Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hibernation, a German Stranger, and Richard Olney

My first experience with hibernation was in the 1990s, when I found myself trapped in a hotel in Toronto because of a blizzard that shut down the Philadelphia airport (where I was living at the time). Luckily, the hotel had a restaurant, and after a few lonely days lingering in my hotel room, I finally banished room service and meandered down for a proper meal. The hotel was empty, except for an older man who was also stranded. There we were, two people sitting at separate tables in a large dining room. After a few awkward glances and in need of human companionship, I finally asked him if he would like to join me and he did. To my surprise, this man was from Germany and did not speak any English and I did not speak any German. From what I deduced from our simple "conversation," he had a wife and three children, loved to vacation in the western United States, drove a Volvo, and told me I drove a "rice pot," referring to my Toyota. It was this meal that taught me the innate need and importance of human interaction. I wonder with cell phones and the technologies of today, if I would have eaten alone, oblivious to the loss of one of the most interesting meals I've ever had.

Fast forward to today, my second experience with hibernation. This time, due to an "arctic vortex," I am trapped in my comfortable home with my two kids and my manly husband, who appears to be the only one successfully going to work and back. Thanks to my basic knowledge of French culinary techniques, I have been able to create excellent stews and soups utilizing basic staples that I always have in my house. However, simple beef stew and chicken soup is not a complete meal in itself. Enter Richard Olney and his classic book The French Menu Cookbook (1970) that I thankfully received for Christmas. Richard Olney was an eccentric American from Iowa turned Frenchman and one of the most influential food authors of his day, promoting the art of eating seasonally. Olney was no stranger to the innate need of human companionship, entertaining guests (such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse) for days and sometimes weeks at a time at his secluded and derelict Provence farmhouse. He is said to have frequently greeted summer guests "wearing no more than a loincloth," scavenging olives, fruits, vegetables, and herbs from his property to create his uncompromising classic French cuisine, and mastering the composition of seasonal menus. It was in the pages of his book that I found what I needed to turn my stews and soups into a complete meal, specifically his recipe for "Fresh Egg Noodles."

Egg noodles have a long culinary history in Germany and the Alsace region of France, dating way back to the 14th century. Alsatian noodles are an egg-rich pasta with a soft texture and are very easy to food processors, mixers, or pasta machines required! They spared me a treacherous, if not impossible, trip to the grocer and provided the perfect accompaniment to my hibernation creations. If only I could have invited my German stranger, I'm sure he would have enjoyed the "nudels," as well as approve of my current mode of transportation. Yes, I traded in my "rice pot" and now drive a Volvo.

Fresh Egg Noodles

Serves 4


1 1/2 cups flour
2 whole eggs and 2 yolks


Sift the flour and salt, either into a mixing bowl or directly onto a pastry board, make a well in the center, add the whole eggs and yolk, work in the four, a bit at a time, add, finally, a bit more flour or a bit more egg white, if necessary, to bring the paste to a firm but easily malleable consistency. Make a ball of it, roll it on a lightly floured board so that the surface will not be sticky and knead it several times, pushing it out flat, away from your person, with the heel of your hand, gathering it back into a compact mass and repeating the operation. Roll it into a ball, wrap it in wax paper (or plastic wrap), and leave it to "relax" in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

Divide the paste into 3 or 4 equal portions, flatten each with the palm of the hand into a regularly formed patty on the floured board, turning it over so that it is evenly coated with flour, and roll it out very thin, turning it over 2 or 3 times during the process and patting it with flour to ensure its sticking neither to the board nor to the rolling pin. These sheets of dough should be allowed to dry for a couple of hours before being cut up. (I only dried mine an hour and if had waited any longer they would have been too dry to roll without breaking. So keep an eye on them!) The commonest and most practical home-kitchen method consists in hanging them over a broomsticks, the two ends of which are supported by chair backs. (I covered my broomstick with plastic wrap for cleanliness.)

Roll up the sheets of dough and, with a good, sharp knife, cut them crosswise into narrow strips approximately 1/4 inch in width. (Remember these are homemade, so they don't have to look perfect, it adds to their charm!) Lightly and delicately, with the fingertips of both hands, lift masses of these cut, rolled ribbons, toss them in the air, letting them fall into spread-fingered, open hands, and retoss until all are loosely unspiraled. be certain that no ends remain coiled, and leave them in a loose mass on the floured board until ready for use. Cook them in a large pot of salted boiling water. Fresh noodles require no more than 4 minutes cooking time (it may vary slightly, depending on the stiffness of the dough and the extent to which they have been dried out).

Recipe adapted from  The French Menu Cookbook, by Richard Olney.

(Without those lovely fresh egg noodles, 
this would have been a pretty boring bowl of stew!)

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