"Poaching eggs are stubborn creatures; they go their own way as they please. But if you just take a spoon, and turn them about a bit, confuse them, then you are in control. Just like with a man. Now, they are trained and obedient, and all the more beautiful for it."
Lessons from a French Chef
Kerry had a little lamb.
But if it had been up to Mémé, I would have had a lot more.
Here in Paris, at cooking school, a chef told me this week to treat my food by its characteristics. Such a statement might seem vague and pedantic, especially when it was barked in French over the roar of ten boiling stoves. But Chef (who told me to be sure and write about him as soon as possible) approached my stove, and stood behind me as I successfully battered and broke another poaching egg.
"Kerry, Kerry!" he purred my name as the r's rolled up from his throat like the bubbles rising in my simmering pot. I know he's supposed to be a figure of authority, but that pronunciation reminds me of nothing but home, and the tears that began to surface in my eyes could have resulted from the drenching heat, the frustration of the damn egg, or just violent homesickness. No matter many how many times you turn your cutting board over in the kitchen, some emotional cross-contamination cannot be helped.
"Imagines que les oeufs sont les hommes." Imagine that eggs are men. And then he said something that made me stop dead where I was. He opened his mouth, and murmured a phrase that Maman has been muttering to me with great unsuccess for the last fifteen years: "Les hommes sont comme les chiens. Il faut les traîner." Men are like dogs. They must be trained.
He went on to tell me that poaching eggs are stubborn creatures; they go their own way as they please. But if you just take a spoon, and turn them about a bit, confuse them, then you are in control. Just like with a man. Now, they are trained and obedient, and all the more beautiful for it. Many of the students are offended by the French chefs' constant parallels between food and gender-based metaphor, but I think there is something lovely and touching in the French way of confronting the basic differences between the sexes, and embracing them, laughing at them, admiring them, and extolling them. I used to think Maman was terrible to call men dogs. Now, I'm beginning to understand. They like it!
Then Chef said something else to me, again straight from the mouth of Maman: "N'oublies pas, Kerry, que peut-etre l'homme est la tete. Mais la femme--elle est le cou. Elle tourne la tête où elle veut. Tu as tout le contrôle" Don't forget, Kerry, that maybe the man is the head. But the woman, she is the neck. She turns the head wherever she likes. You have all the control. So, I went back to controlling my egg as though it were a disobedient man.
Was this a lesson taught in French grammar school? I pour more vinegar into my simmering pot, and wonder if all the life lessons learned in a French kitchen could be usefully applied to my boyfriend back in England.
Lessons from Mémé
Although Maman seems well versed in all these ubiquitous French maxims, Mémé was born in Casablanca. Apparently such rites of wisdom are bestowed in infancy not along with the French language, with which Mémé began her rich vocal life, but with a French birth certificate.
Mémé's love life, over the course of her many decades, has been passionate and varied. he cast of characters are like a reel at the end of an impossibly glamorous film, where the plot turns from Shakespearean farce to Greek tragedy in a life peppered with travel, salted with war, and spiced with fierce independence. But at the end of it all, she has been unlucky in love. Her life is the epic that taught me that love does not always conquer all, and that many times things don't work out, that people don't listen, that life is unfair, and hard, and that you will only make it through if you are brave enough to go it alone.
So, it is no wonder that she does not consider men dogs that need to be trained. She considers them rodents--that need to be massacred.
Lamb is vastly popular in Moroccan cuisine, and though Mémé adores to make Dauphinois, she also makes tagines studded with nuts, and olives, and fruits, and preserved lemons. Moroccan meals consist of nearly a million courses, but if lamb was missing from Mémé's table...well, let's just say lamb was never missing.
If I were to consider Chef's advice, and consider lamb a man, and search for his natural characteristics, then I think that lamb would be shy. He would be soft, and kind, but still with his own particular flavor. But you wouldn't want to overwhelm him, or smother him, or massacre him for that matter. Maman would probably encourage such a man with Pavlovian treats for good behavior.
Mémé would have sneered. After all, a man's a man!
Mémé's lamb came in one of two ways. Either it was cubed and stewed as a tagine until it was falling apart, collapsing like a strangled marathon runner at the end of a race, in a sauce from which it was nearly indistinguishable, if delicious. Or it was ground, mixed with cumin and coriander, and shaped and molded in unfeeling hands until it fit around impaling ribs of celery. It was paying for someone's bad behavior.
Maman's lamb when I was very young, before I was vegetarian, was completely different. True to her and chef's life and culinary philosophies, she would take lamb chops and carefully trim away the dainty fat. She would place the lollipop bones in opposing directions on a simple tray, and roast them. She often didn't even use salt. She took them out minutes later, and we would sit munching on them with our fingers in bed. If lamb had been my boyfriend, she would have told me not to let this one go. There were only a few wrinkles to be ironed out (as there always are, according to Maman), and for that delicate paring knife would do.
It is important, with people as with food, to see clearly, to judge them for who they are, and to act accordingly. Maybe then you will be as lucky in love as you are in the kitchen. After all, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.
Pistoued Lamb Brochettes with Bay Leaves and Seared Olives Recipe
I love grilling in the summertime. And though I do these brochettes on the stove, you could certainly do them on the outdoor grill. The lamb leg is cut into large chunks, and tossed with a delicate mint pistou, and wreathed in fresh bay leaves, which smoke and perfume the meat as they sear on the flame. I char juicy green olives to serve alongside. But in the end, I still skewer the meat right through the heart. Mémé may not follow French rules of amour, but she still knows a thing or two about men, and about meat.
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 cup basil leaves
- 3/4 cup mint leaves
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 2-pound leg of lamb, deboned, trimmed, and cut into 1-1 1/2-inch cubes
- 32 fresh bay leaves
- A handful of large, pit-in green olives
- 2 limes, cut into wedges
- 6-8 soaked bamboo skewers
Create the herb pistou by whirling the garlic clove through the food processor. Pulse in the herbs. Season with salt and pepper, then stream in the olive oil. Toss the pistou with the lamb in a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, soak 8 bamboo skewers in water to prevent them from burning.
Make the skewers by starting with one cube of lamb. Then stack 2 fresh bay leaves, another cube of lamb, 2 more bay leaves, and then a third and last cube of lamb. Prepare all the brochettes this way.
Heat a large grill or sauté pan over medium-high to high heat. Working in batches, sear the brochettes for 5-6 minutes on each side. Throw a few olives in with each batch, and flip them around every so often as they char.
Serve hot or at room temperature with the olives and freshly torn mint leaves and lime wedges.