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Les Carottes Rapées

You won’t often find much in the way of vegetables on the menus of many cafés in Paris. I don’t mean the over-hyped restaurants with the fancy chef names attached that the slick food magazines tend to worship. There you might find a coin of grilled zucchini, a dot of sauce, and perhaps a leaf of parsley as a carefully-draped garnish. But most of the time, those places are filled with Americans with Zagat guides sticking out of their pockets. What I mean are the places where most Parisians actually eat lunch.

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Many French workers get financial help footing the bill, courtesy of le Ticket Resto, a program that allows employees to buy discount coupons via their employer to dine out. The advantage to that is that it keeps many small restaurants thriving, so most of them offer a prix-fixe menu that anyone’s welcome to enjoy, usually costing less than 15 euros for a 2- or 3-course meal.
Another advantage is that it gives workers time to have a proper lunch with co-workers and friends.

(Sidenote: Having worked in restaurants all my life, I was once at a dinner party and mentioned that I never had a job where I got a true a break. All conversation stopped, forks in mid-air, and everyone turned and looked at me in disbelief. When I left the restaurant business I vowed I would never eat standing up again. And I haven’t!)

What that also means is that the food must be quick and relatively easy to prepare. Menus offer steaks or long-cooked stews, and perhaps a sauteed piece of fish. But since vegetables require washing, peeling, slicing, pre-cooking, and a bit of finesse, it’s quite difficult to find freshly-cooked vegetables on menus of ordinary restaurants. The most popular side dish is les frites; all that’s needed is a quick drop-in-the-deep-fryer, and they’re done. Sadly, most of the time, they’re the pre-frozen frites, which arrive undercooked and insipid. I make it a point to find restaurants with real, honest French fries.
And I go back as much as possible, as a show of support.

Even ratatouille, that famous vegetable dish from Provence is just a big bowl of overcooked, soft vegetables. And please don’t tell me that I haven’t had a good version of ratatouille…I have, and I still don’t like it.

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There is one vegetable dish that’s so popular that it ranks right up there with foie gras and le baguette as classics of modern French cuisine. That’s carottes rapées, a crisp pile of freshly-grated carrots. There’s well-known aversion in France to undercooked vegetables (or as they say, ‘American-style’) and you almost never find raw vegetables offered in Paris.

Corn is always served spooned right from the can onto a salad, or worse, on pizza (with a sunny-side up egg cooked in the middle.) Tiny haricots verts are always cooked until tender. And the little pointed end of the green bean is always removed…and I’ve heard various compelling arguements why.
“C’est indigestable” (I hate lying awake all night trying to digest all the green bean ends I’ve consumed), or “It gets stuck in your teeth” (that is the worst, isn’t it?)

But my favorite reason, “That’s where all the radiation concentrates.”

um, okay…so now like a good Parisian I remove the end of the green bean, or the “boot”, as it’s called.
To limit my exposure to radiation.

Anyhow…les carottes rapées is simply grated carrots tossed in fresh lemon juice, a bit of salt, and sometimes a little olive oil. If you want to get fancy, you can add a bit of chopped flat-leaf parsley. But it’s one of those things, the simpler the better. Simple restaurants like Chartier just toss a plate of carrots at you with a wedge of lemon. Other places arrange les carottes rapées on a plate with tangy celery rémoulade and beets.

I make it often when I’m home by myself, since it’s nice to have something easy to prepare and fresh, and I always seem to have carrots around. I make a plate of carottes rapées, and eat it with a few chunks of Tradigrains baguette from my local boulanger, a nice wedge of soft, fresh, ooaing cheese like a ripe brie de Meaux or a goaty Selles-Sur-Cher, and perhaps a slice of pâte from my local charcuterie.

Here’s my how-to guide for making your own Grated Carrot Salad, French-style.

Alligators and Flies

When I was a kid, it seems like everyone was wearing Lacoste polo shirts (they were also called Izod shirts back then). The shirt was introduced in 1933 and named for French tennis star René Lacoste who was nicknamed “the alligator” after winning a game bet, the prize being an alligator suitcase.

The shirts came in a riot of colors during the 60’s and 70’s, and it was the fashion at the time to dress in the casual, but dressy Lacoste polo, accenting your outfit with something outrageous and in-your-face (but still acceptable at the country club.) Soon others designers catered to people who wished to be ‘preppy’ by advertising a genteel lifestyle, featuring people turning up their collars. I dubbed it “The Vulcan Effect”, since most of the people looked rather stupid with the tip of the stiff color scraping their ears with a Star-Trek like rigidity, rather than the “I-don’t-care-this-is-how-I-put-my-
shirt-on and that’s-how-it’s-going-to-stay-because-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-turn-it-down”
look that real preppy people did.
I went to prep school and if you flipped up your collar on purpose, you would have had the crap pounded out of you by an upperclassman named Rand or Tad.
Guaranteed.

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Eventually the Lacoste shirt fell out of favor until recently, thanks to a spiffy new ad campaign, and the fact the shirts last forever and are wonderfully comfortable and timeless and well-tailored…all that stuff that makes classic clothing come back into style. And so I searched around some boxes of mine last time I was in the US to see if I could find any old ones (the blue-alligator is the giveaway for vintage Lacoste, they switched to green some years back.)

I had lots of Lacoste shirts during my childhood.
My mother came home with the shirts for me, in super-saturated greens and reds, their scratchy fabric softened beautifully in the washing machine and fit like nothing else. Afterward you broke them in, there was nothing like a good, slightly-faded, generously cut Lacoste shirt.

Except there was one demon that I had to exorcise from my past:

The alligator.

I was terrified of the little blue devil. Baring sharp teeth, his menacing red tongue licking his chops, and a sharp, whip-like tail…it was all too frightening for me to deal with on my little chest, and I was scared.

So I did what every healthy, red-blooded American boy would do: I snipped them off with a scissors, leaving a gaping hole in my shirts.

(I also used to wear my Fruit-Of-The-Loom briefs backwards, since I liked pulling out the waistband several times a day and looking down at the colorful fruits lined up on the label.)

I did manage to find a vintage Lacoste shirt that for some reason has escaped my snipping. The fit was still fabulous and the color, Bordeaux, was a deep, wine-like red, still rich and robust after all these years. Wearing it was like finding that perfect partner who you can take shopping at a nice boutique or to a decent restaurant, but comfortable enough for lounging around with in your flannel pajama bottoms.

So I went to the Lacoste store in Paris and bought another new polo shirt last year.
The color?
Acidulé; a wildly-vivid hue, reminiscent of Chartreuse liquor mixed with Orangina. Then electrocuted. I immediately wore it to a café and was swarmed by tiny flies, apparently as attracted by it’s traffic-stopping color as I was.

Last week I made even more progress in getting over my fear of the Alligator and bought two more shirts. The Lacoste shop near the Bastille was having a liquidation avant traveaux (before the construction), and selling off all their stock at a rather nice discount, something you don’t see too often in pricey Paris. The salesperson loaded me up with a stack of polo shirts, pointed me towards le cabine d’essayage, and before I knew it I was standing at the register with a stack of neatly-folded shirts, in insanely over-the-top colors like Bonbon, Framboise, and Tomate.

I shouldn’t be too hard to spot on the streets of Paris, come this spring.

I’ll be the one swarmed by flies.

Lacoste
70 rue du Faubourg St. Antoine

Like….Brigitte Bardot!

As the shops re-do their store windows after les soldes, in their half-finished state, there’s always a little note (usually hand-written), saying something along the lines of, “Please excuse us, the window display is in the midst of réalisation

An elderly couple, parents of a friend who live across the street, invited me for dinner last night. Both are in their early 80’s and their apartment is filled with years and years of memories adn relics of a lifetime in Paris. The walls in the apartment are filled with paintings done by their children (who are artists in Paris), shelves have weathered religious figures and peculiar sculptures. Most of the lampshades were so old, the shades were parchment-like, and a giant model of an ancient sailing vessel rests on the wall. The flickering candles dripped copious amounts of wax, spilling over the candleholders, forming little pools on the crisp, French linen tablecloth.

We ate off dinnerware centuries old. My plate had a tableau of some peasants with large blades eviscerating a small cow that hung limply from a tree. Everything else was a hodgepodge of mismatched forks and knives as well as chipped or cracked stemware that had been gathered during decades of accumulating. All evidence of a stubborn refusal to part with a past, I suppose.

They’d been avant-garde window designers in Paris, during the middle of the last century, starting in the 1950’s. And after dinner, the scrapbooks came out (at my urging) as we looked at some of their designs.

Then, I turned the page and saw her…

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“What’s this?”, I exclaimed after I picked myself up from the floor, “C’est fabulouse!”

“Mais oui”, they explained, “…she came to model for the display that we had created for a shop that was opening, and our friend took that picture while she posed for us.”

(If you look behind her, to the right, you can see the crowd gathering outside the window.)

Oh-la-la!très sexy!

Photo by Sabine Weiss

le Quignon: Bazin Bakery

Americans often wonder how French people some know we’re American before we even say one word. It used to be our sneakers; they were the dead giveaway. Nowadays, wearing sneakers, or les baskets, is as French as carrying a baguette.

The other way they can tell us-from-them is that Americans tend to smile. A lot. We are a rather happy tribe. And Americans tend to eat and drink while walking (or while driving, which I’ve explained to some of my French friends, but they look at me in disbelief). Even though in Paris it’s becoming a bit more common, it’s still unusual to see someone chowing down while walking on the street or in the métro. It’s just not done and people will definitely give you funny looks if you’re – say, cramming a Pierre Hermé pastry into your face while sitting on a sidewalk bench. Or shoving a sublime, cream-filled éclair au chocolat from La Maison du Chocolat into your mouth, trying to make sure not one precious drop of bittersweet chocolate pastry cream lands anywhere but in your tummy.

But one little nugget of Parisian tradition still amuses me every time I see it. It’s the yank, twist, and pull of le quignon.

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You’ll see it 99% of the time someone leaves a bakery with a freshly-baked baguette. The moment they exit, they grab the crackly knob at the end of the loaf, le quignon, and yank it off. It’s a quick twist and snap, then it gets popped right it into their mouth as they hurry on their way. I tend to think of it as an instant, on-the-spot, quality-control check.

I usually end up with a mess of flour on my dark overcoat, since one of my favorite breads in Paris, le Bazinette, has a fine dusting of flour on it’s crackly crust, and permeating all the little brittle crevasses. If you’re lucky enough to get to Bazin early in the day, a favorite baguette of mine is available with a hearty mixture of grains; flax, sesame, and poppy seeds.

The one shown above is their baguette de tradition, a hand-shaped baguette, slightly sour from the addition of un peu de levain, natural sourdough starter, which gives the bread a hearty, earthy character and allows it to remain fresher longer than the usual 4-hour lifespan of a regular baguette.

Bazin

Bazin is one of the prettiest bakeries in Paris too, overlooking what I am sure is the smallest (and most unnecessary) traffic rotary in the city. In order to get a Bazinette with grains, you need to get to the bakery early in the day, since they always seem to sell them out quickly.

Bazin
85, bis rue de Charenton
Métro: Ledru-Rollin
Tel: 01 43 07 75 21
(Closed Wednesday and Thursday)

A Paris Café, in Winter

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Ode To a Powerball

powerball


    Ode To A Powerball™

    By David Lebovitz

    I think that I shall never see,
    A Powerball™ as lovely as ici.

    The rosy ball ensures success
    Against my dishes, which entered a mess.

    Inside the dishwasher, so full it is scary,
    But I just press the button! Could I be more merry?

    A sudsy froth, I’m sure it will yield,
    Behind the closed door, its fate has been sealed.

    An unequaled tablet, whose gift is released,
    Round and round goes each cycle, until all has ceased.

    Without it I know that my life would be worse,
    Washing dishes by hand is indeed quite a curse.

    A mess is made daily by fools just like me,
    So I give thanks to Calgon, for they make what you see.



    (…with apologies to Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918)


The Indestructable Almond Tart

Sometimes I feel like I must be walking around with a sign on me that says…

“Even though it’s obvious from the way I’m holding it, I’m carrying a fragile dessert that I’ve spent hours making…

…But please feel free to walk right into me anyways.”

Yes, that was me trying to navigate Paris, tranversing the sidewalks and mètros of Paris, hoping to make it safely to the New Year’s party I was invited to with my Almond Tart.

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As those who read this blog regularly may recall, I’m a target for Parisians when carrying fragile cakes and tarts down the street. For some reason, they’ll just walk right into me.

But this time, I got wise to their antics and thwarted their efforts to derail me by remembering a favorite recipe from my past, Lindsey’s Almond Tart, one of the all-time great desserts that I made almost every day at Chez Panisse for years and years. Once baked, the tart is bullet-proof: and as anticipated, the disk of firm caramelized almonds successfully withstood both the Line #1 and #14 mètros.

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I made it safely to my New Year’s Eve fête with the tart. I did get body-checked by a Parisian in the Bastille mètro, forcing me to crash into the tile wall, and heard the loud “Thwack” of the porcelain cake plate it was resting on.

“Zut!, I thought.
But the tart arrived safely and after dinner, everyone nibbled on it happily along with the last of the cold Champagne along with the Chocolate, Sour Cherry, and Toasted Almond Bark that I made with fleur de sel, which was equally a big hit.

So here’s a few resolutions for my life in 2006…

-I’m going to avoid the black tar as much as I can…

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-I’m going to perfect my Madeleine recipe…

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-I’m going to cut back on the amount of chocolate I eat…

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(…not!)

-I’m going to get to work on my next cookbook…

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-And I’m going to become a true Frenchman and no matter how impeccably or fashionably dressed I am, I’m going to wear the wackiest socks I can drum up…

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I will avoid socks with images of Homer Simpson or Asterix, though, so popular with the men here in France, though. Even I have my limits.

Last Week in Paris…

The stinky garbage strike finally ended…phew!

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We had ice cream at Dammann’s on the quai Montebello…

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I bought some fouque-ing seal oil to winterproof my shoes…

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I found a place to swim au natural with Parisians…

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…and my favorite chocolate shop in Paris gave me a nice, big bag of chocolates…for being such a good customer!

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Damman’s Glacier
1, rue des Grands Degrés
Tel: 01 43 29 15 10
UPDATE: Now closed

Patrick Roger
108, Blvd. St-Germain-des Prés
Tel: 01 43 29 38 42