25 April 2009

Beets, beets, beets: Eating nothing but beets in Paris

Since I'm solo at the moment, there's been no eating out this weekend-- I figured it'd be more economical to make my restaurant meal at home. Which made me think of duck.

Duck is good bargain food. For ~$20, I get 2 nights of meals for 2 out of the breasts, another generous dinner for 2 out of the confit'd thighs and legs, the skin not on those parts gets rendered (for later confits, sauteing potatoes, etc), and the bones and scraps go into stock, which gets used for soup, sauces, and risotto. Besides being good value, it's also great taste. Meaty without being heavy, a little sweet, and very versatile-- friend to fruit and spice.

And, as relevant as good value to my cooking and eating right now, duck is not squid. Turns out 2 lbs of squid is more than (this) 1 person needs at one time.


Not squid

In Philly, I always buy whole duck from one of my vendors I know has it fresh. Ducks seem more expensive here, making confit is a long slow oven roast I like better in winter, and our tiny freezer with huge temperature swings isn't ideal for storing multiple stocks, so I'll hold off on the whole duck until I want to make ragu from the legs and thighs. But fresh duck breast, or magrets, can be found at most poultry purveyors, curiously always in vacuum-pacs. I got my first one today at the Prez Wilson market.

I did my vegetable shopping there too, at Joël Thiébaut's stand. Aside from having a name I have no idea how to pronounce, Mr Thiébaut is different from my produce vendors at home in that he sells only vegetables, no fruits, and he's vegetable provider to the restaurant stars. As such, the stand is always very busy, and so you might expect a bit uppity. But not so—they know their vegetables, love their vegetables, and share that knowledge and enthusiasm with their customers, many of whom are little old ladies who leave the stand carrying pallets of spinach or pulling huge carts groaning with vegetables. Today they had an assortment of asian greens I'd never seen before, including mibuna, which looks like a long, skinny spinach, and which they said was both sweet and peppery at the same time. Sounded interesting.

Mibuna, also not squid

For my dinner-out in, I made a spice mix to rub into the slits I cut in the duck skin to give the fat someplace to go so the skin would crisp-- coriander, cumin, and a little allspice. Pan seared, finished to medium rare in the oven, let rest, and sliced and served sprinkled with a few grains of gray sea salt. Simple and traditional. The duck was simply outstanding. While searing, it smelled pretty aggressively livery (US duck can taste livery if cooked much past med-rare), but when finished the flavor was rich, full, and mellow and the mahogany skin was cracklingly crisp with just a hint of spice. The mibuna was the perfect accompaniment-- sauteed with some garlic and just a little salt and pepper, it was indeed a little sweet and finished with a peppery, almost minty, bite. With some simple mashed potatoes and a rhubarb-ginger compote, I think this may have been the best meal I've eaten so far in Paris. I'll have to eat here again.

It's a shame I didn't anticipate this success and seek out a more deserving wine than our 5-euro house Cahors-- a more sophisticated Cahors, or a St Joseph, would have been ideal. It's also a shame Karen wasn't here to share in the eating, and she might be mad if she finds out what she missed. She hates beets, so I'm hoping she'll skip this post.

Nothing but beets

22 April 2009

Just keep it away from the bagpipes

Wednesday is President Wilson market day, and since I'm abandoned in Paris for the next several days (awwww....), I decided to spend some time cooking. Not that I don't cook when Karen is here, but when you're feeding somebody else, there are time frames to be considered, odds of success to be calculated, etc. Home alone, there's more room to slide, and I was feeling adventurous.

I picked up what I needed to make vegetable stock. Too much vegetable stock, actually, since I keep forgetting that I don't have either a real stock pot or a freezer big enough to store anything. Got my eggs, some more arugula (is there anything better with just a little olive oil, lemon, and parmesan?), some beautiful swiss chard for a gratin with some leftover roasted potatoes, half a loaf of crusty and chewy polka bread (the only description of the origin of this name I could find refers to a bread of the Loire valley of a very different shape and style from what is called Polka in Paris; someday I'll ask the lady I buy it from why it's called that) and some big softball-sized globe artichokes for braising and adding to a light tomato sauce with pasta. On the way out of the market, though, I passed the best of the several fish vendors, and there on the end of the table was squid.

Though I like squid, I've never cooked with it. It's hard to find any truly fresh seafood in Philly, I think, so I cook with whole fish whenever the availability warrants it, but I've never seen squid that looked so good that I had the urge to try it. I'm not sure I did today, either, frankly. Judging by the dull gills and less-than-brilliant eyes I see on most fish sold in Paris, I'm not sure the freshness of the to-the-public seafood retail is that much better than in Philly. But today, as I said, I was feeling adventurous. And I've been thinking about squid for the past couple of weeks as a potential partner for the myriad of artichoke varieties that are everywhere at the markets. Heck, I already had artichokes in my bag, so even if it wasn't sparklingly fresh (there's nothing cheekier than a fresh squid...), a little over 2 pounds of whole squid came home with me. Hey, company for the week!

And they have friends

Once it was in the apartment, it was a little more intimidating. It didn't look anything like the calamari waiters bring when I order it.

Ummm, where's the dipping sauce?

I'd read about cleaning squid, but the first encounter was a little tentative. You've got to loosen the insides from the body, then pull the head-and-insides out (hopefully in one piece and without breaking the ink sac). Pull out the inedible cartilage quill and clean out the body thoroughly, making sure that all of the mucusy stuff has been pulled out, and then cut off the little wings .

Head-and-innards alongside the still-winged body, long feeler tentacles removed

If you separate the arms/tentacles from the just-dislodged head-and-innards just beyond the eyes...

Aim just below the eyes

... you can push the beak out intact in its little round cartilage pod and have a nice clean set of tentacles.

Beak and tentacles divided

The edible bits (membrane still attached)

Pull the pigmented membrane off, and you're done. One I got rolling, it was a little over a minute per squid. Not bad at all, really, and kind of fun once you get in there. Slice 'em up and you're ready to roll.

A bowl full of potential

By the 2nd (of 8) squid, it was pretty obvious I had way more squid than I could eat tonight, maybe all week. And it was also obvious that it wasn't going to get any better sitting in the refrigerator, so I cleaned them all and boiled them just 30 seconds in salted water before stopping the cooking in ice water. For a tender result, squid is supposedly best cooked either as fast as possible (eg, frying) or in a long, slow braise. I'm hoping the quick boil is allows me several options in future preparation while extending the squid's refrigerator shelf life.

After the quick cook

Tonight I braised one of those giant artichoke hearts in white wine with onion and garlic, and added both the artichoke and a handful of the squid pieces to a light tomato sauce just before adding the pasta. I wouldn't call the squid meltingly tender, but it wasn't rubbery, either, and the squid and the artichoke were definitely a nice pairing.

With 3 artichokes and a bowl full of squid still in the kitchen, I'm in need of additional ways of pairing them. I wonder how they'll taste with cereal in the morning?

21 April 2009

Accordion army

Some months back, sitting in our den in Philadelphia doing office chores, How It's Made was on the Discovery Channel on TV. The show is pretty much exactly what the title promises, 3 vignettes in 30 min that show how things are made. Light bulbs, plastic trash cans, snack cakes, car batteries, high-end optics for microscopes, just about anything. The version we get in the US is a Canadian production, so there's a slight overrepresentation of Canadian products (with discrete, but hardly subtle, brand promotion), like hockey sticks, goalie masks, snow shoes, snow mobiles, and mountie helmets. There's considerable emphasis on the automation and sheer volume of production, which can either impress or depress, depending on your views.

Anyway, on this particular night, one of the segments was accordions, and I made some snarky remark to the effect that the accordion assembled on the show must be about a third of their annual production, because now that Miss America contestants all fancy themselves opera singers instead of accordion players and baton twirlers, who in the world still buys accordions?

Turns out the answer to that rhetorical question is the French. And more specifically, Parisians. The stereotypical soundtrack to any French film, the accordion is still alive and well here. Take the Metro: it's full of musicians, playing inside stations and on the platforms. Quality and weapons of choice vary widely, but especially on the trains themselves, the accordion is King.

Though I've not kept statistics on every single train I've been on, I'd say an accordion is in my car 3 out of 5 metro trips. In one remarkable stretch a couple of weeks ago, I had one (or more) accordions in my car on 9 consecutive metro rides. This isn't a metro-specific phenomenon, either: on a ride last weekend on the local regional rail, an accordion orchestra (3 accordions and a guitar) entertained/annoyed the passengers. I'd argue that my accordion-positive percentage isn't the result of small geographical or tourist-centric sample size, since I often take a metro to a far-flung region of the city, walk several hours, and take another line back. Based on these numbers, it's possible to back-calculate the number of accordions on the Metro at any given time.

14 metro lines x 2 directions = 28 directions of travel
Avg line length of 40 min, with average time between trains of 4 min = 10 trains per direction of travel, or 280 trains
Avg train length of 8 cars = 2240 cars
Avg trip length for metro user = 20 min
Avg length of accordion visit per car = 5 min (3.5 playing, 1.5 passing the hat), so 4 cars covered in the average metro user trip
Therefore there are 2240/4 = 560 accordionable car units at all times
Based on my experience, 60% of these units are occupied, so it is scientifically proven that there are 336 accordionists playing on the Metro cars at any moment.
Assuming there are 2 shifts of accordionists per day, that's 672 accordionists/day on the Metro.

Or, more specifically, 671 too many, give or take 1.

Maybe we keep her:

19 April 2009

Fashion alert- rockin' the Chucks

Everywhere you look, French women, those paragons of fashion, are wearing Chuck Taylors.

And you have no problem becoming part of the trend, because they're easy to find in stores too.

18 April 2009

Bolivian Hedgehog Varnish

There used to be tons of regional department stores in the US-- Gimbles and Altman's in NY, Marshall Field in the midwest, Strawbridge and Clothier and Wannamaker's in the Philly area, Belk's and Ivey's in North Carolina, Hecht's in DC-- with stores in downtown locations before malls moved retail to the suburbs.

But the department store was a European invention. Today I introduced Karen to BHV, which I'm pretty sure doesn't stand for bodaciously humongous variety, though it just as well might. The BHV store complex near the Hotel de Ville (Paris' outlandishly lavish city hall) is someplace worth visiting because it's a handy place to pick up some stuff you need, but mostly just because the BHV has everything.

Main store exterior

In the 6 floors of the main BHV store, you can find the usual perfume and makeup and clothing and shoes and accessories. But also hardware (everything from home security systems to motor oil), paper products (stationary, office supplies, as well as books and maps), your standard bath and bedroom stuff like towels and linens and mattresses, but also toilets, sinks, shower systems and vanities, dishes and cookware for the kitchen along with refrigerators and washers and dryers as well as toasters and pressure cookers. You know, everything.

The men's store

Though the hardware section is geared towards the male customer, there's a separate building next door for the BHV homme. Given the extensive inventory at BHV, I'm not entirely clear whether this is a building that carries goods for men or actually sells men. In case the uncommitted male shopper loses interest between the hardware department in the main store and the men's store 50 feet away, there's an outdoor key replication counter to keep him on the right track, a sort of trail of bread crumbs for the gender that doesn't like to ask for directions.

Must be this way...

But even at that, BHV is just a combination of a US department store and a Best Buy or Home Depot. Maybe not so different, really.

Best Buys and Home Depots don't sell wine, though.

An inebriated shopper is an impulse shopper: the BHV wine cave

Or book your travel for you.

The BHV travel agency

And they definitely don't sell motorcycles and scooters (with all the fixin's, of course).

The BHV motor vehicle department

So it wasn't surprising that we left BHV with everything on the list of odds and ends we needed for the apartment: some hand towels, several file folders, a note pad, some little plastic food containers, a spoon, a shower caddy that sticks to the wall with suction cups, etc. It is more surprising that we walked, rather than moto'd, out of BHV only about 40 euros poorer than when we walked in. Credit that to our being hungry and that, despite all of its other merchandise, BHV doesn't have a restaurant.

At least not that we stumbled on. If you know differently, please keep that info to yourself!

17 April 2009

Looking up?

It's been a very long time since I've had such a lousy year on the bike. The fantasy of having limitless time to train for cross season last fall became the reality of being general contractor for the house, instead. Beat and especially beat up at the end of the season, I took most of December off and spent January on the mountain bike doing fun rides and a few road rides when the mood struck me. I think that unless you have early season races to prep for, the off-season should last as long as it takes to feel motivated again, and that didn't happen until early February.

Between traveling to France to find an apartment and breaking some ribs, though, I didn't get far with my new-found motivation. A month after my stupid crash, I started slowly building some strength and testing the ribs, culminating in my first victorious exploratory ride in the country, and then immediately the full brunt of food poisoning.

7 days in bed and 8 lost pounds later, I started again last week, on the same ride as the week before, hoping to recapture that momentum. An hour into the ride, just when I'd finally gotten to the open roads, the IT band in right knee started hurting. Ugh. Turn around and get nothing out of a 2.5 h ride, or ride it out and hope it's transient? I chose the latter, and an hour later it was pretty clear that was the wrong decision. By the time I got home, I'd been riding with the right leg clipped out for nearly an hour due to knee and hip pain and I couldn't walk for 2 more days.

I didn't realize until this spring how big a deal for me riding my bike is. Though feeling fit is important, and the stress release that exercising brings is a big plus, it's the exploring, the buzz of riding in city traffic and thrill of finding new roads in the country, the variety of experiences on the bike that make it so rewarding.

After a week of healing and stretching, I did my 3rd ride in 3 weeks on Tues, just 40 minutes until my knee and hip started to hurt. Stretch some more. Next day made it an hour. Stretch some more. And today I made it 90 minutes, with some discomfort, but no pain. And even doing 90 minutes like a hamster in a wheel around Longchamps was a big emotional boost. I'm reluctant to get too excited about more interesting rides, since every step forward this year has been followed by a major step back, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

To celebrate today's small victory on the bike, I made a bicycle wheel-inspired lunch. Some leftover potatoes, a smidgeon of prosciutto, and some garlic browned in olive oil and then encased in egg in a vaguely spoke-like pattern, topped with some crispy sauteed baby artichoke. You wouldn't want to ride a while this out of true, but with a little frisee salad and some home-made lemon yogurt, it was easy to feel optimistic about riding in the upcoming weekend.

16 April 2009


Easter is a Big Deal in France. Friday and Monday are holidays for a lot of people, and the weekend is traditionally spent with one's family, not unlike Thanksgiving in the US. Since Karen had a 4-day weekend, we took the opportunity to do our first traveling in France. Marseille, Bordeaux, and Brittany were all options, but we took the TGV to Strasbourg for no better reasons than 1. neither of us had ever been there, 2. it seemed unlikely we'd travel much there for other reasons, and 3. it was big enough that we figured things should be open over the weekend.

Turns out we could have added a 4th reason: Strasbourg had the best weather in France that weekend, according to the reports from Karen's colleagues on Tues. Low 70s and sunny during the day, upper 40s at night.

Strasbourg is in Alsace, just a few miles from the German border, and the region has changed hands a number of times in its history. German influence in architecture, food, wine, and language are abundant, and the German tourists, prolific travelers with endless vacation if their numbers wherever we happen to be in Europe at any given time are any indication, were in town in droves last weekend.

The city retains its international flavor today not only through tourism but as the site of the EU parliament and other official EU bodies. One can apparently watch the proceedings if it's not Easter weekend.

We had a nice weekend, staying a short distance away from the incredible cathedral. Once you've been in Europe a while, you start thinking that if you see one more gothic cathedral, you'll puke. But the one is Strasbourg is so huge (it was the tallest building in the world through the late 19th century) yet so delicate -- the stone carvings are ethereal -- that you can't help but be taken with it. Oh, OK then, just one more...

The old city is on an island in the Ill, where crooked streets of half-timber buildings meander and empty into large Platzs. Sitting along the river in the sun drinking a carafe of Riesling or Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris from the local wineries (Alsace is one of the great wine producing regions of the world) or maybe a beer (that German influence), maybe eating a flammekueche (or tarte flambé in the french lingo, a flatbread spread with a little fromage blanc, some thinly sliced onion and some lardons-- done right, a wonderfully light and delicious treat) just out of the wood-fired oven, pretty good life. So that's what we did.

Flammekueche with the ubiquitous green pottery wine carafe

French buildings pretending to be German. Or is it German buildings pretending to be French?

The Ill
Malty gnomy goodness: Belgian La Choufe beers (sacre bleu!) on tap in Alsace

This way to heaven: above the main door to the cathedral

On Saturday, we rented a car and checked out the area to the west, in the hills above the river. It was the first time I've driven in nearly 2 months and my first driving in France, and Karen's first navigating in France. It was wonderful and awful at the same time. Wonderful because the small forested roads in the hills were beautiful, still snow-lined, and almost empty of vehicles (and we didn't get hopelessly lost or broadsided or anything), awful because they were perfect for bikes, and everybody else we saw obviously knew this and was on 2 wheels. Next time. We drove through some small towns, all decked out for Easter, including special Easter cakes and pastries (in the shapes of lambs in repose). Bustling with locals and tourists in the morning, these small towns were completely shut down by afternoon; in contrast to Strasbourg, where the city stayed open for tourists, these towns still did traditional Easter.

Ruins in the countryside
Watchful gargoyle in Rosheim

Dropping out of the hills after lunch, we saw two trucks pulling trailers of 25+ mountain bikes (in France, velo tout terrain, or VTT) up the road. Tourist group? They seemed pretty heavy-duty for that. Then we started seeing tape, and finally cars everywhere with riders in full body armor-- we'd stumbled onto a gravity race. Actually, we'd stumbled onto the course recon for the downhill race the following day.

Judging by the posted start times, there were several hundred riders there in 3 different skill levels and multiple age and gender classes. Each rider was allotted 5 recons of the course, so we went to watch some of it, following the course and the whooping riders from the bottom up through the steeps. There were a few sections I'd be willing to ride, but there was a lot of heinous steep chute-and-drop stuff. Hearing the equipment absorb the big hits made it really obvious why the rigs are different from the cross-country bikes. I've heard plenty of free-riders brag about racing cross-country on their heavy gravity bikes, but it would take real balls (and then a lot of cash for the medical bills) to take a 21-lb climbing bike down one of these runs.

One page of about 15 of the start list

The sound track could have been anywhere-- Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC. I figured that standing around watching, I'd at least learn the French equivalents for dude, or gnarly, or sick, but I didn't hear any words over and over again from the spectators. Maybe the French VTTers have bigger vocabularies than their US counterparts-- I didn't smell cannabis. Or maybe they just grunt. My French isn't good enough to tell.

The course finished with a wicked combination of a stupid-steep and rocky chute (most riders took the longer, slightly saner alternative route around it) into a high-speed whoopity-doo that dropped through a twisty rocky chute into a big drop, before leveling off into some high-speed/small air combinations.

Good to the last drop

The entry to the last drop

Why would somebody think to try this? I'll stick to the teeter-totters.

We did Easter mass in the cathedral on Sunday morning, where a chamber orchestra, a choir, and several soloists were performing pieces of a Haydn mass. The music was soaring, especially in that setting, though the mass was split up and interspersed with hollywoody organ arrangements. More wandering through the city, and we finished off the wekend with a very good dinner (perfectly cooked and tender magret of duck in a deeply spiced sauce, veal and mushroom kebabs, and for the 2nd time in 2 months (the other at Dovetail in NYC) foie gras ice cream-- this time paired with a ginger-tinted caramel that had the sweet-pungent punch that evoked chestnut honey: now that's heavenly).

Can't wait for the next trip.

15 April 2009

A (near-) perfect day at the marché

Paris offers no shortage of places to shop for food. Supermarkets are useful for staples and 5-euro bottles of wine (we have found an outstanding 5-euro Cahors at Monoprix that has become our house wine). Then there are the rue commerçantes, streets with a high density of specialty food stores. Our local, rue des Belles Feuilles, is typical of such streets, with 2 butchers, 2 bakeries, 3 different fruit-and-vegetable vendors, a fish monger, 2 cheese shops, an Italian specialty store, and a variety of take-away food sources, all in a little over a block. Some of these shops are self-serve, some are not. Our preferred cheese vendor sells only raw-milk cheeses that they age themselves. It pushes the limits of my French, but I really enjoy talking with the cheese-guy about the various choices from given regions. I'm sure one could have similar conversations with most of the vendors, and recently a young enthusiastic fellow at a local fruit store took it upon himself to educate me about the differences between fraises (strawberries, from Spain in this case) and gariguettes (gariguette is a term that includes all strawberries, but here is used to denote a variation grown in France that has, according to the kid who was speaking at 400 kph, a more citrusy flavor). You see gariguettes everywhere right now, for a hefty 12 – 15 euros/kilo, compared to 3 – 5 euros/kilo for fraises. I intend to try some, but I want to make sure they're really ripe. Still seems early. There are 2 supermarkets on this same street, which seems like strange competition, but apparently there's business enough for everyone, and it's nice to be able to pick up milk and cereal at the supermarket and then get vegetables and cheese from the speciality vendors. Trés convenient.

The third shopping option is the myriad of outdoor markets that usually occur about twice a week in any given spot. The city of Paris lists no fewer than 79 such markets in the 20 arrondissements, and they vary widely in size and quality. I went to check out 2 yesterday in the 8th, since I had a couple of other errands to run there, and one of them had just 1 sad little stand by itself, and the other was basically a grocery store. On the other end of the spectrum is one of our local markets, on av President Wilson, a 3-block long run of raw food vendors, prepared food vendors, and people selling clothing, jewelery, rugs, you name it. Unlike farmer's markets in the US, the vast majority of people selling at the various Paris markets are not growers (though there are a few farmers markets and organic markets)-- they all buy their goods from the same gigantic wholesale market, and the full spectrum of quality and price is available.

Olive vendor at Pres Wilson
One of many butchers at Pres Wilson
Spice vendor at Pres Wilson

Though I enjoy shopping on the rue commerçantes, I enjoy the outdoor markets best. It takes a little while, but I do a full walk-through the market first to figure out who has the best looking, or best-priced, examples of what I want before buying. Today's trip to the President Wilson market was just about perfect.

I wasn't in the market for anything particularly special (just fava beans or peas, artichokes, potatoes, eggs, and lemons), but that doesn't guarantee success. After striking out at the 2 little markets yesterday, I bought some fava beans at a favorite rue commerçante in the 17th, rue Poncelet, but they weren't that great. Fava beans are very labor-intensive, so you want consistently full pods, and the ones I got yesterday were not big producers, meaning that I got only 80 grams of shelled and peeled beans from about 800 grams of pods after about an hour of work. Ugh. Today, though, I found a vendor who had big plump pods, and I nearly doubled my yield. We love them, and I cook with them whenever I can find somebody else to prep them. Artichokes abound here, in many more varieties than one sees in the US. The smallest varieties can even be eaten raw, and I found some good small ones at the same place as the favas. Good deal.

One of maybe a dozen veg vendors at Pres Wilson

What made the trip today special, though, was unexpectedly scoring some chicken carcasses for stock. In the States, any poultry vendor has an abundance of backs, necks, wings, and breast bones left over from all of the parts they sell, and picking up 5-10 lbs for stock is a sure thing. Here in France, though, people buy (and use) their chickens whole, so whereas I've asked at several butchers, I've never found any “waste” parts available for stock. Today, though, while waiting in line to buy eggs, the woman in front of me ordered a chicken and asked the butcher to bone it out. I watched as he broke it down and tossed the carcass in a bucket behind the counter, waiting for the lady to ask for it. When she left, I tentatively asked if he'd sell me the carcass and the various bones and parts he'd discarded, and it turns out he had 2 back there! And better, he charged me a total of 2 euros for them. The downside was that since they'd been sitting unrefrigerated for part of the morning, they really needed to be used today, which wasn't in my time budget. But priorities are priorities, and so I picked up some carrots, leeks, and onions and set off for home with a spring in my step and basking in my good luck.

A few steps from the market, I stopped to redistribute my haul. I put several of the bags down on a bench at a bus stop, and while moving the leeks into my messenger bag, knocked my box of eggs off the bench and onto the ground, where it landed with a pronounced CRACK. D'oh. Hoping it was only 1, I carefully picked up the box, and 6 eggs' worth of goo slid out and onto the sidewalk. Double d'oh! I tossed what was left of the mess in the trash and headed back to the market, where the butcher gave me a puzzled look as I stood in line. He laughed when I told him I'd broken all of my eggs and mock-sternly told me to pay attention this time. Expensive eggs-- sure hope they're worth it.

Florist and fishmongers at Pres Wilson

Some hours later, I've got 3 liters of roasted chicken stock in the freezer, and we had a nice dinner of a frisee salad with a potato-and-artichoke gallette and home-made pasta with merguez sausage, fava beans, and mint. Shame about the eggs, but a pretty good day at the market.

The day's haul (eggs in the fridge, for safety)

Something new (and delicious) to do with artichokes...

Spicy sausage, fava, and mint-- now that's good eating.

Identity revealed

We got back the lab tests from the hospital today. The nastiness that we had a few weeks ago turns out to have been Campylobacter. With an incubation period of 2-5 days, the wine expo or that Friday night's dinner are the most likely sources. The home kitchen is off the suspect list- no raw chickens in the house in that time frame. Amazing that something so small could cause us so much misery- I'm just now starting to feel more or less back to normal. Blech.

09 April 2009

Oh, she's spicy

If had to foresake all cuisines of the world tomorrow except one, it's probably no surprise I'd choose to keep Italian. There's a variety and simplicity available there that I never tire of, and it's a great match with a cycling lifestyle. If you want to make it a package deal and throw in Italian beverages, I could do quite nicely living on Italian wine and coffee, thank you very much. Moving down the list you'd find Vietnamese, for its brightness and freshness, then maybe French, maybe Japanese.

What those cuisines have in common is that in their common execution, they make decidedly light use of spices. They derive their flavors from herbs and other ingredients, in contrast to the foods of India and North Africa, where spices abound. Whereas I find the cuisines that use spices abundantly to be delicious and fascinating, they're decidedly not home turf. And with a technical background mostly in French cuisine, I simply don't use a wide variety of spices regularly, but I'm increasingly intrigued with them the last 6 months.

When we were in NYC in late January for a meeting, we ate at Elettaria, a small restaurant in the Village where chef Akhtar Nawab deftly matches “western” food with spices (crab with tumeric, octopus with szechuan peppercorns, duck with cardamom, you get the idea). He uses a light touch, and the spices augment, rather than call attention away from, the main ingredients. I personally found the main course plates a little too busy with individual pieces, but the flavors were terrific. The delicately curried rabbit samosa is high on the list of Most Delectable Things I've eaten this year.

I thought of that meal when we had dinner at at Le Pré Verre in the 5th, blocks away from the Cluny and Notre Dame, several days BFP (before food poisoning). The chef there, Philippe Delacourcelle, is known for his use of spices in his otherwise pretty straightforward French cuisine. Giddy up.

We had an enjoyable meal there, though I don't know that we found the chef at his most adventurous. The ginger in my ginger-scented cuttlefish starter was pretty hard to discern, though the faux caviar, I'm guessing tapioca (or maybe Israeli couscous? A bit firm for tapioca) soaked in squid ink and topped with sesame seeds a little salad, was fun. Karen had shrimp with pea-guacamole. Good shrimp, not very pea-y guacamole. Still a little early for peas. The mains were stronger, with lamb with salt-preserved lemon and cumin over quinoa and a very intensely orange but lightly flavored bell pepper sauce. The lamb was cooked perfectly, and everything went together nicely, though I'd leave the pepper sauce off in favor of more extensive use of the lemon-- can't get enough salt-preserved lemon. Karen had the veal liver with tamarind sauce and grilled polenta. The liver itself was very good (and abundant), and I thought the tamarind sauce was the both the best executed and best paired sauce of the night. A little sweet, but still deep and savory to play off of the liver. Quite a revelation.

Dessert brought a crème caramel with salt and pepper. Who doesn't love salted caramel, and what's not to like about the subtle heat of black pepper with cool, creamy custard? The firm texture was disappointing, though. A crème caramel should just threaten to jiggle itself apart, and if not overmixed and overcooked, should not have hard-edged bubbles at the bottom of the inverted custard. This is France, people, these details matter! Karen's cheese course was a nicely balanced selection of good quality cheeses.

The modest check (28.50 euros apiece for the 3-course dinner) came with 2 small, very shallow dishes of almost black chocolate pot de crème, flavored lightly with – hmm, what is that – wow, it's anise. Licorice and chocolate isn't a combination pursued in the mass-market candy biz, but the pairing worked beautifully in this format. I might just have to try that one myself. Or maybe get my mom to try making chocolate springerles this year.

08 April 2009

The Final Hurdle

We're now legal aliens.

Last week I got news from the attorneys that our residence cards were ready. This morning I had some time, so we made our way to the main city police station (!) where, after paying many euros, we received our shiny new cartes de sejour. This allows me to do what I've been doing already, but makes it possible to now leave the country and come back easily. That will actually come in handy since I have a whole bunch of travel coming up this spring (starting with Germany next week).

The residence cards come in many flavors and durations. Mine is being a salaried worker here for a few years in a scientific position. I'm being paid by an American company, I'm not taking a French person's job, I'm not a drain on the French social security system, and I may actually bring something of benefit to France, so it was a pretty sure bet on their end.

05 April 2009

Long days

The Paris marathon was early this morning, and since it both started and ended within a short distance of our apartment, the choppers pretty well snuffed out any chances for extended sleep. That was OK, though, since the people who live on our ceiling had started their morning bowling tournament, anyway.

We'll probably never know personally the neighbors in our building, but we'll have plenty of knowledge of them from the sounds they make. Madame C, for example, despite her regular gal appearance and her house on Corsica and skiing trips to les Alpes, is a fierce Disco Queen, judging from the music she plays when she's around. The couple on the other side of us in the next building are zen masters or deaf, content to let their tadpole wail for long periods in the mid afternoon and then again exactly 15 seconds before I would otherwise have fallen asleep. But it's the people upstairs who are the most intriguing, because the noises you hear from below are very different from those you hear alongside. It's easy to decode the walking around, but the other sounds are a lot harder to attach probable activities to. I swear somebody bounces a ping-pong ball on the floor while lying in bed for about 10 min every night. There's never any other sound, no shifting of weight on the floor, no walking-- this is very focussed and skillful ping-pong ball bouncing, undoubtedly the result of the dedicated nightly practice. That may sound like a stretch, but how many things can you name that sound like a ping-pong ball bouncing on a wooden floor?

I do actually wonder what the neighbors hear of us. Unless there's a bike race on (for some reason, I can actually understand Jacky Durand, and that scares me a little), the TV in our apartment is silent if it's on, we haven't been in the habit of playing much music, and we take off any hard-soled shoes as soon as we get inside the apartment. But since sounds in this building are well-conducted through the heating ducts (building has central, coop heat), the elevator shafts, and the column of bathrooms, they probably heard more from us last week than anybody wanted.

We're full-on into Spring here, now. Going to the pâtisserie this morning for 2 baguettes tradition (oh, how I've missed eating bread every day this past week!) and 2 chocolate croissants for breakfast, the flowers were out, the birds were singing, even the pushy Parisians kept their elbows to sheathed in the bread line: it was like living in a Disney cartoon.

My understanding is that Spring is a welcome relief for a lot of people here not so much from the cold as from the dark. I remember learning in a geography class in grade school that Chicago and Rome are on approximately the same latitude. Living within Chicago's TV airwaves range and having just visited Rome when I learned this fact, it seemed like a great injustice. It's one thing to accept that you live someplace frigidly cold because you're so far north, but the cold seems so arbitrary and so much more hurtful when you realize you could be on the Mediterranean instead of Lake Michigan. Philadelphia's European latitudinal doppleganger is Madrid. If it were in North America, Paris would be alongside Gaspé at the very northern tip of New Brunswick, Canada on the east coast, some 620 miles north of Philadelphia, Thunder Bay on the north side of Lake Superior in the midwest, or the US/Canadian border at the western end. That means that already the sun doesn't set here until after 8:30, about the time it'll set in Philly in mid-June. And Paris will gain another 90 min in time of sunset before mid-summer. More time for ping-pong ball drills. 


04 April 2009

Disclaimer: Ungenteel content enclosed. Proceed at your own risk.

(Bacteria was a hardcore Punk band in Britain.)

One night while we were here looking for apartments, we went out to dinner in the 17th with a couple of Karen's colleagues. On the drive into town from the office, one of them pointed out The American Hospital and suggested that's where we'd want to go for healthcare while we're here.

It took us a month to get there.

This week started out promisingly enough, with 2 days last weekend at a wine festival for 500 small French producers and a tart red wine risotto at home Sunday night in honor of the sampling we'd done. Then Monday morning I had my first real bike ride in France, out of the urban density through the town of Versailles, unexpectedly getting a taste of a few miles of real live pavé past Marie Antoinette's Chateau en route to open countryside, where I was treated to vibrant green fields and rolling hills on the way out and forest on the way back. With a weather forecast of mid-60s and sunny for the rest of the week, it seemed destined to be a week to explore the countryside and finally start building some fitness.

But by Monday night, we were both suffering the effects of food poisoning. And not just your garden variety wish-you-could-pull-out-your-GI-tract food poisoning, but an especially evil variety that brought, in addition to all the usual fun, uncontrollable shivering, crawling between bed to bath due to vertigo, and complete energy depletion. When it was obvious on Thursday that things were only continuing to get worse, we went to the hospital. See doctor, give samples, get prescriptions: pretty standard stuff. The antibiotics seem to be slowly doing the trick for me, as I could actually walk today. Karen hasn't yet experienced that hope; it'd be a cruel coincidence if it turned out we had 2 different problems. Hopefully tomorrow for her.

Being this sick bites, but a particularly frustrating aspect has been not knowing where we got it. It's not like we ate barely cooked unemptied pig intestine. Last time I had confirmed food poisoning, it was from a deli in Chicago, and I heard on the radio on the way back from my doctor that there had been X number of cases linked to some bad turkey there. Easy. Here, though, it's harder to pinpoint. Was it the food we ate at the festival Sat (kinda long incubation to get sick Mon evening) or Sun (we didn't eat the same thing, even if from the same stand)? Was it something we drank there? Either way, given the number of people at this festival, there would be lots of people affected, and I haven't figured out how to search the french web space effectively for such stories. Did we get something on our hands through transit and not clean well enough before eating there? If any of the above, as long as we're more cognizant of hand washing while out, it's unlikely to repeat. My biggest worry is whether we could have gotten it here at home.

Not only have I spent over 25 years working in or around labs (including cell culture without antibiotics), I spent several years working in professional kitchens, so I've seen my share of food safety manuals and videos and real-life examples of what good and not-good food prep, storage, clean-up, and work practices are. Neither the biologist nor the kitchen worker in me is enjoying the number of possibilities for sources at home. This apartment, while tidy, was not clean when we moved in. Could I have missed something when I cleaned the kitchen? Is the inside of the refrigerator truly clean? We know it has clumsy self-defrost, leaving the refrigerator too cold then too warm, but we haven't bought a thermometer yet to see by how much. Is that the problem? Was it a specific food? The raw milk cheeses we're fond of? Unlikely, and I'd hate to give up either the cheese or my vendor, who's pretty cool. Have we somehow cross-contaminated since the laundry machine is in the kitchen? The French and I may share a fondness for cheese that smells like old socks, but I draw the line at bringing loads of soiled clothing into the place I cook and prep my food-- yuck, that's just retarded. Yet nearly all of the 17 apartments we saw had kitchen washing machines.

Unless the bug culture at the hospital comes back as something unusual enough to define its origin, we'll probably never know.