Winterpalace

a blog by Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers
Location
Seattle,
Birthday
December 16
Bio
Generally, I'd rather be reading. But I am fond of arguing about dead presidents, driving vans around Mexico, and cooking. I try to create places and times that make you believe, just for a moment, that people aren't terrible and the world isn't a ghastly place.

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JANUARY 9, 2011 6:31PM

The Cook Book

Rate: 20 Flag

 "Good God, what is that? It's huge..." I said suspiciously, as my mother removed the book from one of her voluminous duffel bags. My mother doesn't like anything to go to waste, so she's always convincing me that I need this or that. She'd just brought me a mountain of stuff from Arizona, where she'd been playing hospice nurse for a close family friend. After the death she'd helped to clean and pack up the house, and during our visit she kept retrieving 'one more thing' she'd scavenged for me. The pile on my coffee table was at the teetering-point: beaded jewelry, small weavings, a photograph album, seven or eight obscure books, a ceramic rabbit, two oil paintings by the deceased, hand-painted floor tiles...

"I can't believe you dragged that all the way across country on the train," I said, hefting the book, which was thick as a cinder block. "Pellaprat's Great Book of French Cuisine...I've never eaten a French dish in my life. You know how I feel about the French." I said.

"It was Carol's..." my mother said, sounding wounded.

Carol was my godmother, and she and my mother knew each other from the old days in San Miguel de Allende. They had a thing or two in common: they were both adventurers, bohemians, writers, recovering alcoholics who had a tendency toward bitterness which, on a good day, could be superseded by their wonder at the infinite beauty of the world.

Carol was tiny, with feathery brown hair and eyes that seemed black, though of course they weren't. There was something of the shrew in her, though it wasn't an ugly shrewishness: rather a delicate menace. She smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and obsessed about politics. An ardent supporter of Jerry Brown when he made a presidential bid in 1992, she liked to call Bill Clinton 'the prince of sleaze'. 

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Carol and Felisa Rosa Rogers circa 1983.

In addition to writing, she wove and painted. One day when I was a kid she drove me out to her studio in Española, New Mexico. As soon as we got there, she rolled up the garage-style door to let March light permeate the narrow cement room. Through the doorway, dead golden grass stood still in an arroyo, and the sky above the mountains was deep blue. Inside was almost as vivid--from the floor to the high ceilings, the walls were covered with paintings, mostly abstract--huge canvases alive with loops of color.

Carol was not the sort of person who felt obligated to entertain children, even ones she was fond of, and I was not the sort of child who expected to be entertained. Briskly, she got to work. As she painted, reaching as high as she could with her brush, she'd pause to take swigs of buttermilk, straight from the carton. She said it helped to counteract the poison of the paint.  I wandered around, staring at the paintings. True to character my favorite was the least abstract--a lush expanse that showed hidden treasures below the earth.

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Carol as I remember her best, in New Mexico.

The last time I saw my godmother, she was standing in the parking lot of a strip mall in Arizona, looking tiny but somehow still debonair in her black pants and fuzzy red sweater, accessorized with a red silk head scarf and a portable oxygen tank. I was on my way to Mexico and in a hurry, so she'd driven from her home in Patagonia to meet me and my boyfriend Josh en route. It was a short visit: she treated us to lunch at a Chinese buffet (a generous gesture on her minuscule budget) and then we said goodbye in the parking lot. Looking back, I wish Josh and I would have taken an extra night and driven out to Patagonia to see her studio, but we were young and, as I said, in a hurry. And it wasn't until we were saying goodbye in Arizona's bright winter wind that I knew this would be the last time. I was struck with startling certainty: one of those rare moments in life that are devoid of doubt. But the realization came too late for me to make anything of it: I was already climbing into Josh's truck and waving goodbye to the little figure on the tarmac, who stood there in the sunlight watching us until we drove away.

I am sentimental, so I couldn't just get rid of the cook book. I shelved it grimly. More stuff to move from place to place. I hoped no one would see it and think I actually had pretensions of attempting French cuisine. It would be bad for my image. The tome remained unopened until the day  two of my old standbys (The Best of James Beard and Craig Clairborne's Favorites) failed me. With a sigh, I dragged Pellaprat off the shelf, set it heavily on the kitchen table, thumbed to 'Foreign Specialties' within the immense soup section, where I found a recipe titled 'Minstrone alla Milanese, which begins: 1/2 lb fat bacon, 1/2 lb lean bacon. Intriguing.

DSCF4958

The soup was a great success, the smokiness of bacon balanced by the sweetness of carrots, onions, and garden tomatoes. Turnips added complexity. Over time I made changes, as one does with a favorite recipe: one day I didn't have any grated cheese, so I substituted fresh mozzarella, with amazing results. I replaced 'spaghetti or rice' with rotini or bow-tie pasta, tripled the garlic (as is my wont) and added mushrooms, fresh parsley or basil, diced zucchini, and leek greens. I also began cooking the soup the day before and then adding a second batch of ingredients on the second day, only a few minutes before serving. In short, the soup became part of my culinary repertoire, to the point that every time I called to invite my friends Becky and Tom over for dinner, I could always overhear Tom in the background asking, "Is she making the minestrone?"

But the key to this soup is really the turnip and the bacon, to which I owe Pellaprat all the credit. As it turns out, Pellaprat's The Great Book of French Cuisine is something of a classic. Originally published in 1935 as L'Art Culinaire Moderne, the book is the summation of a life's work and contains practical advice on everything from planning a menu to fluting a mushroom, all written in a sensible voice reminiscent of Emily Post. My 1972 edition is 950 pages long, replete with retro color photographs, the gaudy variety that I absolutely adore.

For a culinary philistine such as myself, much of the information isn't exactly useful: for example, I don't really need to know the correct term for lining a pastry tin with pastry (foncer), and I am unlikely to try many of Pellaprat's recipes; I am not yet in the habit of following instructions such as 'Arrange the aiguillettes of duck to cover the macedoine, and mask over with the aspic. Mix the foi gras and butter and fill into 6 small molds (duck shaped if possible)'. But plenty of recipes still beckon to me, the chapters on general culinary techniques are excellent, and it's interesting to look through the well-traveled volume and wonder what Carol learned from it. Did she serve 'our' minestrone recipe at candle-lit literary dinner parties at her San Miguel house? Did she cook eggs a la Florentine for her former husband, the writer Pierre Delattre?

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 Carol Delattre working on a weaving. 1973.

One of the reasons I love food: recipes bring me close to the ones I have lost, and the ones I might lose in the future. I cherish my dad's recipe for chicken cacciaitore, and regret not having my grandmother's recipe for marble cake. Minestrone ala Milanese reminds of the living: my godson Jack, three years old, crawling into my lap as his parents and other friends sit around the big table in our old dining room in Seattle, connected by years and circumstance, brought together by bacon mozzarella soup. And the minestrone also makes me thankful for Carol, and my mom, and the magic of books.

I've lost a lot of friends, and, other than my mother, my only living blood relatives anymore are cousins and second cousins. I don't feel especially sorry for myself, but I do have regrets. Because, as most of you know, each death brings with it a new regret. I should have been there, I should have listened, I should have answered that last call...I wish I could have asked him this, I wish she would have had time to teach me that...You can't answer that call or ask that last question, but sometimes you can still learn a thing or two from the things left behind.

Minestrone ala Rosa, Delattre, Pellaprat

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Notes: In culinary tradition, minestrone is soup made with whatever you have around. This recipe can be made with almost any vegetable, and my versions vary according to season and budget. The following ingredient list is just a favorite variation. You can successfully make this soup with fewer ingredients. As mentioned, I like to cook the day before, reheat, and then add the last batch of vegetables right before serving. But it's good on the first day too. I usually serve up the bowls individually, spooning the soup over the pasta and fresh mozzarella.

Cooking Time: 1 hour

Serves 8

Ingredients:

2 pints of water

2 pints of stock (optional--water can be substituted)

1/2 lb bacon (diced)

1 large onion

1 leek (both green and white parts)

3 mushrooms (chopped)

1 carrot (minced)

1 carrot (chopped)

1 cup of cabbage or curly kale (chopped)

1 stick of celery (minced)

1 small zucchini (minced)

1 turnip (chopped)

2 potatoes (chopped)

3 cloves of garlic (chopped)

3 cups of precooked pasta 

2 fresh tomatoes or 1/2 can of chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup of fresh parsley (chopped)

1/2 cup of fresh basil  (chopped)

1 pinch of thyme

1/2 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika (optional)

1 lb of fresh mozzarella 

grated Parmesan

salt and pepper to taste

1. Throw bacon in pot. As it begins to fry, add onion and leek (reserving a small quantity of leek greens). Sauté for a few minutes.

2. Add potatoes, turnip, 1/2 of the cabbage or kale, garlic, thyme,  paprika, some pepper, tomatoes, and the bay leaf. Fry for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. 

3. Add water and/or stock, and 1/2 the parsley or basil.

4. Simmer for 45 minutes.

5. Salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add the rest of the vegetables and herbs (you may want to save some basil or parsley for garnish). Cook for another 3 minutes.

6. In each bowl, spoon pasta and top with slices of fresh mozzarella. Ladle soup over the pasta and cheese, sprinkle Parmesan, garnish with parsley or basil, and serve.

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Comments

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I loved this.. The story..sigh.. what a story. When we are young we are always in a hurry..:(
I hope this makes the Foodie Tuesday slot because it sure merits it.
Wonderful and rated with hugs
Felisa, this is such a wonderful article. Anyone who triples the garlic is a master in my books. I will try this next weekend. Thank you; you write eloquently.
Wonderful, Felisa. This sounds wonderful and I love that you can use any vegetables-I hate for things to go bad. Better to put in a yummy soup!
Felisa, This is a beautiful tribute: well written, poignant and funny. You've done Carol--and Pellaprat--proud.
Oh my... all that goes into your soup, far beyond the ingredients.
Lovely.
Amazing story--how fortunate you were to have Carol as your godmother! And I'm sure your triple-garlic formula is an improvement on the demure French original!
Felicia: Yeah, I was really lucky. (And really, one clove of garlic in a soup for 8? I don't think so.)
Beautiful and informative writing here, Felisa. You are lucky to have such interesting people in your life.
This is a lovely tribute, Felisa.
I loved the weaving here. Beautifully presented.
Congrats on The Cook Book. Well done! Do we see the makings of your own book... recipes and life stories?
I could so relate to this quote: "Because, as most of you know, each death brings with it a new regret. I should have been there, I should have listened, I should have answered that last call...I wish I could have asked him this, I wish she would have had time to teach me that.." What's crazy about these regrets is that I don't always learn from them. After some time has passed, I'm back to my old self, habits, and quirks....
Wow this sounds good. Saturday/Sunday food....I can so relate to the cookbook as a remnant of relationship. My husband's mom died before I met him, but we have all of her cookbooks, and he lovingly makes her favorite dishes from them. It makes me feel a bit as if I could have known her. Great piece. And congrats on the Big Salon appearance!
I love this story, Felisa, really everything about it. I wish I had known Carol or even someone like Carol. Your descriptions of her & your mom just bring them to life. I love old cookbooks & now have a title to seek out - I love the foi gras instructions - duck-shaped molds indeed.
- wonderful to see this on the Open Salon cover page!
I KNEW IT...
WHOOOOOOO HOOOOO
HUGGGGGG
congrats on the EP
What a wonderful homage to your godmother! She was one creative being. Loved the story and the soup.
What a wonderful story and the soup looks great too. Thank you for both.

And I totally agree with you about cookbook photos from the 60's & 70's - just the best!!
What a lovely story - and recipe! I look forward to tasting it... R w/ love, E
You're lucky to have had a Carol - one of the many "Aunties" I've tried to provide for my children. I also love old cookbooks. Even the most dated have a few hidden gems.
This post is simply gorgeous. Every word and picture is a treasure.~r
Such a well told remembrance of someone special, nostalgic but firmly rooted in the present through the recipe. I too am suspect of anything Frenchie French but glad you pushed past it and manage to resurrect this one from the aiguillettes and macedoine!
Wow. Thanks everyone!
Vivan: That's a thought. Though I'm not sure I really enough of a chef to actually publish a cook book! More of an interested cook and eater...
Patricia: I know what you mean, unfortunately.
Blue: Thanks! Yeah, my Dad's cook books are really precious to me as well...
Lucy: I can see you actually being able to pull off the duck-shaped foi gras in fine style!
kh333: Thanks. I could look at old cook books all day--My favorite is my copy of The First Ladies Cook Book, which is full of amazingly garish photographs of things like suckling pig, complimented by pictures of state china. Have you ever checked out Charles Phoenix's stuff?
Everyone else: Thanks so much for the support and the kind words. I truly appreciate hearing from you.
Dear wonderful Felisa,

I have never yet met you, but I have heard about ever since you were born, maybe even before. We probably would have met if you'd gone to Patagonia and I was lucky enough to be there at the time.

Your writing is exquisite and this story marvelous. I admist I may be prejudiced because Carol was my sister, but I think that strangers will find it just as beautiful and meaningful as your mother and I do. You are a rare and delightful talent. I hope now more than ever to meet you-- maybe on your way ro or back from somewhere you'll surprise me.

Jan Pope
Thanks, so much Jan. I've heard about you as well! I guess this story did resonate with people who didn't know Carol, because it won Salon's kitchen challenge. So now Carol's picture is on the main Web site.
http://www.salon.com/food/kitchen_challenge/2011/01/10/hot_soups/index.html
I guess one of the things I like about writing is that it continues to connect me to those I've loved and lost--sometimes in the form of just getting their story out there, but hearing from you is another example. Thanks for the invite. I will keep Patagonia in mind.
You are a joy to read, a wonderful writer. I too bastardize every recipe I find, more garlic always, and whats on hand.

French? Well, I'm more prone to Italian and artery cracking sauces, but if you like alfredo? I make a version to go over steak in puff pastry (basically a filet, topped w/ sauteed mushrooms and onion; topped w/gruyere - wrapped and baked) take a tad of the mush/garlic/onion off to the side and mince finely, make your roux with that in the butter, add milk and some shredded gruyere to make the sauce. I add a little beef base for richness, and the trick to perfection is a little tarragon. Nutty, rich and sweet.

Treasure you Mom, I have no one left but distant relatives now....

and like you, many of my most easily triggered and BEST memories are tied to the food they loved.

(hugs)

d