So, it's apparently the end of all things here in Chicago- it's snowing hard, but what I'm really finding remarkable is the wind, which has been whistling nonstop for at least three hours. The ground isn't even covered yet because the snow can't rest long enough to find a foothold.
Fencing practice is canceled and Boy is coming over for dinner, so I wanted to make something special to keep us warm on what looks to be an exceptionally cold night. So what am I making? Maple-Mustard Baked Chicken and microwave-baked potatoes.
The Mustard-Maple baked chicken is in the oven right now, and it smells amazing. Have you ever tasted Grade B maple syrup? I tried it for the first time today, for this recipe, and Oh My Goodness! It is completely different from the Aunt Jemima's my mom always served. It's toasty, sort of, and brown-sugary, and so fantastic that I don't even care that it cost more than a dollar an ounce, I'm a convert for life. It's my good luck, then, that I partly chose this recipe to use up some dijon mustard I got that I didn't really like enough to use in the mustard vinaigrette that I use on my salad all the time.
As for the bread crumbs, I don't have a food processor and I was worried that the soft bread would gum up my blender, so I spent ages crumbling my bread by hand before I got bored, threw it in the blender anyway, and discovered that it worked like a charm. Pity I discovered this not until after I'd also spent an hour using a water glass as a pestle to crush graham crackers for the pie crust. Oh, well. Lessons learnt.
This pie will be my third meyer pie venture, and hopefully my most successful. My first attempt, a custard-cream pie, never completely set even after refrigerating overnight - I think I may not have sufficiently cooked the egg yolks. My second attempt, a Meyer lemon meringue, fell victim to undercooking, leading to a meringue that drooped and sagged (but still tasted great) before I could get it to my Dad's birthday party.
So now, I'm making what I really had in mind when I bought twenty Meyer lemons - a key lime pie, sans key limes and avec Meyer lemons. Why did I buy twenty of them, you ask? Good question. I had read about them on food blogs all over the place, rapturous posts extolling the magic of subtle, sweet lemons with skins so thin you could almost eat them like apples, and also posts bemoaning their heartbreakingly short season. I saw them at the grocery store for 1.99 a pound, went hysterical, and with Boy egging me on (what he will not do to put me in a position where I must make more desserts!) it was not long before I had enough lemons to last me until next winter.
Recipe to be edited in later. I know, I keep saying that!
I haven't posted in ages. I have a dozen stories of wonderful things I've eaten saved up, but I've been too busy collecting memories to write them up.
Now that my stay is drawing to a close and my homesickness becomes overwhelming, I've found myself consumed by a need to bring things back to Chicago, both for myself and as gifts for the people I miss. Not models of la Tour Eiffel or I <3 Paris scarves, but things that are really, truly, innately Parisian. I have fallen victim to the cult of can't get it at home.
But today, as I made runs to the Maille boutique for unpasteurized mustard and to G. Detou for lentilles du Puy,creme de marrons d'Aubenas, and piment d'Espelette, I realized why I am buying things I've never tried before and have no idea if I'll like. I want to bring Paris back, and this whole experience of exploring and discovering in the city I dreamed of visiting when I was a little girl. I'm just as sad to be leaving as I am happy to go home.
But all the chocolate, wine, and Bordier butter in the world won't be the same as being here. I'm already plotting and scheming to come back.
I was going to go to Clotilde's evening rendezvous, but arrived quite early and was feeling way too shy to stick around and talk to a bunch of strangers. Sorry, Clotilde and anyone else I missed... I will definitely come next time, when I have been a member of the food blogging community for more than a week.
Friday night, I elected to go out to the nearby Chinatown in the 13th. I wandered north along Avenue de Choisy until I found a restaurant that looked good. I settled on Restaurant Hao Hao, whose brightly lit interior looked especially appealing in the drizzle.
I did not want to eat anything exciting. I wanted comfort food. Specifically, fried rice like I always get during finals week at home; with rich egg, sweet onion, the wonderful texture of shrimp, grease everywhere, and carbs to last me a week. So, I ordered riz aux gambas caramelisees. I did not get what I was expecting.
I didn't bring my camera, so I don't have any pictures, but there was some sliced cucumber and carrot, a scoop of rice with a drizzle tasty shrimp-based sauce, and OH MY GOD TWO HUGE PRAWNS. Like six inches long, with eyes and legs and guts and everything. I had to tear them apart with my fingers (splashed shrimp juice all over my dress trying to manage the fork and knife first), but they pretty much baffled me. Is there supposed to be any more meat in there besides the tail? I was only able to extract about as much meat as you would find in a pair of normal-sized shrimp, and I know that those are not that big, even whole.
They tasted good, though. That was the last thing I did before I started this blog... I realized just how far I've come to be able to tackle food like that. I'll be back, but next time I'll order a piece of the lacquered ducks that hang in a window over the kitchen.
I got 100g of parmesan and a lemon at the Marche Saint-Germain-des-Pres today.
It's so hard to cook when you don't have a properly stocked kitchen. I knew this when I was in the dorms in Chicago, but there the big complaints where the lack of proper knives and, poor me, no blender! And the whole time I was only cooking when I desperately wanted to; I relied on the meal plan the rest of the time. Never was I faced with googling whether or not I could put a frying pan in the oven because I didn't have a baking sheet.
Put one eggplant in the oven (on the frying pan) and let it cook at 500F (Thats... 260C) for thirty minutes.
Cut up two red bell peppers so they'll lie flat when it's their turn.
My lemon is not particularly fragrant, so I'm rolling it out now to get the juices running. After a minute, it started to smell more like itself.
When the eggplant was done, I stuck a knife in it and let it spill its innards into a bowl. I've never cooked with eggplant before, so I was surprised at how completely the vegetable was transformed from a firm oval to a bag of gloop. Impressive!
I promptly threw the red peppers onto the frying pan and replaced it in the oven, albeit at a lower temperature. I set the oven to 180C, but after twenty minutes the red peppers did not seem to have cooked enough, so I turned it up to 220C. It's really hard cooking in Celsius right now; I haven't developed any sense of perspective on what's "hot" and what's "really hot." All I know is that 100C = 212F, and 260C=500F which is hot enough to make an eggplant swoon.
I squeezed the juice of one lemon into the bowl with the eggplant, along with a handful of parmesan (maybe 50g?) and a few pinches of the gros sel de Camargue that is mysteriously in the kitchenette, and is by far the nicest thing there. Upon taking a bite of the mysterious beige mush I've created, I regret a) putting the peppers in the oven, and b) only having one eggplant, because it really is delicious. Now I have to try not to eat it by spoonfuls, or run and smoosh it all over my baguette now, because there really isn't enough.
When the skin of the peppers is partly black, I throw them in a paper bag for a few minutes to steam. When the skin is easy to pull off, I strip them naked, cut them into little strips, and throw them into the eggplant mixture. It really needed the shot of color, but the two red peppers almost overwhelm my small and sadly diminished eggplant. Next time I will definitely use two. I love lemon, so I squeeze in the juice from the other half just to be sure. I have sadly overwhelmed the eggplant, and the whole lemon was a little two much, but it's certainly edible. A little sad that that's worth celebrating compared to all the blogs I've been reading with people making decadent, creative dishes with the finest of ingredients and tools, but everybody has to start somewhere!
Reflecting on the possibilities of this dish, it'd also be great with soft roasted/sweated/caramelized onions, and I know that holding out for the red peppers is going to be worth it. Other than the eggplant, though, none of this is too daring. Red peppers, onions, zucchini, and squash are my staple vegetables. I can put them in almost anything with complete confidence that the dish will not suffer for the addition.
I used one frying pan as my only baking dish for this, even though I didn't actually fry anything. What else can you do with a frying pan besides fry? This is a dinner or going hungry issue for me, folks, please advise!
My first post earlier may have given the impression that I do not know how to cook anything except for Campbell's tomato soup. I would like to correct that impression. I love cooking, and I'm fascinated by it. It's like a kind of alchemy, isn't it? You take a piece of a cow's muscle, some plants you pulled out of the dirt, apply heat, and voila! The pot of "ingredients" is transformed into food.
However, my repertoire is rather limited. I started making a bechamel sauce for my pasta (cheese, salt, fat, delicious) when I was in elementary school (and was subsequently banned from the stove for making a mess in the kitchen every night; who knew flour got everywhere so easily?), but while I know how to follow a recipe, I don't feel I really know how to cook. I want to be able to walk through the farmer's market, see what's fresh, and know in my head what I'm going to make and that it's going to be just wonderful. I need to learn a) techniques and b) ingredients; I know a lot about the former in theory but not in practice and have deprived myself of experience with the latter for most of my life.
I'm studying abroad in Paris right now. To save money for a few trips to really nice restaurants, I've been trying to avoid eating out this week. So far it's mostly been a daily 0,90 baguette with butter and strawberry and/or rhubarb jam, and fried potatoes with caramelized onions and sea salt.
Can I take a moment to rhapsodize about the bread here? There's a famous law about bread in France: if it contains anything but flour, water, yeast, and salt, one is not legally permitted to call it bread. I've been particularly patronizing Boulangerie Thevenin, which is conveniently located right next to the closest grocery store. There's nothing like these baguettes that I've seen in the United States. The crust is perfectly crunchy and explodes into crumbs when you take a bite. The inside is fluffy but still substantial, and the flavor is like the platonic ideal of every fake baguette I've had all my life. I've eaten at least five meters of bread in the two weeks I've been here, and this morning two strangers commented on the rapture with which I was eating it before I even got home. It was still warm.
So anyway, I haven't been starving, but I do need to eat more vegetables.
My tools and ingredients are quite limited here; but restrictions breed creativity, right? The kitchen has a stove, an oven, one frying pan, one small saucepan, a colander, and it's stocked with sel de la Camargue, white pepper, and a head of garlic. I've armed myself for the next two months with a waiter's corkscrew, a knife (not as large as some steak knives I've seen), and wooden spoons and spatulas. As for groceries, I have bought potatoes, onions, olive oil, butter, milk, jam, three red bell peppers, two zucchini, and an eggplant.
I've never cooked an eggplant before. With inspiration from the Eggplant Yum over at Remedial Eating, I'll be making a vegetable spread for my baguette tomorrow, or possibly on Sunday. I have a recipe drafted out, but I'll need to go shopping for a few more ingredients before I can put my plan in action.
My grandma likes to tell a story about how when I was little, I would only eat things that were white. Milk, pasta, potatoes, white bread, butter, salt, cheese, saltines, and nothing else.
I'm sure this is an exaggeration. I don't remember ever not liking meat, but it's true that for a very long time, I was very picky. I didn't like chocolate until I was eight. I wouldn't eat any vegetable (especially a vegetable that had not been through a blender) except onions and asparagus until I was well into high school, and I gagged whenever I tried to swallow a bite of carrot. My version of a salad was caesar dressing and all the croutons I could eat. My family has a pasta sauce recipe that's been handed down for generations, that reputedly goes all the way back to our ancestors in Sicily, and while I loved the way it made the house smell, I could not bring myself to eat pasta if it was covered in tomatoes. I ate my spaghetti with lots of butter and lots of salt, and I liked it.
My mom and I had a fight once when I was in high school, when I refused to touch a pico de gallo that she had made and of which she was proud. She accused me of refusing to eat her food as a way of getting attention, or something like that. "If I actually liked it, I would eat it!" I retorted. "Don't you think I would be happier if everything I tried were delicious?"
That got me thinking. Why couldn't everything be delicious? Why was I afflicted so?
So I started working on tomatoes. I could eat them in pizza, after all! So I tried my mom's Campbell's tomato soup, with milk substituted for the water to make it richer, and with enough shredded mozzarella that gooey strings stuck to the spoon with every bite. That wasn't so bad! Campbell's quickly became a staple easy-food with me. Eventually I got bored and tried mixing in powdered ginger, or bits of caramelized onions, and even when I was lazy the cheese eventually became shredded cheddar or mexican blend. Shredded mozzarella was boring! Then there was a spicy sweet potato tomato soup at Mary's Market in the town where I lived during high school (I hesitate to call Rockford my hometown because a) I have moved several times and b) I hated it there). Wow! Not only not horrible, but exciting and different.
Then the tomato sauce itself. I started by picking out the chucks of sausage and ground beef that had been simmered for hours in tomato paste and tomato chunks and god-knows-what-other-kinds of processed tomatoes. It was not great at first, but I practiced eating it every time it got made, and eventually added all of the ingredients to my pre-dinner custard bowl of sauce. Then I tried it actually on spaghetti, with lots of parmesan, and found that I loved it. Victory! I modified my comments: "I don't like raw tomatoes," I told people.
College changed the way I ate. I ate fried rice (Rice? Brown?!Heresy!) at a pan-Asian place for the first time, fell in love with hummus at Cedars, raved over smoked tea duck in Chinatown, went to an Ethiopian restaurant of all places, and got over a lot of my fear of trying things. But when I came home at the end of my second year, I still hadn't gotten to raw tomatoes. But hot weather makes me crave light fare, and when Mom suggested insalata caprese, I was game. And would you believe it? I liked it so much that when dinner finally came around, we had to make more because I had already eaten what was meant to serve three.
I think I am a supertaster. For a long time, new flavors were overwhelming. But somewhere along the line those flavors have started to become less scary and more of a powerful sensation. It's a good thing! So now even when I order something safe off the menu, I always try everything that everybody else at the table is having. I haven't regretted it yet.
So moms with kids who don't eat greens, don't give up yet. Someday they'll get it, and they'll realize you were right all along. They'll whip up salads for afternoon snacks, make all their sandwiches on whole wheat bread with crusts on, and swear off colas forever.
I still think a lot about what and when and how I eat, so I decided to write those thoughts down. Heaven knows I don't do enough writing. I intend for this blog to chronicle my learning how to really appreciate good food. It will include restaurant reviews and recipes both borrowed and improvised. But you'll never get my pasta sauce; that's a famiglia secret.