Happy New Year! I’m back from my annual Christmas sojourn in sunny Southern California… which seems very, very far away today, as the polar vortex sweeps through New York. Two weeks ago, I was watching surfers from the Huntington Beach pier and lunching al fresco; my mother turned on the air conditioning on Christmas day and we cheered. Today, I forgot my gloves and my frozen fingers almost snapped off.
Along with baking a chocolate cake, basking in the sunshine (I now can’t believe there were days when I told my husband it was too bright), tucking into my dad’s Hatch green chile pork stew, and meeting so many new Francophile friends at my fantastic event at Laguna Beach Books, I spent some time re-reading my friend Meg Bortin’s rollicking new memoir, Desperate to be a Housewife. Set against the backdrop of the 1960s and 70s, this is the story of Mona Venture (Meg’s alter ego), a young woman struggling to reconcile her life as an independent journalist with her desire for a happy family life.
We first meet Mona as a student at the University of Wisconsin, and accompany her as she suffers the throes of suddenly requited love, joins student protests, and hides it all from her parents. We follow her to 1970s Paris and watch as she falls in love with an eccentric Frenchman and his funny, quirky band of lefty friends — and with France itself, with the beauty, joie de vivre, and exhilaration of being amidst the Left Bank intelligentsia. Meg’s journalism career takes off and she moves to Moscow, London, and beyond, a witness to some of the era’s most important news stories while continuing to look for love. Her tale, which juxtaposes unlucky romance against her feminist ideals, kept me turning the pages, hoping that Meg would find her happy ending.
Among young Mona’s suitors is a Frenchman named Jacques, a dynamic, quirky intellectual who seems ripped from a Truffaut film (amusing for the reader, less so for poor Mona). Jacques woos Mona with sumptuous food — a pear tart, a plate of icy, briny oysters. But when they eventually move in together, Mona discovers Jacques has a rigid cooking routine: une semaine de soupe, une semaine de riz. One week of soup, one week of rice. Just like today’s harried working parents, Jacques does all his shopping and cooking on Sundays. On soup weeks, he prepares a potage of carrots, leeks and bacon (Meg offers a recipe on her wonderful food blog, here), which “he ate for the next five nights, accompanied by wine, bread and cheese.” Rice weeks feature similar ingredients, but in a less liquid form.
Some might call Jacques’s weekly routine monotonous, but as a harried working parent myself (or — ironic side note — the housewife, Mona is so desperate to become?!), I found it appealing. Meg sent me the recipe for Rice Week and I made it on a rare, quiet afternoon home alone. I intended to save the food, as Jacques did, and eat it for dinner during the week. But the rice was so delicious, hearty with bacon and winter vegetables, I ended up sampling an overly large portion. (We polished off the rest for a quick lunch the next day, standing up scoffing it in the kitchen, before the baby woke up from her nap.) It reminded me of something familiar, and I realized later what it was: fried rice. Perfumed with herbes de Provence (I used thyme), this was fried rice French style. Next time, I’ll add more vegetables — shredded kale or Brussels sprouts? — and maybe scramble an egg at the finish. Et voilà, a one-pot meal enjoyed by housewives, singletons, French intellos, American feminists, and/or Chinese-American families everywhere. No spoilers here, but you might agree with Mona that the happy ending is the one you create for yourself.
Une semaine de riz
1 cup brown rice
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 large carrots
1/4 pound thick-cut bacon
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. herbes de Provence or dried basil
Rinse the rice and transfer it to a saucepan. Cover with the water and add the salt. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low, cover the saucepan, and simmer until most of the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, pare the leek and chop it crosswise into rounds about 1/2 inch thick. Peel the carrots and chop them crosswise into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Chop the bacon into lardons about 1/2 inch wide.
Heat the olive oil to sizzling in a large frying pan. Add the leek and carrots, and stir fry for 5 minutes. Add the bacon and stir fry for 5 minutes more.
When the rice is ready, add it with its liquid to the frying pan. Add the herbs. Cover and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
Serves two generously, and it’s delicious as is, or with a dash of soy sauce.