And Part II: How to Shop for Wine in the South of France
For as long as Leslie Barr and Richard Perle have vacationed in Southern France they have tried to entertain their friends and neighbors with an authentic, American-style cookout.
At first their house — built by my old friend Jackie for some of her staff — featured a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet. With the kitchen in the house much expanded, the cookout became a summer feature in the area. In recent years they stayed for most of the summer, not just August, and scheduled the event for the Fourth of July, transforming it into an Independence Day celebration.
The biggest challenge: the logistics of acquiring the necessary foodstuffs and decorations down there. However the menu changes, the basics remain the same: Hebrew National hot dogs, grilled hamburgers, and — an addition by Leslie’s mother of blessed memory — chocolate chip cookies.
At first, friends in Frankfurt stopped at the commissary for what was needed. More recently, the necessaries have arrived packed in our suitcases. This year Sheral Schowe (our wine guide from part II) brought red, white, and blue balloons, paper plates, napkins, and tablecloths. Richard supplied the hot dogs and held his breath while his luggage temporarily disappeared at Charles de Gaulle.
As scary: the fact that the suitcase we brought contained the chocolate chips and didn’t arrive until the night of July 3, a day after Leslie — who’d been stuck in Chevy Chase’s power outage with their dog — arrived to lend a hand.
This year Leslie invited 50 people using the French e-vite system. No one responded, probably because few use this feature and our invited guests don’t quite know how to reply. That generally means that the normal anxiety of all good hosts — certain both that no one is coming and that there won’t be enough food — compounds.
Since Sheral, Richard, and I were tasked with preparing the food and since we each have our own way of doing things, it was a slightly chaotic scene. The day before, we divided duties over a lunch that included local sausages, cheeses, bread, and salads.
Sheral picked out roasted, peeled beets at the local supermarket and sliced them, topping them with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, thyme, and crumbled soft goat cheese. That salad reminded me so much of my grandmother’s summertime beet borscht with sour cream.
The plan: Richard would make the rice salad, cook the meat, get more butane for the grill, and pick up the odds and ends like the hamburger and hot dog buns that the baker, Mr. Honorat, made for the event.
For me: prepare the potato salad and lemon squares. Sheral was on the chocolate chip cookies and, with my husband Howard, set up the chairs, tables, and decorations. While the kitchen is quite large and well-equipped, preparing dinner for 50 people took some doing. My philosophy is that there are always last-minute glitches so it’s best to do ahead of time anything you can. Richard’s philosophy is — it seems — potchke around until the last minute and then revel in the chaos and your ability to conquer it.
I boiled the potatoes and placed them drained in the climate-controlled cave Richard and Leslie built in their utility room. Next I started on the eggs. Richard and I discussed how many to cook, and when we resolved it, again debated proper boiling methods. The eggs went in the cave for the final assembly the following afternoon.
Then we started on the lemon squares. It was not my best moment and I grossly misstated the amount of butter called for as we translated from ounces to grams. Since we missed the mistake until after mixing the butter with the flour and sugar, we required the assistance of my husband (who besides being a lawyer is a CPA) and with his help figured out we needed 2½ times more of everything to make 4 times the original recipe. That done, the first batch was popped into the oven in a pan not quite the right size as we searched for another one for the rest. An expandable pan manifested and the rest of the crust batter went into that while the first batch baked.
We ate lunch outdoors as the baking began. Suddenly we noticed the electricity had gone off. That meant the oven was off, too!
We retrieved the pan, and fussed about to fix the outage and continue both lunch and the baking.
The following morning, Sheral started baking the cookies, Richard completed his designated errands, and Leslie told us what must be done to set everything up.
That evening one of the guests said he liked the potato salad so much that he had two helpings. He suggested that I publish the recipe.
I’ll tell you how I make it:
For every large waxy (boiling potato) or its equivalent in new potatoes, boil one egg, chop the cold potatoes and eggs, and dress them in 1 soup spoon of mayonnaise and one teaspoon of mustard. Add lots of crunchy vegetables — I used celery, radishes, red and white onions, green and red peppers, and salt and pepper.
Garnish with chopped Italian parsley and chives.
Richard made the rice salad, chopping the peppers so finely that each looked like an identically sized yellow or red jewel. (Mine weren’t such gems.)
At the witching hour, the guests arrived. People are rather prompt here. Our guests were quite an assemblage: the baker and his wife and daughter; the Mourchon vintner and his wife; the olive oil maker whose family has held the land here since 1675; neighbors; holiday home owners from Brazil, the U.S., and Switzerland; and Christian the chef, to name just some. All told, 42 guests arrived, just short of the 46 chairs we’d rustled up and set about the garden.
When enough people arrived, the Star Spangled Banner played and everyone rose.
Dinner began with Richard manning the outdoor grill. The rest of us mingled with the guests and made sure everyone has what they needed. One guest reminded Howard of Lafayette’s contribution to U.S. independence. Howard replied, “We didn’t do a bad job at Normandy, either.”
I was not too happy with the way the lemon squares turned out. I think the second batch was substantially overdone but the baker really liked them. Howard told him I made them, and he asked me twice for the recipe. I gave him a copy. Here’s one for you, in case you’d like to try it. Properly made, it’s an especially nice summer dessert.
Remember to check out the first two parts of Clarice’s South of France Food Travelogue: