Friday, October 15, 2010

Thinking outside the box

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 shopping list: a lemon, and parmesan cheese.

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