Monday, April 28, 2008

Report from the Cupboard

It has been a crazy few weeks with a few more of craziness to follow. In London there was the jam (pictured to the right), which has yet to be opened, and the dulce de leche that found itself swirled into last week's brownies. There was a lot of candy from London: brown sugar fudge, Cadbury cream eggs, Cadbury mini-eggs, and some Turkish delight.

San Sebastian brought pimenton in everything: a confiture for cheese, a nougat with a spicy center, powdered in small tin cans taken for tchochkes, wrapped in plastic for the mole that never gets made.

Israel resulted in za'atar with too much citric acid and a chai tea in bags (there were some whole wheat honey pretzels, but they're long gone now).

This weekend we went to the Loire Valley for the first time with my parents and came back with wines and beer and remnants of sheep's cheese from a chateaux picnic and tilleul honey and walnut mustard for vinaigrettes.

Is there even room to bring things back from New York?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sesame (in its many forms)

Favorite sesame snacks in Israel include:

Sesame loop of bread with fluorescent za'atar for dipping all wrapped up in recycled newsprint. 5 NIS (about $2. Tourist price?)

Sesame roll with thicker dough, somewhere in between a kaiser and a bagel, slightly sweet like a simit.

Sesame-laden pita then covered in very tart za'atar and even when dropped on the souk floor it still tastes ok because the 5-second rule is legit. 2 NIS.

Halva halva halva. Mostly pistachio, but sometimes plain. Kosher. Non-kosher. Freshly made. 'Freshly made.' Sweating in a plastic bag when it's 96 in Tel Aviv or melting when it's over 100 in Tiberius, the way you can pull it into chunks and it melts in your mouth or sweetens your yogurt... yum.


When I was growing up I would beg my dad to open a can of chick peas so I could eat them straight out of the can. It was the perfect treat -no lettuce that could get in the way. Later, he taught me to make hummus and I thought perhaps all dreams of vegetarianism had come true. Soon after, years of vegetarianism gone bad resulted in an aversion to humus, but then I visited Israel.

Above is what was called 'the best Hummus in Israel': by our guide book, my cousin, the Israelis sitting across from us at the most crowded of lunch tables. Tucked inside the souk in Old Acre (Akko), we stood in line and spoke English with smiles simply repeating 'hummus' hoping we'd get it. Our waiter, who spoke English just fine, laughed at us and brought us what you see above: a plate of tahina thick with oil and chick peas, a plate of onion, pickle, hot pepper, olive and tomato and some hot pita. Always one to be in Rome, I followed the men across from me as they ate it with their forks - only to have them turn to me later and say 'no fork!' and mime how to wipe my bowl clean with pita.

If only I were a plate cleaner.

The hummus we had across Israel and the Palestinian Territories varied - most was thick and creamy and delicious. Some was thinner, with a few sad chick peas on top. Others, even the one on the flight home on El Al, were creamy with something quick thick and, well, cream-y. Some were too bitter and not fresh, but this one - this one was incredible.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Markets of Israel

Markets in both Israel and Palestine were incredible. Piles of seasonal produce in a country that has incredible bounty - in fact, the vegetables I bought at Monoprix this week when I returned to Paris tanned and lazy, were all imported from Israel.

Above you can see in the main market in Jerusalem a typical sight of hot peppers and of course some radishes (masquerading as beets, I know) and even some corn that for some reason was ubiquitous across the country.

In Jerusalem, we visited as the entire city was picking up their food for Shabbat -rugelach, challah, whole heads of fresh spring garlic, raw almonds piled up next to glowing strawberries.

Jerusalem also has a souk that we frequented daily where I bought my first halva of the trip and tip-toed over fish juice on the Via Dolorosa.

In Tel Aviv the market was more commercial - lots of things manufactured in China but in between an old man selling 8 kinds of green beans: fava, haricort vert, peas, striped, and others I had never seen before.

Hebron had an intense market - dried herbs in piles and sacks, some even including mashed up cigarettes. On a restaurant-sized grill, a man fried up small pancakes that looked somewhere between a crepe and injera, that you wrap up with filling (we moved too quickly to try some). In Hebron we had tea brewed with sage and coffee with cardamon before heading back out among sesame-speckled bread products of all shapes and shades of yellow.

I have to say that while they had their share of year-round products, these places had a higher percentage of seasonal produce that I see around the corner at one of Paris' most famous markets. The piles of onions and garlic alone were enough to make you want to go home and put a sautee pan on the stove with some oil and just cook whatever was available - which is what many of the restaurants we went to did. More on that in a bit ...

Monday, April 07, 2008

San Sebastian

The other day I was re-telling a story to Jasmine and Jill about my reluctance to enter Berkeley's Cheese Board for the first time - last year. I hadn't been there, didn't know the set up or how to ask for cheese, I was sure that everyone was the cheese expert I longed to be and would judge me as such.

I had a nervous belly before I went in for the first time. And the fifth.

Living in Paris now, I laugh at this story - my worst fear of someone laughing in my face has happened, a couple of times, and thankfully I don't always understand what they're saying! I would take the Cheese Board any day. But this asking, the language, the wanting to know what's best and eat what's freshest and drink the right thing - all very stressful again when we went to San Sebastian this weekend, except they smiled more at our Spanish than I get in an average day at my French.

No Basque attempted, but we did manage to order the olives above while we sat over-looking the clear blue bay and drinking txakoli, a local drink that Liam just pointed to in a magazine that I had. I don't know if it was the sun, but something about it became a little less stressful - although then I looked around and everyone else was drinking something red that looked like sangria but came in a bottle and I was overwhelmed with the options.

Our favorite finds on our trip were the pinxtos of olive/anchovy/hot pepper on a stick, some fried cheese that looked like a plantain and some ham cut from a leg above us that Liam enjoyed in a bocadillo.

On the drive from San Sebastian to Bordeaux, we stopped at a boulangerie to get a gateau basque creme which rounded out our train ride picnic of basque cheeses, piment confiture, a bread shaped like a cinnamon roll but oiled with olive, and a nougat filled with spicy pepper as well.

We bought these on the French side though, slightly side-stepping the language worries, but I let Liam do that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Perfect Snack for Writing a Novel

As some of you know, I'm working on a novel in poetry for young adults. It's a coming of age tale of a 16 year old Nora Smith: 1/2 Jewish, 1/2 Catholic, trying to define her own identity in the year following the death of her best friend. She is taking a Black Studies course at her high school and falls for an African-American boy. Through the course of the novel, we learn more about Nora, her family, her grief and her growth.

She may even end up in Paris.

While there's not much food in the novel (Nora does prefer a Chai Latte to a cappuccino), there's a great deal of food fueling the author on her end.

A recent favorite any-time-of-day-while-writing snack includes brown sugar sea salt cookies from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian with a cup of homemade chai (all novels are based on some kinds of facts, yes?)

These cookies are incredible - the butteriness is shown off by the addition of semolina flour (sandy, but in a way that renders this writer speechless for a better synonym) and the fleur de sel on top makes you lick your lips and grab another. I've tried them several times in several different thicknesses - I don't have an electric mixer here, so my dough has ranged from crumbly to creamy (and subsequently frozen for cutting because I've melted the butter too much).

The recent batch pictured here started as a creamy dough and then baked very thin and crispy.

A handful with a cup of tea can fuel an author for a pre-lunch revision session, a tea-time hour of drafting two new poems for Part II or an after dinner re-read.

I cannot recommend How to Cook Everything Vegetarian enough, even for meat-eaters (indeed, you are Bittman's audience here), but until you buy it, here's the recipe:

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup dark packed brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 C. semolina flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
about 1 t. coarse sea-salt for sprinkling

1. Use an elect. mixer on low speed to mix the butter and sugar together just until combined, 30 seconds or so. Still on low speed, beat in the egg yolk, then the flours and salt, until the mixture barely holds together; this will take a few minutes.
2. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and shape it into a round, triangular, or rectangular log about 1 inch in diameter; wrap it in plastic wrap and refrig. or freeze until firm, about 30 minutes (or freeze the log for up to 3 mos well wrapped).
3. Preheat the oven to 325F. Unwrap the dough and slice it 1/4" thick, put the slices on an ungreased baking sheet, sprinkle each with a little sea salt, and bake right away until the cookies are firm but now browning, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, let them cool in the pan for a minute or two and then transfer the cookies to a rack to cool. Stir in an airtight container for up to 2 days (I've kept them a few more and they've still been good)

Makes 3 or 4 dozen.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Butter Tasting

It was a Fromagette reunion this month, with Sara here a few weeks ago and Jasmine this past week with Jill. To celebrate, we set out to sample the dairy product loved by both fromagettes and the future maman: les beurres des France.

"What would you say if you saw someone in the store with 6 kinds of butter?" I asked Jill as we watched people eying us.

"There aren't 6 kinds of butter at the American grocery store - unless we're talking butter substitutes?!" and we laughed as four kinds of doux and three brands of demi-sel passed by.

Using recommendations gleaned from Regal, a Parisian eGullet Butter Tasting and the generally agreed upon belief that Bordier reigned, we put all out on the table. Sweet to salty, we spread bits ranging from near white to a saffron yellow on baguette and paused.

Perhaps it was because I mistakenly I picked up the beurre tendre version but the Elle & Vivre recommended by Regal was a waxy loser. For Jasmine, the salted Bordier was Queen. Jill and I preferred the AOC Monoprix Gourmand brand.

Conditions weren't ideal - the Bordier was cut just an hour before by wire at the fromagerie while the others were still a bit firm from the grocery store shelf.

We kept out the demi-sel Bordier and Monoprix's Gourmand, added some bio bread (one loaf of nut, another of complet, a 1/2 roasted chicken for the ladies, some petit pois to get some green in and three cheese old and new to the fromagettes: chevre Reblochon, an aged comte, and a cone of soft tarragon and garlic (?) covered in paprika and pepper (Basque? Corsican?) and had une grande pique-nique!