Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Chocolate Chip Cookies & Daydreams

by Amy
From the pudding chocolate chip recipe

 “I tell you, I’m going to do it,” Myrna was saying, sipping her hot chocolate.“No you’re not,” laughed Clara. “Every winter you say you will and you never do. Besides, it’s too late now.”“Have you seen the last-minute deals? Look.” Myrna handed her friend the Travel section from the weekend Montreal Gazette, pointing to a box.”
[…]“Every Saturday they had the same conversation. Comparing travel deals to beaches, choosing Caribbean cruises, debating the Bahamas versus Barbados, San Miguel de Allende versus Cabo San Lucas. Exotic locales far from the falling snow, the endless snow. Deep and crisp and even.And yet, they never went, no matter how tempting the deals. And Gabri knew why. Myrna, Clara, Peter knew why. And it wasn’t Ruth’s theory.“You’re all too fucking lazy to move.” Well, not entirely. Gabri sipped his café au lait and looked into the leaping flames, listening to the familiar babble of familiar voices. He looked across the bistro with its original beams, wide plank floor, mullioned windows, its mismatched, comfortable antique furniture. And the quiet, gentle village beyond.
No place could ever be warmer than Three Pines.”
Café au lait from my favorite café... They have yummy bread and awful cookies!
Don’t you just love their “what if” conversations? 

I had a daydream myself today. I really, really need some silence right now. Between incessant patient phone calls, a number of minor motherhood crisis (things like never-ending  conversations on how to make mods on Minecraft, whether or not the latest Ironman suit is the best, why “I don’t know” isn’t an appropriate answer when a homework question says, “Justify your answer”, etc), and a neighbor who hasn’t been very respectful in the volume he plays his music, I really needed some silence for a little while. Or at least a no-interruptions-for-a-few-hours policy.

I was daydreaming of spending a week all by my lonesome in a little cottage. In my daydream the mobile phone didn’t work. All I had to do was lounge, eat, drink, and read. In my daydream I didn’t actually have to talk to anyone. Unless I wanted to. No one would need me. For anything.
It sounds perfect for a few minutes. But then I think that no place could be better than home. And by home I don’t mean a city or a state or even a country. I mean people. Two in particular. Besides, it’s good to feel needed, appreciated, useful, and loved.

Still… I won’t say I’d never go. I will. Someday. At least for a few days.

Ingredients for the oatmeal chocolate chip

“Peter, while an artist himself, wasn’t great at the “what if” conversations. He took them too literally and found himself stressed when Clara pointed out that for only fifteen thousand dollars they could upgrade to a Princess Suite on the Queen Mary 2. It was his cardio exercise for the day.”

What are you like? I’m definitely on the “what if” team. I love "what if" conversations. I don’t mind if they never come true. I think part of the fun is planning for events and daydreams that you don’t really intend to pursue.

What’s your fantasy vacation?

I always think it's funny (to me) that while the Three Pines characters are dreaming of warm places and sunny skies, I'm frequently daydreaming of nice chilly mountain scenery. Three Pines actually would be on my list of top ten dream destinations. There are no beaches on my list.

Gabri looked down at the coffee table, with their drinks and a plate of chocolate chip cookies and the thick Diane de Poitiers writing paper with its partly finished message. The same one he wrote every day and mailed, along with a licorice pipe.”

I don’t usually make “regular” chocolate chip cookies. I usually make pumpkin chocolate chip or oatmeal chocolate chip. Those are my favorites. Since I assumed they might not qualify as the “right” cookies and I wanted to make up for my misread scene (this post: Hanna Parra's Cookies), I decided to go on a quest for the “perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipe.

I tried three different recipes and ended up making a batch of the oatmeal because I consider them to be better than the others. Sigh. Husband and son don’t agree.

Here’s a short comparison:

Recipe 1 – recommended by a friend 
Pudding Chocolate Chip Cookies

Pros: Husband and son loved them.

Cons: I thought these cookies were way too sweet. If I ever make them again (doubtful), I’d only use 1/3 of the sugar in the original recipe. The other issue I had is that I can only get all purpose flour here. I’m not sure if that was the reason, but I found they kind of spread out and “plopped” flat as soon as they came out of the oven.

Recipe 2 – my sister’s favorite and the one I usually make when I don't make oatmeal or pumpkin ones.

Link: Nestle Toll House Recipe

These are the Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies

Pros: Husband and son love them. I like them, too. They’re chewy enough for me. And, they always give me a giggle because of the episode Monica and the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookies (click for the link). I don't make the original recipe because I only use the brown sugar. That way it's 1/2 the amount of sugar in the original recipe. I used both milk (nod to husband) and semi-sweet (son & I prefer those) chips. I also added raw almonds.

Cons: Can’t think of any aside from the fact that they have no oats or pumpkin in them. So these are probably the best ones to me.

Recipe 3 – Chewy Pudding Chocolate Chips

These are the pudding ones
Pros: It’s true that the cookies had the perfect consistency. They looked great and they were moist and chewy. Son and husband absolutely LOVED this recipe.

Cons: I thought it had a bit of aftertaste. Son and husband didn’t think it was noticeable, but I didn’t like the pudding taste.

Recipe 4 – Oatmeal!

Just mix together: 2 cups of oatmeal, 1 cup of sugar (I use brown), 1 cup of all purpose flour, 1 tablespoon of baking soda, 100g of margarine or butter or half of each, 2 eggs, and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Then add 1 cup of chocolate chips. I usually add cinnamon and ginger just because I love the smell and taste. I sometimes add nuts. The ones pictured here have raw sliced almonds in them.

Pros: They’re perfect. My son thinks they're great - except when I add mint chocolate or cloves. My husband won’t touch them.

Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

Cons: I gain about 10 pounds every time I make them.

What’s your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe? Or is there another cookie you prefer? I might try making another batch of someone’s favorite recipe in a couple of weeks. We need to detox from the many cookie and brownie batches over the past 10 days, though.

There's one cookie that I usually buy at a bakery in Northern California. It has oatmeal and cacao nibs and isn't chewy, but has a nice consistency and a hint of spice. I haven't been able to replicate it, though. Maybe that should be my next quest.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Poached Salmon - "Not poached like that. Poached as in cooked."

by Amy

There are three poached salmons in the Gamache books

The first is referred to by Gabri as they leave the church on their way to their Christmas celebration in A FATAL GRACE.

“’Olivier’s getting the food from the bistro,’ said Gabri. ‘We made a poached salmon.’”

This is right before they eavesdrop on CC eviscerating her own daughter who had sung, like an angel, only moments before.

“They’d evaded the monster. Instead, it had devoured a frightened child.”

The second is uneaten by Peter Morrow’s cold and frequently hurtful mother in A RULE AGAINST MURDER. They are waiting to be interviewed by the agents after Julia’s murder. No one had much of an appetite; the salmon reminds Clara of Mrs. Morrow’s constant belittling of her daughter-in-law.

“The elderly woman sat on the sofa next to her husband, as though her spine had fused. Clara held out a small plate with a bit of poached salmon, delicate mayonnaise and paper-thin cucumbers and onion in vinegar. One of Peter’s mother’s favorite lunches, she knew, from the times she’d asked for it at their place when all they had to offer was a simple sandwich. Two struggling artists rarely ran to salmon.”

And, finally, in A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, the Morrows invite an eclectic group of people, including neighbors, police agents, artists, art dealers, and AA members to their house for dinner.

“’Are you and your people free for dinner?’ she asked. ‘It’s so miserable we thought we’d poach a salmon and see who can come over.’
‘Isn’t poaching illegal?’ asked Gamache, confused as to why she’d be telling him this.
Clara laughed. ‘Not poached like that. Poached as in cooked.’

Funnily enough, it took three books before Louise Penny included that little joke. It took about two minutes on our Facebook page. The first comment was from someone who – like Gamache – thought it sounded like I was poaching a fish, not poach-cooking a fish.

None of the scenes with poached fish tell us how the characters poached it. As it turns out, I discovered that there’s more than one way to do it. Apparently some people are pretty vehement that their way is the “correct” way. Others are unaware that there even is any other way to do it. Others, like me, made fish in a way that might be considered (by some) to be poaching a fish, but were unaware of the culinary term.

“Great. It’ll be very relaxed. En famille.
Gamache smiled at the French phrase. It was one Reine-Marie often used. It meant “come as you are,” but it meant more than that. She didn’t use it for every relaxed occasion and with every guest. It was reserved for special guests, who were considered family. It was a particular position, a compliment. An intimacy offered.”

Except it wasn’t.

At least I don’t think it was. While I’m sure Clara considers the Chief Inspector to be a personal friend, I doubt all of her guests would qualify as people she considered to be family. It ended up not being a terribly relaxed occasion, what with the undercurrents of artistic envy, competition among art dealers, Peter’s  discomfort with Clara’s success, Castonguay’s belligerent drinking, and Ruth interrogating the agents on their investigation.

All in all, poached fish doesn’t seem to qualify as a comfortable meal for characters in Gamacheland. 
Listening to CC rant would ruin most appetites. Mrs. Morrow is probably the last person I’d choose to spend time with… (She scares me. Ruth is a sweetheart in comparison). CC is pathetic. Mrs. Morrow is mean.  She’s also intelligent enough that her attacks usually hit the mark.

The third poached salmon meal, while not quite comfortable, is the one I’d most like to have been around to help eat. I love gatherings where different people mesh and clash. A TRICK OF THE LIGHT is a book where Louise Penny’s central message is quite evident. In her acknowledgements she wrote:

“Many people were whispering in my ear as I wrote A Trick of the Light. Some still in my life, some now gone but always remembered. I won’t go on at length, except to say I’m deeply grateful I got a chance to write this book. But much more than that, I’m deeply grateful, after many years as a resister, I now completely believe that sometimes drowning men (and women) are saved. And, when coughed back, might even find some measure of peace in a small village. In the sunshine.”

Louise Penny writes about drowning characters. She gives them a chance of redemption. She knows what it’s like. This is an old interview I found when I first read this book and wondered how much was empathy and how much was drawn from some personal experience in redemption. (

“And André Castonguay was left all alone.
‘He needs to hit bottom,’ said Suzanne.
‘I’ve hit many bottoms,’ said Gabri. ‘And I find it helps.’”

This book was a study on addiction and the strength of will (as well as loving support and community) necessary to fight it. I found myself remembering much of what Suzanne and the Chief Justice said when reading – in later books – about Beauvoir’s situation.

We don’t get to read about what happens to Castonguay. He gives us a glimpse of what it’s like on the way to rock bottom. Through other characters, Louise Penny treats us to tales of “drowning” people who are saved: Suzanne, Olivier, Beauvoir, Peter…  

We sometimes glimpse Ruth as a woman who is barely afloat. We realize, in The Long Way Home, that she’s Clara’s muse. Part of it is a form of negative inspiration – she’s a template of what Clara doesn’t want to become. She’s a hazard sign warning Clara to stay away from drowning. We see some of her pain (mostly in the latest books). Rosa gives her back parts of her heart. I’m hoping the next book will give her a measure of peace.

One of the (many) things I admire about Louise Penny is her ability to write grace. These books are, among other things, about grace. It isn’t a trick of the light. It is hope. It’s about the lifesavers thrown out to those drowning in self-doubt and despair. It’s about silver linings. It’s about crawling your way back after hitting rock bottom.

I usually bake fish. Sometimes I put it inside an aluminum foil envelope and fill it with citrus slices and white wine and herbs and bake it. When I looked up recipes for poached fish I discovered that some people refer to that method as poaching. Others describe a process of simmering liquid with citrus slices and/or vegetables with or without wine and various other herbs. Some say you simmer it for some minutes, turn it off, and then add the fish. Others say you keep the heat under it and add the fish but don’t let it come to a boil. Some add a rack so the fish won’t really touch the water. In this case it’s “steamed”. Others immerse the fish in the water. Some say you have to skin it first. Others say you leave the skin on and then remove it once you’re done. So many choices!

Thankfully, I’m put at ease by conflicting rules. My theory – in cooking, in motherhood, in my medical practice, and in life – is that harder it is to reach a consensus, the more likely it is that no one really knows for sure and you can kind of figure out what works best for you.

Part of the fun in this blog is trying new things. Since I usually use the baking method, I decided to poach this one in the liquid (although I've learned that the fancy French term is court-bouillon). One of the recipes I saw added fennel. I’d never added it to fish before and loved the idea. Since I had quite a bit in the garden, it was easy to make a generous bed of fennel and parsley for the court-bouillon. I also added lemon, lime and orange slices. I added a clove of garlic, two baby onions – coarsely chopped – and a carrot. I had no celery (which I love), but it’s not so easy to find here and doesn’t taste quite the same. Some recipes mentioned pepper, bay leaves, and dill. I skipped the salt and only added a pinch to my dill sauce. I’ve been kicking myself for forgetting the bay leaves, but I’ll be sure to remember next time. One generous cup of white wine was poured in and then enough water for the liquid to cover the colorful bed of flavors.

I was initially intimidated by the new culinary term (poaching), then felt like I might be in over my head when I read the first recipe that called for a court-bouillon. Now that I actually made it, I realize it’s so easy I feel like it should be taught as basic cooking. It’s easier (much) than scrambling eggs.

I turned on the heat and let the liquid simmer. Only one recipe mentioned that it was “necessary” to remove the skin before poaching. I ignored it since others disagreed and I thought it would be easier to skin the salmon filet afterwards. I was right. I turned the heat off about a minute after adding the fish to the liquid. I placed an orange slice over the fish to keep it immersed. It was done in less than 10 minutes.

This recipe is a winner! Why? It’s easy. It sounds fancier than it is. Cleaning up was quick and easy and the kitchen didn’t smell fishy. That’s the main reason I rarely make fish. I can’t stand the “fishy” smell.

I wish I could have found fresh dill. Fresh dill in Brazil is very, very hard to find, though. So I used dry dill and yogurt with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon.


I think we can all agree that there’s more than one way to poach a salmon. We’ve already had a Facebook poll where some of you shared how you poach/cook fish. I do have another question, though. If you could share a meal with any of the Gamacheland characters… who would you choose?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hors d’Oeuvres and Wine...Hope and Fear

by Libby

Gamache glanced into the body of the room, packed with men and women milling about and chatting, juggling hors d’oeuvres and wine. (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.16)

It is Clara's opening at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montréal. This is no mean feat having a solo exhibition at such a major art museum as the MAC. 

I really like this scene. It is very much an 'exposition' of hope and fear, through the eyes of several key players. And I like the sense of being right there with them, amongst the crowd, quietly observing and listening.

Oh, no, no, no, thought Clara Morrow as she walked toward the closed doors. She could see shadows, shapes, like wraiths moving back and forth, back and forth across the frosted glass. Appearing and disappearing. Distorted, but still human. (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.1)

Clara's crisis of confidence in professionally showing her work speaks of her self-doubt. Understandable really. The thing about making art is that it is so inextricably tied up with your sense of self, that it’s a bit of a tightrope and easy to teeter between self-belief and self-doubt.

This one event is the culmination of all her hopes and ambitions as an artist. But fear shadows hope. At this level in the art world she has a lot to gain or lose as her work is judged in the most public way.

Through her emotional and intellectual challenges as an artist she has finally found a language of expression that fulfils her vision, her ideas, and that is resonating with others. Now she is faced with putting it out there. It’s risky and it's personal. Will her works be understood, and stand up to rigorous scrutiny at the highest levels in the art world? How will others see and interpret her works that have great personal meaning and import, that are the product of years of working towards this moment. There is more on show here than Clara's paintings. It is a collision of all her artistic hopes and fears.

We are there in that moment Clara panics. She has always been in Peter's shadow. He was the recognised artist. His works sold. He should be the first to exhibit at the MAC. All she wants to do is flee. But who comes to her aid, understands her fears at that moment better than anyone, and steadies her?

It wasn’t Peter. Instead, ... Olivier Brulé. He was kneeling beside her, watching, his kind eyes life preservers thrown to a drowning woman. She held them. ... “I don’t think I can do it.” Clara leaned forward, feeling faint. ... “I know,” whispered Olivier. “But I also know you. Whether it’s on your knees or on your feet, you’re going through that door.” He nodded toward the end of the hall, his eyes never leaving hers. “It might as well be on your feet.” (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.3)

We know Olivier faces his own fears about acceptance and rejection, about redefining himself in the Three Pines community and rebuilding relationships when trust has been broken. But he is there for Clara, and he wins our respect.

And what of Peter? This scene is as much about him as it is of Clara. In counterpoint to her, Peter has entered the exhibition in a seemingly buoyant mood. What appears to be a supportive albeit brave face, masks an artist whose hopes and fears are also at a crossroad. Peter's art has come to a standstill, and he has much to fear. He is trapped in a cycle of producing the tightly executed works that had made his reputation as an artist...and now faced with the horror of an empty canvas, an absence of vision and new ideas, his creative process paralysed in his pursuit of some sort of 'detailed' perfection.

You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. ... The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last. (David Bayles, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking)

Plagued by the fear that Clara's art will eclipse his own, and that his will no longer be relevant, we watch as he moves through the exhibition space looking for an opportunity to inveigle himself into the company of any prominent art dealer who can shore up his reputation and give him the recognition he needs. We feel for him, and wince.

Clara's paintings are not the only focus at this show. We know that Gamache is experiencing some trepidation of his own, in anticipation of seeing Olivier. And as their eyes meet across the room, as much as Gamache hopes Olivier can reconcile with him, he fears, well really accepts, that it will take more time.

And then, we’re with Beauvoir sharing his view of Annie Gamache, and we are privy to his intimate feelings. What can he possibly hope? What do we? And what should he fear as Ruth joins him, grips his arm and follows his gaze across the room to find what is capturing his attention. What a moment!

And once again we’re with Gamache, who perhaps more than any other, has seen the truth in Clara's work and has been greatly moved by it. Sometimes what we see in an artwork is what we bring to it.

I like the way Louise Penny ends this scene on a slightly cryptic note, that leaves us wondering, and even marvelling, about the power of art.

Amid all the brush strokes, all the elements, all the color and nuance in the portrait, it came down to one tiny detail. A single white dot. In her eyes. Clara Morrow had painted the moment despair became hope. François Marois stepped back half a pace and nodded gravely. “It’s remarkable. Beautiful.” He turned to Gamache then. “Unless, of course, it’s a ruse.” “What do you mean?” asked Gamache. “Maybe it isn’t hope at all,” said Marois, “but merely a trick of the light.” (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.28)

Hors d’Oeuvres

I love to entertain with lots of 'small bites' or finger food to eat. At Clara's exhibition opening, hors d'oeuvres (that are not identified) are served with wine. So I prepared three possibilities, with ingredients that can be prepared ahead of time and quickly assembled, to serve easily as finger food with drinks: baked ricotta with an oven-dried tomato and basil leaf on a cocktail stick; witlof (endive) leaves with goat's curd, roasted capsicum (pepper) and vincotta; hot-smoked trout with crème fraîche, lemon and parsley on sourdough bread.

Baked ricotta with an oven-dried tomato and basil leaf on a cocktail stick

- bite-sized slices of baked ricotta (recipe follows)
- oven-dried tomato halves (recipe follows)
- fresh basil leaves
- cocktail sticks to serve

Place a piece of baked ricotta, a large basil leaf and an oven-dried tomato on a cocktail stick, to serve.

Baked ricotta

The ricotta cheese used in this recipe is the low-fat, hard ricotta that is sold in pieces cut from a wheel (not the soft ricotta sold in tubs). Slow-baked with a covering of herbs to create an aromatic and spicy flavour, it can be cut into bite-sized pieces for assembling with other ingredients. You can make this two or three days ahead of time, and refrigerate, to allow the flavour to develop.
-  a wedge of low fat ricotta

-  3 tbsp of dried oregano

-  3 tbsp of finely chopped fresh oregano

-  3/4 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes

-  1 tsp of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

-  6-10 fresh bay leaves

-  several sprigs of fresh rosemary

extra-virgin olive oil

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F

2. Pat the ricotta piece dry with some kitchen paper.

3. Coat it generously with extra-virgin olive oil.

4. Mix the herbs and spices together, except for the bay leaves and rosemary, and roll the cheese in this to coat all surfaces.

5.  Place a layer of bay leaves and rosemary sprigs together on a baking sheet (in the shape of the cheese). Sit the cheese on the leaves and cover with aluminium foil.

6. Bake for 20 mins and then remove the foil. Continue baking for another 30 mins or until lightly browned.

7. Cut into bite-sized pieces when cool.

Oven-dried tomatoes

These are richly flavoured and very versatile for enhancing a range of dishes. I always have some, completely submerged in extra-virgin olive oil and stored in a lidded, glass container in the fridge. In this way they will last several weeks.

- small to medium sized tomatoes, sliced in halves lengthways

- sprigs of fresh thyme chopped

- extra-virgin olive oil

- cracked black pepper

-    sea salt flakes

1.     Pre-heat the oven to 110C/230F

2.  Scoop out the seeds of the tomato halves and place, cup side up, on a baking tray.

3.  Drizzle each cup with extra-virgin olive oil.

4.  Sprinkle each cup with pepper, salt and thyme.

5.  Slowly dry in the oven for several hours so that they still retain some moisture.

6.  Cool, and store in extra-virgin olive oil. Refrigerate until required.

Witlof (endive) leaves with goat's curd, roasted capsicum (pepper) and vincotto

Any leaves, with a cup shape, can be used to make these delicious little 'boats'. I have used witlof, but you can also use radicchio, chicory or baby cos lettuce. I've never liked goat's cheese but goat's curd, with its fresh, light tanginess, is a revelation. A crisp, slightly bitter leaf, the creamy curd, the sweet savouriness of roasted capsicum (pepper), a drizzle of 'sweet and sour' vincotto (this is a delicious reduction of the crushed fruit and skins of unfermented dark grapes) and a sprinkle of chopped chives is a taste treat. If you can't find vincotto, a reduction of balsamic vinegar with a pinch of sugar can be substituted.

- witlof/endive or other 'boat shaped' leaves, washed and dried

- goat's curd

- 1 red capsicum (pepper), halved and seeds and stem removed

- vincotto for drizzling

- fresh chives, chopped

- extra-virgin olive oils 

    - cracked black pepper

1.    Roast or grill the capsicum (pepper) halves until the skin is completely blackened. Peel off the skin when cool. Pat the flesh dry with paper towel and then cut into strips. Drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with cracked black pepper. Set aside.

2.  Scoop a spoonful of goat's curd into each leaf boat. Use the back of the spoon to smooth it along the length of the leaf.

3.  Place one or two strips of roasted capsicum on the curd. Sprinkle with chives, cracked black pepper and a drizzle of vincotto.

Smoked trout, with crème fraîche, lemon and parsley on sourdough bread

This is hot-smoked trout that I buy whole with its skin on. The flesh is soft and luscious. It's a great standby for a quick and easy snack with drinks, and pairs wonderfully with crème fraîche, good crusty bread, lemon, and herbs such as watercress or parsley. Smoked salmon could easily be substituted.

- hot-smoked trout, broken into pieces 

- crème fraîche

- sourdough baguette, sliced

- freshly grated lemon rind

- sliced flat-leaf parsley or watercress

- cracked black pepper

- extra-virgin olive oil

1. Place a generous helping of smoked trout on each slice of bread.

2. Spoon creme fraiche over the trout

3. Grate lemon rind over the crème fraîche.

4. Sprinkle over parsley or watercress

5. Finish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper.

These hors d'oeuvres go particularly well with a nicely chilled white wine that has a dry finish, such as a Pinot Gris or a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Leek Casserole & The Arts of Silence and Conversation

by Amy

“When the first casserole, a fragrant cheese and leek dish with a crunchy crumble top, came by he paused, looking at the modest amounts everyone else had taken. Then he took the biggest scoop he could manage and plopped it onto his plate. Bite me, he thought. And the monks looked like they might.”

I love leeks. I love cheese. I love casseroles. What could go wrong? I actually followed a recipe for this dish. I usually change recipes to adjust to my tastes. This time I followed it, but I decided that if (when) I make it again, I’ll add other vegetables (about three or four times the amount called for in the recipe) and will experiment with different cheeses. Cheddar wouldn’t be my first choice. I think I’d like to use Parmesan – or maybe a blend of cheeses.

On a side note, cheddar is not only hard to find, but also fairly expensive in Brazil. I have an American friend here that has cheddar cheese high on the list of things she most misses from home. I’ve read comments by American expats in Europe complaining that they can’t find cheddar easily.

The mustard in the sauce was a new idea for me. I’d never done that and I absolutely loved it. I love mustard, though, so I’m biased. I’m used to nutmeg in white sauce, but had never considered mustard. What do you put in your white sauce?

“Near the end of the meal, the Chief folded his cloth napkin and rose. Frère Simon, across from him, motioned, at first subtly then with more vigor, for the Chief to sit back down. Gamache met the man’s eyes, and also motioned. That he’d received the message, but was going to do what he needed to do anyway.”

I love this silent exchange.

It reminds me of exchanges between spouses, parents and their children (of all ages), partners, colleagues, and good friends. I’m sure you’ve been there and seen the look, felt the elbow nudge or the kick in the shins and silently answered that you acknowledged the warning, but you chose to go ahead and do things the hard way, the unconventional way, the potentially dangerous way.

A couple of weeks ago, when I posted about the Haida and fresh bread, we talked about how Gamache and the Haida were good at silence. The Chief Inspector knows how to use silence to think, to ponder, to listen, and to understand. Silence is a tool. It can be a strength.

There is an art to silence. It can heighten nonverbal communication, increase awareness of nuances, and give both speaker and listener more time to ponder. Those who master the art know when to speak and when to hold their peace. They know how to use silence in order to listen respectfully and prepare a better response.

Our order has been tested over the centuries. And this is another test. Do we really believe in God? Do we believe all the things we say and sing? Or has it become a faith of convenience? Has it, in splendid isolation, grown weak? When challenged we simply do whatever is easiest. Do we sin by silence? If we have real faith then we must have the courage to speak up. We must not protect the killer.”

Silence can be a strong tool. It can be a useful strategy. I can also be complacence. It can be laziness. It can be cowardice. It can be a mark of oppression.

I recently spent some time with a person who tends to choose silence. This is a person with incredible knowledge and experience and so much to offer. She sometimes comes across as blunt, unfeeling, and uninterested. She is, in fact, none of these things. She fails to engage. I sometimes get the impression that the effort of contributing thoughts and risking controversy or even slight discord seems to be too much. She is not only silent, she also not very responsive, even non-verbally. Once you draw her out, she is a wealth of knowledge and her ideas are interesting and, yes, frequently controversial. She`s sometimes telegraphic in her communication, though. You have to get to know her well in order to have an inkling of her thoughts. Absolutely worth it. Such an interesting mind.

Silence, here, may have been misused. While it is safe for her, keeping up a dialogue in her own mind, she (intentionally or not) deprives many of the depth of her thoughts. It’s easy, in this scenario, to become or be perceived as judgmental and distant. This is uncomfortable and disengaged silence.

“The monks looked anxious. And angry. At him. Gamache was used to this transference. They couldn’t yet blame the killer, so they blamed the police for turning their lives upside down. He felt a rush of sympathy.If only they knew how bad it would get.”

The monks in this book had taken a vow of silence. They weren’t uncommunicative, though. A wealth of information and interaction was exchanged without the use of words.

I have a good friend who, like me, was told she talked too much as a child. We both spent many years of our lives biting our tongues (or trying to, in my case). I frequently end my day replaying conversations, wondering if I said too much and listened too little. I judge my words. This friend and I both learned (the hard way) the art of silence and listening. She’s much, much better at it than I am. She’s one of my favorite people to talk to.

She, too, frequently chooses silence. I can sometimes look at her and see, in her eyes, that there’s a cascade of words tumbling in her mind. Many of them do not make it out. She’s learned concision and editing. She, like Gamache, uses silence. She isn’t silenced. There’s a difference.

I think we all have a story to tell. Having a voice is a powerful thing. While learning to rein in our words and master silence is a challenge, the next step is finding our voice and learning how to use it well.

The monks have mastered the art of science. They have reached a level I’m pretty sure I’ll never attain (especially since I am not called to live in a monastery and I tend to be the kind of person who uses words to engage with the world). They have now been challenged to go beyond silence. To find their voice. To tell their version of events.

I’ve been planning to try this recipe for some time. For one reason or another I postponed it. I thought I was going to write about something else when I first planned to cook this dish. It’s funny that I ended up making it today. I’d been thinking about the art of silence and conversation – and balance. 

When I reread the scene, I realized that was what I was supposed to write about.

I spent most of the week reassessing. I was talking to 12 year old me and remembering how painful it was to feel silenced. I tried to evaluate how far I’ve come and whether or not I have learned to listen. I had been aiming towards mastering silence. I spent most of the week discovering that while silence is a part of it, it is only half of the art. In order to truly be a master of silence, you have to have a voice that is willing to make itself heard when needed.

“When challenged we simply do whatever is easiest. Do we sin by silence? If we have real faith then we must have the courage to speak up.”

Therein lays the challenge. My first impulse is to speak. Not necessarily to “speak up”. I sometimes use words to pacify and smooth over. It’s an important tool. With so much polarization in the world, people who easily see both sides of an issue and try to find common ground are needed. That’s not hard for me to do. A friend recently told me, though, that not everything is relative and sometimes you have to make a choice. Sometimes the choice isn’t ideal.

I am reminded of a song by Emeli Sande (listen here).

I spent some time alone, in silence, the past week and have discovered that a greater challenge awaits me. If I wish to master the art of conversation, I have to learn to hold my tongue and master silence, to acquire the wisdom to ponder and choose my words, and also to have the courage to speak up.

Quotes are from The Beautiful Mystery – page 95 in the paperback edition.