Bonsoir! Please check out a guest post I wrote for my dear friend and fellow blogger the Blissful Adventurer:
Bonsoir! Please check out a guest post I wrote for my dear friend and fellow blogger the Blissful Adventurer:
Let’s straighten this out from the very beginning: only one of these is (was) a human being. “Coquilles St. Jacques” is the French for “scallops”, and “Saint-Pierre” is a super-delicious Mediterranean fish known over here as John Dory. The question is: what could possibly bring all of them together? And the answer is, Aix-en-Provence.
Aix was the largest (and also most vibrant and youngest) city we visited on our trip to Provence, and I am certain everyone who has been there has a special memory of their own. It is many things to many people, but in my mind it will always be squarely associated with Cezanne, and with most exquisitely prepared fish straight from the market.
Aix is the town where Cezanne was born, where he worked, and died; and therefore, one of the million things for a tourist to do there is to follow in Cezanne’s footsteps. One can visit his last studio (Atelier Cezanne), where everything is painstakingly preserved as at the time of his death, and then walk 1,800 meters up le Chemin des Lauves on the hilltop overlooking Aix. Views from Terrain des Peintres (Painters’ Terrain) are both amazing and familiar, as those are the landscapes that inspired Cezanne around his beloved mountain Sainte-Victoire (the motif of almost 50 of his paintings and watercolors). See if you recognize any of them:
Ok, it is time to get back to Mssrs St. Jacques and Saint-Pierre…
I think we all have had serendipitous perfect dining experiences (or at least, we all have dreamed of having one), where we take a chance on an unresearched restaurant in an unfamiliar town, and this dark horse of a restaurant turns out to be the best meal of our trip… After gazing at Mont St. Victoire for a good while, we started getting peckish, but the descent back into town made us arrive at the planned lunch location at the tail end of the Lunch Period. To make the long story short, they did not have a table for us. By the way, the French offer one quite a short lunch-eating opportunity, – typically between 12-2, or even 12-1:30.
The back-up plan option was unavailable as well, and we went to a place I knew virtually nothing about (not something I like to do on eating trips in Europe!). It turned out, Le Formal (which took pity on us and gave us the last available table) was located in a former cellar space with abstract paintings and vaulted ceiling:
Since it was lunch, and we had been snacking, we went with the 26 euros 3-course option (rather than the 7- or the 9-course option). The restaurant had a well-chosen wine list (always a big plus!), but also delicious by-the-glass selections, such as Chateau de Triennes (a minerally and satisfying Chard), Domaine de la Realtiere Cuvee Cante Gau, or Maison Delas Viognier. After visiting Provence, I am still amazed at how top-notch restaurants have the guts and conviction to serve exclusively (or primarily) wines from the region.
Among many choices, we noted the spectacular scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques) we had just admired in the marketplace a few hours ago, now served with passion fruit mousse, or with fois gras and wilted arugula. It was also my first time trying John Dory, easily the most tender, sweet and delicate fish I have ever had.
Le Formal was truly sophisticated without being too fussy or pretentious. I think it is fair to say it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable eating experiences in Provence (and overall on the trip). Later I found out that the chef, Jean Luc Formal (who, incidentally, made a point to shake our hands on the way out of the restaurant as if we were regulars), uses some of the techniques and equipment invented by the chef at El Bulli. We certainly found our meal to be flawlessly executed, and a fantastic value to boot. And Aix – to be a new source of inspiration, both gastronomic and aesthetic.
I. These chickens are “so chickeny!!!”
Just before we went on our Paris and Provence trip, I started reading “My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it is a collection of stories recounting in detail the culinary experiences Julia and her husband enjoyed while living in France. I found it rather curious that I was about the same age as Julia when she first moved to France (in her late 30’s); and as I was following along, involuntarily I found myself comparing my reactions to hers. To my disappointment, next to her spontaneous, excited, persevering, restless, enterprising, and always joyous “virtual” personality, my enthusiasm for gastronomy seemed flat.
Granted, my French experience was not nearly as eye-opening as for her. I was a seasoned traveler with several prior visits to France under my belt, well versed in the high art of Food (yes, in France cooking is regarded as a combination of national sport and high art):
Yet, I could not help but envy her giddiness, her falling in love with la belle France, her first morsel of perfection (sole meuniere)…
II. “Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere with the right instruction.”
It is absolutely astounding how devoted Julia Child was to the rules of “la cuisine francaise”. She and her fellow “gourmettes” believed in a scholarly approach, with a strong emphasis on skill and technique. Quite different from “fast and effortless cooking” marketing scheme so ubiquitous nowadays…
I am a queen of culinary shortcuts and cheating. I am not a cookbook/recipe person, and usually reserve precision for my financial analyses. As a result, the simplest dishes (such as a perfect omelet) terrify me. But, not unlike Holly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, I could totally whip up a “roasted pheasant stuffed with pomegranates and persimmons”.
And so, after reading the book I was inspired to challenge myself, and to attempt the so-called “flat French omelet”. The proper way.
I watched a couple of Julia Child’s original TV episodes, and learned the following:
Making this beautiful omelet took SEVERAL tries; that was a true lesson in humility. But for a perfectionist, such as Julia Child, nothing less would do. My fourth simple flat French omelet (omelette nature) turned out glorious, – silky, airy, moist, and rich. It was almost like magic: it tasted as if it were full of luxurious ingredients, like whipped cream.
And yet, it only contained two eggs, salt, pepper and water…
I felt that it could only be improved upon by a morel cream sauce because takeaway number three is:
III. Keep oneself open to creative exploration, because “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!”
In order to balance out the rigors of credit analysis, I felt like a little getaway was in order on a Wednesday night. No, we are not travelling AGAIN, don’t worry :-). I just wanted to recreate a little piece of Provence in my own home. Nothing fancy, just honest rustic food.
French are big on apero (aperitifs). They don’t like rushing into anything, especially not a meal. The first question from your waiter is ALWAYS what aperitif you would like. Armed with a kir, a pastis or something else that suits your fancy, you can leisurely ponder the menu and the wine list.
On a side note, your language proficiency in France is always judged by your confidence. The French always know what they want, and make drink ordering decisions quickly and confidently. Hesitation is interpreted as inability to understand the question, or speak the language altogether. That was a steep learning curve for me who likes to hum and haw 🙂
A kir is easy to make and to like; it is a sparkler or white wine topped off with crème de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur). Now you can relax, while munching on pain complet and pain aux cereales with goat butter (I LOVE the 89 cent Harvest, olive, and whole wheat rolls at WholeFoods, they are pretty awesome!)
A little asparagus with homemade hollandaise for Jeff, and au pistou for me (think pesto, but sans pinenuts, – a Provencal specialty). Speaking of hollandaise, I used one of Julia Child’s recipes who describes this sauce as being “well within the capabilities of an 8-year-old child.” Granted, this is the easy, shortcut version made in a blender, – MY kind of French cooking!
It takes a whopping 1 minute to make, and it is error-proof, unlike numerous other versions that have a strong tendency to curdle . 3 yolks, salt, pepper, 1 tbs lemon juice. Beat for 2 seconds on high, and without turning off the blender, slowly pour in hot melted butter (1 stick). Drizzle over asparagus blanched for a minute and a half. Et voila!
I have a new secret weapon – European-style goat butter! It was perfect for making a little sauce for my monkfish (lotte). Take a tablespoon of goat butter, salt, pepper, a few strands of saffron pre-soaked in hot water, a dash of nanami togarashi (a fantastic Japanese pepper and spice blend which I love as much as the goat butter) and a squeeze of lemon. Baste the fillet with the butter mixture, place a few spring onions in the baking dish, and roast in the oven at 400F for about 15 min, depending on the thickness of the fillet (mine was plump!).
To serve, arrange on a bed of primeurs (first spring vegetables), and drizzle with a bit more jus (a simpler version of what we had at the wonderful restaurant L’Oustalet in Gigondas). I used little carrots, sugar peas, spring onions, and asparagus which I had blanched for a couple of minutes, and then quickly tossed with a bit of pistou. By the way, if you do not feel like getting out a mortar and a pestle on a weeknight, you can often find decent fresh versions of that at a local organic foods store.
Jeff’s vegetarian ways prompted me to do one more classic: pommes persillade. Persil is parsley, so once again, we are looking at a mixture that is olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and herb-based (with possible additions of Parmesan, anchovies, chili flakes, and zest). Here is my quick version: parboil slices of potato for 7 minutes, cube and toss with a persillade spiked with chili flakes. Saute for another 5 minutes or so in olive oil (the South is olive oil country!), give it a lemon squeeze, and serve immediately. Bon Appetit!
A little piece of sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees pushed us right over the edge, almost into the arms of Morpheus, and a nice long postprandial walk was certainly in order… just like in Provence!
Sometimes there is just nothing like eye candy… but rest assured it was as delicious and complex as it was beautiful.
And also inventive, fun, whimsical, and lighthearted… Enjoy!
“Creations” tasting menu at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.
April 7, 2012 in Arles, France (in no particular order). For French (and food&wine) buffs, here is the file with the line-up, including the wine pairings:
We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!
Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.
As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/
We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.
Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.
A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following. To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.
Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.
In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf
Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:
It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.
We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).
The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…
This afternoon we returned from the whirlwind of our Provencal and Parisian travels, but in even in my post-travel delirium, I could not wait to start sharing at least a few of the visceral reactions and memories from the trip.
I am glad to be back, but am also wistful because we easily took to the life of indolence, of daily hiking, Provencal market visits, and copious, fantastic FOOD and WINE. I will miss the fantastic raw milk (unpasteurized) goat cheeses so fresh you practically have to eat them with a spoon. I am sad that my pee will very soon stop smelling funny from all the early spring green and white asparagus I have eaten (which happens to be a Provencal specialty).
Our experiences ranged from the defining food-porn moments at 2-Michelin star restaurants (Le Cinq in Paris, and L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles), to very humble, simple pleasures of a butter-drenched artisanal croissant dunked in café crème first thing in the morning,
to roasted potatoes basted in the drippings from the spit-roasted chickens at the marketplace, to a perfect Nicoise salad and a pitcher of white wine served on a sunlit terrace overlooking the mountains after a nice, long hike.
Among others, our hikes/walks included the incredible Colorado Provencal, with its surreal colors of ochre deposits and quarries, the beautiful landscapes that inspired Cezanne and other painters in Aix-en-Provence, “winelist” walks in Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the joyous spring walk across the Luberon valley, from the picture-perfect village of Bonnieux to Lacoste, right up to the castle of Marquis de Sade…
Over the next month, I invite you to follow along a series of stories and pictures, in order to see that wonderful world through our eyes in more detail. Allons-y!
…and Avignon, Bonnieux, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Roussillon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Sablet, Lourmarin, Bioux, Saignon, Gigondas, Lacoste, St. Remy, Gordes, Les Baux, Goult, Lioux, Silvergue, and L’isle sur la Sorgue.
intoxicates one quickly
through the pastis.
reminded us to seek joy
with open stomachs.
(this is my “Haiku Friday”, – a tribute to The Blissful Adventurer who is much more adept at poetry than I am:-))
Anyway, this is just to say The Two Pigs are giddy with anticipation, and are about to step into a fairy-tale that is Provence in April.
We cook and travel low-tech, so there will NOT be any updates on the road for the next two weeks. I won’t be bringing along IPhones, laptops, or IPads; only the appetite. After all, I am a pig, not a bird; pigs don’t tweet :-).
The hope is that the extra lag time will result in more thoughtful posts, as I will have had a chance to internalize our culinary experiences.
So, in just a few hours, we will be hopping on a plane to Paris, and our sidekick (The 3rd Pig) will stay at home and guard my blogging laptop:
À bientôt (Till later),
When asked by a fellow foodie earlier in the week what I was cooking, I replied, “Nothing too exotic!”
We are adventurous and experienced eaters; however we do realize that not everyone seeks the thrill of the unfamiliar. Not everyone gets excited about eating tongue, spicy Indian curries, Japanese delicacies, and drinking austere wines. Last week we had family visiting, so perhaps it was time to come back to Planet Earth, and try to make something an average person would be comfortable with. My mother-in-law loves salmon, so I can certainly be a fish-and-potatoes kind of gal for a week. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep myself amused while cooking, and to give the ubiquitous dishes a bit of a makeover without making them too demanding. Of course, since we were busy all day looking at cherry blossoms, etc., our meals had to take less than 20 minutes of active time to prepare.
So, here we go:
To make the potato cakes, bake potatoes (50 min at 375), scoop out the flesh, mash with cumin, toasted cumin seeds, chives, egg, a touch of cream, and salt. Form patties and fry 2 min on each side with butter in a skillet. (For a quick lunch, I also threw in some roasted fennel with lemon and wild oregano for my husband since he is not pescetarian).
And finally a superfast and simple dessert to polish it off:
Combine mascarpone cheese with Meyer lemon juice, zest of 1 lemon, blood orange segments, and chill. It works both as a filling and a frosting. (Douse with Grand Marnier for an additional kick if really you want to). Nothing too crazy… it is a great reminder that simple is nice.
P.S. As I was uploading the post pictures, I came across a few shots I took in NYC the previous weekend, – a slightly grotesque but very familiar world, far removed from the potatoes and yellow cake reality…
I am a total sucker for artisanal chocolates and salts, and I am on a perpetual hunt for both. Imagine my pleasure at discovering a shop in NYC’s West Village that specializes in both (plus artisanal bitters and fresh flowers, just to round off that sensory experience). My regular chocolate store here in DC (Cocova, formerly known as Biagio Fine Chocolate) has only chocolates (a whole sea of chocolates, to be precise), and The Spice and Tea Exchange in Georgetown has only salts (which I supplement with online purchases from SaltWorks). The Meadows has few but well-chosen items in both categories.
The recent excursion prompted me to share my salt & chocolate favorites of 2012: a few new discoveries and well forgotten oldies:
Fleur de Sel de l’Île de Ré has a phenomenal silken texture; it is funky and briny, with a slightly floral nose reminiscent of lavender and violets. It is my personal favorite out of the three salt-making villages in Western France (Noirmoutier, Guérande, and Ré). The ultimate finishing salt…
Pangasinan Star fleur de sel (also called Ilocano Asin Philippine Sea Salt). Some say it is like tasting Fleur de sel on steroids, as it is certainly more rich, lush, and intense than its French cousins. But, even though this is a full-bodied salt, it wears its weight very gracefully. If the Cat in the Hat were a chef, he would use Pangasinan salt :-).
Indian black salt (Kala Namak): it is a unique salt with a strong sulfurous aroma (similar to a hard-boiled egg smell).Despite its name, it actually looks pink when finely ground. Chances are, you will love it or hate it. I have found it works best when sprinkled on mango, or in a raita or salty lassi (to make it, just blend plain yogurt, water, cumin, black salt, and cayenne in a blender). Putting it on an egg dish is an interesting experience…
Incidentally, Indian black salt is NOT the same thing as the Himalayan black lava salt, which is very easy to like, and which is amazing on good quality chocolate and caramel.
By the way, for a while now I have been admiring beautiful Himalayan salt slabs from afar. But I am very tempted to take one out for a spin to lightly cure carpaccio or sashimi. I should add that Himalayan pink salt is my everyday cooking salt of choice, as Trader Joe’s $2 containers with a built-in grinder are absolutely brilliant.
Artisan du Chocolat Jamaica 72% cocoa (Kent, UK). Super aromatic, with notes of jasmine, licorice, wood, and red fruit, it is undoubtedly one of my favorite origins (along with Vietnam, which this chocolatier also makes). It is hard to describe its incredible balance and complexity, as it is simply lovely!
Coppeneur is a great micro-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker from Germany. I am quite fond of their single origin bars, especially Republique de Madagascar 70% Cocoa with Ginger and Fig (made with Trinitario beans). It is a real fruit bomb, with a slightly oriental note. Sometimes it is fun to have a more brainless but still refined chocolate bar :-). Purists can have the same bar sans ginger and fig (Republique de Madagascar PURistique).
Fresco Jamaica Recipe 209 70% cocoa, subtle conche (Lynden, WA). Beautiful and elegant like a fine Burgundy. Wet earth and mushrooms aromas are so beguiling… I cannot ask for more from a chocolate bar or a wine, for that matter. One can only improve upon the experience by pairing it with a Burgundy.
By the way, for anybody curious about the subject of cocoa origin, varietals, and terroir, I came across an interesting article the other day:
It occurred to me as I was finishing up my post that many of the chocolates and salts I was describing had a strong floral component to them, which also echoes the new perfume offerings we were investigating last Saturday (Jasminora from Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria series, with notes of galbanum, bergamot and cyclamen; London Blooms collection from Jo Malone (comprised of Peony & Moss, White Lilac & Rhubarb and Iris & Lady Moore; and a few others).
Even though I prefer the more balanced and subtle floral expressions in salt and chocolate, I do agree with the parfumeurs’ philosophy which states that floral compositions promote “feelings of happiness, romance and good mood”. I think spring is officially here!