Monday, July 28, 2008

Cafe Talk

A "cafe" in France designates two things: a coffee (drink) and a small place to have drinks (including coffee) and sometimes snacks or light meals. Small villages cafes welcome a lot of people who usually don't just enjoy a small cup of coffee! Red or white wine, commonly referred to as "canon de rouge" for red wine, or "canon de blanc" for white wine, along with Pastis, are usually their best friend. I don't want to pigeonhole but I come from a small village and I was raised in my grandmother's cafe; You see patterns after a while.

You might encounter some local workmen: the electrician, the plumber, the factory workers but also the local drunkard. Life seems slow in small villages so they know how to pace themselves, you see. Not quite the idea of the quaint little French cafe that you had in mind? Well not the typical cafe that you would find in a big city, in the touristy neighborhoods or simply in the touristy regions of France but believe me, there are lots and lots of small villages in France, so what I described here is to me a real typical French cafe, down in the heart of France, la France profonde; And I like it.

As a college student in Lyon (a big French city), I would go with my friends to one of the cafes around my university to grab a coffee and smoke a cigarette (thank goodness I stopped since then) while we stared at everyone behind our sunglasses and shared the latest gossips. The other customers would be of course other students, business people or workers on a break.

Typical drinks that people order in cafes are beer, wine, Pastis, coffee, hot chocolate, hot tea, Coke, Orangina or fruit syrups drinks. Depending on the cafe, you can order snack food such as ice cream, sandwiches, simple desserts, small breakfasts (usually a hot drink with fresh baguette or a croissant). But if you've seen the movie Amelie, then you will know that you can also sometimes eat a simple warm lunch and also buy lotery tickets.

I miss the atmosphere of French cafes. One of the cafes I enjoy the most is in Juan-Les-Pins on the French Riviera (la Cote d'Azur), where my parents live most of the time. My favorite spot is the cafe's terrace, where you have a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. I like to make a stop there in the morning on our way to buy groceries for lunch. I don't know about you, but I can almost hear the seagulls and the waves... 

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A French Take on Tabbouleh

I live in Texas, so Tex-Mex cuisine, as might be expected, is very popular here. There are countless numbers of restaurants and taco stands all over Austin; so many that when I first moved here, I grew tired of eating out. I was not fond of salsa, tortilla chips nor any spicy flavor. Proof that one can get used to anything, I now enjoy Tex Mex a lot and I even add salsa and pico de gallo to my tacos and fajitas! Tacos and salsa, it seems, have become staples in American kitchens. 

In France, immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia imported many dishes that are now part of everyday French cuisine like merguez sausages, couscous, kebabs and tabbouleh. I'm not sure how authentic the dishes remain when we French make them but they are wonderful, and that's all that matters to me.

Taboule (that's how we spell it in French) is fantastic during the Summer. I usually make a big bowl and we eat it for several days. It's also perfect for picnics. My Mom probably makes a taboule every other week during Summer months because of how refreshing it is. It's a lot of cutting and chopping but it's really worth it. I do not use a lot of fat so it's also very healthy. 

The original recipe for tabbouleh consists of bulgur, lots of mint and parsley, onions and tomatoes. The taboule served in France uses couscous, diced cucumbers, bell peppers (I choose not to put any however. Personal preference) and tomatoes. It's so popular that it is sold prepackaged in grocery stores, much like you would buy potato salad in the United States for example.

My two tips to making a great taboule are to let the flavors mingle together for at least 3 hours in the refrigerator and to make sure you peel and remove the seeds from the tomatoes. The rest is as easy as pie.

Laetitia's Taboule (serves 8)

1 seedless cucumber
1/2 cup of golden raisins
4 or 5 tomatoes
1 7-ounce box of original couscous
1 shallot
1/3 cup of chopped, pitted black olives (not canned)
1 cup of chopped fresh mint
1 cup of chopped fresh parsley
3 tbsps of fresh lemon juice
4 tbsps of olive oil
1 tsp of salt
1 tsp pepper

Cut the cucumber in two, put in a colander and sprinkle with a little bit of salt. Set aside for 30 minutes, to draw the water out. Boil 3 cups of water and cover the raisins in a bowl with 1 cup of boiling water. Set aside for 10 minutes. This will rehydrate them. You will use the 2 remaining cups of boiling water to peel the tomatoes. Cut a little cross at the top of each tomato (it will make it easier to peel afterwards) and immerse in the boiling water for 10 seconds maximum (longer and they will become mushy). Set aside and let cool. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel with a knife, cut in half and gently squeeze over the sink or a bowl to remove the seeds. Dice and put in a bowl. 

Cook the couscous following the package's instructions. When ready, put in a big bowl and fluff with a fork.

Add the thinly sliced shallot, the diced cucumber (wipe it off with a paper towel, pat dry), the thinly chopped parsley and mint to the tomatoes. Pit and chop the black olives, drain the raisins and add. Mix everything with the couscous and stir. Add the lemon juice, the olive oil and the salt and pepper. Make sure everything is well stirred. Cover and store in the fridge for at least 3 hours before serving.

Adjust the seasoning right before serving. I sometimes add a little more lemon juice or olive oil.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How to exaggerate like a Frenchman

"Monsieur Plus" that's how my mother refers to my father, alluding to his tendency to exaggerate and embellish things ("Monsieur Plus" translates to "Mister Plus"). Accounts of their weekend hike often turn into a heroic odyssey for example. 

My Dad, Jean-Pierre, was born in my region of Rhone-Alpes, yet we like to joke with my Mom, that he might have been born in Marseille. In France, one commonly known stereotype of people from Marseille, is that they tend to exaggerate. So when someone says something that sounds a tad much, we usually say "il est Marseillais" (he is from Marseilles).  The stereotype is usually used for French people from the south of France (du midi) in general. 

I will let Peter Mayle describe this French trait in a funny extract from one of my favorite books, A Year in Provence.

"We learned that time on Provence is a very elastic commodity, even when it is described in clear and specific terms. Un petit quart d'heure means sometime today. Demain means sometime this week. And, the most elastic time segment of all, une quinzaine can mean three weeks, two months , or next year, but never, ever does it mean fifteen days. We learned also to interpret the hand language that accompanies any discussion of deadlines. When a Provencal looks you in the eye and tells you that he will be hammering on your door ready to start work next Tuesday for certain, the behavior of his hands is all-important. If they are still, or patting you reassuringly on the arm, you can expect him on Tuesday. If one hand is held out of waist height, palm downwards, and begins to rock from side to side, adjust the timetable to Wednesday or Thursday. If the rocking develops into an agitated waggle, he's really talking about next week or God knows when, depending on circumstances beyond his control."

What are some of the stereotypes from the regions of your country?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good Food, Good Friends

Here's a dessert that will become a classic. It's such an easy recipe, believe me! It would be really hard to mess it up. Make this raspberry tiramisu a day ahead and serve it cold, with a clairette de Die , an Asti Spumante or even a Muscat like a Beaumes de Venise. I really enjoy clairette for its refreshing and sparkling taste. Its unique sweetness comes from the muscat grapes. It's like drinking sunshine!

Much like regular coffee and chocolate tiramisu, raspberry tiramisu is soft, creamy and airy.  This "Summer version" seems to even taste lighter! It is decadent and awfully delicious.  Not convinced yet? What are you waiting for! Believe me you will thank me!

I made this dessert last week when we got invited for dinner at the house of Kimmie and Joe, along with  our friends Brenda, Roger, Stephanie, Phil and Sohnne. It was a lovely evening. Kimmie and Joe are talented cooks and passionate people. Joe made unbelievable pates and rillettes -it reminded me of my grandfather, who has been making pates all his life. The highlight of the evening was their Cassoulet. It was the first time I met Kimmie and Joe but boy, we speak the same language - the language of food!

Raspberry Tiramisu (a recipe from gourmandises Pierre Herme)
For 6 to 8 people

about 20 lady fingers
about 4.4 oz of raspberries

For the raspberry coulis:
4.4 oz raspberries
2 tbsps of water
2 tbsps of powdered sugar

For the mascarpone cream:
4 egg whites
5 tsps water
1/2 cup of sugar
1 container of mascarpone (about 8.8 oz or 250g)
4 yolks

Prepare the coulis. In a fine mesh sieve, mash the raspberries. Push the mixture down to extract the seeds. Add the powdered sugar and the water and mix together. Reserve.

Prepare the cream. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt, until soft. Bring the water to a boil with the sugar and boil for 3 minutes maximum. Stream this syrup slowly over the egg whites while you resume the beating. The whites will be shiny and firm.

In a bowl, mix together the yolks and the sugar until smooth. Slowly fold in the whites.

Roll one ladyfinger at a time quickly into the syrup and lay in a rectangular dish (7.8 x 9.4) until you have a layer. Spread half of the mascarpone cream over. Add the raspberries. Do the second layer of ladyfingers, just the same. Cover with the remaining mascarpone cream. Keep in the fridge and serve the day after. 

When it's time to serve, sprinkle some cocoa powder over the tiramisu.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Bastille Day!

Today was France's national day. In the United States, it's commonly known as Bastille Day. In France, we refer to it as "la Fete Nationale" or "le 14 juillet". There's noting much different in the way we celebrate. There's grilling involved, maybe picnics and always fireworks bien sur!!

It's been five years that I haven't been home for le 14 juillet but fortunately, Austin's French Alliance has been organizing a Bastille Day Celebration for the past 12 years. Saturday was the second time Juan and I went. Many of our friends came and it was all that I wanted for my Bastille Day: good company, music and nice food.

The lawn of the French Legation Museum was not too crowded. There were lots of children running, families and people juggling with diabolos (yes juggling. I joked that I did not know juggling was a typical French thing to do). No they were not wearing any hat with bells.

We found a spot under a tree, where we settled ourselves down, picnic style. The food was provided so all we needed to do was walk to the tables and choose between
merguez or a pate sandwiches, croque-monsieurs, cheese plates - among other things.

My heart was set on the
merguez sandwich, a spicy sausage originally from Northern Africa but adopted by the French. It's so much part of our culture now! We sometimes eat it as a sandwich, in a fresh crispy baguette, along with French mustard. Yum!!

There was a "guillotine" there. It was for people to have their picture taken by a photographer. I'm not sure how I feel about a guillotine - even fake - being displayed at a Bastille Day celebration. It seemed unusual (we don't usually have fun around a fake guillotine), but all in all it made everyone smile.

The rest of the evening was spent talking and eating - and juggling for some of us. Even though I was not in France, it was the best American 14th of July I had ever had!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

White Gold

My favorite kind of salt is fleur de sel, which in French means flower of salt. It's not like the regular salt we use. No, believe me, it's better! I might sound a little bit like a food snob here, but the way it brings out the flavors of a dish (sweet or savory) is truly unbelievable and irresistible. 

Now what in the world is Fleur de Sel exactly? Simply, it is the top layer of salt floating at the surface of the salt pond, before it sinks to the bottom. It's hand-harvested in the French region of Brittany, during the Summer. 
Fleur de Sel is not used for cooking but rather as a sel de table (table salt) right before you eat. I absolutely love sprinkling some on a bite of Foie Gras toast. Just thinking about it, I'm salivating (and that's only because we have a block of foie gras waiting for us to be eaten). See! Don't get me started, don't even get me started! It's also fantastic on slices of avocado,  on meat right off the grill , on butter or fresh goat cheese with some fresh bread and radishes, on any vegetable and also don't forget soft boiled eggs (one of my favorite breakfast food). I also use it in my chocolate desserts. 

I can easily buy Fleur de Sel at my grocery store (Central Market) but if you can't find it, you can also order it at William Sonoma.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Fresh from the garden

My grandparents have grown their own vegetables their whole life. Salads, potatoes, leeks, carrots, radishes, turnips, pumpkins. The list goes on and on. I feel so privileged to have been able to take advantage of their harvest. There simply isn't any comparison between a green salad fresh from the garden and a store bought one. I am lucky enough though, to have a great supermarket who sells wonderful fresh products right next to where we live here in Austin.

Outdoor markets in France, happen weekly or even daily, depending on where you live. For my village, it is every Saturday. There are several fruit and vegetable stands (among other things), all of which have big displays. Vendors yell out to attract customers: "regardez ces belles peches madame" ("look at these beautiful peaches ma'am"). They make you taste the product before you buy it. They point out to you which fruit or vegetables are at the peak of their flavor. 

It is a place where I love to go. I feel so alive when I'm there. The smells, the colors and the sounds permeate all your senses. If you go to a small town market (like the one where I go), you will see people talking everywhere, catching up, greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks. It's of course the place of many gossips (usually very important reports such as "Mrs P. told me that the daughter of the neighbor of Mrs B. is having an affair with the mailman's son"). 

But anyway, there is one vegetable that I really enjoy buying at that time of the year and it's asparagus. And in my family, we enjoy them boiled, cold, with homemade mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

For two persons, I count about 7 small asparagus each.  Lay the asparagus in a large skillet filled with just enough boiling water to cover them. Reduce the heat a little and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Drain, allow to cool and store in the fridge. While the asparagus cook, prepare the mayonnaise. You will need:

1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
salt, pepper
1 cup of corn oil

Whisk together the yolk, the mustard, the lemon juice and salt and pepper. Whisk vigorously and pour the oil, one drop at a time. Before adding the next drop, make sure it's well incorporated. Keep whisking  (keep going!) while you slowly pour a little more oil in a thin steady stream. Repeat until the texture becomes very smooth and you have used all the oil. The key is to not pour the oil too quickly and make sure the ingredients emulsify before you add more oil. When you have a nice mayonnaise you can add more lemon juice and salt and pepper if you want to. Keep in the fridge until you are ready to eat.

To serve, I usually put the bowl of mayonnaise with a spoon and the plate of asparagus on the table. Everyone scoops how much mayonnaise and asparagus they want on their plate. To eat, I like to dip my asparagus in the mayonnaise (and double dip, but it's okay because it's in my plate!).

Serve with fresh bread like pain de campagne or baguette.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Red, White, Blue... and Yellow!

Happy 4th of July everyone! This year is my second year as an American citizen to celebrate Independence Day. Juan's parents and his brother are coming to Austin. We hope to catch a glimpse of the fireworks - somehow (we're still trying to decide on which strategic spot we should position ourselves).

But that's not all my dear friends and fellow citizens!!  For this Saturday is the kickoff  of the 2008 Tour de France! 

When I still lived in France, I would often manage to go see it. I grew up with my father and grandfathers watching Le Tour - as French people commonly refer to - every Summer. I never saw any fun in watching it - until we saw it in real. For that, I remember, we drove to the famous tough climb of L' Alpe D'Huez with its 21 hairpin bends!! How the cyclists climb it under the Summer heat is beyond me...

Like a baseball game, the fun of Le Tour is not in the race itself, but in the atmosphere. Hours before the riders whoosh before you - panting, while you slowly sip a cool bottle of water - you get to enjoy the parade of the publicity caravan. These are hundreds of small vans, or cars from different companies like Coeur de Lion (cheese), Haribo (candies), Cochonou (saucisson) parading with music and handing out different freebies like  food samples, bags, stickers, key chains and other knickknacks. Everyone always tries to collect as much as they can. 

After the publicity caravan has passed, the excitement grows because the head of the race is close - usually within the hour. It's the calm before the storm. Some people bring their mini portable radio - and for some who literally camp out, a TV - to follow the race and judge how far they are and who's leading. The wait can be long and boring but soon you hear a distant clamor and car horns. The crowd is getting thicker, restless, amped. Then like a flash, it seems, the peloton de tete - the head of the race - followed shortly by the main peloton sprint by. You try to spot you favorite. I remember that I was cheering for Bernard Hinault  and  Greg Lemond. Police cars, journalists, camera operators on motorcycles, team cars escort the racers. 

The moment is brief but exceptionally thrilling and exhilarating. And just like that, the excitement and the roar fades away. The crowd slowly scatters. 

If you're up for a laugh, then watch this video; I was interviewed by the local Austin news in 2004 at a Tour de France watch party. Geez, I can't stand my voice!