Is It Just Me?

I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, and figured I’d ask “Is it just me?…What would you do?”

Let’s say you’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner. Yum.

You arrive and they’re preparing the food. There’s piles of fresh produce and meat on the counter, ready to be whipped up into something magical and tasty. Vibrant tomatoes, leafy greens, juicy meat ready to be roasted….hmmmm.
Can you practically taste it?

As you sip your glass of red wine, you watch and chat with your host as they prepare dinner.
They wash the raw chicken or pork under running water in the kitchen sink. Afterwards a quick wipe their hands (uh oh, you begin to think…no soap!…not to mention they’re going to use that kitchen towel again and again and again…).
Then they fill the sink with water to wash the lettuce…without cleaning it out!

Ick!

Or what if they’re making a salad, and take the knife they’ve just used to cut up the uncooked pork sausage?
Without wiping the knife, they begin slicing the cucumbers and tomatoes for the salad, tossing it all together, then triumphantly setting it down on the table.
I mean, Hello?

Since you’re a extremely polite and gracious guest, like I am, (and believe me, no one’s allergic to lettuce or cucumbers…so forget that one.)
I mean, it’s not like you can just eat around the salmonella, can you?

…what do you do?

Le Auto Boutique

The French predilection of blowing things out of proportion is nowhere more evident than in the highly detailed, extraordinary Michelin maps, which cover every nook, cranny, crevice and petit village in France. And like many things French, once you figure out how to work within the ‘system’, in this case an unwieldingly large map that’s impossible to unfurl in the car, it works better than anything else it the world.
(Unless you’re trying to renew your French visa. Then you realize there’s absolutely no system to work within…)

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But even the most astute scholar of la langue française would have trouble giving concise verbal directions to his French driver navigating the villages of Brittany. Most have the disturbing habit of names that have been roughly translated from an ancient, almost-forgotten language.
Try reeling off these names while giving directions…

….Ploudaniel, Plougastel, Plougerneau, Plouneour-Trez, Plougasnou, and Ploubezre, Ploubazenec, Ploumillau…

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….even Bibendum couldn’t do it!

Still, for me, driving gives me the opportunity to visit my favorite food hot-spots in France. And in case you think all the food in France is ‘gourmet’, it ain’t.
(So please don’t ask me anymore about that silliness Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, since it will soon become obvious to you that ‘French Women Don’t Do Any Driving On les Autoroutes‘.)

So before I write beautiful, poetic essays accompanied by lavish photos of rich, buttery, golden desserts from Brittany, I thought I’d share my absolute favorite food destinations in France with you: Le Auto Boutique.

And the best of the worst is found at the Auto Boutique, inviting, ultra-modern structures that line the autoroutes of France, where you can refuel your car, and refuel yourself.

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Each Auto Boutique is like a mini-village. Some sell fleur de sel and foie gras (imagine finding those at your local 7-11!), other times I’ve seen local saucisson and regional wines amongst the offerings.
Although the majority of drivers stop for a cigarette and café, there’s plenty of other options beside vending machine café express and soupe de legumes.

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But I first fell in love with les Auto Boutiques when I spotted this:

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The ouef dur mayonnaise.

It’s one of the classic bistro entrées. Here it’s been reduced to its most simple, most minimalist elements: just an egg, just a packet of mayonnaise.
It reminds me of something that you might be served at El Bulli, but here you can have it for the astonishingly low-price of only 1.80€.
Remember you saw it here first.

And of course, you’ll be able to choose something from the staggering display of Les sandwiches.

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Once again, don’t let the fancy packaging fool you. Oh-la-la!…Le jambon fromage? That’s ham & cheese, pal.
But every once in a while, you’ll find something exotic, something wild and Provençal, like a Tapenade sandwich…

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Ok, that plastic-wrapped triangle is about as authentic and ‘wild and Provençal’ as a Peter Mayle novel-ette about some dreary English bloke who leads a dreary life of corporate drudgery in London but receives a mysterious inheritance of a house in Provence so he moves to Provence, learns to make wine, befriends his charming neighbor and has hilarious adventures borrowing his tractor, and watches sunsets daily with a glass of rosé and a game of boules…and of course, further hi-jinks ensue when he finds a local, rosy-cheeked contractor to…blah blah blah….

Before you toss your nose up in the air, for the more sophisticated amongst yourselves, you’ll find les tartes, including the people-pleasin’ Quiche Lorraine.

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So it’s 5am, and I’m fueled up on café express (the French say, “It’s not the coffee you take after dinner that keeps you awake, it’s the one you have at 5 o’clock”…and I have to admit, they’re right.)

Onward through Brittany….

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…

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

Weekend In Normandy

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Loaves of country bread at the market.

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Are these the French version of Peeps™?

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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!

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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.

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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.