Driving Home From Brittany

Back to Paris, after 10 days in the summer sun (and occasional drizzle) of Brittany.

I’ve had enough butter to last me quite a while, in buttery buckwheat crêpes, buttery caramelized Kouign Amann, butter-rich Far Breton, and Kik ha farz…drizzled with butter.

In the next few days, between exercising, I’ll be adding photos and stories about all the treats…

sucettes.jpg
Driving home with caramel sucettes made with salted Breton butter…of course!

Weekend In Normandy

peches-plat.jpg

These are pêche plat, or ‘flat peaches’…for obvious reasons!
They’re white-fleshed little peaches with tiny pits and are grown in the US as well, where they’re often called Donut® or Saturn peaches.
Last week in Paris I saw flat nectarines. Is this a trend?
What’s next…flat watermelons? Flat blueberries?

plumsblog1.jpg

These are the best fruit in the world: Reine Claude plums.
Don’t let the dull green skin fool you; these are the sweetest fruits to be found. There’s similar green plums in France, but le vrai Reine Claude plums are only grown in Moissac, a town close to Toulouse. I eat them by the bagful, like candy, during their brief but productive in season.

hazelnutsblog.jpg

Fresh hazelnuts, still on their pods. I pick them right off the trees and crack them open. Last year I did a dinner with San Francisco chef Traci des Jardins, who shaved slices the soft, almost-crisp nuts over a delicous Celery Root Soup, which made our guests swoon. No wonder she beat the shorts off that Italian chef from New York.

chevreblog.jpg

At the market in the Norman village of Louviers, I found these lovely rounds of chèvre. I bought three…but left them behind in someone’s refrigerator so I never got to taste them!

breadbreadbread.jpg

Loaves of country bread at the market.

chickensgelatineblog.jpg

Are these the French version of Peeps™?

susansbirthday.jpg

My main reason for heading to Normandy this weekend was to celebrate Susan’s birthday and we invited some of her best friends. We spent the evening grilling corn on the cob and travers du porc (pork ribs) that I bought at Tang Frères in Paris’ Chinatown.
We finished the evening with a sky-high Devils Food Cake that I made along with Homemade Malted Milk Ice cream. Très americain…but our French friends lapped it up it as fast as us Americans!
The ornate Gothic church directly across from her home provided a dramatic backdrop as the summer sun went down.

10 Signs You’ve Been Blogging Too Much

1. You buy clothing, not based on style or fashion, but because the texture and color of the fabric will make new and interesting backgrounds for your food shots.

2. You choose routes through town based on what’s to eat or photograph along the way in lieu of the most direct path.

3. You find the only friends that’ll talk to you are other food bloggers…since you don’t have anything to talk about but your food blog.

4. Before heading out to dinner, you make sure you have your camera instead of remembering your wallet or purse.

5. You find yourself having amazing relationships with people in far-away places like Jakarta, Tasmania, and Scotland, ignoring your friends who live right in the same neighborhood.

6. You make dinner reservations not according to who has the best food, but which dining room has the best natural lighting.

7. At the market, the vendors see you coming and instinctively begin re-arranging their produce in anticipation of your arrival.

8. When foodies talk about Mario, Rachel, Florence, and Alton, you have no idea who they’re talking about.
But you know instantly who Adam, Heidi, Pim, and The Food Whore are.

9. You’ve always been told that normal people should keep “those kinds of thoughts” to themselves.
But you ignore it, and hit POST ENTRY anyways.

10. Dinner isn’t ready until it’s gone through Photoshop™.


So who’s ready for vacation?

I am!

I’m off to Normandy and Brittany.

Be back soon…

Pêche de Vigne

A favorite late summer treat in France is the Pêche de Vigne, or ‘peach of the grapevine’.
These fuzzy heirloom peaches have a dull, very fuzzy dusky exterior that gives little clue to the dazzling flesh within.

But slice one open, and…wow!

peachesdevignes2.jpg

The rare Pêche de Vigne appears only for a short time; just during the fleeting, final weeks in August. Their taste is a curious cross between a ripe and juicy white peach and a succulent raspberry. They’re best peeled and simply eaten just as they are, with their pale pink juices running every which way. For dessert, macerate slices in sweetened red wine and served very cold along with a good amount of the delicious liquid.

Fresh Shelling Beans

It’s been said the hardest thing about fresh shelling beans is finding them. If that’s true where you live, you’re missing something very special and one of the great treats of summer. You may have seen them at your market, but passed them by since you didn’t know what to do with them. And for some, cooking beans bring up images of beanpots simmering for hours, which can turn your summertime kitchen into a sauna.

bean salad

But fear not!

Fresh shelling beans take just a few minutes to cook, and taste worlds away from those dusty dried beans in that crumpled brown sack that you got years ago at the health food store thinking at the time that they’d be fun to cook, but once you got them home, they lost their appeal and are withering away in your cupboard along with that rusting tin of ancient curry powder you used a teaspoon of a few years ago to make that recipe from one of the hottest chefs from the 1999 issue of Food and Wine from that chef with the wind-swept, and perfectly up-jelled haircut, named Grant who converted an abandoned loft into Charleston’s super-hot new restaurant (it’s now closed) with industrial fixtures his model/girlfriend found at the flea market and arty waiters (who seem to spend as much time at the gym as they do in their art studios) in jeans and tight black Banana Republic t-shirts and one waiter had kind of a cool tattoo, as seen in the close up shot of his arm while delivering a plate of grilled curried monkfish.

vertical bean plate

(Also in the back of that same cupboard is the bottle of dark corn syrup that you bought to make pecan pie and a few months later you found teeming with ants along the rim where the bottle didn’t close tightly and you washed it in under boiling water, scattering ants around your sink, but made you fearful of re-opening the bottle and getting the rim and neck all sticky again and having ants scramble all over your fingers. You’ve think you’ve gotten them all, then you discover one three minutes later scrambling up your arm.)

I rest my case. It’s better to buy fresh.

tomato plate

Fresh shelling beans are wonderful in summer soups, but I prefer them as unadulterated as possible. They’re a snap to cook too. In France, there’s even a shelling bean, les haricots de Paimpol, which have their own AOC status, which I used to make this simple summer salad. (If you want to see how reverential the French can be about their beans, be sure to click on the link.)

Fresh Shelling Bean Salad

To make a gorgeous summer salad with shelling beans, simply tear open the pods of the beans and pluck out the beans. A pound of beans will give you enough for about 4 people.

Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and drop the beans in. Let them simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste one (careful, they’re hot!). I like my just slightly firm, but not too crunchy. Most fresh shelling beans cook in 20 to 30 minutes. But cook them to your liking.

While they’re cooking, make a simple vinaigrette using olive oil, your favorite vinegar, and if you have it, you won’t be disappointed if you add a little pour of nutty walnut, argan, or hazelnut oil.

When the beans are done, drain them.
Toss the beans in the vinaigrette while they’re warm, allowing them to absorb the lovely flavor of the vinaigrette better. If you want, add some chopped herbs, like basil and thyme, some freshly-ground black pepper and minced shallots (which are one of the great secrets of French cooking. Professional chefs use lots of shallots too. How come you don’t use them?)
Let cool to room temperature. You can allow the beans to marinate for a few hours, which will improve their flavor.

Quarter some tomatoes, coarsely chop some fresh mint and flat-leaf parsley, and toss them with the beans. Taste for salt and seasonings.

Did someone mention tossing in some fresh, sweet kernels of corn?
Did I hear something about adding big chunks of crumbled feta cheese?
Isn’t there anyone out there fighting for coarsely chopped green or black olives?

Yes, yes, and yes!

I eat bowlsful of this salad on it’s own all summer long. It’s great just as it is, or as an accompaniment to roasted chicken or pork loin, or grilled fish. And it’s perfect for do-ahead entertaining.

Shelling beans: try ‘em today!

Vacation, French-Style

I was talking to my agent in the US the other day (which sounds far more pretentious than it really it….usually our ‘talking’ is me listening while he tells me what I should and shouldn’t be doing with my life.)
Obviously I have a need for stern, authoritarian figures.

I was telling him that I would be going on vacation for a few weeks.

“A vacation?” he bellowed,”…a vacation from what?”

A recent article in the New York Times compared the quality-of-life between Americans and the French, specifically taking on the issue of the copious amounts of vacations most Europeans have (although everyone likes to pick specifically on the French)…

“…Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.

So which society has made the better choice?”

-Paul Krugman, The New York Times

Much of the editorial talked about ‘living smaller’ and ‘buying less’, which allows Europeans to work less and relax more. As politicians in the US preach “Family Values” (can anyone explain what that is?), in France they put that into practice by spending the month of August with their families on vacation (although the idea of spending a month with my family sounds more like, er, le prison than vacation!)

When I moved to Paris, all year long, I was surprised to find that everything was closed on Sunday: departments stores, supermarkets, and yes, even le Office Max. Soon, however, I appreciated Sundays more and more. There was nothing to do but relax and enjoy a nice supper or a stroll to the park. It’s something that always surprises visitors to Paris who come expecting to be able to “do something” on Sunday. I usually suggest a stroll up the Canal St. Martin or perhaps sitting by the Seine watching the boats go by, but more visitors need to find something that’s “Open For Business”.

So this weekend, the car was packed up with all the ingredients for a perfect getaway in the countryside!

wine.jpg

There’s really not much to do in the country.
No internet access (help!) and nowhere to go but outdoors. So most of the weekend was spent cooking, picking fruit, playing Scrabble in French, and taking leisurely walks through wheatfields and lush forests. And catching up on badly-neglected sleep.
Oh yes, and there were a few highly-competitive Pastis-fueled games of pétanque.

apple.jpg

The first glowing apples of the season. They’ll be ready soon for making les Tarte aux pomes and for le Crumble.

sureau.jpg

Delicate bunches of sureau, or elderberries, clinging onto the trees. The tiny purple berries are used to make sparkling jams and the blossoms are deep-fried into fritters.

sorbet.jpg

One night I made a sorbet from rosy-skinned nectarines which I bought at a local market. I had made a well-seasoned Tagine of Chicken, Saffron, and Almonds and afterwards, this was our dessert. It was refreshing and pure, then (never content), I poured some fruity red wine over it, which elevated it to something even better!
Everyone loved the anise-scented biscotti alongside since the flavors reminded them of their beloved Pastis.

plums-.jpg

One day we all took a walk through the forest and came across bushes of these violet orbs clustered on branches. I’m almost sure they were wild plums, which make amazing jam, but I was too scared to try one and see so I left them for the next lucky (and more knowledgeable…or braver…or stuipider) forager.
But aren’t they beautiful…

tarte.jpg

Late-in-the-season juicy apricots found their way into an Apricot and Marzipan Tart, the perfect ending to a summer dinner of local cheeses, a big green salad, and lovely, crackly baguettes from the local boulangerie in Betons-Bazoches. I adore apricots, which are one of the few fruits that’s even more wonderful cooked than fresh; cooking highlights their tangy nature. When baked between layers of aromatic almond marzipan, I can’t imagine a better summertime dessert.

The Re-Rise of la Baguette

What’s up with all the soft, pale baguettes appearing in Paris?

A few years back, when I moved to the Bastille, my local boulangerie made the best baguettes I’ve ever had. Each baguette was a revelation. If I was lucky to get there at just the right time, I would be handed a still-warm, slender flute of bread. I’d rip off the end as soon as I got out the door, and began devouring the loaf, leaving a tell-tale scattering of crumbs back to my apartment.

boul,nageries.jpg

Au Levain du Marais, 28 boulvard Beaumarchais

Enter any boulangerie, and you’ll pass on you way in Parisians exiting with freshly-baked baguettes. Once outside, they’ll instinctively rip off a bit of the end, le quignon, as it’s called.
It’s an instant, on-the-spot quality-control check.

(And just in case any of you xenophobes think that English is a simple language to learn, why do we call the end of the bread, the quignon, the ‘heel’…like the bottom of a shoe?
We also say, “We spend time” but also, “We spend money”?
And we “Take Xanax”, yet we also “Take a taxi”…do they both have the same effect? I don’t think so…)

Maybe I need to head to the le pharmacie for le Xanax, since my deep depression started after my bakery closed for their last annual August vacation..

When they re-opened a month later, something changed.

palebread2.jpg
A Scandalously Wrong Baguette I Recently Purchased (with high-hopes) From Another Boulangerie

Instead of baking richly-dark, slim loaves with a crackly deep golden-brown crust and a meltingly soft, supple and chewy interior, their baguettes which were once so tempting, were now a pale imitation of their former self.
And I mean p-a-l-e!

Each subsequent baguette was soft and doughy. I began asking the saleswoman for “Bien cuite, s’il vous plaît” making her rifle through the basket of upright baguettes to search for a crunchy, well-baked baguette. But now that I’ve been living in Paris for a number of years and speak impeccable French, I hear Parisians utter the sinister phrase that’s bringing down the reputation of French baguettes: “Pas bien cuite, s’il vous plaît.”
At many of the boulangeries of Paris, I’m noticing a trend of baking under-cooked baguettes.
Doesn’t anyone want a delicious, crispy baguette anymore?

Years ago the quality of baguettes had declined to the point that the government stepped in (don’t you wish the US government would spend a little time worrying about improving our food supply?)
Rules were passed that demanded that a proper baguette was made with only three ingredients: flour, yeast, and salt. Each baguette had to weigh 250 grams (about 10 ounces) and cost the same. Go into just about every boulangerie in France nowadays and a standard baguette costs 80 centimes.

This was a good effort to raise the standards of baguettes, although some boulangeries scoot around les regles by sprinkling a few pavots (poppy seeds) or grains des sesame on top, enabling them to get away with charging a few more centimes. There’s also thebaguette traditionelle or la baguette ancienne (country baguette) which are often hand-crafted and made with a bit of sourdough or levain, which enables them to last longer than a standard baguette. They taste better too, in my opinion.

If living alone (or if you’re one of the last fans of the soon-to-be-forgotten Atkins diet…), you can buy half of a baguette for 40 centimes.
Can you imagine anyone in the US even bothering to walk the few steps to a cash register just for a 40 cent sale?
I am so sure….not!

Or you can do as I learned here in France, and wrap any leftover baguette in a torchon (kitchen towel), which will keep your fresh bread just until the next morning when it can be toasted then slathered with butter and spread with fruit confiture then dipped in your bowl of café au lait for your petit dejeuner.

cafeaulaitblog.jpg
My Daily, First-Thing-In-The-Morning, Must-Have, Café au Lait…Yes! In a Bowl!

And speaking of coffee, there’s been a lot of talk on food blogs debating the merits (or demerits) of French coffee, but no one’s talking about the common error that most visitors to France make when ordering coffee: a café au lait is not the same things as a caf&eacute crème. The café au lait is served in a bowl, only at home, for breakfast. (Yes, those decorative bowls they sell are actually used for coffee.) That’s why the café waiter will sometimes raise an eyebrow if you request a café au lait.

A café crème is a caf&eacute express served in a large cup and saucer (similar to a cappuccino), with warm, softly-steamed milk. Europeans never rarely coffee with milk after a meal. It’s too rich. A café noisette is a small coffee with a noisette (hazelnut) of warm milk dabbed on the top, if you prefer a touch of milk with your coffee.

So anyways…I’d given up hope for finding the perfect baguette until I had lunch today at a wonderful, small, unknown restaurant (after spending the morning tangling with the frustrating, unending maze of French bureaucracy at the all-powerful, Prefecture de Police… arrgghh….if I had any hair left, I’d have ripped it out!…but don’t get me started…whew!….ok, calme…)

We entered from an unassuming side street in the Marais. I ordered a wonderful Braised Pintade (guinea fowl) which came in a smooth, rich, and slightly smoky sauce of red wine, glossy from just a soupç of butter swirled in at the last moment. It was served with a gratin of potatoes and cabbage scented with smoky lardoons of bacon and a carafe of outstanding wine from the Juraçon.

After bringing the food, the proprietor plunked down a linen-lined basket of the most excellent slices of still-warm baguette that I’ve had in Paris. Each piece had a thick, crunchy, dark-brown crust that shattered reluctantly when pulled apart. The interior was a soft, creamy white with generous holes. I asked for the name of the boulangerie, telling him the baguette was the best I’ve had in years…“C’est magnifique!”

The owner smiled in agreement.

Restaurant Le Felteu
15, rue Pecquay, 4th
Tel: 01 42 72 14 51
Mètro: Rambuteau

Tang Frères

Spiky, very aromatic durians at Tang Frères, the giant Chinese supermarket of Paris.

durians.jpg

Tang Frères
48, avenue d’Ivry, 13th
Tel: 01 45 70 80 00
Mètro: Porte d’Ivry