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Second Chances

For the past several years, I’ve avoided Mariage-Frères in the Marais. Last time I was there, a friend who had just arrived from the states had to go there immediately for tea. As the afternoon wore on, he began the usual jet-lag wilt (I can mimic the facial expressions, complete with nodding-back head, but I can’t describe the feeling adequately at the moment.)
The best description that comes to mind–“Your body arrives one day…and your soul arrives a few days later.”

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As my friend faded into oblivion, I unsuccessfully tried to signal one of the linen-clad waiters for l’addition. At Mariages-Frères, the waiters have perfected and refined the art of avoiding the customers gaze. So we waited and waited and waited. That was my last visit.

But last week a non-jet-lagged friend asked to meet me her there for tea, and I thought why not give it another chance? Three years is a long time to hold a grudge against something that’s a Paris institution.
Our rendez-vous was mid-afternoon, and the tea salon was calm and the servers were graceful and accommodating. I had a perfectly brewed pot of green Sencha tea along with a rather good wedge of tarte layered with fresh raspberries topped with a black tea chiboust.

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In the grand tradition of tea time, we imbibed in small cakes as well: a lovely, moist financier scented with green matcha tea and a madeline with a subtle bit of Earl Grey tea leaves.

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Mariages-Frères
30-35, rue du Bourg-Tibourg
Métro: St. Paul

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Panna cotta recipe

One of the fun things about living in Europe is that there are other people who’ve moved here (like me) who love their local culinary scene (like me.)

A few lucky guests each week follow along (or rather, try to keep up!) with Judy Witts Francini, aka Divina Cucina. A bundle of energy, each morning armed with an empty basket and a head full of menu ideas, she takes the Central Market in Florence by storm. A day begins with espresso at her favorite pastry shop, Antica Pasticceria Sieni (via San Antonio) where you sip espresso served with spicy wedges of panpepato, crisp brutti ma buoni (which means “ugly, but good”), and delicate cream-filled pastries.

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Soon after, you’re exploring the market with Judy. I tasted well-aged balsamic vinegar, found delicate tiny wild strawberries, and sampled aged sheep-milk Pecorino cheeses…which could make even the most devoted, cheese-loving Francophile pack their bags for Tuscany.

After thoughtfully selecting wines for lunch from her local expert at Casa del Vino (via dell’Ariento, 16/r), the sandwich maker fixed me a surprise snack for my train trip that evening. When I unwrapped my sandwich, I found Tuscan bread stuffed with anchovy and olive oil marinated tomatoes, arugola, and creamy burrata cheese from Apulia.

Then we walked back to Judy’s apartment and participated in some hands-on cooking demonstrations.

Judy is a dynamo of knowledge, full of great culinary tips, such as…

1. Don’t listen to music or watch tv while cooking, which distracts you from the food as it crackles, sizzles, and simmers.

2. Used good olive oil.
The best olive oils are pressed from hand-picked olives. Lesser-quality olive oils use olives that fall from the tree, which causes them to bruise and become prone to rancidity. That’s why cheaper olive oils turn bad after a few months while better oils last much longer. And tastes better!

3. Always heat olive oil first in your saute pan before adding meat or vegetables.
This allows food to sear and cook quickly, which augments flavors. An exception is fresh garlic, which should be heated at the same time as the oil, since it’s easy to burn.

4. Techniques are more important than recipes or details.
Even if you’re not a master chef like Judy, use recipes as guidelines for cooking. While a recipe may indicate a cooking time of 20 minutes, you may find it takes more or less time in your kitchen. And you may like more salt. Or your lemons are larger, and sweeter. Learning techniques, rather than just following recipes, will make you cook like an Italian.

5. Almost all true balsamic vinegars are aged for at least 10 years. Anything less is not a real balsamic. The stuff you buy in shops labeled ‘balsamic’ with the consistency of water is not true balsamic and has added colorings and flavorings. Once you taste the real thing, you’re eyes will roll back in your head and you will hallucinate.

I’ve been cooking professionally for over half of my life and I’ve tasted some mighty fine food, but one of the best things I’ve ever had, she made right in front of us: Herb Garlic Rub. It’s something that anyone can make and tastes infinitely better than those stale mixtures one buys in a jar. Judy shucked a few large branches of fresh rosemary leaves. She added the leaves from an enormous bunch of fresh sage, a generous handful of salt, and 4-5 cloves of fresh garlic. Then she chopped and chopped and chopped until very fine, then left the mxiture on the cutting board until dry, which takes a day or two. Once dry, store the mixture in a jar. You can use the Herb Garlic Rub on any meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable. Add a bit to a bowl of good olive oil for dipping bread.

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Then in an amazing feat of culinary skill, replicating something that intrigued me at the market, Judy split a long loaf of Italian bread lengthwise. She generously poured some good olive oil over the insides (without measuring, folks…), dusted it with Herb Garlic Rub, then tucked a pork tenderloin inside. After wrapping the whole thing in foil, she baked it directly on the oven rack (in a 375 degree oven for about one hour.) As she unwrapped it, the overwhelming aroma of herbs and garlic permeated the air. None of us could be polite any longer, and we begin ripping off hunks of the herb-and-olive-oil infused bread and stuffing them in our mouths.

For dessert Judy whipped up Panna Cotta, one of Italy’s most beloved desserts. Although Judy uses local Tuscan cream, you can substitute whole milk or buttermilk for some of the cream. We tossed tiny wild strawberries and plump raspberries in sugar to macerate, then piled some atop each Panna Cotta and drizzled it with an unrestrained pour of 30 year old syrupy-sweet balsamic vinegar.
Rare, and outrageously expensive, Judy kept advising, “Pour on more! Pour on more! That stuff tastes great!”

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Divina Cucina Panna Cotta
6 Servings

4 cups heavy cream (or substitute half-and-half, or use half buttermilk)
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 packages unflavored gelatin, such as Knox

Soften gelatin over 6 tablespoons cold water.

Heat cream over low heat with the sugar and stir until dissolved. Do not boil. Remove from heat.
Stir in gelatin until melted. Add the vanilla. Pour into glass serving goblets or bowls.

Chill for at least 2 hours. Once firm, top with sweetened berries and aged balsamic vinegar, or lots of shavings of chocolate.

France 1: American 0

So here I was, about to share with you tales of a market visit and meal I had in Florence, Italy, with my friend Judy, better known as Divina Cucina. We found fragrant, tiny wild strawberries, so she made a terrific Panna Cotta to serve with them, topped with a drizzle of aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar. Then while typing away (and procrastinating at the same time…does that count as multitasking?), I was reading other food blogs and noticed that Amy and Clotilde just posted Panna Cotta stories. Sigh! So I’ll save that for another entry and if you absolutely have to make Panna Cotta right now, one of their recipes should hold you over until then.

Instead, I get to rant.
I wish I had a euro for each time someone said to me,
“What do you do all day in Paris? It must be so exciting!”

Well, let’s look at how I spent yesterday morning, shall we?

I decided to have some friends over and make Braised Duck Legs in red wine. I decided the perfect accompaniment would be Cipolline Agro Dolce, another recipe from Judy. Before you say anything, I know, I know. You’re supposed to, 1) visit the market first, 2) find what’s in season, 3) then decide what to cook. Of course I know that. One of the many things I absorbed in my thirteen years at Chez Panisse. But I am the kind of guy that likes to head out shopping with a list. Otherwise, dinner would have been whatever was in my kitchen: radishes, olives, and Pocket Coffee. (see previous post)

(Judy’s recipe calls for 1 1/2 pounds of peeled boiling onions, which you cook on the stovetop with a cup of so of white wine, enough to cover, a few tablespoons of sugar, vinegar, and olive oil, salt, and a chili pepper. You cook it all until the onions are glazed and caramelized. Delicious!)

Since there are no outdoor markets in Paris on Monday, I figured that I’d simply go to the supermarket and pick up boiling onions (Italians call them cipolline.) I first went to Monoprix, which seems to have everything…except what you went there to get in the first place. Sure enough, no small onions. I then went across the street to Ed, which is a discount supermarket and kind of grim and unsavory. The gate was down: “Closed For Inventory.” Grrr.

I then walked over to Franprix, another supermarket. No onions. How can this be? One of the greatest food cities in the world, and no boiling onions? I decided to try Picard which specializes in frozen foods. People here rave about Picard (although I wonder, “Who the heck buys frozen baguettes when there are 1263 bakeries in Paris?”…and yes, I do know those kinds of things.) Picard has everything frozen; sacks of red currants, figs, and sour cherries, pigeons stuffed with foie gras and chocolate-glazed ice cream profiteroles. I scanned the freezers passing over frozen baby artichoke hearts, sliced leeks, minced sorrel, and fava beans.
But, of course, no onions.

After two hours of searching from supermarket to supermarket, I decided to call it quits. Heading home, I wanted to at least stop at Nicolas and get some wine, since I didn’t want to go home dejected and empty-handed. As I approached, the door wouldn’t budge.

“Open Monday, 4pm-8pm.”

Defeat.
France 1: American 0.

Late yesterday afternoon, on my way to yoga, I stopped at Shopi, another supermarket and my last resort. Sure enough, there were little filets (mesh sacks) of boiling onions buried within the produce section.

The label read, “Produit d’Argentine”.
It was a very long journey…for both of us.

As you can imagine, I was very careful not to burn them.

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So, to answer your question…That’s what I do all day.

Where Are All The Cafés In Paris?

At a recent dinner party here in Paris, I asked a gentleman from New York City how he was enjoying his trip. He responded it was fine, but “I can’t find anywhere to get a coffee in Paris.”

There’s been perhaps 3 times in my life where I’ve been speechless, much to the consternation of anyone within earshot. And this is the first time this century.

How can anyone say there’s nowhere in Paris to drink coffee?
(I’ll forgo any mention of how the same guest began hacking the beautiful artisan cheeses, carefully selected and arranged on a platter, into little bits after the host set it down. “That’ll make things easier!” he proudly announced.)

I still have no idea what he was talking about.
Make what easier?

Anyhow…
Paris is a city filled with cafés.
In fact, the concept of the café was invented here in the 1600′s at the Le Procope in the Latin Quarter, unfortunately a sad victim of a hideaous remodel about a decade ago. Cafés flourished when struggling artists and writers like Hemingway and Picasso (and more recently, Lebovitz) would escape their freezing-cold apartments for cozy heated cafes.
People come to sip coffee, read, argue, and have a smoke. There’s a café on every corner, on every street, in every neighborhood. Because apartments are so small and Parisians are rather private, invitations to homes are rare. Instead people meet in cafés, and many consider them the living rooms of Parisians.

So I scoured the city in search of a café.
After 3 seconds I found one. Then another. And then another! Mon Dieu! These things are everywhere! Just in case you come to Paris and need to find one, this is what a café looks like:

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After giving it more thought (perhaps more than it deserved) I may have figured out what he was talking about. He wanted Starbucks. Ok, so that’s coffee.

They said it couldn’t happen here, but Starbucks has made it’s way to Paris, opening several outlets over the past year. The appeal of Starbucks in America is pretty easy to understand: Starbucks gave Americans permission to sit down for 20 minutes, have a decent cup of coffee, read the Times, and use a bathroom (although unless you’re rather acrobatic, not all at the same time). This concept has been embraced by Americans as neighborhood diners morphed into fast-food outlets in cities and towns, erasing local culture and communities. But do Europeans know what to do when confronted with a giant 20-ounce coffee in a paper cup, ‘les brownies’, and vente-mocha-soy-low-fat-chai lattés?

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Here’s the list of beverages explained for the French clientele. It’s a bit hazy, since the people working in the shop were eyeing me suspiciously, (perhaps with even less comprehension than most French people eye me.)

When I travel to other places, I look forward to experiencing other cultures, and “doing as the locals do”. Living in France has taught me that attempting to “fit in” means learning the language (the verbs are killing me), dressing up (I changed out of sweatpants to take my garbage out last sunday in case I ran into any neighbors), buying my cheese in one shop and my wine in another and my butter in another…and my vegetables in yet another. But in between it all, I take the time to enjoy a coffee in real cafés, one of the pleasures of living in Paris.

But just in case I run into anyone looking for a coffee, I finally found just the place to send them to…

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Note: I’m off to Italy this week to lead a Chocolate Tour from Piemonte to Tuscany. I’ll have lots of pictures and stories when I get back. I hope to post some entries from the road as well.

French Food Stamps

The other day I was waiting on line at La Poste (emphasis on the word ‘waiting’…), I happened to notice a new series of stamps on sale. Of course, I wanted to take a picture right then and there, but I figured everyone would think that was goofy, so I bought a set to show you:

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I love these. Stamp dedicated to cane sugar, Cantal cheese and ‘la bouillabaisse’.

And people ask me why I live in France.

The Return Of Salted Butter

Forget everything you’ve been told about salted butter.

Ok.
There, I hope that was easy.

(Now forget my last column.)

I’ve recently reconverted to salted butter.
Most recipe-writers like myself call for unsalted butter because it’s easier to gauge how much salt will be used in the recipe and everyone seems to be on an exactitude kick when baking. Lighten up, home cooks. If people followed traffic rules with the same methodical precision they followed recipes we’d all be a lot safer.

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Kouign Amann took me a few years to learn to pronounce (although I tried to describe this to a French person) it’s pronounced like “shwing” from Wayne’s World, which lost something for better or worse in the translation. It’s perhaps the best known dessert of this region. Driving through villages and cities, you’ll find them piled high in the window of bakeries. Layers of flaky pastry cooked with obscene amounts of salted butter and sugar. When cooked right, the combination of melt-away pastry and salty caramel is unbelievable.

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However since I wrote the last column on getting larger, I figured I’d better hold back on further descriptions of Kouign Amann and switch to gâteaux Bretons and palets Bretons. Both are basically buttery shortcakes with that lip-coating-just-near-the-ocean saltiness that cuts the richness of the butter.

Palets Bretons are small, cake-like confections (shown piled above) that have the consistency of rich cornbread with the exact blend of tender-toughness that Clint Eastwood is beginning to aspire to. Gâteaux Bretons are larger cakes made of rich better, poured into a cake mold, scraped with a fork, then baked until golden brown. When done right it’s perhaps the most delicious thing in the universe. The picture that you see here means that a lot of people will get to experience that delicious-ness themselves.

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My favorite place for palets Bretons is C. Ferchaux on the rue Général de Gaulle in Ploubazlanec (Bretons have a different language, and many of the names and places are full of “z’s”. You should have heard me trying to give directions.) I practically died walking in the bakery. The overwhelming smell of butter was greater than that of a butter farm I once visited. On the countertop was a big pot of rice pudding that the woman informed me gets cooked in the oven alongside the bread for 4 hours. I took a picture, but it would take a better food stylist than me to get rich pudding to look unctuous in a photo, so I skipped it in favor of the cakes.

Why French Women (and Men) Do Get Fat

Just about everyone coming to Paris asks me if I’ve read “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano.
No, I haven’t read it, and I’m kind of sick of hearing about it, because many of the answers just seem all too obvious. Especially one of the reasons; it’s because they smoke.

Is the alarming rise in American obesity aligned to the fact that about 20 or so years ago, people in America began to quit smoking? If you’ve been to Europe, you realize lots of people still smoke. (And I’m not sure any government wants too many to quit smoking, due to the huge taxes on cigarettes.)

But to say that there’s something that the French women know that American women don’t is rather silly. In America, people drive just about everywhere. Think when was the last time you walked to the store to buy groceries (and lugged them home?) And think about the staggering array of candies and fast-food available in ‘drugstores’ in America. And just how many calories are in that jumbo smoothie? (Answer: About 50% of your daily requirement.)

But for some reason, I wonder why Americans think there is some magic reason for the French being so slim? True in cities worldwide (and in American cities as well) many are preoccupied with appearances. But in America, the question remains why diet books are so popular, gyms are everywhere, and none of us are getting any slimmer. I loved the look on a friend’s face here in Paris when I told her that people get up at 5am in America to work out at the gym.

So here are some observations why French women, and men, are (sometimes) in better shape than their American counterparts:

1. There is more of an emphasis on quality, not quantity. Unlike in American, in France, fast-foods and soda are very expensive while fresh foods and wine tend to be cheaper. It’s expensive to eat healthy in America.

2. Meals are much lighter; there is often only one large meal per day. Many French people will have soup or a salad for a meal, unless dining in a restaurant.

3. People walk a lot. Even if you take the métro, there’s plenty of stairs to contend with. For example, these are the stairs to my apartment. Imagine lugging 4 bottles of wine, 6 liters of Badoit water, and 10 kilos of flour up there!

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(Ok, those aren’t really my front stairs…)

But just imagine how much more exercise you’d be getting if you walked to the gym (to use the treadmill) or walked to work (to sit behind a desk all day.) Still, it does add up.

4. Quantities are smaller. I’ve seen French people cutting up a single chicken wing with surgical precision, taking all the time in the world.
And consider a container of yogurt. French yogurt is about 4 ounces, half the size of their American counterparts. And for the most part, French people eat whole-milk yogurt ‘nature’, with no sugar added. Portions in America are huge.

5. There simply isn’t the culture of ‘always eating’ in France. I recently read an article about fast-food restaurants inventing new things for Americans to eat while driving. Are we all that busy? Cookbook author Marion Cunningham once said to me, “Everyone’s always telling me that they’re so busy..but I’d like to know what’s everyone so busy doing?”

6. And finally, people are not all the same size. Thankfully, most women don’t resemble Paris Hilton (scary!) or Anna Nicole-Smith (scarier!) Still, even in France, there’s more and more people that could perhaps walk a bit more, and consume a bit less.

I’m often asked how I manage to stay in shape eating all the fabulous foods around me. Well, for the most part, when I indulge in a croissant, for example, I’ll eat the best croissant I know of (the ones at Au Levain du Marais at 28, blvd Beaumarchais near the Bastille come to mind.) If I want chocolate, I don’t bother with a big, rich chocolate dessert. I’ll eat a few squares of the very best, most bittersweet chocolate I know of.

Ok, off for a walk to Berthillon for ice cream…