Cold nights and warm soup

Henri returns from Europe a new man, with a new recipe

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

As his more sensitive readers are no doubt well aware, Henri had become rather depressed last fall. He had grown indiscreet in his drinking—actually finding himself enjoying a way-too-young Merlot (Merlot!) one morning—and, several late evenings, imagining terrible things happening to the well-meaning Dr. Epinards.

But Henri is better now, thanks not only to a recent trip abroad, but to the countless letters of support and encouragement he was greeted with upon his return. “We need you,” wrote one reader, who signed himself, simply, “Maurice.” Henri is touched, indeed. Merci beaucoups, Maurice. Henri needs you, too.

And this week Henri is feeling even better about himself as he has, for the first time in decades, kept a New Year’s resolution. And not just any resolution: Henri has joined a health club. Shocking? Naturellement. But after three years I’m beginning to think that Dr. Epinards’ exhortations that I lose “a good 40 pounds” might actually be of some merit—although I must continually remind the good doctor that Henri is, through no fault of his own, simply large framed.

And the trip abroad? Pure therapy. From Munich over to Paris and down to Madrid and Barcelona, all cities in which Henri has spent considerable time—wandering ancient back streets and pondering their mysterious medieval histories. In Spain, I gazed out the window of my sleeper and imagined the great knight Don Quixote and his steadfast companion and squire, Sancho Panza, battling the forces of evil across the great rolling plains.

The last night in Barcelona, I had dinner—just before midnight, as is the custom there—in a small restaurant on a narrow cobblestone side street just a few blocks from the harbor. Outside, it was cold and dark and wet, but I was warmed soon after I stepped inside—by the heat from the fire and the smell of the paella cooking over it, by the warm fresh bread delivered to my table, and by a tall glass of Rioja. My dinner was divine. Simple, delicious, inexpensive, the highlight a fabulous Catalan cabbage soup, the recipe for which the chef was delighted to share with me.

I arrived back in Chico mid-afternoon exhausted from the long flight. I gave Miss Marilyn—who had been well taken care of by her sitter—the chocolate bar I had bought for her in Paris and then fell asleep on the couch just as evening shadows began to creep across Chico. That night I dreamed I was in a sequel to A Knight’s Tale, and that Heath Ledger and I were valiant horsemen, jousting partners, venerated throughout medieval Europe.

Coles Catalana (Catalan Cabbage Soup)
1/2 lb. lean beef, cubed
2 chorizo sausages
1 ham hock
1 bay leaf
3 or 4 garlic cloves peeled and crushed
2-4 cups chicken stock
1 large white cabbage, cored and coarsely chopped
1 can white beans (Great Northern or Cannellini)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium size onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1/4 lb. bacon, chopped

In a large soup pot, cover with water the beef, chorizo meat, ham hock, bay leaf and crushed garlic. Bring to a quick boil and skim off foam. Lower heat and cook until meat is fork tender—about one hour. (If necessary, skim foam again.) Add the cabbage, beans, potatoes and enough chicken stock to bring to desired consistency. In a skillet, sauté the onion and green pepper with the cubed bacon until bacon is crisp and the onion is soft. Add to soup, removing any excess grease. Cook until potatoes and cabbage are done—about 45 minutes. Remove the bone from the ham hock and shred the meat. Serve with warm French bread and red wine from Spain, ideally Torres Sangre de Toro.

Note: You can use spicy pork sausage—or any sausage—instead of the chorizos, and garbanzos instead of white beans.

Thankfully, the membership director at my new gym was gracious enough to let me pay over the phone with a credit card. Unfortunately, I completely forgot to ascertain a few sundry details, such as the gym’s whereabouts. I plan to call again in the near future to discern its location.