Thursday, January 31, 2008

On top of the world (20,000 leagues under)

One of my more bizarre childhood memories is of being stuck at the top of the Eiffel Tower. My family came to Paris often so I don't know how old I was, probably eight at the most. Just before the elevator reached the very tip of the tower, it came to a grinding halt.
I don't know how long we hung there until help came: probably no more than a few minutes, though it must have felt much longer to most of the tourists who were crammed into that stifling lift. I remember people sweating and praying. I remember feeling detached from it all, too young to fear death or disaster. I remember someone breaking the glass at the top of the elevator, which was above the platform, and having us climb out. That seems unbelievable now.
Strangely enough, my family never discussed this incident in years to come and I can't even be entirely sure that it happened. I've been up the tower a few times since with visiting friends and each time the incident floats back into my mind, though it seems too surreal to be truly scary. Certainly I wouldn't let this vaguely remembered childhood trauma get in the way of a good meal, so I jumped at the chance to have lunch with my friend Alison at Le Jules Verne last week.
Star chef Alain Ducasse took over this restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower about a year ago, but it closed for renovations only recently, reopening a few weeks ago with a neo-retro look in brown tones by Patrick Jouin. We had a rare sunny day for our lunch, ensuring a clear view to La Défense, and at 4.30pm we were still lingering in the now-empty dining room as the waiters circled about slightly restlessly. We took the hint and had the restaurant's cushy private elevator all to ourselves on the way down (with no incidents, I'm happy to report).
Ducasse has brought this restaurant back up to the heights it deserves, and the €75 lunch menu is a relative bargain considering the chef's generous hand with truffles. Here are a few images* from our (à la carte) meal:

The view from our table.

Butter with the Jules Verne logo, great with the buckwheat bread.

Lobster with celery root salad and black truffle. I think the picture speaks for itself.

Marinated sea bream with lemon, capers and Iranian oscietra caviar.

Endives with ham and black truffle. They don't make them like this in Sam's school cafeteria.

Sole with symmetrical potato strips and the tiniest baby leeks. I thought the spuma was superfluous.

Savarin doused in its own not-so-little bottle of Armagnac.

Unsinkable grapefruit soufflé, served unabashedly with grapefruit sorbet.

Lemon marshmallows. How did they know I love lemon?

* Thanks to Alison for letting me use her amazing little Lumix camera.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Yakisoba at Zen in Paris.
The first place I go, suitcase in hand, when I come in from the airport.
Now you know my secret.

8, Rue de l'Echelle, 1st, 01 42 61 93 99.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

La trouchia - Swiss chard omelette

Something I've learned over time at the Cours Saleya market is that things are not always as they appear.
So, with my heart set on trouchia for lunch, I didn't panic when I saw that the producer famed among local chefs for her Swiss chard had laid out nothing more than mixed salad leaves, a dozen lemons and a few cartons of eggs on her trestle table. Sneaking a discreet peek under the table, I asked her sweetly, "You wouldn't happen to have any blettes, would you?"
Her eyes narrowed. "How many bunches do you need?"
Triumph. The chard - or silverbeet, as it's sometimes called - had been set aside for those who could prove they wanted it badly enough. Happily I've shopped at this market long enough to know just who might be hiding what, and for whom (as I walked away with the chard I saw the chef who had no doubt reserved most of the day's harvest).
I've always had a fondness for chard's thick ribs and crinkly, spinach-like leaves, but only in Nice has this vegetable become something I couldn't possibly live without. Centuries before they tasted their first vine-ripened tomatoes, the farmers in the hills behind Nice made hardy Swiss chard their staple vegetable. It stretches small amounts of meat in Niçois ravioli and lentil-sausage stew and stars as the main ingredient in tians and tourtes, including a sweet variation with pine nuts, raisins and rum. Some producers sell a thin-ribbed local variety, which is perfect for recipes that call only for the leaves.
I love it that a chef like Franck, who goes through caviar and truffles by the case at the Louis XV in Monaco, can get so excited when instructing me on how to make la trouchia, a thick Swiss chard omelette with just enough egg to bind it together. They key is not to precook the chard but to get the temperature just right so that the leaves don't give off too much water as they cook. It's safest to cook it in a non-stick pan, though I've got away with using my well-seasoned cast iron pan.
If you find yourself with any leftovers (we never have), try them tucked into a sandwich, just as Franck's mother used to do - preferably standing on a mountainside with wild thyme and rosemary at your feet.

Because trouchia makes great picnic food and is vegetarian to boot, I'm submitting this recipe to Mansi's blogging event Game Night. Eat it hot, warm, cold, in a sandwich or cut into bite-sized pieces and served with toothpicks.

La trouchia
Serves 2-4

The quantities for this recipe aren't precise - just use enough egg so that the mixture doesn't seem too dry and don't skimp on the parmesan. Feel free to add chopped garlic and some mint or basil if it's in season.

1 bunch Swiss chard (silverbeet), leaves only
1/2 bunch flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
3-4 eggs, just enough to bind the mixture
50 g parmesan cheese (about 2 oz)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2-3 tbsp good quality olive oil

Wash and dry the chard leaves well (I often let them soak for about 30 mins in salted water to remove some of the bitterness). Slice them very thinly and place in a large bowl with the chopped parsley leaves. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and add to the chard, adding three eggs at first and a fourth (or even a fifth) if necessary. Grate the parmesan and stir it into the mixture along with the seasonings.

Warm the oil over medium heat in a heavy frying pan (24 cm seems to be an ideal size) with a tight-fitting lid. Add the chard and press down with a wooden spoon to flatten the mixture. Cover, lower the heat a little and cook for about 15 mins, until the base is browned. Keep an eye on it to be sure that it doesn't cook too quickly or slowly. Now place a large plate over the pan, put on some oven mitts and flip the omelette over onto the plate. Slide it back into the frying pan, cover again and cook for another 5-10 mins, until lightly browned on the other side. Serve hot, warm or cold.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Saffron rice pudding

I'm having a hard time concentrating on my chosen subject this morning, so potent are the chocolatey aromas wafting from the oven at Emilie's Cookies. I have set up shop here while some major renovations take place in our apartment, and it's only because I'm meeting a friend for lunch at La Merenda that I have steeled myself while fist-sized balls of dough studded with chunks of finest-quality bittersweet chocolate emerge from the oven as comic-book-perfect cookies.
Besides, today I'm here to talk about saffron, a scent that doesn't soothe in the way of chocolate but titillates and intrigues, occasionally dominating a dish completely (as in risotto alla milanese) but more often blending mysteriously with other spices. A yellow tint is, of course, no guarantee that a dish contains saffron - turmeric often stands in as a cheap substitute, as do some dubious substances that mimick the real thing.
Being the world's most expensive spice, saffron is subject to an alarming amount of abuse and fraud. Nothing illustrates this better than the golden threads that some Iranian friends of Nadim's brought him back from a trip to the Himalayas. They had visited a spice market and were curious to compare Indian saffron with that of their own country, which is considered the best in the world. Nothing on the front of the package set off alarm bells, so Nadim happily threw some of the saffron into his rice. It came out smelling and tasting like wet nylon carpet. Only then did he notice what was written on the back of the box. Read it carefully and you'll understand just how far cynicism can go in the spice business.

One spice grower who is most definitely not cynical is Thierry Pardé, who cultivates the precious crocus sativus bulb on a one-hectare farm in the fields of the Gâtinais south of Paris. The idea of French saffron seems surprising these days, but in the 17th century the Gâtinais was renowned for its saffron and over the past several years a few dedicated growers have revived the tradition.
I first came across Thierry at the Salon Saveurs in Paris, one of the food events I consider most worthwhile because it brings together producers from all over France who would otherwise be tricky to track down. On my first encounter with him I bought three small tubes of saffron, which disappeared in no time and left me longing for more. These long, deep ochre threads were not only the most perfectly formed I had ever seen, they were also the most potent – two qualities that make them prized among the top chefs in France.
At December’s Salon Saveurs I wasn’t about to make the same mistake, so this time I picked up 1.5 g of saffron, a relatively huge amount considering that Thierry produces only 1 kg in a year from 150,000 flowers. The little jar cost just over €30, but it’s money well spent as it takes just a few of the stamens to transport a dish to Italy, Spain, North Africa or the Middle East.

Thierry warns never to buy powdered saffron, which he says could be mixed with bricks, chalk, rust or even lead. Judging from Nadim’s experience I’m inclined to believe him. Once you’ve got your hands on the real thing, he urges you to treat it with care to preserve all of its qualities. This means infusing it in liquid (warm or cold, never hot) for at least three hours and adding it to any dish just before the end of the cooking time over gentle heat. You can infuse it in water, broth, white wine or milk, though I’ve noticed that milk seems to absorb and temper its dramatic yellow-orange color. Use about 2 threads per person in desserts, 3 per person in savory dishes.
Thierry gave me the idea of adding saffron to rice pudding, bringing a distinctly adult twist to this childhood dessert. Since the recipe in his booklet was charmingly vague, I adapted my own recipe from the cookbook Petites recettes pour grandir. In that recipe I used orange zest and orange flower water; here I replaced them with lemon zest and saffron. One of the things I love about rice pudding is that it doesn’t need much sugar, making it the perfect post-Christmas indulgence. It’s also an economical dish that is only as rich as you want it to be (you can use partly skimmed milk or make it richer, and yellower, by adding an egg yolk or two along with the saffron).
I like my rice pudding on the runny side so that it doesn’t go solid after resting overnight in the refrigerator, so don’t be alarmed if it still seems a little liquid at the end of the cooking time. To me it tasted best cold out of the fridge a day after it was made, but there is a good chance it won’t last that long.

Rice pudding with lemon and saffron
Serves 4

When this pudding didn’t turn deep golden as I had hoped, I infused more saffron in a little water overnight and added it the next day. As you can see, the milk again soaked up the color – but fortunately not the flavor, which enlivens this otherwise soothing dessert.

8-12 saffron threads, depending on their strength
30 ml whipping (double) cream or crème fraîche (2 tbsp)
750 ml whole milk (3 cups)
60 g sugar, raw cane sugar if possible (1/3 cup)
70 g short-grain rice, such as Arborio (a generous 1/3 cup)
Zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped
A pinch of salt

Stir the saffron threads into the cream and set aside at room temperature (or in the refrigerator in summer) for a few hours to infuse.

Bring the milk to a simmer in a medium saucepan and add the sugar, rice, lemon zest and salt. Lower the heat and cook very slowly for about 1 hour, stirring every few minutes and removing the skin that forms on the surface.

When you can see the rice grains at the surface of the milk and the liquid has thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the saffron-cream mixture. Cover the pot and set aside to cool. The rice will continue to absorb the liquid.

Pour into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap (clingfilm) directly on the surface to stop a skin from forming, and serve chilled.

I'm submitting this post to Weekend Herb Blogging, which was created by Kalyn's Kitchen and is being hosted this week by Cooking in Westchester.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Roman getaway

Ah, Rome. Where else could you buy cappuccino for €1 on top of a landmark cathedral, sip tea in a room cluttered with pensive statues, or fall madly in love with a dish containing just four ingredients?
My weekend getaway in early January with two girlfriends was my second time in Rome, and though this was by far the wetter visit I also got a much broader view of the city. For two nights I stayed in the northern part of Rome - not something I would necessarily recommend, since what we saved on accommodation we easily made up for in taxis - before moving to the funky new Orange Hotel near the Vatican. Not being in the center of Rome, I got to see how "real" people live (on buses and trams) and also came across what I will forever think of as the ultimate Italian deli.
As always when I visit Italy, it's impossible to say what I loved best. Was it the intensity of the coffee? The unfailingly al dente pasta? The majesty of the monuments? The shoes, which belatedly got me in touch with my inner Cinderella? Or the shopkeepers, who always greeted us with a cheerful and willing "Prego" despite it being the first day of the sales?
Maybe what I love best in Rome is that, for all its grandeur, the city doesn't take itself too seriously. Modern buildings stand alongside ancient ruins with no hint of a complex, and the people don't seem to have that capital city attitude that you find in, say, Paris (I couldn't help thinking of Paris often during this trip). Prices are sometimes high, but you can also eat and drink for a laughably small amount of money - and places that are well-known don't necessarily charge a premium.
A few things I will never forget about this trip, in no particular order:

A snack at Rosati - This elegant yet somehow down-to-earth tea room was the first place we dropped into and, though the tea isn't exceptional, there was something so very Italian about this place with mandarin walls, hanging globe lights and ceiling moldings that we knew we had arrived. You pick your sandwiches from the bar at the front and they will toast them on request.
Piazza del Popolo 5, Tridente

Gran Caffe at Sant'Eustacchio - I had read a lot about the coffee here before making my own pilgrimage to this crowded café, where the method is so top-secret that the baristi are kept hidden. We couldn't resist peeking through a tiny slit and were able to determine that if you order a cappuccino the milk froth is scooped into the cup before the coffee is poured in. The beans are wood-roasted and have a distinct smoky scent; there are a few coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Not everyone loves this coffee, but I did, despite having officially given up coffee more than a year ago (except when I'm in Italy). Sugar will be added automatically to the house specialty, the Gran Caffe, unless you ask for it "senza zucchero."
Piazza di Sant'Estacchio 82, Navona

Caffe con panna at Tazza d'Oro - In the summer this café near the Pantheon is known for its coffee granita layered with whipped cream. During the January downpour what they served instead was caffe con panna (espresso topped with whipped cream), which is not something I expected to like since I usually push whipped cream to the side of my plate. Here, I found myself happily eating the stuff by the spoonful - this was more of a dessert than a coffee, since the cream cools off the coffee immediately. I later discovered, thanks to my friend Judy, that Rome is known for the exceptional quality of its whipped cream, which is something that you can even buy on its own (with a small biscuit) in gelato shops.
Via degli Orfani 84, Navona

Crema al passito di Pantelleria at Il Gelato di San Crispino - For ardent ice cream lovers, this legendary gelateria - considered Rome's best, if not the world's - needs no introduction. We visited the branch near Trevi fountain, though I later learned there is now one just a couple of streets from where we were staying in northern Rome. Passito di Pantelleria is a sweet wine similar to Sauternes, and the resulting gelato brought me to my knees.
Via della Panetteria 42, Tridente

Lemon and chocolate muffins at Le Flaneur - Way off the beaten track in our northern neighborhood, this adorable flower shop and tea room was an unexpected find. Though the name is French, the dainty cakes are more reminiscent of England. I loved the way they baked their muffins in rose-shaped molds and presented each one alongside a single orchid.
Via Flaminia Vecchia 730/A

Hanging out at Al Vino al Vino - It's almost impossible to get away with eating a light meal in a Roman restaurant, which is one of the reasons why it's worth seeking out the city's many great wine bars. We liked this Sicilian bar so much that we visited twice in one night - once for a glass of wine, and again to nibble on caponata and torta rustica over a second helping of wine. Though it feels quite cool, there is a family atmosphere and there were children running around until late at night.
Via dei Serpenti 19, Termini

Cappuccino on the Dome of St. Peter's Cathedral - I know, there are a lot of coffee moments for someone who doesn't drink coffee, but who could resist a café in this location? You'll spot it after taking the elevator up to the Dome (€7) and before you enter the Dome itself. Cappuccino is served in a paper cup for a mere €1 and you sip it outside while admiring the view. Divine! Thus strengthened, you can climb the 300 or so steps up to the claustrophobic cupola.

Tonarelli cacio e pepe at Da Felice - This was not the first version I tasted of the classic Roman pasta dish tossed with nothing more than pecorino, butter, plenty of pepper and a little of the cooking water, but I doubt that it will ever be equalled. Everything was perfect in this out-of-the-way trattoria, from the carciofi alla romana (a whole artichoke in a pool of oil) to the tuna polpettone alongside a heap of sautéed greens. It helps if a Roman makes the reservation for you, but you can still expect the waiter to be comically exasperated with any foreign behavior.
Via Mastro Giorgio 29, Testaccio

Lamb's brains at La Taverna del Ghetto - Who knew that lamb's brains could taste so crunchy and light, like tiny deep-fried clouds? As Judy explained to me over lunch, the Romans - and particularly the Jewish Romans - are known for their ability to dominate the deep-frier. Don't forget to taste the fried artichokes, which are first boiled, then smashed, then twice-fried.
Via Portico d'Ottavia 7B, Ghetto

Pizza at Zazà - Sometimes all you want is a simple slice of pizza al taglio, for which the Romans are also famed, and we could hardly have done better than at this little joint. The dough is proofed for no less than 60 hours, then topped with organic ingredients and baked until very crisp - try the spicy cabbage version for an unexpected twist on pizza. Three of us ate to our hearts' content for €6 in total. I didn't note the address and couldn't find it on the Internet, but it's facing the Caffe Sant'Eustacchio.

Porchetta at Franchi - I was thrilled to discover this old-fashioned deli a 10-minute walk from the Vatican, and my farewell to Rome was a heaped porchetta sandwich perched at the counter here. The meat comes from a small farm outside Rome and is deboned and rolled with herbs before being roasted. I loved watching the locals tuck into full meals at the tiny stand-up counter - one man ate five arancini (fried rice balls) the size of tennis balls in less than a minute. This is the place to buy a huge chunk of parmesan to take home and perhaps, as I did, a few carciofi alla romana to make the memories last a little longer.
Via Cola di Rienza 200, Vatican

A glass of wine at 'Gusto - This huge, modern complex dedicated to food and wine is just off the main drag of Via del Corso in the center of town. After picking up a collapsible colander in the kitchen shop, we stopped into the vast wine bar, where during aperitivo time a glass of wine with an antipasti buffet costs €9-€12. The name comes refers to the location and not just to taste - hence the apostrophe.
Piazza Augusto Imperatore 9, Tridente

Tea (almost) at the Canova-Tadolini museum - Opened in 2000, this museum is the former workshop of sculptor Antonio Canova and four generations of Tadolini sculptors. It houses a few of their finished works alongside many of their work models and sculpting tools. The museum now serves tea at tables scattered throughout the house, and amazingly enough the prices are very reasonable. Sadly it was about to close for the day when we visited.
Via del Babuino 150A, Tridente

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Brioche des rois

Just when you think you can't eat another cake or drink another glass of champagne (well, ok, I can always drink champagne), the French find another reason to bring the workday to a halt and indulge.
The epiphany is a serious culinary event here, lasting not just one day - officially January 6th - but the whole month of January. Pâtisseries vie to outdo each other with their epiphany cakes, inside each of which lurks a small porcelain figure known as a fève because in the original version it was a humble dried bean. Finding the fève makes you king or queen for the day and is a highlight of any French childhood - I can still remember wearing the golden paper crown and choosing a king from among my classmates at Sam's age, when my family spent a year in Paris and changed the way I would look at food forever.
For many people, the fève - though inedible - is the best part of the epiphany cake, which most often consists of two layers of puff pastry with a frangipane filling. No matter how flaky the pastry or how rich the almond cream, I think there is something a little monotonous about the cake known as the galette des rois. So I was happy to discover that Provence has its own version of the epiphany cake, made with brioche and decorated with candied fruit and coarse sugar crystals.
A brioche des rois that feeds four to six people sells for around €10 in bakeries, and since I had some candied fruit hanging around after Christmas it made sense to attempt it myself. For reasons I'm still trying to understand, the first recipe I tried, from Andrée Maureau's Desserts et douceurs en Provence, nearly went horribly wrong when the dough stubbornly refused to rise even when left overnight. Determined not to let it go to waste, I dissolved another packet of yeast in a little warm water the next morning, making sure it bubbled, and incorporated it into the dough with a couple of scoops of flour. Left in a warm place, the dough finally cooperated and the resulting brioche would have looked at home in a bakery window.
In the meantime, feeling the first recipe was not to be trusted, I had started on a second brioche from the blog Eggs & Mouillettes. French blogger Fabienne is from Provence and this was her mother's recipe, so I was fairly confident that this one wouldn't flop. Indeed, this was a brioche better than anything I could have bought in a bakery thanks to its almond filling, an embellishment that bakers in Nice invariably leave out.

The brioche is very good in itself, but the gooey almond, sugar, candied fruit and egg mixture in the center takes it to another level. If you're one of the millions of people who finds candied fruit too cloying, it's entirely optional and can be replaced with dried fruit or simply forgotten. Fabienne uses angelica and raisins, but I substituted some not-too-sweet candied orange rind from producer Loulou, which had also gone into my Christmas pudding. I topped one brioche with candied fruit just for the fun of it, but the other looked almost as pretty sprinkled only with the coarse sugar. I had to visit three specialty shops before I found coarse sugar and ended up paying a ridiculous €10.50 for it at Le Pain Quotidien (so much for the money I saved making my own brioche), but the cake did look naked without it.

Sam helped with placing the fèves and there may have been method to his madness because, after instructing me where to cut the finished cake, he promptly became king for the day. His fève collection is growing by the minute.

By the way, I'm off to Rome tomorrow for a few days and will have internet access, so if you have any favorite places to tell me about I'd be extremely grateful!

Brioche des rois
Adapted from Eggs & Mouillettes
Serves 10

150 ml milk
1 packet dried yeast
400 g flour
75 g sugar
125 g butter
2 eggs
1 tbsp orange flower water

100 g sugar
1 egg
50 g butter
150 g powdered almonds
50 g candied orange rind, finely diced

Egg wash:
1 egg
A pinch of salt

2 tbsp strained apricot jam
2 tbsp icing (confectioner's) sugar
1 tbsp water
Candied fruits
Coarse sugar crystals

For the sponge, warm the milk and stir in the yeast, 50 g of the flour and sugar. Place in a warm spot, such as near a radiator, until the mixture bubbles and doubles in size, 1-2 hours.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and beat the eggs in a small bowl. Place the sponge mixture in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook or continue working by hand. On low speed if using the mixer, add the rest of the flour, butter, eggs and orange flower water. Mix for 5 mins on low speed or knead by hand for 10 mins, until smooth and silky. Cover with a plastic bag and set aside in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled in size.

Work the dough a little by hand, then stretch it out to make a large rectangle (the dough should be easy to work with at this point). Fold it in three, give it a quarter turn and stretch it out again into a rectangle. Repeat this process 4 or 5 times, then let the dough rest, covered with a dish towel, for a few minutes while you make the filling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar, egg, ground almonds and candied fruit (if using).

Roll the dough out into a long, narrow strip. Spread the filling along the center of this strip, then fold the dough over the filling to cover it completely, pinching it well. Join the ends of the strip to make a doughnut shape (my strip wasn't quite long enough, so the hole filled up as the brioche cooked). Carefully transfer the brioche to a baking sheet and let it rise, covered, for about 35-45 mins.

Beat the egg for the egg wash with a pinch of salt and brush this all over the brioche. Bake the brioche at 200 C for 20-30 mins, being careful not to burn the base.

For the glaze, bring the ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan until slightly thickened. Brush the cooked brioche with the glaze and top with candied fruit and sugar.