Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Words on a Feast

The film Babette’s Feast is as humble as its titular character. It’s little-known, but well-respected by those who do, excellently executed by every actor and crew member, and leaves the viewer satisfied and hopeful, wanting to participate fully in the beautiful meal and community displayed.

I won’t divulge every plot point of Babette’s Feast, but I will include enough spoilers to say you really should watch this movie. Watching it should change the way you view humility, hospitality, service and sacrifice. Even if I do “spoil” the movie for you, watch it anyway. Babette’s Feast has many layers to it, so the more you see it the more you’ll appreciate it.

Babette’s Feast is set in the 19th century on a remote Danish island and follows two sisters whose father started a strict Christian sect. As the film unfolds, the setting changes back and forth from the past where the pastor of this congregation is actively leading and shaping his community with the help of his young, beautiful, devoted daughters and the present where the pastor is deceased, the sisters are elderly, and the congregation is slowly dying off.

This congregation believes enjoyment leads to sin because it puts the focus on their enjoyment of the experience and not on their service to God and their community. The members of this congregation wear dark, drab colors which mirror their harsh and gray surroundings. Their food is plain in the extreme, since any flavor added to delight the senses takes the focus off of God and onto how delicious the food is or the skill of the cooks. While this congregation’s view of piety is perhaps excessive and legalistic, they do a very good job of caring for each other. Many scenes show the sisters feeding shut-ins and giving what little money they have to the poor.

This little community is so isolated it makes a perfect refuge for three visitors – a famous opera singer, a troublesome army officer, and a mysterious woman named Babette – to hide away from their respective problems. The two men, who visit the island while the founding pastor is still alive and the sisters are young, struggle with their views of what is truly valuable compared with the simple contentment found in the village. As they work to understand, and as each man falls in love with one of the sisters, they may ask themselves, “How can these people be happy without the pursuit of wealth, power and fame? If these things are not necessary for finding joy and fulfillment in life, has my pursuit of them been foolish?” Both men eventually leave the island feeling unworthy of the sisters’ love and ashamed of the choices they’ve made in their lives, but they also leave with a better appreciation of how to attain true happiness.

Babette comes to the island from Paris looking for refuge from a war much later when the sisters are older. The opera singer, elderly and now seeing the value of a simpler life without the overactive pursuit of riches, sends Babette there to serve the sisters saying simply she is a “good cook.” Babette learns how the sisters keep their house, care for their community and their views on sacrifice and humility. After 14 years of quiet and faithful service, Babette has made the lives of the sisters and the whole community better. She uses her skills to cook better meals for the poor, make better deals with produce and meat suppliers who do business on the island, and the sisters end up with more money left over than they ever had before. However, the congregation is fraught with infighting, accusations and bitterness for wrongs done decades ago.

Babette’s only link to her former life in Paris is a lottery ticket the opera singer renews for her every year. One day, news comes that she won the lottery and now has 10,000 francs, enough to leave the island and re-start her more luxurious life in Paris. To thank the sisters for all the kindness they’ve shown her, and to celebrate their father’s upcoming 100th birthday, Babette asks them if she can have some time off to prepare a real French dinner for the whole congregation. The sisters are reluctant at first, but eventually grant her request. She leaves for Paris to collect all the ingredients she needs, and comes back with the most exotic food this community has ever seen. They look in horror as Babette leads a caravan of hired help down the middle of the village carrying quails, pineapple, mango, figs, rare wine and spirits, caviar and a live turtle making its own way to the kitchen. Horrified at the potential sin of flavor and indulgence, the entire congregation agrees to eat the meal out of appreciation for Babette, but never to speak of the meal itself. The army officer, now an accomplished general, returns for the birthday celebration, as well as to visit his former love interest. Having lived with the finer things for many years and being unaware of the “vow of silence” the congregation has taken, he sits at the simple and elegant table excited for the meal to come. The rest of the congregation, however, still bickers over past wrongdoing, all the while resolute not to enjoy this “sinful” meal.

All are silent as the meal begins. A teenage boy serves each course, while Babette stays faithfully in the kitchen adding final touches and giving instructions about how to serve each course and which rare and fantastic wine goes in each glass. The general tries to speak with several in the conversation about how magnificent the meal is, noting the skill it takes to prepare such delicacies, the rarity of the ingredients and how truly delicious each course is. He compares it to the greatest meal he’s had in his life at the legendary Café Anglais in Paris. Because of their earlier agreement, the congregation members answer back with talk of the weather and quotes from their beloved pastor’s sermons.

During the meal, though, something transformative happens. The general is the only one to ever experience a meal like this before and knows the proper way to enjoy each course. The congregation begins to watch him as he switches from one utensil to another, how he eats this piece of fruit or sips that sauce from his plate. Still not speaking about the meal itself, you see each member of the congregation start to enjoy flavors they’ve never imagined. One woman in particular enjoys a drink of wine, then a glass of water, only to realize she now prefers the wine she always forbade herself to have. Those same old arguments which divided families moments earlier are resolved, wrongs are forgiven, and the community comes back together. The movie viewer is no longer focused on the dark, harsh weather outside or the drab house the congregation is gathered in, but on the vibrant colors of the fruit, the deep red wine, the mahogany-colored roasted meat, and the smiles on everyone’s faces.

After a moving speech from the general, which I will quote in full at the end, a now joyful congregation leaves the table and gathers outside around their well holding hands and singing a hymn. As everyone leaves to their homes, one of the more senile members of the congregation lifts his hands to heaven and utters a still-sincere, “Hallelujah.” The sisters rush in to Babette to tell her how amazing her gift has been to them, and how much they will miss her when she leaves them for Paris. Only then does Babette reveal who she really is. She was the chef at Café Anglais the general revered so much, and she spent her entire lottery winnings on this dinner. The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice and lament that she will always be poor if she stays with them. Satisfied and finally at peace, Babette answers, “An artist is never poor.”

Babette’s Feast subtly but compellingly shows the power of hospitality and sacrifice to heal brokenness and bring people together. Babette gave up her comfortable and easy lifestyle, her friends, prestigious job, money, wealth of ingredients, the lottery winnings that would’ve gotten her off of that island, and everything else she ever knew to continue serving these sisters who showed her such kindness and friendship. She is fully aware she will never go back to her life in Paris. She’ll never be able to cook a meal like that again, one she finds such satisfaction and artistic expression in serving. Babette chooses to sacrifice all that and more to stay in this community. That community, fractured and on the verge of collapse, was brought back together by her act of service and the redemptive act of sharing a meal together. They are confronted with Babette’s sincere hospitality and love for them, and their response is reconciliation. This is no small feat, mind you. Throughout the film we see the elderly sisters pleading with their congregation to stop fighting and show each other grace, but their pleas were not heard over the sound of the congregation’s increasing bitterness. It was only because of the grace shown to them around the table that allowed them to be graceful to each other.

This is why it’s so important for us to open our homes to our own communities. Rather than be closed off from the rest of the world, let us invite people in to share in our lives and share in theirs in return. True hospitality is more than inviting someone over to share a meal or making sure your guests don’t have to lift a finger to help. It’s a sacrifice, a pouring out of yourself to someone else, sharing each other’s stories and being in community with them. True hospitality is grace, and we could all stand to show each other more grace. Let me be clear, you don’t have to serve Blinis Demidoff au Caviar or Caille en Sarcophage at your next dinner party like Babette did to be hospitable. Jackie and I were just recently shown great hospitality and grace while eating frozen pizza and drinking $3 wine. The point is to share yourself with someone else. To me, sharing a meal just enhances this point. It says I care about your survival and I’m willing to use some of my own family’s limited resources to ensure it. Sharing a meal says you’re a part of my family. This is why Babette’s Feast is such an important film, and why I bring it up here – because it illustrates the redemptive power of gathering around the table together.

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, my friends, is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.” – General Loewenhielm

Monday, February 13, 2012


I love teaching people to cook. There’s something about teaching in general, but especially cooking, that’s inherently satisfying. I like to see that look on someone’s face when the light bulb clicks on and they understand something they didn’t moments before. Maybe I’m making a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be, but there’s just something about teaching someone how to cook that’s different, maybe because they’ll do it the rest of their lives, and they might just teach someone else what they’ve learned from you.

Equally gratifying is being around other people who love to cook. You share victories, horror stories, short-cuts, techniques, and a passion for feeding people. In a real way you’re feeding off each other, leaving eager to try that recipe or ingredient someone else shared and give it away again. And that’s what I love about our Culinary Club.

Last year, Jackie and I started a cooking class for people who wanted to learn to cook better (or learn to cook in the first place), but also wanted to participate in this kind of community. We talk about different techniques, dishes, cooking methods, and other food-related topics, then cook together using what we’ve learned. But here’s the tricky part: our “homework” to complete before the next class always involves inviting people into our homes and cooking for them. I’ve talked before about the importance of cooking for other people, so I won’t rehash the whole conversation, but it bears repeating that opening your home and cooking for other people is a game-changer. It can open up your view of who your family is and can remind you of what hospitality should mean.

This year, the Culinary Club has set a lot of goals for itself, some of which are pretty daunting, but all of which encourage us to use food and cooking to serve our community. Culinary Club meets the first and third Thursdays of every month at Northside Church of Christ in Bloomington, IL at 6:30 p.m. and is open to absolutely everyone. We ask only for a donation for groceries and that you come ready to participate. Our next meeting is on Thursday, February 23 (yes, I know that’s the fourth Thursday, but who’s counting) and we’ll learn about the classic mother sauces – what they are, why you should care, how to use them, their infinite flexibility, and so on. If you’d like to attend, and I really hope you do, please e-mail me at gfpchefs@gmail.com so we can grocery shop properly.

From time to time, I’ll post here about what we discussed in Culinary Club as well as upcoming classes. For example, my next post will be about our first meeting this year: a shared meal of the roast duck you see above, sautéed potatoes (sautéed in the duck fat, no less), and a viewing of the classic movie Babette’s Feast, which is also a game-changer.

See you in class!

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I. Love. Breakfast. Not only is it the most important meal of the day, it’s also my favorite. I love breakfast in all its forms – brunch, continental, even brinner (breakfast for dinner). I don’t get to eat breakfast much during the week, barring the occasional banana or bowl of generic Fruity Pebbles, so when I do, I take it very seriously.

Breakfast means many things to many people and can vary widely depending on what country you hail from, or even different parts of this country. But to me, a proper breakfast means just one thing: eggs. And potatoes. Ok, two things. Wait, it also means pig of some sort – bacon, sausage, ham, chorizo, I’m not picky as long as it’s pig. No matter what the combination or preparation, breakfast food can be a quick and simple meal that literally anyone can cook. Whenever I’m helping someone learn to cook for themselves, I always recommend breakfast as a great place to start. It can still get tricky, especially cooking eggs properly, which is why professional kitchens sometimes test new chefs by asking him or her to poach or scramble an egg, but if you can cook eggs, you can cook anything.

To me, a near perfect expression of the beautiful simplicity of an egg is when it’s poached. On top of toast, nestled in salad greens, waiting expectantly atop a juicy steak for me to break through the billowy white to get at the pleasantly oozing yolk as it drips down and mingles with the meaty drippings creating a luxurious sauce of protein, salt and pure universal goodness. . . or you could scramble it. The point is breakfast food is a great go-to meal absolutely any time, which makes it a great place to start if you’re trying to cook for yourself at home more often.

I know I’ve given the egg most of the spotlight here, probably because it’s my favorite part of breakfast, but the supporting players are awesome in their own right. I fried some pancetta (Italian bacon) on the stovetop, then sautéed potatoes with onions and garlic in the rendered pork fat. Not only does it make great use of cooking “by-products” that would otherwise get thrown out, it tastes amazing. I also made sesame toast, a great twist on regular “breakfast toast,” but regular is good, too. Whichever way you prefer to cook your eggs and toast and potatoes, just make sure you do. If you have to, wait for a relatively lazy Saturday and take the time to cook breakfast for your family.

Poached Eggs, Roasted Potatoes and Sesame Toast

We cooked this meal for 3 people, but you can alter the amounts depending on how many you’re serving.

4 eggs
12 small red potatoes
12 slices bacon
1/3 of a large white onion
3 cloves garlic
6 cups water
3 tbls white vinegar
Bread for toast (We had a French baguette and cut it in 1 inch slices)
Sesame seeds
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

1. Put the water in a deep pot and heat over medium-low to medium heat. Heat the water to the point just before it simmers. You’ll see small bubbles on the bottom of the pan, but not really rising to the surface. Stir in the vinegar, which helps better set the egg whites. Don’t worry, you won’t taste it.

2. While the water simmers, heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Once it heats up, put in a few bacon strips and let them cook gently. This will render a good amount of the bacon fat which we’ll use to cook the potatoes. Cook the bacon as crispy as you like, then place them on a plate lined with paper towels. Cook the bacon in batches, 4 or 5 slices at a time, so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Reserve the bacon fat.

3. While the bacon is cooking, cut the potatoes in 1 ½ ince pieces, place in a microwave safe bowl, season with salt and pepper, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave on high until the potatoes are ¾ of the way cooked, 5-10 minutes. You’ll still see some solid white in the center of each potato. Drain the potatoes, as they would have released some moisture, and pat them dry with paper towels.

Heat the pan with the bacon fat over medium heat. Dice the onion and garlic, and sauté them in the pan until the onions start to get translucent. Sauté the potatoes with the onions and garlic until they get some color on all sides. Mmmm, delicious.

4. Beat one egg in a small bowl and set aside. Without breaking the yolks, crack an egg into a small bowl, then gently drop into the near-simmering water. With a slotted spoon, immediately start spooning the egg whites over the yolks to ensure the yolk is covered with the whites. Some of the egg white will spread out into the rest of the water, but just remove it with the slotted spoon. Continue this with each egg and remove them with the whites are just set.

5. Spread the sesame seeds on a plate. Dip one side of each slice of bread into the beaten egg, then place side onto the sesame seeds so they stick. Place each bread slice into the formerly bacon-y pan, still over medium heat, until the sesames are toasted, then turn to toast the other side. If there’s no bacon fat left in the pan to cook the toast, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom.

6. We placed the potatoes in a bowl, then the bacon, the egg with a little salt and pepper, then the toast on the side. Plate your delicious breakfast however you want, but make sure to drizzle a little more olive oil over the egg and potatoes. Devour with gusto.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Roast Chicken and New Goals

We’ve been through this before. About 6 months ago I apologized for letting this blog fall by the wayside and made grand schemes to keep up with it every week. That obviously hasn’t happened. The good news for me is that I don’t have throngs of devoted readers who depend on me for information, inspiration and insert-third-rhyming-thing-here-piration, so my lack of posting has largely gone unnoticed. This is no excuse, however, and something must be done to create greater consistency, focus, and most of all, more home-cooked food.

So here, at the beginning of 2012, is my effort to refocus Garden Fresh Chefs. Let’s start with a slightly new direction and some things to look forward to:

The goal of this blog will be to encourage people to cook for themselves, family and friends at home. We lose something as a culture when we keep others away from our homes, become too far removed from our sources of food, and stop preparing the food we eat. There’s a good reason why most major holidays and events revolve at least in part around food: sharing a meal can bring people together.

For example, I used to work at a church about an hour away from our home and had to stay in that town the whole day, and there was one particular couple who would invite Jackie and me over almost every Sunday for dinner. (FYI, in country towns such as this, we learned the mid-day meal on Sundays is “dinner.” You had “lunch” during the week.) They never hesitated to have us over without an agenda, without obligation, but to simply share a meal and each other’s company. Sharing a meal someone took the time to prepare with their own two hands can be mysteriously amazing. Some of my favorite memories are around the dinner table, and I bet the same could be said for you.

I’ve heard more and more people tell me they prefer the Thanksgiving holiday to Christmas as they get older, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Peel away the layers of frantic shopping, decorations, commercialism, and crummy TV specials and what do you have? Time spent with loved ones and a big, home-made meal.

As Michael Ruhlman has said many times before, industrial food companies want you to think that cooking is hard; it’s a chore; it’s something you’re not smart or capable enough to do for yourself. Look at how many recipes, TV shows, cookbooks, frozen meals, and food personalities tout meals that are easy, fast, or uncomplicated all in 5 minutes or less. And that’s true of a lot home cooking, but what if does take time? What if you have to use more than 5 or 6 ingredients? What if the process might seem a little complicated at first? Does that mean we shouldn’t cook at all? Should we relegate our meals to those pre-made in boxes, tubes, bags, and trays? Or might it mean that cooking at home is something valuable enough to work at? I think it’s true that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and if cooking at home is worth doing then we should put forth effort to do it well.

The ultimate goal of Garden Fresh Chefs is to re-imagine the modern view of cooking, though sometimes a process, as a craft to cherish instead of a chore to dread. To me, the best expression of this is a simple roast chicken. I’m not exactly breaking new ground with this, as everyone from Sandra Lee to Thomas Keller has a roast chicken recipe. But a no-nonsense, simple and delicious meal such as this is the perfect place to start. Roast chicken is infinitely variable and adaptable to about anything you have already in your kitchen. You can add pretty much any herb you want on the inside and/or outside of the bird, or not. You can put aromatics in the cavity such as citrus, onion or garlic, or not. You can truss the bird, or not. You can lube the bird with oil or butter, or not. The only required elements of a good roast chicken are salt and pepper inside and out, and that means you are able to cook it at home for yourself and your family. No excuses now, get cooking.

Roast Chicken

1 4-5 lb. “roaster/fryer” chicken

Preheat the oven to 425°

Again, all you really need for a proper roast chicken is salt and pepper, and a chicken of course. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels inside and out, season generously with salt all over the bird and inside the cavity and add freshly cracked black pepper to taste.

Feel free to experiment with the flavors below, or whatever crazy combinations you want, then place the chicken on a roasting tray then into the oven. Leave it alone for 45-60 until the internal temperature of the thigh reads around 165 and the juices of the bird run clear. No basting, please. It’s not necessary. Let it rest for about 10 minutes, then devour.

If you’d like to employ herbs either on the skin or inside the cavity (or both!) you could use:

Thyme, which we did on the skin
Rosemary (sparingly)
Pretty much anything green

If you’d like to put other aromatics (things that smell good) into the cavity, you could use:

Lemon, or really any other citrus
Get the idea? Just make sure you don’t stuff the cavity full or else you’ll have to increase the cooking time to make sure the chicken is cooked all the way through and will most likely dry out. Also, once done the aromatics in the cavity have given their all. Dispose appropriately.