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Given a chance to live a life other than my own, I would choose to live Laura Calder’s, the quirky yet charming host of Food Network Canada’s French Food at Home. Despite its ups and downs, I don’t often wish my life to be any different from what it is. What would be the point? I’m also one of the least jealous people around, but can I just tell you that this woman’s CV sends me into paroxysms of envy?
Although she is currently a popular television personality and a cookbook author, Laura Calder began her career trajectory in journalism and public relations, after studying linguistics as an undergraduate and acquiring a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics. Laura soon realized that this path was not for her and enrolled in a program at a well-respected culinary school in Vancouver. Her diploma led to work in the Napa Valley and subsequently France, where she worked for British cookery writer Anne Willan at her school in Burgundy.
Laura ended up staying in France for the better part of a decade, which is where she wrote her first cookbook and contributed to a variety of magazines such as Gourmet, Vogue Entertaining and Travel, and Gastronomica. Finally, she returned to Canada and began shooting for the Food Network.
What I find so fascinating about Laura Calder, and so many other well-known chefs and food writers, is that she achieved a high level of education and career success before considering a life in food. Ina Garten also has a Master’s degree and used to work on energy policy for the White House. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten was once a lawyer. Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine, has an M.A. in Art History. When you have an all-consuming passion for food, it calls out to you. Food comes first. You cook it, eat it, read about it, talk about it, and spend all your money on it. It’s one of those passions that can’t be ignored. You may start off wanting to be an economist, a teacher, to work in banking, but sooner or later … food is going to get you.
So here I sit at forty, on the verge of my third career change, a career that has nothing to do with food, a part of me regretting that I hadn’t taken a different path. In the meantime, I have been writing about food: blogging, pitching magazines with a modicum of success–success I hope to build upon. I don’t know where it will lead, but hopefully somewhere. It’s always been my firm belief that when you work hard at something and have a passion for it, you can’t possibly fail. You just can’t give up too soon.
Laura Calder’s Coq au Riesling
6 chicken legs, split at the joint
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil
4 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Cognac
1 cup Riesling
1/2 cup stock
1 tablespoon butter, more if needed
1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
chopped parsley or tarragon, for garnish
1) Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and butter in a saute pan and brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches. Remove it to a plate and add the shallots and garlic to the pan. Cook for one minute.
2) Pour the Cognac in the pan to deglaze. Put the chicken back into the pan. Pour the wine and the stock over the chicken. Cover and cook until the chicken is tender–about twenty minutes-turning once.
3) In the meantime, melt a bit of butter in a frying pan and cook the mushrooms until golden. When the chicken is cooked remove it to a platter and keep warm. Boil the cooking liquid down to sauce consistency. Stir in the cream and mushrooms. Correct the seasonings. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Scatter with parsley and serve.
I’ve always had a tendency to do things the hard way. I’m not a particularly fussy or methodical person but sometimes the easy way just doesn’t occur to me. There’s something in the wiring of my brain that makes things more complicated than they have to be. As a result, I’ve never been a big fan of simplicity–especially when it come to food. Especially when it comes to lunch.
Coming from a European cultural background where lunch is the biggest meal of the day, I have long held the habit of eating most of my calories by one o’clock in the afternoon. And we’re not talking sandwiches here, either. Lunch has got to be hot: pasta loaded with vegetables, chicken korma, a meaty lasagna. On weekdays what I eat for dinner can rarely be called a meal. Most people cook dinner when they come home from work. I make my lunch for the following day.
Mind you, I like doing things like this. I think it’s healthier for me to burn off most of my calories earlier in the day. On the rare occasion I have gone to bed with a full stomach, I’ve always woken up ravenous the next morning. Go figure.
But a couple of days ago I had an epiphany of sorts. Rather, I remembered another epiphany I had in Paris at this time last year. I was at home and it was lunch time. Poking through my unusually empty freezer, I came up with a lonely chicken breast as the only possible source of protein. To me, there is nothing less spectacular than white chicken meat. Even more so since my last, unnecassarily painful stint on Weight Watchers, where rubbery chicken breasts were a tri-weekly staple–at the very least.
I ended up grilling the chicken, tossing it with some fresh homemade mayonnaise, and ate it with a couple of slices of toasted ciabatta bread. I don’t think I would have thought of this little lunch had I not been in the middle of reading Amanda Hesser’s book Cooking for Mr. Latte, in which she has a little recipe for chicken salad. If it was good enough for a food writer at the New York Times, I figured it was good enough for me. It was a very simple meal, and incredibly satisfying.
My chicken salad brought to mind the last time I’d had such a simple lunch. It was last year, on my first full day in Paris. After spending a good part of the morning partaking in a cafe creme and flaky croissants at the corner cafe, my friend Cyril took me to the outdoor market in his arrondissement. I had been to outdoor markets before, in different European cities, but “market” and “Paris” are words that belong together, like “tea” and “biscuits”. I was amazed at the jumbles of tomatoes heaped on the sellers’ tables. The mounds of potatoes and green beans in the crates beside them. The sheer variety in fruits, nuts and fish. We ended up with some endives and juicy-looking red tomatoes, and saucisson, the dry, cured salami that can be found on plates of charcuterie in every French restaurant.
We stopped at the boulangerie for a baguette, and soon after, were feasting on fresh French bread smeared with chunks of oozing camembert cheese. Paired with a salad of tomatoes and endive drizzled with olive oil, it was the simplest meal I’d had in a long time. And the best. Perhaps it was because I was in Paris that the meal seemed so special. Maybe it was the quality of the food itself; I hadn’t tasted bread like that before or since. Whatever it was, that simple lunch tops my list of most memorable meals.
I remembered that day in Paris while I was eating my chicken salad sandwich, and was reminded that simple isn’t necessarily a cop out. Sometimes the simple things in life can actually be the best things.
1 chicken breast
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 scallions (green onion), chopped
squeeze lemon juice
several garlic chives, chopped
salt and pepper
Grill chicken breasts. Let cool 10 minutes and toss with mayonnaise.
Add scallions and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Garnish with chives and serve with slices of baguette.