Cooking at Home, Away

The window was open, and the plastic radio was perched on the sill, (the slightly bent) antenna reaching out (over the zinc rooftops and clay chimneys of the Parisian skyline.) in the direction of the Parisian skyline. An ungodly-large(A big pat, excessively-large, A big, A) chunk of salted butter was slowly melting in a sauté pan, like a Dali clock in the desert sun, filling the tiny top-floor studio with the warm familiar smell (of comfort). On the radio a raspy female(feminine) alto(voice) talk-sang alongside jingling piano keys and bouncing upright bass in colloquial French. Across the street and a few floors down a leathery (older gentleman) septuagenarian with a halo of white hair and a round shiny belly leaned out over his balcony window like the patron saint of the City of Light, looking down the boulevard towards the golden-winged statue at the Place de la Bastille that shone in the warm glare of late afternoon. He was completely nude. It was the third day of a first-time trip to Paris - Saturday, mid-weekend - we had spent the first couple of nights out late exploring and having mind-altering, paradigm-shifting meals and bottles of wine at restaurants in Le Marais and the Eleventh, but tonight we were cooking for ourselves. (and we were eating in (cooking at ‘home’, and tonight we were dining in).

Cooking at ‘home’ while away - firstly, it saves money. Every meal can’t be served with a Michelin star. As much as we love eating out, eating in is a prerequesite  (necessity) for long-term travel. It’s an escape, a return to the comforts of home, even in a foreign culture. It’s a break from the pressure of well-curated travel itineraries. Cooking and eating in demands a purposeful slowing of pace - water in the pot takes time to boil, attention must be focused in order for the garlic not to burn in the oil. Being inside with a pan on the burner and the window open, we were a part of where we were but seperate - immersed in a new culture but not drowning in (completely overwhelmed by) new information and experience. 

(To cook at home, you have to buy ingredients; in France, the markets had a wider and fresher selection of ingredients than the chain grocery stores, and were far more busy with shoppers. ) Cooking for ourselves, we learned about local and regional ingredients firsthand. Before cooking these ingredients, we had to find them; in France, we noticed that the open markets were usually more packed with shoppers than the chain grocery stores and had a wider, fresher array of options. We’d get carried along with the crowd of haggling locals, interrupted by vendors holding out fruits and vegetables for us to sample. At the poultry and meats counters, there were more options of cuts of meat than I’d seen before, anything from pig’s ears to a whole side of beef. Behind the butchers, rotisserie chickens slowly rotated in a glass-front oven, dripping herb-infused fat down onto sheet pans of small whole golden potatoes that roasted in the jus. When we got to the market we were overwhelmed, when we left an hour and a half later we knew how to find what we were looking for, how to ask how much it cost and how to pay the correct amount of foreign money. With a tote bag full of ripe fruits and vegetables and the quintessential tall baguette peeking out, we felt accomplished. Bonjour, merci, au revoir.

Cooking in requires relatively little: a sharp knife is a necessity. Everyone knows the adage “a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife”, but it’s also a  fact that using a dull knife can be incredibly annoying (and there’s nothing like soft crunchy sound of slicing onions with a big sharp knife) — if the knife is bendy, brightly colored plastic, run for the hills. If the plan is to cook in for even a few meals, a quick google search for a restaurant supply store can make the experience worthwhile. In Paris, we made a pilgrimage to E. Dehillerin, a supremely-classic 200-year old kitchen supply shop that everyone from Alice Waters to Escoffier has frequented, and Lindsey picked up a simple wooden-handled kitchen knife - a new family heirloom for the price of a movie ticket. In the home-away kitchen, a pot and a pan are a must - luckily, in our experience abroad, even the least well-equipped kitchens often have something that will do. A cutting board and hand towel are helpful too. With a little patience, any heat-source can be effective — the wood-fired oven in our Swiss mountain home was the most fun, but the single burner in Paris and the induction oven in Provence did just fine too.

While out shopping, you can’t forget salt and spices, and butter or olive oil. Back home in the states, some of our favorite routines are the simplest: turning on some music, opening the kitchen door that connects to the back porch of our second-floor apartment along with a bottle of easy wine, and cooking a recipe from a book (often it’s from Alice or Anthony, or instagram). When traveling, having this similar experience is just as worthwhile. There’s a different twist, the available ingredients or the kitchen equipment, the view from the porch or window, but the simple pleasure is the same. It is a significant, meaningful experience and an attainable contentment, engaging all of the senses in the life-giving act of cooking and eating, alone or with a partner or friends, while watching the sun fall and the day come to a close. (Is there a more productive or successful necessity than this daily practice?)

At first, spending an evening inside, chopping vegetables and waiting for stock to simmer seemed like a chore, too domestic to be included in a vacation itinerary. Something happens though, when you take the time to do something that feels ordinary, even in an extraordinary place — being inside with the window open, we felt like a part of where we were, but with all the comforts of home. We were free to silently process all of the day’s experiences, or to laugh and joke about totally fumbling the majority of our opportunities to use the little French we had learned from the phrasebook that we accidentally had left in the car at the airport’s long-term parking back in the states. It was a reprieve (escape), a haven of familiarity in a new place that was so overwhelmingly full of both enlightening and embarrassing moments. 

Weirdly, when we cooked for ourselves in France, we almost always made Italian food. Maybe it was comfort that we needed, being in a culture whose language we didn’t speak — or maybe it was the carbs, we did do a lot of walking around. In Paris the first meal we shopped ingredients for was risotto. Risotto is like heaven to me - I can eat more risotto than you, for sure. Lindsey makes the best risotto. We got chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus (is this true?) at the market, and found some short grain rice. (insert embarassing stock story?)

In Switzerland, we stayed in a minimalist’s dream of a Nordic-inspired, rustic-haute chalet. Building a fire in the wood-fired oven before every meal was more of a fun opportunity to play with fire than a chore, and the oven’s heat also ingeniously warmed the water for the shower and the concrete floors. Here, out of respect to Swiss culture, we made curry. Chicken thighs and packaged curry powder, carrots and broccoli(?). For breakfast we’d have gloopy polenta with a flurry of grated gruyere and black pepper, and soft scrambled eggs on toast with coffee, and eat outside the cabin on a metal table in the cool green grass. Later in our stay we made another favorite from home, a brothy soup with potatoes, leeks, and sausage. We’d sit looking out at the valley and the gigantic mountain peaks rising opposite it, and feel like we could live there forever. 

Towards the end of our month-long trip, we made fish in Dijon, with buttery, lemon-y sauce, cherry tomatoes and a cheap and juicy Bourgogne wine. We ate inside because it was dark and too windy on the terrasse of our former-attic, now loft-apartment, but after dinner we braved the chill to sit outside in the fresh air and looked out over the blue-black rooftops of the old city, not ready to believe that our European adventure was almost over.