After moving to the USA in the early 80s, I had a standing Saturday rendez-vous with PBS and their lineup of cooking shows. There were only a handful of celebrity chefs back then: Julia, Jacques, and Justin who always sipped some of the wine his recipe called for.
I had never heard of Paula Wolfert until I noticed one of her books at my –now defunct– favorite bookstore: The Cooking of Southwest France. The 1984 soft cover edition didn’t have any mouth-watering color photos but I hardly needed them: I was in familiar territory. The list of recipes immediately transported me back to my grandmother’s kitchen where she would cook the mique in the fireplace, simmer her civet de lapin on one of her two gas burners, or bake a clafoutis in a tiny windowless oven. Reading Paula’s anecdotes and notes to the cook, I could have sworn that she had actually met my grandma, helped her pluck a chicken and shared a glass of ratafia while chatting about peasant life in the Quercy. I bought the book.
Paula called my office twenty years later. I recognized her name as soon as she introduced herself. She had just completed the revised edition of her book. Before listing Joie de Vivre as a resource for meats and grocery items, she wanted to talk to a “real” person and make sure the company would be around for a while… We had a very pleasant conversation and I felt like I was talking to an old friend. A few months afterward, a fresh copy of the completely updated Cooking of Southwest France showed up in the mail. Before I had a chance to shelf the new hardcover tome next to my original copy, Emma (long hair dachshund #2) managed to gnaw on the bottom right corner of the book; perhaps to indicate interest or register approval…
I never met Paula in person but kept aware of her subsequent publications: the foods of Morocco, Spain, and the Mediterranean received the same in-depth treatment as Southwest France. I eventually followed her on Facebook, shortly after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Far from hiding her illness, she has embarked on a new adventure, exploring the relationship between food and memory; and Emily Kaiser Thelin, her former editor at Food and Wine, just published a biography (Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life) interwoven with fifty quintessential recipes. In case you’re wondering, her famous Toulouse Cassoulet recipe is included: it’s widely considered the gold standard. It sounds like a fascinating read and I’m pretty sure I’ll pick up a copy. I just need to make sure that Lily (long hair dachshund #3) doesn’t chew on it…
La mique: a big dumpling cooked in broth and vegetables
Le civet de lapin: rabbit stew in red wine
Le clafoutis: a custardy cake, usually filled with cherries
Le ratafia: a sweet aperitif made with non-fermented grape juice and brandy. It can also be made with other macerated fruits.
Paula's Crème de Haricots de Maïs
Creamy Bean Soup with Croutons and Crispy Ventrèche
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound dried Tarbais beans
1 carrot, cut into ¼ inch dice
1 large onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
4 tablespoons duck fat
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup diced crustless dense country bread
3 ounces lean ventrèches, pancetta, jambon de Bayonne, or Serrano ham, slivered (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 cup heavy cream
Pinches of piment d’Espelette
1/ Pick over the beans and soak them in water to cover by at least 2 inches for 12 hours.
2/ The following day, rinse and drain the beans and set aside. Meanwhile, in a heavy 4 to 5-quart flameproof pot, preferably earthenware, gently cook the carrots and onions in 2 tablespoons of the duck fat, stirring, until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Scoop out and reserve about ¼ cup of the onions and carrots. Add the drained beans and 2 quarts fresh water to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to moderately low, add a pinch of salt and pepper, and simmer for 2 hours, or until the beans are tender and the liquid is reduced.
3/ In a medium skillet, heat the remaining duck fat. Add the diced bread, slivered ventrèche, and the reserved carrots and onions. Fry, stirring, until crisp. Remove to a side dish, add the chives, and set aside.
4/ Let the beans cook slightly, scoop out about 1/3 for garnish and set aside. Press batches of the remaining beans and liquid through the fine blade of a food mill or puree in a food processor or blender. Add the bean puree to the soup. Stir in the cream; bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Correct the seasoning with salt, pepper, and red pepper to taste.
5/ To serve, divide the reserved beans among soup bowls, ladle the hot soup over the beans, and garnish each portion with a spoonful mixture of fried onion and ventrèche mixture. Serve at once.
Joie de Vivre carries Tarbais beans, duck fat, Espelette pepper, and ventrèche.