Saturday, September 25, 2010

La baguette

Few images are as quintessentially French as the baguette. When I buy a baguette I always get a jaunty Frenchness to my step, and feel quite chic when I break a piece off at home. But invariably I eat some, enjoy, eat a bit more, get full and then leave the rest to go hard overnight.

I have decided to make the baguette a more regular part of my life, as I always feel more stylish breaking up a chunk than pulling a slice of square bread out of a plastic bag. What I do now is:

a) buy the baguette (yes I could learn to make them like Anne Barone does, but my breadmaking has turned out a little doughy for my taste so baking them is for another day when I’m in the mood to experiment) and then,
b) slice into 10cm/4 inch pieces.

The baguettes I most recently bought had exactly six per loaf. I then freeze them in a ziplock bag (after enjoying that day’s piece fresh). The day I want a piece I take it from the freezer, either in the morning, or at a pinch half an hour before I want it. They thaw very quickly at room temperature and if you’ve frozen them on the day of purchase they taste almost as good.

I have mostly been having them for lunch, either as is alongside a complete (‘with protein’) salad or split in half and both flat sides covered in something if having a side salad (raw veges and salad ingredients, no protein).

Two ‘somethings’ I have enjoyed lately are:

1 egg, hardboiled and fork mashed with a small dollop of Best Foods light mayo and capers, or
1 small portion of cold roast-chicken, cut up fine and mixed with the same small dollop of Best Foods light mayo and finely diced raw celery.

Top with a crunch of black pepper

It’s nice to have the bread always handy, and even though the portions seem to have shrunk since I cut them (and I thought to myself ‘should I have two?’) I have only ever had the one piece, and never thought afterwards ‘I’m still hungry’. I’m always perfectly sated. Portion control! It works!

The other night when I reheated the rest of my pasta bake and served it with a salad dressed with equal parts extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar (aka ‘the lazy dressing), my husband, whose favourite thing in the world is bread but doesn’t have it often said, ‘do you have some bread in the freezer?’ When I placed the baguette down in front of him (resisting saying ‘Et voila) he remarked that our table looked very Italian, and that the bread in the picture looked like it completed the meal.

If I was Sabine, living in my Paris apartment, with a boulangerie on the corner which I passed each night on my way home from the Metro station, then I would buy a half-baguette and eat it fresh. I can pretend that’s me when I have my piece of baguette with lunch and it actually has made me feel more chic all day.

That’s what it’s about for me, adding in little touches of chic Frenchness to my life, and this in turn encourages me to act chicly (in all ways, not just with food).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Feline Lessons

I finished the most delightful book a few nights ago. It is entitled ‘Cleo’, written by New Zealand journalist and author Helen Brown, and I noticed it has just been released into America on

A neighbour gave it to me to read. She knows I’m a cat-lover, and maybe you do have to be a cat-lover to enjoy this book, as the main character Cleo is a feline. It’s more than just that though, it’s a perfectly written memoir involving a family tragedy and how this little cat (that they tried unsuccessfully to return to the gifter 'because they were more dog people'), healed their family.

I know the French woman teaches us lots of things (and Lord knows I go on about them enough), but I believe we can also learn a lot from cats. And the passages from the book below are quite Francais (or perhaps more Italian) on the art of living well, just from a silky-whiskered point of view.


Guilt isn’t in cat vocabulary. They never suffer remorse for eating too much, sleeping too long or hogging the warmest cushion in the house. They welcome every pleasurable moment as it unravels and savour it to the full until a butterfly or falling leaf diverts their attention. They don’t waste energy counting the number of calories they’ve consumed or the hours they’ve frittered away sunbathing.

Cats don’t beat themselves up about not working hard enough. They don’t get up and go, they sit down and stay. For them, lethargy is an art form. From their vantage points on top of fences and windows ledges, they see the treadmills of human obligations for what they are – a meaningless waste of nap time.


One of the many ways in which cats are superior to humans is their mastery of time. By making no attempt to dissect years into months, days into hours and minutes into seconds, cats avoid much misery. Free from the slavery of measuring every moment, worrying whether they are late or early, young or old, or if Christmas is six weeks away, felines appreciate the present in all its multi-dimensional glory. They never worry about endings or beginnings. From their paradoxical viewpoint an ending is often a beginning. The joy of basking on a window ledge can seem eternal, though if measured in human time it’s diminished to a paltry eighteen minutes.

If humans could program themselves to forget time, they would savour a string of pleasures and possibilities. Regrets about the past would dissolve, alongside anxieties for the future. We’d notice the colour of the sky and be liberated to seize the wonder of being alive in this moment. If we could be more like cats our lives would seem eternal.

- from Cleo, by Helen Brown

Pictured above is my little cat Zita Rosarita who died in January, age 17. Sweet Rosie-girl. Being black and white she's just the perfect colouring for my blog.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Instant Chic

I was thinking about what makes me feel instantly chic and came up with this list.

- Sleek hair tied back, rather than wearing it down and wavy

- Putting handcream on and pushing back cuticles

- Touching up my makeup: a little powder on the nose, comb eyebrows, brush hair if it's not tied back, touch up lipstick and spritz on some fragrance

- Dressing in neutral colours

- Wearing heels (they don't have to be very high) rather than flats, with dark denim jeans

- Giving myself an attitude check: less grumpy and more positive

- By the same token, thinking chic: imagine I am a chic Parisienne going about my day

- Relax my face and soften my mouth into a small smile, rather than a normal non-smiling mouth which can look turned down at the corners

- Wearing red lipstick with not much eyemakeup except for plenty of black mascara, or alternatively a little more around the eyes with light pink/beige lip gloss

- Wearing the classics: dark denim, neutrals, crisp white shirt, 'diamond' stud earrings or hoop earrings, beige cotton trench coat

- Tossing on a scarf

What can you add to this list?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moving Like a French Woman

I was re-reading a chapter of French Women Don’t Get Fat today. It was chapter 10 - ‘Moving like a French woman’. In it she makes some interesting points about French women and exercise.

Mireille says traditional exercise where you change into your workout gear doesn’t go with being French. She describes it as a great, joyless effort cutting two hours out of your day to travel, change, learning and waiting to use machines, showering, drying your hair and so on. And you have to pay for it. I couldn’t have written it better myself. She describes exactly why I am not a gym bunny anymore.

She also mentions an ‘overheated’ workout can do the opposite for you than a milder exertion. It revs up your appetite so you eat more afterwards. And if you decide all that energy expenditure is just too much to put up with, you quit. It can encourage the ‘all or nothing’ mindset.

I couldn’t agree more. I remember some particularly high-energy aerobics classes when I left the gym on a Saturday morning literally shaking. And I was ravenously hungry. My poor body, all churned up. And then I looked around for the nearest horse to eat...

I think it comes down to what suits you. Some people thrive on high-energy workouts but I know for myself they are counter-productive to my health and tranquillity. I much prefer gentle exercise as part of how I live my life.

Walking outside either at a fast-paced clip or a leisurely meander depending on my mood, how much time I have and whether I feel tired or energised that day is my favourite form of exercise. I also feel really fortunate that I have found an enjoyable yoga class to add to my walking.

Yesterday our teacher echoed my walking philosophy. She said you will have days when you have lots of energy and feel great, and days when you feel tired and want to be more gentle on yourself. On these types of days it’s hard to even find your balance, you’re wobbling all over the place (in yoga at least). And it’s true!

In the past I’ve felt guilty if I’ve had a ‘slack’ gym workout and either pushed myself to try harder or left the gym feeling guilty because I didn't take full advantage of my workout time. Now how much fun does that sound? Again, it’s down to the individual – there are plenty of people who enjoy the high-octane effort of a gym workout, but I’m not one of them.

My husband and I have had this conversation a few times – he knows how much I enjoy my gentle pursuits of walking and yoga, and he’s told me how much enjoyment he gets from his hard-out cardio and weights gym sessions 3-4 times per week.

In her book, Mireille encourages us to increase our walking by adding regular ‘dedicated’ walks to our day. Start small and make smart strolls a part of each day. It could be walking part way to work (I drive, but often walk to the bank, post office or library during the day. When I worked in the city I would use my lunch hour to walk from the bottom of town to the top to visit the library or just for a stroll) or walking for 20 minutes after dinner to aid digestion and wind down before bed.

Of course you won’t want to wear stilettos, but you don’t have to wear chunky sports shoes either. There are many styles of comfortable flats which allow you to be comfortable and look good in your normal day clothes too.

When I travelled to London, I had a number of days where I was a sightseeing group of one. It was lovely to have the day to myself, but to have friends to meet up with at night (they were working). One of the days I caught the tube to Chelsea/Sloane Square area and just walked around imagining I lived in one of the gorgeous pastel coloured terrace houses and eventually made my way to a shopping area and another tube station where I rode back to my friend’s home later in the afternoon. Not a typical touristy outing but I’ve always enjoyed seeing how people live, and not just gawping through the gates of Buckingham Palace (although I did that too of course).

I’ve done this a few times in my own city. I think I’ll do it again soon. The area we live in is pretty boring and out of the way, and not really suitable for walking, but I can drive to a lovely, older area and park the car. Then the plan is to walk as if I lived there and enjoy the beautiful homes, perhaps stop in a cafe or window-shop. Enjoyable exercise is what I’m all about.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Comfort Food for a Sunday Evening

Sunday evenings to me spell something comforting in the kitchen. Often this means a casserole in the slow cooker, or an Italian dish. Last night I made a pasta bake which I am in the process of perfecting. Of course the fact that I like to use up what I have in the pantry means it will not taste identical every time, but perfecting the base recipe.

I can also make it less carb- and sauce-heavy than a traditional pasta bake. I don't use that much pasta in it, add lots of vegetables and use cottage cheese instead of bechamel or ricotta. Cottage cheese still tastes delicious but is low in fat and high in protein. This probably makes up for the amount of mozzarella I use.

It is comfort food, but it also means I can compile everything in one dish, put it in the oven for an hour or two and sit down with the Sunday papers. The aroma as it cooks is lovely too.

Here is my recipe:

In the deep lasagne or casserole dish add the following in layers (you don't need to worry about greasing or oiling the dish, just pile everything in).

Mix together in a big bowl the bottom layer then add to dish:

Diced pumpkin (about 1 inch cubes)
Silverbeet (chard), washed and chopped
One onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
500g (about 1 lb) light cottage cheese
Seasoning - plenty of salt and pepper, this time I used sweet smoked paprika, chicken stock powder, dried chilli flakes and rubbed sage

With the first layer you can use any vegetables you want to use up, I always include pumpkin as it imparts a rich sweetness and thickens the pasta bake. You can use a small container of cottage cheese if it's a smaller dish you have. I ended up with servings enough for six, not two.

Second layer, sprinkle mozzarella cheese and then add dried, uncooked pasta. I see no point in having to cook pasta first. I am essentially a lazy (sorry, efficient) cook. You can use lasagne sheets, but all I had was macaroni elbows and they worked just fine. Use enough to cover the cheese in a single layer.

Third layer, pour a can or two of diced tomatoes over, spreading out the tomato pieces. Rinse out the can(s) with the tiniest amount of water and pour this in too. This time I added a splash of red wine (just into the middle of the mix, and let it soak in) as I thought there might have not been quite enough liquid in the mix. You don't want too much liquid though, just enough to absorb into the pasta.

Fourth and final layer, add another generous sprinkle of mozzarella cheese. Parmesan would be good too, if you have any (we didn't). Then breadcrumbs. You can use store-bought breadcrumbs or homemade. Since my sister gave us as a gift the wonderful Cuisinart mini food processor I haven't bought breadcrumbs. I save the crusts from bread in the freezer and thaw a few whenever I want crumbs. Place them (torn up) into the food processor, add a clove or two of garlic and any seasoning you might like and blitz. The garlic tastes amazing in them.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs on the top (hopefully you haven't reached the rim of the dish) and place in a moderate 180 (350) oven for at least 1 1/2 hours. I didn't cover mine at all last night, but next time perhaps I would for the first half of the cooking time. The crumbs weren't burnt, but they were quite crispy after the full cooking time.

When you want to check that it is ready, stick a fork in and check that the pumpkin is soft, and try a piece of the pasta to check it is cooked.

Bon appetit.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A contradiction in style

A lot of the pages I tear out of home décor magazines show shabby chic, heavily French style, dreamy white/pink floral confections and other ornate fancies. What I actually live with is a mix of modern/plain/simple and a bit of French gilt.

A friend who visited my home for the first time many years ago was shocked that my home was not all English/French country cottage style. Her home was, and I used to love going from room to room and taking in the details.

I haven’t made a conscious effort to replicate the rooms I saw and liked. What I did was choose items which spoke to me at the time I needed them. Some are new and some are second-hand. I’ve ended up with ‘my-style’ which is actually quite different to what I thought I liked.

I made a cushion cover once, of quilted cotton cabbage roses in shades of pink, with green leaves. It was a beautiful, expensive chintz-type (bought as a bargain basement remnant of course, I’m a thrifty girl). The back was lined with layers of calico and fastened with small, creamy rose-shaped buttons which were recycled.

That poor cushion always looked out of place, no matter where I put it – on the bed, on a chair, on the sofa. It then went into the linen closet (minus its inner). Perhaps I should gift it to someone whose style suits it.

The colours I have ended up gathering around me are: mushroom, taupe, camel, caramel, white, cream, licorice and black. Lots of cream and white balanced with the neutrals and a small amount of the darker colours.

A colour I would really like to introduce is the burnt orange of a Veuve Clicquot label. I’m not influenced by the French champagne link at all, really.

When I come home I need a place where my eyes (and body) can rest. That's why I'm on the constant path of editing. The home interiors images I am most drawn to these days are ones where there are clear table tops, empty spaces, room to breathe.

I'm certainly not a pointy corner modernist though, I love the worn-in goodness of old stuff, just not too much please, and the right pieces.

I think I am going about home décor the same way I am looking at my wardrobe. Getting rid of items that are not quite right first, and then slowly filling in the spaces.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Chic Library

A place I love to be the most is in my library. I don't quite have a library room yet, but I can stand in front of my 'cube' bookcase and imagine one in the future. The photo above I took when we first moved in here about three years ago. You can see wee Rosie-cat's bowls on the left. I miss knocking them as I walk past and then having to clean up the water (she went to cat-heaven in January).

I don't really keep a lot of fiction around except for a few favourite authors, but my chic reference library is well-thumbed. Pulling out one of my favourite chic books and reading a few pages is a brief respite and inspires me to be my chic-est self. You can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Some of my books are thrifted, some gifts, some bought from actual real bookstores and some ordered from Abe Books (cost: 2 books at US$1 each, postage US$13.50).

I suppose in some way they are like bibles to me, and I do have a real bible there too. Even though I'm not traditionally religious the bible has some really beautiful pieces. I'll take inspiration from any source.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chic Habits: Using a Diary/Planner

When I used to work as an office administrator I had my work planner, and I had my own personal A5-size diary, quite slim-line which I used to carry everywhere with me. It organised my life. My personal diary had a week-to-an-opening so I could see the entire week at a glance.

I wrote in everything:

- personal expenditure to track my budget.
- recurring appointments like the doctor or leg-waxing (the thrifty me now shaves my legs).
- birthdays: at the beginning of a new year I went through my diary and wrote in every birthday for family and close friends. That way I never forgot a birthday or was surprised and at the last minute had to rush out and find a gift.
- Personal care I wanted to do regularly, so for example I made a note when six weeks was to book a haircut or 13 weeks to have my highlights redone. I also had a note twice a week to exfoliate and apply a mask after dinner.
- Errands I wanted to run on a certain day.
- Plans for a day off.
- I noted things after the fact too - when my fridge was serviced in case there was further problems, and also when I met my husband - I wouldn't have remembered the exact date otherwise and I like knowing those sorts of things.
- Due dates of bill payments.
- Exercise planned.

You get the drift. Just like a list, it was satisfying to tick off items actioned. If they weren't I could shift them to the next day if it was appropriate.

When I left this job and started working with my husband in our own small retail business, I stopped using a diary. I relied on a big wall-planner at work and little notes for myself. I thought it seemed pointless copying down appointments we had on our wall-planner into my diary. More than five years later I am wondering why I'm not as organised as I used to be.

So I've decided to go back to what I know works for me. September isn't the best time to buy a diary so I have ruled up some pages in an exercise book to tide me over until the end of the year and get back into the habit of tracking myself with a diary.

Instead of feeling restricted, using a diary so much is actually very freeing. Once it is written down I am released from remembering it and it is there waiting for me when I open the page to that week.

I will be out hunting for a new 2011 diary as soon as they become available. I will get the same style that has always been useful to me - not too big because then I won't slip it into my bag to take home or to work, and not too small as to be useless.

I really think good organisation is a key to being chic. How can you feel serene and in control if you're late paying a bill or you've forgotten your brother's birthday?
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