Monday, February 16, 2009

Dining Out with Saint-Loup (I): Pauillac Lamb and Potatoes À L’anglaise

[T]he potatoes à l’anglaise, despite the canter and the apparent shaking about, always arrived as they had set out, neatly ranged about the Pauillac lamb. I noticed one of these servers, very tall, with a superb plume of black hair, and wearing makeup of a color more suggestive of certain species of rare birds than of a human face, who ran to and fro, without letup and, it seemed, without purpose, from one end of the room to the other, and brought to mind the macaws that fill the large aviaries in zoos with their gorgeous coloring and incomprehensible agitation.

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 391

“No longer the grandson of my grandmother” (391), the narrator suspends his preoccupation with maintaining good health—a regimen that has been in place so as to avoid another attack that might preclude his becoming accomplished as a writer. Instead, the narrator, arriving at Rivebelle, removes his overcoat, dismisses Saint-Loup’s warning that the dining room might be cold and steps into the restaurant, feeling in his body the thrill of exuberance (391). Yet, being careful not to show his bodily excitement—for he does not want to appear as a giddy girl, the “swaggering songstress who performs in cabarets” (391), he hides his feelings and his body’s expression of them in an assumed posture of manliness: “an appearance of glacial gravity and a world weary gait” (391). Still, that which he does not want to seep out of his body are juices, humors, that affect his internal temperature all the more, in that on the inside he revels as being “but briefly the brother of the waiters who were about to serve us” (391)—brother waiters, whose exotic appearance (“rare birds… gorgeous… and incomprehensible”) and dizzying movements on the floor and between tables of diners, embody the body which the narrator is both trying to hide within his own body while also experiencing in the displayed bodies of those others—waiters; brothers, but briefly. It might not have been at all, except for the easy flow of beer, champagne and port; except this flow of feeling was already coursing in the body of the narrator, perhaps by his proximity to Saint-Loup who would not dote on the narrator’s obsessive quests about girls. Thus, they set out to dine; and, instead of a compulsive inquiry about the intentions of women, the narrator opens up in his attentions to his brothers—one of which was “very tall, with a superb plume of black hair, and wearing makeup” (391).

In all the to and fro of that scene, the reader might miss that this server, or one like him, has just delivered the Pauillac Lamb—a seeming throw away line but in reality, or experientially, a dish—a body—inside of which is the very exuberance of which the narrator speaks and the author writes. In the preparation of this dish, does the reader-cook experience the exuberance, the intoxication seeping out; the rapturous moment. Just as the narrator pities the diners for not having the kind of experience he is having, so too might one pity the poor reader who just reads, from page to page, without stopping to remove the overcoat, no longer the scholarly student of the text, in order to be a fellow diner at the Rivebelle, if but briefly.

It is in the second hour of cooking this three-hour, slow braised lamb dish that one is given entrance into the experience. The scents keep coming to your nose much as all the sights kept presenting to the narrator’s eyes—scents/sights that one takes into the body: the rosemary, garlic and tomatoes; the sweetness from the caramelized sugar and meat, and the root vegetables. The sober chef is intoxicated by the meal as aroma, even before it is eaten. Was the narrator too intoxicated from the beer, champagne and port to even notice that the braising liquid for this dish is an elixir?

Pauillac Lamb, similar to the larger scene in which it is served, has androgynous undertones. True, it is not best to use the gender allusion. Yet, is not the narrator, in body and through the bodies become astral in their movements, alluding to both the binaries and their seeping into each other? The deep, too strong flavor of even young lamb, and the sharp bite of rosemary, are muted and made mellow—a transcendence that can be tasted because of the blending and melding with ingredients that outside of the braising pot would be considered dichotomous. Yet in the pot, in the cooking experience, in the Rivebell dining room is there a taste of this oneness.

Slow cooking is an amazing process, bringing about a more amazing dish. This is not your Manhattan quick-grilled meat or fish with a flashy sauce. The Pauillac Lamb is a dish with flavors that come from somewhere. You remember these flavors; perhaps, not the way they are experienced here in the moment, but they haunt. They wake up recollections of meals you had as a child, when grandmothers and aunts (and some uncles and fathers) lived in the kitchen. The turnip in this lamb dish (both Escoffier and Julia Child name turnip an ingredient) reminds me of something I grew up with in Taiwan: soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, cinnamon, wild dry pepper, clove. None of these elements are present in Pauillac Lamb. So why do I remember? The connective might well be the rock sugar and braised fatty meat of then and now; and it is the turnip that carries the present to memory and back. The turnip, too, somehow connects me to the text, which otherwise would have remained a hidden body, a meal missed. In all of this, I am doing the same thing as the narrator: making sense of the present by how it appears to present the past to me, or me to the past—rendering the text meaningful: slow-cooking lamb, slow-cooking me, slow-cooking the text.

Whereas Escoffier’s cookbook would have been a text contemporaneous with the narrator’s dining experience, as cook I had to rely on Julia Child in my apprenticeship of approximating (let alone mastering) the art of French cooking. One aspect of her methodology that stood out for me in preparing this dish—Navarin Printanier [Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables]—is that she instructs one to brown the meat and season it and then only after doing so does she add the flour. This is in contradistinction to most of my cooking experience and the directions listed in various other styles of cooking, for usually the coating of meat with flour is called for first. I feel the difference between these two methods is that, in the Childs’ French chef version, the flour acts as an agent connecting meat flavor with liquid ingredients. The flour acts as a catalyst whereas in other recipes, where meat is covered in flour before browning, the meat’s flavor is sealed in, so well-sealed—coated (over-coated)—its flavors cannot seep out into the sauce. Furthermore, in this French method, even after the flour is added, bits continue to become affixed to the pan and they need to be scraped and stirred in, adding more available flavor for the dish. Proust’s rich text is such a phenomenon. His allusions are not sealed in. If you scrape across the text, flavors are unlocked, communicated. His text is not just about memory but is a catalyst for memory.

This particular episode, different from his attempts at enslaving Albertine and being closed in himself, has the narrator quite open. Everything blends together. He is not paranoid. Rather, he is open to being connected, infused; and that’s what Pauillac Lamb offers, too. Again, these references to food and specific dishes which might be read as throw away lines or more detail than with which the reader desires to bother are, rather, huge footnotes on the text. The cooking, smelling and tasting give an eerie expression to the text—eerie in that literary criticism and interpretation can hardly probe the textures and tastes. I also realize that my cooking is not a replication of the dishes the narrator mentions—just as there can be no replication or cloning of a memory. Yet, still, my dishes become an improvisation on In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, an artistic exploration such that I can hardly approximate in a scholarly paper alone. So, too, the narrator can hardly approximate a recreation of the original, though he is doggedly determined in his attempts. Fortunately for me, the re-creation is recreation (except when I start worrying about deadlines and submissions); for the narrator, it is, all too often, desperation. He is trying to appreciate/taste/comprehend reality, or at least his experience of the present time, from the hoped for and insisted upon vantage point of memory. As a result, he is not able to be open and fluid with his metaphysical/phenomenological traversing between here and there. The narrator is compulsive about his agenda. Though he pities the diners who rather than enjoying the meal and the grand experience are fixating on the cost of the evening (392), he is able to pity them because he knows, only too well, because what they are doing embodies who he usually is, himself.

Navarin Printanier [Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

Navarin Printanier, a most delectable lamb stew with its carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes, peas, and green beans, is presumably done in the spring when all the vegetables are young and tender. But as it can be made any time of the year, it is not a seasonal dish any more thanks to deep freezing. Frozen peas and beans are discussed on pages 449 and 466. The written recipe is long as each detail is important if the navarin is to taste like a French masterpiece. But none of the steps is difficult and everything except the addition of the green vegetables at the very end may be made ready in the morning. The stew can then be finished in 10 to 15 minutes just before dinner time.

With the stew serve hot French bread, and a red Beaujolais or Bordeaux wine, a chilled rosé, or a fairly full-bodied, dried chilled white wine such as a Mâcon, Hermitage, or one of the lesser Burgundies.

For 6 People

3 lbs. lamb stew meat
2 to 4 tablespoons rendered fresh pork fat or cooking oil
A 10 to 12-inch skillet
A fireproof covered casserole large enough to hold the meat, and all the vegetables to come
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons flour
2 to 3 cups brown lamb- or beef-stock or canned beef bouillon
¾ lb. ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped (1 cup or pulp), or 3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
¼ teaspoon thyme or rosemary
1 bay leaf
6 to 12 peeled “boiling” potatoes
6 peeled carrots
6 peeled turnips
12 to 18 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter
1 cup shield green peas
¼ lb. or about 1 cup green beans cut into 1/2 –inch pieces
3 quarts boiling water
1 ½ tablespoons salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Cut the lamb into 2-inch cubes and dry with paper towels. The meat will not brown if it is damp. Brown a few pieces at a time in hot fat or oil in the skillet. As they are browned, place them in the casserole.

Sprinkle the lamb in the casserole with sugar and toss over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes until the sugar has caramelized. This will give a fine amber color to the sauce.

Toss the meat with the salt and pepper, then with the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle level of preheated oven for 4 to 5 minutes. Toss the meat and return it to the oven for 4 to 5 minutes more. This browns the flour evenly and coats the lamb with a light crust. Remove casserole and turn oven down to 350 degrees.

Pour out the fat; add 2 cups of stock or bouillon to the sauté skillet. Bring to the boil and scrape up coagulated sauté juices. Then pour the liquid into the casserole. Bring to the simmer for a few seconds shaking and stirring to mix liquid and flour. Add the tomatoes or tomato paste and the other ingredient (garlic, rosemary and bay leaf). Bring to the simmer for 1 minute, then add more stock if necessary; meat should be almost covered by liquid.

Put the lid on the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven; regulate heat so casserole simmers slowly and regularly for 1 hour. Then pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a bowl. Rinse out the casserole. Remove any loose bones and return the lamb to the casserole. Skim the fat off the sauce in the bowl, correct seasoning, and pour sauce back into casserole. Then add the vegetables which have been prepared as follows:

While the lamb is simmering, trim the potatoes into ovals 1 ½ inches long, and cover with cold water until ready to use. Quarter the carrots and turnips, cut them into 1 ½ inch lengths, and, if you have the patience, trim the edges to round them slightly. Pierce a cross in the root ends of the onions so they will cook evenly.

Press the vegetables into the casserole around and between the pieces of lamb. Baste with the sauce. Bring to the simmer on top of the stove, cover and return to the oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers slowly and steadily for about an hour longer or until the meat and vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven, tilt casserole, and skim off fat. Taste sauce again, and correct seasoning.

While the casserole is in the oven, drop the peas and beans into the boiling salted water and boil rapidly, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are almost tender. Immediately drain in a colander. Run cold water over them for 2 to 3 minutes to stop the cooking and to set the color. Put aside until ready to use. [May be prepared ahead to this point. Set casserole aside and cover askew. Bring to the simmer on top of the stove before proceeding with recipe.]

Shortly before serving, place the peas and beans in the casserole on top of the other ingredients and baste with the bubbling sauce. Cover and simmer about 5 minutes or until the green vegetables are tender.

Serve the navarin from its casserole or arrange it on a very hot platter.

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