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Category Archives: Paris

Mexican Picnic in Paris

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There has been an idea brewing in the brains of two Americans in Paris, so we decided to perform some due diligence while we were here. A friend came in from London on Saturday who has been living there for the last year or so, and she was dying for a taste of Mexican food. Fine I thought. I had recently read a blog about a new Mexican place in Paris that had the word “authentic” attached to it on more than one occasion. We would be the judges. 
After a night out in Paris that looked more like a third-world tumbling routine, we needed a pick-me-up yesterday morning. Off we set for El Nopal near Canal St. Martin. It was a cinchy excursion on the metro, and when we hopped off, we took our chances, turned left and found the street: Rue Eugene Varlin. It was three storefronts in from the canal, and seriously the tiniest place you have ever seen.
A true Harlequin facade, we rammed ourselves inside three-men wide and we were all that would fit. We passed along our order, and the man, whose name we never even got (kicking myself right now), might have been the friendliest person ever. He shared the whole enchilada with us. He was from Monterrey, Mexico with a Columbian wife who was born in Paris, and despite an attempt to live in America and her protests about living in Paris, here they found themselves after not having been given visas in New York. He enrolled in school and learned French, and just five weeks ago opened up this veritable taco stand. And there were were standing in it.
It was en fuego. Quite literally. That’s the thing with European Mexican food. Somewhere along the line, someone got the the idea that Tex-Mex was the all the rage. Mais non. We all had a laugh about that in El Nopal when he said, “You can’t believe how many people come in and ask if I’m going to make chile con carne.” There’s a total misconception about what Mexican cuisine actually is in Europe. People think if you throw meat and tomatoes in a tortilla, voila…you have a taco or burrito. Ah hem…no. In any event, El Nopal was the  real deal with spice, verve, and a store-keeper with a personality that would make me queue there for lunch day-in and day-out in Paris provided I lived here. 
As luck would have it, we stumbled upon Mexican joint #2 today in the Latin quarter on Rue Mouffetard. We had just finished lunch, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to juxtapose two Mexican restaurants in Paris. We shared a chicken quesadilla, and for God’s sake, it was another hit. Spicy salsa and well-prepared chicken in a bonafide flour tortilla. And Coronas. We couldn’t believe it. Bon chance! 
Tomorrow, we’re off to the Champagne region of France, and I think our lunch at Jardin des Crayeres will border more on avant-garde than internationale, but we’ll see. It’s fine though. We leave for Russia on Wednesday morning, and I can only imagine what the cuisine will bring there. I don’t think we’ll be having tacos and vodka, let’s just say that. But who knows…only time will tell.

Paris Cooking Classes…Take Two

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Traveling back to Paris meant I’d have time for two more cooking classes…on the same day.

Ally and I participated in what I consider to be one of the best values in Paris today at Ateliers Des Chefs. There are six locations scattered about the city, and for €15, we cooked our way through a quick (30-minute) lunch menu in a rather chic demonstration kitchen at the BHV on Rivoli near Hotel de Ville. There were only seven us in the class, which meant it was pretty hands-on, and easy to take notes and follow along, especially since the classes are conducted in French.

Menu: Codfish with a Honey-Soy Glaze and Polenta with Mushrooms

This menu was as easy as it sounds, and if you can understand French, these classes are a huge bargain. The menu was simple and truly done in 30 minutes (where were you on this one, Rachel Ray?), and the food wonderful when we sat down to lunch with the rest of our class.

Ateliers des Chefs

In the evening, Ally, Leila and I moved from one side of Paris to the 15th, home to the colorfully named culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. It’s on a pretty residential side street, and if you weren’t looking for it, you’ll probably walk right past. In our second class of the day, however, we would get very familiar with butter, heavy cream, and milk on repeat in some version of that order. This was An evening In Honor of Julia Child.

Entirely demonstration-based, the class at Le Cordon Bleu was three hours long. Chef Stril spoke only in French, but a translator was on-hand to assist the mainly English-speaking audience.

Menu: Coquilles St.-Jacques a La Parisienne, Fricassée de Poulet a L’Estragon, and Soufflé au Chocolate a L’Ancienne

We started out by making the pastry cream for the soufflé, and I have to say, I don’t consider the art of the soufflé nearly the death-defying feat I did in the past. Would I call this dish easy or fit for a beginner? Not a chance. But Chef did make it look easy. And all soufflés are bound to fall, so if that’s your hang-up, break out the ramekins and let it go. Chef Stril couldn’t be bothered as the air went out of his chocolate towers; he just opened another bottle of wine. C’est la vie, I suppose…

From there, we learned the proper way to segment a chicken into eight pieces for our chicken with tarragon sauce. Chef made quick work of removing the spine, and at dinner after (I should mention this class only resulted in Barbie-sized tasting plates..and wine…there was wine…), we all agreed that this was a skill definitely developed over time. And this dish took time. 

He browned the chicken, then removed it, then used the chicken fat that had rendered off as the base for the sauce. We learned the right (and easy) method to peel a tomato, and then watched as two assistants diced them into uniform pieces for the Chef. He told us how there is always veal stock bubbling away in the Le Cordon Bleu kitchen downstairs because it’s involved in so many of their preparations; that went into the dish too. And we learned how to make a pot lid from parchment paper, which put our dish out of sight and mind while he worked on the scallops and potato cakes.

Our next dish was quite “Republican,” as someone I know likes to say: scallops and mushrooms in a white wine béchamel-style sauce served on the half-shell. This was the star of Chef Stril’s show; we all agreed on that. He opened up the scallop shells to access the meat, and kept the coral egg sack as part of this dish. It’s a gorgeous hue, but I didn’t have any on my plate and probably would have skipped it. After sautéing the scallops until they were only cooked part of the way through, he sliced them into 3mm disks and set them aside. He added shallots and sliced mushrooms to their pan, and then deglazed with white wine and added cream. At this point, he got started on the sauce. Butter, heavy cream, milk, and more, more, more of it all went into the sauce, and at the end, he tempered in egg yolks to help the dish brown under the salamander.

The result, a feast for the eyes and mouth. A buttered shell, a scoop of the creamy mushroom mixture, sliced scallops atop, and a slather of the béchamel to cover the shell. Under the salamander (a broiler would work too) for about five minutes, and Chef Stril had made somewhat quick work of the Coquilles St.-Jacques. I almost dove onto the table for the example one. It was that good.

I can see why they don’t let the audience participate in a menu like this one. It took our Chef about two-and-a-half hours to get this together and he’s been doing it for 40 years. It was a great learning experience though, and since it is hands-off, anyone could participate and have fun…young, old, or food-fearing.

Le Cordon Bleu

Next Stop: Italy

Lord Byron Says…

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“Lobster salad and champagne are the only things a woman should ever been seen eating.” I agree to disagree, Lord. 

Women should also be seen eating Maille mustard , macarons from Laduree, falafels on Rue de Rosiers, and drinking wine from baby bottles at Refuges des Fondues. Why? Because all of those things happened yesterday in Paris as Ally and I criss-crossed the city in search of vintage fur coats. We found them. 

Next Stop: 
Two Cooking Classes on Tuesday…
Ateliers des Chefs & 
Le Cordon Bleu

Happy Valentine’s Day

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A certain Senator turned me on to a particular rosé wine called Domaines Ott. It’s from the south of France, and that sweet, sweet nectar should be required in the south of California as the 6th food group.

Ally and I picked up a bottle in St. Germain near Notre Dame to enjoy over our homemade dinner tonight of pesto pasta (and a caprese salad for me) at the apartment. It was our attempt to channel southern France in a climate that more closely resembles the north pole.

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone from Paris…the city of love, Valentine’s-colored wine, and completely frigid weather. And of course, thank you to my Senator who enjoyed his own bottle today satellite-Valentine’s-style in sunny southern California.

Cooking Class #2: Ecole Ritz Escoffier

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I had my 2nd cooking class yesterday at Ecole Ritz Escoffier. It was abbreviated compared to my course on Saturday, but a great value at €55 and I feel like I learned a lot. It was more demonstration-based than my other class, but also hands-on enough. And while most of the class was conducted in French, which I’m proud to report I understood for the most part, they had another chef translate. Our class consisted of about 10 people, and all but three of us were French. The other two gentlemen were from Mississippi, where I learned that Viking has a cooking school. The Hopscotch may need to head south, it would seem! 
Our menu was Saffron Risotto with Gambas & Parmesan Tiles. What on earth are gambas, you ask? Don’t worry– I asked my French friend the same thing at the lunch table. It looked like a steroidal shrimp, but evidently, it’s probably more closely identified as a crawfish. Where were the men from Mississippi on that one? 
Risotto often scares the daylights out of people. Incidentally, it’s not that difficult, but does require attention. Before I get to that, though, I’ll tell you about our prep work. The nice thing about this course was that our chef focused a bit on knife skills at the start, and after beheading more sea creatures, she taught us the proper way to slice and dice onions. I was pretty elated because my longitudinal/latitudinal method for dicing onions was exactly the way she taught it. What I didn’t realize was that inserting the knife and pulling it towards you makes things ten times easier (instead of rocking forward and pushing down), and also reduces the amount of gases released, which results in onions making people cry. It was a tear-free endeavor. 
After we got everything prepped, we moved over to the stove. Here, we sauteed red onions in olive oil, and salted them so they would sweat. After, we added in the dry, Arborio rice, and toasted it for a bit before adding a rather large jug of white wine (the pot was the size of a traditional paella pan). That reduced, and after, we ladled in chicken stock until it was absorbed, and then finished by seasoning it with salt, pepper, and saffron, and binding it with parmesan cheese. The entire process took about 20 minutes from raw Arborio rice to al dente risotto.
Quick tip: If you’re pressed for time and would like to have risotto at dinner, you can fast forward the cooking by making it earlier in the day. Count for eight minutes after the first ladle of stock, and remove it from the heat and let it cool down. This will result in carry-over cooking. To finish it just before you’re ready to serve it, put it back on the stove and add additional ladles of stock for six minutes. This means you’re only standing at the stove for six minutes before dinner instead of eighteen.

In the background, other students made parmesan tiles for the plating. I’ve made these before, and they’re a simple and elegant way to dress-up a plate of food. You simply spread grated parmesan cheese in thin clusters on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake it at 400F for about five minutes. Remove them from the oven, and before they cool, remove the tiles with a flat spatula and form them on something round, like a bottle of beer. As they cool, they’ll hold their shape, and they’re an edible accoutrement to any plate.
After we learned the proper way to plate our risotto (you eat with your eyes first), we were whisked into a cute little dining room where we nestled in and ate. There was red wine, white wine, sparkling water, and still, and for those caffeine-initiated people, coffee after. It was so much fun to chat in French with the rest of my class (minus the Mississippi men…they were at the other end of the table, so I represented the Francophile U.S.). All in all, the class lasted about 1.5 hours, and after chatting through lunch with an older French gentleman who received the class as a Christmas gift from his son, I said my goodbyes and purchased a gold whisk keychain from the school. 

For a day, I was a student at the famous Ritz. Pretty glamorous, huh? 

Ecole Ritz Escoffier

Next Stop: Cooking Class #3 at Chateaux Lavergne in Bordeaux Tomorrow

Can You Meet Me Halfway?

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Part of traveling is meeting people, especially when you’re traveling alone like I am. I’ve had good fortune on this trip to Paris. I met up with a friend in St. Germain for a beer on Monday night, and we talked about his upcoming wedding(s) in Brazil and Loire, among other things. And then, I headed to Buddha Bar and onto Hotel de Crillon to meet up with the fabulous group in the photo.

I met Pranay and Shavanee (they’re just behind me in the photo) in my cooking class last Saturday, just before they got engaged at the Eiffel Tower! Johanna, the other woman in the photo, is friends of someone that Pranay works with in Santa Clara, and her beau is a French photographer. As such, Pranay had arranged to have them inconspicuously photograph the engagement, so they all met to exchange a CD with the pictures, and I joined them. I saw one of the photos on his iPhone; it made me cry. I had known these people for 48 hours, at best, and felt like we were old friends.

My point is: no matter where you are in the world, if you’re open-minded, you will find friends. In fact, just today, I got an email from one of the girls from The Bachelor. She’s in Paris today too, so as we criss-crossed paths in the Marais that I spoke about the other day, we settled on having dinner together tonight. When they say it’s a small world, they mean it. I wonder who I’ll run into next?

Le Marais

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The metro is like a warp zone. I descended in one climate today, and ascended in quite another. Look at the picture on the left…it was tough to capture, but the woman behind me and I could hardly contain our laughter as we ascended to the street on the escalator and saw a blizzard before us. That’s not rain; it’s enormous snowflakes that accompanied me and my umbrella down Blvd. St. Germain until I ducked into a cafe. 

So much for that Fat Tire bike tour today…

Instead, I waited for the storm to pass, and after walking down to Marche St. Germain, I took the metro again up to where the Soundwalk tour I had downloaded for my iPod started. It cost €5, and provided a private tour of shops, restaurants, and historic sites in Le Marais. “Le Marais” in French means “the marsh,” and this area is one of the lowest in the city, and very close to the Seine. As such, it’s predisposed to flooding, which is how it got its name.

It is also the Jewish quarter, which is evidenced by the many falafel shops on Rue des Rosiers. It smelled fantastic. The walk traced the route of a fictitious singer who had an audition at Place de Vosges and had lost her walkman with her tape. With my iPod strapped on, she led me around the Marais to various cafes, bookstores, theatres, and even the bar I had looked up where they do magic tricks. It was closed today or I would have put the tour on pause for a bit.

The tour was impeccably timed, and my walking pace matched the narrator’s to a tee. I would arrive at the intersections when it was time to turn, and often be directly in front of the addresses she was referencing. It was also cool how one of the stops was an enclosed courtyard, but she gave me the code to open it up and get inside. Evidently, it was where her mother lived. Je ne sais pas si il est vrai.

The weather improved as the day went on, and this was a fun way to see a part of the city I was very unfamiliar with…until now. Tonight, I’m meeting a friend for a drink back in St. Germain, and then some friends from my cooking class at the Buddha Bar near Hotel de Crillon. Fingers crossed the ascent at the Mabillon metro is more favorable. 

Tomorrow: Cooking class number two at Ecole Ritz Escoffier.