Friday, December 28, 2007

Top 10 Food Intentions for 2008

10. Cook salsify.

9. Know my French cheeses, from the standards (like a properly ripened Brie and Camembert) to the only-in-France (raw milk please!) to cheeses I could never find in the U.S and return saying, "ahhh, if only I could get that ____ like we had in Paris....."

8. Know my oysters, not just #5s. And my scallops, mussels and other things that scare me just slightly enough to interest me at the fish market.

7. Back to the Basics: without the support of Bittman or Waters, be able to choose the vegetables and cook perfectly because I know waxy from starchy potatoes off the top of my head as well as I know when paratha dough is ready or remember when to braise or roast a turnip in the same way I can tell when the asafetida has been in the pan long enough.

6. Stuffed fish: purchase whole, bone, stuff, bake, eat. (Ask Liam's mom again for the recipe for dorade)

5. Nurse my vinegar mother.

4. Teach myself to enjoy salade at home - homemade vinagraite with my homemade vinegar, washing and drying the greens well, eating all the ones that look gorgeous at the market and buying so little that I wish I had more, not 500 grams and a frown from the older woman helping me and ignorant pride walking me home with so much salad I can't even get rid of it at a 20 person Christmas party.

3. Eat more confiture with my toast.

2. Take advantage of my close proximity to the beautifully colonial Mariage Freres and educate myself on the differences betweens Ceylan, Darjeeling, Assam and the others whose names I don't even know yet.

1. Have lunch at L'Arpege

Bonne Annee!

{Istanbul updates next week}

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best Eats of 2007

No, I didn't have the cajones to take pictures at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon or La Gazzetta, but in reflecting on the best eats of the last year, I am surely waxing poetic about the treats I miss in the Bay, and so I start with Teacakes, the best cupcakes that have existed on this wide earth since the beginning of time. I've inquired about the ingredients in the vanilla/vanilla, even hinted at food allergies to see if they'd give it up, but I guess they're setting the record straight in saying it really is just the best vanilla, butter, milk and the seemingly gargantuan proportions of each that make those pictured to the left one of the few sweets that could take a girl's mind off of Pierre Hermes macarons.

2007 was a good year - lots of Cheese Club and Dinner Club gatherings (What I'll Miss When I Move Abroad still sits in my mind as one of the year's best potlucks with bagels/cream cheese/lox, macaroni and cheese, cheesy grits, spicy corn sautee, and peanut butter cookies with chocolate chunks), and of course Cookbook Club where we conquered everyone from Patricia Wells (I haven't yet had madeleines that are as good as the ones I made from her cookbook with Robuchon) to Penelope Casas (honey-fried tuna is a must) to Madhur Jaffrey.

I could recount in great detail the dinners from Dopo this past year - a highlight being the truffle dinner they had early last year where I think we ate something that also involved lobster and every single appetizer that they've ever laid before me - is it wrong to say "I'll have another?" We had some fabulous meals upstairs at Chez Panisse - one being this raw hamachi and ginger starter that I had that words fail me on since I cannot describe the texture of the hamachi in any way except to say you cannot imagine it unless you have it. Add to that the 'fish and chips' we had there on my birthday last year and those might be some of my best fish meals of the year - except, of course, the brief weekend in New York where I had the most incredible tuna with shiso and blood orange so incredible that I laughed at eating at a place that says straight up, "we do not serve vegetarian items" momofuku noodle bar .

A good nine months was clearly eclipsed by the move abroad, and here my daily bests are from boulangeries, and I have chronicled all that in much detail. Our meal at Hidden Kitchen, was, of course, one of the best of the year for many reasons - good company, great pozole, cider amuse bouche, who could ask for more? With my parents in town at the beginning of the month, we definitely had a string of fantastic starters like roasted beet salad (I'm ignoring the chicken bones tossed inside) at Mon Vieil Ami and then two egg dishes to end all egg dishes: what was called, I think, just l'oeuf at Robuchon (picture: martini glass, cream, egg, all whipped into a fine yumminess, foamy... you know, I have absolutely no memory of what was in it, but it was amazing) and another egg at La Gazzetta, this one poached in a bouillon of what is translated as chocolate bread, and served with buttery bread crumbs and greens. Re-telling on blog? Not so good. Actual taste? Incredible. There were great entrees - my mackerel at La Gazzetta was one of the best I've ever had, and fantastic desserts too - the savory kind that I like: clementines three ways at Mon Vieil Ami (one way with, yes, Pop Rocks atop sorbet - they had me when it first went pop), a cinnamon tart to end the reign of any other tart at Robuchon, mozzarella meringue at Gazzetta, and my mom made the best choices: souffles at two meals, one pistachio, the other vanilla with spiced pears and sorbet au lait.

Tonight we're headed out for our first Moroccan since we've been here, and I just invested a small fortune in brown sugar and molasses to make some New Year's gingerbread, but I do have a craving for all things unavailable right now, including poori at Vik's , camote and frijoles con todo from Tacubaya and even Fenton's caramel sauce. I suppose though, that if we grab a half dozen oysters at La Baron Rouge tomorrow while at the market and drink a glass of muscat with them, I just might start to forget that there could be anything else great to eat in this world. Happy almost new year.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baker's Lament

Perfectionism is not something I'm known for, but I do like to do a pretty good job. More specifically, when I make food, I want people to say it's the best darn _____ they ever had. Not perfection, just high expectations. Last night I had such a struggle that I'm ready to air my dirty pans.

Situation: Christmas Party.

Idea: Make Dorrie Greenspan's World Peace Cookies. Chocolate and salt and sable sounded perfect.

Problems = my World Peace Cookies were, I tempted to trot out the triteness, Armaggedon. Bombings. Nothing full of Noel cheer. They were sandy to the point of straight up sand. Beautifully dark and deceivingly messy cocoa infused sand that left streaks on my white countersinkfloorfridge. I pushed clumps together to save the dough, and my pending reputation at the party. There was a brief period of hope when they spread out on the slices of parchment I had laid out (running low on the goods this week) and looked like those double-chocolate cookies that have white chocolate chunks from CostCo, but when they came out, fat chunks of chocolate sandwiched between (couldn't resist) were no good. Like eating a melted Hershey's Special Dark at the beach in between crumbled up oreos left at the bottom mixed with sand.

And so, I went on a trusted journey from Egrement Elementary School Cookbook (published in Pittsfield, MA, c. 1985) to Lemon Bars. Done (I thought). Extra lemon rind in the curd and the shortbread crust looked toasty and I had made these just a few weeks ago for Dinner Club and so how stunned was I to take them out and find a yellow mush of beautifully colored bar (the yolks here!). Liam tasted one, and challenged to be truthful said, "I think they're mushy." I asked, "if you were at a party would you have a second one even though you might find them mushy?" He couldn't answer in the affirmative, but attempted to defend himself saying he's used to the high quality of my usual bars. I don't these people that well, I added, so I'm not bringing something that's not the best of what I have to offer.

On the way out the door, I tried another WPC, only to find that the skinniest ones, at room temperature, betrayed their true goodness: sandy and toasted cocoa, melting dark chunks, sparks of salt.

There were only four that looked like this on the cookie pan.

We went to the party with a 4-piece chocolate box from a new boulangerie/patisserie across the street, praying they were decent, and walked in to see that someone brought the equivalent of a pound box of fantastic, small chocolatier, seasonally themed chocolates that I promptly ate three of, encouraging the host to hide our piddly box in the corner.

Strangely enough, today in the chill of our December Parisian studio, the shortbread thickened up a bit and the rest of the WPC dough awaits a slighter squishing together for Tuesday - they might just be OK afterall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cheese-Tasting Tour

With all the Cheese Clubs, Cookbook Clubs, patisserie tastings, and buche de noel comparisons, I thought it was time to learn some more about French cheese. Given the generosity of Books for Cooks East Bay, I had a gift certificate to Come to Paris which has a listing of some food-related tours. I will admit, I was Skeptical, unsure of what 'my money' would get me, and I had been many times already to the Marche D'Aligre, but I do want to know more about cheese, so I chose one devoted to cheese tasting, and quickly realized how wrong I was.

Now, I'll spout my compliments on the website so that Claude gets her due, but she was awesome. First of all, the other two people on the tour were her parents, in for town from Ottawa for the holidays, and they were such fun! Then, despite the fact that the owner of the cheese shop wasn't there (he picks up cheese on Wednesdays), and the new person who helped us wasn't as gushing as I take it Jerome usually is, Claude walked us through a reminder of the seven types of cheese and we tasted a few to compare: Comte 15 mos and one much older (maybe 24?), the one that's washed in walnut liqueur from the place that begins with an E (why didn't I take notes?), a nice pressed goat and another cow made in an Abbey, similar to Reblochon. The fromager told us the most popular cheeses sold (Reblochon, Camembert, Comte, Roquefert) and we walked out with a few more stories under our belt {tip: to sound like a connoisseur when ordering cheese in a restaurant, and you see Livarot, ask for le colonel, in reference to the four stripes of leaf on its side}.

We then went on to Le Baron Rouge, a wine bar I had heard much about but never gone to where the wine comes out of barrels straight into an unmarked, be-starred green glass bottle with many bio options. Off to the organic boulangerie for a crusty baguette and back to Claude's fabulous loft to make a three course cheese lunch. I was in I'm-so-glad-I-don't-really-work-and-can-do-this heaven.

We started with a fresh goat cheese mixed with herbs from Claude's balcony and layered with a quick sun-dried tomato mixture that went into the broiler and came out melting. In the meantime, we were prepping the components of blue cheese souffles with red pepper compote - slicing the red peppers, separating the eggs, buttering the ramekins. I will admit publicly - I have on my list of things to accomplish before 2008 (yup, there's a rouge list on the bathroom mirror) to make a souffle - and here I was doing this twice-baked easy recipe. Before we even dug into these melted creations, we sampled some banon (wrapped in chestnut leaves) and a gorgeously triple-cremed saint felicien. (I was partial to the latter, still trying to fight the fact that I prefer less strong cheese, although I fully appreciate both).

To finish, Claude had prepared some coeurs a la creme with raspberry confiture that were so good I had to put my spoon down half-way through to not beat everyone to the cleanest plate. I have always wanted to make these as well - so off I will go this week to buy the porcelain needed to do so.

And yet, I'm saving the best for last - next to our egg cups filled with goat cheese and sun dried tomato paste, we had a beautiful salad dressed in Claude's own vinaigrette, and when I say 'own vinaigrette' I am saying her own vinegar. I knew it was fairly easy to start your own 'mother', but I just had never done it, so how thrilled am I to be staring at my own hefty half jam jar filled with a piece of the thing! Off I'll go this week to find the exact stoneware container one needs to let it breathe and grow, but I was so excited to walk home through the Viaduct des Arts with the mother in my purse! I love her already.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Buche de Noel

When I was younger, Betsey always had a Buche de Noel at Christmas Dinner. I never liked it that much, but what I adored were the meringue mushrooms on top - sealed with dark chocolate and speckled with cocoa, they were by far my favorite. I have tried several times to make them, but I can never get them as crisp and toasty, as sweet and cut with the savory chocolate, the way that she can.

I have noticed in the past week that as the full-size ones come out for Christmas, some of the boulangeries have these buchettes as well. How could I resist? Une buchette praline yesterday at our favorite bakery and breakfast was all it took for me to cut into it. Not only am I a buttercream slut (sorry, but there's just no other word to describe my absolute submission to the stuff), but buche de noel is filled with sponge cake, which, as long as it isn't dry, is always delicious with the heavy frosting. Finally, the log is gilded, dare I say, with the meringue mushroom, and, in yesterday's case, a plastic ax (which Liam quickly fell for). Two fresh eggs scrambled and a hunk of baguette laden with butter later, and I ate my four bites of shared log more quickly than Liam could ask, "what is buttercream made from again?"

The reason I write about this love is not just because I have decided I must sample all buchettes in the 75004, but also because we then went to dinner at a friend's house (one of our French friends, yes, we do have them!) starving last night, still recovering from our little log. We ate a 1/4 pound of olives each, a few cherry tomatoes, and then a first course of salmon toasts, mache wilted salad with mushrooms and bread. They indulged in foie gras for the season and later Bulgarian beef four ways while I happily ate gnocchi and those risotto balls that they fry in Sicily with cheese inside. Our friend was not be outdone by contemporary times, and we had entire French meal which meant four cheeses for dessert (one man warned me "roquefort is very strong!" read: ye american gal): saint marcellin, saint felicien, and brie as well. Finally, after my brain was tired of all-French-all-the-time and several glasses of wine, a collective laugh squeaks out of our full bellies when our host says he has dessert also: a buche de noel!

From Le Notre, our host had picked up the most striking of buches I've seen to date: fire-engine red leaves along its sides, a candied leaf to cradle 6 raspberries, three macaron adorning the top with ornamental thread to hang on your tree if they made it that long and the inside: the lightest sponge cake with raspberries, lemon butter cream, and the fantastically poisonous and luscious red leaves around it. I was actually a little sad that Liam and I split a piece.

And so dear friends, despite the fact that I am mostly a grinch about Christmas and end of year festivities, I will happily sample the buches and buchettes in my neighborhood in the next few weeks and just hope the sun stays out so I can walk it all off into 2008.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Merci (another market anecdote)

When we first got to Paris, I thought, at the very least, that saying bonjour and merci, au revoir! each day, on each and every human interaction, would have me saying them much more like a native than I could ever get with deux betteraves or une bouteille de l'eau. At the very least, I thought, I know how to be polite.

A few weeks without going to the market though, and things can go down hill quickly for me.

Today I walked past a stand I hadn't been to yet - the potatoes, carrots, sandy spinach, heaps of mache and wrinkled butternut squash sent the message that these people most likely were the producers, and that they were producing what was in season (unlike the Bay Area, you will find multiple tropical fruit stands here). Having had some notorious run-ins with middle men who most likely pick up their produce at the Rungis and bring it to sell, I was determined today to buy from producers.

20 minutes I waited in line, learning that the colanders were, in fact, full of mache and that petitmarron are no longer in season, just butternut and this other enormous squash whose name I don't know. There were two kind young women and a kind older man but clearly, the man was in charge and clearly, I thought, the women would be the ones to get (kindness from food purveyors is not necessarily related to gender, but I was hoping for the best here). For 20 minutes, I practiced ordering cent gram epinard and un petite courge de butternut. I practiced acting French (aloof? carnivorous? not worried about raw meat touching vegetables?) when the man in front of me ordered a duck that was pulled out of a cooler, and then a small plastic bag that barely covered the base of the basket was laid in to measure the weight, and then the knife that cuts tops off of leeks seems to also do a fine job with the head of the duck (the woman said some last words to the head before putting it in a plastic bag of garbage). Plastic bag out, duck stuffed in, plastic container ready for turnips or carrots or slices of squash.

I get the man, of course, so when I order 100 grams of spinach he is skeptical and does not allow this, after clarifying how many I am feeding, he laughs, and comes back with closer to a pound. My demi-kilo pomme de terre are next and I hear him ask blanc or rouge so I say blanc, twice, and he's asking me something else and the man next to me says in English, "how are you cooking them?" so I say, "baking" and the woman two away says cuisson, which, as French would have it, also can mean to cook which then extends the questioning to 'cooking how?" (laughing, of course, because who doesn't cook their potatoes) so I say in English, "roast" and the man next to me translates, rotir and I am left with a worried smile and the memory of my recipe for lentils with potatoes and curry where, if I'm remembering correctly, I might even boil the potatoes. Rouge! the man laughs, and goes to weigh me out the red potatoes. He returns to ask what else, I am able to say des oeufs, and he asks how many, and I reply six and he turns to the man to laugh that now I speak French.

[Side note on the eggs: I have written previously about my love for fresh eggs, and since the week where we thought we were getting fresh eggs (they were in a big ol' basket! the basket had hay!) and came home with a 1/2 dozen eggs that had a double-yolk in each one, we have felt a sense of deception from certain dairy stands at the market. That and impending cancer. Thus, I've been scoping out another stand where the eggs actually are fresh. I don't know if you can see in the picture above, but these eggs had hay, not hay for show, but real live hay that just came from the hen's nest (or at least that's what I tell myself).]

No, I didn't bring a container for the eggs - I am asserting this while my translator friend helps me out as well - so as the man fills up the six eggs into a recycled container I am practicing my final order of une petite courge de butternut, which is why I'm surprised when he doesn't understand me. (For the record, I practically have my hand on the dark woven basket full of the squash as I'm saying this). He then gets me, laughs, and says, butternut? At which point I laugh that it's a word en anglais and pull out my change to count out the .63 centimes that I owe in addition to nine euros. (incroyable! he exclaims when I hand exact change, although, there is confusion about the 20.63 that I've handed him and I try to explain I gave him a 20 and he starts handing me back a 20).

And so I walk away, my cheeks bright red from not only the 0C temp but also him asking me in English where I'm from, and I say my obligatory merci and feel confident that the 'r' sound that started out at the tip of my tongue just a few months ago has finally made its way from the sweet tip to the umami back.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ode to Pain Au Chocolat

You pain au chocolat! I remember
when I first saw you behind the aging
teal facade of Au Levain du Marais at
28 Beaumarchais. I was skeptical, I'll admit it.
I had food snobbery all over my face and a
privileged of sigh of oh, I guess you'll do for the movies
as I began a homesick trip of Landmark Cinema
popcorn with real butter and Izzy soda and even
ice cream, but here, a country serious about its movie-
going experience, a place serious about its pastries
as well, I figured you couldn't be too bad. Pain au chocolat,
how you proved me wrong! I left you into my pocket,
hoping that you would not betray this first trip to French cinema.
You startled me during first bite to as I heard your
roar of endless buttery crust and the catch of the
sweet baton inside. I had to wait then for Bowie
to blast on the scene, for vinyl turning underneath the needle
so I could crunch again into your middle, hearing
the acute silence around me, remembering
my Uncle Bob eyeing me at a Broadway show
when I opened a small foil of chocolate after the
show started. After, I waited, licked my fingertips and
fished you out of the folds of my scarf,
letting each piece of dough melt on my tongue,
wanting to lean over and tell Liam, this,
this is the best chocolate croissant I've ever had
waiting for the film to be over, or even,
for the next morning, to go back
for another.

*after Raymond Carver's Soda Crackers

Monday, November 26, 2007

Things I Never Knew Until I Moved to France*

I never knew about a Raclette, which Liam's sister introduced us to last weekend- not just a cheese, but an entire dinner of fun (above)! Underneath that plate that's cooking our endives and tomates and pommes de terre and courgettes there are little slices of cheese just melting away into a gooey delicious mess that YOU choose to drizzle onto your aforementioned cooked veggies (or meat) when they're ready. Fondue for germa-phobes. And delicious.

I never knew that you could get tablets for the washing machine come in small squares even when your machine doesn't call for tablets, or that the water here is so hard that white shirts become gray like in a detergent commercial before-hand and the toilet needs to get scrubbed every week and let's not even talk about what's probably happening to my tea drinking teeth ....

I never knew that patisseries are lined along the walls with confitures and compotes and often chocolates and other sweets as well, or that if you walk outside and decide your croissant is so delectable that you'd like to eat it while you walk that you will be scorned by passersby.

I never really imagined that my small kitchen would welcome small pans, small pots, small bags of lentils and pasta and that you CAN get popcorn here, it's just suggested on the back that you grate emmental or gruyere over it while it's hot.

I also can't really get straight the idea that ordering du the (some tea) = a tea, or that if I say une the (a tea) it doesn't work because really it's un the (masculine, not feminine) and really, I never knew that I would constantly get stuck ordering deux the (two teas) which mostly is the mistake when someone else is around to accept the other glass.

I knew my butter and yogurt sections of my grocery would be huge, but I never knew that it would be difficult to find natural, with acidophilus, large tubs of yogurt rather than tiny, delectable, environmentally dangerous ones.

I never knew how much I absolutely adored caramel de beurre sale whether it's in a jar from the market or in a crepe from a new crepe place that came highly recommended with chantilly on top or in an eclair at Aoki or macaron at Pierre Herme, it's most definitely my new favorite.

*alternately, things I may have known but didn't truly understand until I moved to France

Des Creoles

Part I: Last October, on our first full day in Valbonne (outside of Nice) visiting Liam's family, we walked this gorgeous, forested walk from their house into the village of Valbonne. We went straightaway to the boulangerie, looking for our first real croissant of the trip. We walked in, looked right down into the case and saw this pastry to the left, in a line of 6 - la negresse. I stopped full on in my tracks, pulled Liam close to me, and pointed wildly.

The next day, we returned with a camera. There was only one left.

Liam did the sleuthing, I began a tirade of revolution within the bakery - how I would start to work there, change them from the inside out, take whatever made this pastry so delicious and turn it into something a little less upsetting, like, say, a potato? We waxed poetic in our theories about what was behind this, we quizzed his family for historical context, but mostly, I was horrified.

Part II: We returned to this patisserie this past Saturday to say hello to our friend held at the mercy of the institutional racism of the patisserie. No camera (out to get butter and cream for the pumpkin pie I was about to make). We step in, look down to the right, and were shocked - there she was, no, not la negresse, but her thinly veiled cousin - Black Beauty. Written in English, same old colonial pastry with her chocolate breasts on her knees, but now Black Beauty didn't have the blackface of white icing or the hair, she was just enrobed in ebony chocolate, you know, like a black beauty.

Part III: My French teacher informs the student who describes what I'm wearing that my earrings, which he describes as round and I would have called hoops have a particular name in France: des Creoles ... because of, well, their history (as she explained it)

I am not one to say that America's own history with race is anything but terrifying, but there's something about race in France that is new to me after 30 years in the US. Something that quickly goes from "hmmm, creoles you say?" to a vision of the map of colonial Africa memorized in AP European history. Race in France is like Oakland, yes, where every police car I see has a black face in the back of it, but also where French grandmothers have the sculptured African faces on their shelves and rich folks spend $500 not just on purses, but also on recycled bottle-cap tables that in Marais boutiques. Helping African people make a living or simply just gobbling up a colonial consumerism? And then today, multiple emails from friends asking me if I'm affected by the riots here.

It's enough to make me alternately reminisce for slow days spent writing about post-colonial thought and the African diaspora and yearn for days when I'll be back to doing something about it - 8 years working to close the achievement gap for students of color in this country and now I'm here fuming over pastries and earrings.

In college, I was reprimanded in Japanese class for asking why the character for 'weak' is also in the character for 'woman,' but I have always been a rebel-rouser, even when it comes to pastries.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I am Grateful for ....

I am grateful for BK Algerian pastries that fill up the box quickly and the woman won't even tell you which ones are best, she just says, "they're all good" and they are (especially the dreamy lemon one you can see with the silvered sugar balls on top and the gooey ones that you think will be too honey-ish and never are). I am grateful for buttery crisp pan au chocolat from the Au Levain du Marais (28 Beaumarchais location). I am completely grateful for Thanksgiving Day 2007 which leaves 6 macarons in front of me from Pierre Herme: truffe blance & noisette, huile d'olive & vanille, rose, plentitude (chocolat and caramel), infinitement vanille, and caramel a la fleur de sel.

I am thankful that I can walk across the Seine with the evening sun setting, albeit at 5pm, and reflecting into buildings and Notre Dame. I am thankful that I can speak enough French to secure 6 macarons or a Tazo Chai at Starbucks or even a new set of plates for our first dinner party at the vaissellerie. I am thankful to continue on to level A2.2 at Alliance Francaise, and for hearing stories of a woman from Columbia who met her husband online and rendezvous-ed in Cuba and another who never knew her father until he got the internet and found her in 1999, when the first thing he searched for was her.

I am grateful for the stories of people new to me, for having the time for a long cup of lao-zhu green tea or Harmutty black in the morning and the leisure to write for an hour after that. I am grateful that the New Yorker delivers to Paris and that Ploughshares does too. Even more so, I am grateful to the American Library in Paris for having a bevy of cookbooks familiar and new to me (despite the 125 euros I had to shell out to join and deposit).

For the years I spent living in a country where transit and postal workers don't strike, I am grateful. For my dear pen pal Emily who keeps writing me despite the fact I am not receiving mail, I am grateful. For packages coming from California with tea and yarn and more tea, I am grateful in advance.

I am thankful for new friends who have Thanksgiving dinners that include making construction paper turkeys and other new friends who will extend Thanksgiving to December. I am thankful to have the time to soak beans overnight and leave Persian rice to develop the tadiq with only two of us to fight over the coriander-specked golden pieces. I am thankful to have friends in Sicily and Guatemala who do online writing groups with me, for pen-palships of postcards and Skype calls from Brazil, and good old emails that go on endlessly about pastries and bureaucracy. I'm grateful too to be writing this while listening to new songs on an old guitar and sweet lyrics about love and loss and proper dreams from the handsomest man I know behind me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Home(sick)cooked Biscuits

I miss buttermilk and Cabot cheddar, big tins of baking powder and confectioner's sugar at any market. I miss chipotles canned in adobo and monterey jack and queso fresco and asadera and tortilla chips dipped in canned refried black beans. I miss tubs of Strauss Family Farm Organic Whole Milk yogurt, cheap steel-cut oats, and organic maple syrup from VT that is shipped to us in CA through our CSA, which reminds me that I also miss Full Belly Farm, bunches of deep dark greens, and several squashes lined up on my windowsill.

I miss putting books on hold at the Piedmont Library, black and tans at Fenton's, and every time we talk about eating out I moan for Dopo. I miss singing in my car, bringing gen-mai cha to work in a stainless steel cup and running into Jennifer on the street.

I don't miss driving, or paying for my car, or shelling out cash for gas. I don't miss waking up to an alarm. I don't miss a cell phone that I'm constantly checking for messages that aren't always there.

But I do miss friends calling to say hello or inviting me to dinner or being able to call friends who know all the great things about me so it's ok for me to be sad in front of them too. I also miss warm Novembers, cleaner air, and tea houses where pu-erh can cost $5 and it seems expensive and there aren't waves of smoke over my journal or book. I miss writing group with Sara and Cara, Cheese Club with Jasmine, Sara, Mat and Jennifer, and Book Club with many of my favorite Oakland ladies. I miss, nearly every night when I'm cooking dinner, Cookbook Club - between that and my CSA box I was never at a loss for what to cook. I miss lunches with Amy or Martha, walks with Rebecca, and having Jennifer live next door. I miss spicy soy Chai at Gaylord's, patatas bravas at Cesar, and have I mentioned that I miss the pasta at Dopo?

I miss my bed, counter space, a deep stainless steel sink, and a shower where I don't have to hold it above me to wash my hair. I miss having a closet and my Danskos and having more than one sweatshirt. I even miss the bags of clothes I hadn't worn in a year and gave away, and then I miss the more generous attitude I had in September.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Polenta Persistence

I have never stirred polenta for 45 minutes straight. The closest I got was when Liam and I stayed in Mar Vista and I had nothing else to do, but for some reason (maybe the temperature that's down to -3 C today) I decided to heed Madhur's advice and just stirstirstir. With The Gathering (Booker Prize winner and first Paris Book Club pick) in one hand, and an olive wood wok stirrer in the other, I set forth to stir for 45 minutes straight and yes, it was worth it. I returned after knitting group to Liam saying, 'that polenta was magical' - not usually can someone else who doesn't cook, like someone else who doesn't knit, appreciate the time and effort put forth!

And so, another victory for Jessica and Madhur (and Marcella, with the lick-off-the-spoon Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion on top), as I plod through another day trying to figure out what one does when one is not doing anything. Crazy, I know, but there is something about the safety and routine of a job that makes you desire the freedom and whimsy of not working, until you're not working and you're back yearning for the structure of a job again. Or, until you want to do things like get a library card at the American library or go to a show and you can't because of 'le greve' and it's so cold outside that walking doesn't sound so enticing after a long day of, well, walking.

Why did I think I needed to go to a gym here?

I do think I need to move on to cooking other things - it might be a trio of dinners to cook for (American food for French friends, faux Thanksgiving, faux Thanksgiving in Nice) or just me and Madhur, but my moral highground of cooking beans each day or polenta stirred for 45 minutes or even those quick French lentils is starting to get a little old - like I'm making do with what I have when really what I have is Paris and who here eats lentils, polenta and Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings? I do want to help Liam who's feeling a little confused about his job - they won't give him access to the machines until he's been there for 3 mos, but without access to machines it's hard to demonstrate that he has what it takes to get access while someone who is a 3 month contractor gets access right away, and after he put Microsoft Office on his computer his boss said, 'so soon?' .... and so the French way goes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

les fromagettes part deux

This blog started when Sara, Jasmine and I first started Les Fromagettes, our first Cheese Club. Little did I know last winter that I would be writing now from Paris, going from Berkeley's Cheeseboard to Trotte Fromagerie on Rue du Saint-Antoine. And little did I know I would find two more ladies as interested in learning about cheese as I am here - I mean really, it's hard to sample all the great cheeses of France by yourself. And so, we met here in my tiny room to sample the cheeses of Ile-de-France (Johanna's fantastic idea - that we spiral out from the region which we find ourselves in), enjoy some wine, and talk brie vs. coloummier vs. well, mostly Brie. Kate's Brillant-Savarin was the clear winner - creamy (triple creme?) and buttery and almost like cream cheese, but the kind you'd make a cheese cake out of. Or just continue to slather on bread the next day.

I brought at Fougerus that was ok - I'm realizing that ammonia-y turns me off and while I think Mr. Jenkins would say it means it's a little too old/wrapped incorrectly, Johanna also couldn't taste what I was tasting, so maybe I'm just blessed/cursed with some kind of smell factor that others don't have? I also asked for 'explorateur' to which the fromager said he didn't know what that was, but that there's a good family of cheeses (of producers or of type of cheese, my poor French cannot distinguish) similar - so I went home with a neuf chatel (am I even spelling that correctly?) which was almost cheddar-y in its yellow sheen and taste, but ultimately a bit strong for me (nothing like the fake cream cheese by the same name in the US). Johanna brought us bries that she was disappointed by from Au Bon Marche (her reliable fromagerie was closed), and we decided yes it was the store that sent us these bland sticks of brie. (Alas, they left me with the cheese and they did taste great last night on top of roasted apple, fennel and sweet potato right at the end, covering everything in its stanky brie goodness)

Next month we move on to Loire Valley - this city is wonderful for a great many things, but making cheeses isn't exactly one of them.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Pumpkin Cookies

Pumpkins are for Cinderella, not for eating Liam's French grandmother replied last fall when he held out a plate of roasted petit marron for her to taste. I had gone to my first French market in Provence and fell deeply, madly in love with the orange-until-it-bursts color of this squash and had roasted it simply for dinner. Well, for American dinner.

I have always loved pumpkins and fall and sweets that come with both. In 1997, I found this recipe - and that fall, the Pumpkinwiches were born.

I have changed them a bit over the years - in the picture you can see two of the new version with an old school 'wich in the background - but not as much as I have changed them in Paris. It pains me slightly, since in a world of new things new people new friends I want everything as good as it is as home, for people to say, 'ah ha! you are the woman who brought the pumpkin cookies!' to a potluck or Thanksgiving party. But here, without Libby's packed pumpkin or her organic cousin, I figured, it can't be that hard, I'll just get the ol' Cinderella fave.

Twice now, I've tried. This last time with more success thanks to a new friend's suggestion to roast with lemon rind, honey and cinnamon (I added some ginger too), and a bit more judiciousness with the 'puree-ing.' I have warring Bittman voices in my head: "good chefs only need 10 appliances/tools" and "you'll never regret having a food mill" as I mash up roasted squash with a fork in my one bowl. They are getting there, a bit more tasty, although the pepitas I found here are from China and I worry will choke someone with their Bay leaf edges. The fresh squash gives them a 'health food' flavor that I'm not that into, but perhaps brings them back to their roots from Veggie Life magazine.

In a few weeks, we're off to Nice to make Liam's family a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Well, a 'traditional' one. I thought about making these and an apple pie, and also some vibrant sides (we vegetarians go into our own carb coma after T-day sometimes) of ginger flecked green beans and lime flavored yams and beets braised in pomegranate and orange. We even had a can of cranberry sauce (I know, but there just aren't cranberries around these parts) in our belongings from Sicily, but that too was confiscated, so I'll see what I can do with dried, which they do have here.

Yesterday, I was about to bring them to my French class when I had this sudden fear of rejection, of my multi-national class frowning or refusing or even grimacing with an unfamiliar groan when the orange cookies passed by on a plate I don't even have - like I should just come in with Starbucks and shrug and say je suis tres americaine. And then I felt terrible, sending Liam to work on his first week with all sorts of non-French foods like black bean chili and cheese biscuits and lentils with rice and onions and imagined him in his cafeteria today happily peeling back the plastic wrap on his gooey trio l'orange only to have his French colleagues snickering that the new guy not only has trouble with his French but his wife makes him some bizarre food as well.

And so, while I fancy myself an immigrant mother in a Jhumpa Lahiri story, I will stand by the cookies this week trying to make them a bit more like home. And for now, for those of you who've been asking for it again, here is the recipe:

1 Cup sugar
1 Cup canned pumpkin (or, see above)
1 lg egg
2 T vegetable oil
2 Cups unbleached white flour
1 t. ginger
1/2 t each: nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, powder, soda
1/3 Cup pumpkin seed kernels (pepitas), toasted

Filling aka Frosting
1 1/2 Cups powdered sugar (or more)
2 T canned pumpkin (or, see above)
2 T soft butter
1 t vanilla

1. preheat oven to 350 and lightly grease a baking sheet. Combine pumpkin and sugar, then stir in egg and oil, mix well.
2. in another bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Add to pumpkin mixture and blend thoroughly. Stir in pumpkin seeds.
3. Drop dough by small scoops or rounded t. onto sheet, about 2" apart. With a dampened finger, swirl each mound into a wider flatter disk (necessary if doing sandwich cookies, not as much if you're going to frost the top). Bake 8 min. until edges begin to brown. Put on a rack to cool.
4. While cookies cool, combine powdered sugar, pumpkin, butter and vanilla. Whip to spreadable consistency. Sandwich cookies together or frost tops.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Le Poste regarding La Poste (and Sicily to boot. Pun intended)

I get nervous going to La Poste. It's not just the requisite long line or bureaucracy, it's the anticipation of the moment that language will fail me and I will be rendered mute. And so, with my heart beating yesterday I went to pick up the package I received two notices for while we were in Sicily.
'Ayiyi' he groans as he confirms my identity on my passport, 'americaine!'

I try to smile and think of things to say like, yes, I am American and I live here, hahaha laughing together, yes?

And then, before I can do more than the weakest smile of the non-French...

"bouche!" he exhales as he gets up to retrieve my package.

Bouche? What's the matter with my mouth? I start worrying. Americans have big mouths? I have bad breath? But why didn't he use an article - what I'm always getting chided for in class? La bouche? And wouldn't he say, "La bouche d'americaine?" and then as I hear his footsteps returning it hits me, he said "Bush!!!!"

This then sets off stage two of panic - does he think I like Bush? Will he sabotage my package because it came from Bushland? All I can think to say is Je n'aime pas Bush (I don't like Bush) but this sounds like a shrill delayed response. And so, we vaguely understand each other that I need to return to get it later and I leave laughing.

Unsolicited political commentary, sarcasm, language barriers, we had none of these things in Sicily over the weekend. We spent our time eating a traditional Sicilian breakfast: granita (above) with brioche, a traditional Sicilian dinner: eggplant pizza with the creamiest eggplant ever to sit on top of wood fired crust, and a traditional agritourismo: a buffet of vegetables, more pizza, and tiramisu to the tunes of Sting and Clapton. Here we had these onions that were the best onions I've ever tasted - little pearl onions caramelized and vinegarized and sweet succulent little treats (I suggested Rebekah pick up a Marcella book to cook when in Rome style and found a recipe that I hope is the same so I can replicate those lovelies!)
We also made a trip to the market where a jumble of English/Italian/French/Spanish still got us what we needed - and cheap! One euro could get you four heads of fennel or four bunches of spinach or add.50 and get two heads of cauliflower or over 1 kg of clementines.

We left Sicily wishing for more warm weather, the chance to see Mt. Etna erupt, more time with Rebekah and Mike, more trips to the navy base grocery store for Grape Nuts and organic deodorant, another granita, another canoli, a few more gnocchi for ma bouche.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Real Secret at the Hidden Kitchen

Somewhere between the apple fritter and spiced cider amuse and the absolutely sensuous mackerel, striped on my plate with grapes and charred leeks, I got the feeling - yes, we were enjoying an incredible lunch at the much raved-about Hidden Kitchen, but almost more importantly - we were going to make some new friends.

After the cleanser and before I sank my California-longing teeth into a smoked tomato posole, the words were mentioned. By the time nearly a bottle of wine per person had been consumed and we were about to wolf down the crunchiest, caramel-iest, cranberry sauce on top bread pudding that I've ever had, several future plans had tentatively been made.

And thus, the dance of dating Liam and I have engaged in for the past few weeks continued. It's kind of like when you're online dating and you find someone that doesn't suck and you think, I could definitely show them my favorite Thai place and introduce them to that fried catfish and basil curry and fish cakes that kind of bend in your teeth and then you remember ... you're not really dating (and you're no longer in Berkeley). But this is what it's like - except that often the people are cooler than your average nice person dating - they're already interesting and leading rich full lives, and can commiserate about why the bank only lets you deposit between 9-12 or how people really throw those dividers down in between your stuff at the grocery store and what is this exhalation sound that's made - is it like exhaustion? frustration? just like a 'um'? and suddenly you are panting to put it out there, casually as to not be rejected, but passionately enough to show you're interested, "we should really get each other's info."

And then several hours after we ate the "nostalgia in a box" - petit fours of s'more and pb+j - known in the silver box as rice krispie treat, chocolate truffle, pb cookie and that fruit gelee candy that i love but never remember the proper French for - and there is a battle of Moleskine books and partners exchanging pens and correcting names and saying, yes, let's hang out soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Colonel Comfort Nut

Liam and I have had a tough week. We've gathered our past successes and placed them in a tea cup and then tried to brew them again and again to remind ourselves we will make our new lives here, wondering what will become of our music and writing careers, respectively. It's a lot of pressure we've put on this dear city.

Then tonight, we're at a show of Alela Diana, whom I first saw at Mama Buzz when Liam was doing his Ace of Spades recording series. This was no room of gentrification at formica tables, this was a venue (well, still a tad bit of gentrification) huge and smoky, Liam and I in front with 4 videographers plus 4 photographers in front of us snapping pictures of the gal while their elbows go straight to our faces. Then there's Liam, with the intro from Alela, giving his demo to the guy that works for the label who heard his myspace and liked it and regardless where this leads, I think - this is good. After a week of questions and doubts swelling and receding, it's nice to get some concrete validation. Paris is big. Indie music world is small. We're glad we moved to Paris and not the Cote d'Azure where Liam couldn't find music. We're glad to have done the work we did in Oakland. Now I say we but really it's for Liam, and really, my 10 rejection letters, 8 with notes, are sitting in my brain brewing some confidence in my own mind again.

I have two of the letters on the fridge to remind me that someone read my poems, someone that didn't have to like them, and each morning when I have my tea, I remind myself. Above you can see my new tea shelf, replete with leftover Throat Coat and Ginger tea that came in the suitcase alongside a misty green from Teance and our favorite, Korean barley corn tea. Yesterday, I went to both Mariage Freres and Les Palais des Thes where I indulged first in Indian teas (a crisp clean Assam recommended by new friends and a chai that I was yearning for) and then Chinese (a light, non-astringent green and a lovely basement-y, comfort me with your must pu-erh). I have writerly visions of upping my caffeine intake with the black teas and sipping away each November morning when Liam starts his new job and I sit back to relax and do some writing.

This week though, our favorite has been Korean barley, which I lovingly re-named "colonel comfort nut" (kernel comfort nut) when Liam asked for tea and as it brewed he said, 'what's that Oakland smell?" and thus, our comfort nut tea was reborn.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Haricorts what?

"Does this look like the fucking face of somebody who eats vegetables?"

This was not the right stand at the Marche Bastille. I understood this place to be a chic marche, one that everyone who's anyone shops at, and even though I saw 1 euro shoe stands and trial size bottles of Dove reminiscent of the Ashby Flea Market, I had faith, I had lucques olives and incredibly fresh apple cider, I believed this was like the Bay, but better, because this, of course, is Paris.

This ain't the Bay though, and my navigation of Paris markets is not as up to speed as I had imagined either. Now, I have been doing my research - I usually go to the stands with gorgeous produce that is fresh, local (from France) and in season, and I seek out the bio (organic) stands as well. I spy and observe and look for the longest lines and people battling to order and I go there - and this involves breezing past the stands that are empty of customers, where the vendor has cigarette ash spilling onto his framboises, where there could possibly be enough time to be mocked.

So here I am, nearly out of the bustling Sunday market tired of my foot being run over by elderly ladies' carts and baby carriages, thinking to myself, "any beet at this market must be pretty good, so of course I can stop at this nearly empty of customers stand on the way out and get two beets."

Liam and I approach the stand. For the second time this week when asking for deux betterave (two beets), I receive one beet (perhaps I am asking for doux betterave, or sweet/soft beet, or even du betterave, 'some beets'). As the man puts my one pre-roasted beet (see previous post for picture) into my brown sac, I implore Liam to ask in French how to cook haricorts coco (pictured above) which I can't figure out but have 500 grams of in the fridge. So after the man mocks by betterave pronunciation ("it was in a nice way," Liam insists later), he points to his: mug, face, mouth (all possible translations of the French he used) and asks his rhetorical question.

And ends, "well, like haricort verts."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Habits Like Beets

There's a particular song about habits that has been running through my mind these days.

As I walked the four miles to my French class Thursday (metro strike)- first crossing the Seine, then past Notre Dame, and finally through the Latin Quarter and Luxembourg Gardens, I thought - this is a habit I can get used to. Earlier in the morning at the boulangerie (after shrugging my shoulders when an Italian woman turned to me for help to tell the boulanger she wanted two of each macaron and I secretly imagined that everyone took me for a hip young French woman who cannot understand the needs of Italian women but obviously still has a true heart of gold and is just commiserating in her own Frenchness with the boulanger...), I walked home with a pan au chocolat so crispy and buttery with about 27 layers on top and melting chocolate inside and thought - I can get used to this habit for sure.

After class, I stopped at Au Bon Marche to buy baking powder to whip up our favorite biscuits with pepitas -- trolling through tea aisles and peppercorn counters, thinking about the moment in French class where suddenly I could understand 90% of what my instructor was saying.. I almost started to feel at home.

Later that night, there was even molten chocolate at this tiny chocolate shop recommended by new friends and a quick walk back across the Seine to our new home so lovely that I've considered proposing Thursday night Hot Chocolate Night (like Thursday Night Out on North Street that I had with my dad growing up, except that chocolat chaud might beat out root beer lollipops at England Brother's every time).

But it's the beets that got me thinking. I love beets. In Oakland, I bought beets nearly every week, tucking them into foil pouches and leaving them be in the oven for an hour while reading or cleaning or emailing. In Paris though, these beets defy my expectations, they change my habits - they come pre-roasted.

Now, I don't miss knives lying around looking all bloody from testing for doneness, and for the time being, I can exist without greens to saute with golden raisins and brown butter over pasta, but there's something about the fact that I didn't 'cook' them, that I didn't bring them from bitter dirt root to pure sweetness on the table, that I can just put some butter, maple syrup (Canadian) and lime juice in a skillet and make them into glazed beauties on our dinner plates, something that feels a little bit like cheating, like I dropped an old habit that was good for me because a new one was just so darn easy.

And yet, I should not complain about the ease of pre-roasted beets when we've just gotten a bank account after one bank wouldn't let us open an account together and then magically, another does. Or groan about how long my carte de sejour takes when it was approved (Conversation in front of us as I'm waiting to get approved when one woman comes to another for advice "I would let him in" our woman says "I don't think we should" replies another, "Well, if it were me I'd let him in" says our woman).

Then again, I am the girl with a New England soul walking to French class in an orange dress and brown boots and short hair that got lots of compliments in the Bay while the French women swirl around me in charcoal and black with their long hair hanging past their whimsically tied wool scarves. Who am I to question the arbitrary nature of how things are done in my French experience? Maybe I should simply be grateful that we just have an account here now, count the moments crossing the Seine at dusk or the first bite of maple glazed beets as wins. While the ease might not wipe out the old habits, it doesn't hurt to appreciate some new ones as well - maybe the lesson is that in France, you don't always need to work hard to get something worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Adzuki Beans on Brioche: My Favorite French Breakfast

There is something about Japanese pastries that I truly adore - the earthy savor of matcha, the gritty sweetness of adzuki paste wrapped inside smooth glutinous mochi, even the salty sour tang of ume. And it is here in Paris, not just in a visit to Tokyo or LA, that I had all of these tastes in one trip to the patisserie.

I'm not sure where I first read about Aoki pastries, and I can't add much that hasn't already been said here. but I do want to gush for all of those wondering what it's like to see such gorgeous patisseries every day in the shapes of tartes and profiteroles that it is also incredibly delicious to have the French classic mille feuille with matcha, with a cup of toasty hoji-cha (yamamotoyama gen-mai-cha for 1.49/box at Berkeley Bowl, how I miss thee) in a patisserie so modern that it's difficult to tell if you can get in and out the door until you walk close enough to almost smell the intrigue of black sesame eclair. (It was also the perfect place to celebrate good news - Liam has signed a contract for a job!)

Not long after Liam and I crammed the mille feuille, matcha eclair, and two macarons (ume and black sesame) down our parched throats, I walked the perimeter of the tiny shop several times to find something to take home. I considered the box of 16 macaron, but was a bit afraid I'd eat them all in one sitting. Then I found a small shelf with confitures and compotes. I have to say, when you see gorgeous confitures everywhere, it's difficult to tell what's good and what's great, and as amazing as the pastries were, who's to say this guy makes a mean jam? Then I laid eyes on a dream I never knew existed: adzuki bean and milk compote. In broken French and lots of ego (where I pretend I understand more than I do), I asked the woman what she thought of it - I wanted to know something like 'all Japanese crave this and buy it out each week' or something like that. No luck there, but I brought it home and have been consuming it each day on my toast. Ingredients: beans, milk, sugar, vanilla.

Whether it's on day-old baguette from boulangerie around the corner or brioche from our new favorite a few blocks away, this magic mixture turns my breakfast into a bit of Japanese earth on a Parisian balcony, or rather, combines the adzuki grit with the traditional French tradition, nope, really, just on top of warm toast spread first with sea-salt-flaked-butter, it's just the best breakfast I've had thus far. Arigatoo-gozaimasu Aoki-san!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My type

Sometimes you have to just admit you have a type.

Monday was my first day of French class at the Alliance Francaise . Two of us are new to the on-going class. Students open their books to correct the previous week's adjective homework. Examples include: "Japanese are small and intelligent. Swedes are blonde and athletic. Americans are laid-back." After each sentence is corrected for gender and plural, the teacher asks this class of Chinese, Bulgarian, Swiss, Iranian, Israeli, American, Russian: do you agree? (5 minutes in I was asked if I agreed with the American one. I said no, or rather, I shook my hand in a motion that sent a message of 'maybe yes, maybe no.' Actually speaking in my French class is not really something happening yet).
The next part of the lesson involved writing down traits of your gender that you'd like to portray to the opposite sex (soooo French). One woman asked, 'what about homosexuals?" which prompted a reply that I barely understood but seemed to mean: being attractive to 'le sexe oppose' does not have to do with sex, just your gender. If only I had feminist vocabulary a la Francais.

My type? Well, in this world of moving abroad just a few weeks ago and promptly moving into a 25 square meter apartment and near-daily visits to the market, it's embarrassing to admit, but my type is certainly readily available. Primary ingredients? Pasteurized milk and cream, 1.5% pepper, and potassium preservative. Yes my friends, I'll admit it: my type is Boursin.

I have a long history of embracing trashy cheese during times of stress. It may have started when my treat as a child at the public pool in the summer was a well-earned (as in begging my parents repeatedly) snack of these orange cheez-it like crackers (they were round) with squeeze cheese on top. This treat was so lacking nutrients, I believe my sister and I had to eat it as a dessert.

On a bit of a higher plane, was my other childhood favorite: Wispride Port Wine Cheddar. This spreadable beauty of fiery hues was always good on Stoneground Wheat Crackers.

And then, there was my quite unhealthy obsession with Kraft Parmesan - throughout college I would toss it onto 'hot air popped' popcorn (with this contraption to make 'hot air' popped popcorn in my microwave) and lick every last crumble of the stuff out of my bowl.

And so, my dirty history with my type. Today or tomorrow we will be on our way to the fromager to find a soft sheep's milk like the brebirousse that Jasmine brought to our last meeting of cheese club or a chevre that is beautifully chalky and creamy in that dry way in the middle - and yes, you will find Boursin on our kitchen table as well - maybe hidden in the nook of an endive or in a bowl to dip the gorgeous French radis in, or maybe just slathered on yesterday's baguette as my lunch for French class. Let the stereotypes begin.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

muscat comfort

I used to be addicted to muscat gummy candy. I would head to my favorite Echo Park grocery, A1 Grocery, each week in LA my first year teaching and pick up the same things: taro cake to fry in flour and oil for lettuce wraps, rice paper wrappers and mint and basil and rice noodles to make fresh spring rolls, and for my treat, muscat gummies. If I hadn't blocked out portions of that time, I would be able to state more accurately, but I believe I ate this every night for an entire semester. I made chili-garlic sauce and peanut sauce and created myself a plate each night. I have no idea when exactly I became enamored with the transparent color and alluring aroma of muscat gummies to close the meal, but they are easy to tuck into pockets and tote bags when you're off to teach each morning.

No, I haven't located muscat gummies yet, nor have I even ventured into the Vietnamese restaurants of Paris, but we did buy some fantastic muscat grapes at the market. I don't know if it's just me, and perhaps my Bay Area friends can help out, but why did I never eat muscat grapes in Oakland? Can you even get them there? California is the grape capital of the US, yes? When we were visiting Liam's sister in the south of France this weekend, she had a bowl of them on the counter, as she usually does, and I forgot how addicted I became to them when we visited last year. I promise that once you start eating them, you may never return to regular grapes (and I don't even like grapes unless I've juiced them with green apples and strawberries).

We ate the bunch in two sittings, seeds crunching and all. I'm ready to get more at tomorrow's market - and they're not even bio (organic), although I hope to locate those soon as well. There is surely a comfort in the sweetness of muscat that transcends week two in Paris of navigating French bureaucracy.* Now, if I could only find some good green tea.

*Bureaucracy update II: joint bank account. We cannot get a joint bank account until I have an official plastic-stamped carte de sejour, even though I have a temporary one. I cannot get a carte de sejour without showing our joint account savings. Liam needs an account to get paid from his forthcoming French job, but he cannot open an account until he gets paid. The dollar is falling (1.44 euro = $1) so we want our money changed over before it falls more. My appointment to get my official carte de sejour is not until December 20.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

sooo french

There was a woman at the French Consulate in San Francisco that Liam and I began to call 'So French.' She was hot, helpful, and once wore a pink off-the-shoulder sweater with the words 'so french' across the front (we assume it's a brand, but ourselves are not French-enough yet to know). She would smile sweetly at Liam, beckoning monsieur Carey over to say hello. She would ask us our wedding plans. She would tell me that my application would be denied if I showed this and accepted if I showed that. She was kind about speaking English and she smiled. I miss 'So French.'

I knew the process to get a carte de sejour (residency card) would be annoying. As a former Los Angeles USD teacher, I thought 'I've had my fair share of wasted institutional days' and yet, nothing prepared me, not even Liam's sister's stories of the same nature, for our two hour wait at the police station yesterday just to find out I did not have the right paperwork to apply. *
With my birth certificate copy en route from my mom (why do you need to see a birth certificate when I have a passport showing US birth? "We need to see your parents' names" can it be a copy? "a copy that is stamped by a translator is acceptable" are you sure we really need this? "not necessarily, but sometimes."), and our new landlord, a sympathetic ex-pat, writing us up a lease, we went to a covered market to find something for dinner.** Looking for something so good, so French, we passed a fruit stand with fraise des bois.

I have never had these european sweeties, so although they looked as though they had spent time navigating the residency card with us, we purchased them anyway (to the tone of 4.80 E = $6). I popped one in my mouth at home and found the texture to be weird and taste so sweet and fragrant it was as though someone made a fruit based on a candy. I decided to put them in a bowl with some Activia (Liam's favorite french yogurt that is really plain Danon and promises to make your insides regular if you eat it for 15 days. I think it recently made it's US debut? It was named 'Bio' in a previous French life.) and found some sugar/vanilla grinder that the owner has and sprinkled that on top - Voila!- it was a fantastic dessert with the fragrance captured in the creamy yogurt and the crunchy sweetness on top. Dare I conclude - a sweet ending to a long day, and soooo French.

*"So French" told me to just bring the same paperwork I showed in the US to France. Unfortunately, in France, they want none of the same paperwork and asked for others I didn't have.
**We are now stringing a cord across the tiny kitchen to use the kitchen unit with the burners. In fantastic news - we move into an apartment in the Marais in another week that has a full kitchen and stove (and tub) - unfortunately, at the expense of a bed, but more on our sofa-bed future soon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

market daze

Bienvenue a Paris! Fresh out of the freeze of Iceland, I was thrilled to find myself at the tiniest of organic markets in Monparnasse on Saturday morning - armed with an Oaklandish tote bag and a desire for a fresh salad after days of eating travel food, I bought the first few things I saw for a salad - cucumber, pear-shaped tomotoes, long brilliant strings of haricort verts and of course, pre-roasted beets. Boring as it may look, it was the kind of market salad that can sustain a gal after eating several portions of fried fish in Massachusetts and Rhode Island (come on, I had to eat my last clam roll!)

My eyes lit up most today though when we visited the market closest to our short-term rental, referred to (in its covered version - it has open and covered each day) as 'remaining a colourful Arab and North Arican enclave closet to the Bastille' (Marche Beauvau). It was incredible in the sense of it being more crowded than Berkeley Bowl on a Saturday morning with the sellers hawking their vegetable wares. The best buy was an enormous celery root (pictured below) - as big as a canteloupe. I was in a constant negotiation - can I touch? Can I not touch? Does Liam need to order in French for me or can I handle, "une corgette, framboises et radis s'il vous plait" At which point, the seller spoke to me in English.

I am cooking on a two-burner stove top that sits on an 'oven.' This evening it conveniently cut the electricity in the entire apartment as I cooked both pasta and boiled the celery root at the same time. Thank god Liam had made friends with the upstairs neighbor and helped him put wires into a long tube to run from his kitchen to the basement (don't ask, don't tell) so that when the electricity went, we were able to borrow a flashlight and attempt to find the fuse box, which proceeded to keep blowing because the cooking unit was still plugged in. We have determined now that it is unsafe to run both burners at the same time. The apartment we're staying in is a fantastic apartment in all respects, except, I guess, the kitchen part. I am hoping to go on more culinary adventures this week - tried a saffron macaron today (tried a chevre but it fell to the ground before I could put my greedy mouth on it) and hope to do more in the coming days. I also hope to be less jet-lagged and back to my regular, funnier, happier self when we've been here more than two days, but wanted to share the market highlights from today.

Friday, September 21, 2007

icelandish food

When my sister writes to me about picking berries or apples or peaches in an orchard each weekend in upstate New York, I get a bit jealous. Living in the Bay Area, I have few complaints, but I do miss the New England/upstate NY orchard scene. How glad was I then, to receive the cutest jar of purple raspberry jam in my bridesmaid's favor bag for her wedding this past week.

Liam and I had disagreed about bringing back apple jelly from his family at Christmas (we just had carry-ons), but now that we were travelling 2 bags a piece, I was all about putting the jam in my check-on. Little did I know, this purple raspberry jam from Hurd Orchards would save us in Reykjavik.
We arrived in Iceland freezing and exhausted and stunned at every corner at the prices, despite the fact we'd researched and budgeted as such. To spare the day-to-day details of prices and whining and impulsive-decision-making, I will say that it was the bread we bought at a local bakery with the organic Icelandic peanut butter (above with jam) and gift from my sister that made our forays into the intense and icy and volcanic world of Iceland that much more warm. We slathered both on the pre-sliced bread with a knife we borrowed from our hostel, I mean hotel (bright and clean and nice staff and our room is pictured on the website), and found ourselves savoring both jam and pb -not in an ex-pat 'i cannot find peanut butter anywhere' way (it was our 2nd day out of the US), but in a completely yummy way.

Iceland is intense and amazing and with the food so expensive, this was a good choice. We saw curry for $30 a plate, an upscale restaurant serving a bagel with cheese for $15, and teas were never less than $5/each. Our best meal was 'cheap' vegetarian food at $25/person for a plate with falafel, green salad, rice, and tomato sauce - good place - a Naestu Grosum (reviews linked). Most of the food on our plate was quite good.
In an infuriating sidenote - we were turned down at Einer Bar. When the waiter said, in front of an absolutely empty living room, 'we are fully booked' and I replied, 'fully booked?' he affirmed and walked away. We then found ourselves back at a Naestu Grosum. Alas, we were thrilled to be en route to Paris (they did have fantastic tea in the Reykjavik airport though ... I do have to end on that note).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

World Vegetarian Feast

I have been obsessed with Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian for years. I had it on my shelf for a long, long time and then when I first started to get my CSA box, and had more tomatoes one August day than I knew what to do with, I made Tomato Choka w/ Roti. Another time, when I had too much okra and I went to Deborah Madison who recommended that I just skip it since it's too slimy, I went to MJ and found a handful of fantastic recipes. This cemented my faith in MJ so that when my cookbook club decided to do World Vegetarian for my last meeting before moving, I couldn't resist.

I held 2 feasts to warm-up before the cookbook club meeting: a Persian feast (thank you Zand's for the key ingredients like dried persian lime) and a mediterranean inspired mezze meal.

For the Persian Feast there was rice with dried lime, yogurt with walnuts and eggplant, lavash (Zand's), and black eyed peas. Additionally, Berkeley Bowl and I fell back in love when I arrived to find a) fresh black eyed peas and b) sour cherries (which resulted in sour cherry chutney - Afghani, but 'very tasty and very easy' according to MJ). The yogurt dip was the hit by far, and while the pilaf fell (it was supposed to come out like a layer cake), and tasted pretty darn good, I'm not quite sure that the 'black gold' of the dried limes came through the way I wanted it to. We ended the meal with Zand's baklava - Persian and the regular.

For mezze: another batch of yogurt, the amazing yogurt with feta and green peppercorns,
leftover rice, whole chick pea hummus, and more. We needed more lavash.
I don't know if I'll miss Cookbook Club, the Bay Area, or cooking for my Oakland friends more, but I'm definitely feeling the sadness of leaving them. Y'all should know though, MJ made it into the suitcase to Paris though ......

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Monday, April 23, 2007

I (heart) Eggs

When Jennifer and Mat suggested we take off to Mar Vista last November when I was tired from teaching, starting to get ill, and wanting and Thanksgiving Break get-away, I had no idea what we were getting into. Having grown up in the Berkshires, the idea of coastal mountains on the coast was intriguing, as well as getting rid of the phone and computer for the weekend. We packed our bags, prepared to cook for two days, and prayed for one thing more than kale in the garden.

We arrived there with Liam green from driving up the 1 and me singing 'Don't Go Back to Rockville' on repeat 8 times to dissuade my own brain from motion sickness. When the proprieter offered us fresh eggs, I don't know how else to describe it except to say, it was a turning point. I'm a sucker for a hip, simple pallette and natural aesthetic - and these eggs were with me 100%. To begin to describe the colors would be an injustice to the hens. Blue, gray, beige, tan, cream, ivory. Liam fried them up in a cast iron pan and we toasted some oatmeal whole wheat bread I obsessed over last fall. I fell in love immediately (yes, with Liam, but more so, with the eggs). The eggs had the brilliant orange hue of free range, mist-fed hens. Their taste, was so incredibly 'egg-y' but in a way that would reform the most serious anti-egg-head.

I retell this anecdote to say how thrilled I was to hear from Jasmine, messenger of all things fantastic about food in the East Bay, that Riverdog Farms was selling a dozen farm fresh eggs for $6 at the Saturday Berkeley Farmer's Market. Obsessed as I am, I was running into the market at 10:10 (Jasmine said they sell out!) saying, 'I heard a rumor you have eggs,' at which point the guy pointed to the front. Enthusiasm un-matched, I shelled out my $6, picked up some new peas and golden beets, swung by La Farine for some rustic baguettes (which we missed), and came home for Liam to fry these up in our own cast iron pan. See the beauties above, and help me not hoard them so long their freshness withers as I determine ice cream? Meringue? Batter for Marcella's cauliflower with parmigiano-reggiano batter? It's hard to figure out how to showcase these babies best.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

ice cream wars

Jasmine wanted to make salted caramel ice cream, and I had this Recchuiti cookbook from my sister, so I decided on burnt caramel. A week later, for a dinner club theme that I created - gussied up comfort food - and in response to pleasing Liam (he didn't ask, but I thought it was perfect), I also made cinnamon toast ice cream (picture to the left).
There was something about both of these ice creams that made others adore them, and oddly enough, left them in my freezer for a week (this doesn't happen with meyer lemon ice cream). The burnt caramel, as forewarned by Recchiutti himself, was incredibly soft. Jasmine and I decided the texture was nice, but even after a full freeze and days in the freezer, the stuff stayed soft as cream almost. The cinnamon toast ice cream, which inspired oohs and ahhs at the dinner club table, was almost more work for me than I wanted. The flavor is simply incredible, that's for sure, with a deep toasty essence (due to the toasting of bread crumbs, soaking them in the 2x boiled cinnamon milk and then pressing them out to contribute to the base) and truly crunchy toasts throughout. The reviews said it took 2 hours, and it did, and it might be because I was on the phone for the first hour and had to go back to instructions multiple times because they were unfamiliar to me, but I wasn't sure I'd make it again.
Either way, I am almost comforted by my blase response to Rebecca saying, 'you should open up a restaurant' ... perhaps ice cream parlor is not my way to go, but once I conquer olive oil gelato I'm ready to be the fill in pastry chef at a restaurant ... and you think I'm kidding ....

Monday, February 19, 2007

cheese biscuits

I think Jasmine and I became friends because of these cheese biscuits. In fact, I ate them so much last fall, I do believe they were reasons for my ability to perservere through a difficult teaching assignments as well as my digestive downfall. I arrived at the doctor's office last winter and she asked if I ate many bread products and in my mind flashed the biscuits, 3-4 at a time, days a time. I admit this publicly only because they are that delicious, that soft on the inside and crumbly on the outside, streaks of cheddar running through them and fresh out of the oven, with a pat of butter melting lusciously on the inside, there's not much else you can ask for.

Essentially, I've been using this recipe
- it's in the Gourmet cookbook, but I think I was using a similar one, but different, previously. Fickle about onion family as I am, I always leave out the scallions. This week, because I had Montgomery's Cheddar left over from The Dairy Queens, I used this. It made the biscuits so earthy and complex, each bite barely needed the pat of butter.

My excuse last week was that we were having Black Bean Chili (also from Gourmet, published from San Francisco's Greens Restaurant) and they would go well with it. Meanwhile, all week I was scooping out my chili with tortilla chips and savoring 3 biscuits for breakfast. I'm so obsessive about them, they might as well be labeled 'mine' in the freezer where I put them to stay fresh until I pull them out, barely days later, to re-heat while I shower and get ready for work.

Make these, I dare you, and your memories of Bisquick drop biscuits will disappear and every time you have cheddar in the fridge, you will find the 30 min to make them. I swear.