Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cookbooks Abroad

I paid to join the American Library in Paris this past fall, 60 euros with a 65 euro deposit, for 6 months because I wanted access to cookbooks. I miss my cookbook club. I love Madhur but needed more. My parents hadn't arrived from the US yet with Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Yesterday, I picked up Joyce Goldstein's Taverna to join my cookbook club from afar, and for the second time, I saw that my cookbook was donated by Patrcia Wells. I then started down a curious path of neurosis - did Patricia Wells just donate all of her old cookbooks or did she hand pick these? The thing is, the Batali one that I picked up that was donated by her as well felt like at B-cookbook. No offense to these authors, but why are these the only cookbooks they have in the ALP and why are they all donated by Mdme Wells?

And why am I, owner of just two cookbooks here, complaining?

I'm not. Just wondering if she's going to clear her shelves off again before I leave Paris?

Friday, January 25, 2008

For some reason, they always give me hot peppers for free.

Empowered by the opportunity to choose my own onions
at a prior stand, I walked over and pinched a haricorts vert to see if it was fresh. When the vendor turned around and saw me, I quickly pulled my hand back. He laughed and encouraged me to touch, in fact, picked up a bean and held it out to me to squeeze. Before this story sounds too dirty, here's the rest, in French, translated here for your reading pleasure:
"You can touch!"
"It's good. It's OK. 500 grams please."
"500 grams. Of course."
"3 Tomatoes?"
"3 tomatoes? Sure - you can go choose them yourself over there."
I return with 3 tomatoes and 3 slim, lime green hot peppers to roast for Turkish dinner I'm making tomorrow night.
"you have your tomatoes! and these peppers? They are spicy! "
"It's good"
""Ah, for you? They are a gift!""
(and in English) "Do you speak English?"
(Eng) "yes"
(Eng) " of course you do!"
"Thank you"
"It's good. Thank you."
(Eng) "thank you!"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

C'est pas grave

That's how it is with the Army too - the European army? We talk first. The American army - just - pow!

It was at this point in the conversation where I began to wonder exactly if this man was a doctor. I was at the place that you go to when you need to have your lungs x-rayed to get your carte de sejour, the place you go to when you have everything: 275 euros in small fiscal stamps that you lick and adhere to a xeroxed paper, a US passport, Version II of a paper carte de sejour, and now, soon, x-ray of my lungs the size of an artist's canvas.

As I'm floundering for words that I don't know in French: breast, breast lump, lumpectomy, self-exam, needle aspiration, benign, two things are happening simultaneously - the doctor is getting incredibly animated and I'm slowly sinking into my seat remembering too late that another friend said to just answer straight up yes/no to these questions.

This doctor, or so I hoped, then began his theories for me.

The French? They would never take out a breast lump of an 18 year old. The Americans? Ready to cut and charge money.

The French? They would go in through ... (small circular motion here, over, you know ... my American prudishness is taking over but if you, dear reader, were in front of me, this would be a very entertaining part of the re-telling). The Americans? They leave a scar!

The French? Ready to talk on a battlefield. The Americans? Pow.

His ability to create a metaphor for each country's approach to war based on my story of a breast lumpectomy was slightly amazing.

I leave this lecturer ready to pick up my laminated carte de sejour, the item that will let me know I'm legit, only to stand there, talking to a guy 10 years younger than me wearing a soccer jersey that looks like he accidentally bleached over his heart while cleaning his socks. Only to listen to this guy tell me, in four more French sentences than I can understand, c'est pas grave ... and then something about the fabrication. It's not ready. Come back in two weeks. Or three. Well, just two. C'est pas grave (=not a big deal)

So here I am, thinking, c'est TRES grave! and hoping that next week they let me in and out of the US when I fly to NY and then leave to find at the fromager this teeny tiny chevre covered in rose and I thought, c'est pas grave, I'm here. I'm eating cheese. It will be fabricated. Until it is, it's a darn good story in person. I swear.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Comfort Food: another installment

Do my friends in the US think I walk around all day bopping from Louvre to Eiffel Tower to a hidden chocolatier and thus think I don't have time to talk/read email/receive postcards? Do our new friends here think it's weird that they said 8:30pm and we rolled in at 900 in what I originally intended an attempt to be cool but soon resulted in a late arrival? Will the sun ever rise in Paris before 11am? Is it always gray in Paris 93% of the day? Did the guy at the market take me in for another beating or did he really think that the browned, mushy, mealy, squishy apples were for eating?

I listened to This American Life's "Americans in Paris" show for the first time since I've been here, and couldn't help but relate (= cry, I'll admit it) at the part where Ira Glass is amazed that David Sedaris' day is determined by going places where he feels more or less humiliated.

Saying c'est moi at H&M when you've had to leave some items with the attendant, pointing at an envelope at the stationary store and stumbling through an ummm... oui oui when really you want to say oh, I just need an envelope for the big card, thanks, not the post cards, asking vous-acceptez les cheques de restaurant? at the Pompidou Cafe and then having the guy answer in English, all of this adds up to empathy Ira, empathy - maybe you should move here for a few months?

And so, when the neuroses take up more space in your brain than the part that's curious about the books of Paris or Courbet's history or Germany: The Dark Years, and you find yourself talking back to NPR hosts, it's time for some comfort food. Lately, as I sit in my apartment worrying more than a junior high student on the first day of school, doing my part time job and scheduling an afternoon of events that doesn't have me ping-ponging between feeling shitty and shittier, I bake myself up an egg.

Fresh, French farm egg. Covered in 'bloom.' Creme underneath, egg on top, parmigiano-reggiano to top it off, baked for 12 minutes (thank you, dear Bittman). Butter up some fresh baguette and scoop it up and remember this is probably the kind of thing your friends back home are jealous of to begin with.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

DIY Spice Mixtures

I've been reading about bloggers make tea infusions and listening to cookbook authors chat about their quick chutneys so I found myself coming home from Velan weighed down with everything from amchoor to cinnamon to sumac and wondering what to do with it all and how I could be expanding the choices of my small-fridge French life.

Both of the cookbooks on my shelf offered lots of ideas. The amchoor in particular I picked up after reading Bittman rave about it one chaat masala addition after another. So that's what I made first (pictured far left) - a mixture that he assures me will do its duty on everything from paneer to pita to rice. Then, as I added to my list of spices to pick up when I'm in NY next month, I thought it best to make something from a different part of the world and whipped up a batch of heavy-on-the-chipotle chili powder. Both Bittman and Jaffrey extol the complexities of Za'atar, the Turkish mix of sumac, sesame and thyme that I think was on each of the puffed breads we had in Istanbul, so when I fill up my sesame stash, I will make this too.

I am limited here without my trusty spice grinder or mortar/pestle, but I do have the item you can see on the far right - a Turkish spice grinder. I admired one when we were at the Spice Market but left the idea alone since I felt so overwhelmed. Then, with 13 Turkish Lira burning holes in our pockets, we went to the Grand Bazaar of Ataturk Istanbul Airport and lo and behold, for 13 YTL, a gleaming spice grinder.

I didn't have hopes for an airport purchase, and I didn't quite understand how it exactly worked (I was waiting for the whole coriander for the chaat masala to come out of the bottom like a pepper grinder, but this device only has one place to put it in and take it out), but it seems to be holding up just fine - not in a fine grinding sort of way, but in a great look-what-I-bought-on-vacation-that's-useful-way.

Now I just need to make some paneer, or pita, or just bake up a potato and transform it, this is the promise Bittman has made to us (vegetarians). I'll report.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Galette des Rois

I have been the king, nay, queen, three times in just as many days.

How can you not love a cake that is traditionally buttery, filled with frangipaine, and hiding the feve (literally bean, here, a charm that's in the cake), and comes with a paper crown classier than any BK biddy dare wear?

And for three days, I have gotten the feve, meaning, I get to parade around in the crown and fell a general sense of superiority.

I'm going to start a feve collection. Tres francais a friend says. Even though the Epiphany, the 12th Night has come and gone, I can eat this galette through the end of the month. Wish me almonds, and tell me to write down all my goals for 2008 while the future looks so golden.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Istanbul Food Tour: Snacks

Settling back into life in Paris, cakes to celebrate the Epiphany and the first day of winter sales in France all around, and I am still thinking about the snacks in Turkey.*

My Top 5 Turkish Snacks

5. Salep: If atole dropped the corn, procreated with cream of wheat, dabbled in a bit of horchata, and blended itself into silky latte smoothness, it would be salep. Named after the orchid root used to flavor it (the name is because it resembles fox testicles, check here if you want to know more), it's hot milk sweetened and mixed with this root powder and covered in cinnamon. If you're crossing the Gallatta Bridge and it's near-freezing out and wet, wet snow is covering your nearly impractical hat, it's the perfect thing to slurp on as you walk up the hill to Istikal Caddesi.

4. Simit: Like a bagel ring, but softer, and covered in sesame seeds that are toasty and yummy even if you hate sesame bagels. Sweetened with grape syrup. Sold in carts and on heads (why didn't I take a picture?) I like mine for breakfast with salty goat cheese and some halvah. And cay. (Thanks to Janet for sending me this picture!)

3. Cay: I have a certain reverence for tea-based cultures, and a certain disdain for those that aren't. While my ancestors quickly dumped the goods in the harbor, Turkish people have been drinking this stuff for centuries. I don't usually take sugar in my tea, but I did here. The cups can seduce you immediately and the stuff is so ubiquitous that you could leave Turkey a tea-drinker even if you didn't care for it upon arrival.

2. Lokum: Who didn't wonder about Turkish Delight after reading about it in the Narnia books? Who didn't immediately despise it after tasting it once, wrapped in aluminum, on the 1/8 of a shelf of British imports at their gourmet grocery? Who wouldn't then fall head-over-pistachios-in-love-with-it at Istanbul's spice bazaar?

1. Halvah: I have never liked halvah, even after reading a fascinating story once in the NY Times about eating it for Passover and there being, I don't know, I want to say one producer in all of NYC, or maybe even the US, but come on - halvah has never kept anyone from yearning for a chocolate bar.

Then I had the halvah at our breakfast buffet.

Like all things in this world, one goes to a country of origin and realizes "hey, there is more than one type of halvah!" The one pictured below to the right is probably at fault for the weight I gained in Istanbul - it crunched like a Butterfinger, called out to the smoky sesame-memory of all halvah that came before it, and ended with a blissfully light crunch of sweet and pistachio. The chocolate one didn't do it for me (on the left), but the other one? 8 pieces at Sunday's breakfast, and an actual sinking of disappointment the day before when there was none left. I might have to make a Parisian quest for it.

*It's a law here that they can only have sales twice a year when the government says - it's to make sure that small businesses don't get pushed out of business but mostly it looks like last year's stuff on racks and people bustling about like the Friday after Thanksgiving in the U.S. Since I still don't have my luggage, I bought myself another pair of boots today since 2/4 pairs of pants and my only boots are sitting in a luggage pile somewhere between here and Ataturk International Airport.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Istanbul Food Tour: Asitane

My piddly pipe dreams were realized at Asitane lunch: was it the request to borrow a pen (it was Liam who asked!)? The pictures of each course I tried to sneak? The way we ordered what were certainly the best dishes to order ...? I don't know what it was, and don't start to tell me it was for everyone - a girl can dream - but when the waiter brought me a comment card AND a little gift of orange jam, I thought yes indeed he thinks I'm a real food writer! Liam encouraged me to sign the comment card la fromagette, but I chose to play it coy and write, with as much professionalism as I could feign, "I look forward to sharing the details of our great meal with others."

I had thought that Ciya would be our best meal, but when we entered into this Ottoman restaurant with recipes over 500 years old (described in Lonely Planet as "Ottoman dishes devised for the 16th-century royal circumcision feast"), I knew this was going to be the best yet. I committed to ordering only dishes with an asterisk, indicating actual historical recipes (I don't know where the others came from, but they weren't Kool-Aid, so who knows). First off, a white bean spread with cinnamon slathered onto sesasme-spiced-warm-dinner rolls, sublimely creamy, light, fragrant and sweet. Accompanying this, I ordered root spinach with olive oil that was cooked to falling apart, slightly vinegared, some soft carrots in there and finished with olive oil. Liam ordered a warm Circassian cheese with mushrooms that tasted like smoked Gouda with the texture of feta and was too strong for me.

We both went old-school with our mains - Liam's lamb diced, melted in earthenware with dates, figs and apricots ("sweet main course OK?" the waiter confirmed after Liam went to this after his first choice wasn't available). I had Restiyye "homemade vermicelli with cheese, parsley and walnuts." Mine won - although together it was like a Sultan's variation on Swedish meatballs with egg noodles - like a pared-down kugel, sweet, light home-made egg noodles with cheese with the salt of feta and umami of Parmesan on top, with, of course, parsley and walnuts (and some chili - how we've missed thee!).

Although we were too full to finish our mains, I could not pass up Ottoman dessert. I asked the waiter to recommend between Quince Delight ("quince in syrup") and "pumpkin and fig delight with clotted cream" and he suggested the latter. Like our dessert plate from Ciya, they both seemed preserved in syrup (oh the research to do) - the pumpkin much softer ("more pumpkin-y" remarked Liam) than last night's and the fig ... like a Fig Newton (damn us Americans with our lack of any other fig reference) of the sweetest softest case, the texture going to liquid gold when you might expect grit, topped off with pure butter cream - another dessert to pass up an eclair for (see picture below)

NB: Due to my desire to return home with the orange jam, we checked the baggage. As it stands, I have yet to see the baggage due to a snowstorm in the Czech Republic, a variety of long lines, and general slowness at Air France. I'm not sure now that it was worth it. I'll report.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Istanbul Food Tour: Ciya

The New York Times warned us to bring a Turkish friend since there's no English menu, so we memorized a few names and double-checked that the Ciya at number 43 was the correct address.

Lots got lost in translation.

Is it better to re-tell how we saw it? To quote? Or, rather, to imagine what the staff there was thinking when we forged our ways in the uncharted silver urns of Anatolian cuisine?

All of the above.

"Self-service" they informed us several times, so up we went to the dishes of warm starters. We eyed a greens dish, one with browned onions, the other with red pepper. Pointed at both. Both? he questioned with a quizzical eye turned toward us and another toward the server. Waiter pointed, seemed to confirm both, said something about pilaf and after we agreed to yogurt sauce, I grabbed the dishes. Eyes raise, again. This time to the woman across the way. Grabbing the damn dishes, carrying themselves... she seemed to sigh. Frowns all around. Back to our seats.

Two plates of dark greens and all we can do is moan that this is like Chez Panisse in Istanbul visiting an ancient cousin. Onions caramelized to sweetness and browned for depth, greens "cooked to perfection" (is there a better way to describe when greens are cooked well?) The yogurt sauce the first I've tasted this good since the days of Zia's Cafe in San Diego (known prior to 9/11 as Zia's Afghan Cafe).

As I'm pondering the benefits of well-cooked greens, Liam is braving the self-service cold salads. Suddenly, an English-speaking staff member appears. Dolmas, meatballs, some dips on his plate when he returns (plate delivered by staff). I'm not sure if I can explain this in English without the name of the dish or lacking the knowledge of Paula Wolfert, but one was an eggplant so snowy white and smoky that it shimmered like the snow atop the minarets. The other I can only say was nut, kind of spicy, and so good you didn't want to ruin it with bread. Dolmas were thin cigarettes of rice and sweet, not chewy like the ones I usually have - in this country they have displays of "vine leaves" with the variety of a fromagerie.

"Do you have dessert?" Liam asks our original server, who nods, and then proceeds to the back of the restaurant to repeat to the English-speaking staff the word "dessert." We are guided to the street-facing window where trays of iridescent fruits await us - except they are not all fruits and I'm not even sure how these sweets are made (I have a list of research days long about Turkish food that is not easily done with a few Google hits on 'Turkish sweets'). "pumpkin" he says pointing at huge orange hunks that look jellied, "tomato" at another, drier, mauve slab. "No olive," I say, pointing at the large black forms in front of me. "Walnut" sighs the woman behind me, and so, I pointed to one of most (pictured below).

How quickly I am smitten. It doesn't take much to lure me with pumpkin, but this was slivered and shivered in your mouth with a crackle of sweetness. The walnut was by far our favorite, black like it came from an olive can and sliced at the top as though it hid pimentos, but when you cut into it it had the star shape of walnut skin and layers of meat inside with the faint taste of wine or sherry and slathered in a butter cream that erased all of my neurotic, self-conscious memories of nods meaning no and questions equaling statements and a general throwing-up-of-hands of understood self-service dining norms on both ends.

While we ate, surrounded by write-ups in Food and Wine, Saveur, New York Times (these are just the ones in English that I recognized), I wondered how others fared here, and curiously, why this wasn't in any guidebook. It was despairingly hard to find - a "quick boat-ride to Asia" sounds romantic and easy enough, but we walked around for nearly an hour with no map and a simple wish, asking a taxi driver, simit vendor, and tchochke kiosk before we got directions to led us to the market street that led us there. These desserts though, almost enough to make a gal forget buche de noel and macarons.