Two days ago, I took a moment to consider whether I had time to pencil in a small nervous breakdown for the day. Nothing major, just a rant and perhaps some petulant remarks and if I was feeling up to the effort, some half-hearted sobs.
I say half-hearted because I am keenly aware of how great my life is relative to 99% of the world population, and that getting all wound up because I have too much good stuff going on too fast is not really proper usage of a nervous breakdown.
As, I took my steps back from that mental cliff with a few deep breaths and a smile of gratitude, I realized that if I am freaking out at this time of year, you likely are, too. And, this is no time for 3 hour recipes. So, I am going to endeavor for the next few posts to do things that take no more than 20 minutes or so. I discovered, not surprisingly, that many of the simplest things are also the most delicious, not being muddied up by effort and struggle and desperate over-seasoning.
Several nights ago I had the distinct honor of celebrating the birthday of a spectacular woman, Ashley Hiles Beck, with a group of the most hilarious and vibrant women the world ever put into one room. I’m sure the kind proprietors of Rise No. 1 had no idea what they were seating right by the front door. The topics causing huge outbursts of guffaws ranged from squirrel eradication to why women of a certain age never-ever-ever do jumping jacks. I laughed so hard that I woke the next morning worried I was coming down with a chest infection. As it turns out, there is no exercise at the YMCA that works out your lungs like an evening with wine and too oft cooped up females.
In this restaurant that specializes in decadent soufflés, I ordered a ham sandwich, albeit one with a pretty French name. It was simple and then beyond simple. It was excellent ham, fresh bread, pickles and a little Dijon, just to make me happy.
I returned home wondering why I don’t more often take the time to assemble perfect pairings of this simple style. And so I did.
At my local grocery store, I was able to pick up a wedge of Fromager d’Affinois which looks like brie. The main difference is that this cheese has a higher fat content and is, well, nothing short of wrong…in the good way. It is exceedingly creamy and has a neutral flavor that makes it a great building block when adding, as I did, whole grain mustards or an exceptional balsamic to the fun. Peruse this SFGate article for a nice description of Fromager d’Affinois. I am not enough of a turophile to do it justice. I learned that word just today; incidentally…a turophile is a cheese connoisseur. I will say that as I looked at the cheese and started to slice it, I couldn’t help but think of Dorie Greenspan and her kind admonition that when in France, it is a great affront to the host to lop off the nose of a cheese wedge such as this or brie and consume it, oneself. But seeing as I was in the kitchen all by myself and no one was looking, that is precisely what I did.
I purchased bread at the store which was a mistake. It simply didn’t do the other ingredients justice. Next time I will bake some No Knead Refrigerator Bread, which is far superior and easy and a gratifying task, anyway.
I purchased deli ham. It was Primo Taglio “Ham off the Bone” and it was just fine. I might have been able to source a more interesting product, but again, I’m going for fast and convenient here, not perfection.
The pears were a gift. And they were beautiful. In an effort to combat their natural browning process and to soften them ever so slightly, I dunked them in boiling and salted water for about 15 seconds and then dried them on a towel for a moment. I am not a natural pear lover and this eliminated a bit of the sand-papery mouth feel (I really don’t feel comfortable using that term) and left the sweetness. This is not an essential step, and it may have slowed the browning for a moment, but not for long. The variety I used is Royal Riviera.
For condiments, I switched back and forth bite by bite between a nice whole grain mustard and precious drops of balsamic vinegar. I have a dram of the loveliest vinegar I have ever had the privilege of owning. It was sent to me by Steve Darland who makes this rare vinegar, Aceto Balsamico of Monticello in New Mexico. I was charmed to think of this beautiful, thick, deep brown jewel being produced so close, in the “middle of nowhere” and a mile above sea level. At $150 per bottle, this is not a bottle for the faint of heart. You have to truly commit to loving life to play with this stuff. I have nursed this dram for months, using a drop here and there, taking it straight by the spoonful just to enjoy its pure taste. The funny result of this, however, is that this tiny glass vial has inspired me more than almost anything in my kitchen because I have wanted to create dishes that live up to using a few of my precious remaining drops. And, more often than not, I have preferred it all by itself. Here, a few drops was all that was necessary to set this little bite of pear, cheese and ham apart from a mere sandwich. Also, in this world of a billion commercial websites, there are a few that are actually lovely and can teach you a few things. The Aceto Balsamico of Monticello website is one such site and the listing of uses for balsamic vinegar is worth the visit. If you need a very nice gift for someone who loves food, consider this.
Slice pears and peel them if you prefer. Dunk them in salted boiling water for about 15 seconds if you like. Stack the pears on a slice of baguette or other bread along with ham and this cheese or some brie or other soft cheese. Either warm it in a 350 degree oven for several moments or not, depending on your preference. Adorn it with the condiment of your choice. Eat it immediately and enjoy the simple, beautiful tastes of a treat enhanced by the ease with which it is prepared. This post will take you far longer to finish than the preparation and consumption of this meal.