Yank Sing, San Francisco

29 09 2010

Over a year later, the quest to find soup dumplings in Paris continues with no luck.  As such, it’s one of a short list of foods that Nick and I actively seek out when we’re in the States.  We took a very short trip to San Francisco (sorry we missed each other, Hungry Dog!) and on the agenda was dim sum.

my favorite Chinese food as a child.

Our all-too-willing friend Dave courteously escorted us to Yank Sing, home of some of San Francisco’s best dim sum, or so I’m told.  We sat down to lunch in the crowded dining room and immediately the carts started rolling by.  We picked up fried shrimp, shrimp and asparagus wrapped in bacon,

bacon wrapped?  Yes, please!

and steamed pork buns.

hom bao

Then we remembered why we had come.

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Cooking Colonial in Paris (Project Food Blog Challenge #2)

26 09 2010

There’s a downside to cooking a lot and experimenting with all types of international cooking: when Foodbuzz challenges you to make a classic dish from a cuisine with which you’re unfamiliar, the pickings can be slim.  French is out, for obvious reasons (e.g. I live there).  As is American (e.g. I am one).  Mexican, Chinese, and Indian all get a fair share of play on my table.  I have been known to cook Japanese, Russian, and Italian.  And I’ve cooked Bulgarian, English, Thai, North African, Vietnamese, and German, too.

I thought about cooking feijoada, the Portuguese/Brazilian bean and meat stew.  I even asked one of the Portuguese women at work for her recipe.  But somehow it wasn’t wacky enough.  (I mean, I’ve done pig’s ears and feet before.)  I asked my sister-in-law, who is Filipina, if she had any classic family recipes.  She sent me a very tasty-sounding recipe for chicken adobo.  The same day, Nick came home from work with a recipe from one of his colleagues.  A Frenchman who used to live in West Africa, notably Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, had given him a recipe for mafé, a type of groundnut stew.  It varies widely from country to country, but is popular throughout the region.  At its heart it is a basic braised chicken (or lamb, or beef, but never pork) dish, but the spicy tomato and peanut-based sauce combines familiar-to-me ingredients in a very unfamiliar way.  The recipe also came with specific instructions as to an appropriate beverage – jus de bissap, a chilled, sweetened tea made from hibiscus flowers.  I was seduced.

1. Athithane, 2. Sweet potatoes & Manioc, 3. Bissap bags, 4. “Produits Exotiques”

Living in France can have its disadvantages, too, especially when it comes to cooking something not French.  (The challenge is reduced somewhat if the country in question is a former colony of France, which Senegal was until 1960.)  Fortunately, I live in a very diverse neighborhood in Paris, and there are a handful of “exotic product” shops selling products from places as far apart as Africa, India, and China.  I found this tiny one on my way to the bank Saturday morning, and they had everything I was looking for: sweet potatoes, bissap (the aforementioned hibiscus flowers), and ginger.  I love poking around in the foreign food stores here, because I never know what I’m going to find.  In this case, I succeeded in keeping focused, so after picking up the necessities, and a quick stop at the butcher for a chicken, I headed home to get cooking.

1. Boning Knife, 2. Scissors, 3. Cleaver

Aside from being in French, all the recipes I found for mafé called for whole chickens, cut up.  In the spirit of authenticity, I channeled my inner butcher and cut the bird into ten pieces – two legs, two thighs, two wings, and two breasts, halved.  I saved the backbone to make stock at a later date.  The vegetable components in the recipes varied wildly, but onions, carrots and sweet potatoes featured in several, so I figured they would make a fairly classic stew.  Like any good French-trained cook, I got all my mise en place together before starting to cook.

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Victorian Square, Sparks

23 09 2010

Is it gilding the lily to prolong a vacation that was already a month long?  One that has now been over for almost three weeks?  Maybe so, but I’m doing it anyway.  I still have vacation food photos to share, and they’re of some of my favorite places and foods in the world.  This one leans more toward favorite places, but you know the food is good, too, or they wouldn’t be my favorite places.

Some of my favorite eating and drinking establishments
1. The Nugget 2. Blind Onion Pizza 3. O’Ski’s Pub 4. Great Basin Brewing Co.

Sparks, Nevada (the middle “a” sounds like the one in “hat,” not “blah”) has been a sort of home-away-from-home for me for a long time.  (Except for the half-year I lived there, right after moving back to the US from France for the first time.  You can imagine the culture shock.)  Victorian Square, aka B Street, was the epicenter of my life there.  I spent many a happy hour at the Nugget Casino’s Orozko bar, drinking half-price drinks and eating tapas, and a few late nights at their blackjack and roulette tables.  I worked at the Great Basin Brewing Company, and I go back for a few pints and meals every time I’m in town.

Black and Blue burger at Great Basin Brewing Co.

I always have a hard time deciding between the signature Black and Blue burger and the fish and chips.  On this particular occasion, I went with the former – a juicy burger seasoned with Cajun blackening spices and topped with blue cheese.  It was every bit as flavorful as I remembered it.  Since this was our second lunch there in a week, and I’d had a chance to chat with the head chef, Nick got a special experimental sandwich he was working on.

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On Fear and Marmalade (Project Food Blog Challenge #1)

19 09 2010

If you read a lot of food blogs, you’ve probably already seen a post or two about Project Food Blog.  In case you’re not already up to speed, it’s a massive contest sponsored by Foodbuzz.  Ten rounds of challenges will whittle the 2,000 contestants down to one Food Blog Star, who will win $10,000 and a feature on the Foodbuzz site for a year.  I’m throwing my hat in the ring, and the first challenge is to write a post about what defines me as a food blogger, and why I think I should win Project Food Blog.

Meyer lemon tree (very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet...)

I started Croque-Camille when I moved to Paris in early 2008, wanting to eat my way through the City  of Lights and have a record of it all.  So far, the Parisian food adventures have ranged from greenmarkets to upscale pastry shops, from fabulous restaurants to home cooking, not to mention learning that they do, in fact, make good beer in France!  Two and a half years later, it’s still an adventure.

Another reason I started blogging was because I was interested in food writing, and wanted to try my hand and see how I liked it.  It turns out I do, as evidenced by the fact that I keep doing it despite acquiring a day job as a pâtissière in a French pastry shop.  I enjoy the work, but I’d love to make a living writing about food someday.  So why haven’t I written that cookbook yet?  To be brutally honest with myself: fear.  Fear of writer’s block, fear of the publication process, fear that someone else’s book is always going to be better, fear that no one will buy it or use it.  They say admitting it is the first step, so here I am, tackling the fear of unpopularity and the related fear of self-promotion.

I think I should win Project Food Blog because I am a unique voice on the blogging scene.  As a professional pastry chef, I work all day in a kitchen and still go home at night to cook and write about it.  My training has given me a wide base of knowledge, and I can write with authority on a number of food-related topics.  But that doesn’t mean I know it all.  I also have a nearly boundless enthusiasm for food, cooking, and eating.  I’m always on the lookout for new ingredients, better techniques, and am genuinely interested in the science of how cooking and baking work.  On Croque-Camille, I try to keep a good balance of recipes – both simple and showstoppers – interspersed with work stories (one of my most frequently asked questions is “what is it like to be a pastry chef in Paris?”), travel and dining experiences, and the occasional silliness.

Prepping the fruit for the marmalade

Speaking of conquering fears, there are very few cooking projects that give me pause.  Deep frying?  Love it.  Pie dough?  Piece of cake.  Baking with yeast?  You know it.  I’ve made jam before, but reading that marmalade strikes terror into the hearts of pastry chefs much more experienced than I made me hesitate.  How big or small should I cut the fruit?  Do I really need every molecule of pectin I can get?  What happens if I miss some seeds?  How do I know my jars are really sterilized?  What if it isn’t perfect and all that time and fruit is wasted?

Last month, during my summer vacation, I spent a week at my parents’ house.  They have a gorgeous Meyer lemon tree that produces more fruit than they know what to do with.  I wanted to help them preserve their bounty, and after much debate, I decided I would turn as much of it as I could into marmalade.

Lemon and his marmalade

Since I am a marmalade newbie, I followed a nice, straightforward recipe from Simply Recipes.   I dutifully chopped the lemons and saved the seeds and membranes to make pectin.  I boiled and stirred and boiled and stirred.  I carefully watched the temperature.  I did the frozen plate test, and nearly squealed with delight when the liquid finally jelled, just like it was supposed to.  I carefully ladled the hot marmalade into oven-sterilized jars (which is how I’m doing it from now on – no more messing around with tongs and boiling water) and set them on the counter to cool overnight.  And when I checked in the morning, the jars had sealed and the marmalade had set.  All of which is to say, it went off without a hitch, and now I may be hooked.  I can’t wait for citrus season to roll around so I can boil up more of those tangy-sweet, ever-so-slightly-bitter, jewel-toned jars of joy.  If that doesn’t teach me to face my fears head-on, I don’t know what will.

To illustrate how big these lemons are, that's a quart-size jar.

I hope you’ll stop by Foodbuzz’ Project Food Blog page and vote for me in the contest.  Voting opens at 6:00 am Pacific time on Monday, September 20th, and closes at 6:00 pm on Thursday the 23rd.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Like Flies To Honey?

11 09 2010

Disclaimer: This is not the post I originally intended to write today, but sometimes things happen and you just have to share them.  There may be swearing in this post.  I can’t help it – it was an exciting day- though I usually subscribe to the Arrested Development school of thought, where the bleeps are funnier than the actual cursing.

I am in the process of making the most exciting dessert I’ve made in a long time.  Maybe ever.  And I haven’t even tasted it yet.  But wow, my heart is racing.

Mmmm... caramelized honey

So there I was, innocently caramelizing some honey, taking its temperature because it’s hard to tell by color with honey and I’d hate to burn it.  Suddenly, something flies in the open window.  This, in itself, is not an unusual occurrence, and I saw no cause for alarm.  Until it started heading for me, standing at the stove.  A bee!  I stepped back, dripping honey on the floor, and it hovered around a bit before flying back out the way it came.  Whew!

The bee attacks!

The first bee attack. I wanted to get a picture of the bee, because I thought it was funny that the minute I start boiling honey a bee appears. Where am I, cartoon land?

I returned the honey to the heat and began peeling and slicing apples, when I heard a buzzing sound emanating from the window, near the ceiling.  “Damn it!  Go away!” I yell at the intruder.  “Just. Get. Out!”  Heedless of my warning, the bee aims for my sticky, apple juice-covered hands, and I become acutely aware of the bareness of my feet.  (The one time I’ve been stung by an insect it was on the bottom of my foot, and I am in no hurry to repeat the experience.)  Again I back away, knocking over the garbage can in the process, only to be ambushed on the other side by ANOTHER bee, who has sneakily entered via the other window.  It is about now that I notice the cat staring rather intently at the third window, this one closed because it is blocked by the dining table.  She seems to have cornered a third bee.  I say a brief prayer that she isn’t allergic to bee stings, because I really don’t want to make an emergency trip to the vet today, before one of the bees flies at me and manages to chase me into the hallway.

ring of apples

I find a safe haven in the WC (like many French apartments, mine has a separated bathroom: one room with the toilet – the WC – and another with the shower and sink) and close the door.  Ah, safety.  Now the Rational and Irrational parts of my brain have a chance to talk.

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I Get Older, They Stay The Same Age

9 09 2010

I’m not done recounting my vacation food adventures just yet, but going back to work after an extended break is always a bit of a shock, and I have some thoughts:

  • I am continually amazed by the physical and intellectual incompetence of the incoming apprentices.  When I ask a 17-year-old to multiply 200 by 6 and am met with a completely blank (not to mention slightly incredulous) stare, it really frightens me for the future.
  • Did they do anything at all in August?  I nibbled a bite of mousse cake Monday morning that definitely tasted like it had been in the freezer for a month.
  • Holy houndstooth, my feet are tired.
  • Note to co-workers – “You’ve put on weight” is pretty much the last thing anybody wants to hear, ever.  Especially if it’s the first thing out of your mouth when you haven’t seen someone in a month.  “You’ve cut your hair,” or “you look tan” would be much more appropriate, and welcome.
  • My hands are apparently still made out of asbestos, and I still like burning things.
  • I also still enjoy the zen of chocolate making, especially if I can claim my own workspace.
  • Looks like the chef is laying down some discipline with the apprentices this year.  Good.
  • Here’s a piece of advice for anyone starting out working in a kitchen (or a lot of other places, I’m sure): Never complain to someone whose shift started before yours about how tired you are.  Another related one is: Never tell someone who works six days a week that your (two-day) weekend was too short.  Thankfully, this is no longer an issue I have to deal with.
  • I’ve been having a bizarre reaction to my alarm clock this week.  Instead of the usual “No, not time yet, snooze,” I’ve been in complete denial about it.  As in “Huh?  That’s not my alarm.”  At least I’ve been pretty good about getting up once reality kicks in.
  • Is it really fall already?  When did that happen?

On this day in 2008: Easy Tapenade Salad Dressing

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Provence or Southern California?

6 09 2010

chandeliers and exposed beams

In concept, dining at a restaurant on an organic lavender farm sounds very much like something one would do while vacationing in the South of France.  My vacation was not in Provence this year, but I spent part of it in Southern California.  My mom, inspired by my lavender-mint chip ice cream, thought it would be fun to have dinner one night at the Grand Oak Steakhouse, which just happens to be situated on an organic farm in Cherry Valley, California.  She was right.  Every summer they host a lavender festival, and she had been blown away by the lavender crème brûlée the restaurant served for the occasion.

Dining room at the Grand Oak

So my parents, Nick, and I found ourselves in the grand dining room at sunset.  The view, looking out over blooming lavender fields with a spectacular salmon-colored sky, was delightful.  I liked the décor inside, too.  The mosaic of paintings, the high ceilings with exposed beams, and the old-timey farm gear artfully displayed combined to create a space that was comfortably luxurious.  The menu changes seasonally, and features vegetables, herbs, and meats grown or raised right there on the farm.

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Cactus L.A.

2 09 2010

Before I left on vacation, a friend of mine asked what I planned to do after the cupcakes were done.  I had two responses: eat Mexican food until it comes out my ears, and drink my weight in American craft beers.

Pretty much the taco stand of my dreams.

While I may not have accomplished either if these goals in a literal sense, I certainly satisfied both cravings in a big way.  The first was largely thanks to Cactus.  Upon touching down in Los Angeles, my friend Courtney informed me that there was a really good taco stand just around the corner from her house in Koreatown.  Hooray!  Nick and I planned to take full advantage.

Taco from Cactus

First thing the next morning Nick was up early and out the door.  He came back with two tacos – carnitas and al pastor – and a big cup of coffee.  We happily devoured our breakfast, after which we cleaned ourselves up and headed straight back to Cactus for lunch.

Chile relleno platter at Cactus

I ordered a carne asada burrito, which was much bigger than it looked when it was all wrapped up in foil.  I ate as much as I could, but was unable to finish.  Just means I get a snack later on.  Nick went for the chile relleno platter.  He’s on a lifelong quest for the perfect chile relleno (other lifelong quests include best biscuits and gravy and ideal bloody mary) and he reckons that this one rivals his previous top contender:one eaten at a hole-in-the-wall in Juarez, Mexico a decade ago. We washed it down with (what else?) a bottle of Mexican Coke.


After lunch we hopped on a train headed inland to see my family.  Somehow, we ended up going out to Mexican for dinner that night, making that three Mexican meals in one day.  Not that I am complaining at all.  Pork tacos for breakfast, beef burrito for lunch, and grilled fish tacos for dinner?  I just wish I could do it again tomorrow.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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