The kids are out of school, the days are longer, and we don’t have to wake up so early. It’s time to have friends over for a glass of rosé and some nice snacks or for a simple dinner.
I was too busy cooking and traveling and relaxing (it seems) to have posted much over the summer. Trust me; we ate well. And now Fall is here! Though you wouldn’t know it with the 80-degree weather in LA.
With fall comes renewed chronicling of life in the kitchen, the garden, and hopefully in other great cities, too.
My first experience with oysters was as a student in Paris in the 1980s. Oysters there are always served with ceremony: nestled in ice on a stand, a small bowl of shallot-vinegar sauce on the side, and brown bread and butter to eat along side them. I developed a taste for eating them with Champagne, but a nice Sancerre works well, as do lots of other white wines. Beer isn’t a common choice, but an eye wasn’t batted when a friend ordered one recently on New Year’s Eve 2016 at Le Dome where my husband and I celebrated with good friends. (See below.)
Oysters are almost always part of a plateau de fruits de mer, which can also include things like little sea snails called bigorneaux (see above) and their bigger cousins called bulots, clams, scallops and crustaceans like shrimp, crab, and, if you’re feeling royale, lobster.
In France, back in the ’80s, I learned to only eat oysters in months that ended in “r” or “bre,” so septembre, octobre, novembre, décembre, janvier, and février. That little rule, though, dates back to days before refrigeration. One too many wealthy gourmand died from indulging out of season, eliciting a royal edict, declared in 1759, that prohibited gathering oysters in France from April through October. Spring and summer was also when oysters reproduced, so it was best, anyway, to leave them alone so there’d be plenty for the colder months. Now, of course, we have refrigeration and we can raise oysters year-round. Which brings me to May of this year.
On a visit to Port St. Joe, Florida, I learned there’s another, equally fabulous way to eat oysters. Indian Pass Raw Bar, an institution in the region, serves enormous local oysters on plastic trays, accompanied by lemon wedges and Saltine crackers. And unless you want to drink a soda with them, you choose frosty, cold beer. Perfection! When you go (and you should! If not for the oysters, then for the empty, white sand beaches), make sure to get crab and corn, too!
Very different oyster experiences, both are wonderful!
We have chickens in the garden who give us the best eggs. We fry and soft-boil them. We use them for cookies and cakes. We make a lot of omelettes. But I’d always been too terrified to try poaching them.
I knew, from overcooked versions I endured at way too many brunches (particularly on Columbus Avenue, NYC), that they were tricky. Some recipes suggested adding vinegar to the poaching water, but I’d tasted too many vinegary poached eggs to want to do that. I read about whipping up whirlpools in simmering water to help the eggs keep their shapes, which sounded complicated and I never believed it would work. Instead of trying any of this, we bought silicone “egg poachers” and used them for years. The results were okay, if a little rubbery around the edges.
I decided to take on the challenge after reading a few pages of the EGG chapter in The Food Lab, the fabulous cookbook by J. Kenji López-Alt, the thoroughly engaging chef/editor of Serious Eats.
Before buying the book, I’d been a fan of López-Alt’s work on the website. His writing is charming and generous and smart. His book is more of the same. His chapter on eggs is clear and comprehensive and gave me the courage to try poaching eggs for the first time in my life. He points out that one of the most important criteria for successful poaching is starting with a fresh egg. Check! I was off to a good start. He eschews the whirlpool idea and finds no need for vinegar, but does recommend keeping them moving once they’re in the barely simmering water. Here’s his recipe on the website. I’ve been using it ever since.
The other night, I steamed some fat, spring asparagus, draped some thinly sliced prosciutto over them, then topped them with an egg! A sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs finished it off. Perfection!
We had considered splurging at Le Cinq for lunch on New Year’s Day this year. Some reviews had been quite good, plus it has three Michelin stars. I never go to the fancy places in Paris, but we were traveling with friends and I thought it might be an experience. I’m so glad they weren’t up for it.
The world may never be the same, but food will help. I’m not suggesting we buckle down and devour pints of ice cream or bags of Cheetos when we’re feeling blue and hopeless. I think we want to get into the kitchen and cook. Slicing, dicing, and pounding culets until they’re almost transparent will surely help ease our anger, but the gentler aspects of cooking–stirring love into soups, crimping dough for a family’s favorite pie, slipping a souflée into the oven with optimism–will help too. And most importantly, the companionship we find at the table will get us through.
I haven’t been posting much but I’ve been cooking (and calling my representatives and gardening and reading novels).
I’ll be back at it soon! In the meantime, let’s find things to celebrate. Look for the small things. I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve planed four tomato plants (from Tomatomania!) and that most of our five chickens are laying again! Oh, joy!
When I was envisioning the upcoming dinner with friends, I saw it as a celebratory gathering. I thought we’d all be in high spirits, celebrating Hillary’s win for the Presidency, and laughing at all the ridiculous things that Orange Man had said during his campaign. Unfortunately, something terrible happened instead, leaving many of us devastated. All around town on Wednesday, the day after the election, people were crying or on the verge of doing so. Schools were organizing counseling sessions for students. The mood was down. Very down.
I wasn’t quite as excited by the idea of opening the bottle of Goat Bubbles I’d brought back from a recent trip to Los Olivos because I didn’t think it would fit the spirit. I had ordered duck breasts from d’Artagnan, but was feeling like we should have gooey, cheesy comfort food instead. Enchiladas, maybe. And tequila (which I rarely drink).
But my box of duck arrived and I went with it. Listening to music, I rolled out the dough for my apple tarte, tied up the duck, broke open a pomegranate and wiggled loose the seeds. I took my time setting the table. I chose a wine. It was all very therapeutic.
I had one taker for the Goat Bubbles (I joined her), but it really was more of a red-wine sort of night. We talked about the election and what we could do to make a difference, but we talked about all sorts of other things, too. We forgot about the looming disaster for a while, we ate and drank, and enjoyed ourselves.
We can’t crawl under a rock when things get challenging. That’s when we have to come together. And maybe plot a coup.
I love Paris. I love the plane ride to Paris, I loves photos of Paris, I love when other people go to Paris, I love walking everywhere in Paris, I love songs about Paris.
Every trip to Paris is different. Paris is different in spring, summer, winter, and fall. They’re all my favorite times to go. I love going solo, with my daughter, en famille, or on a romantic visit with my husband.
I just got back from a trip with two great girlfriends, one of whom had never been. I felt a little bad that she wasn’t going to experience “Paris firsts” with her husband, but I appreciated the honor of being part of her life-changing trip. (When has Paris not changed a visitor’s life?) We walked a lot and worked in a few museums, including Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where we saw a comprehensive Bauhaus exhibition, and a brilliant and disturbing show of works by Maurizio Cattelan at La Monnaie de Paris (get inside that gorgeous building). We did some great window shopping and we ate and drank a lot.
With just one week in Paris, you have to make choices about where to eat. I did lots of research on some favorite sites (Paris by Mouth, Alexander Lobrano’s website, Paris Update) and took into consideration that this was Billi’s first trip (needed a classic bistro), they both love interesting design, and good food is of the essence.
We packed it in. Here are some highlights:
Clown Bar. I’d been wanting to try this tiny spot next door to the Cirque d’Hiver (the Paris circus) and we did–on our first night. (No time for jet lag on this trip.) Oh, the food was surprising (tempura-fried sea snails!) and delicious and it was fun sitting out on the tiny terrace. Here’s Alexander Lobrano’s review. We shared foie gras with buddha’s hand and smoked eel; broccoli with lardo and sea urchin; turbot with artichokes and miso; and this little pigeon:
Les Bains: We weren’t expecting good food (and we didn’t get any) at Les Bains, the hip new hotel/restaurant/club at the site of the former Bains-Douches, which was the spot to be in the ’80s. And we knew we wouldn’t see the most fashionable crowd, because we went on a Monday night when the club downstairs is closed, but we wanted to go to check out the hip design. And for old-time’s sake (Marni and I had spent some time there in the day). No sightings of Roman Polanski or Jean-Paul Gaultier (regulars back when) but we loved the space and the Champagne was cold, so not all was lost.
We closed the place down (this would become a theme of the trip) and as we were leaving we managed to charm the receptionist into having someone give us a tour of the nightclub.
Seeing the club empty was…unusual. How could I not have remembered the pool? It had changed a lot, but still brought back memories. Oh, the memories.
Elmer: One of my favorite dinners this trip was at Elmer. The restaurant, in the newly hip Sentier district, had a cool and relaxed design. The food was perfect. Here’s some of what we ate:
Chez Denise: We went to Chez Denise because it’s a place I’d been wanting to try for years and it wasn’t far from where we were staying. When we called to warn the restaurant that we were running a bit late (another theme of the trip) and asked if we could push our reservation back a bit, the answer was a brusque “NO.” So we dropped everything and ran through the crowds of Les Halles and arrived before they could give our table away. Good thing we got that workout because the portions are huge. And quite tasty, though not tasty enough to become one of my favorite Paris bistros. (I’ll tell you about them in another post.)
We had tickets to the opera for our last night, Samson et Delila, which was amazing and didn’t end until about 11 or 11:30. We could have gone for dinner someplace near the Bastille (so hip, places stay open late) but we had to pack AND we had some snacks we’d accumulated and a huge portion of beef cheeks and macaroni, left over from the previous night at Chez Denise, waiting for us at the apartment. (Yes, we asked to take it home. No, they weren’t happy about it. Yes, we were glad we did.)
La Varenne Cooking School, founded in Paris in 1975 by the wonderful Anne Willan, added courses in Burgundy, at Château du Feÿ, in 1988. Students got to live in the château while learning the essentials of French cooking. It had always been a dream of mine to earn a diploma from La Varenne, but the stars just never aligned. I did have the incredible good fortune, however, to meet Anne when she moved to Los Angeles many years ago. She and her husband Mark have become good friends.
Over lunch recently they told me they had sold the château and that the new owners would be taking it over in the next few months. They loved the place, but the time had come to pass the property on to the next owners (they will be the eighth). They knew I had a trip to Paris planned and offered to arrange a visit of the château if I liked. I quickly accepted and started looking at the train schedules from Paris to Sens, a nearby town.
My dear friends, Billi and Marni, and I visited the famous covered market of Sens and had a little lunch in town before calling a taxi to take us to the château. The approach, in the rain, was magnificent, a treat for us and our taxi driver. Click here for another way to arrive.
The caretaker took us around the almost 400-year old building and into the gardens, including the potager, which Amanda Hesser wrote about in her book, The Cook and the Gardener.
I could imagine my friends living there, walking through the forest, greeting guests, laughing, and being thankful.
I’m happy I was able to visit a place that is so special to them.
I’m just back from Paris feeling inspired. In particular, I am inspired by a dinner my friend V threw at his apartment in St. Germain. It was the perfect evening.
V’s charming girlfriend T was there, his college-student daughter L, and his friends, whom I’d never met, Anne and Martin. I love a party with a mix of people of different ages, backgrounds, and perspectives. Plus, it’s always nice to meet someone new. Anne and Martin are just delightful people who were on their way back home to North Carolina from Portugal via Paris. Over cold Tattinger, we nibbled on pistachios brought back from Iran and pâté en croûte from Lyon and talked about travel, friends, and the election. The Europeans can’t understand what’s going on–Trump!?–and neither could any of us Americans in the group.
We moved to the beautifully set dining table for lamb stew with chanterelles, braised fennel, and another vegetable I couldn’t identify. I had seconds. Somehow I still had room for cheeses, thank goodness. V had sourced them at his favorite fromager one arrondissement over, in the 5th. A fine mix of perfectly ripe goat’s, cow’s, and sheep’s cheese. Yes, they’re amazing cheeses, but part of what makes the French cheese course so great is the baguette that goes along with it. And next came the homemade apple tart, served with a choice of Berthillon ice creams–salted caramel, chocolate, and vanilla. I sampled them all.
I thank V for a special memory, for the inspiration to throw more Sunday-night dinner parties, and for new friendships. Anne and Martin come to LA regularly. I’ll invite them for dinner at my place when they do!