Archive for May, 2007

Paris, Part III: Market Walks and Simple Lunches

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When Jim and I decided to spend our last day in Paris at Versailles, we thought it would be fun to take a picnic lunch to enjoy in the famous gardens. But, our vacation was almost over and we still hadn’t explored an outdoor market, an activity definitely on our “to do” list.

So, before catching our train to Versailles, we went to the market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th arrondissement. It’s a good thing we arrived early, because there was so much to see! Not only did we stroll through a seemingly never-ending block of open-air fruit and vegetable stands, full of bright green beans, white asparagus, and colorful flowers, but we also perused the Marché Beauvau, a covered market where we found stalls of fresh fish, meats, and tons of cheese. I’ve read that this part of the market has been open since 1777, so our picnic wound up having quite a historical background.

The streets surrounding the market are lined with small, ethnic eateries as well as gourmet shops selling fresh bread, wine, and cheese. During our initial investigation, we bought olives at a Greek restaurant, and some Dijon mustard at another small shop to take home with us. Besides the overwhelming amount of food on display, there’s also a flea market in the center square, with busy merchants making deals at every turn.

After making a few more rounds at the market, we found everything we needed for our picnic: a half-bottle of rosé and a corkscrew; a doughy baguette from a bakery called Moison and a knife for slicing; cured meats and cheese. We bought a hard and a soft cheese: a goat cheese and a raclette. Oh, but those olives. We cannot forget the olives.

Once we arrived at Versailles, I was more excited to eat our lunch than to take our first tour of the interiors. We quickly strolled through one of the ground floors (there are so many, I can’t remember which one. Besides, I was hungry), then went straight outside to stake our claim on a picnic spot. We grabbed a seat on the stairs overlooking the estate, and settled in with our spread. The cheeses were strong and pungent, as were the cured meats. I’m usually a big fan of softer cheeses, but both were excellent.

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The only thing we forgot: cups. So, Jim and I embarrassed ourselves by taking sips of rosé from the bottle. Very classy, as usual.

But I don’t think we imagined the envious glances we received from other tourists as we layered slices of our fresh baguette with our cheese and meats.

I would have been jealous too.

Our lunch refueled us long enough to enjoy the rest of our day at Versailles, where we continued to explore the amazing gardens and interiors. We even had leftovers for the train ride back to Paris, always a treat.

OK folks, this is the end of my Paris series. It’s time to get back to reality. I hope you enjoyed hearing about it!

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Paris, Part II: Some Other Bright Dinner Spots

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As I mentioned in my previous post, Jim and I were rejected from a great many restaurants in Paris. We had neglected to make any dinner reservations before our arrival, and several last-minute phone calls to various bistros from our hotel’s staff didn’t help us either. Every place we wanted to go to was booked. Even after being denied a table over the phone at Le Bistro Paul Bert, a restaurant we had read about as having some of the best steak frites in town, we decided to show up in person and beg. That’s right, we had no shame. But our efforts sadly garnered only a sympathetic head shaking of non instead of a table.

So Jim and I, and our empty stomachs, hit the Parisian pavement. In the end, we had a few very nice meals, the best of which I’ll list below.

Chez Justine: Packed with French speakers, the bistro Chez Justine has a casual French vibe, complete with weathered wooden tables, ornate iron chandeliers, and muted lighting. Jim and I split a flaky tart of mozzarella and tomatoes to start, and then I had a very good lamb dish accompanied by minty fresh herbs, plus a side of frites. I was in Paris, I had to have some frites! The best arrived last, a wonderful apple tart topped with vanilla ice cream (pictured, above). The only complaint lay with the music, as it was all Beatles, all night; I thought Jim was going to lose it when “Yellow Submarine” played for the fifth time. As I sat at our table and looked around, I actually remembered going to Chez Justine during my first trip to Paris six years ago. I had ordered the steak tartare thinking it was steak frites, a mistake I still blame on jetlag, even though I had been working in Italy the week before. (Come on, it’s a good excuse.) Let’s just say I received a quick education in the difference between the two forms of well-(or not-) doneness, but I did think the tartare was delicious! 96, rue Oberkampf, 11th arrondissement (T) 01 43 574403

Le Comptoir:  Jim and I had a restorative lunch at Le Comptoir on a day when we needed a break between visiting the Museé National du Moyen Age and the Catacombs. I had read that for the reservation-poor like us, lunch was a good bet at this popular spot. The tip was indeed true, and we waited just 15 minutes before gaining a lovely sidewalk table outside. We ordered a tasting platter of saucisson, happily satisfying Jim’s fondness for processed meats. I awaited my pressé de fois gras and artichoke spread, thinking (because of my interpretation of the word pressé ) I was going to receive a nice little sandwich or panino. Imagine my surprise when the plate of ungarnished fois gras, with alternating layers of different colors contained by a gelée, was placed in front of me. Note to self: next time bring a French-English dictionary; hadn’t I already learned my lesson years ago, during the steak tartare debacle? I don’t think I’m the biggest fan of fois gras, but I definitely went through a rite of passage at Le Comptoir as I gamely ate my way through the very rich, fresh dish. And I would go back again to sample the ample menu of lunch options, which looked fantastic at the surrounding tables. 9, carrefour de l’Odeon, 6th arrondissement, (T) 01 44 27 07 97

Chez Marianne: Jim and I took a night off from his steak frites research at Chez Marianne, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Marais district. We had just been rejected from a Moroccan restaurant in another neighborhood, and at this point we were desperately searching for a casual, easygoing spot where we could simply relax. And under the outdoor canopy at Chez Marianne, we did. We ordered a tasting platter of ten fresh and tasty items, including humus, silky eggplant “caviar”, crunchy falafel, spicy Turkish salad, and refreshing tzaziki. Mingling with tourists and French locals alike, we greatly enjoyed this break from traditional French bistro fare. Sometimes getting rejected is the best thing that ever happened. 2, rue des l’Hospitalières-Saint Gervais, 4th arrondissement (T) 01 42 72 18 86

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Paris, Part I: Dinner at Le Chateaubriand

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Bonjour! Oui, Jim and I are finally back from our trip to Paris, adjusting to daily New York life and struggling with jet lag. We had a wonderful week, filled with lots of walking, art, French history, and of course, food.

I did some restaurant research before our trip, but as Jim and I weren’t planning to eat anywhere fancy, I didn’t bother to make any dinner reservations. This system worked perfectly when we went to Tuscany a few years ago, but alas, not so well in Paris. Here’s a tip we learned the hard way: if you have a restaurant you would like to visit, make a dinner reservation before you leave for your trip or as soon as you arrive in Paris. We were rejected from quite a few establishments because we didn’t have a reservation and they were fully booked. Traveling around Paris is so easy by subway, there’s no need to worry about the logistics of where you might be that day compared to the restaurant’s location. Just do it.

But once in while we did successfully gain entrance to a restaurant we really wanted to try. I met Jim in Paris last Thursday night, as he had been in Nice beforehand for a business conference. On that first evening we decided to walk towards Le Chateaubriand, a restaurant I had read about in several magazines as one of the city’s best new bistros. I was especially excited because the restaurant was located in my favorite neighborhood, the 11th arrondissement, and I wanted to show Jim around a little bit. This was his first trip to Paris, and my second. The streets were pretty quiet at around 10 pm, and we soon discovered why: everyone was at Le Chateaubriand.

As we stood by the door in the dimly-lit, dark wood-accented space, a tall, rough-shaven man behind the bar gave us a quizzical look. He and the rest of the staff were dressed in white aprons, casually lounging around the bar, and everyone was smoking. So very French. His raised left eyebrow, hiding beneath his dark, shaggy hair, appeared to say it all: no room for you! But we asked for a table anyway, and after a moment of tense silence, he offered us a glass of wine and told us to wait 10 minutes. The eyebrow remained suspended, and seemed to heighten every time he looked our way.

Our first meal in Paris wound up being our best meal in Paris. The food at Le Chateaubriand is unconventional, fresh, and entirely reasonable in price, and also accompanied by a comfortable, casual atmosphere. Jim and I shared an entree of raw shrimp and avocado puree, refreshingly drenched in lemon. Before ordering, our friend at the bar (who was actually the head chef) made sure we understood that these crevettes would be served to us raw. Once I saw the little guys I’ll admit it, I was a little nervous, but we were in Paris, and I just had to eat them. Dousing them in creamy avocado puree helped soothe my worries, at least for the moment.

My plat of poisson rouge also sang of citrus flavors, and was accompanied by sauces of avocado, mustard, and fennel. The fish was light and flaky, and introduced a different set of flavors with each sauce. Jim, who spent the trip researching steak frites and its many similar forms, had the filet de boeuf saignant with bok choy, and referred to it longingly during the rest of our week in Paris as the best beef he had sampled. And Jim ate a lot of beef that week. I tasted a bite, and I had to agree; the meat was soft, chewy, and wonderfully satisfying.

Our new friend stopped by our table every once in a while to raise his eyebrow at us and ask how we liked our food. We must have proved ourselves to him when we ordered the raw shrimp, because he certainly enjoyed checking in on us and making us laugh. Anyway, we loved that guy and we’re still talking about him, two weeks later. The rest of the staff was very nice and attentive as well, as were our neighboring French diners. When the woman at the next table received her dessert, a chocolate ganache accompanied with foam, I couldn’t hold back and declared “Look at that!” provoking friendly laughter. We repeated the scene again when I ordered it for myself, enjoying the temporary bond that good food can provide, even among people who don’t speak the same language. This rich, smooth chocolate dessert (pictured above), served with mango and foam, was the perfect introduction to our decadent vacation in Paris.

As we spent the rest of the week getting rejected from several of the other restaurants we wanted to try, we thought back often to Le Chateaubriand, tempted to see if our luck could possibly strike twice. But as Jim wisely said, the meal was too perfect a memory; we needed to savor it and consider ourselves lucky to have experienced it. And I agreed.

Le Chateaubriand  129 Avenue Parmentier, 11th Arrondissement (T): 33 1 01 43 5745 95

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Pasta alla Norma

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I’ve made a lot of pasta in my day. I’m always looking to try new recipes, but like many of us, I have a few staples that I return to often. Pasta with eggplant, often known as pasta alla norma, is one of my favorites. I learned how to make it about 12 years ago, when I spent a summer living with my aunt and cousins in Puglia, Italy. So, when I first noticed another recipe for this dish in Jamie’s Italy, I quickly turned the page. What could Jamie possibly teach me–or my aunt, for that matter–about this Southern Italian classic?

But as I continued to use Oliver’s book, I kept returning to the beautiful photograph accompanying his recipe. His heaping serving of pasta looked so much prettier than anytime I had prepared this dish. Finally I convinced myself that simply experimenting with another version didn’t constitute betrayal to my aunt. Let’s just hope she sees it that way.

When I make my aunt’s recipe, the process is quite simple: I chop an eggplant into chunks and saute the pieces in some chopped garlic and olive oil, until they start to brown. I then add a can of crushed tomatoes, a pinch of salt, and a lot of fresh basil, as well as a small bit of water. I simmer the sauce for about half an hour, mix it up with some penne, and top it with some Parmesan and another splash of olive oil. That’s it, done: a simple, satisfying meal that I have come to regard as Italian comfort food. It’s filling without being too heavy, and the combination of silky, fleshy eggplant and fresh basil always reminds me of summertime.

Jamie Oliver’s version is slightly more refined than mine. As opposed to my random hunks of eggplant, he recommends slicing the vegetable into thin strips and cutting away the seeds before browning the slices in olive oil and oregano. Among other small differences from my recipe, he also adds a bit of chili pepper, as well as basil stems, to his sauce and cooks it for a shorter period of time. Fresh ricotta is suggested as a topping.

My friend Gina, a fellow eggplant lover who came over for dinner on Monday night, and I thoroughly enjoyed our pasta. Oliver’s version was very light and fresh, with the chopped basil stems infusing the sauce with springtime flavor. Adding fresh ricotta at the end surprisingly contributed to the sweet airiness of the dish.

Although I achieved positive results from Oliver’s recipe, I don’t think I can ever abandon my aunt’s version. It’s one of the first recipes I ever learned in Italy. I even taught it to my mother when I returned. Sorry, but family comes first.

Just so you know, Artichoke Heart will be on hiatus for the next week or so, while I head off to Paris. Get ready for some French-inspired stories!

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Movie Review: Waitress

Unfortunately I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen this week. I try to plan my time carefully and stagger my social engagements and errands so that I wind up cooking at home most nights, but this week it just didn’t happen. I’m not popular, just a poor planner. So, instead of talking about something I’ve cooked or eaten lately,  I’m writing about about a fun and touching food-related movie called Waitress that I saw on Saturday night.

Now, everyone who has known me for at least the past 10 years remembers that I was a huge fan of the now-cancelled television show Felicity. When I heard that Keri Russell, the star of the angst-ridden show and sometime role model for curly-haired pride, was coming out with a new movie AND that it was about pies, there was no doubt in my mind that I’d be there as soon as possible. 

Waitress tells the story of Jenna (Russell) a waitress in a small-town pie-diner stuck in a lousy marriage to controlling Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Her sole desire in life is simply to make pies. Colorful, creative, mind-blowing pies. Our heroine has been stashing money away under the couch, in the sugar jar, all over the house, preparing for her escape, when she discovers her unexpected–and unwanted–pregnancy. The rest of the film follows Jenna’s personal journey towards independence and reluctant motherhood.

The acting by Russell and the rest of the cast is wonderful and poignent, especially considering the tragic murder this fall of the film’s writer, director, and co-star, Adrienne Shelly. But the crucial co-stars are the uncredited, imaginative pies dreamed up by Jenna. They act as markers for the significant events in her life, such as “Pregnant and Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” and “Naughty Pumpkin Pie,” tied with red ribbon, for her bumbling obstetrician and new lover, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). The stop-action photography of the pies, with close-ups of berries, bananas, chocolate, nuts, and more, fully exploits the beauty and significance of these desserts.

Some of the best moments in the film show how food connects people to each other, as seen during an afternoon where Jenna teaches Dr. Pomatter how to bake a pie. The intimacy of the activity helps the couple form a previously-unrealized emotional connection, and provides Jenna with a much-needed “best friend.”

Waitress doesn’t overdo the pie-and-life connection, but rather finds a balance between pastry and the choices we make everyday in our quest to be happy. Helped by a cheerful soundtrack and amusing co-stars–Cheryl Hines adds wonderful comic relief as another co-waitress in the film named Becky–Waitress serves up an entertaining mix of humor and emotion. If you have time, indulge yourself in this confectionery delight of a film.

I do have a question though: Has anyone else ever heard of a “pie diner”? I believe this film takes place in the South, and at one point Dr. Pomatter speaks of a pie diner he would go to in Connecticut as a child. Just wondering, as I had never heard the term before.

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