Monday, May 28, 2007

A Weekend of Good (Comfort) Food

I wanted to write a little about the foods I enjoyed, not this past weekend -- at least, not yet -- but some wonderful bits and bobs that I savored about two months ago, just before my boy ended up in the hospital (long story, for another time) and things went a little topsy-turvy in my life. (This post has found itself in rough versions several times and I thought I would never finish it!) I'm actually nibbling on one of my terrible péchés mignons right now, something I tend to crave from time to time, and a treat that I never seem to be able to stop myself from indulging in: saucisson sec. So as I sit here guiltily chomping down on my saucisson and salted butter on toast, I thought I would share some wonderful comfort foods I prepared a few months back, foods that cheered me up on a lousy, cold, grey weekend -- and how à propos that today, in late May, it is once again cold and grey -- and rainy! Ah, Paris...

Of course, as we all know, "comfort food" comes in all shapes and forms, and I don't even know how exactly you can define it, but apparently someone has on Wikipedia:

Comfort food
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"The term comfort food refers to any food or drink to which one habitually turns for temporary respite, security, or special reward. The reasons that something becomes a comfort food are diverse but include the food's familiarity, simplicity, and/or pleasant associations. Small children often seem to latch on to a specific food or drink (in a way similar to a security blanket) and will repeatedly request it in high stress situations. Adults, however, are certainly not exempt.
A substantial majority of comfort foods are composed largely of simple or complex carbohydrate, such as sugar, rice, refined wheat, and so on. It has been postulated that such foods induce an opiate-like effect in the brain, which may account for their soothing nature."

I guess this is not so much a definition of what comfort food is exactly but what the expression refers to, and how certain foods with assocations become a form of comfort to us. What comes to mind for me is my mom's macaroni and cheese, how it's perfect every time and just somehow so reassuring, no matter what time of year it is (God, I miss that stuff!). More recently, comfort foods have taken on a whole new meaning to me, especially since I started cooking. I don't know what I would have done without this cookbook over the past two winters in France; it has become my kitchen bible, and I guess it helps that I'm a big fan of soups, both hot and cold. And what's more comforting than soup? I'm always curious to try new combinations and experiment with different ingredients, probably also due to the fact that I used to buy a lot of my lunchtime homemade soups at a little sandwicherie at métro stop 4 septembre in Paris, a place called Stanie's run by a young couple who used to work in advertising and decided to start a business of their own (I no longer work in their neighborhood, so I don't get to eat there as often, and I sure miss it...). I could never get enough of Rebecca's homemade soups, whether it was lentil with coconut in the dead of winter or cold, rich avocado soup with a splash of lemon juice in the summer (that stuff was to die for, trust me, and I've never been able to replicate it, to this day; I seriously licked the bowl...). I don't tend to experiment much in the kitchen at all, as I'm not yet confident enough to do so. But I do like to add in a bit more of this or that when I'm making a new soup. I'm a big fan of carrot soup with coconut milk and fresh cilantro (pretty Thai-inspired, I guess), and just two weeks ago I made a variation of the cold avocado soup with cucumber and tomato juice ice cubes (it was quite intriguing, I promise...) based on a recipe in this magazine. But the book Soupes du jour is SO easy to follow, it's a no-brainer; you simply can't screw any of these recipes up!

This late March afternoon found me preparing a batch of rich, heavy lentil soup (page 26). In my mind there is nothing quite so nourishing, or comforting, as lentil soup, especially paired with some refreshing cilantro leaves. Since I discovered it, as soon as the weather turns grey and cold outside I throw some together to keep me warm on the inside. The fresh green cilantro brightens up what might not look so appetizing at first, but once you spoon some of this into your mouth, you won't regret it! And it's the simplest thing to make; you just have to be patient enough to allow the green lentils to simmer away for about an hour. I do tend to use the lentilles vertes du Puy, even though they are a bit more expensive, if only because the flavor seems to be richer and the lentils themselves seem to hold up better over time.
That same weekend I also made one of my best apple crumbles in a while. Ironically enough, when I was growing up I wasn't a big fan of anything apple-based, especially baked apples, apple pie, or anything of the like. I can't quite explain why; it just didn't do anything for me... But you know how our tastes change with time (as Aussie Lass has also recently reminded us over in her digs)! I wish I had a nickel (or a Euro for that matter) for every time I've realized that I actually like something I used to insist I didn't like in the past... The list could go on forever -- and I'd be pretty rich!

I used my favorite salted butter (I'm partial to Grand Fermage's Butter with sea salt from Noirmoutier) and added in a pinch of cinnamon and ginger. This baby didn't last long at all! Talk about warm comfort... Add some crème anglaise or vanilla ice cream, and we have a winner.
In between my own time spent in the kitchen, my boy and I also went back to one of my very favorite neighborhood haunts in the 18th arrondissement, a tiny family-run restaurant that became my cantine for almost two years. I even celebrated my 30th birthday there: it's called Le Potager. I don't often get the opportunity to go back these days, now that I'm out in the 'burbs, but anytime I'm craving a nice, reasonably-priced meal, I make a reservation. And anytime I have friends coming into town, I always recommend a stop there. As a matter of fact, when Emily was in town about two weeks ago with her friend Dawn, we met up at métro Abbesses and enjoyed a nice, filling dinner. Every time I go, I absolutely cannot pass up their oeuf cocotte au foie gras; it's to die for! One of my all-time favorite entrées...
I can't get enough of it, and I find myself scraping out the bottom of that ramequin to make the pleasure last. I imagine it must be easy to prepare at home, and it's certainly not made with the finest of foie gras, but the combination of flavors is deliciously rich -- and comforting! There's hardly enough room for a main dish after that, but you're talking to a real gourmande here, so there's no way I'm going to pass up more food! I also highly recommend their magret de canard, served with either a honey, blackberry or fig (my fave) sauce. And they have these wonderful main dishes that consist of various tartine combinations, including a melted goat cheese with cumin. The names of these tartines are all a play on words, like "la Mère Veille" or "la Mère Cedes".

For such a tiny establishment, they have a real following, and it's almost impossible to get a table à l'improviste. That's why I try to reserve either the day before or the same day, earlier in the evening. But if you're going to be passing through Montmartre in the near future, give it a try! I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed...

* Comfort Foods image courtesy of

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

* Tori Ticket * - TAKEN!

As some of you may already know, Kyliemac and friend, Maîtresse, JennC and I are all prepping outselves for the concert of the year on June 2nd at the Palais des Congrès, and we just so happen to have an EXTRA TICKET available... So do we have any takers?

Join us for an unforgettable gals' night out with Tori -- come on now, you know you want to!

If you're interested, feel feel to e-mail me or Kyliemac ASAP; first come first serve...

As of something like 15 minutes ago, the ticket has officially been snagged. So the group is complete!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Shuffle Me

Yes, I hopped on the bandwagon a little over a year ago and got an iPod, actually as a gift, but mainly because I loved the idea of being able to carry around my whole music collection with me and to tune into one of my favorite songs whenever my heart so desires. I've realized, though, that I don't even end up using it as much as I thought I would, because my daily commute only lasts about 30 minutes -- and I don't always think to pull it out and turn it on! Or I find myself reading -- ever the quandary: to read or to melt into my music and forget the (jolting, noisy, angry Parisian) world around me? Usually I do a little of both, reading my latest favorite novel on the train and then pulling out the iPod as my stop approaches, the beat accompanying my walk down the avenue to the office.

And yes, I'm a fan of the Shuffle mode -- I always thought that EVERYONE liked listening to music that way, until my boy made it clear to me that it drove him crazy when I hit the Shuffle button on the stereo at home. (He literally thought it was bad for the stereo's system, like it wasn't set up to tolerate songs being played in random order...!) It appears that he likes his music preprogrammed -- he prefers knowing in advance what song is going to follow, whereas I love the unexpectedness, the randomness of the Shuffle button. It may have something to do with our natures, I don't know, although I can't exactly say he's a planner when it comes to everyday life. Much the opposite: he makes most decisions at the last minute and often changes his mind, which can be incredibly frustrating when you're trying to plan a holiday or even a weekend trip away. I love spontaneity as much as the next gal, but at least give me a chance to pack my bags!

So this leads me to the companionship of my music this morning... Lately I've found that my iPod is misreading me and my desires, pumping out any ol' song from my collection and disappointing me at every turn. But for once it was like the jukebox of my soul, reading my mind and tuning into my emotional wavelength. The ten songs that kept me company this morning were as follows (and these really randomly popped up!):

1. Baker Baker ~ Tori Amos (Any past readers will recognize my predilection for fab female voices, as well as a great piano sound -- and my love of Tori; countdown to the upcoming concert: T-minus 12 days!)

2. Be Yourself ~ Audioslave (Picked this up from my younger brother when back home in the States last summer; they sound similar to Red Hot Chili Peppers to me...)

3. Tigers ~ Rickie Lee Jones (Now this album brings back memories... An overnight train ride to Nice back in my student days, mid-'90s, sharing a cabin with some Frenchmen celebrating an enterrement de vie de garçon... Don't ask! Turns out the French like this gal quite a lot, though...)

4. Intermission ~ Scissor Sisters (This group has been exploding lately, and it doesn't take much to warm up to them -- a good energizer for me!)

5. More Than This ~ Peter Gabriel (Another walk down memory lane: I saw him in concert when I was 19, and it was AMAZING. He's an incredible performer, and I've always loved his voice, no matter what anyone says. He will forever be my favorite former Genesis member...)

6. This is My Song ~ Carbon Leaf (This group is a gift from my brother; I didn't know a thing about them until he shared them with me... And I just love the feel of their music. Plus, now they always remind me of my big brother and listening to tunes together back home!)

7. Desecration Smile ~ Red Hot Chili Peppers (Now, admittedly, I'm more of an old-school fan of RHCP; most of their recent albums haven't hit home with me. But once again my little brother convinced me to take a listen to Stadium Arcadium, and there are definitely some good ones on there...)

8. XXL ~ Mylène Farmer (I'm not a steady fan of this gal either, but her first few albums were genius, and I like to pull them out from time to time.)

9. Good People ~ Jack Johnson (I think I have my brothers to thank for a lot of recent musical discoveries, including Jack Johnson -- although I guess his latest album was hard to miss last year, playing in shops all over Paris. But my favorite album of his is definitely In Between Dreams. Last summer I listened to it over and over again when driving from my parents' to my brother's place and back again...)

10. Penitent ~ Suzanne Vega (As you can see, I probably have more gals on my playlists than guys, there's no denying that. And some of them come and go, like Suzanne Vega, Cowboy Junkies, Indigo Girls, Edie Brickell, Rickie Lee jones, Heather Nova -- ah, the list goes on. Others are constant companions, and this list is pretty much limited to Tori, Sarah McLachlan, and Annie Lennox. I've also made some more recent discoveries that I can't get enough of, and those include Regina Spektor -- that voice! that piano!-- Kate Havnevik, and Feist.)

And this playlist is, most definitely, a reflection of my "eclectic" if jumbled taste; I like a little bit of everything, although I find that certain tunes and styles of music suit certain times of day, as well as certain moods. Case in point: on a Saturday morning, when I'm having a hard time waking up and motivating myself to do some housecleaning, "energetic" is my mot d'ordre, and the only way to get me going is to pop in a CD that wakes me up and puts me in a positive mood. There are a few albums of late that will do this for me, but this can also change from one week to the next (can anyone say MIKA?). Again, I never said I was consistent! I've found that a rare few artists have stayed with me over the years, and some come back to me as echos in new music that I've discovered. But bluesy jazz is not gonna do the trick on a Saturday morning, at least not in my case, and on that my boy and I have a hard time agreeing. Every once in a while we find an artist that we both like, but we do actually have very different musical tastes, and he's often surprised when I admit that I don't recognize certain French artists that he grew up with, or that one of his favorites is far from my kind of thing. At the same time, though, he'll be stunned when I know a particular obscure song, and I can't even explain why it is that it's stored in my mental library.

But oh well, that's what makes us tick, I guess. And opposites attract, n'est-ce pas ? At least, I like to think so... And if our varied musical taste is any reflection of that, then we're definitely on the right track!

So OK, who would like to join in and share their latest Shuffle List? What have you been tuning into on YOUR MP3 player? Or on your computer, for that matter, or in the car... Do tell!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Busy but Bluesy

While I'm sure everybody and their mother (brother?) will be talking about the French election results today (surprised, anyone?), I just wanna ramble a bit about my busy weekend for once. Well, moderately busy anyway, for a regular ol' casanière like me.

[And I know I should be updating this bloggie thingie more often -- please bear with me, as I'm trying to get into the swing of the blogger world, and I'm often hesitant to write about something that may bore you all to tears... But I'm working on this!]

I tend to look forward to event-filled weekends, but then the activities and outings quickly come and go, and I only have the long week ahead to dread. Like a kid again, I count down the days to when I can sleep in and really enjoy the time spent under the warm comforter, in bed, or lounging around the apartment with a good book.

Of course, thank goodness, with France and the French system, we have another national holiday (and I realize we have our American and European ancestors to thank for this one too...) tomorrow, so that breaks things up a bit this week. After my three late nights in a row this past weekend, I really need another sleep-in!

Friday night saw me joining a good French friend of mine for her 30th birthday celebration in a posh little Italian restaurant in the 8th arrondissement, not far from my work address, to be honest (but not exactly a typical haunt for me -- I felt a wee bit out of place...). But rather than stay in the neighborhood after I got off at 6:00 and make good use of my time, I got it into my head that I absolutely had to go home first to change, to harangue my boyfriend a bit, and then turn around and head back into the city for the party around 9:00. Again, I'm full of brilliant ideas like that! So of course after taking the RER home I found myself frantically running around the apartment, trying to do things that were completely unnecessary at the time (will I ever change?) while my boy reminded me that time was ticking by... And in the end all I really did was change into a pair of jeans, which was the one smart move, as it had started to rain and my bare legs would have frozen if I hadn't changed out of my steel grey skirt into something more sensible.

And I had a great time, in spite of the fact that I didn't know most of the people there, but the meal was nice and I was glad to finally catch up with my friend a bit (even if it wasn't easy with all those people there -- what were they thinking?!). With any luck we're going to try to get together again really soon anyway, so we'll be able to catch up on more serious things, like when and how she got back together with her (former ex-) boyfriend!

After dragging myself out of bed on Saturday to make my regular tour of the local market, I managed to do a bit of housecleaning, albeit not enough (when is it ever enough?!), and then later in the afternoon my boy and I left to meet some friends to see Spiderman 3 on the Champs. Not where we would normally go to see a flick, but we all had Gaumont movie cards, and it was just the most convenient meeting point. We were both looking forward to this movie, not the least for the entertainment and distraction factors, just a break away from our everyday life. And it definitely delivered! We ended the evening with some nice Lebanese cuisine nearby (it's not easy to find a reasonably-priced restaurant in that neighborhood, trust me, so we gave up on it...), although I've definitely had better Lebanese before. But it was the perfect no-frills evening out.

And Sunday was of course filled with the suspense leading up to the election results, even if most people claimed to already know who was going to win... Still, unexpected things can happen, and even though that wasn't the case this time around, I still wouldn't have been surprised if there had been a last-minute breakthrough, if you see what I mean. We had a light dinner with some friends in Saint-Cloud while everyone watched the results and subsequent commentary. I had had enough after only an hour or so, but we of course had to zap back and forth between all the major French news channels so as not to miss any details. I was hoping that things would calm down once the election was over, but I get the impression that it's only the beginning, if the articles in the press today are any indication, and that things are going to be boiling for weeks to come, particularly with the imminent legislative elections, which will determine whether Sarkozy will even be able to carry out any reform in the near future. And of course everyone is saying that his first "100 days" in office will be critical to his presidency as a whole. I don't know what to expect at this point, but I can only hope that he will stick to his promises as much as possible and at least make a concerted effort to bring about positive change for France, a country in desperate need of reform. I've been on the fence the whole time myself, so I honestly don't know how I feel about the results.

I also managed to squeeze in some cooking yesterday afternoon, as I wanted to at least have some pre-prepared small meals ready for my lunch-hour at work. So I took another stab at the zucchini crumble I made two weeks ago -- and I have to say, I think this recipe is going to become a regular staple around here... Inexpensive, really quite easy, and a delicious way to eat zucchini! For those who are interested, it basically requires about 4 zucchini, one onion, one shallot, some fresh basil leaves (or frozen if you don't have any on hand-- I buy mine at the market!), salt & pepper of course, olive oil, about 60-80 grams of parmesan (preferably freshly grated), 80 grams of butter (I used salted butter) and 120 grams of flour. After thinly slicing the onion and shallot, you toss them into a skillet with heated olive oil, and then gradually add in the thinly sliced zucchini as well. (To vary things, sometimes I slice the zucchini into small cubes.) In the meantime, you try to remember to turn the oven on to pre-heat at 180° Celsius (I'm afraid I'm unsure of the Fahrenheit equivalent at this point!).

After allowing the zucchini, onion and shallot to mingle together and simmer covered for 5 to 10 minutes, you can remove them from the heat, mix in the fresh basil (also diced thinly) and parmesan, as well as a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Then you prepare the crumble part, which is easier to do if the butter itself is already at room temperature, blending together with the flour between your fingers. I get a kick out of this part, running my fingers through the mixture until it's just the right texture. Finally, you scoop the warm vegetable mix into a gratin dish and spread the crumble mix over the top, and slip the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes. I end the baking time with 5 minutes under the grill so the crumble is a bit crunchy and nicely toasted on top. But you might have to keep a close eye on your oven, depending on how finicky it is (mine is completely unpredictable!). And voilà, a yummy veggie dish that I'm sure any zucchini lovers will enjoy... And all you veggie-haters out there might even give it a chance!

So that was my weekend in a nutshell... And the reason why I say it was "bluesy" in spite of all the busy-ness is simply the fact that I couldn't seem to settle my mind, with all the thoughts and emotions whirling around about the uncertainties in our (my boyfriend's and my) future... We have a certain number of decisions to make, and I'm just feeling completely overwhelmed by the weight of it all. I'm hoping and praying that somehow things will come together for the best on their own, but then again I've learned the hard way that no decision comes without some trial and error, and also that it's not all going to magically happen on its own, without some hand-wringing and struggle on our part. I guess we're probably going to have to take some risks, while it's still possible, and believe in what the future holds for us. I know I'm being a bit vague again, but let's just say that we're realizing more and more how important good health and peace of mind is, much more so than the price of sacrificing yourself for people who don't appreciate your work and efforts... And not getting much out of the deal in the long run either.

Here's hoping that we'll have more and more "busy-ness" ahead, but without the blues...