the Gruyère/Comté evenly over the top of the vegetables all the way to the edge of the dish.
Bake in the hot oven for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and the cheese is a deep golden and browning as you like.
Serve as a side dish with roasted meat or chicken or with cold cuts or sausages or as a main course for lunch simply with a large mixed salad. And a glass of wine.