Meanwhile, my preferred primeur (vegetable vendor) in the town market has been hawking not only the potatoes for which our department, the Yvelines, is famous, but also a seasonal array of roots and tubers I can’t resist: betteraves (beetroot), navets (turnips), panais (parsnips), and topinambours. These last are called “Jerusalem artichokes” in English, though they’re related to sunflowers, and they’re native to North America, though I’ve never seen them there. In Beynes, I don’t have much competition from my neighbors for these delicacies, which they call légumes oubliés (forgotten vegetables). During the Occupation, the Germans seized all the greener and tastier vegetables for themselves, leaving only these scraggly old roots for the citizenry. Ever since Liberation, most French people won’t touch them anymore — don’t even talk to them about rutabaga.
In sum, my career as a serious foodie continues apace, despite its inauspicious beginnings. Both in the kitchen and at the table, I’ve had the benefit of a few good teachers; two of the best of these have been Annette and Stanley Karnow. As a journalist, Stanley was assigned to Paris and to Hong Kong, and lived there, and places beyond and in between; the Karnows have traveled the world over, eaten very well along the way, and shared with others the wisdom of their palates.
One of my happiest memories is a trip to New York’s Chinatown with Stanley, his daughter Catherine, and a gang of her friends. Arriving in the restaurant, Stanley tossed the menu aside and began an animated conversation with the headwaiter — in Chinese. I could not have been more astonished if he’d begun speaking fluent turtle or pony. Suddenly, dishes I’d never seen began to appear before us. Not a plate of sweet-and-sour anything. Though everything was delicious, I remember only the whole sea bass, an exotic sight indeed to one whose previous acquaintance with fish was almost exclusively limited to canned tuna and frozen breaded fish sticks. This was a kind of epiphany: the fish that one eats is actually fish-shaped. Really, the thought never occurred to me before.
(Naturally, I was terrified and didn’t touch the bass at all. It was another ten years before I learned to bone a fish, and I’m still not terribly good at it.)
Cathy’s amah, the redoubtable Newying, now lives in New York, and she also has led small squadrons of our friends into Chinatown, ordering for us in Chinese, and consistently obtaining food that’s so superior as to be unrecognizable. But she has a leg up there: she’s from Wenchow. She has proven to my satisfaction the old charge that restaurants, be they Chinese or French or other, seldom serve the best food to the customers, saving it instead for insiders.
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever replicate Stanley’s or Newying’s triumphs in Chinatown, since I would need to know what I was eating in order to ask for it again. I know how to say only two things in Chinese: the words for “American,” which everybody can see without my confessing it, and “Demon-Face,” which Newying doesn’t understand when I say it and which, if indeed it’s any kind of dish, would most likely be nasty to eat. But I learned from them the value of ordering off the menu, or at least of trusting the management. “What do you recommend today?” is an awfully good question.
(From my parents, I learned the related value of getting to know the restaurant owners and staff personally. Back in Dallas, Mrs. Ojeda used to send over random treats — a plate of nachos, a bowl of queso — much as Annick Le Douaron at La Mirabelle today gives us a round of digestifs on the house, or the lamented Triantaphilos Triantaphilou used to bring two bottles of Naoussa for every one we ordered at Uncle Nick’s, plus ouzo at the end of the meal. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for being a regular customer, especially when one wants to leave pie-eyed.)
But what of the kitchen, and what of Annette Karnow?
Years ago, I visited Cathy at her parents’ home in Maryland. Cathy already had enlightened me on several finer points of international cuisine, such as the fact that Couscous is not merely the name of a character in Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, and that it is possible to make salad dressing instead of purchasing it. Now she and her mother bustled about the kitchen on a long summer evening. And I had nothing to contribute. I had no idea what they were doing, what they were making, what they were talking about.
To cover my embarrassment, I flitted around the kitchen and started doing Julia Child imitations: “a rich, buttery bouillabaisse” and “bon appétit.” These met with Annette’s approval. But I tripped up when Annette mentioned Basil and Rosemary.
Naturally, I thought she was talking about a couple she knew. Perhaps they were joining us for dinner.
Here, I am shown in the Karnows’ kitchen, in 1985.
Of course, Annette was really talking about herbs. I was ignorant of these, except for oregano, which came sprinkling from a jar, and parsley, which was leafy, though wilted, and found only in restaurants.
Annette instantly grasped my difficulty — then my hand. She took me into the garden, where a plot was devoted to kitchen herbs. And in the soft light of the setting sun, she instructed me, pointing out the different herbs, giving me bits to smell and to taste, suggesting some of the dishes in which they might be used.
At one point, she cupped a chive blossom in her hands, bringing it to me to sniff. I will always remember her that way: smiling, sharing, against the purpling sky, beautiful. The photo posted here at the top of the page will give you some idea. It became my ambition to have one day an herb garden of my own. (It’s still just an ambition: whatever requirements of soil and light an herb patch may make, the garden in Beynes doesn’t meet them.) And in the interim, as I began to cook, I began to use herbs. I never see fresh chives without thinking of Annette.
Though basil and rosemary and I are pretty much inseparable nowadays, I don’t see enough of Stanley and Annette. Next time — I may muster the courage to cook for them.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow© of someone else’s photograph
Used with permission
POT AU FEU
1 kg beef, tied with string*
4 good-sized turnips
4 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold)
6 medium carrots
1 medium leek
2 medium onions or more, according to taste
1 or 2 bay leaves
Chopped rosemary, thyme, to taste
Peel and cut up all the root vegetables into chunks. Wash the leeks thoroughly, then chop them up, too, in slices about an inch long. Throw all of this into the pot. Throw the beef in. Mix them up. Pour in water, but not to cover. Throw in the clove and a generous handful of salt. Stir a bit. If you’re using a pressure-cooker, put the lid on and heat for about two hours. If you’ve got a plain old stewpot, you will need more time; you’ll know it’s ready when the vegetables are very, very soft and the beef is extraordinarily tender, and the whole house smells good.
Remove the beef, cut into serving portions. Place each portion in a soup plate, then ladle vegetables and broth over and around the beef. Let guests salt according to their tastes. (The French use gros sel, and a lot of it.)
Serves 8 French people, or 4 Americans.
Variations: Substitute chicken for beef, and you’ve got poule au pot, another classic dish. Omit the meat altogether, and you’ve got soup. Either variation will take much less time than the beef to cook.
Optional: If you’ve got other “forgotten vegetables,” you can use them, while using fewer of the vegetables indicated, to keep your proportions balanced. Parsnips would be very nice in this dish. Beets would be a mistake, since they’d discolor the broth.
*I don’t know what cut to use — I’ll find out. Ingeniously, I bought the cut marked “pot au feu” at the grocery, so it’s only now that I need to know.