Around Paris: 14th: La Cantine du Troquet

1 10 2011

La Cantine du Troquet

Christian Etchebest is one of Paris’ most beloved bistrotiers (is that a word?  Like a restaurateur, but for a bistro?).  His original Troquet is much-loved, though rumor has it he’s sold the mothership in order to focus on a new project.  In the meantime, though, he’s still running the convivial, no-reservations offshoot, La Cantine du Troquet.

Nick and I met some food-loving friends there a couple of Thursdays ago.  We had misread their opening hours (they open at 7pm, not 8 as we had thought) and as a result, had to wait out on the sidewalk for a table to open up.  It was a balmy evening, though, and was not at all an unpleasant wait, with a platter of Basque chorizo balanced on the wine barrel out front for all to share, and ordering bottles or carafes of wine to drink while standing on the corner is not only sanctioned, but encouraged.

Over our wine (poured from a liter carafe of totally drinkable – and totally affordable at 18 euros – Bandol red), we studied the chalkboard menu posted outside, our mouths watering over the beef cheeks and the lomo dish.  Of course, by the time we got seated, both had been stricken from the real-time-updated indoor chalkboard.  Not to be deterred that easily, I asked the waitress about the beef cheeks.  She said they were out, but they had a pork cheek dish to replace it.  I, and two of my three companions, said “yes, please.”

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Big Beans and Bitter Greens

4 11 2010

It was a while ago, at some salon or other, that Nick and I first made the acquaintance of the haricot de Soissons.  They immediately earned themselves a nickname: the Big Beans.

haricots de Soissons

I think you can see why.  The beans are grown in the Aisne valley (a name you may recognize from this beer post), located northwest of Reims and Northeast of Paris.  It’s in the Picardie region, which isn’t necessarily known for its food, but these beans are notable for more than just their size – they’re also creamy-textured and incredibly flavorful.

So why am I writing about them now?  Well, a few weeks ago I got some escarole in my CSA bag.  The same week, Andrea from Cooking Books featured a recipe for a delightful fall stew with beans, greens, and sausage.  She didn’t use it, but the original recipe called for escarole, and I had some!  I figured it would be a good time to use the Big Beans, so I soaked them for a day and a half in salted water.  All of you who are gasping in horror at the thought of adding salt to beans before they’re cooked should really go read this post at Nose to Tail at Home.  (Thanks for the tip, Ryan!)  Then I simmered them in more salted water until they were tender, about 45 minutes or so.

And then, I was ready to make stew.  I didn’t have Italian sausage, and wouldn’t even know where to look for it in Paris, but I did have some ground pork.  Which I cooked, seasoning it as though it were going to be sausage with red pepper flakes, fresh thyme and rosemary, and of course, plenty of salt.  (If I’d had fennel seeds I totally would have used them, but it happens to be a gap in my otherwise fairly comprehensive spice collection.)  From there, I just made stew: I added some onions, some broth, tomatoes, and the Big Beans.  I let it all simmer for a bit while I cleaned and tore up some escarole, and then I stirred that in until it wilted.

beans & greens

We ate it for lunch on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon, and it was just the ticket.  Filling and warming and nap-inspiring.  We had quite a bit left over, which Nick took to work and ate for lunch a few more times during the week.  If that’s not a compliment to the chef, I don’t know what is.

Yesterday, in 2009: How to Make a Cream Soup (It may be cheating a little from the “This day in history” standpoint, but I think it’s an important post, so I’m putting it up anyway.)

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

The Cure For Pork Fever

27 09 2009

Back when Swine Flu was first making the news, the French press dubbed it “grippe porcine.”  I chose, mainly for my own amusement, to translate it as “pork fever,” which sounds like something much more fun to come down with.*  So when Nick came home with an entire kilo of chunky ground pork from the Chinese butcher** up the street, I had to figure out what to do with the 800+ grams he didn’t use in his breakfast scramble.

We’ve been talking about breakfast sausages lately, Nick and I, and I realized that that might just be the perfect use for this hand-ground pork. So I Googled “breakfast sausage recipe” and clicked on the first result, a tasty-sounding recipe from Alton Brown.  Scanning the list of ingredients, I was pleased to note that I had everything he called for – fresh sage, thyme, and rosemary (check, and from my windowbox, no less!), fresh nutmeg (I don’t use any other kind), and even some of the more oddball (for France) items like red pepper flakes and brown sugar were covered.  Now, his recipe calls for grinding the pork yourself, which I’m sure would be even more awesome, but I figured the pork I had was the right texture and fat content, so I went with it.  As suggested, I combined the pork and seasonings (plus some minced onion, because I felt like it) and let them sit overnight to get acquainted.  I cross-referenced Brown’s recipe with Michael Ruhlman’s sausage Ratio, and the differences are minimal.

The next morning, I pulled the bowl of seasoned pork mixture (which already smelled fabulous) from the fridge and began shaping patties.

Making breakfast sausage patties
1. Making Sausages 1, 2. Making Sausages 2, 3. Making Sausages 3, 4. Making Sausages 4

See?  You can make sausage at home, too!  No complicated and awkward casings necessary, just a little patience for patty-making.  We fried up four of them that morning, and ate them with fried eggs and breakfast potatoes.  The rest I froze and then threw into a ziplock bag for future breakfasts and bouts of pork fever.

Frying the sausage

* Now, of course, it has much more banal names: H1N1 or grippe A.
** There are no less than twelve butchers on my street. Two are Chinese, three are French, and the rest are Arab. What this means is that even with a glut of butchers, I can buy pork at less than half of them.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

A Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

7 09 2009

Back in the States, Nick and I have some friends from New York who turned us on to the slurpy, mouth-burning delicacy that is xiao long bao.  For the uninitiated, xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, are a specialty of Shanghai.  Intricately folded dumpling wrappers enclose a bit of seasoned meat and a gush of rich soup.  They’re supposed to be an appetizer, but the four of us would usually get two or three orders apiece and call it dinner.  Every other blog post I’ve read about soup dumplings claims that they’re something you just have to try at least once in your life.  I’m not going to tell you that, because if a steamed dumpling filled with a mouthful of meaty broth, served with vinegar, ginger, and chili oil doesn’t sound good to you, who am I to try and change your mind?  Just leaves more for me.

So thick, you can stand a spoon in it!

We visited said friends in June in their new hometown, San Francisco.  They had done some research and had a list of soup dumpling places to try, a quest in which Nick and I were more than willing to participate.  The ones we got at a restaurant were only okay, but the ones we bought freshly made to cook at home were outstanding.  More importantly, the whole adventure reminded Nick and I how much we love soup dumplings, and we vowed to redouble our efforts to find a good source in Paris once we returned home.

Pork dumpling filling

Browsing the aisles at my favorite Asian supermarket, Paris Store, I glanced into the frozen dumpling case and what did I see?  Xiao long bao, or “raviolis de Shanghai” (ravioli being the term the French have adopted to describe anything wrapped in dough).  The frosty dumplings in the bag looked like about the right shape, so I bought them, and a bamboo steamer that miraculously fit perfectly over my saucepan.  Sadly, the dumplings were not what we were looking for.  The filling is mostly meat, with just a hint of juiciness as a nod to the soup that’s supposed to be there.  Good, but not the soup dumplings we crave.

The right soup-to-meat ratio

Walking down the rue de Belleville one night, Nick and I spotted a little hole-in-the-wall with a sign that said “Restaurant Raviolis.”  Needless to say, we went there for dinner at the first opportunity.  The menu consists of about a dozen types of soup and a dozen types of dumpling.  We ordered three kinds of dumplings (shrimp, chicken, and pork), and two bowls of soup (duck for me, pork rib for Nick).  The food was delivered quickly, and smelled great.  But none of the dumplings looked like they contained any soup.  We asked the waitress if they made xiao long bao, explaining that we were looking for a dumpling with soup inside, and she said she had never heard of such a thing.  Disappointed, we turned to our soups, which brightened our spirits considerably.  The broth was extremely flavorful, and the rustic-looking noodles had a great texture.  It was then that an older woman came out of the back and began rolling dough on a long table.  We watched, slurping our soup greedily, as she hand rolled and cut a new batch of noodles.  Despite the place’s distinct lack of décor or atmosphere, we will definitely be going back for more of those handmade noodles.

But the soup dumpling jones was getting stronger.

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Why English Food Doesn’t Suck, part 3: Fergus Henderson

8 05 2009

I hardly know where to start with this one.  The dinner Nick and I shared at Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bread and Wine was, quite simply, excellent in every way.  The food was delicious, the atmosphere was convivial, the service was friendly, and we walked out of the place with a couple of free doughnuts!

Many of the places we ate in London were suggested by Shuna Fish Lydon, former pastry chef of The French Laundry and author of the fascinating blog, Eggbeater.  The Harwood Arms was the only one I booked in advance, deciding to play the rest by ear.  Upon arrival in London, after fortifying ourselves with fish and chips, Nick and I met up with my cousin, who is an enthusiastic foodie.  She was excited to see my list of possible restaurants, and was particularly delighted to see St. John and The Modern Pantry on the list, which certainly played a role in my decision-making.  St. John, the main restaurant (which was ranked #14 on this year’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list) was booked solid, but fortunately its little sibling, the more casual St. John Bread and Wine, had room for us.

Salad is always better with a little pork... or a lot.

We started with a bowl of buttery Lucques olives and a salad of slow-cooked ham, pea shoots, and radish.  This is my kind of salad.  The richness of the ham was perfectly balanced by the fresh pea shoots and the peppery bite of the radish.  And seasonal to boot!  I love food like this: great ingredients at their peak, prepared simply and lovingly.

I do love me some pot pie

When we entered the restaurant, a sparely decorated open cube with white walls and black and white checkered floors, we noticed a pie on one of the tables.  It looked and smelled so good that there was no question we would be ordering chicken and bacon pie for two.  Our choice made, the smile of the chef jacket-clad waitress confirmed that we had made the right decision.  And how!  The crust was flaky and deeply browned, and underneath was a steaming hot stew of, well, chicken and bacon.  The flavor was spot-on: smoky, salty (but not too much), and very satisfying.  My only reservation was that some of the bits of chicken were on the dry side, but I know of no way to avoid this when cooking a whole chicken – the breast pieces are always going to be drier.  Still, it was overall a very enjoyable dish.

The obligatory, yet tantalizing vegetable side dish

The pie was served with a side of crisp-tender broccoli rabe in a mustardy dressing that stood up well to the strong flavor of the vegetable.  While we were eating, we kept sneaking peeks into the semi-open kitchen.  The pastry station was in our direct line of sight, and we watched as the chef spooned up perfect quenelles of hand-whipped something with what looked suspiciously like a bloody mary on the counter next to him.  He appeared to be working out a new recipe, and I was so curious I had to ask when he walked past our table to talk to some friends of his that had come in for dinner.  It turns out he was experimenting for an upcoming competition, and when I told him I was a pastry chef, too, he offered to send us a taste of his new dessert.  Obviously, we accepted.  I took no picture, though, because since it was new and destined for competition, I didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder.  I will say that it was intensely chocolatey, which is never a bad thing in my book.

Speaking of books…

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Why English Food Doesn’t Suck, part 1: What I Had For Lunch In London

23 04 2009

Blue skies in London!

I spent last weekend in London (and by weekend, I mean Sunday to Tuesday), and it defied stereotype right and left.  The weather was gorgeous and the food was delicious!  Seriously.  Upon arrival, we were directed to a restaurant near our hotel for the best fish and chips in the neighborhood (and arguably, all of London, so they claimed at the hotel).


... and chips

The green stuff on the plate with the fish is called “mushy peas.”  Terrible name, but the stuff was rather tasty.  There was a bit of mint in there with the peas, giving it a fresh, springy flavor that worked really well with the crisp fried fish.

The next day, we lunched at a fantastic little spot called The Modern Pantry.

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Regional French Cuisine: Auvergne: Stuffed Cabbage

5 01 2009

Happy New Year, everyone!  I realize I am a little belated in my greeting, but after finally beating the cold/flu nastiness I was saddled with over Christmas, I got smacked with the busiest week of the year at work.  We’re talking 1 am alarm clocks (!), night buses, taxi debacles, 12-plus-hour workdays (I know, I used to have those regularly, but now I’m a spoiled French pâtissière), and weird break-ins at work.  Let’s just say I’m hoping that 2009 gets better, because judging from the first couple of hours, I’m going to have an irritating, frustrating, tiring, frantic, and scary year.

Blanched cabbage leaf

But I’m not here to whine.  Somewhere in the midst of all the hectic end-of-year activity, I had time to reflect on the new year, resolutions, and the like.  Something about the new year does encourage a certain amount of renewed energy and enthusiasm, so I’m feeling pretty excited about this idea I came up with for the blog.  Each month, I am going to highlight a particular region in France, with a focus on the traditional cuisine.  I hope to put up at least one post a week on the featured region, be it about a dish I attempted at home, a restaurant, travel photos (when applicable), or other regional products such as cheese, wine, charcuterie, or beer.  Of course I will also continue to report on my regular food adventures as well, so don’t worry, I haven’t gone completely educational on you.

Cantal entre deux ages

For January, I have decided to start out with the cuisine of Auvergne.  A mountainous region in central France which I called home for seven months in 2000 and 2001, the food in Auvergne is rustic, hearty and delicious.  A stunning number of famous French cheeses are produced in Auvergne, including Cantal (one of the top-selling cheeses in France), Saint-Nectaire, and Fourme d’Ambert, just to name a few.

How would you stuff cabbage?

In my new favorite Parisian dining guide, Hungry for Paris by Alexander Lobrano, the classic Auvergnat stuffed cabbage plays a hefty supporting role.  Owing perhaps to the fact that a large number of Paris’ bistros were opened by displaced residents of Auvergne, the dish features on many menus in as many different forms.  I happened to have a gorgeous designer cabbage lurking in my vegetable drawer a little longer than it should, and I wanted to make something to use it up.  Enter Lobrano and his mouthwatering descriptions of stuffed cabbage.  Trouble is, I’ve never made stuffed cabbage before.  Or even eaten it. 

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Glazed Pork Roast

20 05 2008

In case you were wondering, no, I did not make an entire meal out of carrot soup.  It made a great appetizer, though.  I followed it with a glazed pork loin roast.  When I picked up the meat at the butcher, I asked for a half-kilo, or whatever serves two people.  After some light ribbing (pour monsieur et madame, honh honh honh) the butcher handed me a lovely, pre-tied, pork loin roast, perfectly sized for two.  I’ve actually found that this is a pretty good way to buy things around here, instead of stumbling over the numbers in French, I just ask for enough for x number of people.  “Deux personnes” comes out a lot easier than “trois cent cinquante grammes.”

Apricot-Citrus Glazed Pork Roast

Anyway, the dish was incredibly easy to make.  First I mixed the glaze ingredients together in a measuring jug.  This included 1/4 cup each apricot jam, orange-grapefruit juice, and chicken stock.  I punched up the flavor with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, a pinch of white pepper, and a little glug of white wine.

Next I seasoned the roast on all sides with salt and pepper, and Nick seared it beautifully in a little olive oil on the stove.  We then transfered the roast to a baking dish and spooned some of the glaze over it.  It went into the oven to finish cooking while I deglazed the pan with the rest of the glaze mixture.  I let it reduce a bit, to a nice, thick consistency.

Twenty or thirty minutes later I pulled the roast out and let it rest another few minutes before Nick carved it.  I poured the reduced glaze over the slices right in the roasting pan.  The pork, meanwhile, had accumulated some tasty pan juices which combined with the glaze to form an absolutely delicious sauce! 

We came to the conclusion that French pork is less lean than its American counterpart, resulting in juicier, more flavorful meat.  No complaints here.  I served it with a big green salad on the side, so we still felt healthy.  This one is going into the repertoire of quick weeknight meals for sure.

Is there anything better than carnitas?

9 04 2008

How about fresh, handmade tortillas to put it (them?) on, and from-scratch refried beans?

Finding pinto beans in Paris is not easy, but some Asian markets have them, and sometimes you can get them at the supermarket for more money.  As such, I had part of a bag of dried pintos in the kitchen when Nick came home with a kilo and a half of pork which he intended to turn into carnitas.  Unfortunately, I had too many other things to do that day to make beans, but there were a lot of leftover little meats.  So last night (well, yesterday morning) I decided to cook up some refried beans to accompany the rest of the carnitas.  I started soaking them in the morning, and noticed how cool they look before they have been cooked and smashed.

Pinto beans, before

Here they have alrerady been soaking for a short spell, and are already beginning to wrinkle and expand.  But look how pretty they are!

Anyway, you can’t have carnitas without tortillas, and the Old El Paso ones they sell here just aren’t cutting it.  (The masa quest has, to date, been fruitless, but I’m not giving up – we saw a Peruvian store the other night and I plan on returning to check out what they have to offer.)  Flour tortillas, however, are easy to make, as demonstrated by Robert Rodriguez, and vastly superior to store-bought, especially in France.  So I made some dough using vague metric approximations of U.S. measurments, and it actually worked!


Here are the dough balls, resting while I get hungrier and hungrier.  Lazy bums.  No, you have to let them rest or they’ll never roll out into nice thin circles, like this:

Nearly Tortilla

Then all you have to do is cook them in a lightly oiled pan (nonstick will make your life easier), and you end up with beautiful, soft, warm, fresh tortillas!

Flour Tortilla

Meanwhile, I had been simmering the beans (after soaking them for 8 or 9 hours) with onion, garlic, cumin, scotch bonnet pepper, bay leaf, cilantro, cinnamon, and salt.  When the beans were tender and the liquid was getting reduced, I picked out the pepper, bay leaf, and any large pieces of onion.  Then I mashed them with a potato masher and added a little more salt, cumin, and black pepper.  While not exactly “refried,” it’s close enough for me.

Pinto beans, after

I served them alongside the tortillas, garnished thusly:

Carnitas taco

with Nick’s carnitas and homemade salsa, crème fraîche (who needs sour cream?), and avocado.  Avocados are so cheap here – 5 for 2 euro is pretty standard – I can’t get over it.  We eat them often.

Now we have a bunch of leftover refried beans.  What cool about that is you put them in a bowl, top them with cheese, crème fraîche, sliced avocado, chopped tomato, onion, and cilantro, and you got yourself a stew!  I mean seven-layer dip.  Yeah.

Le Bastringue

2 04 2008

Now that I have finally re-entered the 21st century and gotten a French cell phone, complete with camera, I have no more excuses for not taking pictures when I’m dining out.  To test the abilities of this spiffy new device, Nick and I went to lunch at our favorite neighborhood bistro, Le Bastringue.  This place may very well be the best deal in Paris, especially at lunch.  They recently raised their prices from 10 euros to 10,50 (yes, that’s a comma – that’s how they do things here) for either appetizer + main course or main course + dessert.  We learned early on that the generous portions allow two people to share the appetizer and dessert courses and therefore we end up with a 3-course meal each for 21 euro!  Not too shabby.  Plus the food is fantastic.

Pâté de Campagne

Lunch the other day, for example, started with a large slice of pâté de campagne (or was it canard?  French handwriting is nearly impossible to read) and a small salad.  I like those proportions.  The pâté was firm, with lots of meaty bits, and great with the above-average (average being pretty high-quality) bread they serve.

For the main course, I chose the veal pasta and Nick opted for the pork in mustard sauce.

Veal Pasta

My dish was excellent.  The veal was unbelievably tender, shredding with ease into the rich sauce that dressed the perfectly al dente pasta. 

Pork in Mustard Sauce

Nick cleaned his plate, so I guess the pork was pretty good, too.  (He was coming down with a cold, so we didn’t share.)  I did manage to swipe a potato from his plate, and it was delicious, as the potatoes at the Bastringue always are.  One thing I really like about this place, upon reflection, is that the food is always correctly seasoned.  Sure, they provide salt and pepper at the table, but I can’t recall a single incidence in which I’ve used them.  I know it’s a small detail, but attention to detail is what separates the good from the great.  It may surprise some of you, but I have been several places (yes, in Paris) where salting the potatoes (or chicken, or whatever) was necessary.  Le Bastringue is not one of them.

But I digress.  For dessert we had the apple crumble.

Apple Crumble

It was made with fresh apples and served with two sauces: passion fruit and strawberry.  Each sauce was good on its own, but neither did much in the way of enhancing the apple crumble.  Still, I’d eat another plate of this right now, without hesitation.  I loved how the flavor and texture of the apples was preserved, rather than being drowned in sugar and cinnamon and baked into oblivion.  The tender crumb topping complemented the slightly crisp apples beautifully, maintaining just the right balance between sweet and tart.

See what I mean?  Best deal in Paris.

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