June 17, 2011

what I like: street food

A few weeks ago, we met up with one of my friends at a cafe in the Marais, where we had a completely terrible lunch. Limp salad greens, dried out radishes and carrots, mayonnaise-from-a-jar masquerading as salad dressing (straight up mayonnaise from a jar, people!), a chewy and inedibly dry pork chop, and mushy vegetables. What. Yes. I know. Bad. Our share of the bill was 35 euros, which will not be converted to dollars for you, because it annoys me to think about it (though at least the people who made/served it were getting a living wage?).

To be honest, I was mostly annoyed because if I had only walked 3 blocks away to the rue des Rosiers, I would have been able to fill my belly with one of the most delicious and inexpensive meals in Paris.


The area around Rue des Rosiers has at least a cool half-dozen places selling falafel from a take-away window. I ate and fell in love with my first Parisian falafel way back in '03 and have been sampling the different falafel joints ever since. Accordingly, I have opinions. First, some may call foul or blasphemy or both, but here goes: L'As, the most famous joint, is good and their turnover guarantees freshly fried falafel. Unfortunately, their falafels are almost always over-filled and over sauced. This is not something I want to wait in line for, plus waiting in line in Paris always makes me feel like a sucker. A touristy sucker. Mi Va Mi, across the way, can be good but is inconsistent; sometimes the pita is dry or the salads are oversalted or the falafel is cold and greasy. No. Chez Marianne makes very good falafel toppings (hello cabbage salad and sauce piquante!), but the takeaway falafel isn't always hot.

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This brings us to Chez Hanna, my falafel vendor of choice. The falafel is flecked with herbs. The cabbage salad, shredded carrots, and cubed cucumbers are tasty and crisp. The pita bread is warm and chewy. And -- a biggie for me -- the sauces add to, but don't overwhelm, the main event.  My only complaint: the fried eggplant isn't always hot and could use a little salt, but I deal. I'm not saying it's always perfect, but I like it.

Last week, we picked up falafels and beers before meeting Mark in the Place des Vosges. He was kind enough to bring a blanket; we stretched out on the grass and attacked our food. Someone devoured her falafel so enthusiastically that she found hot sauce on her nose.

picnic, place des vosges

It was a lovely evening.


lovely light in the Marais

June 13, 2011

biking in Fontainebleau and Barbizon

Last weekend, we suffered a bit of a disappointment -- we had planned to take a weekend trip but couldn't find a single rental car in Bretagne, the Loire valley, or Dijon. (Learn from my mistake: it is not easy to plan a spur-of-the-moment trip a few days before a national holiday.) Feeling like a failure of a host, I turned to Plan B: a day trip to bike through Fontainebleau.


When my family lived outside of Paris, one of our favorite day trips was to drive to Fontainebleau, where we would run through a tunnel (memorably spray painted throughout with pigs), picnic, explore the forest, and watch my dad and his friends climb the giant boulders in the area. If you are looking for a beautiful day trip outside of Paris, including a chateau, gorgeous green forests, a charming artist community and a fraction of the crowds at Versailles, Fontainebleau is my pick.

Fontainebleau is a town about 50km outside of Paris and is best known for its chateau (formerly used as a hunting lodge by the royals and later as a meeting place for heads of state) and the forest of Fontainebleau, which surrounds the town and many neighboring villages. Oh, and there is also an international business school there. The forest is particularly popular among Parisians who want to escape the city on weekends, and with good reason. It is awesome!

When we arrived in Fontainebleau, we inspected the Friday morning market (nice) and then rented bikes from a bike shop in town. I hadn't been on a bike in, oh, 10 years, so I was a little nervous (and there were no helmets, eek!). But it was a perfect, sunny day and the forests were so lovely that I forgot all about my anxiety within the first 10 minutes. And check out John, who is so comfortable on a bike that he can take pictures while riding! Impressive.

got our bikes

ferns!

Around lunchtime, we stopped at a clearing full of giant boulders and had a picnic of sandwiches (arugula and prosciutto on buttered baguettes) and a mess of cherries. 


picnic, giant boulder, fontainebleau


After lunch and a rest, we biked to the nearby artist village of Barbizon. It was so ridiculously charming! A bit of a bumpy ride, due to the (adorable) cobblestone streets, though.




After a nice ride through Barbizon, we headed back to Fontainebleau, via a series of difficult (for me and my not-so-great bike... and tired legs) uphill sections. We rode a little farther to the quiet and pretty park by the chateau.



 After entertaining the idea of having an early dinner in Fontainebleau, we decided to instead get drinks, eat some candy bars (ahem, yes, we're 12), and head back to Paris.  We fixed ourselves a late dinner at home and spent the next 24-48 hours trying to ignore our aching muscles. Fun day!


Getting to Fontainebleau: 
You can easily catch a train from Gare de Lyon; a round-trip ticket costs about 16 euros and the ride takes 35 minutes or so. I couldn't find the ticket validation machine on our platform, so I asked the nice policemen roaming around the station where to validate them. They told me I didn't have to validate -- which I'm 99.9% sure is not true, but no one ever came to check our tickets. So, my advice is to try to find the ticket validating box (it has to be there somewhere! it just wasn't on our platform, as I expected) or get ready to plead "I'm an idiot tourist" with your most charming smile.

From the Fontainebleau train station, you can walk into the center of town (30 minutes) or catch a bus at the train station.

Renting bikes:
A La Petite Reine
Tip: you need an identity document to rent the bike, e.g. a passport. Be sure to ask for a bike repair kit and locks. And note that they don't automatically offer you helmets, so either be prepared to pay extra to rent one (a good idea, but we didn't) or bring your own.

Food/drink:
To save time, we packed our own provisions for a picnic, although there are plenty of bakeries where you could pick up a sandwich, etc. If you arrive early enough on Friday or Saturday, you could also find very decent picnic food at the farmers market. If biking, I definitely recommend bringing a day pack and plenty of water.

Jardin de Reuilly

Jardins de Reuilly, lazy weekend afternoon 
As I mentioned before, my best friend Julia and her husband John are here visiting (yay!), and it has been great. Really, really great. We have been out and about all day, every day -- biking 25km in Fontainebleau (more on that later), hitting up museums galore, walking all over Paris, and cooking every night -- and on Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves flagging. Solution: we took a blanket, drinks, and books (well, my Kindle) and set off for a stroll through the Promenade Plantee. (The Promenade Plantee is a former railway-viaduct converted into a  greenway, similar to the High Line park in New York.) We made our way to a shady spot in the Jardin de Reuilly, where we snoozed/read/scoped out some adorable babies. It was, as they say, tellement sympa.

Another cool thing about Jardin de Reuilly is the fancy water fountain there. Not only does the water fountain dispense cold water, but it gives you a choice between still water and sparkling water.*

*In practice, I've never been able to get any sparkling water from it. But still. As a longtime sparkling water fanatic, I appreciate the idea.

Some photos, courtesy of John, of our walk through the Promenade Plantee to the Jardin de Reuilly:

promenadeplantee

promenade plantee

jardin de Reuilly

jardin de Reuilly
Jardin de Reuilly
intersection of Rue Daumesnil and Rue Charenton, 75012

June 9, 2011

two words: duck fat

Funny story: when Julia came to visit me in Paris 4 years ago, she was vegetarian. Righteously vegetarian. She made do with salads of lettuce and warm goat cheese, baguettes with cheese and butter, and of course crepes of all kinds. We must have made ratatouille at home, too, since I was heavy into ratatouille at the time. Anyway, she held her ground, right until the day we met up for lunch at a little resto down the street from Sciences Po. I ordered a plate of confit de canard, and I believe she ordered another salad. Now I don't remember whether I offered her a bite, or whether her salad was disappointing, or whether she saw how much I was smiling while I was eating it and asked for a bite, but at some point -- she took a bite. Vegetarian, meet rich, sumptuous, fatty duck leg. She loved it. She loved it so much that she ate it 2 or 3 more times before she went home. Duck confit: tempter of vegetarians.

If you're not familiar with duck confit, it is a method of preserving duck, and it hails from Gasogne in the southwest of France. The process of making duck confit is fairly involved: the legs are salted and seasoned, cured, and then simmered for hours and hours while submerged in their own fat. After being cooked, they are generally vacuum packed or jarred, again submerged in their own fat. In this way, the legs can be stored for months. I've never made my own duck confit, largely because finding that much duck fat in the U.S. would be a pricey endeavor, though I've thought about it many times.

Fortunately, you can find duck confit fairly easily, even in the U.S. We used to buy it from Central Market in Houston, and I've also seen it at gourmet grocery stores all over the Bay Area. Also, Costco. The vendor at our nearby market here in Paris sells a leg for 4.50 euro each, along with enough duck fat to cover. The main difference between duck confit I've bought in the U.S. versus the duck confit I've bought in France is the amount of extra duck fat covering the duck. Duck confit in America includes a skimpy, sad amount of fat, maybe 2-3 tablespoons. In France, well, look at what you get:

duck fat! duck confit!
[photos of our duck confit extravaganza dinner taken by John]

Not the most appetizing photo, I concede, but I had to show you how much fat they give you. (!) And just you wait. Because eventually you will get this: 


All you need for a tasty dinner for 2 is a couple of duck legs, duck fat for cooking, waxy potatoes (here I use Charlotte potatoes, but in the U.S. I might look for fingerling potatoes or small Yukon Golds), and a nice bitter salad or steamed green beans. The duck is easy enough to make: add the duck and a good amount of its fat to a skillet, heat through over low-medium, until the duck is cooked through and the exterior skin is fully crisped. 25 minutes, tops. I can't even describe how good duck tastes when prepared this way.

As for the potatoes, Mark generally takes charge, as he is the only one patient enough to cook them properly. His version of pommes de terres sarladaises is spot on. The potatoes are perfumed throughout with duck fat, the crusts are beautifully golden and crisp, and the interiors remain soft and sweet. He finishes them with a generous amount of salt, chopped parsley, and garlic. They are incredible. His secret: pre-boiling the whole potatoes, then slicing them into thick rounds before frying them in hot duck fat. That's it.


Note: In Paris, the best place we have eaten confit de canard is Josephine Chez Dumonet, located at 117 rue de Cherche-Midi, in the 6th arrondissement. This restaurant is gorgeous, with a classic Parisian atmosphere (it has been around since 1898!). The portions are enormous, but we left room for the Grand Marnier Souffle and were happy we did. Expensive. I tried to forget how much our bill was for lunch, but I believe it was 60 or 70 euros per person for a shared starter, wine, and dessert (this is painful for me, but that's actually not too terrible for Paris).

June 7, 2011

Wednesday market at the Cours de Vincennes

Two of our favorite people ever, Julia and John, have been visiting us this past week. As I may have mentioned on this blog about 12 thousand times, I have a most awesome best friend. She married a very nice guy, John, and we four always have a good time together.

On Wednesday, I took Julia and John to the Cours de Vincennes market to pick up some provisions. We poked around the market, checking out the products, sampling delicious wild strawberries and cherries from Provence, and thinking about what to make for lunch and dinner.

The vendors here are  friendly and love to talk about their products. When I asked about the three kinds of strawberries one vendor had on display, he gave me a sample of the wild strawberries and said "c'est cher, mais elles sont tellement bonnes; tenez, vous allez voir" -- it's expensive but very good, try this and you will see! He was right; they were staggeringly good. And I love the charcutiers, who take their time telling me about all the different types of saucisson and cautioned me to save all the duck fat from my confit to use for frying potatoes and green beans. Being able to speak French certainly simplifies things, but some vendors definitely speak English -- a lovely girl selling grilled sausages heard me conferring with Julia, gave us a big smile, and addressed us in perfect, accentless English.

A few pictures, all courtesy of John, of what we ended up buying and eating:

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After the market, we stopped by Fromagerie Beillevaire, the teeny but amazing cheese shop 2 minutes from our apartment. While Julia waited outside, I picked up a package of their fresh salted butter.

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I had an inkling their butter might be great, based on the creme fraiche I had bought from them a few days prior: when I asked for creme fraiche, the vendor pointed to a giant pail of the creamiest, thickest stuff I'd ever seen and, after I nodded, ladled some into a container for me. Hooked. And their butter is indeed tasty. 

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And for dinner, I steamed a kilo and a half of mussels. Mussels may be my favorite seafood, and one of the easiest and quickest dishes to make for a crowd. These were cooked with butter, leeks, glugs of white Burgundy, sliced fennel, and a few generous dollops of creme fraiche.
Marche Cours de Vincennes
Metro: Nation 
Wednesday and Saturday, 8am to 1pm

Mark and the Mystery of the Missing Kugelhopf

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[photo by our friend/houseguest John]

Are you familiar with kugelhopf, sometimes called kougloff? Imagine a yeasted coffee cake from Alsace, not too sweet, studded with golden raisins and hazelnuts and brushed with melted butter, sugar and orange flower water. The cake part is light and brioche-like (though not quite as buttery) and the exterior has a fine crust from the sugar. TIn case I haven't made it sufficiently clear, it tastes amazing.

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[photo by our friend/houseguest John]

On to the mystery: last year, after sampling kugelhopf on our last trip to France, Mark made it for my brother, sister,  and me. It was delicious, especially with coffee, and we made a sizeable dent in it by the end of the evening. When we went to bed that night, fully half of the kugelhopf remained. The next day, Mark unwrapped the kugelhopf sitting on the counter, and to his shock and horror (!) less than one quarter of the kugelhopf was there. 

The usual suspects were questioned, to no avail. My brother, who has been known to eat late night snacks, denied it. My sister, too, denied it. I definitely didn't eat it. And we all maintained that if we had eaten it, we would have admitted it. Mark was stricken. Who ate the kugelhopf?

Later that morning, I spied Mark's robe lying on the floor next to his side of the bed, when it is normally hanging on a hook in the bathroom. How singular, I said, with my best Sherlock Holmes frown. Why would your robe be there? Mark shrugged. And then, with a faraway look in his eye, he remembered a strange dream he had the night before. He had been in our kitchen, wearing his robe and getting a drink of water. I asked him if he was sure it was a dream, and whether he also remembered eating kugelhopf in his dream. "No way," he said. "The robe on the floor is strange but I didn't eat the kugelhopf. Someone got to enjoy that kugelhopf, and it wasn't me!"

And there the mystery ends... for Mark. But if you're me, and my brother, and my sister, it is totally evident that Mark sleep-walked his way to the kitchen and gobbled up the kugelhopf. The end.

Now we're in Paris, and a bakery makes delicious kugelhopf and sells it by the kilo. We've bought it twice and it is excellent. Mark has limited his consumption to waking hours so far, but perhaps only because we have guests on the sofa bed who would surely notice any sleep-eating activities. I'll keep you updated.

Vandermeersch
278 avenue Daumesnil, (12th)
Métro: Porte Dorée
(It seems like they only make kugelhopf on weekends.)

June 5, 2011

Prague notes








I really enjoy the vibe of Prague and all its different neighborhoods, from the windy cobblestone streets in Mala Strana to the architecture in the Jewish quarter. And those cobblestone streets! Prague is lovely in general, but I find it especially fun and beautiful at night. We spent our evenings drinking mugs of cold beer with friends, strolling around the (extremely well lit) streets, and taking advantage of the super weather.

Addresses:
Lokal
Dlouhá 33, 110 00 Praha 1
Lokal does Czech classics, and they are done well. We went once for dinner and again for lunch the next day, because I couldn't stop dreaming about the ... steamed cabbage. What? Yes! Their cabbage with caraway seeds, which you can and should order as a side dish, is perfect: sweet, savory, and addictive. We also loved the beef broth with liver dumplings, crispy schnitzel, spicy sausages, mashed potatoes (flavored with onion and caraway, which is a new-to-us and genius combination), fried cheese with tartar sauce, caramel pastry with thick whipped cream. Of course, you will drink the unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell and you should finish with a little shot of eau de vie, either the traditional slivovice (plum) or the pear, which Mark especially liked. Hint: this is the only place we went in Prague with a designated non-smoking section, which we took advantage of. 

Prague Beer Museum
Dlouhá 720/46
110 00 Prague 5-Old Town
A bar in the Old Town with delicious, inexpensive beer. They have a sizable selection beyond the normal Czechvar and Pilsner Urquell (no disrespect to those two solid beers, of course). The atmosphere is young and loud and fun, and they have little bar snacks (I loved the pickled sausage and onions). The only drawback for me was the insane smokiness, but otherwise this place was a high point.

Residence Karolina: 
http://www.residence-karolina.com/

I am a big fan of renting apartments when we travel, because I like having extra space and a kitchen. The apartment we rented from Prague City Apartments was probably the best short-term apartment I've ever rented. The apartment was huge, full of natural light, decorated in an inoffensively contemporary manner (if you know what I mean), and had a lovely balcony overlooking a quiet cobblestone street. It also had well-functioning wi-fi and air-conditioning and is convenient to public transportation. And they provided a complimentary airport transfer when I asked in advance! High recommend.

Strahov Monastic Brewery
Strahovské nádvoří 301, Prague 1
I ordered a glass of their special Weizen brew after walking all the way from Old Town to the Prague castle. Yow! I was by myself and I'm not kidding when I say that it moved me to exclaim (out loud) how delicious it was. I didn't try any food because I wasn't hungry, but their outdoor patio is a nice spot for a (somewhat pricey) drink.

U Fleku
This Czech pub/brewery/beer garden has been brewing its dark, 13 degree beer for more than 500 years. Full disclosure: it is filled with tourists (and the accordionists who cater to them) and there are better/less expensive places to eat in Prague (see: Lokal). However, we were with a big group and had a fun time drinking their dark house beer. 

Bakeshop
Kozí 918/1
110 00 Prague 1-Old Town, Czech Republic
Bakery selling lots of delicious things in the Jewish Quarter. Rugelach, croissants, poppy seed pastries, sandwiches, tarts, etc.

Wenceslas Square sausage stand
I'm a sucker for sausages and this place scratched my itch. Avoid the bun (mediocre), but the sausage had that nice crisp casing and juicy interior I always look for. Super tasty.