A Vietnamese Apéro

29 06 2009

I know I’ve been a bit of an internet hermit lately.  Chalk it up to three and a half weeks in the USA, never in the same place more than four days.  It went by in a blur of smoked pork (no less than five pork shoulders and two whole roast pigs), friends, and family.  So I apologize for the sparse posting of late, and I promise to get back on track now that I’m home in Paris.

Box containing magical shrimp chips

You may recall that June is the month for French colonial-inspired food here on Croque-Camille.  Aside from North Africa, Vietnam is one of the most influential former colonies in contemporary France, especially in the culinary arena.  Doubtlessly, the cuisine of Vietnam shows some distinct French influences.  I understand that the best baguettes in the world outside France are to be found in Vietnam and Vietnamese bakeries around the world.  (One of these days I’ll have to go test that hypothesis personally.)  It can also be argued that much of the Vietnamese culinary vocabulary derives from French.  I’ve participated in discussions on whether or not pho, the classic Vietnamese soup is named for pot-au-feu, the classic French one-pot meal; whether the Vietnamese word for beef, bo, could possibly have come from the French boeuf; or if the French pain may have inspired the Vietnamese banh (this one being the most likely as I am unsure of any bread-making tradition in Vietnam before the French arrived).  These discussions are rarely conclusive, but seeing as I am a language nerd, I enjoy them anyway.

The tasty opposite of Shrinky-Dinks

Having already lauded the merits of banh mi and pho, I thought I’d highlight one of my favorite easy apéro snacks: Beignets de Crevettes.  Or, as they’re known in our house, Shrimp Chips.  I buy the ones from Vietnam at the Asian market, which are made from manioc (aka cassava, yucca, or sometimes tapioca) – there are some imitation ones with filler like potato available in regular grocery stores, but I haven’t tried them.  Why, when the real thing is cheaper?  Anyway, look at these.  I never cease to be amazed by these things.  Above, I’m holding six in my hand (please ignore the pallid, pre-vacation skin) to give you an idea of their size before frying.  The way they puff up in the hot oil is a source of endless fascination for me.

Frying Shrimp Chips, elapsed time, maybe 10 seconds.

They seem to be made up of thousands of tiny air pockets, just waiting for the chance to expand.  In the oil, they fold and wriggle until they double or triple in size and flatten out into crispy, lightly golden chips.  I like to eat them in two or three bites, savoring the way the bubbles dissolve on my tongue.  They taste vaguely of shrimp, but mostly it’s the salty crunch I enjoy.

Golden fried shrimp chips

Just because I have to buy them at the Asian market, though, doesn’t mean that these are considered at all exotic in modern-day Paris.  The bar around the corner from my apartment serves them at happy hour, which is a welcome change from the more standard peanuts or pretzels.  Why these haven’t caught on in the United States, I have no idea.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.


For The Father Who Has Everything

20 06 2009

I was lucky enough to spend some time with my Dad this week.  I’ll admit that Father’s Day didn’t really enter into it when we were making our vacation plans, but it worked out that both Nick and I get to see our fathers this June.  Father’s Day gifts can be difficult – you know your Dad probably doesn’t need any more stuff, but you want to commemorate the day and a card somehow doesn’t seem like enough.  But what do you get for the Dad Who Has Everything?

Piping and poaching Parisian Gnocchi

A huge mess in his kitchen.  I mean dinner.  A heartfelt, home-cooked meal is a surefire winner.  Everyone needs to eat, right?  So this year, that’s exactly what we’re doing.  For my Dad, whose honorary Father’s Day was on Wednesday, I drew up a menu consisting of Parisian gnocchi (pictured above – can you guess what I’m doing?), grilled salmon and zucchini (harvested from my parents’ garden), and lemon profiteroles for dessert.  I printed up some cute little menus on plain card stock and put my Mom in charge of setting the table on the back patio.  The meal was a hit and my Dad was surprised and impressed.

Gnocchi Parisienne

This was my first ever attempt at making Parisian gnocchi, but it won’t be my last.  These things are basically poached savory choux pastry (the very same dough used for the cheesy poofs, in fact, only seasoned with black pepper instead of mustard and chili powder) and they are so delightfully light and easy compared to their potato-based Italian counterparts.  Instead of piping out bite-size puffs, I pinched bits of the dough into simmering water and cooked them until they floated.  I spooned them out onto a sheet pan lined with a clean dishtowel until I was ready to finish cooking.  Inspired by a recipe from Ratioby Michael Ruhlman, I sauteed the poached gnocchi in bacon fat and tossed them with bacon, peas, and grilled corn.

Parisian Gnocchi with Bacon, Peas, and Grilled Corn

Next time, I will be sure to do this in a nonstick pan, as the gnocchi stuck to the stainless steel one I was using.  No problem, I just added a little more bacon fat and turned the heat up, but I wouldn’t want to be the one cleaning that pan later.  I made the same amount of choux pastry as I made for cheesy poofs, combined with four or five strips of bacon (chopped) two ears of corn and about 2/3 of a cup of peas, and it served five of us as a substantial appetizer (it could definitely feed two as a main course).  A note on the flour: if you can’t find pastry flour, a mixture of half cake flour and half unbleached all-purpose flour is an indistinguishable substitute.

On to the main course…

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Panna Cotta Jewels

16 06 2009

Many moons ago, I bought five silicone molds at the market.  The main reason I did this was to get my hands on these gorgeous little jewel molds.  I could just imagine the elegant canapes and sophisticated dessert bites I would make, you know, for all those black-tie cocktail parties I host.  Since that is actually someone else’s life, the jewel molds languished on the shelf, passed over in favor of the domes or the muffin cups.  And then strawberry season rolled around.

Strawberries and lait ribot

And I was seized with the desire to make panna cotta.  I had some gelatin leaves in the cupboard, just waiting for me to come up with a reason for purchasing them.  And that reason came along when I bought too many strawberries one morning at the market – they were bright red, super fragrant, grown in France, and only 5 euros a kilo!  So I was faced with the challenge of how to eat a kilo of ultra-ripe strawberries before they went bad.  If only all challenges in life were this delicious.

Perfect, schmerfect

Panna cotta seemed like a good spring dessert – minimal effort, infinitely adaptable, and I could finally use my jewel molds!  Panna cotta is oddly named, in that it literally means “cooked cream” in Italian, though you can make it without doing any cooking at all.  For mine, I just blended some of those gorgeous strawberries with some lait ribot (a new favorite ingredient around here) because I love the way the milky tang of buttermilk acts in desserts, and I thought it would keep the whole thing very fresh and light on the palate.  Then I blended in some melted gelatin sheets, which immediately coagulated in the cold liquid.  No problem, a few short shots in the microwave and it was ready to pour into my molds.

Now what to serve them on?

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Tagine d’Agneau

11 06 2009

I’m afraid anything I put up after the runaway success of the Cheesy Poof post (2000 hits in one day!?) is going to feel anticlimactic.  Still, I think it’s high time I get back to the business of blogging about food, as the adventures continue to happen.  I don’t want anyone to feel out of the loop.  Continuing with the North African theme,  there is at least one dish from the former colonies that has ingrained itself into the French culinary lexicon: tagine.

Braised lamb with Maghreb spice

And why not?  At its simplest, tagine is a dish of braised meat, named for the traditional cooking vessel, which is a conical earthenware dish.  The good news is that you can make a tagine in a dutch oven just as easily.  The meat is seasoned with cinnamon, saffron, hot peppers, preserved lemons, olives, dried fruit, or just about any combination thereof.  Recipes for tagines abound, employing all kinds of meat from chicken and rabbit to beef and lamb and sometimes even fish! (Never pork, though.)  As far as I can tell, no two recipes are alike.  It is, however, pretty much always delicious.  The one pictured above was Nick’s creation, a combination of recipes from Robuchon, Clotilde, and a French newspaper.  (Just to illustrate how much a part of daily French cuisine this North African dish has become.)  He used lamb and dried apricots, as well as olives and preserved lemons – which I recommend adding nearer the beginning of the cooking process than the end – and I woke up from my requisite Saturday afternoon nap to an apartment filled with heavenly smells.  We served it over barley couscous procured from the local halal butcher (along with the majority of the other ingredients – yay one-stop shopping!) which is much more complicated to cook than we thought.  Fortunately Robuchon had us covered there, too, and we followed his instructions for steaming the grains three separate times.  That is, the couscous is steamed three times, not that it took us three attempts!

Later, after getting my copy of The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz, which I devoured in a matter of hours (I can’t find white wine vinegar either!  Why doFrench jeans have zippers all over?), I found that he, too, had included a recipe for tagine.  I could go on and on about what a fun book it is, but I’ll just say that if you want to know what it’s really like to live in Paris, read it.  And then go make a big, fragrant pot of tagine.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Cheesy Poofs Kick Ass!

3 06 2009

Airy Interior

The apéro is one of the most fully embraced French institutions in our house.  Paris doesn’t have the preponderance of Happy Hours that you find in most American cities (“Le Happy Hours” usually go from about 5-8pm which is nice, but beers are still 5 euros – not exactly a deal), so Nick and I almost always have an apéro when he gets home from work.  Often the nibbles consist of peanuts or pretzels or something equally simple.  But if we’re having company, or I’m feeling energetic, we’ll do something a little more involved.  The ever-popular bacon-onion dip makes frequent appearances, but the subject of cheesy poofs has been coming up more and more.

Mise en place for savory pâte à choux

Gougères are a French classic: airy puffs of savory pâte à choux flavored with cheese (traditionally Gruyère).  They make perfect little bites for the apèro – bite-size, no plates or forks required, and very very more-ish.  Being a pâtissière, I have made a batch or two of choux in my day, so I really have no excuse not to make these more often.

Steps to perfect pâte à choux
1.Cooking pâte à choux, 2. Savory choux dough, 3. Not mixed in, 4. Mixed in, 5. Testing the pâte à choux, 6. Test Successful!

And yet I don’t.  Pâte à choux, which literally translates to “cabbage paste” (sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?), is named for the way the baked puffs resemble little heads of cabbage, so the story goes.  It is actually a quick dough to put together – I made these while Nick was in the shower – and once baked, the piped choux, be it in the form of puffs, éclairs, wheels, or even swans, freezes very well.  The problem is that the process sounds a bit fussy and complicated when in practice it isn’t.  You start out by explaining that you boil water, milk (choux made without milk will be drier, less tender, less beautifully golden brown, and all around less appetizing), butter salt and sugar.  Then you stir in the flour and any dried spices you may be using and cook it until the dough forms a ball.  And then you have to stir in eggs one at a time until the ideal consistency is reached before folding in grated cheese, piping it out into the desired shapes and baking it.  (And if you leave out the cheese and spices and use a little more sugar, you can make any of the myriad of French sweets based on the ultra-versatile dough.)

Finishing touches for Gougères
1. Choux plus cheese, 2. Piping bag, 3. Piping out cheesy poofs, 4. Piped choux

I know, it all sounds like a bit of a hassle.  You just have to trust me when I say it’s not.  And the payoff – savory, cheese-inflected, French pastries that somehow just beg for a more plebeian name – is way more than you would expect from such a minimal amount of effort.

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Harissa is the New Chipotle

1 06 2009

For June, instead of focusing on a French region, I’ve decided to cover some of the regions outside France that have influence on or have been influenced by French cuisine.  First off, the cuisine of the Maghreb, which comprises Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  The traditional dishes of these former French colonies in North Africa are not at all hard to find or make in Paris.  Couscous is a staple of the modern French diet, and the once-exotic flavors of preserved lemons and harissa (a paste of ground chilis and other spices) are now relatively commonplace.

Hand-delivered harissa, Handmade merguez

I happen to work with a guy from Tunisia, and when I expressed an interest in spicy foods, harissa in particular, he offered to bring me some handmade harissa direct from the source.  How could I refuse?  Opening it, I was struck by its deep reddish-brown color and spicy-smoky scent.  This was a far cry from the bright orange condiment I see so often in Paris.  And it tastes wonderful.  Spicy, yes, but also rich and smoky with a pleasant deep sweetness.  Sound anything like everyone’s favorite smoked jalapeños?

On a recent trip to our closest Halal butcher (It bears repeating that those Halal guys really know their way around a roast chicken!), I noticed that they had handmade merguez for sale.  Merguez, for the uninitiated, is a spicy lamb sausage originating from, where else, North Africa.  So our Sunday morning meal was a done deal.  Merguez, scrambled eggs, and harissa – Breakfast of Champions!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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