The first was that anyone understood anything I said. I speak French, in theory. Un peu, anyway. I studied it in high school, a few years in college. Lived in Paris a few months. Mastered the ordering of un express. But it's an ancient, dusty French, rusty from dis-use. Even when I was last in Montréal, thirteen (*sputter*) years ago, and just three years off our study abroad, I wound up conversing mostly in English. I hadn't intended to, had begun always with bonjour, but invariably found myself at the receiving end of Le Switch.
Not this time. It was weird. And great fun.
Partly, I chalk this up to the fact that I knew when to not even go there. Like when ordering our morning coffees at the hotel café. Because what exactly was the correct pronunciation of deux Americanos, anyway? Liason, probably. But perhaps, no? Because even though deux Americains would most certainly be 'duhz', maybe foreign words are exempt, default to 'duh'? Back and forth I went, that first morning, Duh? Duhz? Duhz? Duh?, which way should I go? That first morning, I should mention, following the 15 1/2 hour road trip, the day prior. In the end, I did the only right thing, ordered in English. That morning, and every morning thereafter. Know thyself. Especially thy uncaffeinated self.
But often enough, I went for it, and often enough, dog-paddled my way through. At the end of a long sightseeing afternoon, I ordered dinner for five at a jam-packed Au Pain Doré. Different dinners for each. Plus dessert, bien sûr. To go. Entirely en français. Super chouette. I made inquiries at the supermarket, not once, but twice, and learned almonds were on aisle seven, paper plates on three. When the kids' Playaways went blank, I procured fresh batteries. Quel genre des piles? ... Ehmm .... Tree-pluh ah? (Franglais rocks.) By the end of the week, I was in the groove, dropping j'sais pas and allons-y! like a local. A local first year at McGill. Orientation Week. But still! I was getting by in French.
Then, there were the others. Because while I apparently proved capable of wading into the deep end, I wasn't always able to swim myself out.
Like my lunch order at the Biodôme, which went like clockwork, until it didn't. Until my salad order was met not with the Oui, et quelque chose d'autre? I expected, but instead, a long string of incomprehensible gibberish. It sounded as though purple rainboots were involved, but feeling uncertain, I changed up my order. Or my efforts to get us into the exhibits themselves. I'd scored tickets, but was stumped at the gates when I got not a wave-through, but more gibberish. Mind you, French gibberish sounds infinitely better than American. Sort of like British robo-operators on corporate phone trees. I could happily listen to either for hours. But this didn't get me any closer to the monkeys.
(Turns out the salads hadn't arrived yet from the commisary, and the gatekeepers wanted confirmation we weren't smuggling snacks to the penguins. Turns out there were also serious limits to my French.)
But the language gridlock that almost brought me to my knees went down at the grocery store check-out counter. I had, as I mentioned, successfully navigated the aisles, foraged dinner and snacks and the means with which to eat them. The transaction itself got off to a fine start, as I hacked my way through the standard questions. No, I didn't have a loyalty card. And no thanks, wouldn't be needing one. Yes, I brought my own bags. Do you take my American credit card? No? Not my debit, either? Cash?! Yes? Yes.
Then came the gibberish.
The cashier spoke again. I stared. Baffled. Répétez-vous, s'il vous plaît?
Encore the gibberish.
Encore un fois?
Nothing. Not a single word resonated. I couldn't find a hook, an entrypoint, an un, anything. Nothing made sense. My dinner was being held hostage. And whatever this gibberish, it was obviously mission critical.
The line was now five carts long.
Last resort territory.
Time to play the stupid card. En anglais, s'il vous plaît?
Her turn: Shrug. Stare. Head shake.
She didn't speak English.
Minutes had passed. Many... Long... Minutes... With all eyes on me, and my cotton-headed French.
Finally, bless her heart, she remembered the real lingua franca—hand gestures!—walked out from behind her register, and over to a tower of juice boxes. In a flash, I understood what had flummoxed me thus far: I'd spent enough to have won a free carton of juice. Quel genre?
Jus de Pomme, merci!
(Et comment dit-on, 'I don't need no stinkin' juice'?)
I realized something that afternoon about my French, and foreign languages, and photographs, and travel, and life. I could manage in French when in familiar territory, when I knew what to expect and everyone played along. But take me off-script and all bets are off. Everything became awkward, a little desperate, a lot hard. Just try and foist free juice off on me, and I'll show YOU the meaning of queue. Turns out my French is pretty context-specific.
I think I'm deciding that cameras are, too. I'm a little twisty-mouthed as I type this, but I think I'm falling in like with my phone. Its camera, specifically. At least while traveling. This, for me, was surprise number two.
A few others have apparently heard of phone cameras, so I won't bother with press releases. But I am—what shall we say?—a creature of habit when it comes to technological innovation.
(There are those under my roof who will remind me of the time I lobbied long and hard against buying a computer. My word processor—remember those?—was already the alpha and omega. It typed, it printed, it could remember twenty pages! Could save even more, to a floppy. What on earth could a person possibly need that would justify spending more on a big beige box? I did, for the record, concede. And eat crow. And eventually give thanks that saner minds prevailed.)
I got a whiff of this wind shift, last October, when Annette came to let us sneak off for the weekend. The whiff picked up strength, this spring break.
Travel with young children is, let's see, what's the word I'm looking for?, oh, there it is: exhausting. It is also fantastic. And exhilirating. And invigorating. And exciting. And often very funny, and very often great fun, and absolutely worth it. But still. Exhausting. We've learned, as a family, over the years, a pace and rhythm that takes this into account. This helps. So does lack of excess baggage.
I adore my day-in, day-out camera, and I did bring it along. But often as not, I found I preferred being fleet of foot over wide of aperture. So what if the "lenses" are a little goofy; so am I. So what if I've yet to pin down the difference between Ina and Jimmy and Buckhorst. So what if I keep winding up with that gnarly black deckled edge. I'll read the instructions, someday. When the kids are grown.
What I want is a way to remember the long shadows of an extraordinary 80° March week in Montréal. A reminder of those nights I spirited away one child, then another, for a date at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. A flash of seagull, an angel's gold wing, a skyline bi-sected by old and new. A record of our attempt to hike Mont Royal, even if we expended all our energy, just reaching the base. A glimpse that two brothers spontaneously saw fit to walk arm in arm. On a family vacation. If that doesn't beat all.
And I want to remember that bagel, down there. That eggy, lanky, sesame-crusted Montréal bagel. That still-warm St. Viateur bagel, pulled from a wood-burning oven before my eyes. Slathered with Liberté Fromage à la Crème. A bagel which very nearly didn't happen, after a metro ride and mile-long hike through hot streets, with six little legs in various degrees of distress. (I'd mis-calculated distances. Missed the sign. Felt certain the day would go down as The Long March.) A bagel which materialized like a mirage, from an almost-unmarked storefront, after we'd already given up stopped to rest.
Turns out we'd stopped on a bench outside the back-end workhorse of a bakery for the bigger, brighter retail sister, blocks away. I leveraged my French, and every ounce of my gumption, and marched in to ask after half a dozen. They were exquisite, though that's not the point. The point is that that bagel stands for all kinds of stamina and determination and teamwork in its empty-centered self. And that I never, ever would've dragged my ordinary camera along on said hike. And that, even if I feel a little weird about a bagel on my phone, man, that bagel, it makes me proud.
I don't have a bagel recipe for you, today, Montréal or otherwise. I hope to, someday, though apparently I need three months or several years before I've got half a chance. Also, my own wood-burning oven. It may be a while.
No, what I want to talk about today is Crispy "Thai" Salad, WHICH, before you groan, is entirely unlike all the others. Beets and oranges, pears and celery, grapefruit and avocado, they're all grand, but they are what I think of as ladylike lunches. I mean no offense; I love ladylike lunches. But this, this is an unabashed meal, a knife-and-fork affair that hits all the veg-protein-starch bases. I will refrain from calling it a 'manly' salad, since I created it for myself, and gorge on it often. Suffice it to say, it's anyone's dinner.
What it isn't is even remotely Thai. There are countless deeply wonderful true Thai salads, addictive meaty larbs and puckery green mango numbers and cucumber lovelies that snap and crunch. This is none of those. It is, instead, something dreamt up by a restaurant and adapted by me, with every out-of-context detour that implies. This is not about authentic. But it is absolutely about delicious. And in food, as in photos, ends sometimes trump means.
And what an end. Consider: a heap of sweet crisp vegetables as a base, slivered napa cabbage and red peppers and snow peas and carrots. (We sometimes shred the carrots. For ease and entertainment.) Add to that an almost equal amount of fresh herbs, six cups (yup) of mint and cilantro and Thai basil. That's for starters. Add to this shreds of ginger-poached chicken, tender and abundant and flavor-full. (Or add, if you'd rather, caramelized tofu; I've had it both ways, like it almost as much.) The whole mess is tossed in a lime-soused dressing, spiked with fish sauce for funk, sesame oil for depth. Plus a mountain of minced roasted peanuts, chopped small, and then smaller, and maybe a bit more. This little detail is important. Tiny peanut bits mean you're not chasing down clumsy chunks, trying to spear them in vain with a truculent fork. Instead, the nuts nestle into every nook and cranny, fastening themselves to every bite, like burs. Toasty, sweet, salty, peanut-y burs. The effect is fantastic, the crunch excellent.
Speaking of crunch, there's one more thing. The crispy bits. Don't skip them. Please. S'il vous plaît? The original salad—from which I've veered quite a bit—was topped with a tangle of fried, salted tortilla strips. I converted, instantly. They're the simplest thing, the work of five minutes; if you can boil water, you can make crispy bits. Offer them to the kids. Eat them out of hand. Just please, at least once, top this "Thai" salad with them. Out of context, maybe. Delicious, definitely.
Crispy "Thai" Salad
inspired by The Northstar Café
Don't be put off by the ingredient list, here. The dressing is a quick, jam-jar affair. The chicken is mindless and mercifully hands-off, and can be made days in advance. Or substitute leftover roast or rotisserie chicken. Or caramelized tofu. Please note, if you do cook your chicken day of, to allow 1 unattended hour to poach. Note, also, that the vegetables are flexible. No snap peas? No worries. Trouble stocking Thai basil? Me too. I get it from my Asian market, but often run out, in which case I find mint and cilantro alone do the trick.
The peanuts are paramount here. Sample several; they should be sweet, fresh, toasty, salty, swoon-worthy. I'm keen on the Super Extra Large Peanuts from Costco (which, go figure, I can find online only via Amazon), but any peanut you cannot stop eating out of hand will do nicely.
For the Chicken:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tablespoons salt
2" finger of fresh ginger, sliced into 12 coins
20-30 whole peppercorns
For the salad bowl:
Napa Cabbage, 1/2 a medium head (12-15 leaves)
4 medium carrots
1 red pepper
1 cup snap peas (optional)
1 bunch (2 cups) mint
1 bunch (2 cups) cilantro
1 bunch (2 cups) thai basil
1 bunch scallions, whites and pale greens
1 1/2 cups excellent roasted, salted peanuts
For the Dressing:
1/2 cup lime juice, from 3-4 plump limes
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. fish sauce
1 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. sesame oil
3 Tbs. peanut or canola oil
For the Crispy Bits:
3 large flour tortillas
enough canola oil to fill a saucepan to 2" (1-2 cups)
Poach Chicken: At least one hour ahead (can be done the 3-4 days prior), combine salt, ginger slices and peppercorns in a medium pot of water. Bring to a boil, stir, and add chicken. Turn off heat, cover pot with lid, and set aside for 1 hour. Chicken will be cooked through at hour's end. If storing, let cool to room temperature, and store in a bit of the poaching liquid. If using immediately, remove from liquid, until cool enough to handle. Slice each breast into three chunks, crosswise, then shred meat. Set aside.
Make Dressing: Squeeze lime juice into a jam jar, then add salt, fish sauce and honey. Replace lid, and shake well to dissolve salt. Add sesame and peanut oils, and shake again, to emulsify. Set aside.
Prep Salad: Wash, dry and peel your veg and herbs. Sliver everything, herbs included, into 1/4" slices. As to the carrots, I often shred them, instead, on the large holes of a box grater. Next, your peanuts: I prefer to chop them by hand, in three or four batches, with a chef's knife. Gather them in a pile, and chop-chop-chop, moving slowly from one side to another. Gather again, moving biggest chunks to the center, and repeat. Repeat again, and again, until peanuts are quite tiny, grain of rice size. This is the work of a minute, per handful. Alternatively, you can chop them carefully in a food processor, pulsing in short bursts and watching carefully, the trick being to stop short of paste. What you are after is a heap of tiny bites, like the nuts in crunchy-style peanut butter, without the peanut butter. Pile cabbage, veg, herbs, and peanuts into a large wide bowl.
Prep Crispy Bits: Fill a small saucepan with oil, to 2". Line a clean plate with paper towels, and set near stove. Heat oil over medium-high heat, until oil shimmers, 2-3 minutes. While oil is heating, stack your tortillas, cut in half crosswise, stack halves, and slice into thin slivers, 1/8". To test oil, add one sliver; when bubbles form rapidly around the tortilla, the oil's ready. Carefully, using tongs, working in batches, lower one quarter of the tortilla strips into the oil. After 30 seconds, gently tousle them with the tongs, to prevent clumps and turn exposed sides over. Fry until strips are golden brown on most sides, 1-3 minutes. Stay by the stove; this is quick work. When the color of caramel, use tongs to remove to the crisp strips to the paper towel-lined plate, and dust with salt. Repeat, adjusting heat as needed, until finished.
Assemble salad: Add poached/leftover chicken/caramelized tofu to salad, then pour dressing over all. Toss well with tongs (or clean hands) to coat, taste for seasoning, and adjust salt and pepper, as needed. Top individual servings with tortilla strips. Eat. Repeat.