Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

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Photo: Peter Richardson / Robert Harding / Getty Images

This is the last extract from Gayle Smith Padgett’s book Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie.  Next week you can find out how to win a signed copy.

Chapter 5 – Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

Aix-en-Provence — Summer 2011

Fans of the Five Basic Food Groups—salt, fat, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine—are thrilled with an Irish coffee sprinkled with a salt-encrusted peanut garnish for their evening meal. Everybody else, however, tends to gravitate to a more substantive repast, especially for dîner, which is what we were planning.

Taking a break from the search for our perfect place and from all the pet antics, we decided to get festive with our local chums and have a dinner party. The first question was how to navigate around everybody’s specific dietary requirements and preferences, which included but were not confined to fat-free, gluten-free, meat-free, fish-free, shellfish-free, carb-free, egg-free, nut-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, not to mention low sodium and low fat. Don’t. Just invite Sebastian—he ate everything. And not only that, he also waxed poetic about everything, including all manner of innards. He had never met a pied paquet or tête de veau he didn’t like. I’m not sure where he put it all—he appeared to have zero body fat on his wiry frame—but you could count on him to go for seconds.

So Sebastian, along with his equally accommodating wife, Jill, were coming to dinner. Sebastian was an Aussie and Jill, a Brit. They’d met in Singapore, became engaged while cruising the high seas, and married in Tahiti or some similarly exotic tropical isle. They’d been living in Aix-en-Provence for a few years after a foray to Paris, where Jill perfected her French, and a stint in The Hague, where Sebastian added Dutch to his repertoire of languages. One Sunday, we’d met them on a family ramble—a casual hike—organised by the international group we’d joined in Aix soon after our arrival. As new kids in the quartier and keen to expand our social network, we were thrilled to cross paths with Sebastian and Jill—such a spirited, globe-trotting couple.

Image: Vecteezy

What menu, though? What we needed was a lively lineup—dishes with flair to match Sebastian and Jill’s keen sense of humor and adventuresome palettes. I hit on a Cinco de Mayo theme. After all, any month was a good month for Mexican food, and it would also give us an opportunity to capitalise on our California connection. During visits to Palm Springs, California, Ralph and I had been spoiled with terrific Mexican dishes, and we really missed them here in France. Olé! Mexican it was to be. The menu we crafted started with some zingy margaritas, spicy guacamole, accompanied by corn chips and salsa, followed by zesty chicken enchiladas, with a black bean/rice/hot pepper combo on the side, all garnished with plenty of fresh cilantro and a bloop of sour cream. The grand finale would star Kahlua over vanilla ice cream, adorned with a dark chocolate wafer. Voilà, a pretty decent attempt at a Viva Mexico menu, I thought, considering I was flying by the seat of my pantalones. I called Jill to double-check the meal particulars, including their tolerance level for spicy. Jalapeños? Not a problem! Of course not—it was Sebastian we were talking about.

One minor detail, however. Could I find all the necessary ingredients locally? Hmm. I remembered seeing corn tortillas around somewhere. In one of the big supermarchés, I figured. Crème fraîche could stand in for sour cream. Avocados were ubiquitous, as was cilantro, thank goodness. I realized I’d have to concoct my own salsa and enchilada sauce, not to mention scout out black beans, so some research was needed. And what about cheddar cheese? Yep, I recalled seeing that, or at least some cheese that emanated a bright orange, cheddar-like hue. Black olives, check. What about those packets of enchilada spices? Nope. Not around Aix, as far as I knew. I’d have to blend my own. Okay, so over to the laptop to locate recipes. After a few minutes of scrolling through some options, I settled on an appealing enchilada spice recipe, but it required a huge variety of ingredients. That was a surprise—I’d had no idea those little packets of spices we used to take for granted in the United States and that cost just a few pennies contained so many different types of spices, including turmeric. Geez, what was turmeric in French? Pondering, I looked it up. Good thing, too, as I couldn’t have guessed that one—it’s curcuma. I was going to be doing a lot of grinding. Oh yes, I needed a mortar and pestle too, so I added that to the list.

Sure enough, I had to run around to a bunch of different stores to get everything. In anticipation of the time-consuming prep, I started a day early with the spice grinding, sauce production, and chicken shredding. At least I saved a little time by buying a roasted chicken. So on the big day, I was well prepared—all I had to do was assemble, which was the fun part. I lined up all the enchiladas rolls side by side in the baking dish, smothered them in the enchilada sauce, topped them with the grated cheddar-like cheese, and stepped back to admire my handiwork. Awfully cute, I thought. I just hoped they were tasty as I popped them into the oven and set the timer.

Photo: Inspiredbycharm

While the main course was working up to a sizzle, I surveyed the scene. Table set. Candles lit. Roses fragrant. Julio Iglesias queued to croon. We were ready to shake those maracas and click those castanets. Okey-dokey, it was time to shed the apron. Always the responsible margarita maker, Ralph was sampling his concoction to ensure quality control. He handed a glass to me.

“I think you’re going to like this,” he said proudly.

Just as I was saying, “Yum, honey, it’s really good—” the shrill BZZZ of the doorbell startled me, practically sending my margarita airborne. Setting my glass safely down on the counter, I turned to Ralph. “Let the festivities begin!” I flung open the door and walked to the top of the stairs to greet Sebastian and Jill. Bending over the railing, I saw bobbing heads climbing higher and higher, making their way up to our third-floor apartment. Huffing and puffing, they stopped at the landing below to catch their breath. “Just one more—you’re nearly there,” I reassured them. There they were—our freshly made friends in our very own French abode for our very first dinner party in France.

“Hello, daaahling,” cooed Jill, looking as stunning as ever, her curves shown off to full advantage by a figure-hugging blue dress that matched her eyes and set off her lustrous blonde hair. Bonsoirs and bises (cheek kisses) were issued all around.

Bienvenue Chez Padgett. Did you find a parking place okay?” Ralph asked.

“No, didn’t need one. Thought we’d walk over so we could cruise home on autopilot—forgot about that strikingly steep hill, though. Is it new?” asked Sebastian in his typical deadpan manner.

“Ha! Only about a few million years ago,” came my retort. “Then you must be thirsty—a margarita?”

“Absolument,” they said in unison.

We’d barely settled in on the couch with our frosty drinks when I remembered dinner in the oven. “Oops, had better check my chicken enchiladas. Don’t want them to burn. Back in a jiff.” I rose to head to the kitchen.

“Hang on,” Sebastian said. “Did you say chicken?”

“Yes, silly. Chicken enchiladas usually mean there’s a portion of poulet in there somewhere,” I replied sarcastically. I was on to Sebastian’s kidding nature. But Sebastian wasn’t laughing. His cheery demeanor had disappeared.

He put his margarita down, licking his lips, and said, “Seriously, I don’t eat chicken.”

“You kidder! What carnivore doesn’t eat chicken?” I shook my head with a he-almost-got-me look.

“Me.”

“No!” I insisted in disbelief.

“Yes, I mean no, I really don’t eat chicken.” The famous twinkle in Sebastian’s eyes had vanished.

“But you eat everything. You even like that disgusting stuffed pig intestine—what’s it called, oh yeah, andou-ey-something—for heaven’s sakes!”

Andouillette, you mean,” Sebastian corrected me.

“That’s it, andouillette.” I repeated it so I could remember what not to order—ever. The name was so close to a rather tasty—usually grilled—Cajun-spiced sausage called andouille that I really had to concentrate on that one. Mixing them up would induce the gag reflex instantaneously.

“Well, yes, that’s true, I do consume andouillette. Just not chicken,” Sebastian said.

“Oh my God, Gayle, I’m so sorry,” wailed Jill, mortified. She explained that while I was reviewing the menu with her, her brain had clicked off at the margaritas, so my reference to the chicken ingredient hadn’t registered.

I had to think fast. Now what? I didn’t have a Plan B. What the heck was I going to do? But what I said was, “Pas de problème—really! I have an idea. Come with me.” I motioned to Jill to follow. We scurried off to the kitchen where, much to my great relief, I found ingredients for a spinach-cheese-bacon enchilada. Upon sampling the mixture, I proclaimed it quite tasty. Iron Chef, eat your heart out.

A few margaritas later, we all sat down to Mexican enchiladas, albeit Sebastian’s were greener and pollo-free. He tucked into them with vigor and soon asked for seconds. I heaved a sigh of relief. I did wonder, though, whether Sebastian’s “chicken thing” involved a beloved pet poulet that had made an ill-timed decision to cross a busy road. But fearing the story might feature flying feathers, I relegated the mystery to the back burner, keeping my inquisitive impulses quiet.

I pondered the close culinary call that had been our festive dinner party. Lacking a clairvoyant kitchen to guide me, I had very nearly been a main course short. Nothing like sending your dinner guests home hungry to endear you to them. That approach would certainly not help expand our social network in our adopted country. I made a note to self— require that future dinner guests sign off on the menu via a notarised affidavit. And bake back-up. 

 

Feed new friendships

Serving a buffet of tastes satisfies appetites and wins hearts.

You can buy Gayle’s book from Amazon, or Lebookshop in Montpellier is stocking it.  Next week you can find out how to win a signed copy of the book.  Gayle’s website is www.gaylesmithpadgett.com.