Au Passage

29 08 2011


I’m a latecomer to the wine bar bandwagon.  I admit that for a long time I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about.  The idea of having to plan ahead and make reservations just to have a few drinks and nibbles with friends put me off.  I mean, such a meal would seem to be inherently spontaneous – reserving just feels contrary to the whole aesthetic.  And yet, Au Passage may have changed my mind.

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Adventures in the Languedoc

25 07 2011

This post is not about food.  Mostly.  At least most of my vacation pictures don’t feature food, in a vast departure from my normal routine of photographing my meals and pretty much nothing else.  Not that we didn’t eat well during our week in the Languedoc.  Our first stop was Montpellier, where we stayed with a colleague of Nick’s.  He took us to Les Estivales, a weekly food-and-wine event in downtown Montpellier.  A glass and three 10cl pours of wine cost just four euros, and there were food stands up and down the main drag, selling everything from paella to aligot.  The three of us indulged in mussels, calamari, some skinny little sausages that looked like SlimJims but tasted way better, some tuna-filled African “empanadas” whose proper name I have forgotten, a trio of vegetable-laden tartines, and probably a few more things that got lost somewhere between the third and fourth tastes of wine.  The next day we lunched at a café on the beach, and after sunning ourselves most of the afternoon (don’t forget your sunscreen, kids!) we stopped to pick up an array of seafood and vegetables which we grilled on our host’s balcony.

The next day Nick and I headed south.  We stopped in Béziers for lunch, and were pleasantly surprised by Le P’tit Semard, a cute little restaurant featuring fresh seasonal products from Béziers’ main market, conveniently located across the street.  I say we were pleasantly surprised because when you arrive in an unfamiliar French town at 2pm on a Sunday, the chances of you finding something to eat, period, are slim.  That it would also be a worthwhile meal is almost too much to hope for, but we got lucky this time.

Beautiful, colorful stained glass in Béziers

After lunch we decided to take a stroll through the town, and stopped to take a look at the Madeleine church, originally built in the 10th century.  The architecture was definitely different from the Gothic style with its sturdy stone walls, square construction, and few small windows.  But these windows had some amazing colors.  Outside we read some of the history of the church, which was mostly horrible and bloody.  At one point, there was a massacre, the leader of which was quoted as saying, “Kill them all.  God will know his own.”


Under semi-threatening skies we took the bridge out of town with the top down on our convertible (did I mention that we rented a convertible?  We did, and it was awesome.) but put it back up before hitting the main road, not wanting to get caught in a sudden rainstorm.

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Périgord’s Greatest Hits

29 12 2009

I’m afraid Périgord is getting the short end of the stick this month.  Like I said before, Périgord is the home of French Christmas staples such as foie gras and chestnuts, which is why I chose it for December.  Unfortunately, my paying job is much more demanding in the winter, particularly in the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s.  So I haven’t had nearly as much time as I would have liked to research (read: taste) my way through Périgord.

Seasoning the foie

I did, however, with the help of Hopie, manage to put together a Christmas dinner très périgord.  Minus the truffles.  When it came down to  spending 23 euros on a 9-gram truffle or spending them on a 500-gram foie gras de canard, the choice was clear.  On Christmas day, I split the lobe in two, did my best to remove the vein without mangling the beautiful foie, then simply seasoned and seared it on both sides.  When the searing was done, I lowered the heat and let it continue cooking, covered, for a few more minutes.

Whole pan-roasted foie gras

After the foie was warmed through, I moved it to a plate and poured off all but a thin layer of fat from the pan.  I quickly sautéed some diced shallots, deglazed with a splash of balsamic vinegar, and stirred in some fig jam for a sauce that was absolutely heavenly spooned over thick slices of warm foie gras.  We washed it down with a glass of Monbazillac, a white dessert wine from (where else?) Périgord.  I’m not ashamed to admit that four of us polished off the entire big lobe (the small one has since become an unphotogenic but quite tasty pâté) before diving into the rest of our meal.

Speaking of the rest of the meal, Hope was enthusiastic about the Périgord theme, and contributed a delicious herbed chestnut soup to the feast.  The richness of the chestnuts was nicely balanced with woodsy rosemary and palate-awakening mint.  Of course I didn’t get any photos.  (Did I mention there was wine at this dinner?)  Nor did I get a single photo of the goose I had to go to eight butchers to find, which we roasted and ate with potatoes cooked in the drippings – a simplified version of the périgueux classic, pommes sarladaises.

All in all, a wonderful Christmas dinner and a great time spent with friends sharing some of our favorite activities: cooking and eating.  Just the way I like to spend my holidays.

In case I don’t get back here before Friday (and it doesn’t look like I will) Happy New Year!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Treasures of the Languedoc

25 11 2009

Sepia tone makes everything look classy.

I couldn’t possibly do Languedoc month without talking about the wine.  There is as much, if not more, acreage in the Languedoc devoted to the growing of grapes and production of wine as in Bordeaux.  Some of my very favorite French wines are from the Languedoc, including Fitou (rare, but if you find a bottle, pick it up, you won’t be sorry), Corbières, and Minervois.  The wines of the region generally use a similar blend of grapes as is used in the Rhône valley, heavy on the Syrah, Mouvèdre, Carignane, and Grenache.  The reds are fruity yet bold, with enough structure to make them worth lingering over, and usually very food-friendly, as well.  The best part?  They’re also some of the least expensive French wines!  Chalk it up to a lack of name recognition, but you really get a lot of bang for your buck when buying wines from the Languedoc.

Another important product of the Languedoc is rice.  The majority of rice grown in France is along the coast of the Languedoc, particularly in the marshy Camargue near the Rhône river delta.  Camargue is also an important source of France’s salt.

Sel Gros de Camargue

I usually use sel gros de Camargue in my cooking, its crystals being roughly the same size as Kosher salt.  It is slightly moist though, which gives me a feeling of indulgence – the stuff feels a lot more expensive than it is (around 1 euro a kilo).  Of course, where there’s salt, there’s fleur de sel.

Fancy finishing salt

Fleur de sel is the crunchy, extra-white “flowers” that form on the top of the regular sea salt crystals under the right conditions.  It’s a great finishing salt – try sprinkling it over a steak or salad just before serving, or even on bread with butter if you don’t have the butter with the salt crystals built in.

And now for an update on the duck confit.  Last week, I rinsed and dried the duck legs while I melted all the duck fat in the house.  There was a minor duck fat-related tragedy when I opened one of my three (!) jars and discovered that mold had sprouted inside.  I set it aside, and to make up for the missing fat – I wanted to make sure the legs would be amply covered in fat as they cooked – I added a bit of lard.  The smell of the garlicky duck as the confit did its thing for three hours was insanely good.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make one giant batch of this to save all winter – I wouldn’t mind filling my house with that smell every month.  Or every week, for that matter.

Duck legs, post-confiting

Now the confit, legs, fat, and all, is resting in the bottom of my fridge, waiting for the Thanksgiving hoopla to be over so I can turn it into cassoulet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Kir Bourguignon

9 10 2009

I know you’ve all been wondering when I was going to announce the French Region for October.  (Actually, I know you haven’t.  Statistics show that these “Regional French” posts are some of the least visited on this site.  And yet, some of the most searched… hmmm.)  At any rate, this is a region I’ve had planned since the beginning, and one I’m very excited about: Burgundy.  Bourgogne to the French.  I will be using the terms interchangeably.  Some of my favorite wines and cheeses in all of France come from Burgundy, not to mention some of the dishes that are inextricably linked with Classic French Cuisine, such as Boeuf Bourguignonne, Coq au Vin, and escargots.  (Let’s not forget gougères are also a Bourguignonne specialty.)  My trip is planned, and in honor of Dijon, whe’re I’m headed for a weekend, as well as in honor of Friday, I present to you Kir.

Kir by candlelight

Kir, a classic French apéritif, was invented by Félix Kir, a former mayor of Dijon (who I can’t stop imagining as the Bud Clark of France).  Cassis, aka blackcurrants, grow very well in Burgundy, so naturally the wine-loving populace came up with a way to make them alcoholic.  By soaking fresh cassis berries in alcohol, they extract a sweet liqueur heady with the aromas of the ripe fruit.  As the story goes, the drink was invented to make less-awesome white wine more drinkable by mixing it with one third crème de cassis.  And believe me, it does.  Cheers!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Corsican Summer and a Birth Announcement

9 09 2009

In an attempt to prolong the summer – I’ve been getting some great little poires Williams (Bartlett pears) in the CSA panier for the last couple of weeks, and their appearance has made me wistful – this month we will be visiting the cuisine of Corsica.  This Mediterranean island has changed hands many times over the years, belonging at various times to the Romans, Goths, and Berbers, just to name a few, but has belonged to France since the reign of Louis XV in the mid-eighteenth century.  Strangely, Corsica, despite its being situated in the middle of the sea, doesn’t have much of a seafood tradition.  No, the Corsicans embrace the mountain on which they live, and instead of fishing, grow grapevines along the coast.

Corsican red wines are made from a few different grapes: Nielluccio (alias Sangiovese in Italy), Vermentino,  and the unique Sciacarello, which makes wines that are light in color but bold in flavor.  They also produce some very flavorful and refreshing rosés, perfect for the last few of summer’s sultry evenings.

It's all Mediterranean Food

This red prompted Nick to ask, “Why isn’t Corsica part of Italy?”  Mainly because its juicy character was distinctly reminiscent of Chianti (and it could well be the same grape).  So I whipped up a quick pasta sauce featuring tomatoes and zucchini from the panier – they haven’t started sending us winter squash just yet – and we enjoyed a Mediterranean island-inspired dinner.

Speaking of the panier, and seasonal produce and menus, it’s time for the birth announcement!  Croque-Camille has spawned a mini-blog dedicated to the weekly bounty of the CSA, along with ideas about how to use it.  True, I’m located in Paris, but the seasonal availability should be pretty similar across the Northern Hemisphere (those of you in the Southern hemisphere will just have to wait about six months).  So hop on over to Seasonal Market Menus: A Dispatch from Croque-Camille’s Kitchen, and get inspired!  I’m also putting an RSS widget for the new baby blog in my sidebar, so you can keep up to date on both blogs at once.  Enjoy!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.
Sciacarello Grapes on Foodista

Au Bascou

27 05 2009

These regional French cuisine posts have turned out to be a great excuse to explore unfamiliar Parisian neighborhoods, take weekend trips, and try new restaurants.  While Nick and I have already found a Basque restaurant that we really like, I thought it would be fun to give another one a chance.  So we headed down the way, under sunny skies, to Au Bascou with a friend we hadn’t seen in a while.  (Who was kind enough to lend me her camera, as I absentmindedly forgot mine.  Thanks, Lissa!)  The cozy bistro has filets of Piment d’Espelette hanging from the exposed wooden beams, and the atmosphere is very relaxed and homey.


Irouleguy is the main wine produced in the Basque country.   Composed mainly of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and tannat grapes, it is a robust, rich red that manages to maintain its fruity characteristics – a great match for the hearty dishes of the region.  It’s also just a fun word to say.

Appetizers at Au Bascou
1. Rabbit Terrine, 2. Stuffed Piquillos

To start, Lissa and I split the rabbit terrine, and Nick ordered the stuffed piquillo peppers.  Our favorite dish at our favorite tapas place in Dallas was the piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh goat cheese and drenched in top-notch olive oil.  He was expecting something along those lines, but what arrived on the plate was quite different.  The peppers were there, sweet and smoky, and the olive oil was there, and there was even a nice little heap of arugula, but the peppers were not stuffed with goat cheese.  Or any cheese.  It was morue, the same salt cod used to make that Provençal favorite, brandade.  The peppers were good, but you can imagine that first bite, expecting tangy cheese and getting salty fish, was a bit of a surprise.  As for the rabbit terrine, it was very flavorful and not at all dry, a common problem when cooking rabbit.  The addition of prunes in the terrine made for a nice sweet foil to the savory meat.

The Main Event
1. Magret de Canard, 2. Slow-Cooked Lamb, 3. Monkfish in Curry Sauce

For the main course, Nick opted for the braised lamb, which was tender, juicy, and served with eggplant, zucchini, and a timbale of couscous.  He said he liked it, but could have done without the fussy little tower.  Lissa couldn’t resist the curried monkfish, as nontraditional as it may be, and loved every bite.  The sauce in particular got rave reviews.  As for me, I got the duck breast topped with foie gras.  (Have you ever known me NOT to take the foie gras, given the option?)  The duck was a perfect rosy, medium-rare, and the foie was seared crisp on one side while still remaining a decent-sized slab.  Impressive.  Best of all was the sauce: savory and sweet with a vinegary kick.  An exellent pairing with the very rich duck and foie gras combination.  As we ate, the clouds that had formed while wer weren’t looking opened up and we could see a torrential downpour through the skylights.  But the food was fortifying, and we knew the Métro was only steps from the door.

We all cleaned our plates and were feeling pretty full, but I insisted we taste at least one dessert. 

Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate!

I selected the Beret Basque from the relatively large dessert menu.  (I was very tempted by the strawberry millefeuille special, though.)  Supposedly, it is a traditional Basque chocolate cake.  (Did you know that the beret originally hails from the Basque country?  Well, now you do.)  The dessert that came to the table, thoughtfully split onto two plates to ease the sharing, did  not look a bit rustic.  It did, however, resemble a chocolate-lover’s dream.  A thin chocolate cookie, topped with a round of chocolate mousse, dolloped with a puddinglike chocolate ice cream and wearing a crisp shard of chocolate for a hat.  The three of us made short work of it and exited the restaurant to find the skies blue once more.  Which was good, because a short walk home was just what we needed after such a hearty and satisfying meal.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Les Fondus de la Raclette

29 03 2009

In Which I Dine in a Savoyard Restaurant and Learn that I Am a True Parisian

Tuesday night, I finally made it to Les Fondus de La Raclette, the Savoyard restaurant that recently opened in my neighborhood.  Nick being out of town, my friends Hope and Delphine graciously offered to join me in the name of food journalism.  It turns out that the traditional cuisine of Savoie is pretty cheese-heavy.  I suppose this is to be expected, considering it is (quite literally) an Alpine region bordering Switzerland, home of its own cheese-centric cuisine.  Judging from the menu (and the name!) of Les Fondus de la Raclette, the two most important regional dishes of Savoie are fondue and raclette.  Since I was a raclette virgin, the choice was clear.

Charcuterie Savoyarde

Raclette is basically the inverse of fondue.  Instead of a pot of wine-spiked melted cheese into which bits of bread and meat are dipped on long forks, each person gets an individual pan in which to melt slices of cheese before pouring it over bits of meat and potatoes.  At Les Fondus de la Raclette, each of the rustic stone-topped tables has a grill in the center which is turned on when the food is delivered.  With the warmth of the grill radiating to our faces, it was easy to imagine why this is such a popular dish in Savoyard ski chalets.  It’s a warm and convivial dining experience.

Melting raclette cheese

None of my melting cheese photos came out very well – have you ever tried to take an action shot of bubbling cheese?  It’s not easy, especially when there’s bubbling, melty cheese in front of you, just waiting to be scraped out of the pan onto tasty slices of charcuterie or chunks of baked potato.

See what I mean?

A light meal it is not.  Fortunately, the wines of the region are perfectly matched to the hearty cuisine.  We chose the Savoyard red and were pleased to find it light and fruity with well-balanced acidity.  It was the perfect foil to all that cheese and cured meat.

Rouge de Savoie

With its wood-paneled interior, Les Fondus de la Raclette definitely calls to mind a ski lodge, if there were ski lodges in the heart of Paris.  The casual atmosphere is just right for a homey meal shared between friends. 

But wait, you say.  What’s this about you being a “true Parisian?”  Well, over the course of the evening the conversation turned to food, as it often does.  I was telling Hope and Delphine that my former favorite neighborhood bakery, Au Levain du Marais, used to be situated just down the street from where we sat.  It recently changed ownership, and after buying two just plain bad baguettes (I had to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke) I’ve stopped going there entirely.  Listening to my lament, Delphine nodded knowingly and told me that you know you are a true Parisian if your local bakery changes owners and you view it as nothing less than a catastrophe.  There you have it!

* * * * *

In other Paris-related news, I have two more articles up over at Secrets of Paris: one is a piece about Brûlerie des Ternes, where I’ve started getting my coffee beans despite the fact that it’s ALL the way across town; and the other is a review of Le Pamphlet, an excellent modern bistro on the edge of Paris’ Marais neighborhood.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Salon Mer & Vigne et Gastronomie

16 03 2009

Yesterday, Nick and I went to the Salon Mer & Vigne et Gastronomie.  Longtime readers may remember the write-ups I did on it last year, but for those of you who are interested, they were ThreeLongPosts.  And completely worth reading, if I do say so myself.  This year, though, I’m giving you the highlights.

Since March is Savoie monthhere on Croque-Camille, I made a beeline for the first cheese stand I saw.  Fortunately, Aux Saveurs des Montagnes, while based in Toulouse, had a wide variety of incredible Savoyard cheeses.  We tasted about half a dozen cheeses, all of which were remarkable.  The man at the stand made a point of explaining how his cheeses had nothing to do with their supermarket counterparts, and he wasn’t kidding.  We sampled the absolute best Morbier I’ve ever had the pleasure of placing on my tongue.  I never knew this, but it turns out Morbier comes from… Savoie!  Looks like this region may merit more than one cheese post.  After we’d made our selection, the guy tried to tempt us further with a nibble of Swiss Gruyère, which was outrageously good.  It had a texture not unlike really good Parmigiano-Reggiano, with little crystals of intense flavor scattered throughout.  The man pointed out that the Swiss Gruyère has no holes, and told a little joke: “Why are there no holes in Swiss Gruyère?” “Because they don’t have any mice in Switzerland!” Ha!

The array of wonderful wines from G. Prieur

Next we headed straight for G. Prieur, who had sent us free entry passes for buying a case of wine last year.  We were recognized immediately, and got to cut right to the excellent wines (instead of wasting time with the merely good ones).  Opting to start out by sampling the white wines this time, we were presented with a series of four excellent whites: a simple white Santenay, which would make a great table wine; a very distinctive and mineral 2005 Meursault; an exquisite apéritif-worthy 2006 Meursault, which Alain (our liaison) claimed was from one of the very best parcels in Bourgogne; and a premier cru Chassagne Montrachet 2007, whose briny character would make it a perfect accompaniment to any seafood dish.  (Here’s an insider secret I learned: true wine aficionados don’t pronounce the “t” in the middle of “montrachet,” such that it is pronounced “mon-rah-shay.”  Drop that one the next time you’re chatting up a French wine merchant – they’ll probably be impressed.)

G. Prieur's tasting glass

Moving on to the reds, of which we sampled eight, we learned that while 2005 Burgundies (both white and red) will age beautifully for several years, the 2006 vintage is best enjoyed sooner rather than later.  The highlights of the flight included a 2005 Vosne-Romanée, which was eyes-rolling-back-upon-first-sip good and a 2004 Corton-Bressandes Grand Cru, which Nick and I decided tasted like the best raisins ever.  Wines classified as Grand Cru in Bourgogne represent the top one percent of the region’s production, and let me tell you, you can taste the difference.

While we were tasting wines, we spotted our favorite Burgundian cheese producer (or at least their representative), so after buying more wine than we meant to (how do these things happen?) we headed over to sample some delicious washed-rind cheeses.

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Vins d’Alsace

1 03 2009

I know it’s March now, but since it’s such a long month, and February is so short, I’m sure March won’t mind if we borrow a day to talk about Alsatian wines.  It just seems ignorant to spend a month writing about Alsace without dedicating a post to the wines of the region – besides, they are some of my very favorite white wines.

The holy trinity of Alsatian wine: Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and Sylvaner

The wines of Alsace are notable among French wines in that they almost always list the grape varietal on the bottle.  (Many French wines are blends.)  The grapes used are also much more common in German winemaking than in French.  While their German counterparts tend to be quite sweet, Alsatian wines are usually vinified dry, clearing the path to better appreciation of the subtle flavors of the grapes and the mineral qualities of the terroir.  They also have a distinct, elongated bottle silhouette, which strikes me as elegant.  Regal, even.  In fact, in my now-infamous wine bottle manger scene of Christmas 2000, bottles from Alsace played the three wise men.  (The animals were represented by stumpy Côtes du Rhône bottles; Mary and Joseph were a feminine Bourgogne and a somber Bordeaux, respectively; and Baby Jesus took the form of a tiny bottle of Kronenbourg.  If I had the wherewithal to upload 8 year old film photos that are currently in storage in the US, I would totally share that one here.)

Anyway, the wines of Alsace are perfectly suited to the cuisine of the region – their mild sweetness and citrusy or tropical fruit overtones balance the hearty fare with aplomb.  But they also happen to pair quite well with spicy food, especially dishes from and inspired by Southeast Asia.  And let’s not forget the apéritif!  In fact, I think I’ll uncork one right now.

Yeah, it's a little early, but hey, it's Sunday.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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