I am often asked where I learned to cook. My response is, in addition to my mother and Swiss-born grandmother, a talented French woman named Caroline (Caro). Caro works as a psychiatric nurse in Geneva, Switzerland. When she is not working she usually throws herself into some task such as replanting all her roses, building and then rearranging furniture, planting a fruit orchard, sewing costumes for her grandchildren, and cooking, of course.
Caro is best described as a dynamo. She is small and slightly built, but she is a fountain of energy. She has a loud and quick laugh with an expressive face. Clear eyes twinkle when she talks quietly and deliberately, but they dance when she explodes in outbursts of rapid dialogue and laughter. Possessing an often fiery disposition, she is the antithesis of passive aggressive; she speaks her mind freely and with great passion.
When Caro cooks it is never just one dish. She makes appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and often several whole meals in the time it would take a normal person to make a lasagna. The result is that there is always food everywhere: gratins, stews, tartes, soups, roasts, and amazing salads, just waiting to be served. With her excellent sense of taste and thousands of hours of experience cooking, Caro can seemingly throw together ingredients and create a beautiful, delicious meal in very little time. She applies this same technique to baking (sometimes with disastrous results owing to baking’s closer relation to science rather than art).
Throwing dinner parties is something she enjoys, and one rarely hears of someone turning down an invitation. Even when I would help her cook, I would still be surprised with the end result, simple dishes elevated to fancy restaurant status, or dishes that just seemed to come out of thin air. Some examples of favorites are a lamb and beef stew cooked in a Dutch oven sealed with pastry dough, Belgian endive braised overnight until caramelized, potimarron soup that tasted of chestnuts, cod fritters, choucroute garni with various sausages, ham, and slabs of smoked pork belly, cherry cloufoutis with whole cherries, grated root vegetable salad, lemon braised artichoke hearts,…the list goes on and on.
When cooking Caro drapes a hand towel over her shoulder and moves quickly and surely. She seems to have little use for a chef’s knife, instead using a small paring knife. Humming can often be heard as she assembles wonders out of inconspicuous ingredients. I was not surprised when Caro used these same techniques during her first visit to northern Sweden to experience our life above the Arctic Circle.
Naturally, Caro and I cooked together during her visit. First she prepared us Tartiflette, the hearty French mountain dish of potatoes, lardon, onions, cream, and a creamy and delicious raw milk cheese called Reblochon, smuggled in Caro’s suitcase. Then she joined me in the Saltoluokta kitchen and helped prepare the dinner for the guests. She made a cabbage salad with carrots and a vinaigrette that was crunchy and fresh. For the staff she made lemon tartes and miniature tarte tatins, half dollar rounds of buttery dough covered with darkly caramelized apple. Again everything was made without a recipe and in an astonishingly short amount of time and caused everyone to smile broadly when they tasted it.
France is a great place to learn to cook. The French have a long and illustrious culinary tradition, a strong contrast to the rather finicky fads that pass through the US. Learning to cook from Caro is especially fun because she eschews recipes and charges into dishes with bravado and confidence, drawing from her culinary experience and knowledge to add ingredients she already has on hand.