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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Panoramic Pau

Five hours on the TGV, we found ourselves in a compartment full of Sisters and their teen-age apprentis (apprentices) headed to Lourdes no doubt. The trip was quite pleasant, really. And much better than a 10 hour car ride. Plus, we were "blessed" with some gregorian chant practice along the way which helped nod me off to sleep, I must admit!

We arrived just in time for lunch and we headed straight over to our favorite restaurant in Pau, Au Fin Gourmet. It's conveniently located just across the street from Gare de Pau (Pau train station). Unfortunately, I was too taken in by the moment to think about taking any pictures of what we ate! The meal was superb and I can at least describe it to you:

Entrée (1st course) - langoustines (tails of small-lobster) in a farce fine (fine cream-based fish stuffing) which was enrobed by a layer of spagetti, and served with a lobster sauce. The spaghettis were pre-cooked and individually "glued" together to hold the form and to hold the prized langoustine inside....amazing.
Plat (main course) - bonite avec qq (tuna with I don't remember what)! Very good anyway.
Dessert - A roasted, caramalized white peach encovered with phylo dough sitting on a bed of riz de lait (rice pudding), with a caramel sauce. Outstanding. I'm not usually a riz de lait gal, except when it comes to passing the CAP exam (!!), but this one was de-li-cous!

After lunch, we talked with frères Ithurriague, owners of the Au Fin Gourmet restaurant (brothers Christian - front service; Patrick - Patisserie; Laurent - chef de cuisine). They are the ones who catered our wedding. They are also the ones who allowed me to come into their kitchen for a 1-week stage (student work) nearly two years ago when I was just starting my culinary classes at Ecole Ferrandi. That had been the first time I worked in a professional kitchen. It was an amazing experience for me and I'll always be appreciative of their generosity & encouragement.

Then we had an equally amazing dinner at home chez LaSalle. We repeated this pattern every day we were there! Eating well is very important in France. Actually, eating is just the excuse to spend quality time with good people!

What does Pau mean to me?

Panoramic views of the Pyrenées, inviting, warm, palm trees. Sunshine. Relaxing. Fresh air. Above all else, it's the most hospitable place I have ever visited in France. It's where we go once a year. It's where Jean et Raymonde live. Which explains the hospitality part.

Restaurant Au Fin Gourmet
24, avenue Gaston Lacoste
64000 Pau
Tél. 05 59 27 47 71

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hi ho hi ho, it's off to Pau we go!

I wanted to let you know that "Snow White" and "Happy" are off to Pau for a long weekend. Up at the crack of dawn to catch the TGV (high speed train) to Pau, we get ourselves to Gare Montparnasse by metro. The only thing to worry about is passing our luggage through the turnstyle system that reads our metro ticket, and navigating the multitude of staircases, with luggage in hand. A good reason to travel light!

Pau is a place dear to our hearts. It's where "Happy" and I were married six years ago, long before we ever imagined we'd actually be living in France! Will write more when we get back.

Meanwhile, who can list all seven dwarfs off the top of their head? Me, I can come up with up with six....someone, please help!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Where did I work this weekend?

Let me give you some hints: it’s located just outside the peripherique of Paris, but still accessible by metro. You will find it on an island. You can only get there with the little boat taxi service. It has a couple of very nice terrasses (outdoor dinning patios) which were put to full use this past weekend.

Despite missing out on all the nice weather, I’m glad I took this assignment. First, I met a fellow cuisinière americaine (american female cook) who also does temp work but she does it in addition to her full-time job at a 2-star michelin restaurant. I must admit it was a breath of fresh air and we were "sisters" for the day, as everyone said. We were the only female cooks there....and we were both Americans! "What is with this?" they all asked. "We have two americans here? Why do all the americans want to come here?!" It was cute.

Second, I got a chance to practice my knife skills. And how. I got my callous back in a mean way! Many in the kitchen world look at "the callous" as a source of pride – it shows you've done a thing or two with the knife. It forms at the place where the top of the blade of your knife rests (rubs really) against your index finger. Shake a cook’s hand, and you’re apt to understand what I’m talking about.

Third, I got to see a service for over 400 people. (This explains my callous!). To put it into proportion, at school or at prior restaurants where I worked, the highest number of covers I saw was 70 (that's kitchen speak for # of seats). This weekend was an absolutely beautiful day & everybody seemed to come to the island. Sunday's lunch service never wanted to end. It was order after order after order after a marathon. Unbelievable. And on top of it, there were no order tickets. All orders were called out verbally. Think about that! We went through kilos of coquilles saint jacques (scallops), gambas, truite (trout), etc, etc. Yes, I worked the fish station. There's some karma out there that knows this is my preferred post. High volume, high turnover of stock, high level of intense activity. Fast and furious. Actually, I got a charge out of doing it.

Fourth, I worked in a kitchen that had a great ambiance. Dare I say that there were smiles on their faces. Even the chef-second was smiling & laughing (he's the guy in charge when the real chef is away, on vacation as was the case). He was jolly for pete's sake. I never met a jolly "chef" before. I thought they were all grumpy, stressed out or above the fray (I'm talking Paris here) . Despite the intense work load, everyone at this restaurant was easy-going and at ease.

Oh, and here’s another first: I heard several compliments throughout the services. "Bravo" whenever I brought a plate to le pass (the counter where the servers pick them up). "Très bien'" often at the poste de travail (station). And, at the end of service the chef said “Bonne service tout le monde" (Good service everyone). And I even received a few extra kind words, “beautiful” work, bravo, and merci. Can you believe it?

With the weekend behind me, working those crazy hours of coupure (double shift), I felt total exhaustion like I hadn't felt in a while. But it’s a good tired - when done in short spurts. I would gladly go back there. Interestingly enough, for the high workload involved in preparing the mis en place and producing the service, I actually worked less hours per day than I had last year. I would even describe the hours as reasonable. For example, we finished at 11:15 on a Saturday night. And we started at 9:30 am each morning... So there's hope on the horizon - a kitchen with good esprit, good team, good hours, can exist.

Any guesses as to where I worked this weekend? OK, I'll just tell you: Le Chalet des Iles. Located on the Lac Inferieure in the Bois de Bologne (Lac Inferieure, curiously enough, is not "inferior" at all - it is the bigger of two lakes and it actually sits on top of its small neighboring "pond"...yet another example of the french logic! I don't try to figure it out.)

Le Chalet des Iles
Lac Inferieur du Bois de Boulogne
Porte de la Muette 75016

Friday, October 10, 2008

Today I voted in the most important US presidential election of my lifetime

Maybe a little dramatic? Maybe not. I am 4000 miles away but I still want my vote to count! Today is the day that I mailed in my official ballot, voting for my presidential & vice-presidential candidates. Today, then, is my November 4th! No one handed me a little flag sticker afterwards. I had no sense of active participation - no discussions around the water cooler, and no live television with minute-by-minute coverage of what’s happening state-by-state. There was none of the usual Election Day excitement. Just me and my ballot. Very quiet and still I feel good about having voted. I'll just have to tune into CNN World on election day, and I'm sure I'll get the full brunt, I mean, sense of it then!

The voting process from abroad was actually fast and simple. If I was a registered voter at our last residence (which I was), then I was simply required to send in a request for an absentee ballot. In less than two weeks, I received it by mail. The official ballot was much bigger than I anticipated - can you believe it took up almost half my café table? And, surprisingly, or not, it was bi-lingual (spanish and english) which I can imagine angers some people to no end. I'm totally fine with that, by the way, and let's not go there. To fill out the ballot I had to use ink, either black or blue....and fill in the entire box in ink. Let's hope there are no more dimple problems, or chads to worry about.... although in all reality, I have no idea how my vote gets processed once it arrives at the Kane County Clerk's office. I trust (I hope) someone is going to look after it well.

I wanted to tell the world THAT I VOTED! I keep hearing that this is expected to be the highest voter turn out ever. I hope that's true. I hope EVERYBODY gets out & votes. That includes all the first-timers (like Grant, my 20-year-old nephew, who actually, I have no doubts about!), and absolutely everybody. Despite the debacle of the 2000 election, I still want to believe that every vote counts. I think the candidates may be right about at least this: it may be the most important election of our lifetime, given the current issues we are facing.

I won't tell you which way I voted. I will only say that to those who know me, it's no surprise. ;)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Terrine de Foie Gras Mi-Cuit

It's been said that making a good terrine de foie gras mi-cuit is actually very simple. You only need to control two things:
  1. The quality of the foie gras (livers)
  2. The cooking of it (temperature & time).
That simple, eh? Almost. It's the control of the cooking temperature & time where I ran into a few surprises. Once you understand those variables, however, it actually can be simple to do at home. What's more, it doesn't have to be scary anymore. For anyone making a terrine of foie gras, it's a small investment. To fill a terrine the size of mine, I need to buy two 2 foies gras, each weighing about 600g, and that puts me out around 50 euros, or $75. It's pretty nerve-wrecking to think of the possibility of not doing it right when so much money is at stake. So this post is for anyone who is already familiar with terrine de foie gras, has already worked with it before and might be interested to see another experience. No step-by-step recipe this time! (but let me know if there's any interest in that).

There are several different techniques for cooking a terrine of foie gras (sous-vide, poaching, oven, and en croute de sel or in salt) and each has its own little quirks, or I should say, "ways of doing it". At Ecole Ferrandi we learned how to cook terrines using the sous-vide method (under vacuum pak), and it didn't even have to be in a terrine per se. It could be wrapped in plastic wrap like a sausage & put in a sous-vide sac & then cooked to 66°C in a bain marie. At a two-Michelin star restaurant where I worked last year, the foie gras lobes were poached in goose fat to a temperature of 40°C and then stored for a long time before serving. See how variable it can be?

So what about cooking a terrine of foie gras at home? Seeing as we don't have a sous-vide do I best cook a terrine in my regular, old oven?

Let me share with you my recent experience. First the easy part: I prepared my foies de canard (duck livers) by de-nerving them & marinating them overnight in white port wine, cognac & some "foie gras spices" (typically lots of salt, pepper, some sugar, and 4-spices). Then I put it in the terrine. Now comes the tricky part: actually cooking it! A very reliable reference book of mine said to preheat the oven to 150°C & to cook the terrine in a bain marie for 20 minutes. It sounds so easy, doesn't it?! Well, it's not as straight forward as that. I came across the following variables which I believe impacted my actual cooking time.
  • Oven temperature. Differences in temp do exist and size matters! A reading of 150°C was actually 165°C inside the oven. This is easily corrected, but something to be aware of and to check. As for size, when I open the door of my small oven, the temperature drop is much more significant than when I open the door of a large commercial oven. So, when I'm messing around with my terrine & bain marie here at home, I've got to be quick! This is probably only something to consider if you keep opening & closing the oven, like I did, when my terrine wouldn't finish cooking!
  • Bain marie. Make sure your water is hot before you put your terrine in the bain marie! Using water from the tap without heating it will extend the cooking time considerably. My reference book doesn't say anything about this, but from experience I knew the water needed to be hot. Even then, I don't think it was hot enough. Next time I'll make sure it is ~ 70°C.
  • Type of terrine you're using. Ceramic, cast iron, or glass - the type of material used will impact how long you cook your terrine. A cast iron terrine will take longer to come up to temperature in the bain marie than say glass or ceramic ones. Mine is cast iron. And I had stored it in the fridge before cooking it. Imagine what it did to the water temperature of the bain marie, and therefore the cooking time. Trust me, it lengthens it!
OK, with all of these factors noted, what happened? Well, my timer went off after 20 minutes & theoretically, my terrine should have been done, like my book said. Luckily, I have a very reliable food thermometer & I measured the temperature at the center of the terrine. It read 13°C!! That means it was cold on the inside (13°C = 55°F)! I promptly put it back in the oven and re-checked the temperature every 10 minutes. Each time, I opened & closed the oven & messed around with my water bath & terrine which are not really sized to fit together perfectly! Imagine water sloshing around a bit...and a slight awkwardness with handling...(we have very small ovens here and my roasting pan just barely fits) the bottom line is that some oven temperature variation was inevitable...!

In the end it took me a total of 45 minutes. I removed the terrine from the oven when the temperature at center measured 30°C. At this point, my terrine looked like the one pictured in my reference book (ie, a good layer of melted yellow duck fat on top of the terrine), and as the book said, it may look undercooked, but that's the way it's supposed to be. I only wish I had a picture of it at that point. Too bad!

I removed the terrine from the bain marie, and let it sit on the counter top where it did continue to cook a bit. So, that reminds me that there's actually one last factor: the rate at which you cool down your terrine. At school, we cooked it until the center temperature was 66°C, but we immediately stopped the cooking by cold shocking it into an ice bath. Here at home, I let it sit on the counter a few hours.

I put weights on top to compress it. After a while, I removed them, wrapped the terrine in plastic and then let it rest in the fridge 3 days. (Letting it rest 3 days is critical.) Only then would I know how well it was cooked , or not. And, I'm relieved to say that it turned out delicious! Honestly, I wasn't sure if 30°C would actually be a good end temperature or not. It's just that my terrine looked like the picture of the terrine in my book. Unfortunately, my book doesn't define a target end temperature. I later read a few other blogs and found one that says to remove it at 38°C... so I leave it up to you to decide when you want to pull yours out of the oven!

My conclusions: (1) You're bound to run into variables that will affect the cooking process of a terrine of foie gras in the oven, and its successfulness. But, that shouldn't throw you off, if you're aware of the variables, and if you're able to adjust yourself to them. Blindly following a recipe without taking into account variables can lead to disaster no matter what you're preparing. And when you're cooking something costing a small fortune, it's even more important to pay attention to what you're doing. An overcooked terrine is simply a waste of money. I've done that before. Let me just say that it makes me not nice to be around for a few hours! You end up with a lot of rendered duck fat since most of the foie is melted away. What's left is a minuscule terrine. Still edible, but minuscule. An undercooked terrine is equally bad - it will look unappetizing (too pink/red) & that's enough to make it a turn-off. Plus, it is probably not the safest, bacterially-speaking. (2) Make sure you have a good food thermometer so that you can measure the temperature at the heart of the terrine. For me this is key to making a good terrine of foie gras, especially for beginners. Because this way, no matter what variable is thrown your way, you'll have a way to reassure yourself that it's going to be OK. (3) Finally, think about how these variables can occur, and try to mitigate them in the first place....then you'll really be on the road to cooking like a pro! Because after all, these are the same principles used in a professional kitchen for cooking n'importe quoi (no matter what)!

So voilà! I share the lessons I learned recently about making a terrine of foie gras at home. Long-winded, but hopefully, helpful. This one's for you Robbin! And please let me know what you've experienced in doing this yourself.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Day trip from Paris to Champagne Region

If you like early fall, Saturday was your day. The temperature was crisp in the morning yet mild in the afternoon, the fall colors were starting to appear, and the sun was poking its head out from time to time. It was a perfect day for a get-away to the Champagne region of France.

We headed to a village called Epernay. It takes less than 2 hours to get there if you go directly. However, we took La Route Touristique du Champagne, a scenic drive through the region, with winding roads and magnificent views of vineyard patches and small villages lining the Marne River. About 3 1/2 hours later, we reached Epernay just in time for lunch.

But where to go? We had no hard rules except to steer clear of brasseries receiving bus loads of tourists. We ended up finding a small 40-seat restaurant in the square next to the church, a charming place called La Table Kobus. We would gladly go back. The serious young waiter was especially knowledgeable about all things regional. In fact, this rather surprised us and entertained us. He gave us a map (who needs GPS?!) & explained how to get to Hautvillers, our next stop. He also answered our question about why we were still seeing some grapes on the vine when the harvest must have already happened last month. Yes, "the vendage (wine harvesting) is certainly past, and the grapes are harvested 100 days after the first flowers blossom on the vine. Therefore, those that are remaining had late-blooming flowers and cannot be used." OK, then. Good to know. And lucky for the birds, Eric said.

When we asked where Dom Pérignon was buried, wasn't it next to a monastery? "Non, not at all. It is an Abby, not a monastery. And he was buried in a church." He continued, "But the monastery is not open to the public unless you have", and at this point he showed us the palms of his hands, before adding "pattes blanches". Surely this must be an idiom because the literal translation just wasn't working! Literally, "pattes blanches" means white paws or legs (like a cat, dog or chicken). Eric explained it means that you are acceptable because your "paws", or hands, have never been dirtied before. In this context, it must surely be related to holiness (as in getting into heaven's gates), n'est ce pas?

Could our lunch have really taken two hours? Yes! And we enjoyed every leisurely second of it. We then drove a short distance to Hautevillers. I had previously been there with the Ecole Ferrandi class, and from that brief visit, I knew it was a place I wanted to see again. It's quaint and charming. It's quiet, even on a Saturday with tourists here and there. It is a town of rustic elegance that only the french paysage (countryside) can offer you.

We visited the church & Abby where Dom Pérignon first discovered how to make a fizzy wine back in the 17th century. Little did he know then how much fuss we'd be making today over his discovery! And he never could have imagined how famous his name could become centuries later!

All in all, we spent an hour in Hautevillers just wandering around & exploring. We walked by the vineyards of Moet et Chandon, and found this staircase. I like this picture because it's almost an optical illusion. Which way are the stairs going? Up or down? We took these stairs - it's a hilly area - and they lead us to a path around the Abby, to a park, with a beautiful view on the valley. That's the spot where I took this video. From my previous post, we all know I'm video-challenged....but I'll keep working on it, I promise!

There's one last thing worth noticing if you go to Hautevillers. Several homes have painted metal decorations hanging on their outside walls depicting a craft of some sort, presumably that of the owner. Take a look at a few, aren't they cute? In Richmond (Virginia, that is), it was flags. Here, it's metal plates!

Finally, it was time to head home. On our way, we stopped at a champagne house to do a tasting with hopes of finding a good bottle at a decent price. We didn't find either, but that's OK. We'll be back to the champagne region, and meanwhile, there's plenty of bubbly to be found in this city!


La Table Kobus

3, rue du Docteur Rousseau

51200 Epernay

Tele: 03 26 51 53 53

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Blue Eiffel Tower

Here she is, the Eiffel Tower, all blue and twinkly. For six months, Paris' "iron lady" will sparkle in blue and be adorned with twelve gold stars from the European Union flag, to symbolize France's 6-month role as president of the EU Council. Presiding over the EU Council is a rotating role among the EU member countries (currently numbering 27), and France took the helm on July 1st.

I happened to walk by the Eiffel Tower Friday night on my way home from watching a re-broadcast of the vice-presidential debate (Palin & Biden). We didn't get up at 4am this time to watch it live, like we did for the 1st presidential debate! However, the rebroadcast turned out to be a great evening. It was hosted by Democrats Abroad and held at the CinéAqua which is exactly as its name sounds: a cinema and an aquarium all in one! I highly recommend going there for any movie or occasion. CinéAqua is located just next to Place du Trocodéro, which is where you will find the best view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in my opinion.

I went to the debate with a fellow American friend and we were thankful to see it. Being an American living abroad at a time like this can feel odd. You are an American. You are trying to keep up with all the news happening at home. And yet you're thousands of miles away. I know very well that my physical presence on home soil would not change the present economic situation one bit, and I will do my part in the November 4th election by voting with an absentee how to explain just feels weird to be watching this from afar. Like you're NOT part of it, and yet you ARE... OK, my thoughts are starting to scatter, even hinting at getting off track. Maybe what I'm really expressing is a fear about what's happening to our country in this moment and time of history. It's probably just as simple as that. Maybe I'd feel the same if I were there. Please let me know how you are feeling.

And please allow me to get back to the point: I simply would like to share with you a beautiful moment that I experienced the other night....the breath-taking and sparkling-blue Eiffel Tower....

Here's a first upload. It is so amature-ish, it's funny. Let's end this post on a laugh, shall we? She still looks good, though, don't you think? Even on her side? As much as I like photography, I think I'll stick to my day job! That should explain why you find the video on its side! And next time I attempt this, I'll try to remember to record on "landscape" view, and not "portrait"!