Friday, October 25, 2013

One of Our Favorite Paris Foods: Couscous!

According to Wikipedia—never fear, we don’t get all our information from this much-used site—couscous is polled as the third most favorite food of the French people.  Well, if our experience in Paris is any example, we believe it!

Perhaps it has something to do with where we were staying.  After all, we tended usually to stay in the Rue Cler area, near the Eiffel Tower (below), in a slightly tonier neighborhood.  Residents and tourists there tended to be a bit older and a bit more affluent, and tourists in the area tended to be a bit more . . . well, touristy.  That is, they flocked to traditional tourist sights, tourist traps, tourist-filled restaurants and cafés.  Don’t get me wrong.  We loved the Rue Cler area and will probably go back when we get the chance.

But this summer, we stayed in the north Marais neighborhood, just south of Republic Metro stop (view from our fifth floor apartment patio is the picture below).  People here were younger, hipper, and amazingly fashionable.  They were also much more ethnic than we remember Paris being.  In retrospect, we realize that Paris must have been like this all the years we’d been traveling here.  We must have just eaten in the usual Rick Steves recommended restaurants and stayed in the same Rick Steves recommended hotels where we were bound to run into other tourists clutching those iconic blue travel guides.  We still think Rick Steves guidebooks are terrific, but we realize now that staying in the north Marais area for two weeks allowed us to get a glimpse of people who actually lived in Paris.

It bears repeating.  North Marais is much more ethnically diverse than other areas we’d stayed at in Paris.  Within just a few blocks of our apartment, we found a Chinese take-out, a market where we could get Japanese and Moroccan food, an Italian deli, excellent Thai.  Two blocks south got us one of the most amazing falafel places in the Jewish Quarter (picture of line of people below). You get the idea.  In addition to the roast chicken, steak frites, and croque monsieur, you had the rest of the world at your disposal. 

We heard great things about the Moroccan stand—with long, snaking, lines—at our local market, Le Marche des Rouges Enfants.  We did try the lamb tagine with plums and almonds as recommended.  It was good, but it seemed the portions were somewhat small for what they charged and ultimately not nearly as tasty as the lines seemed to promise.  (But that could also be because we make a good lamb and date tagine at home…)

We decided to give Marais Moroccan cuisine another try when we heard about Chez Omar, a place apparently famous for its old-style couscous dishes and clientele that included the likes of supermodels and director Sophia Coppola.  Plus, it was only two blocks from where we were!  The important thing was to be completely unfashionable and to get there at an ungodly time of 6:30, a time at which no self-respecting European would be eating dinner.  Never mind.  We’re Americans on vacation.  So off we went, got one of the last tables, and were ensconced between a large young family (French family with an American father—and children who switched back and forth between perfect French and English) and two young women who did indeed look like they might be models.  They were incredibly thin, photogenic, ordered a ton of food and touched practically none of it while gushing about how amazing it was and how full they were.

Like everyone else we ordered the couscous (their specialty).  You get a heap of steamed couscous grains—and they’ll bring more if you actually need more—and a tureen of vegetable stew.  That’s your “couscous” dish.  You spoon some grains on your plate and top with the stew, and then you typically accompany that with the meat or fish of your choice that you order along with it (pictured at top of post).  Our order was for lamb brochettes and merguez sausages.  Perfect.  It’s the kind of food that I crave now that it’s finally turned to a chilly fall weather here in Chicago.

Then, when we were done with as much of this food as we could manage—which we did much more successfully than the two tables next to us—we could not contemplate a larger dessert.  So, we got espresso and a small pastry each from the gigantic mound they bring you to choose from.

We cannot wait to get back to Paris!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Crispy Waffles with Cinnamon Apple Compote

A couple of weeks ago, we had 56 pounds of apples (Galas and Honeycrisps).  Then we stuffed them into pies and juiced enough of them that we came down to having only about 30 pounds of apples.  Then my parents visited from Los Angeles.  Since they wanted to see some fall colors and since we were making our way through our apples, we decided to make another trek up to Wisconsin for their last remaining weekend of apple-picking.  It was to be bucolic—so country!—to pick apples with my parents and our dog.

Pretty much as soon as we finished making the 75-minute drive to the orchard, the skies looked threatening.  So rather than romping amongst drifting leaves and fall colors and plaid shirts, I huddled with my parents under a large picnic bench umbrella while we sent Will to pick as many Fujis (another favorite of ours) as he could before the rains hit.  Easier said than done.  Soon after we received our fresh-from-the-fryer apple cider donuts, the rain started to come down.  Then the thunderbolts.  Thank goodness for the large umbrella! 

Some time later, when we saw Will again, he was drenched.  Apparently our dog Katie—who is terrified of storms—was huddled into as small a ball as she could make herself and was shaking and panting like mad by the time Will got back in the car with his 26 pounds of Fujis.  So much for relaxation in the country.

But since the storms didn’t last too long and the temperature was still fairly mild, we all declared it a rather fun experience.  (Well, maybe Katie might have voted differently…)  Plus, now we’re back to having a respectable bin- and pantry-ful of apples to make delicious items like cinnamon apple compote for our weekend breakfast waffles!

Step 1: Use a good waffle mix. 
We tried several home-made batters—some that even required overnight rising, etc.  Really though, we decided that the much greater preparation for made-from-scratch waffle batter didn’t produce such markedly better waffles than some good mixes.  Since that’s not the case with pancake batter I’m curious about what accounts for the difference, but suffice it to say that we are happy with mixes.  We’ve tried many, but for convenience, cost, and crispiness, we are partial to Carbon’s Golden Malted Original Pancake and Waffle Flour.

Step 2:  Caramelize your apples.
For about 4 servings, you would need 4 large to 6 medium apples.  Peel, core, slice thin, as you would for an apple pie.  Then melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a wide sauté pan and then add 1 tablespoon granulated sugar.  Add apple slices and cook over medium heat (raising the heat slightly to medium-high if the apples are not cooking).  Then when the apples are starting to soften, add 1 tablespoon of brown sugar (to help caramelize and color the apples), ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon and a pinch of sea salt.  Continue to stir until apples are still holding their shape but cooked to your liking.

Step 3:  Assemble your waffle.
Place one (Belgian) waffle on a plate, and then top with a small mound of caramelized apples.  Then you can top with your choice of toppings: a large spoonful of whipped cream, a small spoonful of mascarpone or sweetened crème fraiche.  Just drizzle a tiny bit of warmed maple syrup on the waffle at the table too if you wish.

Voila!  We are ready for a weekend brunch.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Spaghetti Squash Two Ways

A couple of weeks ago, I found a spaghetti squash included in our weekly bag of organic vegetables and fruits we pick up from our CSA.  (Ok, it’s technically not a CSA but a co-op that works with several nearby farms to distribute fruits and vegetables—and more—to Chicago-area residents.)  In any case, spaghetti squash is not a vegetable that people eat all the time.  In fact, my very first spaghetti squash came in another one of these bags a few years ago.

Then, of course, we tried the dish most associated with this squash: Spaghetti Squash Parmesan. 

1) You start by roasting a whole spaghetti squash.  First, prick your squash many times with a sharp paring knife or a fork, and then roast in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. 

2) Then you carefully split the squash along the length of it and then take a spoon and remove seeds (that messy center part).

3) Then you can spoon some pasta sauce in the center and top with some grated or sliced fresh mozzarella cheese and sprinkle some grated parmesan.  Put back in the oven to melt the cheese and slightly brown edges, remove and top with basil, salt and pepper.

While we enjoy spaghetti squash parmesan, our new favorite squash dish is one I found a recipe for online (click here for recipe).

I would call this dish, good as both a side dish and as a main (and pictured at the top of this post), Spaghetti Squash Mediterranean.

1) Once you are finished roasting (following the directions above), scoop out the seeds.  Once the squash is cool enough to handle, scrape the squash to dislodge the stringy pasta-like strands of the squash and place in a bowl.

2) Toss the squash with sautéed onions and garlic, diced tomatoes (either room temperature or warmed with the onions and garlic), crumbled feta, sliced black olives, and shredded basil.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Go ahead.  Try something new!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Caramelized Apple Cake with Cararmel Sauce

Early fall marks a significant turning point in our household.  As soon as our favorite apples are available for picking, we abandon Chicago on a weekend morning and head up to Wisconsin for our annual apple picking.  And from that point on, every thing we cook has a distinctly apple-y character.

This year, instead of risking failure in our attempt to get a bushel of Honey Crisps—our favorites!—we hedged our bets by making the trek a weekend earlier to get a half bushel of Galas—our second favorites—and then again a mere 7 days later for another half bushel of Honey Crisps.  Yes, we have 56 pounds of apples sitting in our two-bedroom condo…

With our orchard-ful of apples, we have already enjoyed one apple pie—with promises of a few dozen more.  Of course, we have been faithfully juicing our apples very morning, sometimes with strawberries and at other times with carrots.  Will bakes a terrific Nigella Lawson apple cake, but it didn’t use a lot of apples (and did I mention that we have a lot?), so he was quite happy when he came across another apple cake recipe in the October 2013 issue of Bon Appétit. 

The recipe for Gateau Breton aux Pommes used 2 lbs of apples, almost twice as much as Nigella Lawson’s recipe calls for.  Is the Nigella Lawson’s cake a tad butterier and richer?  Well, it does use more butter and sugar…  Perhaps it’s true that I like the Nigella Lawson apple cake just an pinch more, but the recipe by Mimi Thorisson is quite lovely, and it has the added advantage—in addition to using more of our mountains of apples—of being an easier, less fussy, and less labor-intensive recipe.

The recipe (click here) was quite easy to follow, but we made just a few changes, some out of necessity and some out of convenience:

1) Caramelizing apples.
Perhaps it’s because we were using a nonstick pan, but the apple slices that were supposed to turn “golden brown” in 10-12 minutes over medium heat were still pretty pale by the end of 12 minutes.  Seeing that we were using a 12 inch skillet and using the largest burner, I’m thinking that other people might have this problem too.  We cooked for 20 minutes or so—sometimes increasing the heat to medium high—before the apples started turning anywhere near golden brown.

2) Pan size.
The recipe called for an 8-inch cake pan, but we looked at the mound of apples (2 lbs!) and then at the batter and then again at the apples.  We decided to use a 9-inch springform cheesecake pan (pictured above).  We are very glad that we made the change.  The cake does not at all seem too thin for a 9-inch pan, and we suspect that it would have spilled over at some point during the baking had it been in an 8-inch pan.  Besides, it was so much easier just to remove the side of the cake pan than to “turn out onto a rack” from a cake pan.  Just remember that you want to cook for the shorter time period (40 minutes, instead of the 50)!

3) Toppings.
I would recommend that you actually follow Mimi Thorisson’s directions and make the caramel sauce and serve with crème fraiche.  However, we happened to have a jar of caramel sauce topping in the back of the refrigerator that we needed to get rid of.  We also had the last remains of some Devonshire cream.  (It’s actually the Turkish “kaymak,” but it’s the same essentially.  Both are heavenly thick creams, sort of like clotted cream except without the little tang that clotted cream has.) 

All in all, a great way to use 2 lbs of apples.  Now, we have to bake another apple pie, and then make some apple sauce.  Apple butter.  Apple bread.  Then another apple pie…