New Recipes: Seafood on a Black Rice Bed

This is a simple recipe I adapted from Nigellissima.

As you know, I like using the black rice known as Venere Nero (Venerable Black). It originates from the Po Valley and it is black naturally (as opposed to the squid ink variety). And it has a nutty taste. This recipe is based on that rice.

Prepare the rice ahead of time, because it take about 45 minutes to cook. I prepare it in the pilaf style. Which means, I put some olive oil in a pot, add the desired quantity of rice and stir for about 5 minutes. Then I add water and salt. And let it cook until all the water is absorbed. At the end, close the lid tightly and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. That is the pilaf technique.

Using this technique, water should be twice the quantity of rice, i.e. if you used a cup of rice, add two cups of water. But with black rice, I discovered that you need to add two and a half cup of water or it stays crunchy in the middle.

New Recipes: A Couple of Easy Cheesecakes

I never made cheesecakes until recently.

In fact, I am quite ignorant when it comes to baking and desserts. My loved ones think that is because I can never bring myself to implement a recipe without modifying it and that is why I never got interested in them.

Maybe. It is true that modifying desserts is a lot harder and usually ends up in catastrophe. But recently I discovered that I could just focus on desserts I could modify without much risk.

The first cheesecake is something I saw Nigella Lawson make in her new program called Nigellissima. I tried it the next day and true to form, promptly proceed to modify it.

New Recipes: Fainting Imam

Your blog is usually the first thing that gets sacrificed on the altar of I-have-too-much-to-do.  Since nobody thinks that it is a serious commitment, it is quite hard to justify any priority you might want to give to a blog. And once the guilt subsides, days turn into weeks and it is remarkably easy to let it go.

I realized that I have been seriously neglecting this blog, to the point of abandonment. I decided that it was time to do a better job.

In recent months, I tried a couple of new things. Some entailed a few modifications I brought to traditional recipes, others consisted of trying some dished I saw on cookery shows.

Stuffed Aubergines: Imam Has Fainted

This is a vegetarian dish and you can find it in Greek, Turkish and Lebanese cuisines. It is usually called "Imam bayildi" which means (figuratively) Imam was ecstatic or (literally) Imam has fainted.


Passage 53: A Japanese - French Fusion

A few days ago, two dear friends of mine invited me to go to Passage 53.

Since I had never heard of the restaurant I Googled it immediately. It was situated in the oldest "passage" in Paris, the Passage des Panaromas, near the Bourse.

Within the Passage it is almost impossible to find it and I am sure most people walk by it without realizing that this is a restaurant with two Michelin starts.

Can you see it? Credit: The Skinny Bib

The place is so tiny that when you enter the restaurant you find yourself already surrounded by tables. There are twenty seat in all.

The service is handled by four super model-thin young men in black suits. They were attentive, knowledgeable and bilingual. Our table conversation switched between English and French and they were able to switch with us without missing a beat (you have no idea how incredibly rare this is in Paris).

The food came down from up above, brought down by a number of young sous-chefs who stood on the steps of a tiny spiral case (which is from 1798 apparently) to pass on their precious cargo to our waiters.

The decor seems to have been changed recently as the wall were painted white and were left unadorned with the exception of an unobtrusive mirror and a white canvas which blended into the background.

The wine list consisted of Bourgogne wines primarily and the selection was excellent. We opted for a Puligny Montrachet, a nicely mineral Burgundy white that represented its region perfectly.

There is only one menu at Passage 53 and it is a seven course affair. I am not one of those people who take a picture of everything they eat and make annoying audible commentary while consuming their food. The food was inventive, quite delicious and very well presented. I only retained a few of the courses.

The White Course with Squid
The amuse-bouche was a pumpkin soup with a cafe au lait mousse and it was simply heavenly. Their house specialty is something they call "the white course," which, in our case, was a pan-seared langoustine covered with cauliflower shavings. It was cooked perfectly and it was tasty without being spectacular.

They also had a slow baked red onion with chorizo slices inserted into onion layers. It was less "wow, that's delicious!" and more "how did they do that?" kind of dish.

Overall, I enjoyed everything but at the end of the meal, I found myself in agreement with chef Shininchi Sato who said, during a recent interview, that "I don’t think that our restaurant actually merits 2 stars."

It is a lovely restaurant that would be perfect with a single star and a slightly lower price point.


I Finally Ate at Le Beef Club

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that a daring French chef reintroduced British beef to Paris.

Given the culinary patriotism of my Parisian contemporaries, it could have ended in financial ruin for the chef in question,  Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec.

Instead he became the toast of the town, with the likes of BBC running magazine stories about him.

I tried to make a reservation for weeks. I found two telephone numbers for the place. One was never answered and after five or six rings, you got a recording stating that the voice mailbox was full.

I thought it was either obnoxious or pretentious depending on the intent behind it.


The Hemingway Bar and Raspberry Martini

Today the historic Ritz Hotel is closing its doors for two years.

I never stayed at Ritz. It is way above my pay grade. But I always enjoyed a nice cocktail at the storied Hemingway Bar.

From its history you might imagine an imposing space but the Bar is actually quite small.

The entrance is at the right side of that picture. It is a small unpretentious door.

Behind the camera there is a small room/alcove slightly elevated from the rest of the bar with three tables.

The walls are full of Hemingway memorabilia and for some unknown reason you never think that they might be replicas.


The Costes Brothers and La Société

The other night I finally went to eat at La Société.

It is one of the many restaurants that belong to Costes Brothers. Some ten years ago, Time Magazine had a piece about them entitled "The Brothers who Ate Paris." At the time they had 40 cafes, restaurants and hotels.

In the intervening decade they expanded their empire by adding more restaurants, a perfume line, a ready-to-eat food line and watch and luxury luggage lines.

This is the map of the eateries they own either directly or through extended family and senior management.

As you can see, they own the renowned Café Marly of Louvre Museum, the restaurant Georges on top of Beaubourg and L'Esplanade, which is the only cafe on the entire Esplanade des Invalides.

Lately, the Brothers Costes set their sights on overseas prizes and are reportedly thinking of making a bid on "New York’s iconic Oak Room and Oak Bar in the storied Plaza Hotel."

La Societe is one of their new ventures. It is strategically placed across from the Church of Saint Germaine and next to a Louis Vuitton store and Cafe les Deux Magots.


Homeless in Paris: From Clochard to SDF

Parisians are compassionate.

They are. I am not being facetious.

In fact, when you consider that they are the inhabitants of a large metropolis, they are downright humanitarians. The best illustration of that is their attitude towards homeless people.

Historically, homeless Parisians were known as Clochard which means tramp, hobo, bum. They had this somewhat romantic aura, stemming from Charlie Chaplin's Tramp and Jean Gabin's Archimede le Clochard. People pictured them sleeping by the Seine, drinking cheap wine and reciting poems.

Like everything else in the last four decades, the clochard lost this glossy image and became SDF or persons Sans Domicile Fixe.

They are not just by the Seine, you see them everywhere in Paris.

You will find them asleep in the doorway of a posh building in the high end 7th arrondissement. You will see them in metro stations. In parks. Next to supermarkets. Everywhere.

 Many of them are mentally ill. They are almost never violent but some are prone to bitter outbursts of long denunciations, better known as tirades, a word with etymological roots in French.
Elsewhere, especially in North America, homeless people are at best invisible beings and at worst they are so hated that they are the target of random violence. Occasionally, someone will give them some change but for most people they are drunken parasites to be avoided at all cost.

In Paris, they are human. And very much visible. People give them money, food, blankets and clothes.

Most importantly, people stop and talk to them. They treat them like ordinary human beings fallen on hard times. Which they are. I saw well dressed bourgeois women take them to a local cafe and buy them a warm meal.

I witnesses on more than one occasion people in supermarket cashier lineup pay for their food and booze. This latter act would be impossible in puritanical North America. Paying for booze and encourage drinking, oh my gosh, major pearl clutching moment.

Here, they simply don't care about lecturing these poor souls about alcoholism. They know that no one is going to stop drinking while they live and sleep on a sidewalk. Why not buy their two-euro-a-bottle-twist-top-wine for them?


Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: No Returns

Paris is a great city for shopping.

Besides celebrated department stores like the Galeries Lafayettes or Le Bon Marché you have literally thousands of small boutiques carrying the latest creations of up and coming designers.

You also have specialized stores, like the one on Boulevard Saint Michel that is selling nothing but umbrellas or the one in the Marais district that is just offering brushes of all kind, for shaving, dental care or for removing specs of dust from your dark coat.

There are also electronic and DVD stores like Fnac and and electronics and small appliance chains like Darty.

It is all great fun except for one little detail. The return policy. When you buy something in Paris it is yours to keep. The only store with a reasonable return policy is the GAP. Everywhere else, the moment you want to return the stuff you bought you enter a world of hurt.

Most stores will simply not take the merchandise back. It is too bad Monsieur that you noticed that your new shirt had a small hole in the back. How do we know that it wasn't you who perforated the shirt to be able to return it. Non Monsieur, we are not going to fall for it.


Ah Cher Monsieur, it is too bad that your new shirt didn't fit you properly. You should have tried it beforehand.

A few stores will take the item back but (a) you have to talk to their after sales clerks (b) convinced them after a lengthy and detailed interrogation in a windowless room that you have excellent and valid reasons for returning the goods (c) you will not get your money back, just store credit.

You think I am exaggerating, right?

Example 1

Fnac, the electronics, books and DVD giant, is one of the few chains with a 14-day return policy. A good friend of mine, knowing that I am a geek at heart, asked me to help her with the purchase of a new laptop. She liked a silver Sony VIAO that she saw at the Fnac.


Hailing a Cab in Paris

One of my favorite pastimes in Paris is to watch hapless tourists trying to hail a cab. You simply can't. This is the only large metropolis that I know of where you simply cannot hail a taxi.

In eight years I saw only two cabbies stop when they saw someone desperately flailing their arms. I assumed that they were new to the business.

This is because taxis want to be called by telephone. You see, when you call a cab, they turn on the meter right away. So it is not unusual for taxis who are far away from your location to accept the dispatch's call and show up at your door with ten euros already on the meter.

This is on top of what they will charge you to take you to your destination.

Apparently, there is a maximum amount they can have on the meter upon arrival, something like 6-7 euros but I had taxis show up with anywhere from 11 to 15 euros on their meter. What was I supposed to do, miss my plane? Like everyone else in Paris, you grin and bear.

You might wonder what happens during slow hours when there are not enough callers. Well, they have taxi stations, literally like bus stations, they park there, read papers, solve cross-word puzzles, have a smoke. It is siesta time. They would reluctantly take you as a client if you gather up the courage to knock on their window, bonjour them and ask if they are free.

Then rush hour comes. They simply take off and start waiting for a call.


A New Take on an Old Recipe: Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed vegetables are one of the most common dishes in Eastern Europe, Middle East and the Caucasus region.

While cooking methods differ across cultures the name "Dolma" which means stuffed in Turkish seems the most common name given to these dishes. The reason for a Turkish name is not because these dishes actually originated from Turkey. The name stuck because the Ottomans borrowed entire culinary traditions from around the empire and created a fusion cuisine.

Most common dolmas are made with meat: Armenians use lamb, pork and beef, Greeks Turks, Iranians and Arabs combine beef and lamb. In the Balkans they go mostly with beef.

I prefer the subcategory of dolmas made without meat and eaten cold either as part of a meze plate or as a separate course by itself. And of all the vegetables that I can stuff, I prefer the green peppers.


8-10 soft green peppers (look for them in ethnic grocery stores and if not, use cubanelle peppers)
5-6 cooking onions
One table spoon of currants
One table spoon of pine nuts
100 grams of rice
Pinch of mint
Pinch of parsley
Pinch of Five spices (you can find them in Chinese stores, or use the version called Four Spices available in most places)
One table spoon of plain tomato sauce
Olive oil
One tomato


The first trick is to use green peppers grown in the region (Balkan to Caucasus area). They are lighter in color.

And they are less fleshy than regular bell peppers

It is hard to find them in North America so you can substitute Cubanelle  peppers.

The second trick is the amount of onion you put in and how you dice them. Because the meat recipe is considered the real thing, many cooks in the region simply take that blueprint and put too much rice and not enough onions in their dolmas.  For instance, for the nine peppers pictured above most cooks would use one or two onions and 250 grams of rice.

I use six onions and 100 grams of rice. That's because caramelized onions are the backbone of this recipe.
First thing is to dice them yourself the old fashioned way, meaning, no food processor chopping is allowed. Just remember to keep the root part intact and dice from the stem part of the onion.

Of course, if you want to impress people you can always say that you brunoise them.

But the reality is that you do not need a fine dice like brunoise technique. The pieces can be quite large.

Here is how I did it. Normally, I use yellow cooking onions but for this version I decided to go with red onions.

Put the chopped onions in a pot, add two table spoons of olive oil. Add some pine nuts.

The normal quantity is a table spoon but I usually exaggerate as I like the crunchy texture they bring to the dish.

Here is how they look in the pot.

Let the onions cook on medium heat for about half an hour to forty minutes. By that time they will have become quite sweet (i.e. caramelized) and translucent. And their volume will have been reduced by one third to a half.

Add some currants to provide texture and a different layer of taste. That seems to be an Ottoman thing.

Traditionally, you have to use long grain rice and prepare it by soaking it in hot water for 20 minutes. I simply add some water to my bowl of rice and microwave it for four minutes.

However, in today's recipe I am using Venere Nero, a black rice of Chinese origin but cultivated in Italy. It has a nutty flavor and makes a very interesting substitute.

It also absorbs more water than long grain rice and takes a lot longer to cook. Consequently, since this is the first time I am making this substitution, I wanted to err on the side of caution and decided to nuke my bowl for 10 minutes. If your rice is crunchy in a dolma dish that is a problem, whereas no one will notice if the rice is a bit soft.

When you take out the rice from the microwave, drain it and add it to the onion mixture. Add the tomato sauce, mint, parsley and five spices. Add one cube of sugar (or a small tea spoon of sugar) and a pinch of salt. Season with some pepper. Add half a glass of water, cover it and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes in low heat. 

Prepare the peppers by washing them and removing the stem.

Tip: push the stem inwardly while holding the pepper and it should separate from the rest of the pepper cleanly, then pull it out with all the attached seeds.

Stuff the peppers with the mixture you prepared.

Once you stuffed them, cut thin round pieces off a tomato and use them to plug the opening left by the stem.

In this version I plugged them with grilled red peppers as you can see in the picture below.

Places the stuffed peppers in a non-stick pot vertically (i.e. the stem opening should be upward). Add a small glass of water and a touch of olive oil. Cover and cook in medium heat. Occasionally check to see that there is enough water. Add if necessary. They should be ready in about 25-30 minutes. Check the softness of the peppers and of the rice to make sure that they are done.

The final dish looks like this.

Next time I will roast the pine nuts separately and add them to the onion-rice mixture before I stuff them.

I think they will add a nice touch of color contrasting with black rice.


Pleasant Surprises in Eateries

I was reading a novel by Barry Eisler the other day. He is my favorite CIA agent-turned-novelist. In the sixth installment of his Japanese American assassin John Rain he moves him to Paris. And then he sends him to fairly obvious places to eat and drink.

That gave me the idea to write about unknown and off-the-beaten-path bistros and brasseries in Paris. After all, if I were to send my characters to some locations and eateries, I would stay away from the Marais district and Cafe de Flores in Saint Germain area.

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine and I were trying to find a decent place to have lunch in the 9th arrondissement. We stumbled upon Clarière, an unassuming little restaurant where the husband is the chef and the wife is the maitre d'hotel.

Many French couples dream of starting a small restaurant where one of them would cook and the other would serve. It is the French version of the Anglo Saxon bed and breakfast dream. Usually, the dream turns into a nightmare. Running a restaurant is a highly specialized task and most people find it arduous.

In this case, it was perfect harmony. Michel and Eve Hermet found the right balance. He looked after the kitchen and she took care of the service. The food was imaginative and whimsical. And the service was attentive yet unobtrusive.

The restaurant is called Clairière and it is in Rue Chaptal in the 9th arrondisement. 

It is a perfect place to have lunch and send your literary character to have a bite in between killing assignments.


Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: Information Society vs Kiosk Society

Practically all my significant purchase decisions are preceded by a period of online research. I never go and say to a sales person, "I am here to buy a [insert item here] but I have no clue about what to buy. What do you suggest, young man?" In fact, most of the time, I pre-select the brand, the model and decide on the specifications, read the reviews, and customer evaluations. And I go to a store, find it on the shelves, take it to a cashier and buy it.

Apparently, this is known and despised in Paris as "the American approach."

I found out about the name of my criminally offensive approach in my third month in Paris. I was going to buy a cell phone. So, as usual, I checked online the top three carriers, compared their plans, looked at the available handsets and on that basis I went to an Orange store. A young man approached me to help. Of course, I bonjoured him promptly. Then told him that I was there to get a handset and a monthly plan. Before he could steer me to whatever handset he felt would go with my fading complexion and uppity body language, I told him that I already knew the handset I liked and I also knew which monthly plan would suit my usage patterns.

The guy stopped. He turned around and looked at me with deep suspicion and a touch of irritation. He posed the fateful question: "Are you an American?"

I know what you are thinking, but it was not my accent. I would concede that if you pay attention you can hear that my French has a slightly off intonation. But by and large I speak without an audible accent. At first, I was tempted to say that indeed I was an American in Paris and my name was Gershwin but literary sarcasm is not well received here. I didn't want to be defensive and tell him that I was not an American. Instead, I answered him with a question: "Why do you say that?"

He said that only Americans go online to check out various options and do some research before they show up in his store. It was not an expression of grudging respect for North Americans for making his life easier. He was telling me that my foolish and unnecessary "démarche americaine" was making him feel less important.

You see, my approach was stupid because he already knew all the answers. All I had to do was to tell him that I needed a phone and he could determine the best handset and voice plan in ten seconds. And he could do so, much better than me, a lay person obviously lacking a Cartesian mind set. That's high modernity and that's why France is the only country that badly needed post-modernity.

I am sure you think I exaggerate. But the whole shopping system is designed to operate like a kiosk. You need a sales person for everything. For clothing, they routinely move to storage pieces from their current collection. You have to go to someone and say, I saw a brown coat two days ago and they will go and bring it out for you.

For electronics, same thing. Let's say that you are buying a hard drive. You go and find a clerk as hard disks are not on the shelves because someone might steal them. The clerk will look at you indifferently and will ask a few questions. He will close his eyes for a few seconds in a Zen trance to indicate to you that he is now evaluating thousands of possibilities in his brain to determine what is best for you. He will then communicate the winning model to you with no justification for his decision other than a terse "this is the best one for you." Because you do not possess his superior wisdom and knowledge you will gratefully bow to his choice. He will magnanimously write the model code on a paper and tell you to go and pay for it.

With your little "fiche" in hand, you will join the long line up to pay for the item. And then you will go to another part of the store to join another line up to retrieve it (in the UK they use the French word "queue" for line up, possibly to establish the origin of the practice through etymology).

On your way out, big and bulky African store guards will subject you to a cavity search to prevent you from leaving the store with a large screen TV under your shirt. You will go home to enjoy your new purchase.

For mobile phones, they take one additional step to stop you getting information from other sources. They put all their promotions and their latest call plans in glossy catalogues every month, print them and send them out to their stores. Critically, the information contained in these catalogues is available online only in summary form and sometimes not at all. I defied many Parisian friends to find me the details of a call plan online and they failed to get it.

The funny thing, my little challenge left my friends puzzled. They said "if you had to possibility to talk to a person to retrieve some information, why would you want to do it online?"

Carbon footprint be damned, consult someone who consults dead trees. And tells you what is best for you.

That's kiosk society in high modernity.


The Best Food Quote of All Time and More

This is from Jay Rayner, the food critique of the Observer:
I am also a consumer of bad reviews. If they are fun to write they are also fun to read – like this one by a young rising politician called Winston Churchill. Asked about his dinner the night before, he replied: "It would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the duchess."
His reaction is the same as mine:
God, but I wish I'd written that.
But I also enjoyed this reaction to a bad review:
The 19th-century German composer Max Reger allegedly once replied to a bad review with a note that read: "I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. Shortly it will be behind me."


Essential Rules of Shopping in Paris: Say Bonjour

If you have never been to Paris, you probably imagine shopping as a highly glamorous activity.

You might have heard of Avenue Montaigne or Avenue des Champs Elysées or Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and you have visions of chic boutiques with a doorman at the door. You imagine dealing with very attentive sales people very happy to attend to your whims. Like the sales guy you saw in Pretty Woman:
 Edward: You know what we're gonna need here? We're going to need a few more people helping us out. I'll tell you why. We are going to be spending an obscene amount of money in here. So we're going to need a lot more help sucking up to us, 'cause that's what we really like.
Hollister: Ohhhh!
Edward: You understand that.
Hollister: Sir, if I may say so, you're in the right store, and the right city, for that matter!
At the risk of crushing your dream, I can tell you Paris ain't the right city for that. There might be a few stores  that might conform to your mental image but for the vast majority of shopping places in Paris the reality is much darker.

When I first moved here I assumed that you could still walk up to a sales person and ask a question like "excuse me, could you tell me where the polo shorts are?" I have been visiting Paris regularly since 1972 and I can tell you this has always been a perfectly reasonable way to approach anyone here.

Somehow they changed the rules in the new millennium. The first time I went up to a store clerk and posed my excuse me question, I got a blank stare followed by an awkward silence of three to four seconds and the guy pumped up his chest, pull his head back in an operatic manner and just as I began to expect him to tackle Paul Potts' version of Nessun Dorma, he hollered a fairly sonorous "Bonjour!" to me. It was so over the top that I realized that the whole thing was designed to let me know how rude I was to talk to him without first greeting him.

I went to see a Parisian couple that I knew to ask when the rules had changed and they were not even aware that this was the new rule. Since then it happened to every new visitor I know and it even made it to David Lebovitz's book The Sweet Life in Paris as one of the big no-no's.  I am here to tell you it is a fairly recent phenomenon and it serves two purposes. One, after being told that you are a crass human being who accosted your fellow person without even a hello you no longer dare asking more question and bother them in their daily activity of imagining their next vacation. Also, over time, you start assuming that they are not there to help you but simply to greet you in and out of the store.

Accordingly, upon entering someone will lift their head and yell Bonjour and on your way out the same person will scream Au revoir to your back. But if you ask them a question while inside, they may or may not help you depending on their mood, the time of the day and how close it is to their vacation time.

But the Bonjour is sacrosanct.

In fact, it is so bad now that a month ago I was at a fabric store in Monmartre and a clerk yelled after a client accusing her of ignoring her cries of Au revoir. The client retorted that she replied twice but the clerk had already lost interest. I approached the same sales person to ask for something. Of course I began with my booming Bonjour, I may be part of the rif raf she clearly despised but I am not a fool. She looked at me with a sneer and said that this was not her section and I should find someone else.

And this is a store where they work on commission. You might think that it is because my purchase would be too small for her to pull her out of her scandalized shock of a client daring not to reciprocate her goodbyes. But that is not the case.

In my second month in Paris, I went to an electronic store called Darty to buy a television. Yes, Darty. Their sales people work on commission as well. It was a big ticket item, something that cost almost two thousand euros and I assumed the sales person would be happy to sell me anything for that kind of money. I had narrowed my choices down to two sets and I began asking my questions. The guy was clearly annoyed with me. After responding to a couple of questions, he looked at his watch and said that it was lunch time and I should come back another time to finalize the deal. And he turned around and scooted away.

I am not sure what their commission is but I presume any percentage of two grand would buy many lunches.

Not in Paris.

I am thinking that if a sales person from Best Buy of Future Shop ever reads this their heads might explode.

I say Bonjour to them.


British Beef in France

A contrarian (and well-connected) French chef seemed to have achieved the impossible. He re-introduced British beef to France.

The man in question is Yves-Marie le Bourdonnec, known as the butcher to the stars and owner of Le Beef Club.

France is a country of brands. As befitting a people who discovered that they can charge a lot more for a humble polo shirt if they stuck an alligator on it, all food items have brands. You cannot buy strawberries here. You can get gariguettes, charlottes, ciflorettes, rondes. If a box of strawberries is labeled as "fraise," the French term for strawberry, it is almost certainly a box that originated from Spain.

The beef is the same. It is sold under its regional brand names, like Aubrac, Salers, Charolais, Limousins, Flamand, Normand, Parthenais. French believe that each type of beef has different characteristics and different uses. I suspect that is because they all have solid brand management behind them. Other countries have similar differentiation (like the British Angus, Shorthorn, Longhorn or Galloway) but most of the time, people don't pay any attention to them. In France they are sold separately under their own name.

Within that system, British beef had a terrible brand association with the Mad Cow disease. France refused to import British beef between 1996 and 2002 (despite a EU decision and a European Court ruling) and even now the terrible association is very much alive in people's minds.

But le Bourdonnec is set to change all that. He sings the praises of the British beef. The meat is more tender because the animals are smaller and fast maturing, he says.

So far, his restaurant drew a lot of media attention and high praises from customers. It also drew the ire of French cattle breeders union. I plan on visiting the place to report back here.

How to Cook Beef like Heston?

Speaking of beef, during my vegetarian years, I taught myself how to cook beef properly. Because I could not taste the end result, I had to rely on proven techniques to cook the meat to the satisfaction of my guests (and my dogs, but they were less discerning).

1) If you are barbecuing or pan searing, keep turning the meat every 10-15 seconds, instead of leaving it on each side for minutes.
2) The bounciness of the meat is a reliable indicator of its degree of doneness (I gather there is no such word but you know what I mean). The bouncier the meat the less done it is. Because of that, overcooking the meat will harden it and make it chewy.
3) You have to let the meat rest for 3-5 minutes after you removed it from the heat source. I usually cover it with foil to prevent heat loss.

Years later I realized that I was doing it right after I watched a British chef explain the chemistry behind these simple tips.

The chef in question was Heston Blumenthal, who is the chef/owner of Fat Duck, the perennial number two to Feran Adrià's El Bulli for the best restaurant in the world category for most of the previous decade (it was number one in 2005).

He is a culinary hero of mine because of his willingness to share his knowledge of food with the general public. He is the magician who explains his tricks. This video is from a series called "How to Cook like Heston" and here he explains how to handle beef in various dishes.

The entire series is highly recommended.

He covers the following basic ingredients: eggs, chocolate, chicken, cheese and potatoes. And here is a link to the recipes in the series.


You Know You are a Parisian If...

I hope Jeff Foxworthy and his redneck buddies will forgive me for borrowing their formula.

The thought occurred to me while I was reading David Lebovitz's hilarious book "The Sweet Life in Paris" about the first time he realized that he became a Parisian. It was when he got out of his comfy t-shirt and sweatpants and put on some decent clothes to go downstairs to drop his garbage bag into the apartment bin.

Personally, I resist Parisian sartorial pressures. I still wear comfortable Rockport shoes instead of pointed Richelieus favored by men here. And I refuse to have a scarf around my neck even in winter, which is a must for any self-respecting Parisian 365 days a year. They see me scarfless in December and roll their eyes and I see them with those silk pythons around their neck in August and I roll my eyes.

I have to confess, at times, I felt a bit proud for maintaining my contrarian wardrobe. Then one day, without giving it any thought I bought something and immediately realized that I had become a Parisian.

Quel horreur, indeed.

You see, I actually went to a store to buy myself a... shopping caddy.

Sure, they are handy, you can put six large water bottles, all your groceries and schlep it back home without breaking you back. They are environmentally friendly as they reduce plastic bag consumption.

And they are great to take to street markets, of which there is at least one in every neighborhood in Paris. Where I live, there are three of them every week. Fresh produce and decent prices.

Still, look at this thing, How can you pretend to be a dignified person when you have this plastic puppy follow you home?

But you know you are a Parisian if you bought this schlep-mobile without a second thought.

Oh well.


My Take on Robuchon's Pommes Purée

I know what you are thinking: Who are you to have a take on one of the signature dishes of the guy chosen as the Chef of the Century by Gault Millau with 27 Michelin stars to his name?

True that.

A long time ago I read in a magazine that the reason famous cooks are mostly men is because recipes are written in imperative mood, dice this, sautée that, and men rebel against such orders. I am not sure if it is true but I prefer this to traditional explanations which presume implicit male superiority. And I attribute the rise of female cooks in many restaurants to the emancipatory (and culinary) rebellion brought about by feminism.

In my personal case, the bellicose attitude towards all recipes is embarrassingly true. I always make changes to any recipe I come across and I keep changing it until I am happy with the result. With big name cooks like Robuchon, I follow their recipe the first time around. After that I start improvising.

Robuchon's whipped or mashed potatoes (purée in French) are very famous. This was his first signature dish   and possibly still his most famous. Google them and you will see hundreds of pages about the dish. In a recent documentary, Robuchon said that people are so taken with the creamy taste and smooth texture of the dish, it is quite common for them to order a second portion at the end of their meal in lieu of dessert.

The original recipe calls for Ratte potatoes, which is a small nutty variety found in France and Denmark. Some people claim that Ratte may not be best suited potato for this puree and Robuchon's tip might be a red herring. I tend to think that you can use any variety suitable for mashed potatoes but Ratte provides a nice and nutty after taste.

What Robuchon tells you to do is to boil the potatoes until tender (20-25 minutes), peel them and push them through a potato ricer. Add 250 gr of butter in chucks of 50 and have the potatoes absorb it. You then add 250ml of regular milk and stir until all is folded into the potato puree. And push the mixture through a chinois to end up with a super smooth puree. Salt and pepper to taste. Not Quite Nigella has the best version of the classical recipe.

Here is my take.

I use Ratte, because they are available in Paris.

There are two key tricks to this dish: one is to remove as much of the moisture as possible from the potatoes after you boil them. That's because you want them to absorb as much milk and butter as they can.

The second trick is to remove all lumpiness to achieve a very smooth texture. A lot of the impression of creaminess comes from the texture.

Consequently, instead of boiling them for 25 minutes, I steam them using a standard metal vegetable steamer.

Here is my overused steamer.

I put water and coarse sea salt at the bottom of the pot, put the steamer in, pile up all my Ratte in without peeling. Cover and let them steam for 20-25 minutes. Use a thin fork to see of their center is tender.

Peeling them is easy. Like tomatoes left in boiling water for 30 seconds, you can pull one end of the skin and remove it very easily. No need for a potato peeler.

Then, you need to pass them through a potato ricer. I use a rotary cheese grater, like the one pictured. It is a messy and cumbersome method but the resulting potato strings are very thin. And that's my principal goal.
Once I have all the potatoes passed through my grater, I put them in a non stick pot and start stirring for about five minutes. The original recipe, with its boiled potatoes, requires a lot longer than that to evaporate all the moisture (when I first tried it, it took about 20 minute of above-stove workout).

Robuchon suggests 250gr of butter. Here is my second rebellion, I use 75gr of butter (if your guests are really into butter you can add more to taste) and two table spoon of olive oil. In fact, I made it once with just olive oil and I personally liked it better. But butter does provide some creaminess. Hence the compromise.

The way you add the butter is one small spoon at a time and you keep stirring the potato mixture until that butter is melted and absorbed.

The amount of milk required for Robuchon's version if 250ml (roughly one cup). If you reduce the amount of butter and olive oil you put in, you need to increase the amount of milk you use. I once made a diet-friendly version of it with no butter and just two table spoons of olive oil and I had to use 500ml of milk to achieve the same results. And I used, gasp, 2 percent milk. I hope Robuchon never finds out.

Bring your milk up to boiling point before adding it to the puree.

The technique is similar to bechamel sauce, pour it either in small quantities, and get that absorbed before adding more, or ask someone to drizzle the milk while you stir continuously.

The resulting mixture should be quite soft. If not, you need to add either more butter (oil) or milk.

The final step is to pass it through a chinois for a smooth finish. I don't have a chinois so I use a regular fine mesh strainer like this.

I use a wooden spatula and take my time to slowly pass the whole thing through the strainer.

Afterwards I check the seasoning and add whatever is missing to taste.

My final touch is to add one tea spoon of truffle oil. Use only the best quality oil you can find, regular cheap super market stuff does not work. And make sure not to put too much.

What the truffle oil does is to bring up the nutty flavor of Ratte potatoes without overpowering their natural aroma and taste. And it adds another layer to the dish.

As you can imagine my version is less cream oriented and leans towards a more Mediterranean taste. The potatoes (and not the creamy flavor) are the main actors.

But you cook according to your taste. Most people would prefer the full butter version. I like mine better. The fact that it is a little healthier is just a bonus.

One of these days, I will make Robuchon's pommes puree using Vitelotte potatoes. With their violet-blue color, they could add a whole new dimension to this dish.


Relais de l'Entrecote

If you ever visited Paris for more than a day or two, chances are you heard about this unassuming restaurant. Make that plural, as there are several.

The original restaurant was established in by Paul Gineste de Saurs 1959 in Porte Maillot. He bought an existing Italian restaurant called Le Relais de Venise and didn't change the name for a while. He just added "et son entrecote" to the name of the restaurant.

His goal was to find a secure outlet for the wines produced by the family Chateau.

So he borrowed an idea from a Geneva restaurant called Cafe de Paris which simply served steaks and fries. The dish is considered the most popular comfort food in France.

The plate to the left is an actual Le Relais de l'Entrecote steak and fries.

The idea worked so well that there are now several Entrecote restaurants all over the world. His three children each head a group of restaurants under the names
(a) le Relais de Venise - Entrecote (Paris, Barcelona, London (2), New York)
(b) L'Entrecote (Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Montpellier, Lyon) and
(c) Le Relais de l'Entrecote (Paris (3), Geneva, Beirut (3), Kuwait, Doha, Dubai)

There are three secrets to their success. Consistent quality, fast service and excellent desserts.

I ate in most of their Paris locations, in Geneva and in New York, the meat is consistently tender and the sauce is well made. And the house wine is very pleasant and good value.

I am not sure about their other locations but in Paris, on a regular night between 7-11 p.m. they manage three seatings. And on the weekend, they can get a fourth one. The fact that they are one of the very few Parisian restaurants to employ and all female serving staff might be a factor in this rapid turnover.

Finally, their desserts are excellent and their profiteroles might be one of the best in Paris.

While the cut called Entrecote is properly translated as rib eye, in this case, it refers to sirloin (contre-filet in French). What is special about the food is the sauce, which is a closely guarded trade secret. The original formula was developed by the founder of Cafe de Paris in Geneva, Freddy Dumont. Gineste de Saurs licensed it from him and all these various Entrecote restaurants are still serving it under that license.

Apparently Le Monde suggested that the main ingredients of the Cafe de Paris sauce (the French name is Beurre de Cafe de Paris) were blanched chicken livers, heavy cream and thyme flowers.

But here is a recipe for Cafe de Paris butter that I find more convincing than the blanched chicken liver and cream version. I can tell you that it is too much work to prepare it at home. Just go to one of their many locations and eat it there. Don't forget the profiteroles afterwards.

Beurre Café de Paris

1 kg butter
60g tomato ketchup
25g Dijon mustard
25g capers (in brine)
125g brown eschalots
50g fresh curly parsley
50g fresh chives
5g dried marjoram
5g dried dill
5g fresh thyme, leaves only
10 leaves fresh French tarragon
Pinch ground rosemary
1 garlic clove, squashed then chopped very finely
8 anchovy fillets (rinsed)
1 tbs good brandy
1 tbs Madeira
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp curry powder (Keens)
Pinch cayenne
8 white peppercorns
juice 1 lemon
zest of ½ lemon
zest ¼ orange
12gm salt

Mix all ingredients with the exception of butter in a glass bowl and leave
to marinate for 24 hours in a warm part of the kitchen (a slight
fermentation occurs). Purée the mixture in a blender and push through a
chinois. Foam the butter and mix with the purée. Cover and store in the
fridge. It is customary to form the butter into a log, freeze it and cut off slices as you need them.
Keeps for several weeks.

Upon service a round of frozen butter is placed on the cooked sirloin and put under a VERY hot salamander for just long enough to begin to brown the top of the butter (while the butter underneath stays cold).

Metro Ads

One of my favorite things to do in Paris is to read Metro ads.

By Metro I am referring to the excellent subway system, of course. It is short for Metropolitaine, which means "of the metropolis."

Some ads are lame and predictable but there are a few that are humorous and quite risqué (it is sign of how repressed we are that we use a French word to express that sentiment).

Last holiday season, there was a poster from a Web site that bills itself as a dating service for married people. The service is called Gleeden.com and their byline is "The first extramarital dating site made by women."

While the service was established by an American company, I would be very surprised if they were able to advertise freely in North America. Certainly, not in any public transport systems. Not without a lot of pearl necklace clutching and fainting.

Here, last Christmas they had a poster that said: "Maybe your resolution this year should be to cheat your lover with your husband"

And yesterday, they had this splashed all over the Metro:

The translation is  "Our site will be exceptionally closed on 6 May because one shouldn't cheat" but there is a word play. Tromper is to cheat but se tromper is to make a mistake.

Sex and politics, the two taboos of the Anglo Saxon world proudly on display in Paris.


Never Eat Risotto in a Parisian Brasserie

In eight years in Paris, I have never eaten a decent risotto in a Parisian restaurant, brasserie or bistro.

For some unknown reason, they think risotto is pilaf with excess broth. It is a crying shame since there are hundreds Italian restaurants where you can eat a decent risotto. It should be easy to figure out how to cook it properly.

There are four simple points you need to keep in mind to prepare good risotto.

First use only arborio rice. This is a short grain, high starch Italian rice. Nothing else will work. And this is where the bistro cooks fail: they invariably use regular short grain pilaf rice.

Second, start cooking the rice by turning it in butter or olive oil (I use only olive oil) for 4-5 minutes in medium to high heat. This is the same technique you would use for pilaf. The grains will become whiter. Add your liquid after those four, five minutes.

Third, do not use plain water to cook the rice. You can use chicken or vegetable broth. Or white wine. I personally like the woodsy taste of dried mushrooms. Usually, I opt for dried porcini mushrooms but any other variety will do fine.

I put them in hot water for ten minutes. Then I remove the mushrooms and use that liquid in my risotto.

The trick is to add that mushroom broth slowly to the risotto, roughly half a cup at a time.

And to continuously stir the risotto.

The forth thing to keep in mind is to prepare the risotto just before you serve it. That is because you need to stir it constantly to keep it creamy and when you stop the high starch arborio will absorb all the liquid and will become sticky and hard. Tip: if you have to prepare it ahead of time, put aside some of that broth liquid and add it to your risotto while heating it up.

You can flavor the risotto any way you like. Some recipes suggest saffron (Milanese style), others will recommend sea food (like scallops). There are literally hundreds different ways to finish it. I like mine simple, so I usually add a few drops of truffle oil before serving.

As I said, you will find hundreds of recipes for risotto. My suggestion is to keep it simple, to use good ingredients and treat risotto as a meal onto itself (as opposed to a side dish).

And never eat risotto in a bistro.

Another Odd Thing About Living in Paris #27

France is marvelously, gloriously and proudly backward when it comes to modern technology.

I am sure no one in North America would believe this but you cannot do any transactions in ATMs other than withdraw money. Forget about depositing or transferring money, you cannot even check your balance.

In fact, your balance is updated every couple of days. Say that you withdrew 100 euros and the little receipt showed that you had 1000 euros left in your account. Look closely and that amount is preceded by a date, usually showing two days prior to that transaction.

When I first arrived in Paris, I was baffled by that. ATMs have been in existence in neighboring Belgium since 1980 and even then you could see your balance at the moment of transaction. Apparently, in France the updates are done... wait for it...manually. I still don't know if the person who told me this was pulling my leg (though he was dead serious and defending his country's way of doing business) but what happens is that a branch manager checks all transactions every other day and allows the computer to get up to date.

If that is true (and I never heard any other explanation for the time lag in updates), it means that French people believe that they are more accurate than computers. That is a healthy ego.

When I tell them that elsewhere you can do moderately complicated things like sending someone money instantly through their cell phone which they can withdraw from any ATM, Parisians look at me like I am insane or a science fiction writer.

Why would I want to deposit money through an ATM, a friend told me. It is not secure. What if the machine does not record the transaction? She preferred to go to her branch, wait in line, say bonjour to the teller, take a form from her (the forms are not available elsewhere in the branch), fill it up slowly, give her the cash or cheque to be deposited to her account and wish the teller a good day and leave. 30 minutes of your life to deposit a cheque.

It is not just the ATMs and banking transactions. Once, I was at IKEA buying pieces of a kitchen. To do that, you have to talk to a person in a kiosque who tells you what pieces you need to put the whole thing together. As she was preparing the list through her computer she stopped and called the warehouse. While waiting for her colleague to pick up the phone she explained to me that she was going to check if certain items were in stock. I asked why she was unable to see that in her computer. She looked at me like I was an alien and replied that the inventory is updated once a day.


In other words, they use computers as notebooks (the analog kind) or calculators.

And what is extraordinary is that no French person seems to be aware that better technologies and better uses of technology are available in other parts of the world.

They think what they have is cutting edge.

I know you don't believe me.

How about this:

Remember Minitel? The precursor of the Internet?

As of 2009 there were still 10 million connections every month. And the service is still available.


Eating in Paris

I have been living in Paris since 2004.

I knew the city from the early 1970s as I traveled frequently. I learned French when I was six and I consider it my second mother tongue. In that sense, I think I have a pretty good handle on French way of thinking and culture. But living here full time made me aware of a thousands of tiny details and many idiosyncrasies.

Chief among them were French culinary practices, food choices and taste preferences. When I arrived here, I was a vegetarian. Some fourteen years prior to that moment, I had made a decision to stop eating "anything that can run away from me" to use the hip hop mogul Russell Simmons' definition of vegetarianism.

Within my first year in Paris, I had to make a decision about being a vegetarian. You see, in London or New York, you could go to any restaurant, even a steak house, and you would find at least one vegetarian entry on the menu. If not, they will happily put something together for you.  In Paris, no such option is available. The vast majority of restaurant menus are divided into Meat and Sea Food. And if you ask for the kitchen to come up with something, your waiter will recoil with horror or act with disdain and dismissal. It is as if they consider you culinary choice a direct insult to the chef.

After many important anniversaries spent in dismal Lebanese restaurants sucking on hummus and countless culinary outings limited to omelets in Parisian brasseries, I relented and gradually began to eat like an omnivore.

After all, even the Parisian "omelette baveuse" which I adore, can get tiresome.

(The picture on the right can give you a pretty good idea what "baveuse" means.)

In a way, I am not too sorry that I gave up my choice. The primary reason for my decision was the commodified nature of meat production in North America. If you saw Food Inc, you know what I am talking about. When I made my decision you could not find free range chicken or cattle raised in farms even if you were willing to pay for it. And I won't even mention hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals.

In France, these practices are the norm rather than the exception. Most super market eggs come from free range chicken. While France is the fifth poultry producer in the world, unlike every other developed country, its production system is not highly integrated. Instead, it is dominated by small poultry farms and backyard breeders (there are over 25,000 poultry farms with more than 500 birds). The same is true for cattle and beef production (the marketing, on the other hand, is dominated by big players like the Bigard group).

In other words, the meat you buy is organic (it only lasts 3-4 days in the fridge), it came from an animal that led a decent and free life and was slaughtered humanely. As you could expect, it costs more and it tastes great.

French people, to their everlasting credit, insist on that and don't mind paying extra for it.

In that sense, eating in Paris is a joyous and relatively guilt-free adventure.


I started blogging a year ago.

I wanted to have a tiny corner in that vast universe we call the Internet where I could simply post my thoughts, observations and reactions. Initially, I had no framework or a list of topics I would blog about. But overtime, with gentle nudging from friends and readers, I found myself commenting mostly on political and economic issues.

I have no problem with that as I am a news junkie and I have contrarian views that I don't mind sharing with a tiny group of people. However, after a full year of "serious" commentary, I realized that I have been editing myself and avoiding "lighter" topics.

Hence, this blog. Ostensibly for lighter topics.

I have no fixed plans. I may post a recipe, the picture of a homeless man, comment on a meal I had and vent my frustration with countless idiosyncrasies you struggle with everyday.