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5.29.2007

A better day

Others may argue, but I think May is the toughest month. It’s the biggest tease, the old bait-and-switch. Over most of North America, things are looking pretty nice. The flowers are in bloom; the weather is fine; bare feet and legs are back in fashion. But Seattle, however, isn’t quite on the bandwagon. It’s sort of hanging from the tailgate, and by only one hand. Sure, the trees are full and the flowers are open, and most of us are driving with the windows down. But this city is tricky. It blows hot and cold. One day, it’s 82 degrees and sunny, and the next, it’s 58 with flood warnings. You know, really, winter in Seattle is no sweat. It mists a little, and it’s cloudy and gray. But by May, when weather still feels like February, it can be hard for a girl to keep her chin up.

Now, I should, of course, tell you that forecasters are predicting sun and 77 degrees today. I should also tell you that it’s about time. For the better part of the past two weeks, Brandon and I were without a car, and for the better part of the past two weeks, it rained. Going carless in Seattle, with its sprawl and so-so bus schedule, is no easy feat. For us, it was a particularly wet one. The rain came in lockstep with our social plans. Every time we went to leave the house, it was drip drop! drip drop! all of a sudden. One night, we decided to meet some friends for dinner, and I offered to bring dessert. Have you ever tried to carry a freshly baked, still-hot cake in a paper bag, under a too-small umbrella, in a rainstorm? I have. That’s all I want to say about that.

Then there was the time – the following night, actually – that we took a cab home from a cocktail party, again in the rain. This may be impossible, but I could swear – really, swear – that the body of the vehicle was not attached to its wheels. It was like riding in a sailboat on the windiest day of the year – only instead of whitecaps, we had potholes. By the time we pulled up at home, I was so motion-sick that all I could do was sit quietly and rub my stomach, like stroking an old dog, in the hopes that it would lie down and sleep.

Oh, May. You’re so fickle, and such a free spirit. I’ve always liked June better. It’s got such a sweet name, so lady-like and dainty. It’s all pin curls and sundresses. It has to be better than this. Summer doesn’t usually arrive in Seattle until the Fourth of July or so, but still, I believe in June. I believe in June, because it means melons.




Lately, we’ve been eating them like they were going out of style. Local specimens won’t be ripe for at least a month, mind you, but the markets are full of them anyway, in all shades and sizes. Last week we went through two watermelons, dense and sweet, each no bigger than a child’s head. Over the weekend, I brought home a cantaloupe. It smelled like picnics and honey and warm air, and when I set it on the counter to soften a bit, it sent up a cloud of fragrance as thick as fog. It reminded me of something I’d read in Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries last winter, when melon season was long past. There was one page in particular that I folded down, a recipe for a better day, a hot summer day, a salad of ripe melon and cured meat with fresh mozzarella and arugula.

Now, granted, it’s not hot quite yet, but it is summer, sort of, and when a melon announces its readiness, I sit up and listen.

Most days, I would argue that prosciutto and melon, put together, are hard to improve upon, but Nigel Slater knows his business. Sure enough, there’s no deal that can’t be sweetened with the clean, milky chew of fresh mozzarella and the slow burn of young arugula. Mr. Slater’s original recipe yields a tossed salad, but for the sake of prettiness – and so as not to bruise the fruit and greens – I made mine a composed version, positioned around the plate like numbers on a clock. First came the melon, coarsely cubed; then thick slices of cheese; a pile of prosciutto torn into rags; and a heap of peppery greens. Each got a drizzle or douse of olive oil and lemon, and some got a little of both. It was hardly sixty degrees that day, but at our white table by the window, for a half hour or so, it felt like midsummer. I highly recommend it.


Early Summer Composed Salad
Inspired by Nigel Slater and his Kitchen Diaries

This salad is only as good as its individual components, so make sure your ingredients are as good as possible. (I know I’ve said that before, but I mean it.) The melon, especially, should be a great one - sweet and fragrant, the kind that makes you stop and inhale, sighing a little, each time you walk past. I like to let mine sit on the kitchen counter until I’m sure it’s plenty ripe, and then I stick it in the fridge for a few hours before serving. (I like most fruits best when they’re chilled, especially melons.) The olive oil, too, should be of excellent quality. My current favorite is this one, made in Sacramento. Tea introduced me to it, and as she says, it’s almost more like olive juice than it is like olive oil. (That’s a good thing, in case you’re wondering.) It’s a beautiful shade of yellowy green, thick and cloudy and wonderfully grassy. It makes everything it touches stand up and sing.

The quantities below are approximate and make a light Sunday lunch or supper for two people. For a vegetarian alternative, replace the prosciutto with ribbons of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. Brandon gives it his seal of approval.

½ of a small ripe cantaloupe, seeds and rind removed, cut into rough 1-inch chunks
A few thin slices of prosciutto, torn into wide strips
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, cut into six slices
About 4 ounces baby arugula
1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for serving
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice, plus more for serving
Crunchy salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
Freshly ground pepper
A small handful of Italian parsley leaves (optional)

Divide the melon, prosciutto, and mozzarella between two plates, arranging each item in its own little pile. Set aside.

Put the arugula in a medium bowl. In a small cup, whisk together 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Drizzle the dressing over the arugula, and, using your hands, toss very gently. (Arugula bruises ridiculously easily. It’ll bruise if you even look at it wrong.) Put a handful of arugula on each plate, alongside the melon, prosciutto, and mozzarella.

Sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over the mozzarella. Splash a bit of lemon juice over the melon. Drizzle the melon and mozzarella with olive oil. Sprinkle a bit of parsley over the plates, if you like. Serve, with plenty of crusty bread.

Yield: 2 servings

5.21.2007

Spring clean

You know, it’s been entirely too long since I thanked you, friends, for the comments you leave here. There have been so many of them lately, and I’m always floored by the sweet, smart things you say. I like to think that this site is a conversation of sorts, a place where we come to swap recipes and dinner plates, a kind of trading post where cakes and chickpeas are perfectly valid currency. In another era, we would have sat around a big table, I’m sure, with aprons and iced tea, shelling peas and gabbing. Instead we leave comments on the computer. It’s a little different – we’re missing out on that fresh, green peapod smell, for one – but really, it’s just as good.

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking in particular about a comment from my recent post about Lyon. Left by a reader named Rosemarie, late of Illinois, it read, “Yum. I’m trying to move back towards simpler foods and seeing that plate of charcuterie, lentils, and salad really hit the spot. I wish we in the U.S. could embrace this fare.” It was only a few sentences, but it got me thinking all weekend about the way I choose to eat, and why. Quite often, I am asked about the type of food I cook, and the type of recipes that will be in my book. I always stumble through my reply, mumbling about country French cooking, and seasonal foods, and the Pacific Northwest, and vegetables, and oh wow, I love banana bread and meatballs, and cabbage and radishes and graham crackers, and seriously, there’s nothing like a good brownie, and, have you ever made a soufflé, because really, I’m telling you, it’s a snap to make. In short, I’m a disaster. For someone who devotes the better part of her brainpower to food, I can hardly eek out a coherent sentence about why I eat the way I do. I just do. It’s what feels good, and what sounds good, and what, somewhere along the way, someone showed me how to do. Come to think of it, my approach to cooking and eating is like my approach to most things in life: I put one foot in front of the other, and lo and behold, it takes me somewhere. Then, if I look around enough, I can usually figure out where that somewhere is, and what I can do there. Or, in this case, what I can eat there. None of which adds up to a nice, pithy description for the back of a cookbook, but eh, it works most days. It’s a work in progress.

Lately, I feel a lot like Rosemarie. Brandon and I always eat fairly simply – a bowl of chickpea salad here, some slivered fennel there – but in recent days, especially, I want things with as little fuss as possible. I think of it as a kind of spring cleaning. I’m sweeping away all the clutter and fiddle, making room at the table for summer. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, actually, about the baguette sandwiches I ate in Paris. They were so lovely, so spare and artfully spread, with just enough butter and cheese and salty ham to stretch from tip to tip. They were utterly graceful, if one can say such things about a sandwich. I want our table to be laid that way, with that sort of beauty and simplicity and care. It isn’t always a breeze, but sometimes, it’s so easy that it takes me by surprise.

Take last Saturday night, for example. There wasn’t much in the fridge, and we weren’t particularly hungry. It was especially pretty, still sunny at six thirty, so we decided to walk up to our neighborhood alehouse for a beer. We sat outside and, an hour or so later, were scarily tipsy on one beer each – they were serious Belgian brews, but also, we’re awful lightweights – so we tottered home to make dinner. (And just so you get the full mental image, you should also know that we stopped at Goodwill, which, for the record, should never be done under the influence. We came out with a set of frilly flowered plates and twenty wide-mouth Mason jars, which we loaded into a shopping cart and rolled, rattling and thumping and giggling, all the way home.) We weren’t up for much cooking – much less wielding sharp knives – so we banged some lima beans into a pot with a little water, olive oil, garlic, and parsley. While the beans simmered, we washed some frisee and tossed it with vinaigrette and a chopped egg, and I dug from the fridge the last of a misshapen slab of bleu d’Auvergne. We sat down fifteen minutes later to what felt like a small victory: a bowl of lima beans scented with garlic, a tangle of pale greens flecked with yolk, a sweetly pungent cheese to smear on hunks of yeasty bread. We slurped and chewed and scraped, and when we looked up from our plates a little while later, our wits once more intact, we agreed that it was one of our loveliest meals. It could have been the beer, of course, but I think it was something else. It was spare and simple, and just enough.

It was a particularly good weekend. In fact, I felt so inspired by our tipsy feast that on Sunday, I decided to continue the trend. (Food-wise, mind you, not drink-wise. Ahem.) With Rosemarie’s comment in mind, I decided to make a simple lunch Lyonnaise, a lunch of charcuterie and lentils.



This is the kind of thing I could eat every day and still never get enough. In fact, when it was served to me and Mom at Café des Fédérations, we had a terrible time not licking every last nub and sliver from the serving dishes. We could have, of course, but then there would have been no room for the four courses to come. So instead, I filed away a mental note to make a batch of lentil salad when I got back to Seattle, and to shell out for some fancy salami from Fra’Mani. (It’s not a saucisse de Lyon, but it works in a pinch.) And on Sunday afternoon, that’s exactly what I did. I dug out a lentil salad recipe that I’d made once before, a warm one speckled with carrots, celery, onion, and thyme and dressed just smartly enough to make a second spoonful an absolute must. Served alongside cornichons and salami and leftover soup and washed down with a wedge of watermelon, it was, I think, my new standard lunch. It was simple, spring and clean. Rosemarie, this one’s for you, and for me.





French-Style Warm Lentil Salad
Adapted from Epicurious.com

This lentil salad isn’t exactly like the ones I’ve eaten in France – those were usually plainer, with just vinaigrette and flecks of raw shallot – but I like it just as much. (And – bonus! – it doesn’t leave me with shallot breath.) It also keeps and reheats well, and it tastes even better the next day, which makes it perfect weekday lunch material.

1 cup French green (also known as “Puy”) lentils, picked over and rinsed
3 cups water
1 Turkish bay leaf
½ tsp. salt, divided
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
5 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 Tbsp. plus ½ tsp. red wine vinegar
½ Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Crunchy sea salt, for serving
2 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley, for serving

In a medium saucepan, bring the lentils, water, and bay leaf to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in ¼ teaspoon salt, and then simmer, covered, for another 3 to 5 minutes, until tender but not falling apart.

While the lentils simmer, warm 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and 1/8 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just softened, about 7 to 9 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons vinegar, mustard, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil, and whisk to emulsify.

When the lentils are ready, drain them in a colander or sieve, and discard the bay leaf. Dump them into the skillet with the vegetables, and add the vinaigrette. Cook over low heat, stirring gently, until heated through. Stir in the remaining ½ tsp. vinegar, and serve warm, with crunchy salt and parsley for sprinkling.

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

5.14.2007

Safe to proceed

When I was a kid, I was always waiting for a sign. I was the cautious type, the kind who always asks for permission. I startled at loud noises and sucked a pacifier till age five. I wasn’t exactly a fun, lighthearted kid, the one who sticks her hand in the birthday cake and smears frosting all over her smocked dress. Before I did most anything, I watched, and I thought, and I waited for a sign.

In the intervening years, I’m happy to report, I’ve gotten a little better in the boldness department. Heck, I ate blood sausage, people. And during college, I cut my hair short and dyed it calico. That’s got to count for something. For a year or two, I even wore a leather dog collar. [Hello, sweet, tolerant family members! Remember when?] I’m still funny about loud noises, mind you - just ask Brandon how twitchy I get when the volume of the stereo is cranked too high - but as for the rest, well, I’m working on it.

Still, though, I catch myself looking for signs, signals that all is well and that it’s safe to proceed. I don’t know who, exactly, I expect to be sending me these signals, but still, by god, I look for them. Sometimes a person just needs some reassuring, you know, especially when her wedding is two and a half months away and her manuscript is due seven months from tomorrow. I’ll take any sign I can get.

Like, say, the fact that my first test run of our wedding cake - yep, I’m making it! - was a grand success, scooped and gobbled and scraped up with friends before a rousing game of Ticket to Ride on a springtime Saturday night. Whew. I take that as a good sign.



Or the fact that I found just the shoes for my wedding dress, a pair of gold metallic peep-toes that have the perfect heel for a) dancing, and b) not sinking in the grass as I walk down the aisle. Very good sign.



Or the fact that spring weather has officially settled over Seattle, meaning that we can start eating the way we will all summer, with Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market and lunches that need almost no cooking. Today, for example, meant some Rancho Gordo Goat’s Eye beans stewed yesterday with onion and garlic and salt, with avocado, feta, and Willie Green’s arugula on the side. I don’t know about you, but that bowl looks to me like one big green light.



Or the fact that last Tuesday night was warm enough that I took a glass of wine outside, and while Brandon worked on some home-style chile rellenos, I potted two tomato plants, two types of hot peppers, and some arugula seeds that I snuck back from Paris in my suitcase. Sitting down to dinner with soil up to your elbows is surely a sign of good things to come. (This, you should know, is coming from the girl who once hated papier-mâché because it was “too messy.” Like I said, I’ve been working on it.)

Or the fact that last summer’s pot of spearmint survived the winter and already has produced enough leaves for two batches of fresh mint ice cream in less than two weeks. Clearly, things are on the up-and-up, because this ice cream, along with a square of chocolate, makes the best springtime dessert around.



I first made this ice cream for a dinner party a week ago Wednesday, and then I counted the days until I could make it again. (Which, for the record, was ten, and nine too long.) It’s the second recipe I’ve tried from The Perfect Scoop - the first being a lovely black pepper ice cream - and as you might expect from the esteemed Mr. Lebovitz, both were stunningly good. The black pepper was exotic and floral, with only the faintest twinge of heat hidden deep down in the cream. Perched atop a slice of gingerbread, I imagine, it would be just the thing for a cool night. But the fresh mint ice cream is just the thing for right now. Built from a humble base of whole mint leaves steeped in hot milk and cream, it’s an entirely different animal from the garish green store-bought variety. It’s subtle and fragrant and sweetly herbal, and when you swallow a spoonful, a shot of tingly, perfumed air fills your mouth. The whole sensation was summed up quite eloquently by our friend Sam, who after his first bite, stared at the spoon and said simply, “Wow.”

Which is why you should trot right outside to your overgrown mint plant, snip a half-dozen sprigs, and start churning. All signs are go.


Fresh Mint Ice Cream
Reprinted with permission from The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments, by David Lebovitz

If you haven’t yet picked up your copy of David’s new book, you’ve wasted precious time. My copy already has dog-ears and splatters. It’s full - and I mean chock-a-block - of easy, expert recipes for ice cream, sorbets, and every mix-in and sauce you can imagine. The book also has a wonderfully in-depth, step-by-step section on how to make a perfect ice cream custard, which is a helpful thing to read before attempting your first batch. David also offers a great tip on what to do if you scramble your custard, and I, um, can tell you firsthand that it works like a charm.

1 cup whole milk
¾ cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
2 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves
5 large egg yolks

Warm the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the cream, and salt in a small saucepan. [I usually put the pan over medium heat and stir occasionally until I see it start to steam.] Add the mint leaves, and stir until they’re immersed in the liquid. Cover, remove from the heat, and let steep at room temperature for 1 hour.

Strain the mint-infused mixture through a mesh strainer into a medium saucepan. Press on the mint leaves to extract as much of the flavor as possible, then discard the mint leaves. Pour the remaining 1 cup heavy cream into a large bowl, and set the strainer on top.

Rewarm the mint-infused mixture. [Again, I usually put it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and watch for steam.] In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm mint liquid into the egg yolks, whisking constantly; then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. [You can test it by running your finger across the spatula coated with custard. It’s done when your finger leaves a definite trail that doesn’t flow back together.] Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream. Stir until cool over an ice bath.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Yield: 1 quart

5.10.2007

Lyonized

Friends, I feel a little ridiculous writing about my trip when it’s now been, oh, two weeks since I got home, but before I return to our regularly-scheduled recipe-related programming, I have to tell you one more thing. It’s just a word, really. A sort of vocabulary lesson, if you will. It’s called a bouchon.



When Mom and I first decided to take a trip to France this spring, Paris wasn’t even in the picture. To tell you the truth, it was actually sort of an afterthought. My first priority was Lyon. I’m not sure when or where I got this particular bee in my bonnet, but for a few years, I’ve wanted to go there. Somewhere, sometime, someone had told me that the best food in France could be found in Lyon, churned out of kitchens that haven’t changed for decades and served up by sturdy proprietresses who shuffle around in their slippers. Someone told me about bouchons.



The bouchon, simply put, is a Lyonnais twist on the classic French bistro. It’s similar, but louder, more communal, and with ruddier cheeks. I’ve read a few different explanations of the bouchon’s origins and history, but most agree that the concept is a very old one, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when silk workers passing through town would be fed and watered in rustic local inns. They say that the term derives from the word bousche, an old-fashioned name for a bundle of straw, which would be hung outside an inn to indicate that food and wine were served inside. By extension, the establishments themselves soon came to be called bouchons. [Just so you know, the word bouchon also means “cork” - as in, the thing you yank from a bottle of wine - but apparently it comes from a different linguistic root.]

Tucked away in the narrow streets of Lyon, an ancient city split by two rivers, modern-day bouchons still dish out the same sort of humble food that was served centuries ago. They’re famous for a style of home cooking called cuisine de bonne femme, which Patricia Wells describes as “at once generous, robust, economical and based on the region’s wealth of plump poultry, fresh garden vegetables, tangy cheeses and fruity young wines.” They serve lots of pork, lots of offal, and lots of wine - all on checked red tablecloths, with lace curtains in the windows, wooden tables and chairs, and worn, dented flatware. They’re the kind of place where you make friends with the table next to yours, where you eavesdrop to hear what’s been ordered and trade ooohs and ahhhs as new plates are delivered. They’re the sort of place where the middle-aged Frenchwoman next to you wears shorts and flats and, halfway through the meal, pulls her knees up to sit cross-legged in her wobbly chair.



I much prefer good home cooking to restaurant fare, but bouchons are the best of both. They serve the kind of rustic, heartening food I wish I could make, and I don’t even have to lift a finger.

Mom and I ate in two bouchons in Lyon, and together, they were the best meals of the entire trip. (We were in town for only two days, but if you go, make it three. And don’t miss the traboules in Vieux Lyon.) We have David Lebovitz to thank for our first night’s dinner, at Café des Fédérations. He had recommended it to me, saying that it was “lots of fun and lots of food,” and happily, he wasn’t kidding.



When we sat down, we ordered a carafe of Côtes du Rhône, and with it came a complimentary basket of pork cracklings as big as a newborn baby. They were crisp and delicious, and on the tongue, they melted straight away. I had to warn my mother - twice, I should add - not to spoil her dinner.

Next came the first course, which was served family-style, according to a set menu. The waitress came to each table with four dishes: a platter of local charcuterie and cornichons; a white ramekin packed with housemade wild boar terrine; a bowl of lentil salad with shallots and vinaigrette; and a frisee salad with chunks of ham and hard-boiled egg in a mustard vinaigrette. There’s something about that kind of service that sets people at ease. There’s no gnashing of teeth over what to order, no fussy presentation to besmirch with your fork. While Mom and I traded platters and filled our plates, the businessmen at a nearby table toasted and giggled and loosened their ties.



Next came oeufs en meurette, eggs poached in red wine and served in a brothy sauce flavored with the same. I’ve loved oeufs en meurette since I first tried them in a bistro in Paris, but these were the best I’ve tasted, served in a small white bowl with a big, bent spoon, a single egg floating in a rich, beefy broth spiked with salty lardons.



There was no written menu, so when it came time to order the main course, the waitress recited our options at tableside and then waited patiently while I translated for Mom, and then again while we hemmed and hawed. Among the choices were tablier de sapeur, a Lyonnais specialty of breaded, fried tripe; a pressed cake of chicken liver; a rich, inky stew of pork cheeks; and tête de veau, meat from a calf’s head. I was sorely tempted by the chicken liver, and Mom considered the breaded tripe, but we both settled on quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings served in sauce Nantua, a creamy sauce infused with crayfish. I had a nagging feeling that we’d missed an important chance to try something scary and new - that’s what we were there for, or so we planned - but when you love quenelles as much as we do, you do what you have to. They were delicious.

Then came the cheese. Every table had their own platter like this one. I had to fight hard not to squeal when the waitress set it down.



And then dessert. For Mom, it was a perfect lemon tart, and for me, a cupful of chocolate mousse, which came with a spoon stuck bolt upright in its center. Needless to say, it was quickly removed and put to use.



And then we rolled contentedly home to sleep it off. I’m pretty sure there was a second carafe of wine in there somewhere, but I can’t be certain. I think our dinners rang up at 24 euros each, or approximately 32 dollars. I would pay three times that much to go back.

Luckily, we had another bouchon on the docket for the next night. When I called that morning to make a reservation, the phone was answered by a woman whose voice reminded me, in a trembly way, of a French Julia Child. The whole thing felt very promising. The woman on the other end of the line, I knew, was Arlette Hugon, owner and keeper of the eponymous bouchon.



I had read about Chez Hugon in an article about Lyon’s bouchons in last November’s Gourmet. (If you still have that issue, go read the piece. It’ll make you want to book a flight.) The author of the article had written that Chez Hugon is his favorite bouchon, so it was an easy choice. We arrived to find the lace-curtained door flung open to the warm spring night, a few tables already eating, and Madame Hugon presiding over the dining room in white athletic socks and what my childhood babysitter used to call “house shoes.” The only other employees in the place were her son, the chef, to whom she has passed on her recipes and her stove, and a young girl who laughed jauntily with a group of men at a table by the kitchen. Madame Hugon showed us to a table by the window and plunked the menus - handwritten and slipped inside plastic sleeves - onto our plates. I was smitten.

Unlike Café des Fédérations, where the five-course set menu left room for choice only in the main course and dessert, Chez Hugon offered a three-course menu with multiple choices. Deciding what to eat was damn near impossible. For her starter, Mom chose the salade aux pommes et harengs, a ceramic casserole containing thick slices of warm potato and marinated herring doused in vinaigrette. It was astoundingly good, soaked with vinegar, drippy and slippery in the all the right ways. For a while, I leaned toward warm lentils with sausage, but I wound up with the housemade terrine, the coarse kind of pâté that you eat with a fork, rich with liver and nuggets of meat, lined with a thin white casing of fat.



For our main courses, we decided to share. I would order the poulet aux écrevisses, chicken with a rich crayfish sauce, which was recommended in the Gourmet article. I had seen it delivered to other tables: it came in an orange enameled cast-iron pot with an enormous spoon for scooping up sauce. For her part, Mom decided to satisfy a curiosity we’d both been nursing. She ordered the boudin noir, a thick, generous length of blood sausage served on a bed of caramelized apples.



I have to tell you, that chicken was very nice, but now, two weeks later, I’m still talking about the boudin. I had long wanted to try one, and now that I have, I want another. Beneath its thin, lightly charred casing was a filling as smooth and supple as chocolate mousse, a texture that begged for a spoon. It was heartstoppingly rich, with a flavor I can only describe as dark, sweet, and intensely savory. Scooped up alongside a golden, translucent sliver of apple - think tarte Tatin, and you’re close - it was far and away the finest, most expansive mouthful of the entire trip. You know how I feel about baguettes and pastries and chocolate and cheese. Boudin noir beat them all.

We finished our meal with pears poached in red wine and a brownie-like wedge of bittersweet chocolate cake, but that’s beside the point. The boudin, people, the boudin. God bless the Hugon family. Long live the bouchon! Lyon, I may be marrying a vegetarian in 11 weeks, but you’ve got my heart. Or a good, meaty chunk of it, anyway.


Café des Fédérations
8-10, rue Major Martin
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 04 78 28 26 00
Métro: Hotel de Ville

Chez Hugon
12, rue Pizay
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 04 78 28 10 94
Métro: Hotel de Ville


P.S. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the best chocolate candy I have ever eaten is to be found in Lyon as well. I’m referring to the Kalouga bar from Bernachon, a dark chocolate tablette filled with salted butter caramel. It’s a close second to blood sausage, and I don’t say that lightly. A big thanks are due again to David for his wise counsel.

5.07.2007

Eat, walk, repeat

My apologies, guys. I didn’t mean to let a whole week go by before telling you more about my Paris trip. Settling back into home kept me busier than I’d planned.

But yes, now, where were we?


One day last week, I was exchanging e-mails with a friend who is headed to Paris for the first time this summer. In the midst of our back-and-forth about this bistro and that, he said something that sums up pretty much everything I want to tell you about my trip. “The only reason I travel,” he wrote, “is for an excuse to eat more than usual.” I like that. Not that I need an excuse, you know, but France is certainly a convincing one. It’s basically a cheese cellar the size of Texas. That’s why I love it so much. Or partly, anyway.



When I go to Paris, my activities fit under three general categories: eating, walking, and walking to the next place where I’ll find something to eat. I couldn’t tell you what the inside of Notre Dame looks like, but I do know how to get, on foot, from that butcher shop on rue Oberkampf - the one with the red exterior and the especially good chickens - to that boulangerie way down in the 15th where my host mother bought her cannelés. It’s a matter of priorities. When I was last in Paris, during the summer of 2004, I was supposed to be doing pilot research for a dissertation on French social security. I knew it was a doomed proposition when I noticed that my notepad was filled with addresses for bakeries and chocolate shops, not news clippings about health insurance reform or jottings from interviews. Paris has a way of getting your priorities straight.



Mom and I headed out on this trip without much in the way of goals, aside from spending some time together. But soon enough, a couple of priorities became clear, and one of them was a homely little fruit called a nefle.

We were introduced to them at the home of our expat friends Michael and Becky, artist and writer, respectively, and fine cooks both. A few days into our trip, they had us in for a lunch of fresh fava beans and sheep’s milk cheese, a rosy roast of beef, and, to finish, a bowl of fruit. It was in this last that I found the nefle, also called a loquat or Japanese medlar in English, níspero in Spanish, and nespola in Italian. To be honest, had it not been explicitly offered, I would never have chosen it. I’m the type who will actually mope - huff, puff, you name it - when I find a piece of blemished fruit in my grocery bag. When nefles are ripe, they are essentially one big blemish, bruised and browned and gnarly. Egg-shaped, orange-fleshed, and tasty, yes, but easy on the eyes, not really. To eat a nefle, you first peel back its thin, translucent skin, starting from the “butt” end of the fruit. Then you dig your thumbs into said end and, holding your hands over a plate or sink to catch errant drips of juice, you pry the flesh into halves. Inside are two smooth, shiny seeds, which you remove and discard. (They’re poisonous, incidentally, so no fooling around.) What remains is approximately four bites of flesh with the consistency of ripe summer melon and a perfumed, sweet-tart flavor that can, if you’re not careful, get the salivary glands so worked up that a rivulet of drool shoots down your chin. It’s smart to keep Kleenexes in your bag if you know there are nefles around.

From that lunch forth, we were never without a half-dozen of them at the ready. I found them at a couple of greengrocers along rue Rambuteau, near the apartment we rented from this company, and at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, the fancy-pants gourmet wing of Le Bon Marché department store. I even bought a bagful to bring home to Brandon. Customs be damned!, I thought cheerfully, tucking them into my carry-on. When they were taken away from me at the U.S. Department of Agriculture scanning station at O’Hare, I actually wept a little. As I said, it’s smart to keep Kleenexes in your bag if you know there are nefles around.



When we weren’t busy downing nefles, we were on the chocolate beat. In the course of a single afternoon, I had us buying bittersweet bars and orangettes at Patrick Roger and trotting down rue d’Assas to Jean-Charles Rochoux, where we came away with two noisette bars and a sachet of something called durango au gianduja. Samples of the latter were offered to us upon arrival, plucked from their bowl with tiny silver tongs by a thoroughly pleasant saleswoman and extended to us on a tiny silver platter. They looked like petite, hand-rolled truffles, but upon further inspection - and consumption, with exclamations and moans - they revealed themselves to be toasted almonds coated in a crackly caramel, enrobed in gianduja, and rolled in cocoa. At eight euros per sachet, they were not cheap, but in such situations, I’ve learned, you pony up with no quibbles. Our supply disappeared so fast that I didn’t even get to photograph them. You’ll have to take my word for it. We also visited my old coup de coeur chocolate shop, A la Petite Fabrique, where the chocolates are not quite so fancy but still plenty fine. I always snatch up a few of their 85% bars, which come wrapped in red foil, and their 72% bars with whole toasted almonds and hot pink wrapping. The saleswoman in there is certifiably loony - although she seems to love me and remembers me (and my mother, and my sister, and my ex-boyfriend) every time I come in, even after years away - so consider yourself warned.



When we weren’t chasing chocolate, we were hitting some of my other old favorites. On Thursday morning, we went to the outdoor market that runs up boulevard Richard Lenoir from Place de la Bastille. My old vegetable vendor was still there, staffed by the same aimable woman and ruddy-cheeked men. We bought French breakfast radishes, gariguette strawberries, and a melon and, from the cheese stand across the way, small slices of comté and bleu d’Auvergne and a small, wrinkly goat cheese called a crottin de Chavignol. It made a handsome spread on our coffee table and a fine lunch for two.

Nearly every day, we went to Au Levain du Marais, the place I once proudly - and wishfully - called my boulangerie. We ate yogurt and fruit in our little kitchenette most mornings, but it wasn’t long before we discovered that a chausson aux pommes - a flaky, butter-laminated pastry with a slip of applesauce tucked inside - makes a great after-breakfast dessert. We took to buying one on our way out for the day and sharing it on a bench in the Place des Vosges while the morning joggers trotted past, eyeing it covetously. Sometimes we’d pick up baguette sandwiches too, and stick them in our bags for lunch. Mom is a die-hard fan of the crudités sandwich, the one with hard-boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, although she also made quick work once of a variety with thyme-roasted chicken. I like the jambon-beurre-fromage, the classic combination of ham, butter, and cheese shown a few photographs up. I also won’t refuse the one with a few wedges of camembert and a big smear of butter. Au Levain du Marais does them just right, with a baguette that’s crisp but not too shattery and a thin layer of filling that stretches from end to end. They also do a lovely little quiche, about 4 inches in diameter, with a filling of spinach or ham. They’ll wrap it in paper for you and tuck it in a plastic bag, and with half a baguette, it makes a perfect lunch in the park. I know, because we ate them one day under a tree in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and it was so tasty that I didn’t even care when a policeman came along, blowing his whistle and yelling, to swat us off the grass.

We also, of course, made sure to get our fill of those frilly, precise sorts of pastries that Europe is so famous for. First there was Pierre Hermé, where we came away with my favorites: an Ispahan and a Plaisir Sucré - one of his signature creations, two pink macaron biscuits enclosing a pastry cream flavored with rose water and dotted with bits of litchi, with fresh raspberries around the rim - and a Plaisir Sucré, a multi-layered confection of milk chocolate mousse, hazelnut dacquoise, and hazelnut praline, the remains of which are documented in the first photograph of this post. Then there was Ladurée, with its gold leaf and cherubs painted on the ceiling, where we bought a small tarte Tatin and six of their famous macarons packed in the most precious little pastry box I’d ever seen. For the record, the coffee flavor is and always will be my favorite macaron. Brandon had coached me on the merits of the caramel au beurre salé - the salted butter caramel flavor - before I left, but I have to say, he’s wrong. (Sorry, honey.)

And when all that eating and walking made our feet sore, we plunked down for some café-sitting. My favorite afternoon spot is Café des Phares, on Place de la Bastille. I used to live near there, and I spent many an hour reading the newspaper - or pretending to, anyway - on its terrace. I’m a shameless people-watcher - a trait I got from my mom - and if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s the best spot in town. Mom and I spent a couple of hours there on our last evening, watching a handsome Italian couple nuzzle and cooling down with some Perrier and then a glass of Côtes du Rhône. Come evening, my favorite café is Au Petit Fer à Cheval, a tiny spot in the heart of the Marais, on rue Vieille du Temple. It has an old-timey horseshoe bar, Sancerre by the glass, and a terrace compact enough to make for great eavesdropping. (I’m terrible, people. You don’t want me sitting at the table next to yours.)



This is dragging on a bit, I know, but it wouldn’t be right for me to end this treatise without telling you about Bistrot Paul Bert, where we ate dinner twice, on the second and last nights of our trip. I had read about it in a Bon Appétit piece by Dorie Greenspan, and as you might expect with a recommendation like that, it did not disappoint. Its 32-euro prix-fixe menu runs from the simplest white asparagus with vinaigrette to marinated squid with preserved lemons, scallops served in their shells with spiced drawn butter, braised pig’s foot with lentils and foie gras, dorade with fennel confit, a succulent veal steak with fresh morels and cream, a steak frites endorsed by Mark Bittman, and, as pictured above and eaten twice by yours truly, a lovely, understated piece of rare tuna with herbs and ratatouille. For dessert, they make what many consider to be the best Paris-Brest in town, a ring-shaped pastry filled with chestnut cream, but I fell hard for their île flottante, a fist-size dollop of poached meringue floating on a sea of crème anglaise. Take a look at their business card, and you’ll get a sense of the spirit of the place. I think dinner should look like that at least once a week. That’s me on the left, with the fork, only I wear less eye shadow and a smaller bra size.

The addresses for these places and more are below. May we all dream of nefles and pastry tonight.


La Grande Epicerie de Paris
38, rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement
Métro: Sèvres-Babylone

Patrick Roger
108, boulevard St. Germain, 6th arrondissement
Métro: Odéon or Cluny-La Sorbonne, I think

Jean-Charles Rochoux
16, rue d’Assas, 6th arrondissement
Métro: Sèvres-Babylone or Rennes

A la Petite Fabrique
12, rue St. Sabin, 11th arrondissement
Métro: Bastille or Bréguet-Sabin

Marché Bastille
On boulevard Richard Lenoir, from Place de la Bastille to rue Saint-Sabin
Thursday and Sunday mornings, until about 2 pm
Métro: Bastille or Bréguet-Sabin

Au Levain du Marais
32, rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement
Closed Sunday and Monday
Métro: Bastille or Chemin Vert
and 28, boulevard Beaumarchais, 11th arrondissement
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Métro: Bastille or Chemin Vert

Pierre Hermé
72, rue Bonaparte, 6th arrondissement
Métro: St.-Germain-des-Prés

Ladurée
16, rue Royale, 8th arrondissement
Métro: Madeleine or Concorde

Café des Phares
On the west side of Place de la Bastille
Métro: Bastille

Au Petit Fer à Cheval
30, rue Vieille du Temple, 4th arrondissement
Métro: St.-Paul

Bistrot Paul Bert
18, rue Paul Bert, 11th arrondissement
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 01 43 72 24 01
Métro: Faidherbe-Chaligny

And a few other spots that I seem to have run out of space to write about:

L'As du Fallafel
The best fallafel in town.
34, rue des Rosiers, 4th arrondissement
Métro: St.-Paul

Bistrot du Dôme
An offshoot of the popular Montparnasse restaurant Le Dôme, with very good seafood. If they are offering encornets à la plancha, order them.
1, rue Delambre, 14th arrondissement
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 01 43 35 32 00
Métro: Vavin

Restaurant Astier
A lovely, intimate bistro in the 11th, with a three-course, 29-euro menu and a stellar cheese platter.
44, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud
Reservations recommended.
Tel: 01 43 57 16 35
Métro: Oberkampf

Autour d'un verre
Clotilde introduced us to this funky little gem run by an American and his Finnish wife. Great wines and home cooking, especially the fondant au chocolat, and a great place to gab past midnight with a new girlfriend.
21, rue de Trévise, 9th arrondissement
Métro: Cadet