Crisp Baked Tofu

Baked Marinated Tofu Recipe-13

Someday, someone is going set up a camera in my place. At least I hope so. Because over the last three years, I can safely say that the craziest things have happened to me. I’ve often toyed with writing a book about it, but no one would believe me, and it would quickly get tossed into the fiction bin, dismissed as folly. Oddly, I’ve been finding comfort in the easy-listening music of James Taylor, who seems to understand what I am going through, as he gently reassures me that, indeed, all is okay – because I’ve got a friend.

Baked Marinated Tofu Recipe-4

In addition to JT, as I’ve taken to calling him, I also find security in Asian food. I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “comfort food,” but I have to admit that whenever something isn’t going the way I hope (or the way any sane person would hope), I am rejuvenated eating a bowl of bò bún (Vietnamese cold noodle bowls, as they’re called in France), or gai lan (Chinese broccoli). Perhaps because I come from San Francisco, where Asian food is seamlessly integrated into our culinary consciousness, a bowl of noodles or Asian greens makes me happy. (Although a well-timed pain au chocolat has a similar effect.)

Crisp  Baked Tofu

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Gastrique

Gastrique recipe

I don’t regularly watch American cooking programs and competitions, although occasionally I come across them on TV here in France, dubbed (Version Française, or VF), which makes them less interesting to watch. And I don’t go to those cooking vacations where chefs come and cook for guests on tropical islands because, frankly, I’m never asked. (Although unbelievably, I did just get an email from a public relations person, which contained links and photos to one of those food festivals, asking me to write a post on my blog about it…even though I wasn’t there.)

So I decided to spare you a post with someone else’s photos about an event that I didn’t even go to. But while everyone else was frolicking on the beach sipping tiki cocktails with their favorite chefs, I was at home, reading. One thing that caught my eye in the newspaper was an article about Bobby Flay – who often appears on television and probably gets to go to those food festivals – regarding a new restaurant he is opening in New York after a hiatus from restaurant cooking.

roquefort cheese

Unlike writing about faux vacations, I was much more intrigued by a recipe for Chicken with Roquefort cheese that accompanied the article. So I went to the market and came home with a big hunk (unfortunately, not the guy from the Auvergne who sells sausages and terrines, with the dreamy smile..) of the blue-green veined cheese that happens to be the first AOC designated food in France.

(The AOC designation was enacted in 1925, and was meant to control and protect production and quality standards. See how much more important reading and researching is, rather than sitting at a bar by the ocean, drinking rum cocktails with warm sand under your feet?)

Gastrique

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Salon de l’Agriculture

Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

Every year, beginning in mid-February, thousands of farmers, wine makers, cheese makers, sausage makers, and an arks’-worth of animals, makes it way to Paris for the annual Salon de l’Agriculture. The salon began in 1870 in a country that was, and still is, justly fond of its agriculture, which is celebrated on tables, in steaming cauldrons, on picnic blankets, in restaurants, and ready-to-slice on cutting boards, all across France.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

The best of France converges on Paris and last year, there were nearly three-quarters of a million visitors, filling up the massive, grand halls of the Porte des Versailles, on the edge of Paris.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

There are exhibitors from twenty-two countries in addition to France, as well as foods from tropical French regions. And four thousand animals are trucked to Paris from the provinces to bring the taste – and smell(!) – of the country, to Paris.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

Like many agriculture fairs, there are competitions, too, honoring everything from the liveliest livestock to the best wines in France. But to me, it’s really an astounding place to enjoy the best of France in one hectic visit. However, it’s impossible to see it all in one day unless you have the stamina of one of those massive bulls in the pens, or the men who stir (and stir and stir and stir) the giant pots of cheese and potatoes.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

 

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Red Wine Poached Pear Tart

Red wine poached pear tart recipe

Some say that the French can be very narrow in their definitions of things, which is why traditional French cuisine can be so simple, yet spectacular; because the classics don’t get messed with. Other cuisines, however, do get modified to local tastes, like les brochettes de bœuf-fromage, or beef skewers with cheese, at les sushis restaurants, popcorn available as salty or sweet (!?), and while sandwiches stuffed with French fries may be a sandwich américain, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one in Amérique.

Red Wine Poached Pear Tart

Americans spend a fair amount of time defending certain dishes, and some things are (or should be) rightly forbidden, like raisins in cole slaw and dried fruit in bagels, and others are debatable, like beans in chili, sugar or honey in cornbread. (But it’s okay to stop with those football-sized croissants.)

Red Wine Poached Pear Tart

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Belleville Brûlerie & Holybelly

Belleville Brulerie

Hoo-boy, do I remember the bunch of flack (to say the least!) for mentioning way-back-when that the coffee in Paris could use a bit of, um, upgrading. I was recently reminiscing about that with my friend Pim, who wrote about it in 2005. People were up in arms, which was a little bizarre since the French often refer to café coffee as jus de chausettes, or “sock juice.”

Belleville Brulerie

If you’ve been to Paris, you know that there are lots of cafés but the quality of the coffee isn’t the focus. However, like all cities, Paris evolves, and in the past few years, a whole battalion of younger folks, some French, and others from elsewhere, have opened shops sprouted up far and wide, at a rate that was so fast, that I couldn’t possibly try them all. (And with all that caffeine surging through my system, I would have lost 6 1/2 years of sleep.) And other people were doing such a good job of cataloging them all, that I just sat back and focused on other things.

Belleville Brulerie

Being from San Francisco, where coffee-culture can be obsessive compulsive – if you didn’t study the micron size of each granule of coffee grinds or have your water analyzed to ensure your coffee was as clear as a sleek Chemex carafe – you, and your coffee, simply weren’t up to snuff. I went to espresso school in Italy, where I watched and learned from the Italian experts how the seemingly simple task of extracting a perfect espresso actually depended on having mastered a few key techniques and having the right grinder and espresso machine.

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RAP Épicerie

RAP Italian Epicerie

Due to our closeness to Italy, it’s fairly easy to find an Italian épicerie in almost any Parisian neighborhood. (Although locating an authentic Italian espresso is a little more elusive.) I’m fortunate because there are two excellent Italian épiceries (speciality food shops) close to where I live, but most of the places get their items from a distributor, which means the selection is somewhat narrow. Few places have farro, and I’ve never seen anyone selling farina polenta taragna, the mix of polenta and buckwheat that I first had in the mountains above Milan, and I’d never seen it anywhere outside of Italy. (So I’ve been making my own.)

RAP Italian Epicerie

That’s not a complaint – it’s great to be able to find Sicilian salumi and pasta from Tuscany. And Cooperative Latte Cisternino, an excellent Italian dairy cooperative, is a terrific place for Italian cheeses and other products. (Although they always seem to be closed when I go there.)

RAP Italian Epicerie

But artisanal products, items from small producers, are a little more challenging to find. So I was charmed when my friend Terresa and I took a field trip to discover RAP, which offers rarely seen Italian foods, imported directly by Alessandra Pierini, who curates the selection in her jammed-to-the-rafters shop in the 9th arrondissement.

RAP Italian Epicerie

I haven’t seen such a varied and curious selection of products all together outside of Italy since, well – ever. (Eataly, eat your heart out.) Granted RAP is tiny; imagine if someone pushed eight phone booths together, and you’ll get some idea of its size.

RAP Italian Epicerie

Yet I was incredibly excited to be surrounded by shelves and shelves holding many of the foods I love from Italy, including unusual chocolates, citron soda, and pure, unadulterated pistachio spreads, which were in danger of being eclipsed by things that I’d never seen or tasted.

RAP Italian Epicerie

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Le Nemrod

Le Nemrod

I don’t really have a favorite café in Paris. Contrary to what people think, few people that live in Paris will cross the city to stop into a casual place for a drink or something to eat. Most will go to a local spot where the servers know you, where you’ll get a friendly greeting because the staff recognizes you as a regular. Which is a form of currency in town, one that you really want to hold on to.

Le Nemrod

However, when you’re out and about, it’s nice to have a bonne adresse to stop into, where you can be assured of a bon acceuil (good welcome) and a decent plat du jour, or something else to eat. Over in the 7th arrodissement, after prowling the aisles of La Grande Épicerie or hitting some of the Left Bank chocolate and pastry shops, I’ll often find myself at Le Nemrod, a classic corner café serving French fare with an Auvergnat bent.

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Chimichurri

chimichurri recipe 1

Beef is very popular in France. And it’s not just for the taste: on more than one occasion, I’ve been told I need to eat more red meat by folks concerned about my health. (I guess I need to look in the mirror more often.) I like a good steak every once in a while, and, fortunately for meat-lovers, there are butchers in every neighborhood in Paris. In fact, there are four within a two- or three-block radius of where I live, not to mention the few at my local outdoor market.

Chimichurri

Being surrounded by so much viande, I need to keep my consumption in check so I reserve cooking beef at home for special occasions, rather than make it part of my daily diet. (Unlike chocolate.) What’s also widely available in Paris – and used extensively – are fresh herbs, particularly flat-leaf parsley and fresh mint, which are available in abundance. And it’s a rare day when I don’t return from the market with a big bunch of parsley.

Chimichurri

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