Pork and Beans

Pork and beans recipe

Cassoulet was probably the first French dishes that really hooked me on French cuisine. I was working at Chez Panisse at the time and when the new Zinfandel wine was released, in a style similar to the annual release of Beaujolais nouveau in France, or the garlic festival on Bastille Day (called 14 juillet, in France – if you called it “Bastille Day,” no one would know what you were talking about), the cooks would often make cassoulet. Because I was working and making dessert, I didn’t have time to actually sit down and eat any – because customers don’t really want to hear that their dessert is being held up because the pastry person is sitting down having dinner – I did get to take a spoon and scrape off, and eat, all the crusty, meaty, chewy bits that were stuck to the rims of the pans. Which, of course, are the best parts.

Making cassoulet is definitely a project. I know, because when I put the recipe in My Paris Kitchen, I made it at least a dozen times, testing all kinds of meats and beans, and playing around with cooking times. (And trying to explain – nicely – that once you’ve made cassoulet, that it’s actually better réchauffé, or left to sit overnight, then reheated.)

And if you’re going to make it, you make it in quantity, as it’s not a dish you’ll find in one of those “Cooking for One” or “Dinner in 5!” cookbooks. You need to gather the meats, fry up the sausages, prepare the beans, and cook the whole thing for several hours.

pork and beans

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2014-2015

Chocolate bars

In a film a while back, there was a line that became famous – “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Years later, Apple introduced a music device with the slogan “Life is random,” which referred to the music player that “shuffled” things around for you, randomly (so you never knew what you were going to get), although some speculated that it could have been a metaphor for Steve Jobs’ cancer diagnosis.

Fortunately I’m in good form, perhaps thanks to those antioxidants in all the chocolate that I seem to find myself surrounded by. But as much as we try, we never know what’s going to happen or how things are going to turn out. That’s particularly true when someone uproots and moves somewhere else. You’re not just moving out of your city or town, you’re moving out of your culture into unfamiliar territory – a new unknown.

When I first arrived in Paris, I’d bring people I barely knew treats to share; some chocolates, a couple of pieces of cakes, a tin of cookies, or other recipes that I was working on. From the astonished looks I got, I quickly learned that locals don’t bring edible gifts to shopkeepers and market vendors. However no one seemed to mind. (Although it doesn’t seem to be a trend that’s caught on…) It’s been over a decade since I arrived in Paris and each day is — well — like a box of chocolates. And it’s always amazing. Not always amazing in a “wow – that was great!” kind of way, but not always “amazing” in a bad way either. It’s just that each day is different, and like life in any city, it comes with challenges, an occasional defeat, a number of victories, and (fortunately) some lasting rewards.

Many of us who live in Paris often get emails from people wanting to move here, just like I did eleven years ago when I arrived on a whim. (Although as anyone who gets up and moves around the world knows, it’s not like it just happens. It takes a lot of planning and work.) Like me, most don’t have a clue as to what awaits them. I wasn’t quite prepared for what would happen to me in subsequent years and there were lots of hurdles to overcome. Yet I set up home, snagged a terrific partner (score!), learned the language (yet those French verbs continue to challenge me…), and managed to become, in my own way, a small part of the great city of Paris.

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Meyer Lemon Curd and Lemon Tart

lemon curd tart recipe

There’s been an anglo-wave sweeping across Paris the past few years, and the latest to excite Parisians has been the return of Marks & Spencer. Their last store in France closed over a decade ago and after a lot of speculation, and anticipation, they’re back. Their initial rentrée was a shop on the Champs-Elysées, which gives more room to clothes than it does to the food. I’ve never heard anyone say they missed the selection of clothes that were available, but a lot of people – French and otherwise – got a little misty eyed over the loss of the availability of scones, le cheddar (pronounced ched-aire), streaky bacon, Chicken Tikka Masala and, my favorite, the crumpets. Since then, they’ve gone on to open specialty food stores in various neighborhoods, to great success.

On British import that’s hard to explain is “curd,” which doesn’t quite translate into something that sounds like it would be tasty, even in English. Explanations tend to bring up notions of curdled custards, lumpy messes floating in a cloudy broth. But in spite of the connotations the word brings up, French people like lemon curd as much as Americans, and British, and I am sure someone else will point out that others like it, too. So let’s just agree that everybody loves lemon curd. (Okay, there are probably some people who don’t like lemon curd. But I’ve not met anyone yet.)

Lemon tart and curd recipe

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A Noste

A Noste restaurant

Although I’m trying to make it less-so, it’s rare that I go out to lunch with friends. People tend to think that everybody in Paris sits around all day, eating dainty macarons and sipping a coffee at the corner café watching the world go by, while you’re all working away. But most of us are swamped like everybody else (including you), hurdling toward deadlines, waiting on hold to resolve problems, filing paperwork, or, as in my case, washing sinkloads of dishes. (Honestly, I don’t know where they all come from…)

So it’s nice every once in a while to just say, f**k it, ping a friend, and head out to lunch.

A Noste restaurant

On my list of places to go was A Noste, the Basque restaurant and tapas bar of Julien Duboué. Upstairs is a full-on restaurant, and downstairs is a lively tapas bar which has, parked against one wall, a food truck. While my first inclination was to think the concept of an indoor food truck silly, the truck is actually a charming “grilling” station that turns out taloa (sometimes called talo, which at A Noste, is a pocket bread-style sandwich made with bread crunchy with cornmeal. I’ve seen taloa described as “skillet cakes,” which resemble Mexican-style tortillas, but at A Noste, they’re split and filled with everything from chorizo sausage to Nutella. (Which is for dessert.)

A Noste restaurant

Ever since I heard about it, I’ve wanted taloa. So it was nice to have a rendez-vous with one. But like the frequent fermertures exceptionelles (closed for whatever reason), I was disappointed when the chalkboard outside said “Seulement à emporter” (to-go only). However when the server greeted us as we walking in the door, I asked if we could have one at a table if we ordered tapas, and he happily said “Sure!” One of the challenges in France can be getting people to go from “Non” to “Oui.” And either I’m getting better at it, or they are. Either way, it’s nice to find common ground.

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Caramelized Pineapple

Caramelized Pineapple

One fruit that’s always in season is pineapple, and the spiky beauties really help to brighten up winter, especially when you’ve had your fill of apples and pears. I like eating fresh pineapple after a meal because not only is it refreshing, but it has a pleasant acidity that tends to make me feel good about eating it. Although not local (we wish! because that would mean a tropical beach nearby…), pineapples are always available at the markets in Paris. You can get regular pineapples, sometimes called “Red Spanish” or “Cayenne” pineapples in the world of pineapples (although I think that second variety might give spice-averse locals pause), and there are also slender, smaller Victoria pineapples, that are much sweeter, although yield less edible flesh. (In the United States, there are Tahitian pineapples, which have similar characteristics.

I was reading Baking Chez Moi, Dorie Greenspan’s comprehensive, and deliciously readable book, about French home baking, and she notes that Parisians don’t bake the way Americans do. Americans bake to relax or as a hobby – in France, it’s something you do because, well…you need a dessert. They don’t make a big fuss about it or are all that concerned about appearances. I think people know they can’t compete with the professional pastry shop on the corner, so they’re just content to make what they feel will be fine for their guests. And in my experience, French people are always appreciative of homemade desserts, since so many people do go to the corner pâtisserie.

Bonne maman orange marmalade

No one expects to go to a dinner party and find a spectacular cake for dessert, unless it was picked up at the local pastry shop. And there’s certainly no shame in that. People often ask me about how Parisians make macarons or baguettes or croissants, and I answer that no one makes those in Paris since you can buy them, good-quality ones, almost anywhere. Like charcuterie, they leave it up to the experts. French home bakers also tend to rely on reliable, tried-and-true desserts, always having a few in their repertoire, often passed down from their mothers – or in the case of chocolate mousse, the most famous recipe in France is on the back of the Nestlé chocolate baking bar package, sold in le supermarché.

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Pistachio Aillade

aillade with pork chop recipe

When I lived in San Francisco, we used to joke (lovingly) that whenever we went to Zuni Café, that there would be at least three things on the menu that you had to ask the server what they were. On the other hand, I think if you asked ten people in Paris what aillade is, ten out of ten wouldn’t know either. Unless they were from the Languedoc, where aillade is from.

Pistachio Aillade

I had made plans to cook up a simple pot of beans when I noticed a few knobby jarrets de porc demi-sel, salted-cured pork knuckles, at the charcuterie stand at the market, so I picked up a trio to make pork and beans. I’ll get to that recipe in a few days or so, but for now, I want to share this lovely aillade before another minute passes, which has a distinctive nuttiness of pistachios with a persuasive hit of garlic, suspended in a generous pool of good olive oil.

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Cornbread with Harissa Butter

Cornbread recipe with harissa butter

One of my friends who also has a food blog told me that she likes the posts where I cobble together ingredients in Paris to make something American. After spending countless hours roaming the city in search of this and that, it’s something that is actually fun for me to do, too. I like nothing better than prowling around and discovering ethnic épiceries (often around Belleville and the Marché d’Aligre), where I always come home with a variety of curiosities, in addition to what I was originally looking for. Some are still in the back of my cabinets, like still-sealed coconut concentrate from Vietnam (which looks similar to molasses, and probably tastes amazing), and the bag of Fritos, which an American friend who was staying in my apartment spied, and threatened to open – and eat. But didn’t

Four years later – yup, the coconut concentrate is still in my baking cabinet, and the Fritos are still uneaten, along with a bag mahlab, the fragrant kernels of Mediterranean cherry pits, a dried-out stalk of candied angelica, which I had to buy since I searched far and wide for fresh angelica in France (even in the region where candied angelica is made) and no one knew where – or what – fresh angelica was (thus ending my ability to spin a story, and a recipe, out of that one). I have a tin sack of سبع بهارات, a Lebanese blend of seven spices that has no occidental equivalent that I can think of. There is a small box of handmade chocolate from Oaxaca that has been calling my name ever since the start of hot chocolate season. And just added to my roster are six juicy, plump Meyer lemons that were hand-delivered, and are begging to be made into something that exploits their unique, sweet-citrusy character.

bacon

While I love to play around with these things in baking, it’s hard to share any recipes because not everything is available everywhere. And while the internet fills a lot of gaps in global availability, there are no substitutes for a number of things. Fortunately cornmeal is something that is readily available not just in America, but is used in the cuisines of India, Sri Lanka, and Italy, as well as Central and South America. And a few months back, I was happy to find a bag of cornmeal in a shop VT Cash & Carry, up in the lively Indian quartier of Paris.

The French have a different relationship to corn than Americans. It’s native to us so we use it often, in a variety of guises – mostly fresh, but also dried and ground. But other cultures have cornmeal-based specialties. Lest you think the French don’t ever use cornmeal, think again, mes amis.

Cornbread recipe

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Holiday Gift Guide for 2014

Hey — it’s December, and the holidays are once again upon us. While I used to reflect on all the cookbooks that crossed my desk, and kitchen counter, over the past year, I’ve lost track of what I’ve made from which book, and when. (One year I got wise, and started the list on January 1st, and continued adding to it as I went. And come December, it was all set to go.) Well, I’m not so organized anymore, a combination of not enough time, doing a number of other things, and bobbing up and down in the flow of life happening around me. So I decided to feature some things that really caught my interest this year – a kitchen tool that I found particularly useful, my favorite travel accessory, a book that may change my life (hope springs eternal…), and a few edibles.


Zoku ice cream maker

Zoku Single-Serve Ice Cream Maker

If you have friends or family who want to churn up just one batch of ice cream, all for themselves, the Zoku Ice Cream Maker Bowl promises to “churn” up a single serving of ice cream in just 10 minutes. This pint-sized gift (actually, it makes 6 ounces), can be used to “churn” up ice cream, sorbet, sherbet, or gelato whenever the needs arises. Another gift for them? They won’t have to share.


getdynamicimage

Tempur-pedic Sleep Mask

Know a light sleeper? (In addition to me…) Get them a Tempur-pedic sleep mask. I’ve lost sleep counting the number of eye masks I’ve tried that suck. Most let in light, which is the reason you buy an eye mask in the first place – or are uncomfortable to wear. This one blocks out 100% of light and after wearing it for a few minutes, the memory foam conforms to your face and it feels like you’re wearing nothing. I take mine everywhere I go when I want to block out light and get a good night’s sleep, such as when staying at hotels (what’s with all those appliance power lights that illuminate the room when you’re trying to sleep?) or on airplanes. Or even just at my place, during the months when the sun wakes up before I want to). This is my favorite travel object and I don’t go anywhere without mine. (I actually have two, because I am terrified that I’m going to lose one.) A great gift for any traveler.


marie kondo life changing magic of tidying up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

One day, a little packet arrived in my mailbox. My publisher had sent me a copy of this book with a note tucked inside the cover, saying that it created a sensation in their office, so they wanted me to have a copy. Thumbing through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I could see why they found it so inspirational. (And with over 2 million copies sold, we’re apparently not the only ones.) Just after I started reading it, I spent a few days going through all of my clothes and shoes, and cleared out half of the drawers in my bedroom, seeing something called “empty space” for the first time in years. It was, indeed, life-changing. And kind of “magic” that I got off my duff and did it.

Next up? Getting around to the rest of Marie Kondo’s suggestions. This pocket-sized book is great motivation not just for cleaning out closets, but for making space in your life, and moving forward on a number of things. It was a great gift to me, and worth passing along to friends as well.


chocolates gift

Nunu Chocolate, Woodblock Chocolate, and Dandelion Chocolates

Who doesn’t love chocolate? In the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of wonderful chocolate makers and chocolatiers in America. As someone described it to me, it’s a true American revolution. A few favorites that have been part of the revolution are Dandelion Chocolates and Nunu Chocolates, both owned by people who I first met in Paris – of all places.

Dandelion changes their bars depending on whatever beans they can get their hands on, and they’re roasted and ground in their tiny factory in San Francisco. They offer a wrapped gift set, which are three bars and a letterpress tasting guide, as well as sets of three bars. Due to high demand, availability may be limited. (Disclosure: I am a small shareholder in the company.) The folks at Nunu chocolates offer various chocolate assortments, including a Beer Box, blended with craft beers in Brooklyn, the Booze Box with mezcal, rye, and absinthe, as well as a Caramel Blend, melded with various nuts and salt. Bonus: Both companies will deliver gifts for you.

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