Food Fair, continued

19 03 2008

The next hour began with chocolates.  We tasted pear and vanilla caramel-filled chocolates, crunchy praline chocolates, and a peach confection that the chocolatier informed me was made from a peach unique to France.  I asked him where he got his chocolate from and the answer (as it was almost everywhere I asked) was “South America, specifically Venezuela and the Caribbean.”  These were much better than the olive oil chocolates I had so recently encountered, giving me hope for the rest of the chocolate booths.

Next we had the pleasure of partaking in a bite of pure foie gras d’oie.  (That’s goose, for you non-francophones out there.)  The artisan, Stéphane Leprettre, explained that he didn’t add anything to the foie gras but salt.  It was fantastic.  Nick declared it some of the best foie gras he had ever tasted.  It was certainly distinct from duck foie gras (which is less expensive and therefore more common), with a mellow, delicate flavor unlike the voluptuousness of duck.

I was excited to have the opportunity to sample so many high-end French wines, but the next stop, Vignobles Pierre-Emmanuel Janoueix, was disappointing to say the least.  We were poured a taste of 2002 Pomerol which tasted a little watery and flat.  Certainly nothing to write home about.  But when we asked to try another, the man condescendingly told me that the point of the Salon was to go from booth to booth, and that basically, he wouldn’t be pouring more than one taste for anyone.  Good luck with that, buddy!  Maybe you should start out with a better wine, if that’s your attitude.

After a brief macaron break, the Puligny-Montrachet line was too long, so we made our way to the Pessac-Leognan.  We were served a 2002 Château Haut-Gardère, which was delicious, and a 2000, even smoother than the 2002.  I paused for a nibble of some lucques olives (great olive flavor with a dense, almost meaty texture) on the way to a stand with cheeses from the Pyrénées.  They were giving out samples of an aged goat/sheep cheese that had a piquant, salty flavor and an almost crumbly texture.  Their pure sheep’s milk cheese was similar, but stronger and a little mustier.  And then we left the “small room.”

Upon entering the “big room,” we were greeted with this sight:

Sausages, piled high

We were distracted, however, by the Compagnie Bretonne’s smorgasbord of seafood salads.  We ate thon à l’estragon (tuna with tarragon), and rillettes of sardine and mackerel.  After a rich, eggy slice of cannelé, and a spoonful of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, we found ourselves staring at a large case full of interesting-looking sausages.


They appeared to be composed of many thin layers.  We learned after tasting it, that it is, in fact, formed by rolling up the large intestines of pigs and stuffing them inside another large intestine.  I must say, it was the tastiest intestine-only preparation I have ever had.

We refreshed our palates with a couple of seaweed canapés, one of which featured a concoction called “norinade,” which I took to be a play on tapenade.  It was good – not overly salty with a definitive nori flavor.  Moving back to heavier things, we had some smoked filet mignon of pork followed by an incredible Italian cheese: Gialline.  It is made with cow’s milk and has a flavor and texture similar to good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Of course there was more wine…

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Mac N Cheese: A Classic French Dish

17 03 2008

One of my first homework assignments in culinary school was to make macaroni and cheese using a cheese I had never heard of before and a pasta shape I had never used before.  Having recently returned from my first stint in France, the cheese thing posed a bit of a challenge.  I ended up bringing in Pennette Zamorano, being less well-versed in Spanish cheeses.  (The pasta was a bit of a cop-out, as I had used penne before – pennette being merely smaller penne – but Trader Joe’s wasn’t exactly overflowing with exotic pasta shapes.)  The results: good choice of cheese, overcooked pasta, sauce a little thick, broke when I reheated it.

Since then I have refined my macaroni and cheese recipe, but the principle remains the same.  The most important part of the dish is the béchamel sauce.  It must be creamy, not too heavy or starchy, and thin enough to accommodate large quantities of cheese.  In classic French cuisine, a béchamel with cheese (specifically Gruyère) incorporated into it is known as Mornay sauce.  Pour this over roasted or steamed cauliflower and you have Cauliflower Mornay.  Use pepper jack and cheddar and you’ve got yourself some upscale queso (or nacho cheese sauce, as it’s known to non-Texans).  Add it to pasta, and you have mac n cheese.  Over time I have come to the conclusion that a mixture of half sharp cheddar (preferably Tillamook) and half gouda is my preferred mac n cheese blend.  I also like a bit of smoked sausage, like kielbasa, mixed in for texture and flavor contrast as well as protein content.

I had pretty much resigned myself to going cheddar-less while in France, so you can imagine my surprise when, on a recent supermarket jaunt, I saw a wedge of red-waxed orange cheese prominently labeled “cheddar.”  Of course I had to buy it.  When preliminary taste tests determined that it was, in fact, real cheddar cheese, and not some weird French interpretation thereof, I knew I would be making mac n cheese in the near future.

So on Saturday, after a long afternoon fighting crowds at the BHV sale, I went to gather my mise en place for the mac n cheese.  Gouda is no problem to find here, nor is milk, pasta, or sausage.

Mac N Cheese Mise

I brought it all home and came to a horrible realization: I don’t have a whisk here.  Nick, ever confident in my culinary abilities, convinced me to make the béchamel using a wooden spoon.  I was also stressing out over the ratio of butter to flour to milk, and he (wisely) suggested that I stop being a baker for the evening and wing it.  So I melted some butter, added some flour, and stirred it over medium heat until it darkened ever so slightly and no longer smelled raw.  I then added milk a tiny bit at a time, stirring furiously and constantly with my spoon so as not to have any lumps in the finished sauce.  When I had incorporated enough milk to make a fairly thin sauce (it will thicken later), I threw in a bay leaf and seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper.  After about 15 minutes of simmering, stirring constantly, I had a nice béchamel about the thickness of heavy cream.  Into this I stirred the grated cheeses, tasted for seasoning, wished for a pinch of fresh nutmeg, and my Mornay was  ready.

Meanwhile, the pasta had been cooking, the sausage browning, and the camera malfunctioning.  I folded the pasta and sauce together, sliced the sausage with my brand-new Sabatier knife (yay!), and stirred that in as well. 

Mac n cheese

And got the camera back up and running.  As hearty a meal as this is, I thought we could use a nice salad alongside.  We had some green beans in the fridge, and I had just picked up some tasty cherry tomatoes, so I decided to combine them into a salade tiède.  I quickly sautéed the green beans in a little olive oil and removed the pan from the heat.  Then I halved the tomatoes and added them straight to the pan.  Another drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, a few twists of black pepper, and some freshly chopped parsley, and we were in business.

Salade tiède de tomates cerises et haricots verts

Thanks in no small part to the brightly colored salad, it made an attractive plate.  (And my mother always told me that a colorful plate was a healthy one.)

Mac n cheese dinner

Oh, yeah, and it tasted good, too.

Choucroute, part Deux

6 03 2008

Choucroute is French for sauerkraut.  Choucroute garnie is a specialty of the Alsace region and may be the second-heaviest dish in the French repertoire.  (The first being cassoulet, though I’m sure this is debatable.)  Given that I had a bowlful of leftover homemade sauerkraut, I decided to attempt choucroute garnie.  I was up in Montmartre yesterday afternoon on a pâtisserie-scouting quest, and I had looked into the neighborhood charcuteries and chosen one to visit.  Of course, this particular charcuterie is closed from 1-4 pm, so I had to time my visit accordingly.  Naturally, it was still closed when I showed up at 4:15.  No indication of whether they planned to open later that day, just the cold metal shutters of a closed French shop.  Well, this can’t be the only place to get sausages in Montmarte.  Sure enough, two or three doors down was a butcher shop which had at least ten kinds of sausage.  When I got to the front of the line I told the butcher that I wanted to make choucroute garnie and asked which sausages I needed.  He proceeded to point to three different sausages as well as some large chunks of unsliced bacon.  He asked how many I was cooking for and I replied, “Deux.”  So he pulled out two francfort sausages, a fat red sausage whose name I have forgotten, and a piece of poitrine.

This much meat for two people?!

This is, apparently, the necessary meat to make choucroute garnie for two.  After making my purchase, the butcher advised me on how to cook each item.  I nodded politely, a plan already forming in my head.

Despite the poitrine already being cooked, I decided to trim the skin off and render it a bit more.  I also cut some thin strips to form the base of my choucroute garnie, because… why not?

Mmmmm… hog fat

Once that started to brown, I added a couple of sliced onions to deglaze the pot.  When they were softened I added some roughly chopped garlic and let it become fragrant.  Next came about a glass’ worth of Alsatian wine, followed by the sauerkraut, some chicken broth, two bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme, a clove, and black pepper.  I nestled the remaining chunk of poitrine (cut in half) in the pot, covered it, and turned the heat to medium-low.


After it had simmered for about an hour, filling the house/room with irresistible smells, I sliced up some fingerling potatoes and added them to the pot along with the sausages and a pinch of salt.  I let it cook for another half an hour or so, until the potatoes were tender and had absorbed the flavors of the choucroute.

…and after

Here you have it, folks: choucroute garniefor two!  Yeah, right.  I served it with the rest of the wine, an Alsatian Sylvaner, and that was all the accompaniment it needed.

 Choucroute Garnie

It was a pretty easy dish to make (in one pot, no less!), and as a bonus, we have lots of delicious leftovers.  That red sausage was so good, it elicited a “wow!” from both Nick and me.  It was smoky, but with a distinctive flavor we couldn’t quite name.  The white sausages were good, too, akin to hot dogs (frankfurters) in color and texture, but with a meatier, warm-spiced flavor.  The poitrine basically disintegrated into the dish, infusing every bite with meaty goodness.  I highly recommend you try this at home.


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