Monday, March 03, 2008
Keeping It Simple
My dreams of coming to France first became reality in 1990. I had arrived by way of Geneva then caught a train to Grenoble on my way to a Buddhist meditation retreat in a little village in the Alps.
To say I was slammed flat (I suppose some would call it “jet lag”) by the time I arrived at the village retreat grounds is a gross understatement. So I could only sit in silent disbelief when I was told that many more participants had shown up than were expected and there was not enough room for everyone. Some of us would have to be housed in a convent in a little village down the mountain, being transported back and forth by bus each day. In a state of shock and exhaustion, the gears began to grind to a halt as I tried to take in this unexpected information. (Not such a big deal, as I look back on it. But introverts don’t really love surprises...and jet-lagged introverts, even less.)
Instead of looking at the situation as an opportunity to surrender and go with the flow (which would have been a good idea, given the whole reason I was there) I chose to wander off numbly, find a vacant bunk and sleep...ever so soundly...for several hours. The Scarlet O’Hara approach is always worth a try when all else is crumbling underfoot.
It was the sound of voices nearby that stirred me back into reality…now the evening of the day I had arrived. With renewed energy, I emerged from slumber to discover a few fellow students who were in the same situation and awaiting the bus that would take us down the hill for the first of 21 nights together.
While we awaited our carriage, we found a spot in this mountain village – a skiing resort during the winter but it was now July – and dined as we got to know one another a bit. Given the circumstances of my first night in France, I was going for comfort food and found it in the form of a Gratin Dauphinois.
A trifecta, of sorts, this inspiration of potatoes, cream and cheese. Paired with a fresh salad of simple greens tossed lightly with a vinaigrette...I'm telling you, it was not my Buddhist practice that brought me to a calmer place about those circumstances, my friends, it was that meal...and those potatoes!
It turned out to be a very lucky set of circumstances for me...a lesson that I seem to learn over and over again. The convent as it turns out was like something out of an old French film. My little room was rather austere, furnished with a small bed, an armoire, a desk, a lamp and a chair. There was also a large window, which was shuttered when I arrived in the dark of night. The next morning, and every morning after that, those shutters opened out onto a meadow and an apple orchard that were veiled in a soft haze of golden light.
After long days of teachings that went into the night and a long bus ride back down the mountain and long discussions in our group about the day’s teachings that would continue into the wee hours of the morning, I would drag back to the sweet, cool air of that little room for a few hours of sleep before being awakened by an early bell, softly rung at the hour of dawn.
Only the whispers of footsteps could be heard through the ancient stone halls each morning as we all made our way to the dining area, where we would sit at long wooden tables worn shiny by who knows how many scores of communal meals. Nuns in blue habits and cotton headscarves would quietly patter into the room, serving warm baguettes with pots of fresh butter and apricot preserves. Hot coffee was poured into bowls and white porcelain pitchers of steaming milk were set out for us if we wished. It was magical. And just what I needed because at the time, I was going through a divorce and grieving the loss of a relationship, various family and friends and a home I had created from top to bottom, inside and out. There was a lot of loss going on in my little world. Before arriving, I had no idea how I was going to manage to survive leaving my home and leaping into the unknown. But in that simple room, in that austere dining hall, in the light of that golden meadow I came to realize that perhaps simple was better...and leaps into the unknown weren't so bad.
Something shifted. I was going to be okay.
The lesson has stayed with me and fueled, to some extent, my choice to trade a life that had many trappings that looked like success for a more simple existence in a smaller space, eating locally with the change of seasons, making daily treks to the marché, the butcher, the baker, "the candlestick maker", all arranged around walking instead of jumping into a car. I suspect the roots of my current life can probably be traced back to that little room in a convent at the base of the French Alps.
While the teachings and experiences at the retreat were indeed profound, I have such fond memories of those baguettes with fresh butter and apricot preserves alongside a bowl of café au lait...and the first gratin dauphinois of many that became my signature meal during that trip.
Oh yeah! Simple is better.
JR’s Gratin Dauphinois (from Patricia Wells At Home in Provence)
That’s JR as in Joel Robuchon...we’re in good company here, my friends! I started making my potatoes dauphinois in this fashion some years ago and the results are...well...“gorgeous”, to quote a friend of mine.
If in these last days of winter there a cold, rainy night in your forecast, get this in the oven and pair it with a simple salad – which always works for me. It’s also not bad with a grilled lamb chop and a bit of kale sautéed until soft in olive oil with some garlic slivers...a little glass of red wine. You see? Simple!
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream (I use a soy cream which works very well.)
4 ounces coarsely grated gruyere cheese
sea salt and freshly gound pepper to taste
A grind of fresh nutmeg to taste
1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and halved
2 pounds firm-fleshed potatoes, washed well and sliced very thin
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 375ºF
2. Thoroughly rub the inside of a shallow 2-quart baking dish with garlic. Set aside the garlic for the next step.
3. Put the milk in a large saucepan and add to it the garlic you’ve set aside. Bring the milk to a boil over moderate heat. Add the cream and 3/4 of the cheese. Stir to blend. (Do not allow a boil here.) Season with salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Add the potatoes and mix well with a wooden spoon. Cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
4. Transfer the potatoes and their liquid to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and dot with butter.
5. Place in the center of the oven and bake until the potatoes are cooked through and the top is crisp and golden, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Serves 4-6 (or two, if it happens to be a cold night and it’s a couple of foodies!)