This week I noticed that the sky was dark blue by the time I entered my classroom. The days are shorter, and this is what happens in November when you teach an evening class: the building is quiet (we are in the basement), the lights brightly lit, the wind battles against our solitary window. It may as well be the middle of the night.
On weekends, as I comment on student papers, I take breaks in my kitchen. When I eat alone I stand by the window and look at my neighbor’s garden below. I can stand there barefoot for a long time, staring into space. My father finds it annoying (he’s a man of the earth, grounded and very present, though restless if he doesn’t have something concrete to do), and he often comments, “What are you thinking about, Sanaë? Tu as la tête dans les nuages.” The truth is I like to recharge by being alone. I can’t imagine a more pleasant Sunday morning than this one: daydreaming by my window, eating a slice of bread with salted homemade butter. The pipes clang and the apartment sweats from overheating, and I reach for another piece of bread. There is apple pie resting on the counter from last night, the crust still firm. The crumble has lost its bite, but there’s enough spice in the apples to have me hunting for pieces.
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Many years ago, in Paris, my mother took cooking lessons with Florence Pomana, who specializes in Ayurvedic cooking. I remember eating all these delicate creations that required dozens of spices and hours of preparation. My mother has very few cookbooks, she mostly cooks from memory, but the one she always returns to is Florence Pomana’s Cuisine Ayurvédique. Each recipe is accompanied by a beautiful photo and a long explanation of the dish. We are told when to cook the dish (the paneer is best made in autumn or spring), we are told why it is beneficial for our body. The writing is both poetic and quirky: “curdled milk encourages bone marrow growth and the growth of a fetus in a pregnant woman.”
We never drank milk at home as my mother assumed I was lactose intolerant. The first time I tasted milk in our kitchen was for my twelfth or thirteenth birthday when she prepared a hot chocolate (made from scratch with raw milk and barely sweetened). Today there is milk in the fridge, not to drink by the glass, but for making cheese. Sometimes she makes mozzarella or ricotta, but mostly she likes to prepare a soft paneer, a recipe she learned from Florence Pomana. Paneer has the peculiarity of not melting when heated. The one we make retains the lemon-y flavor of the lemon juice used to curdle the milk. We bake it in lasagna or use it as a savory crepe filling with spinach and leeks. But the simplest way to cook with soft paneer is sautéed with vegetables. We call this a cheese-vegetable scramble.
I had dinner at Malaparte with four friends, two French and two Italians, and naturally, the first topic of conversation was food. We were waiting for our meal and like sharks we had attacked the plate of focaccia. One friend said: Isn’t it funny how by seven we’re hungry? In Italy I always eat dinner at eight or nine, but now I’ll start scratching myself by seven because I’m so hungry. It’s as if our internal clock has shifted to an earlier meal time zone. The focaccia was finished, we asked for more, and in the meantime we talked about snacks. The Italians said their favorite snack is Parmesan. They like to bite right into it.
It’s what I ate every day as a kid. It was my fuel, pieces of Parmesan hidden in the creases of my clothes, said one friend.
My mother brings me huge chunks of Parmesan from home but they only last a day or two, said the other.
My two French friends laughed. They agreed that their childhood snack was chocolate. Chocolate on its own and chocolate on bread.
Chocolate was not really my childhood snack. Sugar was mostly banned in our household for many years, so I snacked on almonds, rice, and toasted bread. Chocolate was a hidden, precious treat, to be eaten in secret or on special occasions. Underneath the sink in his bathroom, among toothbrushes, toothpaste and airplane samples, my father always kept a box of chocolates from La Maison du Chocolat or Cailler.
We really liked beans at home: lentils, adzuki, garbanzo, split pea, kidney, black eye, these are just a few that come to mind. Though the bean dish varied, I think we mostly ate them with brown rice and a handful of chopped parsley. There were big pots of dal with spices, or the black, lava-like bowls of creamy adzuki, or the split pea soup with vegetable broth in the winter. But ever since I started to cook for myself, I’ve abandoned beans, aside from the canned chickpeas that I rinse and stir into salads or pasta from time to time. I was always admonished by my mother to soak beans overnight before cooking, better for your digestion, she says, but then again she likes to soak everything. It’s not for nothing that we are obsessed with taking baths in our family. Anyway, because it is difficult to plan when you are seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old, especially to plan a meal a day in advance, I was always too afraid to cook beans without soaking. I thought something terrible might happen. The same way I always peel tomatoes for tomato sauce, and even red peppers if I have the time –childhood habits are hard to shed.
Whenever I spot a cooking scene in a book or a movie I pay extra attention. The characters are being fed! The last one I saw was magical: it happens right in the middle of the three-hour long epic love story, Laurence, Anyways, by the young and talented Xavier Dolan. He was only twenty-two when he wrote and directed this film. The scene is simple: Fred, short for Frédérique, has just received a book of poetry published by her former love, Laurence. She reads it in the kitchen as she stirs a pot of something that resembles crème anglaise. She stirs, she reads, she stirs, she reads, she forgets the crème anglaise, and I won’t tell you what happens next. But the moment is heartbreaking. Mostly because Dolan has an eye for visual poetry. Fred never cooks and we rarely see her eat (in one restaurant scene she slams her fist on a plate, shattering the dish, in another she leaves before ordering food), and yet here she is, one hand on a wooden spoon, the other holding love poems. It comes as no surprise that she leaves the kitchen shortly thereafter.
I almost made a crème anglaise, just for the sake of it, but then I would have had to make a chocolate cake, or îles flottantes. Instead, I leafed through French cookbooks, and fell upon ratatouille.
(crust from Vegetarian Everyday, filling inspired by the same recipe)
Although there are many possible fillings for quiches (it’s the perfect repository for haphazard leftovers), I’ve never thought of playing with the crust and custard base. Then I came across a recipe in Vegetarian Everyday that called for no dairy and no flour. The main substitute was coconut, and I was entirely skeptical but intrigued. I tried. The result is magnificent. In fact, the quiche is resting in my kitchen at this very moment and I keep cutting myself another slice. It is light and crisp, so a third helping does not feel decadent.