I met Nadia in the summer of 1986, when I was 17 years old. We had both just graduated high school, and were among a handful of Americans who participated in a French language program in the south of France for a month. That I ended up in such a program was totally against my will; my parents were going to be in Paris all summer. My mom found this program and signed me up; just another occasion in which I have to admit, of course she was right. Beach-going, familiarizing ourselves with French wine (not that we had much of a taste for it at that age) and other activities took precedence over learning French. I had a fantastic month.
So when Nadia invited my husband and me for Shabbos dinner recently during a recent trip to Paris, I was thrilled.
Nadia and I, both Jewish, she from New York, me from California, had a ton in common from the moment we met. We spent most of our time with two others, Scott, another American graduate student, and Erik, a Dutch guy who had never met an American, but made it his mission that month to improve his American slang rather than his French (which, of course, was already much better than any of ours). While Nadia and I have remained in touch over the years, for a long period we had lost contact with the others.
Enter Facebook. A few years ago, the four of us found each other there, and decided that we had to get together, all four of us, in the next few years. While some of us had seen each other a handful of times over the 27 years, all four of us had never been together, as a group, since the Chateau.
That time came this summer. Nadia, who immigrated to Paris after marrying a Frenchman, Max, was not coming to the U.S. on her usual summer schedule due to an impending move. Scott was taking his family to Paris. Of course, Erik, in Amsterdam, was only a few hours away by train. Could I come too? While a Europe trip wasn’t something I had been planning, I realized that the three of them getting together without me would be too difficult for me to bear. I booked a ticket.
And so it was, that on our second night in Paris, we met up with each other for our rendezvous. Was it worth such a trip? Well, if I told you that our reminiscing had us out until 4:30 a.m., that answers the question, doesn’t it?
Later in the week, Nadia hosted my husband and me for Shabbos dinner in her Paris apartment. Nadia specifically asked that I call it Shabbos (since 80% of French Jews are Sephardic, and she wants her 11-year-old twins to know about their Ashkenazi roots).
After the blessings, we began with an avocado, tomato and chive salad. Both avocado and tomato were cut into very large chunks. While the French usually have their salad course after the meal, this was the first of two salad courses, considered a crudite, accompanied by a slice of duck pate, and baguette. (I was amused by the fact that even though there were two beautiful challahs on the table, and we, of course, ate some of them, baguettes were still the bread of choice on the French Shabbos table).
The main dish of aromatic coq au vin followed. The classic French chicken cooked in wine dish was prepared with one major modification: in most versions, bacon adds additional flavor. This one had carrots, mushrooms and potatoes. Outside of the fact that they don’t eat pork at home, Max said that to him, coq au vin is ruined by bacon. “It dominates the flavor too much,” he said. Interestingly to me, the chicken was made in a pressure cooker, an appliance that many French newlyweds receive, Max noted.
Following their example, we mopped up the remnants of the sauce on our plates using more baguette. The stew was followed by another salad, this time a simple one of butter lettuce in a garlic vinaigrette. Nadia told me that her mother, a child Holocaust refugee from Belgium who grew up in the U.S., didn’t cook that much, but never understood the American preference for bottled salad dressing. That was one thing she always made from scratch.
A cheese course came next, obviously more French than Jewish. Nadia went a bit overboard for our visit, offering five different cheeses, a selection of cow, sheep and goat’s milk, all of them delicious. A soft goat cheese log with a runny exterior and Mobier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese with a line of black ash down the center were standouts. Of course we ate more baguette with the cheese, rather than challah.
Chocolate mousse followed for dessert, which admittedly, was a bit difficult to eat a lot of. Especially after all that cheese.
Coq au vin in a Pressure cooker
Olive oil for sautéing
1 4 to 5 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
8 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold or Red are both fine), halved
6 carrots, cut into large chunks
16 mushrooms, whole or halved
2 onions, chopped
1 bottle of Bordeaux, or other full-bodied red wine
1 Tablespoon dried rosemary 1 Tablespoon dried thyme 3 bay leaves
1) Coat the bottom of a large skillet with olive oil and heat until shimmering. Sprinkle salt on both sides of the chicken fry each piece until the skin is brown and crispy on each side.
2) Coat the bottom of the pressure cooker with olive oil, and heat until shimmering. Sauté the onions for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add carrots and continue cooking for another five minutes, still stirring occasionally.
3) Transfer chicken into pressure cooker, followed by the potatoes and the mushrooms.
4) Add herbs and a good amount of black pepper, and additional salt. Continue to sauté for 5 minutes more.
5) Add wine and close and seal pressure cooker. Cook at full pressure for one hour.
6) If you prefer a thicker sauce, you can separate it out when the dish is done and thicken it with corn starch or flour in a separate pan and then serve it on the side.
Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in Oakland. www.theorganicepicure.com.