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.