Friday, December 30, 2016

Paris -- Great Meals at Two Old Favorite Restaurants

We recently returned to two of our favorite informal restaurants in Paris: Sardegna a Tavola and Chez René.

We have never found an excellent Italian restaurant in Paris, despite many people telling us that they know a real one. The pasta is nearly always overcooked and oversauced, and the French, despite  their great culinary heritage, just don't get Italian food. We are spoiled by New York, I guess. Our solution is to go to Sardegna, a fantastic Sardinian place in the 12th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de Lyon, which, while not Italian, satisfies the same cravings. This week we were four and shared a wonderful meal consisting of this amazing burrata, followed by two pastas and a tuna and artichoke dish from heaven. When the burrata arrived, I said it looked like it would be the best we had ever eaten. And it was.

Burrata at Sardegna a Tavola
Our other great meal was at Chez René. When I discovered the place last year, the waiter told me that they have the best pot-au-feu in Paris, served on alternate Thursdays (blanquette de veau is the star the other weeks), and I have been trying to get there on the right night ever since. We finally made it last night, and three of us ordered the rich, beefy pot-au-feu, which is rated second in Paris by Le Figaro (Drouant is rated Number One). It is delicious, huge, satisfying and a screaming bargain at 17 euros. And I learned a trick from one of our dinner companions, whose family is from Normandy, which is to serve it with a little crème fraîche in addition to the traditional mustard, coarse salt and cornichons. I had no camera with me so swiped this little picture (sorry about the poor quality) from the Internet to give you an idea.

Pot-au-feu at Chez René
Even if you don't like pot-au-feu (or, like J, can't eat beef), all of the classic cuisine at Chez René is excellent, the place is lovely, if in a bit of a time warp (in the same location on the Boulevard St-Germain since 1957), and the service just right.

In the suddenly cold and damp Parisian weather, these types of dinners warm the body as well as the soul.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 5, 2016

Baking Bread

I have been baking bread pretty often over the last few years, and it has become almost a ritual. (Indeed, I did a post on this topic in January 2015.) As in all things, practice makes better, and I have become fairly accomplished. I derive great satisfaction from producing a beautiful and tasty country loaf even though I can buy spectacular (and better, to be honest) bread from the She-Wolf Bakery's stand at the Sunday green market on Columbus avenue between 77th and 81st Streets.

My most recent effort, a fermented oat loaf from Chad Robertson's Tartine Book No. 3, was this gorgeous loaf.

Fermented oat bread
But this is the culmination of a journey that began with the no-knead bread from Jim Lahey's iconic My Bread. Lahey invented a way to make delicious country-style bread that is dead simple and works every time. You take a tiny amount of yeast, flour, water and salt, mix well and leave for 12-18 hours, then shape (no need to knead) the loaf and let it sit for or a couple of hours and, finally, bake in a Dutch oven at high temperature, removing the cover in the middle of the process.

You get a lovely and deliciously earthy loaf.

Lahey's no-knead loaf
Lahey's no-knead loaf with three seeds
The only drawback is that his crumb is, in my opinion, not dense enough, so the bread is very light. But also, it's too easy.

I then heard about Chad Robertson, whose Tartine Bakery in San Franciso is a legend, and his first book, Tartine Bread. Robertson dispenses with yeast altogether, using natural levain starter. This is like sourdough starter in that it consists only of flour and water exposed to the local wild yeasts until it begins to ferment. Good French bread in France is made with levain, not yeast, so this is nothing revolutionary.

Once it gets going, the starter must be "fed" often, preferably every day; this means discarding 80% of the starter and replenishing with flour and water. When you are going to bake, you take a tiny bit of starter, add a bunch of flour and water, leave overnight and then incorporate in your bread. There follows a detailed set of steps: letting the mix sit, then turning it every 30 minutes for four hours, shaping again, letting it sit for 3-5 hours, then baking in a Dutch oven in a very hot oven for nearly an hour. From start to finish, my last effort took 22 hours although there is very little active time. Robertson's highly illustrated description of this process takes up 25 pages of Tartine Bread. Of course there's lots more commentary and there are many variations, such as country rye, polenta, ___ and __ breads, as well as pizza dough, baguettes, etc.

Try as I might, I could not get starter to start from scratch, even after two one-week tries. So I cheated, and bought sourdough starter from King Arthur, which I then treated the way Robertson suggests, and got nice levain starter.

However, my first levain loaves, although they tasted good, were a flat. Somehow my levain did not have enough oomph.

Tartine olive bread
Over time, my results improved. Here are two plain country, semolina and country rye loaves, all of which looked and tasted awfully good.

Tartine plain loaves
Tartine semolina loaves with three seeds
Tartine country rye loaf
Once the world had digested his first book, Robertson released Tartine Book No. 3, in which he uses a high percentage of whole wheat, explores different flours, including heirloom varieties (like emmer, spelt and einkorn), and additions of whole grains in various states (flaked, rolled, ground), including fermented or unfermented porridge and other hard-to-find (or make) add-ins. A real challenge!

So far I have made several breads from Book No. 3, including the one first pictured above and this oat porridge bread, and all have come out well.

Tartine oat porridge bread
Is homemade levain bread worth the effort? Clearly not, especially in these days where good bread is so abundant. But as a challenging hobby, definitely yes!

Happy bread baking!

Bobby Jay