Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eating in the 10th Arrondissement in Paris

When we visited Paris again this year, we decided that practicality would win out in our choice of lodgings.  We had only a day and a half in Paris, and we were leaving our hotel early to go to Charles de Gaulle airport on our final morning.  We thought that staying near Gare du Nord (near the RER train that would take us to the airport) would be smart.  Of course we would have been adding no more than a few minutes for an extra stop or two on the metro by staying elsewhere, but we liked our plan for another reason. 

Bon Appetit had a spread in an issue about how up-and-coming a food district the 10th arrondissement was becoming.  Despite the still considerable stretch of areas considered riff-raff, some picturesque pockets—especially along the Canal du St. Martin—boasted some great new eateries.  We decided to try out some places recommended by the magazine or Tripadvisor or Yelp.

Here are some of our suggestions:

Coffee at Ten Belles (as suggested by Bon Appetit):

It’s a tiny place, but really not so small that you cannot grab a table if you go at the right time.  There are a row of tables opposite the coffee bar, a few tables outside, and a few tables upstairs.  You can order at the counter, then grab one of the carafes of water thoughtfully laid out, and then sit and wait (this could take a few minutes as the place tends to get busy) for your artistic creation to be brought to you.  I suggest the cappuccino (above).

Then, go to Du Pain et des Idees (with the help of Yelp):

Will started to salivate just looking at the outside.  Even though we only had one and a half days in Paris, Will made two visits there (getting three delectable pastries each time).  My favorite was the “Escargot de Chocolat-Pistache” (or, as the lady repeated as she gave me the pastry: “choco-pistache.”  Apparently they received the award for best baguette in 2014.  We didn’t get a chance to try it, but I’m sure it was heavenly.

For dinner, try Chez Marie Louise (discovered via Tripadvisor):

Very near Ten Belles, just east of the Canal St. Martin, you will find this unassuming restaurant.  The clientele is half French and half tourists, the abundance of tourists mostly because the word has gotten out that the guy who operates the restaurant (owner?) speaks marvelous English and can explain in great detail anything you don’t understand on the menu.

Since we had earlier studied the hand-written menu outside (see the picture above)—and since it was, after all, our last of two weeks of eating in France—we didn’t need much help.  He almost seemed disappointed that he could not take the opportunity to wax poetic about Croquilles St. Jacques ravioli (that’s scallop ravioli, and pictured below with some quickly sautéed and very flavorful zucchini, “courgette” in French).

I don’t know about the rest of the 10th, but the food in the places we visited was superb!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A French Creperie in Your Own Home

Everybody knows you can get a good crepe in France...and in Belgium...and in Quebec...  Even the Chicago area has its share of good creperies.  But, did you know that it’s quite simple to make crepes in your own home—at the last minute, without any mixing of batter or fumbling for a crepe pan?

Let me backtrack.  If you look at the picture at the top of this post, you see one of the most delightfully cheap meals Will and I enjoyed in Montpellier.  Would you believe Will’s lunch of a bowl of old-fashioned cidre, the special salad of the day (a minty tabbouleh), special crepe of the day (a delicious savory mix of thin ham slices, beautifully melted Reblochon cheese, and thin potato slices flavored with rosemary), and a dessert crepe of choice (Will selected the salted caramel crepe) together came to 13.50 Euros?  That is roughly $18.50 in US currency for a meal that included alcohol.  Moreover, this being France, tax and gratuity were INCLUDED in that price already.

I’m not sure that we can top the quality (and quantity!) of that amazing meal in a touristy city in the US for anything close to $18.50 (including tax and tip).  And all run by the friendliest group of people you could imagine!  But, of course, we don’t have access to that creperie back home.  So, we must make do with our own efforts here.

Dessert crepe options are easily achieved, so let’s start with those.  If you go to a reasonably well-stocked grocery store (try to go to ones with an international clientele), you should be able to find frozen pre-made crepes.  They tend to be very thin and delicate, so you need to be careful when handling them. 

1) Let the frozen crepes come to room temperature, and then gently slide a thin spatula underneath one to separate it from the rest of the crepes.  Repeat with as many as you need before putting the rest in the freezer, well sealed.

2) Decide on your filling, making sure that you already have some whipped cream ready to go (or ice cream, or sweetened mascarpone, or whatever you desire as your cream topping component).

3) In your largest, shallowest non-stick pan, melt ½ teaspoon of butter over medium heat.  Then take your spatula and spread the melted butter all around so that the entire bottom surface of the pan is buttered.  Then place your pre-cooked crepe in the pan and slide around for 1-2 minutes to warm. 

4) Carefully fold one-half of the crepe over the other half and then turn off the heat.  Now is when the filling goes in if you have a filling of choice (chocolate, caramel, or my nostalgic favorite the French cream of chestnut).  Spread a bit of the filling on half of the semi-circle you now have.  Then place the crepe on a plate and fold again at a slight angle so that you can see a bit of the filling (look at the picture above).  

5) Then garnish with your whipped cream, a drizzle of caramel or chocolate sauce (depending on your crepe—and your preferences), and a sprinkling of chopped toasted nuts if you’d like.

Will is not a big fan of chestnut and leans towards fresh berries, so I made him a blueberry one instead.  Contentment all around! 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Food and Farming Documentaries for You

Perhaps it has something to do with my being an avid eater, writer of a food blog, and an educator.  Whatever the reason might be, I need to confess that I cannot seem to get enough of food-oriented documentaries!  Food, Inc., Forks over Knives, A Place at the Table were just a few of the titles in this category that I have seen recently.  Now, my Amazon Instant Prime “recommends” food documentary titles for me based on my previous viewing history.

So it came to be that I spent three evenings this week watching more food documentaries.  Since I’ve already spent that time, I thought that maybe I would offer brief reviews in this space, so that others can choose which ones to watch.  (Each heading title is a hyperlink, so you can be directed to the Amazon page that describes the movie.)

Sunday: Fresh

This might have been the best of the three I saw this week.  Though its 2009 production date meant that the movie was quite a few years out of date, this documentary delivered some searing images.  (Beakless and clawless chickens, the famous images of staggering cows suffering from mad cow disease, etc.)  Michael Pollan—whose Omnivore’s Dilemma seems to have lifted him to such a level of fame that every food documentary wants him on camera—is one of the experts in the movie, along with the likes of the farmer-with-a-neat-vocabulary Joel Salatin who was featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma and who has since also starred in American Meat (2013). 

There’s a certain datedness in the visuals of the documentary—a bit grey with some graininess—but the information it imparts about the perils of mono-crops and increasingly sinister reach of near-monopoly in big agri-business is worth viewing.

Monday: Ingredients

This 2011 movie is the slickest of the three I watched.  It might have been the one that is most enjoyable to watch since, as it was described by Amazon, it offered an uplifting narrative about the ways in which French-inspired chefs like Alice Waters and the committed earnestness of small organic farmers might actually be able to lift Americans out of the clutches of obesity-producing and pesticide-ridden big agriculture. 

In fact, the film had such great shots of bucolic multi-crop countryside and mouthwatering produce-laden restaurant dishes that it could qualify as farm-and-food porn.  The Bebe Neuwirth-narration actually was a bit jarring (since it was hard not to think of Lilith), but this film might be the one I’ll watch with someone who actually wants something feel-good.

Tuesday: Greenhorns

This 2013 entry felt more like an amateur production—well, because it actually was, I think—and this would fill nicely the Indie-documentary-about-small-farming niche (if one existed).  The narrative voice here was also a bit grating, not because of the famous intonations of the speaker but more so because hers was clearly not a famous or a well-trained voice.  The earnestness of the movie overall is winsome though.

Greenhorns traversed the country interviewing 18, 19, and 20-something independent farmers (sometimes doing as little as 2 acres of farming) about the trials and tribulations of their chosen vocation.  These are clearly very committed young people, and you do root for them.  You also get a sense though that they will be able to lift themselves up and dust themselves off and be able to find jobs in industrial design or pharmacological management should they fail at farming.  I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing.

The Verdict

All in all, I’m glad to have seen all three movies.  Fresh was informative and thoughtful; and Ingredients waxed poetically--and with beautiful images--about the virtues and benefits of farmer's markets and Community Supported Agriculture.  (Photo above shows one of my weekly CSA bundles.)  Greenhorns might not be for everyone, but I think Will and I need to take heed.  After our trip to the south of France, Will has visions of operating a 5-acre vineyard in Languedoc-Rousillon region (like the photo at top of post).  We need to get our eyes opened quickly about the labor involved in what is sure to be a lot of work. 

In fact, all three movies conveyed quite clearly this common theme: farmers work really really hard, all the time.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Eating "Typical" Foods in Lyon

While staying in Brussels eight years ago, I found myself trying NOT to ask for “Belgian waffles.”  Of course, their authentic gaufre actually do not look like what we call “Belgian waffles” here in the United States, but I still kept on biting my tongue, feeling silly every time I found myself about to ask for something made Belgian-style.

On our first stop in our most recent French trip, we were looking forward to eating in Lyon, famed for being a distinctly food-centric city in a very food-centric country.  I swore to myself that I would not look like an ignorant tourist by asking for anything “Lyonnaise,” in Lyon.  Especially not one of those salades.  Well, at our first lunch stop in Lyon, I found that I need not have worried.  Amongst other items on the salad menu, I found “Salade Lyonnaise” actually listed! 

I went ahead and ordered possibly that most famous food item from Lyon (top of the picture below, above the frites and mussels).  While very yummy—especially those crispy fried lardons (fattier and tastier than American bacon)—the salad was perhaps a bit more “French” than it could have been for our tamer tastes.  I cut them up and ate them along with the rest of the salad, but Will didn’t really want much to do with the sautéed liver chunks sprinkled liberally all over the salad…

Another Lyon specialty was seemingly everywhere but harder to find in actuality.  In the Lyon Tourist Information office, we saw a tee-shirt that proclaimed “I tried a hot dog, but I preferred the quenelle.”  Guide books were agog about these Lyonnaise creations.  We walked all over Lyon looking for a restaurant listed in our Lonely Planet book as famous for multiple varieties of quenelles, but the restaurant had been replaced by a café.  Finally, when we stopped into an authentic Lyonnaise bouchon (you have to look for a plaque with a red-nosed Guignol on it), I was greeted with a menu of the day that featured a quenelle.

When it came, I was pleasantly surprised.  A quenelle turned out to be a largish dumpling that was covered in (usually) a creamy sauce and baked to the point when the sauce got bubbly (and dangerously hot!) and the quenelle became browned and the sides of the casserole dish nicely crusted.  The quenelle pictured at the top of this post was really quite a revelation.  I had merely been seeking a quenelle with three cheeses sauce (a typical variety), but this one was amazing!  It was a quenelle with shrimp in a lobster butter sauce.  You can see a piece of langoustine on top of the browned quenelle.  And the sauce!  Cheesy, buttery, lobster-y, and burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot! 

Especially given that we had walked for many miles that day in cool early May weather, I appreciated the hearty warmth and the creamy explosion of flavor that the quenelle brought, along with the authentic flavor of Lyon.