Sunday, January 27, 2008

Squeeze bottles & Ecole Ferrandi?

My friend Irene walked into our kitchen & immediately noticed my plastic squeeze bottles. She said, “I can’t believe you have 2 squeeze bottles in your kitchen”. She comes from New York & gets straight to the point. A trait, by the way, that I find refreshing, seeing as I tend to sway that way myself. These bottles are regularly used in professional kitchens, but who normally has them stocked in their home kitchen? I responded, “yeah, and the weird thing is is that I bought them years ago while we still lived near Chicago….we had a restaurant supply shop near our house. I used to go there & look at all their stuff.” It’s weird because I used to dream about what it’d be like to own my own restaurant…. I used to look at all the equipment...big & small. And now I'm actually part of this somewhat strange world of professional cooking! Back then, I never thought I’d actually do it. I kept looking at it from a distance; always wanting to do it, but always talking myself out of it: “It’s hard work. Long hours. No pay. Education costs too much (more than my MBA!). And finally, the nail in the coffin (back then), nobody starts doing this in their 40's”.

But last year, I did just that, bucking all my own odds. Well, I practically had to. We found ourselves living in Paris. Eric kept encouraging me. If I didn't finally see the writing on the wall, I never would! I took the plunge at last, and went back to school - Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi (Ecole Superiure de Cuisine Francaise). Glad I did. It's been really hard work. I know that's not saying much. But trust me, it is! Good thing I'm loving it.

So, yes, when Irene & Robbin came over for lunch recently, ….. we used these squirt bottles to “dress our plates”. A bit unnecessary, I know. But I can't help it that I picked up new habits this past year!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tahini Sauce & Harissa

I read somewhere that tahini sauce (the "white" one on the left) is simply a 50:50 dilution of water and tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds that you BUY at the store! Don't be crazy enough like some people I know & try to make it's just not worth the effort!). But a 50:50 dilution was missing something, so I made it kinda mayonnaise-y, jazzed it up a little with lime juice & made it richer with cream instead of water (yum!). The other sauce (red one) is harissa. Harissa is a spicy red pepper-based sauce with olive oil & seasonings & whatever heat factor rocks your boat. Absolutely to die for.

They both are incredibly versatile sauces. Can go with just about anything. Of course, pairing tahini sauce & harissa with falafel is always a "oui", but they're also great as condiments on their own rights -- instead of ketchup on fries, why not harissa & tahini sauce?! Double "oui"! From now on, I think I’ll always have some stocked in my fridge!

Tahini Sauce (source: my own recipe)

130 g crème fraiche (liquide)
75 g tahini (sesame seed paste) – room temperature
20 g lime juice
20 g olive oil
5 g vinaigre de xeres
Salt & pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Store in your squeeze bottles....! (kidding). But seriously, store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Harissa Sauce (Source: Christine Manfield's book, Stir)

2 1/2 oz. (75 g) large dried Anaheim, or Dutch chilies, chopped
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/4 tsp. caraway seeds
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tsp. sea salt
3 1/2 tbsp (50 mL) tomato puree
1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil

Soak the chilies in very hot water for 2 hours. Drain, reserving the soaking water.

Dry-roast the cumin seeds over gentle heat until fragrant, then cool, and grind to a fine powder with the caraway seeds. (Use either a mortar & pestle or a spice or clean coffee grinder).

Once finished, blend chilies, garlic, and 1/3 cup (100 mLs) of the reserved soaking water in a food processor, then add spices, salt and tomato puree. With the motor running, slowly pour in oil and blend until paste is smooth. Spoon into a sterilized jar, cover with a film of oil, and seal. This will keep, refrigerated, for up to 1 month. Makes about 1 cup (250 mLs).

Note: It is definitely worth the effort to make your own harissa at home. Sure, you can easily buy it here in Paris and it’s not expensive. However, it’s not the same! This sauce is smooth, rich, elegant & has a depth of flavor you won’t find in a tube. AND, there are no preservatives and colorants added – it’s 100% natural, which I love. I added a final step, however, which contributes to its smoothness: I passed the sauce through a strainer (“chinoise étamine” en français) so that any remaining skins were left behind, leaving a very velvety texture.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Falafel in Paris & at Home

Has anyone gone to L’As du Falafel lately? Was it still good for you? As with many people, this place became my all-time favorite for a great falafel in Paris. I tried others in the Marais, but it was L’As who stole my heart.

We were surprised to find the place newly renovated on our recent visit. Out with the “hole in the wall” decor; in with the new: more seating, tables & freshly painted walls. Normally, this could be a good thing, right?

Except, that day, I had a bad falafel experience. It was the first time this happened in 2 years of going there. It's like, unheard of. And, I was REALLY disappointed. Eric's platter arrived 5+ minutes earlier than mine (which is a long time to wait when you've already been anticipating it all morning). When my pita finally arrived, the falafel was cold! I was too shocked to send it back. I tried the next one, but it was cold, too. All of them were disappointingly "off".

We overheard the table next to us ask each other, "Are your falafel lukewarm also?" The answer was "yes"..... So, I’m wondering if anyone else noticed the difference, or did we just have a bad night?

However, the silver lining in all this sad falafel news is that it motivated me to finally try to make them at home. And so I did, and they tasted really GREAT! I mean, I was so happy to find a recipe that tasted authentic and that reminded me of the ones I used to enjoy. I will not take you for granted again, “mes p’tits falafels”!

Here's the recipe, thanks to

After cooking a bunch of falafel by now, I can pass along some of my conclusions & experience:
  • I let my chick peas soak 2 nights since I thought I’d have time to do them the next day, but then didn’t. Keep in the fridge though (better hygiene) & change the water often. It was just fine this way.

Before & after soaking.... how nicely they plumped up! 1 cup dry = ~2 cups soaked!
  • Don’t worry about not cooking the chick peas after they soak. This is the 1st time I used “raw” beans after they were soaked & I wasn’t sure it’d really work….but it did! No problem.
  • Be careful not to over process the chickpeas in your food processor. Stop when you can see grains and do the "ball in your hand" test to see if you've added enough flour. They'll still be moist; no problem.
20-25g per ball; Makes 25 - 30 balls this size. Freezes well, too.
  • Don’t overdo the amount of onion since the inside is not cooked per se. If you have too many onions, it makes for some really bad onion-breath, not to mention an overpowering taste overall. Unless that's your thing...
  • Cooking the balls is a little trickier than expected & I think proper cooking is actually the key to a great result. In my opinion, cooking at a lower temp (160ºC/ 320ºF) is better than at a higher temp (190ºC / 375ºF), as recommended in the recipe. In my first attempts, I cooked them at 190ºC for 2 minutes, however, the outside was way overcooked & the inside was undercooked (tasted too raw). Then I tried it at 160ºC for ~ 3 minutes & it worked really well.
Undercooked inside

Overcooked...Warning: do not attempt to use a fork when at this stage!

Just about right...nice, golden color; not too crispy, not too soft

  • Breading them (“panure à l’anglaise”) is not at all necessary. I tried it to see. Curiosity, y'know? In fact, I’d say it ruins the taste/texture a bit. I much prefer them “au naturel”...which, conveniently, is also easier to make!
  • If, like me, your closest grocery store doesn't stock baking powder (apparently an American product?), you can make your own. Here’s what I did:
Cream of Tartar - 2 tablespoons
Bicarbonate of soda* - 1 tablespoon
Cornstarch** - 1 tablespoon

* aka levure chimique en francais, aka, baking soda in english
** aka Maizena en francais

Happy falafel-ing!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Welcome to my Blog!

It's a new year, and a new chance for me to finally start this blog. January is flying by, which means I'm already a bit behind on my new year's resolution to set up this blog. Oh well, it's not like anyone is reading this, right??!! I wonder if anyone will actually read my blog, if they'll like it or write a comment, and if they'll let me know if I'm sharing any useful or interesting information.

There are so many incredible food blogs out there already. I find it really amazing. I'll have to post my favorites soon. I notice that the same ones hit most of the lists anyway!

I'm really looking forward to 2008. I hope you are, too. So, all I want to say to anyone who happens to come across this, is welcome to my blog! Hope you join me as we go through this new I return to Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi, for more intense training in the art of french cooking! Why am I doing this to myself??!! Must be for the love of food!