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.

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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.

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(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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Chocolate Tempering: How To Temper Chocolate

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Homemade Rocky Road, from The Great Book of Chocolate, Enrobed in Tempered Chocolate

How do you temper chocolate, and why do you do it? The short answer is that chemically, chocolate is composed of lots of different little crystals (six to be exact) but the desirable ones are called beta crystals. The development and formation of these beta crystals are what makes well-tempered chocolate.

If the cocoa butter rises to the surface, some people commonly think their chocolate has gotten moldy and toss it out. If you’ve done that, you’ve tossed out perfectly good, but unattractive, chocolate.

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As you can see, there is a dull white sheen on the surface of this piece of chocolate. And that’s what happens to chocolate that’s not properly tempered: the cocoa fat rises to the surface and “blooms”, making it unappealing and unattractive. When you buy chocolate, like a candy bar or chocolate in bulk, the chocolate has been tempered and it should be nice and shiny and snap when you break it. Yet if you leave your candy bar in a warm car and later open it up, often it’ll become white and gray. The heat caused your chocolate to lose it’s temper. When you buy chocolate for baking, it should arrive well-tempered. (If buying pistoles in bulk, they may be dull from becoming scratched during transport, which is not to be confused with untempered.) But once you chop it up and melt it, the beta crystals change, the chocolate loses its temper, and you’ll need to re-temper it again if you plan to use it as a coating.

Pages and volumes of technical research have been written about tempering chocolate, but here are the main reasons for all you home cooks out there:


  • To avoid fat (and sugar) bloom, characterized by unappealing white streaks or blotches on the surface.
  • To raise the melting temperature of finished chocolate so it doesn’t melt on contact with your fingers.
  • To preserve the keeping quality of chocolate by stratifying the fat.
  • To cool chocolate quickly. Tempered chocolate cools fast, within 5 minutes.
  • Tempered chocolate will shrink slightly when cooled, which allows it to slip out of molds easily.
  • To give chocolate a glossy, shiny appearance, and a crisp, clean snap when you break it.

As I’ve said, you don’t need to temper chocolate if you’re going to bake a chocolate cake or make chocolate ice cream. The only time you need to temper chocolate is when you need an attractive, shiny coating for candies that will sit at room temperature. You can get around tempering by dipping chocolates in melted, untempered chocolate and storing them in the refrigerator. Just remove them from the refrigerator a few minutes prior to serving them. The coolness of the refrigerator will stratify the cocoa fat and it won’t bloom.

Theo Chocolates

There are many different methods for tempering chocolate. Some are a bit complicated, and some are really messy, especially for home cooks. I rely on a thermometer, which is foolproof. It’s best to use a dark chocolate that is no higher than 70% in cocoa solids. Higher percentage chocolates (and some artisan bean-to-bar chocolates) can be quite acidic, and may behave differently.

I developed a simple 3-step method that’s a snap for home cooks. All you need is an accurate chocolate thermometer, although a good digital thermometer will work.


Tempering Chocolate

1. The first step is to melt the dark chocolate in a clean, dry bowl set over simmering water, to about 115º-120º F (46º-49ºC.)

2. Remove from heat and let it cool to the low 80ºs F (27ºC.) Drop a good-sized chunk of solid (and tempered) chocolate in, which provides insurance by ‘seeding’ the melted chocolate with good beta crystals. While cooling, stir frequently. Motion equals good crystallization, aka, tempering.

3. The last step is the most important: It’s bringing the chocolate up to the perfect temperature, where it’s chock-full of those great beta crystals. This occurs in most dark chocolates between 88° and 91° F (31º-32ºC.)

(Milk chocolate tempers at 86º-88ºF, 30º-31ºC. Please note that chocolates can vary, so check with manufacturer if unsure about your particular chocolate.)

4. Remove what’s left of the chunk of ‘seed’ chocolate, and your chocolate is dip-worthy: you can dip all the chocolates you want and all will be perfectly tempered. Don’t let it get above 91° F (32ºC) or you’ll have to begin the process all over again. If it drops below the temperatures, rewarm it gently to bring it back up.

For more chocolate tips, recipes, and information, check out The Great Book of Chocolate

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Related Posts and Links

Chocolate FAQs

Chocolate Thermometers

Agave-Sweetened Chocolate Ice Cream (Recipe)

Chocolate-Covered Caramelized Matzoh Crunch (Recipe)

Chocolate-Covered Salted Peanut Caramel Cups(Recipe)

The Easiest Chocolate Ice Cream Ever! (Recipe)

How to Make Homemade Chocolate Bars

Caramel Corn: Paris 2

Well, I’ve learned a couple of intriguing things lately.

One is something I’ve known for a while: when I get obsessed with something, it’s all I can think about for days and days.
And all I’ve been thinking about is popcorn in it’s most recent incarnation chez David, as golden, buttery, sweet and crispy Caramel Corn.
I’ve learned so much about America’s favorite snack (it is, isn’t it?) but after making 7 enormous batches of Caramel Corn, my main tip is: don’t make popcorn dressed in only a bath towel.

It gets swelteringly hot here in Paris in my petit kitchen, and it’s too darn uncomfortable if I wear too much. The second thing I’ve learned is that a hastily-wrapped towel around your waist can easily slip off while making popcorn, and it’s impossible to stop and ‘re-adjust’ everything properly…especially when there’s projectile edibles exploding out of searing-hot oil.

So let’s just say the combination of a flimsy towel, unintentional nudity, and scorching-hot corn kernels does not make a happy baker.

Trust me. I’ve learned.

So, ahem, moving on…here’s a few things I’ve learned about popcorn recently in my quest for the ultimate, perfect Caramel Corn…

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(…and no…that’s not popcorn shrimp!)

Success in the popcorn arena depends on many things. Much of it depends on the freshness of whatever brand and whichever popping technique that you use. Another factor may be how securely you knot your towel around your waist when you pop the popcorn, although can’t provide empirical evidence.
I think the popcorn that I found was not super-fresh (my first clue should have been the depiction of the late World Trade Center on the package.) When popped, it yielded relatively little popcorn. Success in popcorn-making can depend on the hybridized variety of popcorn used as well as the moistness of the popcorn kernels and how they’ve been stored (which is why you shouldn’t buy popcorn from open-bins…or with packaging featuring expired landmarks.)

In general, the rule is that ¼ cup of popcorn kernels should yield about 8 cups of cooked popcorn.

A reader emailed me to tell me she likes Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn. Good luck. Try explaining who Orville Redenbacker is to a Parisian, missy! (I’d have a better chance finding Paul Newman, I imagine…)
Since I don’t have a microwave oven, I couldn’t try that, but I know le micro-onde makes excellent popcorn because there’s no direct source of heat and the packaging is air-tight. My only problem with microwave popcorn is the panoply of ingredients added to “preserve freshness” and the text-heavy list of faux flavorings.

My expat-pal Judy passed on various recipes for me to try. The most intriguing recommended baking the Caramel Corn for up to 45 minutes after it’s glazed. So I re-tried my recipe, spreading the Caramel Corn on two non-stick baking sheets and cooking it at 300° F for 30 minutes, stirring it midpoint through baking.

Les résultats?
The ‘baked’ popcorn was a bit crisper and the glaze was a bit thinner. However since the Caramel Corn got stirred, it lost the lustrous glossy sheen of my last successful batch. Still it was glorious, and was the perfect dessert last night after we celebrated a friend’s birthday at the cavernous Sinorama Chinese restaurant (135, avenue de Choisy) in the thirteen arrondissement. It was the perfect accompaniment to the quivering Mango Pudding served with fresh fruits which was devoured by all.
Who knew that a classic American treat after a Chinese banquet served in France to a diverse group of friends from France, America, Switzerland, and Germany, would be so well-received?
The entire batch was gobbled up quickly.

And so goes another one of my petits attempts at international diplomacy here in Paris, albeit via something sweet. (Hey, it works every time…)

So…after 7 tries, I’ve used up all my popcorn and while all my dental fillings are still intact, I’m quitting while I’m ahead.

UPDATE: You can find my recipe for Caramel Corn here.

The Longest Month of My Life

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“Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos…”

-Don Kardong
1976 Olympic Marathoner

Ladurée

Ladurée makes what I consider the best macarons anywhere. And apparently so do many others: the four shops of Ladurée in Paris sell 12,000 macarons each day, over four million per year.

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Many Americans raise an eyebrow when confronted with their first French macaron, since macaroons in the US are normally chewy, egg white-based cookies heaped with shredded coconut. But both the French macaron and the American macaroon are based on the crisp Italian meringue cookies made of whipped egg whites, sugar, and ground almonds or bitter apricot kernels, called amaretti. However Ladurée gives credit to Pierre Desfontaines, a distant cousin of founder Louis Ernest Ladurée, who they claim first joined two disks of crisp macarons together with buttercream and ganache fillings in mini-sandwiches to create the now-classic Ladurée . But prior to Ladurée’s creation, the original French macaron had no filling; while still warm from the oven, macarons were joined together at their bases, fusing together as they cooled.

Aside from taking credit for providing Paris with their now-legendary macarons and other sweet treats, the wife of Monsieur Ladurée decided soon after the original bakery opened in 1862 that she would open a the first salon de thé in Paris, where a woman could sit unescorted and not be considered ‘loose’. (My French dictionary doesn’t have a definition for ‘loose woman’…but if you come to Paris and want to see zaftig dames offering their services, take a stroll down the rue Blondel.)

Recently, the macaron wars have been raging in Paris, as pâtissieres try to outdo each other by introducing wild and over-the-top flavors and outrageous packaging. Ladurée has of course entered the fray but with dignity and class, avoiding some of the silliness I’ve seen.

Recently Ladurée macaron flavors include jet-black reglisse (licorice), herbaceous anis vert (anise), and the au courant flavor-combination-of-the-moment in Paris, citron vert-basilic (lime-basil).

But to me, the there’s nothing better than the Ladurée classics: chocolat amer (bittersweet chocolate), dark café, and my absolute favorite, caramel-beurre-salé, a duo of almond-rich macaron cookies oozing smooth caramel…enriched with salted butter.

Ladurée
16, rue Royale
Tel: 01 42 60 21 79
Mètro: Madeleine or Concorde

Related Links and Recipes

Making French Macarons

Sweet and Stinky

My Paris

The Best Candy Shop in Paris

10 Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn’t Miss in Paris

I Love Macarons (Amazon)

Ketchup Macaron Recipe


French Chocolate Macaron Recipe