Friday, January 29, 2010

Two nights in Paris: Chez Paul

So last week I was in Paris for 48 hours and wanted French food. GOOD French food. Without the pomp and circumstance of fine dining. I wanted to eat where the locals eat. A neighborhood joint where the neighbors KNOW GOOD French food. And merci a la front desk at the hotel, we found it in the Bastille at a local joint called Chez Paul. MON DIEU did we find it. Tonight we speak in superlatives because this meal was hands down one of the BEST I have ever had in Paris and I would venture to say that if you are looking for simple French food done BETTER THAN YOU’VE EVER TASTED IT IN YOUR LIFE, you might walk out singing... like we did. But we’ll get to that later.

You know when you walk into a place and there is a certain sense of deja vu, a feeling that you’ve worn these jeans before, that this isn’t the first time you’ve met him. It was like that – I’ve seen that guy behind the bar before, aren’t the tiles on the floor familiar? the hand writing on the menu is so much like – home. The service was just surly enough to be that very French combination of rudely charming, charmingly rude (my people! My people!).

The Cote du Rhone tasted better than it ever does in Germany – which is pretty much standard with every French dish, condiment, dessert or aperitif I have ever had. They all just taste better in France – the air? The soil? The attitude? My attitude?

Eva the vegetarian started out with her standard, „if there’s nothing else, I’m sure they’ll have a...“ salade au chevre chaud – warm goat cheese salad. Luckily for her carnivore dinner companions Nathan and I, one little boule of cheese was wrapped in delicious crispy bacon and we were more than happy to take that off her hands. Not that we needed it – we had enough going on with our escargot au beurre du l’ai (see the empty dish second from above) – this photo almost does these delicious buttery snails justice. We sopped up every last drop of butter with a crusty baguette. Not to be outdone was the paté de campagne a la maison (above) and the poivre vinagrette, also for the vegetarian but sampled by the carnivores.

While Eva then feasted on her cabbage (mwaahahaha feasted on cabbage!?!? Although I must admit, it was good. And the carnivores felt less guilty enjoying their incredibly decadent meal knowing the vegetarian had more than just frisée and a boiled potato), Nathan had a gorgeous fillet de boeuf (above) and I had the most amazing cassoulet EVER (superlative). You may remember in a previous post, I ranted about my loathing of all things in or belonging to the lentil family – i.e. beans. Like the white kidney beans that make up 65 percent of this dish. But SWEET JAYSUS these beans were so good, so flavorful, so amazing – but I guess pork belly and duck fat will render the sole of a boot edible, n’est pas?

The rather pleasant (for a vegetarian dish in a bistro) cabbage plate...

The gorgeous cassoulet with leg of lamb..

Awww, glad mine were home and tucked in instead!

It was all this good.

While lapsing in to (the biggest ever) duck fat induced food coma, we half-consciously ordered dessert: a macaron with vanilla sauce and the tart tatin.

I love French macarons and this one was no exception and normally I would have waxed poetic here about the macaron but HOLY MARY MOTHER OF GOD the tart tatin was sent from heaven or the Bahamas or wherever it is you believe you will be hanging out for all of eternity. I usually err on the side of chocolate rather than fruit but this tart with a side of creme fraiche (only BETTER, the BEST creme fraiche YOU’VE EVER HAD) was otherworldly. The apples were caramelized to the point they could no longer be identified as apples. They were almost orange in color and glowing – a lovely nuclear orange. And slightly browned on the top like a creme brulé. I actually had to pause for a moment to hold back a few tears (yes, Eva and Nathan, that dramatic flourish in my chair was an attempt NOT TO CRY) because HALLELUJA I have just found a new religion and it is called TART TATIN.

Eva and Nathan insisted I post this photo as a summary of the meal sans parole.

We walked a good half an hour back to the Marais for a quick digestiv – which I desperately needed after ignoring my own advice – watch out for the cheese. Now you are thinking – what cheese? I mean the proverbial cheese. The mistake made by amateur French food enthusiasts when on a quick trip to France – they indulge on the first day. Wanting to make the most of a quick trip by cramming in as many duck livers, heavy creams and sticks of butter as humanly possible while you can. But French food is to be respected and gorging like this will only lead to discomfort and the need to BACK AWAY FROM THAT BUTTERY PASTRY! At least for a day or so. Luckily (insert sarcasm here), Eva found a lovely health food store/café and we put things back in place with quinoa, brown rice and other animal fodder that one should only eat while doing a cleanse. And one should never do a cleanse in Paris.

Singing also helps digestion. Particularly colon cleansing chansons from Julie Andrews musicals – the streets of Paris were quiet as we walked home at 2am – at least, until we graced them with a free performance. „The hills are alive......“ and so were we. Merci Eva and Nathan for un soiré tres belle!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: the blessed French macaron

This Wednesday's snapshot is a prelude to a series: the upcoming "two nights in Paris" series and the only thing pornographic about it will be the shots of food. For example, these French macarons. No, it is not a mound of coconut. Mais nononononon. A French macaron is a deliciously flavored and often vibrantly colored almond meringue or two held together by a ganache of sorts - a buttercream, jam, salted caramel. This meringue sandwich which is now what we think of when we hear, "French macaron", was apparently invented by Pierre Desfontaines Ladurée, the man from which the most famous macaron shop in all of Paris take its name. In all honesty, we stumbled upon Ladurée by accident, a blessed, holy accident. Noses pressed to the glass, we steamed up the display case before finally joining the line inside and filling a gorgeously decorated little bag with one praliné, one café, one rose hip, one fig and date, and one porneuse (as my brother-in-law would say) caramel au sel du beurre. We died. On the spot. And resurrected to return to Ladurée an hour later for more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

News about Tomatillos. Plus: A Recipe to Soften the Blow.

Don’t be angry, but… a tomatillo is NOT a tomato. I know, “horror of all horrors”! You are thinking, “the years of lies and deception"! or perhaps, “uuuuhhh what the hell is a tomatillo"? Well, first things first, it most certainly is NOT a green tomato. A tomatillo is a fruit of Mexican origin; its lineage lies in the nightshade family. It is a bright lime green color, orbiting around the size of a golf ball; when it is very ripe it will start to blush purple. Usually, they are sold swaddled in their papery thin husk. Yes! Thooooose things! The little greenish-beige Chinese lanterns tucked between the red peppers and yellow onions in your local (well stocked) supermarket.

Surely, you have had them pureed in a salsa verde-- tangy and delicious. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what this mysterious chili could be. Mild and un-assaulting to the taste buds, tomatillos are commonly added to salsas to offset the spicy flavor of the chilies. When enjoyed raw, they are tangy and bright; they have a bite like a crisp green apple. They have become my new favorite addition to salads and I'm imagining they will make the most delicious tomatillo buerre blanc, when I get around to creating the recipe.

The crisp acidic flavor of tomatillos makes them a sexy companion for fish. I love cooking fish in banana leaves. The leaves impart a delicate earthy flavor to the fish and create a beautiful presentation. It is a salivating “WOW!” moment when you peel back the leaves at the table and the aromatic steam escapes and travels under the noses of fellow diners. Don’t be intimidated by the whole fish or the banana leaves this is a really easy meal to prepare, and as I mentioned, it is dressed to impress. I served it recently with coconut rice and a spinach, pepita, avocado, cojita salad to rave reviews.

Fish Cooked in Banana Leaves with Tomatillos and Guajillo Chilis

Serves 2-3

1 very fresh whole fish, 1-11/2 pounds
5 med tomatillos, husked, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 cup leeks, thinly sliced into rounds
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1-2 large guajillo chili or New Mexican chili
Canola oil
2 limes, zest then cut into wedges
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, thinly sliced
Kosher salt
Cilantro, chopped- optional
Black pepper, freshly ground
Banana leaves- optional
Aluminum foil

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. To toast the guajillo chili, pour oil into a small sauté pan, about 1 inch deep. When the oil is hot place the chili in the pan, turn it after a few seconds, toast all sides. Have tongs in hand, because they will go from toasted to burned very quickly! Set aside on paper towels to cool. Once it is cooled, remove and discard the steam the seeds, and cut it into 1” squares.

3. Wash the fish inside and out and pat dry. Make three to four deep diagonal slashes on each side of the fish. Liberally season the fish with salt and pepper, inside and out. Slather the lime zest and cumin all over the fish as well, making sure to get it into the slashes.

4. Place two pieces of aluminum foil side by side on your work surface. If you are using the banana leaves, place them overlapping, on top of the foil. They will be easier to work with if you remove the rib of the leaf. Place the fish on top of the leaves in a diagonal.

5. Season the tomatillos and leeks with salt, then stuff half of the tomatillos, leeks and guajillos and 1 tablespoon of butter inside the fish. Top the fish with the remaining half of the ingredients.

6. Tightly wrap the leaves around the fish. Finally, wrap the foil around the fish, tucking in the ends to seal the package well.

7. Bake on a baking sheet for 30 to 40 minutes.

8. The presentation is up to you—I like to remove the foil and place the banana leaf- wrapped fish on a platter, unveil it and fillet it table side. Alternatively, you could place a small square of banana leaf on each plate and fillet and serve it from the kitchen on to the individual plates. Whichever way you slice it, heap the tomatillos, leeks and chilies on top of each filet, spoon the juices over the mound of goodness and serve with lime wedges and cilantro.

NOTE: Look for banana leaves in the nearest Asian grocery store or Mexican bodega. Once you find them, buy a bunch and keep them in the freezer. The banana leaves can be omitted and you will still be rewarded with a delicious, beautiful and oh-so aromatic fish.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: My Tianguis

This man and his bounty are why I love the Wednesday Tianguis (market in Spanish) near my house. I never miss it, and pretty much every week I learn something new. Today, I stopped to investigate a bright magenta-colored clump resembling large Christmas bulbs. The weathered farmer who was selling this bundle of mystery, was busy skinning cactus, but gladly took the time to explain that the fruit in question was the flower of the agave plant. The pink skin easily peels off, and underneath is a white flesh. While generously salting the fruit, he declared that the flower was a known cure for diabetes. It had a pleasant, mild flavor and a fibrous interior, which you spit out with the little black seeds after sucking it dry. This man hails from the famous town of Tequila, and consumes every part of the agave plant. A good amigo to have!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bourguignon does Bourguignon

With a name like "Bourguignon" in your passport, you always get one of two reactions: either a furrowed brow and wrinkled nose followed by a feeble attempt at pronunciation usually resulting in what the French would consider an insulting defamation of the language OR a twinkling of recognition, an amused smile and then a rather triumphant, "Like the BEEF!" Yes, like the beef. Boeuf Bourguignon, the famous French beef stew that my French forefathers presumably invented, my ancestors being the Burgundians of Burgundy or les Bourguignons de Bourgogne.

In his recipe from my trusty Les Halles cookbook, Anthony Bourdain clearly mentions right at the beginning that it is very important to keep the oil HOT when searing the meat. Hot as in on the highest dial, so that it sputters. Everywhere. For some reason, I assumed (thereby making an "ass" out of.... as they say) that sputtering meant that the oil was too hot. 'He can't mean THIS hot', I thought, standing an arms length away so as not to be spit upon by the sputtering Creuset. So I turned it down. MISTAKE. He meant THAT hot. And just as he said, if it's not hot enough the meat won't brown. I turned the heat down just a bit and put chunks of meat in the oil and kept waiting for it to brown. But it didn't. So I waited a little longer. Nothing. Basically, I had cooled the oil down just enough to stop sputtering and just enough to NOT BROWN THE MEAT. I removed the gray overcooked chunks, turned up the heat, let the oil sputter away, and tried again. Instant brownness. One point for FOLLOWING THE DIRECTIONS TO A TEE.

I used two huge onions instead of four regular sized ones. Maybe I should have used more as the recipe called for four but I figured two big onions = 4 medium/small onions. Anyway, I could have thrown in another onion or two. Again, follow the recipe.

However, I did add a little more water and an extra cup (or so) of wine because I thought, 'only a cup?' and decided to augment. I think it worked. The cooking wine I used was a 2008 Gnägy Spätburgunder from the Pfalz (Germany). It was recommended by my local wine shop - the owner said he and his wife had made the dish several times with a different wine each time and determined this one was the best. I went with it.

We cooked this on a Saturday night to eat Sunday night. It took a good three hours and like a baby, you can't just walk away from it - or you can but you have to come back and stir every 10-15 minutes or so. And as Bourdain says, the sauce was much richer on the second day. It is worth it to make it a day in advance.

And finally, upon digging in - it was good. As I said earlier, the meat could have been a little more tender, and it would have been had I followed the directions. The sauce could have been a little richer - either more wine or, as Bourdain suggests, a spoonful or two of demi-glace. Which he may have kicking around in his freezer but it is definitely NOT in mine... though it will be in the near future.

Try it for yourselves and let me know how it turns out...

Anthony Bourdain's Boeuf Bourguignon from the Les Halles Cookbook

Serves 6 (we finished it off between the 4 of us)

2 lb/900 g paleron of beef or chicken steak or same amount of should or neck, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
salt and pepper
1/4 cup/56 ml olive oil
4 onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup/225 ml red Burgundy
6 carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 glove garlic
1 bouquet garni
a little chopped flat parsley

Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot
wooden spoon
large spoon or ladle

Stage one

Season the meat with salt and pepper. In the Dutch oven, heat the oil over igh heat until it is almost smoking. Add the meat, in batches- NOT ALL AT ONCE! - and sear on al sides until it is well browned (not gray). You dump too much meat in the pot at the same time and you'll overcrowd it; cool the thing down and you won't get good color. Sear the meat a little at a time, removing it and setting it aside as it finishes. When all the meat is a nice, dark rown color and has been set aside, add the onions to the pot. Lower the heat to medium high until the onions are soft and golden brown (about 10 minutes). Sprinkle the flour over them. Continue to cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occassionaly then add the red wine. Naturally, you want to scrape up all that really good fond from the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon. Bring the wine to a boil.

Stage two

Return the meat to the pot and add the carrots, garlic and bouquet garni. Add just enough water (and two big spoons of demi-glace if you have it (I did not have it)) so that the liquid covers the meat by one third - meaning you want a ratio of 3 parts liquid to 2 parts meat. This is a stew, so you want plenty of liquid, even after it cooks down and reduces. Bring to a boil, reduce o a gentle simmer, and let cook for about 2 hours, or until the meat is tender (break apart with a fork tender).

You should pay attention to the dish, meaning check it every 15 to 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure the meat is not sticking or, God forbid, scorching. You should also skim off any foam or scum or oil collecting on the surface, using a large spoon or ladle. When done, remove and discard the bouquet garni, add the chopped parsley to the pot, and serve.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot (slightly delayed): Mexican Post Preview

Guadalajara, Mexico

What you see here, aside from two hot mamas, is the largest daily market in all of Latin America filled with more fruits, vegetables, soups, stewed animal organs, fried innards, jelly rolls, mariachi bottle openers, lawn chairs, lingerie, housewares, lottery cards, car parts, herbal remedies, and other fantastic treasures than you can possibly sift through during one brief visit - which is all we had time for on the last day of 2009. A proper post to follow...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Thanksgiving 2009 (better late than never!)

It all starts here. With the port wine cranberry sauce. Beginning of a fabulous evening? Or our unsightly undoing? The verdict is still out. As the German expression goes, "the tone makes the music" and this cranberry sauce (and the bottle of port we drank while making it) set the tone for our third annual Hamburger Thanksgiving Fiascotm.

The mission: provide 25 Germans, a couple of Brits and two wayward Americans with a traditional Thanksgiving spread, complete with an historical overview and a few homemade cultural indulgences. But we'll get more into that in a minute. For now, we will focus on the culinary indulgences including the aforementioned port wine cranberry sauce and the green bean casserole preparation. Necessity being the mother of invention, the lack of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup on the German supermarket shelves led to a delicious homemade cream of porcini sauce for the crisp green beans - still topped with the requisite fried onions, of course.

Mmmmmm, a medley of wild mushrooms with dried porcinis. Mmmm.

Dessert steered clear of creative and erred on the side of traditional. Pecans are harder to find in Germany than one might think. After scouring four stores and two markets, I had the nearly two pounds necessary for thess amazing pies. Corn syrup is also an American staple that is hard to come by. I substituted with a sugar cane syrup similar to molasses.

The stuffing: Italian herbed ciabatta, dried cranberries, apples, shallots, and can you see how much love I have for celery? Big love.

Uncle Richard getting a little crazy (or at least looking a little crazy) with the birds.

Ladies, you may want to avert your eyes: this is what it looks like when a gynacologist sews your bird shut. Wait, that didn't come out right...My brother-in-law is a gynacologist. He stitched up the turkey. I don't think anyone got any of the stuffing out....wait...

Henry was slightly traumatized.

And the result (trumpet fanfare).

I unfortunately did not get a good shot of the entire table but upon it diners found: two six kilo turkeys, turkey gravy, two stuffing variation (one with sausage and dried apricots, one with apples and dried cranberries), my homemade green bean casserole, garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole with marshmellows, corn bread, port wine cranberry sauce, broccoli gratin, Moroccan spiced carrots (a huuuuge hit), pumpkin, spinach and feta tart, brussel sprouts and roasted parsnips. It was representative.

I did a number of the dishes myself, with help from my kitchen crew, but half of what you see here was made by guests. This was not a free for all however but a strategic pot luck - I gave people recipes and they were strictly instructed to stick to them. No German variations on a theme but a traditional American Thanksgiving table. (Moroccan carrots? you are thinking, on a traditional table? I scraped the maple-glazed carrot recipe and the orange carrot recipe in favor of something less sweet. Everyone raved. They are now a Thanksgiving tradition in our house.)

Germans don't typically do turkey. We had to order ours in advance from the local poultry shop. Typical here might be goose or duck or other game but you would be hard pressed to find a turkey on a German table. Everyone loved it.

Full plates and smiles - what we like to see!

30 or so guests in our living room. Trying to avoid bumping their heads on my hanging wreath. Last year we put the table through the middle of this room and on into the next, which has since turned into our bedroom. We thought it a little more gemutlich to pack everyone in here. It worked.

At some point as people were finishing off second helpings and before dessert, Ingo pulled out a podcast of a short history of Thanksgiving from the German equivalent of NPR - in German. A brief historical overview that some enjoyed - others started to drift off into a triptoquinine (is that what's in the turkey?) induced coma.

And after everyone had a slice of pumpkin (my great grandmother's recipe) or pecan pie or both with the requisite dollop of whipped cream or ice cream, we started the much dreaded/lauded tradition of dankbarzeit. Literally broken down this word means "thankful time" and it's not really a word. I made it up. Actually, let me correct myself, I believed it was a real word and kept referring to dankbarzeit as dankbarzeit while the Germans stifled their snickers and went along with it. Someone finally told me last year that there is no such thing as dankbarzeit... well there is now, bitches!!!

As is common in many American homes, we go around the table and everyone mentions one thing (or more if they are so inclined) that they are thankful for. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes personal, sometimes not. But those who dread it (some of them alllll year long), always come up to me afterword to say, "It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, dankbarzeit is kind of cool." That's right, dankbarzeit is cooooooool.

With the last revelers packing their doggie bags at 3 am, we left everything as is and dragged our thankful asses to bed.

Pictured above: "As is"

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Cuenca, Ecuador

Let’s start the New Year off by calling a spade a spade, or a panama hat a Montecristi. Since the 1800’s, Ecuador has had to endure the world mistaking its greatest export for that of another country. The panama hat is, and always has been, made in Ecuador. Recognized by Spanish entrepreneurs as a timeless accessory, it was exported to the States and Europe via Panama. Due to this passport stamp, its origin was mistaken, and thus it was named. The myth was further entrenched by the men digging the Panama Canal. They were seen in photos wearing these light and extremely durable hats to protect themselves from the brutal rays of the tropical sun. President Theodore Roosevelt famously wore this palm frond woven hat at the construction site of the Panama Canal, and solidified its fate as the panama hat. Montecristi is the name of the most famous hat making town, and how the hat is known to connoisseurs.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Snapshot: Chacala, Mexico

Salud! Happy 2010! From Ashley and Jiffer and the mariachis!