Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy 2009

Thought I might share some New Year's Eve cheer a few days early....I think this picture epitomizes the grandiose feeling that each New Year's Eve brings, or at least, evokes: elegance, hope, celebration of what has been and what will be, good company and good cheer. No matter what the state of the economy today, I'm holding on to this ideal....

Blinis with smoked salmon, crème fraîche & caviar

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy, (and let's hope prosperous) 2009!
Happy New Year to you!

I'll be back in touch after we return from our "desert adventure". :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 3

Here's what I saw last night on my walk home to our apartment: the blue Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame de Paris. And I almost had la place (the plaza) to myself. Hardly anyone was there. I love moments like that.

Then I passed by our little boulangerie-patisserie. I'm so glad to have this shop right around the corner...and in fact, it's a respected name here in Paris: Gosselin. Nice decorations outside; even nicer decorations inside!! It's hard not to stop and look in the window. The buche de noël are especially tempting...but I said to myself that I wanted to make one at home again this year. We'll see if there is enough time, or not, but it's always nice to have a back-up plan, isn't it?

Finally, on a more personal home - here's our little Christmas tree (and us). The tree is cute, isn't it? Same size as last year...I'm starting to like the scaled down Christmas. By the time I finished decorating it, I was just getting tired of doing the job...which made it perfect timing. Any longer & I would've needed a break....any shorter & I would've felt like I wanted to do more.

Last year it was Eric who surprised me with a tree, all decorated. Mom and I were making the buche de noël in the kitchen without a clue that anything was happening out in the living room. What a surprise we had when, into the room we went, there we found a cute little tree, all lit up and decorated! This year, it was my turn. While Eric was off playing (I mean working) in the French Alps for the weekend, I decided to surprise him. He liked it. And what really makes our little tree complete are those little packages under the tree....sent all the way from Appleton, Wisconsin with hugs & kisses from mom & dad (hidden behind us).

Bonnes fêtes de fin d'anée - Happy Holidays to everyone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 2

I think the Champs Elysée is always stylish when dressed in its holiday lights. This year, I think for the first time ever, there is a big Christmas market starting at Place Concorde and going along the Champs Elysée. In Chicago, a similar idea (but on a much smaller scale) is called the "Christkindlmarket". In Strasburg or in Alsace, the real Christmas markets can be found. Oops, that's a faux pas if ever there was one....I guess we need to actually go to Germany to see the real "real markets". (Right, Ulla?!)

Seeing as we have a thing for these markets, we decided to check out what the Champs Elysee has to offer. We heard that each country of the EU would be represented and would be offering specialty Christmas items from its region. Great idea we thought. We started our excursion at Place du Concorde & walked toward the Arche de Triomphe. The beautiful lights sprawling the Champs Elysée charmed us. I especially liked the spheres of lights sitting in a shallow pool of water, showing a spectacularly nice reflection. At Rue Montaigne, we were drawn in by the beautiful red lights lining the street. All of this was great. I do love lights. Here are some pictures - doesn't it look nice?

And it is a very nice idea, but unfortunately, I think the market itself somehow lacked a spirit. The spirit of what we thought it was going to be. Maybe the taxi driver got the story wrong about it having regional products from the EU countries. Maybe the time of day had something to do with our disappointment. First, avoid going on a late Sunday afternoon, like we did. It was absolutely packed with people, which obviously took the fun away from browsing each booth. Second, avoid (if possible), going there after it rains because the dirt path that boarders the relatively narrow paved sidewalk turns into a puddle of mud. This is especially a problem if you happen to accidently step in a big puddle (like someone I know!) trying to get a look at the rather maigre (thin) Santa Claus....! I wish we had seen a lot of really cool hand crafted items, but we only saw a few. And imagine our surprise when we saw a booth hosted by GDFSuez....not selling a tangible thing (or was it energy they were trying to sell? kidding)...well, it was hard to find the symbolism of Christmas anyway. We ended up seeing a somewhat limited view of the market given the dynamics at play that day, and when we got to the metro Franklin Roosevelt, we called it quits. Too many people; not enough energy to fight the crowd, and really only a limited interest in what merchandise we could see, unfortunately. Oh, well, it was worth checking out anyway. For the lights alone.

p.s. I heard that the ferris wheel at Place Concorde is really great -- each cabin is enclosed in glass and they're heated....doesn't that sound like fun?!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 1

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas....everywhere I go....

Christmas in Paris is very nice. Definitely quiet, but nice nonetheless - most Parisians leave the city to spend time with their families en province (anything outside of Paris). So, that leaves lots of tranquility for those of us staying behind....definitely a good thing if you're looking for a stress-free holiday, and who isn't?

Over the past three years, I've seen more & more lights and decorations hit the streets. However, if you ask me, it's still not over-the-top, even if hints of commercialism seem to be creeping in. I started to see decorations before Thanksgiving, which gave me a chuckle since without the Thanksgiving holiday to officially happen first, it's kind of OK to see it start before the last Thursday of November, if you know what I mean!

Here are a few photos from yesterday - to share some holiday spirit from Paris.

This is the big Christmas tree inside the Galeries Lafayette department store: still beautiful as ever. I never seem to grow tired of looking at all of its regal splendor.

Below are some pictures of the decorated windows at Galeries Lafayette. Very adorable, in a festive sort of way. But, you won't find traditional holiday fare here - not one bit. No reindeer. No Santa. No snow or snowman. No green; no red. No North wrapped gifts under a tree....well, you get the picture (abundantly). But, hey, we are in Paris after all, so who says it has to have the symbolism that I'm accustomed to back in the states??!!

Back to fantasy land Paris's nice. I'm not sure I understand what some of the window stories are saying as far a Christmas goes...I mean, there are teddy bears dressed in surgical gowns flying through the air...and, pink flamingos standing on their heads on a patch of strawberries...(see below)?

It's all pure fantasy, simply put, and if there's a story interwoven between each window...well, I admit it went over my head. That's no matter - these elaborate productions are to be appreciated for what they are - full of motion, magic, and sweet dreams. They made me smile, even if I felt the colors were gearing me up for Valentine's day instead of Christmas. But I digress....

I'm glad I saw the charming windows at Galeries Lafayette this year...because Christmas without seeing their fantasy land is just not complete! (This must come from the many years of seeing the Marshall Field's State Street windows in called Macy's...but I'll always remember it as Marshall Field's). If you go to Galeries Lafayette or Printemps, however, be warned that the crowds can be large...

I hadn't expected to write this entire post on Galeries more later on other photos of Christmas in Paris, 2008. A bienôt! (See you soon!)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pumpkin Pie De-Briefing

At Ecole Ferrandi, we had debriefings after absolutely everything we here's my de-briefing for pumpkin pie (that sounds better than post-mortem, doesn't it?). Or, we could consider it as pre-planning for Thanksgiving 2009, depending on how you want to look at it!

Can you believe that I had never made a pumpkin pie before in my life? Never! Am I American or not?!! Kidding. It's just that Mom was the one who always baked the best pumpkin & pecan pies ever. I always simply enjoyed them, along with the rest of my family. But this year I was on the line for making three of them. And 2 pecan pies (I never made those before, either.)

In order to make a pumpkin pie, you obviously need the key ingredient: pumpkin. Everyone always uses the canned stuff....Libby's 100% pure, right? Right. Normally.

But what do you do when you need to make 3 pumpkin pies, and have only enough cans of Libby to make 1? And you live in Paris, which means you can't just jump in your car & run over to the nearest Jewel food store to buy the other two cans. Your choices here are: (1) take a metro (subway) to The Thanksgiving Store in the Marais district (I kid you not, this is the real name of the store), and pay a fortune for the stuff, or (2) go to the outdoor market just steps from your apt & buy a fresh pumpkin & make it yourself.

I guess by the way I worded those two options, and the photos, it's pretty obvious which path I took (#2). Plus, if I can avoid the perpetually jam-packed metro line #1, I will. In a heart beat. And, wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen to go grass roots on making a pumpkin pie? Here it is.

Make Pumpkin Purée as a replacement for Libby's - As easy as 1-2-3
1. Scrape seeds & strings from pumpkin & bake uncovered at 180°C until done, ~ 1 hour- 1.5 hours. Add a little water to bottom of pan, if you like, to prevent burning.

2. Scrape off the cooked pumpkin pulp from the rind & put pulp into food processor. Pulse until fine.

3. Drain overnight in refrigerator. I used a fine meshed chinois (strainer). If your strainer is not fine mesh, then I'd line it with a cheese cloth before adding the pumpkin. It is not necessary to actually pass the pulp through the strainer (passer au chinois in french) if the pumpkin texture is nice & smooth. I didn't do it, I'm glad to say!

Comparison: fresh pumpkin purée vs canned Libbys

Taste: the canned tasted like tin....there was no pumpkin taste. The fresh tasted like, well, pumpkin!

Texture: both were smooth; free of "strings"; no difference.

Color: the canned one was dull brown-ish; the fresh one was vibrant orange.

Substitution: a 1:1 (by weight) works well.

Mom's Pumpkin Pie Recipe - with fresh pumpkin

Pie dough for 1 pie
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp mace (optional)
15 oz. pumpkin purée
12 oz evaporated milk or ~8 oz crème épaisse (thick cream, as a substitute for 12 oz evaporated milk, another ingredient not readily available here).

1) Wisk eggs. Blanchir les oeufs ==> add sugar & wisk till it lightens in color slightly. Add all spices. Add pumpkin & mix. Add half the cream & continue adding more until it's a good consistency & not too heavy on the cream. Add more spices at the end if you need it. I found that I needed to add more because the taste of pumpkin was too prominant; I kept adding a 1/4 tsp here & 1/4 tsp there until it tasted good to me. In the end, I practically doubled the amount of spice.

2) Bake at 425°F (220°C) for 10 minutes & then reduce temperature to 350°F (175°C) & continue baking 40-50 minutes or until "clean knife test" says it's done. Be careful to watch your crust to assure it doesn't get too dark. If it does, cover with tin foil & it should be fine.

My Conclusions:
  • There is no comparison between fresh pumpkin purée and canned 100% pure pumpkin. The fresh pumpkin just naturally tastes better.
  • However, when it's baked in the pie, the difference between fresh pumpkin & canned pumpkin becomes less obvious, because of the spices, eggs, & cream.
  • Therefore, I would use canned pumpkin if it were conveniently and cheaply available. Since that's not the case in Paris, I will use fresh pumpkin without hesitation & without fear that it'll turn out a strange pumpkin pie (these were my worries, oddly enough!!).
  • When using fresh pumpkin, I'll always drain it overnight to remove the excess water because otherwise, it might affect the texture of the pie. AND, I'll add more spices (up to two times the quantity) to get the right balance between pumpkin & pumpkin pie spice.
  • Substituting crème épaisse (ie, a thick cream, almost like a sour cream in consistency) for evaporated milk works perfectly fine but it's not a 1:1 substitution. My cream was extremely fresh and thick, so I stopped adding cream at about 1 cup (225g), or before it started to become too creamy-tasting.
  • Making pumpkin pies in France does not have to be intimidating, even if it's for 25 people where the (self-imposed) stakes are high to make a perfect American pie! This recipe, with the substitutions, can be trusted and therefore, next worries! You can even make the batter days in advance & then pour it into the prepared pie dough & bake it off the day before - this will make the holiday planning just a little easier, I think.
  • American style pumpkin pie (meaning nice & thick) is still one of my favorites....and having a left-over piece of pie the next morning for breakfast with a nice cappuccino is very....yummmm!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Turkey Hangover Remedy - It's Called Bullseye

Today I woke up with a turkey hangover. And not from eating too much turkey which you might think, understandably. I mean from being around too much turkey! Yesterday there were three of us who each worked almost 17 hours to prepare not just one, but two Thanksgiving Day meals! It was totally crazy! I think I still have the smell of roasted Turkey still on me.

Here's what I needed this morning when I woke up: good old-fashioned comfort food (something to re-nourish every tired muscle in my body). And, more importantly than that....something really easy to make. Let me tell you, that's très important if you're the one who has been doing all the work for the Turkey Day meal. It's not really those of you who over-indulged and are now looking to detox, or go lite today....well, this post is not for you today! But, you might like it just the same some other time.

It's called a Bullseye. It's something I learned at a sleepover, many years ago, when I was a teenager living in London. I haven't made it for YEARS...and I have no idea what made me think of it this morning. Maybe it was the two lonely eggs left over from all the pumpkin & pecan pie making....and the pain de mie (white bread) that didn't get used in the yesterday's stuffing production. Whatever the reason, it sure hit the spot.

A bullseye is a piece of bread, butter and an egg. I think kids of all ages might enjoy making this one. The "recipe" is:

1. Make a hole in your slice of bread. (The bullseye has got to so somewhere, y'know!)

2. Butter your bread.

3. Heat your skillet. Add a drop of olive oil. Put your bread in the pan, butter side down. It should sound all nice & sizzly.

4. Crack your egg on top, making sure the yolk lands strategically in the hole! Season with salt & pepper. Cook till golden. Flip over for a couple of seconds, or more, depending on how well you like to cook your eggs. You'll likely break the yolk in the process, but who cares!

5. Eat & enjoy with a tall glass of orange juice....then, go back to bed & sleep it off, like any other hangover.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Artisinal Butter & Fleur de Sel Caramels

These little treasures are the best thing anyone ever invented. Just my opinion, of course! In the region of Brittany here in France, they've practically made an art out of making caramel au beurre salé et fleur de sel, as they're called in french. The vrai (real) fleur de sel de Guerande comes from the region also, so it was inevitable that someone thought of adding salt to this sweet concoction. Sucré-salé...sweet-salty, oh what a combination.

I've bought many little boxes of these candies, shared a few along the way....and finally decided to take a crack at making them myself. I don't know what took me so long. It's not really complicated: there are only 5 ingredients (sugar, fleur de sel, crème fraîche, vanilla bean, & salted butter). As for tools, you need a good thermometer, a high temperature spatula & a good cooking pan with high sides.

However, there is one part that's tricky: working with caramalizing, hot sugar at intensely high temperature. Warning! This can be dangerous. But it's certainly manageable if you're careful. You do need to have a cooking pan with high sides so that when you add the cream to the hot caramel, it will not bubble over all over the place....potentially burning you. Instead, all of that hot gooey-ness will stay safely inside your pan!

So, with that little disclaimer in mind, here's the recipe:

80 g creme (whole fat please!)
1 vanilla bean
250 g sugar
80 g salted butter cut into cubes
2 g fleur de sel

1. Mis-en-place: weigh out all ingredients, cut vanilla bean in half & scrape off grains with a knife. Get a pan or something ready to put the cooked caramel in (for the last step; below). I used a 9x6 loaf pan. Line it with parchment paper. Or, use a square mold & put parchment paper underneath. Oil sides first if using a metal mold.

2. Caramelize the sugar: put 1/3 of the sugar in a pot that conducts heat well (copper if you have it...), but above all else, make sure the sides are high!! Heat the sugar (dry) until it turns a light brown color & then stir until all sugar is melted. You need to be using a heat-resistant spatula or wooden spoon. Add the next 1/3 quantity of sugar - keep stirring. Make sure the sugar is melted & then add the remaining sugar. Stir. The color will be a nice caramel color. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature. When it reaches 180°C (356°F), stir in the vanilla bean grains. While you are waiting for the temperature to reach 180°C, heat the cream until it just reaches a boil (don't let it keep boiling). Set a side. (Alternatively, you can heat the cream before you start caramelizing the sugar.)

3. Finish it off: After adding the vanilla bean, add the heated cream & stir. Careful here! When I did this part, it bubbled all-out-of-control-like. A little scary at first, I'll admit. Continue stirring & when temperature drops to 140°C (284°F), remove from stove & stir in butter. Add the fleur de sel & stir.

4. Pour & let set: Pour caramel into whatever you're using. Let it sit at room temperature 2 hours. Once hardened, remove from form and cut into individual pieces. Wrap in wax paper or papier de bons bons.

Note: Next time, I'll try to cook the caramel a little less so that the color is a little lighter....but the flavor is still good, I can assure you!

Voila! Wish I could share some with you.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mark Bittman video on What's Wrong with What We Eat

I can't seem to get politics off my mind lately. But this time, it's food politics. If you have 20 minutes, I think you will find Mark Bittman's speech very interesting and persuasive. And I think you might look at food differently from now on.

Here's the link to his speech.

Mark Bittman is a contributing writer to the New York Times food column. He originally gave this talk in December, 2007 at a TED conference (technology, education design....ideas worth sharing). View it and be challenged in the way you think about meat. It's posted for the world to view. You'll find many more interesting speeches at the website...check it out. Let me know what gems you might find.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What it was like to be there for the U.S. Presidential Election 2008

I really must write about last week’s U.S. presidential election. The entire world felt the magic of Tuesday November 4th, 2008. In fact, it was the highlight of my recent trip to Manhattan, topping even the great food spots & shops we were fortunate enough to sample all week. I will warn you, however, this post became much longer than expected. I just couldn't help myself - it was an amazing, “once in a lifetime” experience that I had to share.

The Day.
I walked by Rockefeller plaza around 9am to find the t.v. crews were already set up, anticipating the day's events. There was already a certain buzz in the air. "Rockefeller Plaza" had been converted into what they were calling "Election Plaza" - rows and rows of US flags had replaced the UN flags normally gracing the space. And a schematic drawing of the US map was placed in the center of the ice rink....ready to be changed to red (republican) or blue (democrat) depending on how the votes turned out later that night.

The countdown to Election Day was now zero. November 4th had finally arrived. However, to be honest, we found ourselves feeling nervous throughout the day, if not for the weeks leading up to that day. We asked each other, "What's going to happen? What crazy thing might possibly happen this time?”.

Why were we nervous? Well…one concern was ‘vote count accuracy’ (as I’ll call it). Despite the government’s funding of billions of dollars (via the Help America Vote Act of 2002) to replace punch card voting systems with electronic systems after the 2000 election (where over 2 million ballots were disqualified), 2008 early-voting results indicated that malfunctioning machines existed at the polls. My cousin told me about an example that was even videotaped: several voters had actually selected Obama on the touch screen, and yet their votes were being registered as McCain, a phenomenon called "voter switching".

Additionally, other factors were looming overhead: (1) a data uploading problem identified last August had caused votes to be dropped altogether, (yikes, was this adequately fixed yet?) (2) “the Bradley affect”, and (3) the distinct possibility that pollsters might be wrong in their optimistic prediction favoring Obama. Finally, we were feeling uncertain how our nation would actually vote….by which I mean to say, and this is a sad thing for me to say, if the country could vote Bush into office a second term….what would stop us from making an equally incomprehensible decision in the 2008 election?

Of course, at that very moment and time, we had no idea to what extent these issues might be played out. The closer the race, the more critical they would become. And so, all we could do was wait & see, like the rest of the United States, and the world, as it turned out.

The Evening.
While waiting for the first states to close their polls, we had dinner at a small Lower East End restaurant. As we left the restaurant, we were drawn in like magnets to a nearby bar having a giant flat-screen t.v. and live coverage. We heard the first news of the night -- things were looking good. Virginia polls had closed & the state went blue for the first time in something like 44 years. Florida might even turn democrat as well. We heard one guy prognosticate, “it’s gonna be a landslide”. We didn’t believe him entirely, but we did start to feel pretty good, as if maybe this was going to work out after all.

Next stop: “Election Plaza”. We arrived to a very large, but quiet, crowd. Unusually quiet, I would add. Big crowds usually sway with constant motion - people moving in & out or squeezing by each other in a “herd-of-cattle”-like togetherness. But not this crowd. We were the only ones trying to make a move. Everyone else was oddly stationary. Then we noticed they were all facing the same direction & absolutely everyone was looking up. We stopped and looked up ourselves. And we immediately understood what it was all about - why the crowd was hushed and under something of a trance. History was just about to unfold.

It was 11pm by this time (eastern DST). The big screen t.v. above us showed polls in the major states had already closed or had significant votes tallied: Ohio, Florida and Iowa all changed from red to blue states. Colorado and New Mexico looked favorable. Then the television broadcaster announced that they believed Obama had won. Everyone still waited for the definitive moment – when it became official – but the excitement was building. We looked at the data map and it showed Obama had about 290 electoral college votes; he needed 270 to win. McCain had around 170.

We finally heard the news we were waiting for: McCain conceded the election to Obama, officially ending the election. The transformation at the plaza was swift and sudden: a massive celebration was now underway! The entire crowd was jumping up & down and cheering and hollering and hugging and waving their arms. And yes, there were lots of uncontrollable tears of joy at the realization of what had just happened. It was an intense moment of pride and hope.

The broadcast switched to Phoenix, Arizona for McCain's concession speech. The crowd at Rockefeller Plaza, after some isolated initial unrest, grew rapidly quiet and respectful. We all listened closely to McCain. He was gracious that night, I think we could all agree.

As more states closed their polls, the tally board continued to change. The count for Obama eventually grew to over 300 electoral votes….then 330. The broadcast moved to Grant Park in Chicago. We were waiting to see and hear president-elect Obama for the first time. I was awestruck to see such a large crowd gathered there – maybe 200,000 people, maybe more. It was huge. This touched me to no end, seeing as I come from that part of the world myself. The cameras panned in on celebrity Oprah and on long-time activist Jesse Jackson, each unabashedly moved to tears. We saw many more “every day kind of people” at the park – each and every one of them celebrating like there was no tomorrow. And who were these every day kind of people? Blacks and whites and asians and hispanics and who cares what race – it didn’t matter. We were all sharing the same moment.

We waited to see the Obama family come out on stage. Meanwhile, the broadcast switched to Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza and Harlem. And we saw the same thing. People dancing. People smiling. People deeply moved to tears. People reveling. People rejoicing. Next, it was on to Japan – more of the same. Then, Kenya, Africa – where Obama’s father is from - his grandmother was leading a celebratory dance. Then we realized what a large scale this was. The whole world seemed to be celebrating. To realize this was certainly one of the many emotional moments of the day. Even if you understood intellectually that the world was watching the outcome, it’s different to see that the world was also celebrating the outcome.

It was time for president-elect Obama's speech. Anyone who watched it knows it was well done. It was riveting, uplifting, and realistic. We watched in awe as if it was history-in-the-making....because it was. After Obama’s speech ended, the stage cleared at Grant Park, and the crowd at Rockefeller plaza started to disperse. We simply had to go raise a glass to celebrate this momentous occasion. Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 is a day that will never be forgotten. Future generations will learn about this day in history class. We experienced it live. It felt like hope. Like optimism. Like the future. And importantly, it represents a turning page in race-equality, which I certainly applaud loudly.

Thank you to those who supported Obama. And to those who did not support Obama, some in my immediate family, I hope you will try to be positive. There will be change. It won’t be easy for anyone. We all recognize this will be a difficult presidency, no matter who would have won. Between the financial crisis and the continuing wars, and all the other “internal problems” we face (rising health care costs, education, and oil dependency, to name just a few), we need strong leadership now more than ever. I believe Obama brings us hope. But, he will not be perfect. He will not save the world. He will not change things overnight. Let’s not expect these things.

Obama now needs to to “walk the talk”. Campaign promises mean nothing if there’s no substance behind them. Time will tell – it always does. His every move will be scrutinized, perhaps more than any other president’s has been. We can hope for a more uniting and conciliatory approach….globally. We can hope for strong leadership at a time when our country sorely needs it. President-elect Obama, please don’t let us down.

PS. I’m still not sure if the problems associated with “vote count accuracy” have been fixed. This election was not close at all, so I suppose only the voting officials understand what they’re really up against. And I hope they continue working on its integrity. A country that espouses the importance of democracy to the world cannot afford not to have a voting system with the highest level of integrity, right? P.P.S. – sorry I don’t have more pictures….I can’t believe I forgot my camera on such a historic night. P.P.S.S - Please share your comments with me about this post. I would be most interested to hear your perspectives of this historic event.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Champagne Fizz - iSi Whip

On the way home from our recent day-excursion to the Champagne region, with not a single bottle of champagne in hand, I wondered what would happen if I took an ordinary white wine and charged it up with N2O (nitrous oxide) in my iSi Whip cream canister. Wouldn't it be great if we could get some sort of blanc de blanc (bubbly wine) out of it? Let's give it a try, I said with total enthusiasm.

What do you think might have happened?

It starts off promising. And then the fizz disappears with such rapidity that it's almost scorning me, "What were you thinking? Did you really believe you'd get a sustaining bubble out of me? It's taken centuries to develop a perfect méthode champagnoise (champagne method) that requires not just one but two fermentation steps and several months of stockage..., and you want to do it in a matter of a few hours and with two cartridges of pressurized nitrous oxide*? Ha."

(* nitrous oxide = commonly known as laughing gas)

Take a look.

Ah yes, a total flop. But fun to try nonetheless. You never know when you might just get lucky testing out a crazy idea. So that leads me to wondering what might happen if I added a little crème de cassis to the wine first. Crème de cassis is a black-currant-flavored syrup usually mixed in small quantities with Bourgogne Aligoté to make an apéritif called un Kir. I'm wondering if I need a liasion of some sort to help suspend and sustain the bubbles. Any thoughts out there? (Personally, I'm guessing it will work equally as bad as my first attempt...! ) Or maybe I need a cartridge of CO2 (carbon dioxide).....would that work??? Endless questions, endless possibilities! I can't wait for one of these crazy ideas to actually work!

French Onion Soup: Homemade Consommé vs Powder?

It's time to get back to the kitchen. Too much talk lately about other things!

How about this: Is french onion soup made with homemade beef stock so much better than one made from powder that it's worth the effort and expense of making the stock yourself? Or can the powder stuff work just fine in a soupe d'oignon? I did a side-by-side comparison to find out.

The results are in and perhaps, not surprisingly, it's a no-brainer. They sure look the same. But that's where the similarities end. Taste is what it's all about. The french onion soup made with homemade consommé blew the other one out of the ballpark! Not even close. I enrolled Eric in this taste test. He had no idea which was which. We tasted the first one. Had a sip of water. Then tasted the second one. There was no comparison AT ALL. The homemade stock tasted leap-years-ahead better. It was glaringly obvious to both of us. I think the exact words Eric used to describe the onion soup made with powered stock was "pee pee de chat"...a little harsh...and no translation required!

And so, I wholeheartedly encourage EVERYONE to make beef consommé from scratch. It is the most delicious thing you will taste. (Well, I mean, if you're not a vegetarian...) And if you're sick, well there's a reason beef broth is brought to you, if you're lucky. The taste is so rich and it must nourish you right down to your soul. And when used in the french onion will realize that there's nothing better than this.

Here are the recipes. (Source: Cuisine de Reférence, Michel Maincent-Morel, the reference book we used at Ecole Ferrandi, with modifications by me)

Beef Consommé - called marmite in french (makes 2.5 liters)
Cost: 12 euros (~$15.50), but meat can be used at the end for something else

1.5 -2 kgs of 3rd category of beef & bones (see photos above for what I used)
170 g carrots, either left whole or coursely chopped
170 g onions, cut in half
170 g leeks, cut lengthwise in half
100 g celery
3 small turnips, cut in half
leftover stalk of broccoli if you have it in the fridge!
2 cloves garlic
1 bouquet garni

3 liters of water
kosher salt

1. Start your stock. Put meat & bones into large pot & add cold water until filled well above meat & bones. Add a good quantity of kosher salt to the water. No cover required. You can ficeler (tie up) your meat if you want as this will help it hold together after it cooks a very long time & becomes soft & potentially falls into bits & pieces.
2. Prep veggies - while water is coming to a boil. Peel carrots, onions & garlic. Make your BG (bouquet garni), cut leeks in half & rinse under cold water to remove sand. Peel whatever exta vegetables (root or otherwise) that you might want to add. I added some turnips & a broccoli stalk left over from something else.

3. Prep the onion. Cut it in half
(in the horizontal sense). Sauté both sides with oil or butter till really nice & almost black. Don't let it burn, but it's one occasion where getting it almost burnt is allowed, so enjoy it while you can! The onion cooked this way imarts some color to the consommé. Prick each onion with 2 cloves. (Do you see them in the pic?) Set aside.

4. Skim off the scum from the pot often. This is especially important if you don't blanchir the meat first. Blanchir means to add the meat to a pot of cold water, bring it to a boil, drain it immediately, and re-add cold water & bring back to a boil. This process (if done, it would be a precursor step to step#1) removes impurities but it can also remove some flavor. Alternatively, you can remove the impurities by skimming the pot, but you need to do it often & pay attention to it. My preference is to skim and not blanchir, but that's a personal choice! I know the scum looks gross, but it's easily removed...

4. Let meat simmer ~1 hour uncovered. Continue skimming! Then add all prepped vegetables, garlic, BG.

5. Let pot simmer very gently for 3-5 hours, uncovered. Continue skimming & de-greasing.

6. Strain meat & vegetables once meat is cooked (ie, soft & tender): first, remove the meat and vegetables from the pot. Then strain the stock delicately through whatever strainers you have (I strained mine through 2 consecutively finer meshed strainers.) Try to avoid clouding it if you strain too "roughly".

7. Cool it done immediately if storing for a later use (or use as is). It's easier to remove the fat when it's cooled...just passez au chinois! (strain it). This is delicous as is, or can be used as the base of a french onion soup.

French Onion Soup
(scale up or down the quantity you want to make)
800 g onions
100 g butter
1 liter beef consommé

french baguette
250 g gruyère cheese, shredded
salt & pepper

1. Prep onions. Be prepared to cry! Cut onions in the sense of length. Put on cutting board & slice as thinly as possible.
2. Heat butter till frothy. Add onions & cook over low-moderately low temperature for about 1 hour until nice & soft & slightly golden. If you have a thick-bottomed heavy pan, you can afford to crank up the heat a bit. Be careful, however, not to burn them no matter what pan you use! Stir often. Cover with parchment paper while cooking.

3. Slice baguettes & toast gently in the oven @ 160°C until crisp (about 10 minutes).

4. Heat beef consommé on stovetop. Add onions to beef consommé. Season with salt & pepper. Cover till ready to serve. Preheat broiler.

5. Prepare the cheese croutons. Add shredded cheese on top of baguette. Put under broiler until melted & browned nicely.

6. Serve. Fill soup bowls with french onion soup. Add 1 or 2 cheese croutons to each bowl and serve immediately. Be sure to share the rest of the grilled cheese croutons at the table...they will disappear.

In all reality, in an authentic french onion soup you're supposed to put the soup into a broiler-proof bowl and then add the croutons & then fill generously with the cheese. Next it goes under the broiler. I tried this, but personally didn't like it that way so much. It becomes too cheesy & goey for my taste....and it took forever for the cheese to melt in our home oven. As we were hungry that night, I eventually gave up getting that golden cheese color. The next time we had onion soup for dinner, I did it with the croutons & found that I preferred it this way. To each his own.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beau Biarritz and Restaurant Chez Albert

The forecast last Saturday for the Pyrenées mountains was cloudy and overcast, so that made our decision on what to do that day easy: head for the sun...head for the coast, to beau (beautiful) Biarritz. A short one hour 15 minute ride by car from Pau, Biarritz is a beautiful coastal resort town and summer get-away destination for many. It's so close to Spain that you can even see the Spanish Pyrenées! Our day's plan was simple: go to Biarritz, eat lunch, take une promenade (walk) to help digest lunch you know, and that's about it! Très relaxing.

I highly recommend the restaurant Chez Albert, located at Port de Pecheurs. When sitting on the terrace, you have a view on the Atlantic Ocean, although admittedly, you need to look through the parking lot first. No matter, that doesn't detract from the restaurant's charm, which is to say its fresh, fresh seafood. Here's what we had during our 2+ hour lunch:

Entrées (1st Course)

- Huitres (oysters) Top Right - Moules de bouchot (steamed mussels); Bottom Right - Tartare de thon ceviche (tuna tartare)

All was very good, but by far, the best were the oysters. I'm kind of a novice when it comes to fresh oysters, growing up in the mid-west and all, where beef is king, and fresh fish and shellfish are not always easily available. In fact, I was almost a little squeamish the first time I tried to open an oyster and then taste it at Ecole Ferrandi here in Paris. But I have to admit that I've grown to really appreciate them & like them. In France, they have a strict protocol of traceability at all steps in the "supply chain", to use a term from my old business days...from the ostréiculteur (oyster farm producer) to any/all the end the customer. There are never any guarantees, but it does provide a good assurance as to quality & freshness. Something like this probably exists in the US...I don't know since I wasn't in this line of work when we lived there! Anyway, the next time we go to Chez Albert, I'll be ordering a big platter of oysters (Marene-Oléron #3)!

Plat (Main Course) - It's the same story here. All were very good. One was exceptionally good. The Saint Pierre (John Dory). It was out-of-this-world good. Cooking a fish whole certainly has something to do with it, which required that two people order it. Find someone who wants to order this because you will really love it!

Saint Pierre (John Dory), whole, cooked in a croute de sel (salt crust) on the grill. Fileted at tableside Left below: Seared giant scallops, with jambon de bayonne, slices of boudin noir et sauce beurre blanc Right below: Tronçons de turbot grillée (grilled Turbot), aspèrges blanc (white asparagus) with poppy seeds, piquillos (red peppers) and sweet potato chips

Sorry no pictures. In fact, I didn't order dessert but I tried a bite of Raymonde's gâteau basque made at the restaurant (called Pastiza basque tiede). This is a regional specialty and really should not be missed, no matter how full you feel!

For our promenade, we walked up and down the coast - past the casino, near the Hôtel du Palais (with 1 michelin-star restaurant La Rotonde), and back down the coast toward the Rocher de la Vierge (Statue of Madonna on a rock). We watched the many surfers there that day, observed the waves crashing dramatically against the enormous stones seemingly perched in the ocean at low tide, and saw many locals sitting on various benches lining the beach and park areas. Some were reading alone, some were simply gabbing in the sun with a friend (with noticeably bronzed skin), and others were enjoying an ice cream or looking at nice sand sculptures. Here are a few pictures of our walk. I can see why Cathleen and her family go to Biarritz every summer for the month of August! It sure is tempting...but back to reality, it's worth going, even if just for the day!


Restaurant Chez Albert
Port des Pecheurs
64200 Biarritz

Télé: 05 59 24 43 84