Why do people call you thirty minutes before you’ve invited them for dinner? It’s something I don’t understand. Usually if you’re having folks for dinner, if you’re anything like me, during those precious few minutes before everyone arrives you’re racing around in your undies trying to get everything together so you can look relaxed when they arrive.
But people can’t resist calling—“We’re on our way!” “Can we bring anything?” “What time did you say to come?” “Can I bring two friends?”
There’s a couple of rules in Paris about dinner parties:
The first is that you never, ever show up on time. Thirty minutes late is normale, and if you show up earlier you just may catch your host in their undies too (which may or may not be such a bad thing.) Another is that you need to get people’s digicode in advance. Most buildings in Paris have a complex series of numbers and letters that you need to press on a pad by the entry to get into the building.
Sadly, people have a way of forgetting them and having to frantically call you from the sidewalk since they can’t get in. And lastly, no one in France has food allergies so if you’re invited for dinner, if you have an food issues, you’d better pipe up in advance or be prepared to eat Tête de veau…which, believe me, you don’t want to eat.
So when they call, while they’re blabbing on and on and on, you’re hyperventilating and all those thoughts are running through you mind—”Darn it. Why didn’t I trim my fingernails when I had time on Wednesday?” “Will they notice the pots and pans piled up in the bathtub?” (which is a whole ‘nother blog entry…) “Do I need to make more chips since I think I ate about half of them after I made them?”
So last week I made carnitas for friends, which is the perfect thing to make since it demands…no, begs….to be made well in advance. It’s great for Paris dinner parties since you never know when guests will arrive…like the one friend I have who regularly arrives 1½ hours late. But Mexican food in Paris is usually less-than stellar. I’m not sure why since it’s one of the worlds great cuisines. But outside of the Americas….well, let’s just say it hasn’t traveled so well. So I like to make it to shake things up.
When I told my fish-boy friend that I was making Mexican food, he started grimacing and holding his taut, rock-hard, ripped youthful stomach, saying how heavy and bad it was. Then he started recounting his encounters with the Mexican food here and I told him about fresh fish marinated in lime juice with chiles (which perked him up) and caramelized chunks of meltingly-tender pork. Which perked me up. And which probably explains why he has a rock-hard tummy and I don’t.
Since I’m not a whiz in the Mexican cocina, a few furious emails were sent to pals Alisa and Matt, who sent me back an email in all-caps— “MMMMMM Meat!” (which I condensed here since it was considerably longer.) I make mine the day before, then rechauffé‘d it in the oven for the last caramelization before setting it on the table.
Of course I made elderberry Cosmopolitans. But since the French are about half the size of us Americans, they don’t really hold their liquor as well as we do (except if you’re in the Senate) and after one, or maybe two, frosty cocktails poured with a heavy-hand by yours truly, they start getting bleary. Which is fun, but a little dangerous: the combination of lit cigarettes and Herman Miller furniture is not a good one chez David.
Tortillas hold another fascination to Parisians.
Seriously, is there anything better than freshly-made corn tortilla? No. Not even a fabulous baguette. Every time I head back to the states, I leave with the certainty that I’ll return with one of those plastic things that keeps tortillas warm. The folded towel doesn’t really cut it. But then I find one in a store and think about my luggage so packed with Target shower curtains, dried sour cherries, and Excedrin PM, I think, “Where will I put it?” and I don’t schlep one over.
Next time I’m making room for one so when I’m dashing around trying to figure out how I’m going to keep those tortillas warm while the Parisians ignore them and the tortillas get cool while they go off and have their cigarettes I’ll panic less since there’s nothing less-appealing is a tepid, soggy corn tortilla.
For some reason I’ve been a red cabbage fiend lately, obsessed with it, and I made pickled cabbage by slicing some as thinly as possible then pouring an escabeche-esque mixture of cooled of vinegar, sugar, and salt that was heated and cooled then poured all over it all and I let it sit for a few days with some bay leaves. That, my friends, is a great side dish and although it doesn’t go all that well when serving fancy wine, you can thank me later for giving you yet another reason to foist another round of Cosmos on everyone.
For beans, I dug into my stash of Rancho Gordo heirlooms, which are reason enough to move back to San Francisco for. I often say it’s a waste to serve all these things here if people aren’t going to appreciate them. But simmered with smoked bacon, onions, and a squirt of lime juice added at the end, what’s not to like? And like they did.
Those huge variegated beans are much more of a conversation piece than anything else around, except maybe my freezer packed with 14 different containers of homemade ice cream and a bag of cranberries that’s celebrating it’s fifth anniversary here, like I am. If it was legal, I would marry those beans. Or Rancho Gordo’s owner Steve Sando. Whichever’s legal first (although with my luck, I’ll probably end up with the beans.) I am, like, so going to order a bunch and have them shipped to me when I go to New York City at the end of the month.
For dip chips, although you can get tortilla chips in the supermarket in Paris, since I hope someday to have a Parisian ligne and haven’t quite given up on seeing les abdos one day, I decided to toast up some pita chips instead. I cut pita into wedges, brushed them lightly with a mixture of olive oil with a bit of chile pepper in there for zing and some coarse salt sprinkled on top. Then I toasted them in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes until crisp to serve with the guacamole.
Hey, with all the calories I saved, I can have another Cosmo. Right?
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
- 4-5-pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 5-inch chunks, trimmed of excess fat
- 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
- 2 tablespoons canola or neutral vegetable oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon chile powder
- 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly-sliced
1. Rub the pieces of pork shoulder all over with salt. Refrigerate for 1- to 3-days. (You can skip this step if you want. Just be sure to salt the pork before searing the meat in the next step.)
2. Heat the oil in a roasting pan set on the stovetop. Cook the pieces of pork shoulder in a single layer until very well-browned, turning them as little as possible so they get nice and dark before flipping them around. If your cooking vessel is too small to cook them in a single-layer, cook them in two batches.
3. Once all the pork is browned, remove them from the pot and blot away any excess fat with a paper towel, then pour in about a cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan with a flat-edged utensil to release all the tasty brown bits.
4. Heat the oven to 350F (180C) degrees.
5. Add the pork back to the pan and add enough water so the pork pieces are 2/3rd’s submerged in liquid. Add the cinnamon stick and stir in the chile powders, bay leaves, cumin and garlic.
7. Braise in the oven uncovered for 3½ hours, turning the pork a few times during cooking, until much of the liquid is evaporated and the pork is falling apart. Remove the pan from the oven and lift the pork pieces out of the liquid and set them on a platter.
8. Once the pork pieces are cool enough to handle, shred them into bite-sized pieces, about 2-inches (7 cm), discarding any obvious big chunks of fat if you wish.
9. Return the pork pieces back to the roasting pan and cook in the oven, turning occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the pork is crispy and caramelized. It will depend on how much liquid the pork gave off, and how crackly you want them.
I like mine deeply, darkly, crispy brown on the outside.