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