31 May 2009

Back from ze Market/Back to ze Kitchen

This vacation from cooking has lasted long enough.

My finger is healed, the outdoor markets are irresistibly sunny, and we need to get our fill of quality, unprocessed food before going on (proper) vacation this summer. While we're looking forward to gorging on luscious foods from California and the Pacific Northwest, we'll be dealing with substandard kitchens and, dammit, we're gonna miss just going down the street to pick up stuff like this:

More or less from the top left: Lamb for grilling, gigantic French apricots, roma tomatoes, local cherries, baguette de campagne, enormous avocados, tomatoes on the vine, spiced/herb sausage made by our local butcher, farm-fresh eggs, Catalan and Nicoise olives, organic prawns (I guess that means they're farmed?), and a freakin' lemon.

We can't wait to put all of these in our mouths.

Though not all at once. That's for another site.

23 May 2009

Egg. Salad.

Not egg salad. But salad. With eggs as the centerpiece.

Thanks to the whole dealie with frying my finger, literally, last week, I've been shying away from any heavy-duty cooking. First off because I'm now terrified by the sound of searing flesh. Secondly because almost any wet kitchen activity - from cleaning fish to doing the dishes - would require re-dressing my finger over and over again.

While Paris is a fantastic place to eat out, though, it can get old... Not to mention expensive. And with all the awesome ingredients available, it's maddening not to be able to cook. The solution? Cold dishes. Or those with easy, minimal cooking/prep. Or salade composée, as they like to say here.

Wanna Root?

Root vegetables may be more of an autumn thing in most people's minds, but French markets – like those in most places – are stocked with beets, carrots, and potatoes year round. The colors, though, are varied enough to shout "SPRING!" And chives seem to be on market shelves and fancy menus in amounts unseen since the Sour Cream n' Chives mania of the 1980s. Non-veg components include a gently poached egg and a walnut oil and strawberry syrup vinaigrette.

Egg on Egg on Egg Action

This one's pretty simple... Lumpfish caviar over diced egg whites on toasted baguettes with butter. We decided separating the yolk out and turning it into decor was the best way to go – not only for aesthetics, but to have the option of picking off some yolk to put on top of the canapé: Some folks find the yolk to compete too much with the caviar. This being cheap lumpfish, it's not a big deal either way... Oh, and look, somehow some chives snuck in. (Gotta use up the giant bunch from the market somehow!)

Brown Town
Salade de lentilles et son oeuf poché (er, lentil salad with poached egg) is a lunchtime staple around town, especially at the new upmarket "fast food" joints that try to push healthy meals (i.e. small portions) at non-fine-dining prices (i.e. cheaping out by serving mostly cold dishes). This is actually fine, because as is often the case with French cuisine, the simpler the better. And sometimes, we do actually crave something this stupidly simple.

I figured any moron could make a lentil salad, but I decided to look at recipes for inspiration anyway. Among the first I stumbled upon seemed one of the simplest, and by virtue of it being by Alice Waters, it must be among the best. I got as far as her first ingredient – she recommends French green lentils, and those happen to be the cheapest and most plentiful around these parts – and scanned over to the onion-type component and saw shallots. At that point, I nodded and threw the rest out the door. A new inspiration struck me.

The Persian dish addassi is a lentil dish that somewhat resembles Mexican refried beans in consistency. It's often eaten as a belly-warming breakfast with a pat of butter and nana-dagh, which is essentially fried mint. And you know, nothing goes better with lentils than melted butter. (Alannah agrees, and pleasing the wife comes first and foremost.)

Taking inspiration from that, I scrapped Ms. Waters' recipe (which I'm sure is fantastic) and started making an addassi-style salad.

The cooked lentils were combined with some chopped scallions (whites only) softened in butter. They were then stirred with a dressing based on melted butter, a bit of olive oil, cumin, pepper, and dried mint that I'd ground down into a fine powder with a pestel and mortar. While all that chilled, it was on to poaching the eggs and slicing up – you guessed it – chives to finish.

It's all criminally simple, and above all, mouthgasmically good.

It also keeps quite well, so you can make a huge batch, throw it into a Weck jar (or other fancy-pants brand of canning jar) and take it to work for lunch, where all your coworkers will think you scored a promotion and are now getting your take-out from Fauchon/Neiman-Marcus/Harrod's/(enter-your-local-overpriced-food-hall-here).

17 May 2009

Warning: Explicit Content

We haven't posted much for a while simply because we haven't been cooking much. This is a bit odd for us, but we have been on vacation, first to Luxembourg where we geeked out on beers and (YES!) street food, then with friends visiting from overseas. A big shout out to Brisbane, Australia and Cal-I-for-ni-yay!

While we'd love to indulge our friends as much as we do for ourselves, it often leads to doing it someplace very uncomfortable, like the back of a Volkswagen. (Which is about how large our Paris flat is.)

Our friend Tanya brought us a bunch of tortillas from California - both white corn and yellow corn. God bless her. Without this little gift from the former Mexican territory, we'd be stuck with eating our own tortillas from scratch. Which aren't half bad, but they aren't half good, either.

As a thank you, I picked up some fresh cod at the local fishmonger while Alannah and Tanya were off doing what two girls do together in Paris (i.e. shopping at Louis Vuitton n' shit), cleaned it up, chopped it... and ruined it by dipping it in beer/masa batter and turning it into fish tacos.

Fancified ones, of course, sitting atop a bed of Spanish rice, fried corn tortillas, shredded white cabbage, and a caraway seed cream sauce.


The girls went off to Nice for a few days, and I concentrated on work and/or boozing it up with Aussie Tony. Again, a hiatus from the kitchen. We decided, instead, to take a full tour of the watering holes and traditional French restaurants of our neighborhood. When it was time for Tony to head back Down Under, the gals were back, a bit bronzed from the sun (non-existent in rainy Pa-ree this week), but moreover inspired by the southern cuisine they'd just gorged on. So they handed me a bunch of food.

This Is Why We're Amateurs
Apparently, I was out of practice. Way out of practice.

Alannah got me some gorgeous zucchini, knowing how much I like the flowers on them. I'd eaten fiore di zucca before, but it wasn't until we'd traveled to Italy last year that I'd actually developed an intense love for them. Knowing me all so well, this was the perfect gift.

I immediately set out to make fried zucchini flowers for an entrée to impress the ladies. Never mind that I've never bothered to read a recipe.

Instead, we (or rather I) ended up with a fried finger.

The above doesn't look quite as it did the next day, the largest bump blistered to three times the size, nearly transparent, and handled with utter delicacy... A classic second degree burn from hot frying oil.

Needless to say, I've since been taking care of the finger, keeping it away from hot oil, hot water, hot chili - anything that might aggravate the burn... And fueling many of our fantastic local restaurants through la crise economique. Maybe frying a finger isn't so bad after all.

03 May 2009

[Insert Italian Sausage Joke]

This post is dedicated to another couple in Paris, as it wouldn't have been possible without them.

They recently shared with us some goodies shipped over from family in Italy, and we had to honor the gift by consuming it as elegantly as possible. As much as I'd personally have no problem simply biting chunks out of a hunk of twine-wrapped provolone cheese, or shave off chunks of spiced soppresatta sausage with my pocket knife like a country bumpkin, I have to pretend I'm as classy as the wife sometimes.

So we went all trendy and had it on the cutting board, along with a super fresh baby spinach leaf salad drizzled in olive oil, balsamic, and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. There's something almost primal about eating off of a well-used cutting board - maybe the way it invites you to pick things up with your fingers and lick off bits of olive oil here and there, rolling slices of cheese and meat between your fingers... That whole classy thing went right out the window.

Sticking with the board theme, we served up a from-scratch pizza the same way. The smell of the proofing pizza dough (yeast + warm water + flour) drove me nuts all day, and it remained untainted and perfect by being baked as the simplest and best of all pizzas: The Margherita. Mozarella cheese, tomatoes, basil. Nothing else.

The simplicity of this pizza demands the best ingredients, as it can reveal any and all faults. Our only shortcoming was not having a pizza stone or slab to really retain the necessary heat underneath the crust as it cooks. While our oven is pretty admirable, reaching 260ºC/500ºF, that's still nowhere near the heat of a proper pizza oven. And somehow, I don't think installing a wood-burning oven with a reflector dome to achieve 375ºC/700ºF would really be up to code... Mmm, but think of the tandoori we could make!

'Til then, these simple Italian fixin's will do us just fine... We'll put up with slightly less than perfect, as long as the ingredients are...

Sticky Sweet: Strawberry Mochi

File under super super super super sticky, and only mildly sweet.

Despite having sworn off of making Japanese food for a while after going overboard for a week, our abundance of strawberries made me break that promise. Alannah and I both love the sticky, squishy, stuffed balls of sweet mochi known as daifuku – and above all else, we love ichigo daifuku – or strawberry mochi to the non-Japanese speaking world.

Making it isn't all that difficult. Just messy. Really sticky and messy. By the time we were done, there was white stuff flung all over the room.

It starts out simple enough: Combine even amounts of mochiko (fine rice flour) and sugar water. 100 grams of each should be about enough to make six. You can make more, but these should all be eaten the same day, or maybe the next. Keeping homemade mochi fresh - without either melting into a pile of goo or drying into a brick - is still a mystery. (Leave a comment if you have any pointers...)

Heat up the mixture over a medium burner and stir it until you have a soft dough.

At this point, this stuff will stick tenaciously to the pot, spoon, spatula, fingers, hair, clothes - anything it comes in contact with... Put the mochi dough aside and let it cool for around 15-20 minutes.

Food pr0n bordering on Scheiße...
In the meantime, hull your strawberries and wrap them with anko (red bean paste). If you're a kid – or simply immature like me – joke about how much anko sounds like unko, which is Japanese for poo.

If you look elsewhere on the web for instructions on making ichigo daifuku, you'll find that a lot of fellow amateurs simply wrap their strawberries in an even layer of anko, making it look like a vertical lump of poo. For a more professional looking end-result, after surrounding your strawberry with anko simply work the shape into a half-dome. It only takes an extra five seconds, and your daifuku won't look like... well... shit.

When your mochi dough has cooled, plop it out of the pot on to a very well rice-floured (or corn/potato starched) board. Cover your hands with flour/starch – and I mean cover – and grab chunks of the dough to quickly and gently work into golf-sized balls.

Warning: Anything that is not covered with flour/starch will stick to your balls and not let go.

In the well-starched palm of your off hand, gently flatten a ball of mochi dough, place a half-dome of strawberry/anko curved side down in the middle of the dough, and bring up the sides of the dough and pinch together. This is the bottom of your daifuku.

And that's it! Turn your ichigo daifuku over and place onto a plate - again, one dusted with flour/starch. And while you're at it, sift some more flour/starch over the completed daifuku to prevent sticky fingers.

Or in the immortal words of Samantha Fox, "Then again... that could be fun!"

Strawberry Seduction

The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.

That old saying is dead wrong.

We've been in the midst of springtime strawberry madness, ever since our first fling experimenting with gariguette strawberries. We've since dived head-first into these relatively pale, small, but surprisingly flavorful berries.

Going back to using the passoir à grosseiles food mill/strainer/toy type thing, our first order of business was to turn a 280g basket of gariguettes into syrup for desserts, beverages, etc.

After hours of cooking down, straining, filtering, and cooking down some more, it's a bit disappointing to find that a heaping basket of strawberries yields less than 100ml of concentrated syrup.

Then you taste it, licking a tiny little drop off the the tip of your finger, and it's as though about 100 berries just invaded your mouth, overwhelming your tastebuds and palate like a big strawberry monster.

Despite past (successful) attempts on both of our behalves to survive on a liquid diet, we then decided to try something more solid: Jam. Of course, we had to go that extra trendy, Parisian route and make it a confiture de gariguette au poivre noir – with black pepper. During the cooking process, the generous pinch of black pepper (in about 1.5 basket's worth of strawberries, macerated in sugar the night before) seemed a bit much and gave the rapidly reducing mixture a cough-inducing bite.

But after canning and cooling, the pepper mellows out into a sublime foil to the extreme sweet and tart supplied by the powerful little strawberries.

And that hint of pepper somehow rounds out the combination of strawberry jam, salted butter, and freshly toasted baguette. The sweet and savory makes this simple, quick breakfast item feel almost like a meal. Other than, you know, that whole part about wanting more, and more, and more...

Naked Food: May Day Market Haul

It's May (Labor) Day weekend, and you'd think that in a country vilified by its transatlantic friends as some sort of socialist/communist/Marxist/pinko utopia, that everything would be closed in honor of the proletariat, and we'd all be waiting in Soviet bread lines for the small ration of food being handed to us by the state.

So to all our friends who worship at the altar of unrestricted capitalism and fear the S-word, we invite you to suck on our fresh basil (note the roots), sweet miniature bananas, long firm white asparagus, grit-free baby spinach, ridiculously red and juicy plum tomatoes, succulent gariguette strawberries, round and firm Paris mushrooms, and hairy brown kiwis.

Anyway, now to go line up at the bakery to get our gigantic baguette at the government-mandated price of 80 cents.

01 May 2009

Japanese Clusterf***

This time I've gone too far.

While Alannah was out doing some evening volunteer work, I prepared a special surprise for her, calling in some of our favorite partners in crime for a late evening session of overindulgence: Karaage, curry and okonomiyaki.

You see, I was only half-joking in the karaage curry post about applying the combination to oknomiyaki. Not only did I pull this threesome together, but I added a fourth: Bacon.

That's right. Bacon, chicken karaage, and curry with okonomiyaki.

Don't stare like that. It's totally normal. Okonomiyaki implies "anything you want" or "however you like," after all. And those are words we often wish were literally true when uttered by someone.

Sometimes, fantasies become reality.

It started with the browning of bacon (or rather, the version more common in France, lardon), caramelizing the swine flu out of the little cubes of belly fat 'til they were rendered practically into chicharrones.

Next, I deep fried small strips of chicken marinated in ginger, garlic and soy and dredged through starch.

It was then embedded into a standard okonomiyaki batter as it cooked, with Japanese curry ladled on top, and then the customary katsuobushi, Kewpie mayo, and aonori.

Of course, getting together a pot of hot oil just to fry a few tiny strips of chicken is a bit of a waste. It can be used for so much more...

Unfortunately, wrestling in it was out of the question (too messy), so I added to Alannah's evening surprise with a big batch of karaage chicken wings.

Karaage typically calls for boneless, skinless chicken (dark meat, preferably), but wings must be handled with the fingers and are so much more fun with the bone-in. So I left the outer wings as-is, and opted to skin the drumettes. Or pilons as the French call them, which sounds decidedly less French than the English word. Go figure.

Pulling the skin off of drumettes is, like Katy Perry, a tiresome bitch hardly worth anyone's time. But in the name of proper cooking (and getting both the marinade and the starch coating to stick better) I went through with it anyway.

In the end, though, the ritualistic skinning was worthwhile. Those chunks on top are karaage popcorn chicken, made from the peeled off skin with bits of flesh attached.

In this house, not an ounce of protein goes to waste.

Sloppy Seconds: Fun With Curry

What to do with a massive amounts of leftover Omid's World Famous™ Japanese Curry? Why, have fun with it, of course!

Despite making an enormous pot of the stuff (much of which was summarily consumed on the first night), we didn't have enough to invite our favorite bikini-clad food fetishists for an evening of sploshing. Instead, we further Japanese-ified it.

Omu-rice (or omrice) is a Japanese contraction for "omelette rice," a lunch favorite often creatively slathered in ketchup, served to kids or businessmen too busy for a real lunch. (This is a very common phenomenon in Japan.) Essentially, it's rice (sometimes garnished) rolled into the middle of an omelette. To give it some real Japanese flavor, add a little bit of dashi (bonito stock) and sugar to the beaten eggs... We mixed some leftover rice with the leftover curry, heated up the mixture, and laid it inside the thing omelette exterior, all the while giving the ketchup a pass.

Simple. Pleasure.

The next incarnation of the leftovers is essentially the same thing: Curry, rice, and egg, arranging it in what could only be called the "Curry Volcano."

This time, we decided it was about time to try our hand at the onsen tamago (hot spring egg), a slowly soft-boiled egg that's just a shade on the cooked side from raw. Unfortunately, our thermometer is a damned liar, and despite reading around the 65ºC mark during the soft-boiling of the egg, it came out undercooked. Or rather, practically raw but warm, with the white becoming a slimy puddle of goo resembling... coagulated corn starch. (What did you think I was going to say?)

No matter, because the stuff all gets mixed into the hot curry and rice and cooks anyway, making a rich, satisfying dish even richer.