Small Pleasures, Pretend Restaurants, and a Good Recipe by J. Arlene Culiner

Our view overlooking Paris

            I am in Meudon, just overlooking Paris at the moment, although I normally live in a small village in the west of France, 285 kilometers away. I was supposed to play in a concert in Paris in mid-March, but it was cancelled at the last moment, and confinement measures started that same afternoon. We have now been locked in for four weeks, are only allowed outside for an hour a day, and we must show a paper stating the time and the reason for being out — either to walk dogs, or to shop for essentials. True, we did at first miss going to our local café (with the very odd name of, The Spider on the Ceiling,) but we’ve gotten quite used to this unusual situation.

And… I have to admit that life is very pleasant. There are few trains passing (we have two lines not far from the house); there are no planes overhead because the nearby international airport is closed; and there are almost no cars. The air is cleaner than it has been for many years, there are more birds around, and everything is lovely, green, and in bloom — just look at these cherry trees on our main street!

We are right beside the house once belonging to the sculptor August Rodin, and just outside the surrounding gate, is a lovely bit of waste ground where the dogs can run and sniffle around. Yes, we do cross other dog walkers, and we often stop to chat, for people are friendlier these days. One or two have had the virus, or still do have it, but in a very benign form, and they wear masks to protect the rest of us.

            Without cafés, concerts, rehearsals, and pressing appointments, I have more time to write, and I’m getting an incredible amount of work done. And, because we can no longer go to restaurants, our meals have become more elaborate. There are several excellent organic stores in this area, so we get the best fruit and vegetables, and I invent whatever I can think of. At dinnertime, we light candles, drink wine, and pretend to be in an elegant eatery. Yes, our food is simple, but it’s also healthy and very tasty. Here’s what I’m making tonight:

Absolutely Delicious Meatless Vegetarian Pie

I am a very haphazard and chaotic cook, using what’s on hand, changing things here and there. Therefore, the quantity of the ingredients is entirely flexible and some can be eliminated if you don’t have them on hand.

This pie is a real crowd pleaser. It is healthy, low in calories, and meat is replaced by either seitan or tempeh: both are available in any organic grocery. Seitan is the best alternative. When cooked, it has the same texture and taste as meat, so even carnivores won’t complain. However, since seitan is made from wheat protein, it isn’t good for people who are gluten sensitive. Tempeh, a fermented soy product, is an alternative. It’s easy to digest, although it is less meat-like than seitan.

However, if you have neither seitan or tempeh, you can still make this dish but NEVER EVER use substitutes for the other ingredients


Here in Europe, good cooks always use fresh products and olive oil. I use unpeeled carrots, and unpeeled potatoes because they have more flavor and food value, however, I make sure they come from a home garden where no chemicals have been used, or have been bought in an organic grocery. Otherwise, they must be peeled.

If really necessary, you can eliminate the fresh garlic, or the ginger, or the soya sauce, but you definitely cannot use canned or frozen mushrooms, dried garlic, or dried onions. Cooking sprays should ALWAYS be avoided because of their chemical additives and lack of flavor. Just take a look at what they’re made of and ask yourself if you really want to put those things into your body.

Recipe for three or four people

1 package of seitan or tempeh cubed (optional)

1 unbaked piecrust (homemade or store bought)

3 unpeeled carrots sliced into rounds

6 average size unpeeled potatoes cut into medium-sized cubes

10 to 12 very large fresh mushrooms and any other mushrooms you happen to have around, cut into slices but never peeled. If you aren’t using seitan or tempeh, add more mushrooms

1-1/2 big cups of dry red wine

1 or 2 big cups of vegetable stock

1 chopped very large onion

4 chopped cloves of garlic

1tsp of shredded ginger

Herbs (rosemary, thyme, bay leaves)

Black pepper

1 teaspoon of soya sauce or tempura

1 tablespoon of olive oil


Marinate the cubed seitan or tempeh for half an hour, an hour, or even more (the longer, the better) in a sauce made with 2 crushed cloves of garlic, the ginger, the black pepper, 2 tablespoons of red wine, and the soy sauce. This step is optional if you are pressed for time.

In a pot on the stove, fry the onion in the olive oil. When the onion starts turning a golden color, add the chopped mushrooms. Stir, let everything cook for a few minutes.

When the mushrooms have softened, add the carrots, potatoes, all the wine, the stock, the garlic, and the herbs. Cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring from time to time to make sure nothing sticks, and that there is always enough liquid to just cover everything else. As soon as the potatoes are soft, add the cubed seitan or tempeh with its marinade. Cook for another three or four minutes making sure there is still sufficient liquid, then put everything into a pie dish and cover it over with the uncooked pie crust. Cut a few slits into the crust, put the dish into the oven for half an hour and bake in a nice hot oven until the crust is golden brown. Serve and enjoy!

In my romances, many of my heroes or heroines are vegetarian. In, A Swan’s Sweet Song, playwright Carston Hewlett wants to impress country singer, Sherry Valentine with his cooking skills. Here’s an excerpt:

He stood. “Change of subject. Are you hungry? You must be after all that traveling. How about if I make dinner?”

            “You know how to cook?”

            He almost looked offended. “Of course I do.”

            “Don’t get huffy. It’s just fairly rare, you know. Men cooking.”

            “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” he scoffed. “How many top chefs are men? You think women have a special gene telling them, instinctively, how to put food together?”

            “Of course not. Sorry,” she said contritely. “You haven’t forgotten I’m a vegetarian, have you?”

            “And you figure I don’t know the slightest thing about vegetarian cooking.”

            She shrugged. “I suppose that was just about what I was thinking, yes.”

            “Well, I’m about to show you how wrong you are.” He marched in the direction of the kitchen and Sherry tagged along behind him. Perching herself on a high stool, she watched him pull out deep purple eggplant, fresh fragrant basil, tarragon, coriander and fat yellow lemons.

“Do I have the right to ask what’s on the menu?”

He nodded with satisfaction. “I don’t mind bragging. The starter is this eggplant, cooked in herbs, and sprinkled with basil. After that, we’ll go on to lentils and fresh spinach simmered in coconut milk with coriander, cumin, and sage. How does that sound?”

            “Incredible. Where did you learn to do stuff like that? Where did you learn about vegetarian cooking?”

            “In books, on the Internet. Then I just started to invent on my own recipes.”

            “Oh,” she said, her eyes still following his every move. A little suspicion had begun growing inside her head. “Since when?”

            The question had come so abruptly, he didn’t have time for adroit hedging. “Well… for a while now.” He concentrated on slicing the eggplant into small, perfect cubes, and avoided her eyes again.

“I see,” she said slowly. “Since coming back from Midville, by any chance?”

            “Around then, I suppose.”

            “Uh huh. And how long have you known I’d be coming here for dinner?”

            “For a few months now.” He tried, quite unsuccessfully, not to look smug.

            “I see. And how could you know I’d accept to be in your play?”

            He put his knife down on the cutting board. Met her eyes evenly. “I didn’t know anything, okay? Let’s just say I hoped you would.”

She was stunned. Did he realize how much this confession of his revealed? Did he know how deeply involved he was? As deeply as she was, evidently. But would he admit it? Was there a chance that Carston Hewlett, loner, long-time bachelor, might be taking her seriously? She wondered.


The air sizzles when a country music star and renowned playwright meet, but can opposites fall in love?

The instant Sherry and Carston meet, there’s desire and fascination in the air…but they’re complete opposites. Smart-talking Sherry Valentine has fought her way up from poverty to stardom as a country music singer. Now, ever in the limelight, ever surrounded by clamoring fans, male admirers, and paparazzi, her spangled cowboy boots carry her from one brightly lit stage to the next. But Sherry’s been on the star circuit for far too long now, and she wants a change: is it too late for her to begin an acting career?

A renowned, but reclusive playwright, Carston Hewlett cherishes his freedom, the silence of the deep woods surrounding his home, and his solitary country walks. Long-term commitments have been out of the question for many years, so why is he so fascinated by a flashy country music singer? Perhaps a very short, but passionate, fling will resolve the problem.

When their names are linked in the scandal press, and Sherry’s plans to become an actress are revealed, Carston is furious. Is their budding relationship doomed?

Meet J. Arlene

Writer, photographer, social critical artist, musician, and occasional actress, J. Arlene Culiner, was born in New York and raised in Toronto. She has crossed much of Europe on foot, has lived in a Hungarian mud house, a Bavarian castle, a Turkish cave-dwelling, on a Dutch canal, and in a haunted house on the English moors. She now resides in a 400-year-old former inn in a French village of no interest and, much to local dismay, protects all creatures, especially spiders and snakes. She particularly enjoys incorporating into short stories, mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and romances, her experiences in out-of-the-way communities, and her conversations with strange characters.

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