29 April 2010

A Sweet, Dark and Spicy Bastard

Despite our despisal of the despicable Tex-Mex places in Paris, we actually do love the bastard cuisine. It's actually one of the oldest American cuisines, the product of years of cultural exchange (or some might say subjugation or domination). We just don't like it when jerkwads try to pass it off as authentic Mexican.

Bastard food has its place, of course.

In fact, this last weekend I got out of bed a bit before Alannah and whipped together some migas, a Tex-Mex bastardization of chilaquiles: Fried stale tortillas scrambled with eggs, topped with chili or salsa, and served with a side of refried beans. (This isn't to be confused with the trendy Spanish version of migas, which is actually not the original, but a derivative of the Texan dish. Whoodathunkit?)

At any rate, this isn't about migas. This is about Alannah's insatiable craving after having snacked on my weekend treat. We had things to do and places to go, but she wanted churros. The trouble is, it was Saturday. And the only good churros we've found in Paris are sold at the Bastille marché on Sundays. (Any and all tips on how to get them on other days are welcome...) There are churro stands here and there, most notably near the crappy crèpe stands around the Grands Boulevards and other places foreigners go drinking, but good churros? Not a chance. The land of churros y chocolate may be just to the southwest, but this is a country resistant to imports.

Yes, churros are of Spanish origin. I always thought they were Mexican, because the guys selling them at amusement parks in California were Mexican. Or Filipino. But that's no way to determine food etymology, is it?

So anyway, Alannah decided to just do it: Make churros.

These churros may look fancy, but they're actually
a complete accident. Like your little brother.

The batter's like a donut batter: Flour, eggs, milk, butter and sugar, only everything's integrated warm on the stove top... She made it and then passed it to me along with a huge pastry bag. So while she went to get all hot & steamy upstairs (in the shower), it was my duty to splash around with hot oil. Ain't marriage grand?

The only problem is that we don't have a huge star tip for the pastry bag. I tried using our biggest tip, squeezing gooey strips of churro batter into the hot oil, only to get what looked like donut-fries. Which I'm sure would do brisk business in middle America, but my gal wanted churros, dammit. Crisp on the outside, chewy-tender on the inside, and hot hot hot! These pathetic little pencil-dicked strips would not satisfy.

So my Middle Eastern blood kicked in and for the next batch, I squeezed the sac and flipped my wrist in a twirling motion, as though making zoolbia (in Persian, otherwise known as jalebi in Indian/Pakistani cooking). I filled the hot oil with little disks of tightly swirled dough, the end result a golden-brown rose of churro goodness.

By the time Alannah was dressed and back downstairs, I was finishing up a chocolate sauce to drizzle over the hot churros I'd already tossed in cinnamon sugar: Cream, a lot of cacao powder, sugar, cinammon, cayenne pepper, and a few drops of melting chocolate to thicken it.

So I give you, ladies and gentlemen, Chur-rose. Churros shaped like little roses. Hot, sweet, a little bit spicy, and – best of all – a perfectly acceptable bastardization of Latin food that didn't cost an arm and a leg.

27 April 2010

Take a Razor to Your Clam

Out of the blue the other day, I got the urge to snack on some clam. But not just any clam, razor clams. The idea came to me randomly. I thought, "I'd really like some razor clams, topped with a ginger-scallion sauce."

This isn't an entirely original craving. We'd had an amazing razor clam/scallion dish at the in-decline Mandarin Kitchen in Bayswater on our London Trip a couple of months before. But for some reason, I suddenly became singularly obsessed with making a David Chang-style ginger-scallion sauce and topping some long bivalves with it.

Alive with pleasure. Squirming, pulsating pleasure.
So we hit the markets in search of a shellfish that is usually used for bait here... Which means it's not easy to find.

We spotted a couple of small bundles of 'em at a fish stand in the Marché du Président Wilson in the posh 16th, but by the time we circled around to get them on our way out (it was a hot day, which doesn't mix with public transit and seafood) they were gone!  Oh well, at least we'd picked up some beautiful, funky heirloom carrot varieties from Joël Thiebault, who has made a career out of raising gorgeous vegetables... and selling their "throwaway" parts to suckers at a premium. (Hey, Joël! Poor people have been eating turnip and beet greens forever!)

Luck turned up at Paris' tertiary Chinatown (in the 3rd arrondissement), where we were able to pick up a massive bundle of Ensis directus for about half the price of what we missed out on in the 16th. Checking 'em out, they were cold, fresh, alive, and – most importantly – plucked from the nearby North Sea, not shipped from halfway around the world as one might suspect in the Asian markets. Score!

Next up: Making a ginger-scallion sauce.

I've heard so many raves about David Chang's sauce as featured in the Momofuku cookbook, which I had picked up back when it came out at our favorite English-language bookstore in town. (Hint: It's not fucking WH Smith or Brentano's. Fuck them with a dusty old hardcover inserted diagonally.)  But I'd never bothered to look at the recipe. In fact, I only got the book because it's good reading, and Alannah and I get giggles out of Chang's fuck-you attitude to the ruling food establishment.

The formula is dead simple: Ginger, scallions, oil, sherry vinegar, soy sauce, salt.

Ginger-Scallion sauce.. the Ramped up version. Har har.
We decided, of course, to mess with the formula, because that's what we do. We replaced half the scallions with some gorgeous red ramps we found during our market adventures. Ramps are a bit more garlicky than scallions, and they also have a bit of an earthy flavor that we dig.  Also, I made a Japanese-pride-fueled executive decision to substitute the sherry vinegar with a mix of rice vinegar and hon-mirin (Japanese cooking wine).  Chop. Mince. Combine for 15 minutes. Done.

The sauce was poured over some cleaned, opened razor clams and placed under a super-hot broiler for just a couple of minutes...

Lap up the juices on these hot, vertical clams
While we were at it, I figured we should have some of the famous ginger-scallion noodles. Which entails all of pouring the same sauce over some hot, cheap ramen-type noodles.

Slurp this
Of course, having so much clam between the two of us, the feast continued for a couple more days. We'd made some deep-fried razor clams to have with our Mexican food, and we went on with our Asian theme to make a simple but gorgeous razor clam stir-fry.

It's as if scallops and lobster mated and put tubular
babies on top of veggies

There was also some more posh-16th-arrondissement market booty to be plundered, so we gently steamed some shimeji mushrooms, laid 'em on top of a bed of shredded steamed chicken... Topped off with more of the ginger-scallion-ramp sauce, of course.

Mmmm... Shroomy
In all, it made for a couple of days of delectable Asian eating, most of which is crazy simple to prepare. The only tough part was having to run around town to procure the various ingredients, but such is the nature of finding (or even making) good ethnic food in Paris.

20 April 2010

Rant: Mexican't

This is a bitch & moan post with a cause. Read on for the goods.

Last night we ripped on the state of casual American food in Paris, and suggested how easy it is to make far superior burgers and pancakes than what you can find in the slew of "American Diner" themed hovels throughout the town.

Tamales with chicken and chili filling, masa-crusted razor clams,
fresh guacamole... At nuestra casa.
Unfortunately, this situation extends to all sorts of ethnic food in France. Despite being a beautifully multicultural place, what few plausible ethnic restaurants you can find are often "dumbed down" for the local palate. This makes sense in a reputedly risk-averse society, but at the same time makes no sense in the country that coined the term "vive la différence."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of Mexican cuisine, the majority of which is represented by ground beef (!) burritos and insipid fajitas and so-called tacos in factory-made flour tortillas. What the fuck is going on here?  I'll tell you what: The virulent disease known as Tex-Mex, which much like anything from Texas is as irritating and unwanted as a case of syphilis. Only harder to get rid of.  The Tex-Mex trend in Paris has insured that even the most well-meaning of real, Mexican-run restaurants has to sell slushy margaritas and faux burritos to stay in business.

Despite the hardship it presents, the only decent Mexican food in town comes at our own hands. Unlike the aforementioned burgers and pancakes, though, it's not particularly easy. Some of it, like a proper molé sauce, is downright labor-intensive.  But if a guera and a chino gordo (I'm not Chinese, but that's what they call me south of the border) can find the ingredients and take the time to make the real deal, why can't the restaurateurs?

As I write this, I'm eating leftover tamales that Alannah made last night, and even nuked in a plastic tupperware container it's better than anything you can get at the local Indiana Café or Mexi&Co. Yes, the corn husks and masa are hard to source, but they exist.

Admittedly, the razor clams you see above aren't part of the authentic Mexican oeuvre. (Machas, as they're called in Spanish, seem to be limited to Chilean cuisine.) But even the most well-regarded Latin-inspired restaurants here won't dare depart from the established formula and dust some mariscos with masa crocante. They fail to educate or challenge their clientele, and instead bow to their expectations.

Even the faux Mexican isn't creative. In about three seconds, Alannah whipped up an accompanying dessert for last night's dinner. Sliced fresh mangos with a dipping sauce of chocolate, cream, and spices. While not authentically Latin, it at least played within the flavors of the cuisine, while offering something besides the bastardized mediocrity Parisian diners are accustomed to.

Mango y chocolate... Simple but effective.
The flavors were so fantastic, that we're going to develop a cocktail based on this improvised dessert to serve with Mexican food next time we entertain. Screw your slushy margarita.

The Good Cause Part
Luckily, there is one publicly accessible place where the status quo is being challenged.  At La Rotisserie de Sainte-Marthe in the 10th arrondissement, they have a mission: To prevent the gentrification of their part of the quartier, and to preserve the rich ethnic identity of the many small immigrant groups within.  By day they're a restaurant serving 5-euro meals to the locals. By night, they allow member non-profit organizations to take the restaurant over and share full meals (price cap: 10 euros) with the community.

Once a month, the arts collective Sonidero Tochtli hosts a Mexican dinner. This thursday will feature tacos de barbacoa, nopales (cactus) salad and a convivial community atmosphere unmatched by any other restaurant in town. (The €1.50 beer/wine might have something to do with it.)

It's not fancy. It's elbow-to-elbow seating. But the food is fantastic, and it's all done for good reason. We'll see you there.

Rant: Eat American, Même en France

This post was inspired by finding out this weekend that the only place offering a "Foursquare" special in Paris is the middling Breakfast in America. 

One thing that kills us living in France is the dearth of good American food out there. Not that we'd actually go out regularly to eat it. We can just cook it ourselves. It's easy. Which is why we're so perplexed as to why American food is so damn bad in Paris.

And we're not talking "New American" cuisine or California cuisine or any fancy fusion stuff. We're talking burgers and hot dogs and pancakes and eggs benedict. Stereotypical American food. Stuff so easy, I could pull the gimp out of our caveau and he'd be able to cook it ball-gagged and hog-tied, chained to the stove. It's not rocket science. It's American food, for crying out loud. The land where Sarah Palin still gets paid for speaking engagements.

Yet even the American-run joints here can't serve up a burger worth the 14 euro or so (yeah, that's about 20 freakin' bucks) they charge. What gives? It's not a lack of ingredients. It's certainly not a lack of culinary knowledge.

Maybe it's because American food – because it's the simplistic domain of mouth-breathing Tea Baggers – doesn't accord the necessary respect that all food of any origin should receive. And that's to make it with good ingredients and care.

A perfectly balanced American meal of burger, fries, salad, and beer.
So this weekend we decided to take on one of these careless slingers of overpriced American food, the oft-cited Breakfast in America. With two locations in the Marais and the Left Bank – both hangouts of American tourists and expats who don't know any better – they do a brisk business of selling overpriced, highly mediocre American food. People of all walks of life line up for this shit like basement-dwelling nerds drooling over booth bimbos at a Vegas convention, which as anyone who's ever done this knows, never leads to any satisfaction.

Despite the stupid Supertramp-inspired name, most people there seem to be eating the sub-par burgers. And they pay the equivalent of twenty bucks for what, exactly? Nothing better than even the most culinarily inept can make by themselves. Sure, it takes a little investment of time, but you can have a real burger made with freshly-ground meat, real cheddar cheese, grilled sweet onions, hand-cut double-fried fries, and a beer for just a little coin. Use supermarket ingredients (yes, every damn supermarket and corner mini-market in France has hamburger buns) and you're lowballing the craptacular restaurants by nearly 90%. And it will still taste better. We guarantee it.

Burger with grilled sweet onion, fresh tomato, hand-ground beef from
the butcher, and thick-sliced real cheddar cheese.
Material cost: 2 euro. Maybe 3.
For pocket change and a few minutes of your time, you're able to make at home what's served in only the chicest, upscale restaurants here, who have decided to serve a burger simply because it's trendy, not because it's remotely what they do best.  Seriously: Make a patty, cook it medium-rare, throw it between two toasted pre-made buns, throw on your garnishes of choice.  Look at the picture above. It's no pussy-ass "slider."  (Another passé trend that's made it to these shores, of course.) That hamburger bun's the diameter of a compact disc. So you're lookin' at some monster meat.

The next most popular American item is the humble pancake. We could dedicate chapters to the French notion of the pancake, how it's eaten, how it's served, but we're ragging on an actual American restaurant here.

We know pancakes are very subjective. Everyone has a different recipe. Some actually like the mix that comes out of a box. Some like them thin, some like them thick and biscuity. There's no agreement at all on what makes a good pancake. And, ok, they're not 100% foolproof. When making your own, inevitably you have to go through one or two "test" pancakes 'til you get it right.

Admittedly, the first three were spotty, black discs that looked
like a tranny hooker's leopard-skin panties.
But even when burning through a few "guinea pigs" trying to get the skillet to the right temperature, you still only need a ratio of two eggs to two cups of flour, mixed with little dashes of leavening agent, sugar, and fat to make a couple of respectable stacks of flapjacks. (We opted for melted sweet creamery butter and olive oil this time, but that's just getting unnecessarily fancy.)  And contrary to the beliefs of silly expats who go to American epiceries and buy overpriced bottles of fake pancake syrup, real maple syrup is available at all Paris supermarkets... dirt cheap. So cheap you wouldn't mind warming up a whole bottle of the sticky stuff to pour over your short stack.

I'll repeat: It's not fuckin' rocket science.

So yeah, this post is more of a bitch & moan session than anything instructive or remotely informative. Because making a basic hamburger or pancake is one of those skills every red-blooded American (even those who fled the place) should have. Unless you simply don't cook, of course. Then you're off the hook.

But say even if you aren't culinarily challenged. Sometimes you just want a break. To go out, have good food, and be served. Then why go to a place with shit atmosphere and bad service?

As an American, I find it insulting that people accept much of the shit being slung out there, and especially at the prices being charged. Why support these shenanigans? Demand better. Demand the best. Because you're American god dammit. (Or you want to eat like one.)

Fuck Breakfast in America.

If a half Eye-ranian immigrant and his farmgirl wife can pull off the food you see here for what amounts to pocket change (admittedly, with a few 2-euro coins in the mix), imagine what a paid professional should be serving you. Demand. Better.

On the bright side, there are a few upstarts restos out there that are doing an adequate job on burgers and pancakes recently, and at a reasonable price.  We'd share them with you, but half the fun is breaking free of the herd and discovering these little everyday revelations for yourself.

14 April 2010

One Kilo of Sweet Relief

Quatre quarts. It's French for "four quarters."  Alannah decided this past weekend that she'd bake a quatre-quarts cake, and when I finished sorting through a year's worth of papers to prepare for doing our taxes last night, we decided to celebrate by doing it. Making the cake, that is.

Tonight, after finishing the US portion of our taxes, we ate it.

No, I don't know why we have to file for and pay taxes in the US when we no longer live there, and likely will not get any American benefit unless I bake roofie-cupcakes for a 13 year-old and have to hide from extradition, Polanski-style.

Quatre-quarts cake with strawberry, mango and crème fraîche.
You may be looking at that picture and saying, "That looks like poundcake!" And you'd be mostly right. Except it's a kilo, dammit. Whereas a poundcake takes a pound of each ingredient, a quatre-quarts involves a quarter kilo (250g) each of flour, sugar and butter, and 3 eggs. (Large French eggs weigh in at around 80g, for a total of 240g, but since we buy ours more or less out of the chicken's butt, there's a ~15g margin of error. Not a big deal.)

But is it poundcake with the same ratio but a different base amount?  Not quite.

'Cuz it's metric.

That and for a quart-quarts, you're going to separate your eggs first. The yolks get mixed in with the butter and the flour to form a pretty heavy paste.

The whites must be whipped 'til fluffy, forming stiff peaks. The eggs are then whisked (or rather, beaten, as it's not a delicate receiver) into the rest of the batter. This seems bass-ackward and pointless when doing it.

It'd probably be much easier with a stand mixer, but you don't wanna know how much a KitchenAid Pro costs around here... Maybe if we get a good tax refund?

Then, as with a poundcake, you pour it into a loaf pan, but – one more difference – you pop it into a hotter (200ºc/400ºF) oven for less time (40-45 minutes). The outside will (alarmingly) brown and turn crispy, while the cake inside will be much lighter and airier than that of a poundcake.

In fact, the poundcake and quatre-quarts serve as a perfect analogy for American vs. French. One is generally pale and heavy, while the other is much lighter but often sports an (alarmingly) accelerated tan.

We chose to have our overly-bronzed blonde with fresh strawberries and mango, with even fresher crème fraîche from our local cheesemonger/milkmaid.

Fluffing egg whites by hand and then incorporating them into a thick dough wasn't easy, but take our word, it's much more fun – and worthwhile – than trying to figure out your Foreign Income Alternative Minimum Tax For Stimulus Credit... or whatever the hell it is we just did.

11 April 2010

Feaster II: Easter Eggs & Homegrown Green

Yeah, it's a week after Zombie Jesus Day but we were busy digesting the series of holiday meals all week, then some friends came into town which means we've been drinking for a few days solid. Anyway, here's the second Easter installment.

One of our favorite things to eat in England comes not from the hallowed kitchen of St. John nor the menu of a hip gastrobpub, but rather from the supermarket. Jiggawhat!? That's right... No trip to England is complete without stopping in at least once every couple of days for a pre-packaged sandwich from Tesco or Sainsbury's or – if you're into all sorts of eco-over-packaging – Marks & Spencer. But it's one sandwich in particular that gets our motor running: Egg & Cress.

I've been eating these industrial-but-delightful sandwiches for the better part of 10 years now ever since discovering them, and when I first introduced Alannah to them a few years ago on some drunken late-night Sainsbury's run, she claims she knew I was the man for her. Apparently, egg salad haters need not apply.

But egg & cress is not merely an egg salad sandwich. It's an egg salad sandwich with cress! From our American POV, our first question would naturally be, "What the hell is cress? Watercress?" No, it's not watercress. It's a sprouted green often called 'salad cress' or 'garden cress' a distant relative of mustard with a milder bite of spiciness. It is, of course, much better known and widely available in Britain. In France, it's called cressonnette, is almost as widely known... but we could never find it anywhere.

So as winter started to melt away we said, "Fuck it!" and decided to grow our own. And once we found packets of organic cressonnette seed, it was easier than a Tri-Delt doing 32 oz. beer bongs in Cancun.

It takes about 6 days to have properly sprouted,
edible cress. This is from a large pinch of seeds.
Cress situation resolved, it was time to tackle the rest. Being Easter week, Alannah had gone to our "egg lady" at the marché and bought a pile of straight-out-the-chicken's-ass white eggs to dye. Naturally, we got busy with other things and didn't get to such trivial matters as dying eggs in some actually-very-pagan-but-disguised-as-spiritual-tradition manner. But I digress.

We boiled some eggs 'til the yolk was nearly hard, but not quite. Using my well-trained wrist and forearm, I whipped up some homemade mayo with some more fresh egg yolks. Mixed it all up, added the cress, and voila! The egg salad couldn't have been more homemade if we'd made like chickens and shot them out of our butts ourselves.

As for the bread, the weather's still too cool to make our own sourdough starter, so we caved and bought a gigantic boule – gigantic, fluffy, and crusty as hell on the outside – from a local artisan baker. There will be no industrial crap in this sandwich, however it may have been inspired...

Sainswhat? Marks & who?

It's simple. It's quick. It's unbelievably satisfying.

Want to make your own? Use about 1.5 tablespoons of mayo per hardboiled egg, adding maybe half a fistful of garden cress.

Your own mayo? 1 egg yolk + 1 bottle cap of vinegar, beaten, to which you slowly add 200ml (roughly a cup) of oil while you beat the shit out of it with a whisk. You can use an electric mixer if you're a pussy. Also, you can add a little salt, mustard, or even sugar to vary the flavor, but if you're using great eggs, the yolk should provide just enough flavor.

Also, at this point, don't make this with last week's Easter eggs. They're probably on the verge of rotten.

Just sayin'.

07 April 2010

Feaster I: Hawt Chocolate

We thought about getting away for Easter weekend, but why bother? The trains would be packed, hotels expensive, and everything closed anyway. Why not take the long weekend to immerse ourselves in what we love doing most?

After recovering, we got to doing what we love doing second best: Cooking up a storm.

We've been on a Mexican kick lately, so we decided to continue the theme. Having all the time in the world, Alannah figured it was time she busted out her recipe for a pipián-inspired mole. (Pipian is a pumpkin seed sauce often eaten for Easter in Mexico.)

No mole recipe is the same. Some claim to be based on just a handful of flavors, others claim you must have exactly 38 components. Some cook relatively quickly. Others require a full day of simmering. But one thing is constant: Mole is labor intensive.

Pestel & mortar round 1: Peanuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds
Pestel & mortar round 2: Chilis and bread crumbs
My wrist and forearm hadn't gotten such an intense workout since I was single, as Alannah had convinced me to spend over an hour grinding down roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chili negro, chipotle, and guajillo chilis. I remembered not to burn my junk this time.

Then it was time to simmer it in a bit of lard, add cinnamon and – the key component to a proper molé – bitter chocolate. The key is to put in just enough to give it a distinct taste of chocolate, but not so much that it tastes like you just felched Willy Wonka. This is the case at many a bad Mexican restaurant, unfortunately.

Mole can be used in many ways. The most common is to braise chicken in it. Still sporting corn tortilla's from the other night's Parisian Mexi-ventures, Alannah opted for enchiladas. So I simmered shredded chicken (thanks to leftovers from a rotisserie chicken we'd kept on hand) in the mole while she very lightly fried the tortillas. They were then given a fisting of chicken mole and some locally made queso from the Latin American store we recently found in the 9th arrondissement. Then they were rolled and laid seam-side down in a baking dish, covered with more mole and cheese, and baked for around 30 minutes.

Chocolate-chili tubes of lovin'
Crispy, saucey, and bursting with mole flavor. Mole has such an intense, complex, deep flavor that it pairs well with just about any otherwise unadorned item... Simple cheese. White meat poultry. Rice...

Chocolate Bunny
And, of course, conejo, a.k.a. wabbit. I'd initially gotten the idea for this when joking with an otherwise vegetarian friend in California who had tweeted that she was making lapin à la moutarde for Easter. I said she should stew it in mole and it'd be a chocolate bunny. Get it? Har. Well, my fancy wannabe haute cuisine food geek got the better of me. I passed the mole through a chinois, laid strips of rabbit filet over it, and garnished it with steamed strands of spring onion for a bit of Easter grass. To go back to Easter's pagan roots and symbolize fertility, I added a second garnish of pepitos – fried pumpkin seeds coated in lime and chili.

We didn't stay high-brow for long, though. To add some sort of vegetable to the meal, I whipped up a huge batch of guacamole. This is no big deal for a Californian, but even in avocado-rich France, it's nearly impossible to find a good guacamole outside the home. At best, you get real ingredients that have been abused in a blender. At worst, it's the powdered stuff from a bucket. Which is all very sad, considering it's easily made by simply mashing together some very commonly found ingredients... With a fork.

No blender or Cuisinart necessary
Or two forks, as I like it. Avocados, plenty of cilantro (coriander), lime juice, seeded & diced tomatoes, diced sweet onion, and a touch of minced garlic. No blender. No sour cream. And certainly no mayonnaise. (WTF, right?)

Burns so good.
Going in and out.
This being a holiday meal, one must have a classy pairing, right? Well, a good Mexican meal calls for a good tequila, and if you insist on ruining it, turning it into a good margarita. (Use lime juice and sugar – please don't buy mixes!) But being who we are, we had to veer a little from the expected terrain of vanilla and make a michelada.


Next time you want a cold drink to go with your chips and homemade guacamole, rim a pint glass with lime and salt, maybe some cayenne pepper if you like a little burn around the lips. Squeeze in the juice of half a lime, a dash or two of hot sauce, and pour in a cheap golden beer. ¡Salud!