06 December 2009

Le Fooding Hype + Video: ...Like a Horse

This last week, Paris foodies have been abuzz about La Semaine du Fooding, one of Le Fooding's events throughout the year that get people to line up, shell out a few euro for a fabulous charity, and indulge in tiny dégustation portions of foods from France's hottest up-and-comers, talents worthy of discovery, and – of course – massive corporate sponsors like Nespresso and S. Pellegrino and the like. Names that normally make us cringe, but when it's all for charity, it helps to have heavy hitters.

Unlike the mass clusterfuck (not the good kind) that was the Paris edition of Le Grand Fooding d'Eté at the sprawling Domaine St-Cloud last summer, which was overcrowded, overhyped and sported an incredibly dull "barbecue" theme, this winter edition seemed much more promising: A limited guest-list (each night's allotment of spots disappeared within minutes), a funky-cool atmosphere at the long-decommissioned swimming complex of la Piscine Molitor, and the titillating theme of "Les Incorrects."

The atmosphere and setting were perfect for an event made for noshing on allegedly "politically incorrect" (or perhaps out of fashion) foods. La Piscine Molitor, in its cavernous urban decay and graffiti-covered surfaces, felt more like an underground San Francisco warehouse party in the mid-90's than some yuppified foodie event – only without DJs or mobs of sweaty kids swallowing pills and each other's tongues. We already felt at home.

The agenda for the night of forbidden foods was as follows: Stinky cheeses (depicted in the program as able to attract flies) unusually paired with Veuve Clicquot champagne; Sardinian chef Tonina Simbula's taboo horse meat dishes; a random creation by a "masked chef" too ashamed for his reputation to be using the ingredient du jour; and cookbook maven Tish Deseine abusing our palates with the now-suspect French staple known as... butter.

Naturally, an event like this brings out not just the food-crazies, but the crazies as well. While no one was throwing paint bombs at us going in (security was tighter than a side-hugger's unsullied slit) the Fondation Brigitte Bardot had a truck outside condemning horse meat. For those unfamiliar with the FBB, it's a more vainglorious version of PETA run by its namesake, either because Ms. Bardot wants all the attention to herself, or because even PETA doesn't want to be associated with a washed up racist who wouldn't look good in their naked protests.

Enough chatter, however, how about some dark, grainy video action?

NOTE: Some pro photog came up and snapped photos of us while I was eating the horse meat. Would love to know if we ended up on some web site or newspaper...

While it was certainly fun to go, we couldn't really reconcile the theme of "Les Incorrects" with what we actually ate.

Not So Stinky Cheese
The stinky cheeses were, of course, of good quality. They just really weren't all that stinky, certainly not enough to draw flies. And while pairing them with champagne may be unusual for the stodgy French connoisseur accustomed only to red wine with a heady cheese, we crazy Californians have been doing all sorts of crazy shit to our cheese boards for years. The only unsettling part of it was being served Veuve Clicquot, which is a fine champagne, but against my just-instated personal boycott of LVMH group products. (Here's why you should boycott the greedy conglomerate and help destroy their cloistered business world.)

Can Horse Meat Be Beat?
Chef Simbula's horse dishes were good. Very good. It was Alannah's first time, but she wasn't put off by the idea of it at all, and she loves animals even more than I do. Frankly, it's nothing special - just very lean, dark and at the same time very tender, not unlike ostrich. Basically it's a healthy red meat. But all the flavor, both in carpaccio and steak form, came from the accompanying garnish. Neither of us would go out of the way to eat a horse dish, but to be frank, nothing would morally stop us.

While we both appreciate the efforts of animal rights activists around the world, we find it hypocritical of anyone who can condemn one type of meat over another if extinction/over-hunting isn't the issue. Is a cow no more cute and worthy of petting than a horse? Is a pig not smarter than most animals we keep as pets? All animals are to be cherished and treated with respect. So perhaps all the activists out there should be more concerned about the horrendous conditions most of our food animals suffer due to our industrialized farming, rather than what animal, specifically, winds up on our plates.

But I digress...

Stay Masked, Please
On to our next station: The masked chef. We didn't bother sticking around for the unmasking, because quite frankly, we didn't want to be disappointed in yet another glammy Parisian chef, so we're better off not knowing where this guy cooks. In a land where food is sport, there's a lot of hype, in turn meaning a lot of disappointment. (Hence why we cook so much for ourselves!)

And this ill-conceived bit of Asian fusion served up to us was not helping matters.

The "forbidden" ingredient on this Friday night was hot dogs. Specifically, Knacki brand hot dogs, found in hypermarkets, supermarkets and mini-marts all over France. While we may be Slow Food aficionados, we have nothing against the humble hot dog, and have in fact gobbled many a wiener ourselves. One of our favorite non-traditional hot dog treatments is our friend Arnold's, well, traditional Filipino spaghetti which leverages the hot dog's inherent saltiness with tangy and sweet. (Of course, we call it Japanese spaghetti.)

Although our masked chef did go for some of the sucré-salé combination, it was a hell of a lot more salty than anything. The hot dogs were steamed in bamboo steamers atop woks (pointless gimmickery, really), blended coarsely in food processors, mixed with mint, nuoc nam (fish sauce), peanuts, scallions and half the garnish menu of a Thai restaurant, served over a banana leaf and topped with fried garlic. It was basically Thai/Laotian larb, only with hot dog in place of the usual meat (which can be pork, chicken, beef... anything.) We called it "WTF is this mess of salt?"

Between the high salt content from the hot dogs, fish sauce, and fried garlic, it seemed more like the un-PC ingredient we were having was salt, with French health minister Roselyn Bachelot wagging one of her ironically sausage-like fingers at us for exceeding the daily guideline.

There's nothing creative about substituting hot dogs for meat in an Asian dish that is typically made from any meat at hand. No transformation. No flavor sensation. (Unless sucking on a salt lick is exciting to you.) And the upsetting part of all this is that it's really indicative of what passes for fashionable food in Paris these days. It's the second horrendous bit of Asian fusion I've wanted to snowball back into the mouth of the chef this week (Alannah was luckily spared of the other one), a horrendous virus spreading amongst all the wannabes who try to do it simply because Joël Robuchon, William Ledeuil and the like have parlayed it into grand success. But what these masters do is take influence and inspiration from Asian cuisine, not ape it or simply substitute Western ingredients here and there. Someone needs to cockpunch the majority of Parisians and remind them that trendy does not constitute good.

End rant.

More Butter, Please
Somewhat underwhelmed at this point, we weren't expecting much from the fourth "course," the promised butter overdose for dessert. We didn't see Irish-cum-Parisian cookbook star Trish Deseine when we got to the station (her Twitter status said she was on her way), which is a shame because she is the only one we wanted to congratulate for living up to the media hype. (There was a man at the station and I can't recall the name on his chef's whites, but I did give him my compliments...)

At any rate, whomever made it, the Kouign Amman (I have no idea how to pronounce Breton words, sorry) was orgasmic. All thanks to the butter. But as Alannah kept raving about it, it was buttery without being heavy. Light as a feather, yet rich as can be. At one point she called it "butter cotton candy." I wouldn't go that far, because it did have enough heft to it to be substantial and satisfying (candyfloss is too evanescent for my tastes) but she was on to something... A contradictory sensation that was, in fact, a revelation.

That was the shocking, cool, learn-something-new-every-day part. For us, cooking with disproportionate amounts of butter is old hat. But to make what seems like a half kilo of butter weigh in at only a few grams... That's a trick we'd love to turn.

Despite having had the best-for-last surprise, and the satisfaction of knowing that - good or bad - we helped out a very worthy charity, I can't help but feel more and more ambivalent toward Le Fooding. Besides the fact that their web site is a largely unusable, Flash-intro-with-no-non-Flash-skip-button piece of crap, their events have been nowhere near the level of hype they generate. (This could be dead wrong, though - the recent New York edition sounded fabulous by all accounts.) While the word is an amalgamation of "food" and "feeling," there's just no feeling to it. The organization has an interesting mission, but it seems more like it's in the trend business (emphasis on the business) than in showcasing groundbreaking food and its purveyors.

Of course, being gluttons for punishment, we'll be back at the next event (if they let us in), and hope that Le Fooding can refocus on its mission, instead of being just another Parisian hype machine.

03 December 2009

Purple Stuff: Mystery Vegetable

Please help us identify this leafy, purple vegetable.

We bought it the other day at our green grocer's, not really caring what it was, just that it looked very good. It was among the other seasonal greens (yeah, it's purple...) without any labeling. I asked the cashier what it was, and she enthusiastically told me they were... beet leaves!

This was a bit surprising to me, as I've been eating beet greens since I could remember, and they've always been green, with just a hint of red in the stem sometimes.

Before diving into them tonight, I did a little online research. The closest thing I could come up with is orach (based on this photo at The Kitchn) aka German mountain spinach. But I'm still not convinced...

We tasted some of it raw, and it actually tasted not like beet greens, but a bit like beet root! Sweet, sugary, a bit mineral-y. After lightly wilting it, though, it gave off a beet-like juice (only much less intense) and lost its sweetness, tasting more or less like spinach.

So how did we have it? I added spinach to the pan while wilting in garlic-tinged olive oil, and served it both over and under buta-no-kakuni (Japanese style braised pork belly) over chestnut basmati rice.

And yeah, it was as good as it looks.

And although Alannah wasn't as intrigued by the whole beet-like flavor (notice the beet juice coloring tinting the rice, above) I'm ready to have the rest raw in a salad, maybe with a citrusy zest.

So does anyone know what this is? And how it's normally eaten? First definitive answer wins a moist, sticky date.

No, not with Alannah, but a nice, sugary deglet noor from North Africa. (Winner must take delivery in Paris, as fruit products generally do not pass customs. Kthxbai.)

02 December 2009

Video: Nice n' Slow

If you've been looking at our stuff regularly, you'll notice that we tend not to use many prepared foods in our cooking, and we tend to prefer stuff from our local markets. The occasional canned tomato might make an appearance, and yeah, a lot of our seasonings – particularly more exotic ones – come from bottles procured at Asian markets and whatnot. While not entirely outside of our comfort zone, we try to avoid it whenever possible. After all, this is all about DIY.

We've taken our commitment to doing things the right way by joining Slow Food, the movement made to counter our hideously spreading fast food culture and its effects.

We did so by going to the EuroGusto expo in Tours, France, to sign up in person. And eat and drink everything in sight.

Held every two years, EuroGusto is a chance for purveyors of Slow Food to get together and show off their stuff to food professionals and enthusiasts alike. As the video attests, we're not the classy pros and industry deciders these events are designed to attract... But the mass-consuming ruffians they're trying to convert.

Click the video above to go to YouTube and watch in HD

If anything, Omid's drunken, bloated face is living proof that being actively concerned about well-sourced, responsibly grown food won't make you some frail little hippie. Slow Food isn't about militant vegetarianism (look how much swine was consumed!) nor is it about being a hardcore locavore (the event covers all of Europe). It's about eating well, but not ignoring the fact that the choices we make affect the whole world. Now that's something anyone can get behind.