Saturday, February 28, 2015

Paris - Cooking for One

Thursday I went to the Salon de l'Agriculture and bought too much food (see my post of yesterday).

Last night I got to use some of it and enjoyed an evening at home and a simple meal that I cooked for myself. I started with an enormous French artichoke, so big that it took 35 minutes in a pressure cooker before it was ready. Half of that, with some great olive oil, made a fine appetizer.

Next, smoked mourteau sausage from Alsace, boiled for 45 minutes, with choucroute from the same stand at the Salon d'Ag, and some flageolets (lima beans) that I had left over from a prior meal. For dessert, a slice of pain d'épices that I had also bought at the Salon d'Ag. A rather nice meal.

Saucisse mourteau, choucroute, flageolets
With so many great pre- or partially cooked items available at Paris' markets, cooking for one can be quick, interesting and delicious.

Bobby Jay

Paris - Le Servan: An Excellent Bistro

I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to Paris bistros. I have been disappointed too many times by the "in" places "discovered" by The New York Times or Bon Appetit to trust them, and even some of my trusted French bloggers have from time to time let me down.

However . . . I recently went with a former colleague to new but and well-publicized Le Servan, a totally simple but attractive, and now very chic, bistro in the 11éme arrondissement and had a really delightful meal, exactly what you want in this type of place. A small but well-conceived menu and a wine list to match. And reasonable prices, too. The place is run by two young sisters, one of whom is the companion of the chef of Septime, one of the really great bistros in Paris. While this probably helped to jump start the restaurant, it has its own identity and flair.

We shared an order of cockles in a light spicy bouillon that was a perfect pre-starter. Then I had a hot foie gras lacqué and my friend had perfectly cooked baby artichokes with lemon sauce. I continued with a marvelous duck breast, while A had a perfectly roasted chicken with cabbage. Our desserts, a blood orange tart and a Paris-Brest, were both excellent. The food is not gorgeous and not presented in an exciting way, so no photos. But so what? This is good food, at a reasonable price, and you should go. Just call in advance because it's usually full.

Le Servan, 32 rue Saint-Maur, Paris 11ème (Métro Voltaire, St-Amboise or Saint-Maur), 01 55 28 51 82.

Bobby Jay

Friday, February 27, 2015

Paris - 2015 Salon d'Agriculture

One of the highlights of my year is a visit to the Salon de l'Agriculture, held in Paris at this time each year. A spectacular array of animals that are brought by proud breeders and traditional foods from all over France and its foreign territories and colonies, which may be eaten at the fair or taken home. (There are foods from other countries, but I generally pass on them in favor of France; after all . . .)

This year I went with two Japanese artist friends who have lived in France for many years, speak the language and appreciate the culinary tradition. One had never been to the Salon d'Ag and she could not get enough of it. When two of us left after 5 1/2 hours, she stayed on to see some of the things we had passed up.

We ate fairly little under the circumstances, starting with a fantastic sausage, potato and cheese from Picardy,

Crispy sausage, potatoes and cheese
and continuing with a hot foie gras sandwich, cooked before our eyes.

Waiting while our foie gras is sauteed.
We also partook of the many samples of sausage, cheese and sweets (nougat, cakes, sheep milk ice cream) on offer, and the best freshly pressed apple juice I have ever had.

Figatelli from Corsica
Fuseau from Lorraine
Looks nice, Auvergnates, but we passed
And we bought a few things to take home: pain d'epices, banana conserve, turmeric syrup, mourteau sausage, chicken liver pâté, Valençay cheese and figatelli (see above).

Banana preserves from Guadaloupe - 85% banana, 15% sugar
Curcuma (turmeric) syrup from Martinique
Prune confiture and pain d'épice
 Then off to see the animals. First, horses, with splendid samples of dozens of breeds.

Horses doing what they do best - eating - and in competition
Next, the food animals: sheep, pigs and cows.

Award-winning cul noir pig
Happy sheep
1,650 kilo Charolais steer. HUGE!
The fair was packed, the most crowded I have ever seen it. This is great, because it enables the urban population (especially children) to connect with the agriculture from which their food comes, an especially worthy practice in an era where the shrink-wrapped products that are available in supermarkets bear no relationship to the actual animals from whence they come. I can't prove it but I believe that this connection helps the French to maintain respect for the farms, farmers and animals that nourish them so well.

Bobby Jay

Paris - Another Great Artisanal Butter

I reported a year ago (to this day) on Beurre Bordier, an artisan butter that has taken France by storm, and it really is great stuff.

But recently I heard from Dorie Greenspan, the wonderful cookbook author, that she has been favoring Beurre Beillevaire, made in the Loire Atlantique in wooden barattes. Interestingly, neither Bordier nor Beillevaire is made in Normandy, the traditional home of French butter and other milk products (think Camembert, Pont l'Eveque, etc.); perhaps that gives them more freedom to innovate which, in this context, means going back to old methods with wooden barrels and paddles.

Coincidentally, there is a Bielleville store on rue Saint Antoine, a few minutes from our apartment, where their products are available. I decided to try the demi-sel croquant (crunchy).

Beillevaire store in Paris
Rushing home, I slathered some of it on a toasted slice of Pain Poilâne, probably France's most famous bread: heaven. I wished I could give a taste to the many people who ask me why I love Paris so much! Even cold, the butter is spreadable and the salt, which is not very crunchy in the end, is a great counterpoint for the sweetness of the butter.

Not only is the butter wonderful to eat, it is even pretty to look at. A cute cow is embossed on the butter, which quickly disappears as the butter is consumed.

Beurre Beillevaire
Beurre Beillevaire embossed cow
Bordier or Bielleville: what a nice dilemma!

Bobby Jay

Monday, February 9, 2015

Fantastic Japanese Leaf Plates

J gave me a set of great leaf plates by the Japanese ceramic artist Tsujimura Yui as an early Valentine's Day gift. I was inspired to use them at a small dinner party to present an earthy salad of arugula, pumpkin seeds, sliced radishes, sprouts and parmesan shavings with pumpkin seed oil and sherry vinegar dressing. I learned this salad at Grüner in Portland, Oregon, where shaved mushrooms are also added to great effect (I was already using a lot of mushrooms in the meal so went without).

Tsujimura Yui plat with arugula, pumpkin seed, radish, sprouts and parmesan
Tsujimura Yui leaf plates with salad
The salad was good, but I think the plates really enhanced the experience.

Bobby Jay

Thursday, January 29, 2015

More Tartine Bread

Emboldened by my success making levain rustic loaves from Chad Robertson's Tartine, I decided to try some variations that he provides in the book. I made his standard two-loaf recipe, then divided it into two loaves early in the "bulk fermentation" process rather than at the end, and added the extra ingredients: chopped olives and walnuts in one, toasted sesame seeds in the other.

Spectacular success, particularly the olive walnut loaf, which was moist, light and earthy and certainly one of the best things I have ever made. Both had inviting dark crusts.

Tartine olive walnut levain loaf
Tartine olive walnut levain loaf - interior
The sesame loaf was excellent, too, but did not rise to the heights of the olive walnut loaf. But some of the best toast ever.

Tartine sesame seed levain loaf
It is pretty crazy to make this bread, given the time and timing commitments, but the results are pretty fantastic!

Bobby Jay

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tartine Bread

Inspired by Michael Pollan's excellent Cooked, in which the author spends many pages describing his efforts to make Chad Robertson's levain bread, as chronicled in detail in Robertson's Tartine Bread, I decided to try again to follow Robertson's 50 pages of instructions on making basic country bread. The secret of Robertson's bread, and the reason it is so difficult, is that you must first make a levain starter, for this bread is made without yeast, apart from that which appears by serendipity in the starter. Levain is like sourdough but -- guess what! -- less sour.

A couple of years ago I spent months trying to use levain starter in conjunction with Jim Lahey's brilliant, easy and foolproof no-knead bread, which I have discussed before. I never could get the oven spring that I wanted (i.e., the loaves were too flat) without adding just a smidgeon (1/8 tsp) of yeast, but that was cheating. When I went for the full Tartine bread, I still did not achieve the oven spring I wanted.

As noted above, I tried again, but this time I could not get the starter to start. A disgusting mess, which is fine, but without the bubbles, which is not. In frustration, I got the (pretty brilliant) idea of buying sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour, which I fed a few times according to their directions and then transformed into levain starter by feeding it as Robertson suggests. This worked and in a couple of days I had a very vibrant starter ready to go.

Now all I had to do was spend the next 26 hours following Robertson's recipe. You feed the starter and turn it into levain overnight. Then in the morning, when it is ready (a little bit of it will float in water, but mine took an extra 2 hours), you add water and flour to make dough. After a short rest, you add salt and a bit more water and leave for 3-4 hours, the "bench rest," folding (not kneading) the dough in the prescribed manner every 1/2 hour or so. Then shape the loaves and leave for another 3-4 hours. Finally, place a loaf into a covered dutch oven at blazing high heat for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes uncovered . . . and then you have bread.

Two loaves of Tartine levain bread
And what bread it was! Gorgeous, beautifully colored, soaring, with a perfect rustic crumb and a slightly sour, almost bitter note playing against the sweetness of the wheat (about 22% whole wheat, in case you're curious). The bread was light, but less so than Lahey's, and with a more substantial structure.

Beautiful crumb inside a Tartine bread
I was thrilled that my project had worked, and the bread was one of the best I have ever eaten. But it is a lot of work . . .  well not so much work, although some technical skill is required, as being there -- a lot. You can go out, you can delay baking by refrigeration and other techniques, but you still have to be around. Is it worth it, given the degree of difficulty and time management compared to Lahey's no-knead bread? Hard to say, but I will definitely be doing it again. But then, I am retired and projects like this are my "bread and butter."

Bobby Jay

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cooking Highlights of 2014

I have made an iPhoto book of highlights of my cooking year. To see it, click on the cover page below. Unfortunately, you won't be able to see side-by-side double pages, so some of the text may seem a bit misplaced. I am working to solve this problem, but for now . . . .

Bobby Jay

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Alain Passard, an Amazing Perfectionist

Recently Nadège, the most loyal follower of my blog, recommended that I watch some short cooking videos by Alain Passard. They are terrific, and more on them later.

Passard is the chef of the famed Arpège, in Paris, where the spectacular and spectacularly expensive food is mostly, but not exclusively, vegetarian. A number of years ago, J and I went to Arpège with our good friends H and O and had a wonderful meal, but . . . we really felt ripped off paying nearly 300 euros per person (it's more now, of course) for the meal and we also felt that the restaurant's staff made the experience about them, not us. Yet I have to admit that I can still remember the taste of his most famous creation, a dessert consisting of a tomato that is confited for the better part of a day.

I thought nothing more of this until I happened upon a bande dessiné (graphic, comic-like book), En Cuisine avec Alain Passard, written by a journalist who got to spend a lot of time with him.

Reading this book gave me a new respect for Chef Passard. He sources nearly all the vegetables he uses at one of two organic farms that he owns. One is more or less conventional, the other uses horse-drawn plows and ancient planting and harvesting techniques. He tries growing the produce at each farm and then chooses the one that give the best result for future production. And he is a workaholic, spending virtually all of his time at the restaurant, creating, sampling, creating, etc. He has decided not to expand like other chefs because he cannot imagine producing the level of cuisine that he produces at Arpège without personally supervising every step. The level of Chef Passard's attention to detail is pretty amazing.

Now I get it.

As to the videos, there are a large number accessible by searching "alain passard youtube"; the dozen or so that I have viewed so far (and I plan to see them all) are remarkable. The food is amazingly creative and beautiful. And the lessons are so well expressed that they seem doable by a mere mortal who knows how to cook. But the best part is the enthusiasm displayed by Chef Passard. The man is clearly excited by what he does, a point made clear in En Cusine, but in the videos the passion is infectious; I want to cook each thing that he illustrates, right then! Here's an example, in which Chef Passard shows how to make a roulade of autumn vegetables:

There is one problem, which you may have suspected: the lessons are in French. The language used is not difficult, and the videos are so well illustrated that they are easily followed, but the fact remains that they are in French. Still, I encourage you to give them a try if you have even a little French and love to cook (or eat). Just looking at what he produces will be an inspiration.

Will I go back to Arpège knowing what I do now? I'm seriously thinking about it.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy New Year from Paris -- 2014


As always, we are spending the end of the year in Paris. Here are some nice, mostly food-oriented, images from Paris in late December.

Réligieuse at Dalloyau
Snowman at Dalloyau
Baby bûches de Noël on Île Saint-Louis
Merveilleuses de Fred
Chocolats Marquise de Sévigné
Macarons at Ladurée
Chocolats Michel Cluizel
Au Petit Versailles, a gorgeous boulangerie patisserie
Display at Edwart, a new and quite wonderful chocolatier
Shoe train in Printemps window
Bobby Jay

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Paris - Christmas Dinner 2014

As has become our tradition, we had Christmas dinner chez nous with good friends from the Japanese ceramic world: a renowned Japanese potter from Kyoto and her friend, an excellent Japanese potter who has been living and working in Paris for decades and the director of one of Paris' Asian art museums. J, of course, the great dealer in contemporary Japanese ceramics, and me, the sole male and the chef.

As always, J set a magnificent table. With flowers a bit lame in the market on Christmas day, she improvised with fruit and vegetables to great effect.

Table set for Christmas dinner
For hors d'oeuvres, I prepared some curried roasted cashews and smoked paprika-spiced almonds, and tapenade and mustard palmiers. And, of course, the foie gras that I described in my previous post (sorry for the repeat picture).

Foie gras Bobby Jay
Dinner consisted of a mushroom soup from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table, served over chopped mushrooms, scallions and chives, with, of course, a dollop of crème fraîche.

Mushroom soup with obligatory dollop of crème fraîche
For the main course, roast leg of lamb with anchovies, rosemary and garlic (and lots of butter and white wine) from Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories. See my previous post for a picture of the leg slathered in anchovy butter before roasting. As is customary in France, green beans with rosemary on the side.

Roast leg of lamb before carving (which didn't make it look any better)
Then the thing that, in my opinion, blows away whatever I cook: a perfect vacherin de Mont d'Or, eaten with a spoon, a Christmas tradition in France and my favorite cheese in the world. I prettied it up with slices of pear and walnuts, but the cheese is the thing here.

Vacherin de Mont d'Or with sliced pears and walnuts
Finally, Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake, also from Around My French Table, a great make-ahead dessert that keeps for days on the counter, served with yet another dollop of crème fraîche.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
Really finally, assorted chocolates from La Mère de Famille, thoughtfully provided by one of the guests.

Chocolates from La Mère de Famille
A good way to pass the night with friends.

Bobby Jay

Friday, December 26, 2014

Paris - Gardil: A Great Butcher

Near our new apartment is one of Paris' best butchers, Jean-Paul Gardil et Fils, in the middle of the magnificent Île Saint-Louis. Although Gardil is wildly expensive, I decided to give it a few tries, and had not only great products but nice experiences.

Gardil's window display of great poultry
I visited Gardil on Friday, December 19 to order provisions for dinners on December 23, a Tuesday, and Christmas day, a Thursday. And I needed duck foie gras to prepare on Saturday, December 20. First, the foie gras. It was not de-nerved, and taking out the nerves is a job I do not want to do ever again, having made a disgusting mess of it when I tried. No problem, said the butcher (I had Gardil fils), he would do it the next morning (it needs to be out of the fridge for two hours before de-nerving) and I could pick it up at 10 on Saturday.

Foe gras resting under a layer of duck fat
My best foie gras ever
Then, chicken for Tuesday. I ordered it for Saturday, but the butcher thought that would leave the chicken in my fridge for too long. I said I was marinating it Monday night, but he was insistent. Luckily, the shop, normally closed on Mondays, was open exceptionally for the holiday season, so we made a date for Monday.

As for the lamb, since I was serving it Thursday, the earliest he would let me have it was Tuesday, otherwise it would be too long in my fridge. I'm sure he would have preferred Wednesday, but I didn't want to face the Christmas eve crush.

The point of the story is that Gardil takes enormous pride in its products and wants its customers to serve it while still at maximum freshness, a level of attention I have never seen before. I went to pick up the foie gras on Saturday, and the butcher said it was ready and could hardly wait to show me how beautifully he had done the job. And he had. The foie gras was the best I ever made, and there was not a nerve to be seen, no matter how tiny.

Monday I picked up the chicken, which was prepared before me at considerable length. This is how it's done in Paris: head and feet cut off, joints stretched, giblets removed (and saved), when the chicken is sold, and not before. Slow but, again, freshness is all. I asked him to cut the chicken into eight pieces, which he did with great precision and speed, keeping some bones and the neck separate for me, which I used to make stock for Christmas dinner. (Unfortunately I forgot to ask for the feet, which add a lot of depth to stock due to the collagen within.) As with the foie gras, the chicken was simply the best I have ever made. A poulet fermier, it was rich in flavor but not tough as they sometimes are in the US.

Chicken from Gardil
Tuesday I returned for the leg of lamb. By now we were old friends, and I got an especially nice greeting. It had already been prepared and was ready to go. The butcher gave me instructions, which I did not follow because I was using a recipe that I had tried before with success. The lamb was excellent, but unlike the foie gras and chicken, was not the best I have ever made.

Lamb from Gardil, slathered with anchovy butter
The fun part of this trip was the dialogue between the butcher and a woman who had purchased a magnificent and wildly expensive (probably more than $200) capon for the next night. The butcher explained exactly how to cook it - two and a quarter hours, turning it at specific times, adding wine at specific times, etc. The customer took notes and then asked if she could make it in advance. The butcher visibly winced, but after gathering his composure, told her how best to do it: do NOT put it in the fridge and then reheat very gently at 210-225 degrees Farenheit (my conversions) for about 40 minutes. He did not ask her what is the point of cooking a roast a couple of hours in advance and reheating it, which showed great sensitivity.

Along the way, I bought some ham made from Noir de Bigorre pork from the Pyrenees, a duck sausage and two pâtes. The pâtes were not extraordinary but the ham and sausage definitely were. In sum, I learned a lot, ate well and had a terrific time (actually four times) at Gardil. And people ask what I do in Paris!

Bobby Jay