Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Top it Off with Tapas

SPAIN! A week in the sun walking around will work up quite a thirst -- and a hunger -- for some of Spain's tastiest treates. And fortunately there is not shortage of mentionables yum yums in the land of flamenco and bull fights.

Tapas is a tricky subject when traveling around Spain, so be careful. I was surprised to find that sometimes drinks came with a little something to eat, and other times not. The culture has changed a lot from the time when the Castillian king ordered food be served with every drink in
the 1200s (or so Wikipedia tells me). Friends who have lived in Spain said that every beer basically coems with a meal, but that was far from the truth in my experience.

In Madrid, a pitcher of sangria came with two small crustini's of shrimp and avacado, which were delicious tapas. But a meal this did not make. But I had to offer a cheese tapas platter and some fried croquettes. I didn't complain, but ordering tapas as a main course just seemed odd -- though deliciously so. Another night I ordered drinks that came with nothing and had to order olives and a beef platter as tapas for dinner. Again, no one complained, but the cultural experience that I was promised wasn't there. Maybe it was just because I was a foreigner that I wasn't getting the Spanish treatment, but I wanted free food!

In Granada, a beer came with a plate full of french fries, ham croissants, and pasta covered in a sort of thousand island dressing (called American sauce in Europe). This was hardly the tapas I expected, especially after Madrid, but it was free! This was a demi-success at best.

Overall, the tapas culture was brilliant if you were willing to shell out a few euros. In Sevilla I shared a wonderful tapas dinner with Suzy including Andalucian meat balls, a spinach and chick pea mixture, and some sort of veal or pork product that was swimming in the most delicious sauce. But none of that came with the pitcher of sangria we ordered. Each tiny tapas portion was between 3 and 4 euros, which adds up if you are fighting a big hunger!

I learned that the idea is not to go expecting free tapas, but to be surprised when you DO get it. At the end of every tapas experience, I was happier to have the ice cold beer in the summer heat than anything else, but the little nibblies were a much welcomed treat to snack on while enjoying the Spanish experience.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Whip out the chopsticks, it's dessert time...

So I have a lot of strawberries from yesterday's market run, and I wasn't entirely keen on cooking more muffins or cakes.  I wanted something different.

So I figure why not go crazy and make something off the wall, like sushi.  Well, dessert sushi.  The idea isn't exactly from the outer rim, but it's not something you'd find at the supermarket, either.  I treated the straweberries like the fish and cooked some rice in a mixture of water and sweetened orange juice (surgar and caramel syrup added, for some stickiness I hoped).  

For the wrap, I used freshly-made colored crepes, attempting to make them look like the dark green/black seaweed used to wrap sushi in restaurants.  Well, I tried.  Not having a sushi rolling mat, I am now inspired to get one, because rolling individual rolls is both impractical and nearly impossible.  I used a little Nutella to glue it all together, so essential it's a strawberry-Nutella crepe, but in a mini version.  

They aren't bad for a first attempt.  They aren't great, either.  But with a variety of fruits and candies, this could be a really fun alternative to bringing the typilcal tart to that next dinner party...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Market Pasta!

Market time again!  Today I came back with some fresh asparagus, both green and white.  Two euros for both -- quite the bargain.  I also picked up a kilo of cherry tomatoes and a half kilo of mushrooms before settling on some Spanish strawberries.  It was a success, all at 7 euros (not even $10)

So how to enjoy all of this was the next step. Whenever I think of asparagus I think of pasta, because the delicious snap swimming in a sea of soft linguinni just does it for me.  So I set the pasta water over some heat and chopped up my asparagus and mushrooms.  

You need to find where the asaparagus will naturally snap towards the base, that way you know how to trip off the bottoms.  It's pretty easy. Apparently you're supposed to peel white asparagus because they are tougher, but I didn't think this was needed.  I sauteed them all up in some olive oil, with a little diced shallot, salt, and pepper.  Voila!

Once the pasta was done, I drained it and added to the pan>  Then I hit it with some grated Parmesan cheese and light cream, making a light white sauce.  I tossed it all together and, well, I enjoyed it.  Delicious!  

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ballin' in Bordeaux

Bordeaux, France. Home of old buildings, fountains, and most importantly, world-class wine. The food's nothing to sneeze at, either. During my weekend to the southwest of France, I took to the table with two new German friends for a small feast bordelais style (that's the adjective for Bordeaux).  

At Chez Maman, just off rue St-Catherine, the longest pedestrian street in Europe supposedly, we hunkered down for a prix-fixe at just 15.50 euros. The choices were difficult but check out what I settled upon.  

For a starter, moules farcies, stuffed mussels loaded with herbs like parsely and dill. They were served on a bed of sea salt that I had to refrain fron licking up with the bread. 

For my main dish, I had a brochette, essentially a kebab of meats including beef, duck, and a ham-like substance. It was served on top of a medley of vegetables (deliciously prepared in butter and perfectly cooked). I chose the shallot sauce, crue, which meant I just had a small side of diced shallots. But with some salt and pepper, it was all that the freshly cooked meat needed. We could watch it be cooked over the fire oven not 5 feet away from our table.

And then for dessert, my favorite part, I chose the chocolate profiteroles. Small balls of dough stuffed with vanilla ice cream were topped with a generous flood of liquid chocolate and Chantilly, or whipped cream. It took me a while to eat it, especially as I looked with sad eyes at my German companions who had chosen the creme brulee, which was not as copious or chocolatey.

Accompanied by a bottle of local Bordeaux wine (AOC Bordeaux, and after our wine tour that afternoon, we knew exactly what this meant!), the meal was divine. It was only made better by the shot of vanilla rum that the server brought us at the end. Hey, why not, right?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


What happens when you mix springtime produce with a little love and attention?   I don't know because my last relationship with a vegetable ended badly (cue cymbals, please).  But seriously, whoever said ratatouille was a pain to make clearly did not invest any time at all.

Simply cut up a medley of veggies and then cook them down, but choose wisely.  Onions, eggplants, zucchini, and tomatoes are French favorites, but I twisted it a bit, using no eggplants (too heavy), adding olives (I had black, so I used them), and finishing the dish with freshly diced red onion for a springier bite.  I also added lentils because, let's face it, who doesn't like lentils?

Let it all cook down in some olive oil, add a little herbes de provence, salt and pepper it and you are ready to go!  Mix in the red onion dices just as you're about to eat.  It's light enough to not weigh you down on a warm April day, but heartier enough not to send you back to the fridge.

And have some good bread on hand to soak up the juices.  I found a new favorite bakery in my area that makes pain des amis, bread of the friends, that I just fell in love with.  I got a big hunk of it for 2 euros and 50 cents, and at first was not enticed.  It's just bread.  

But once I bit into the crusty exterior and tasted the wood that was used in the stove, the hickory (or is it maple?) crunchiness that made me want more, I was hooked.  Perfect compliment to a perfect springtime lunch.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Strawburry Madness!

Springtime is here and that means strawburries, strawburries, strawburries!  Clearly the "u" is for the proper British pronounciation, in case you were wondering.

Today at the market, there were strawberries (the correct spelling) from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco -- still too early for French ones apparently though they have been creeping into stores.

A nice merchant let me taste the Portguese berries, and I was delighted.  While smaller, cuter, and alltogether adorable, their taste was anything but tiny.  They were super sweet and tantalizing.  Thanks Portugal. 

But I didn't buy them.

The Moroccan ones, as I have experienced, are good, but a little too tough for my tastes.  Not surprising since you needd to be tough to make that voyage from Africa!  
But a strawberry (again, correct spelling) should melt in your mouth with little effort and should be instantaneously sweet.  The Spanish ones that are sold more frequently are sometimes, but not always like that.  Sometimes they are just too fleshy and lacking in flavor.

The Italian ones, however, are hitting the spot.  Maybe I just got a good batch, but these suckers are SWEET and soft and beautifully red and delcious and perfect.  I am pleased.  AND they were the least inexpensive (1.50 euros for 2 boxes).  Now the only problem is to eat them all before they go bad, but I don't think this will be quite the challenge I think it will be...

Olive you, even if you are a mistake...

So last night I tried making pita bread.  Little did I know that the dough had to rise for 3 hours.  Whoops!  But I stuck the ball of flour, salt, water, and baking powder (not yeast, as the recipe called for -- whoops again!) in the refrigerator overnight and forgot about it.  

At 1 PM the next day, which is today, I remembered that the ball was sitting in the cold, so I took it out to see what was up.  Though a bit hardened and sticky, it was still good to be baked as far as I was concerned.  But I wasn't going to take any chances making yucky bread/scones/muffin -- you see, I didn't know how it was going to come out.

To jazz it up in hopes of making something special, I added crushed and pitted black olives along with some freshly torn basil.  A little Italian flavor never hurt anyone.  So I kneaded it until it was knelt as I wanted it to be (read: until I got tired).  I stuck it in the oven and this is what came out!  Little basil-olive scones -- a far cry from the puffy pita bread I was aiming for.  

Though after a bite, who cares?!  This delicious little mistake tasted like a pretzel muffin with a delicious basil aroma and salty olive bite.  Perfecto.  Sometimes you just want a little afternoon snack, and I'm glad I have these babies on hand to munch on.  

Recipe, roughly:
3 cups flour
some warm water mixed with about 2 tablespoons baking powder (or yeast if you want it breadier)
a few dashes of salt and pepper
a bit of sugar for luck
about a cup of crushed or diced and pitted black olives
a handful of shredded or minced fresh basil
patience and a muffin pan

Add the baking powder or yeast to warm water until frothy, and then add to flour and salt.  mix and knead, adding flour if needed, until it looks like the dough that bakers use on TV.  Then add olives and basil and continue kneading.  Fill muffin pan with a bit of the mixture in each cup and bake at a high temperature for a few minutes (mine was around 22o degrees Celsius, so convert as you like).  Pray.  Remove biscuits/scones/muffins once golden brown and hope that they are cooked through.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The 10 Euro Market Challenge

So it was a Sunday. And like every Sunday in France, the world is closed except for my trusty grocery and the FRESH PRODUCE MARKETS. When given the choice between the two, is there really a question?

So after I left the grocery store (kidding!)...I hopped on a bike around 11 AM, and in Paris the trusty Velib, a sort of public bike system, is found everywhere.  It took me about 20 minutes to wind through lazy residential streets, running redlights and zipping past pedestrians to reach my new favorite market, the marche d'Aligre.  Located down the street from Bastille, the neighborhood, not the fortress, this bustling market has reportedly some of the lowest prices for some of the best produce.  

The reports are true!

I managed to buy all of this fresh (read: FRESH) fruit and vegetable items for under 10 euros.  Red onions were my splurge item, at about 2 euros 75 cents a kilo.  I only  bought three, so as not to break the bank.

But what a riot!  I walked up and down through the crowds, pushing past stupid parents with strollers and nearly knocking over slow old women and their pull carts.  Frustrations aside, I loved it.  I bought some lettuce from this guy ("Mangez salade, jamais malade" = Eat salad, never get sick), some potatoes from that guy, and some leeks from the other guy.  

I feel good looking for local items, until I realize that not even the vendors themselves come from France -- unless they were all raised speaking Arabic, a very real possibility.  But the tomatoes were grown in the south of France, and the leeks were marked French.  And I didn't mind the Moroccon avacados.  It was nice to speak French with another (presumably) non-native speaker while getting such a great price on the week's nurishment.

Now I just have to see if I can eat it all before it goes bad!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dirty Sin Cakes

As if sin could be clean...

It's been a while since I had something really sweet and delicious.  Then today, I had a sampling of French pastries.  OK, find, delicious.  But I wanted something richer and more satisfying.  Don't we all?

So I took the chocolate cake recipe out of Better Homes and Gardens, my new bible.  It's got everything I need.  But of course, this
 is Paris, I have to French it up a bit, non?

So I used my muffin mold and made some little chocolate cupcakes.  Divine, for starters.  There's just something about French ingredients.  

So to add the dirty sin part, I melted some Nutella in a pan with some powdered sugar, milk, and naturally some butter.  Once it was all gooey and sinful, I drizzled it over my cupcake.  Then, well, I ate it.  

And that wasn't enough, so I decided to melt some peanut butter, some more butter, and some powdered sugar into the saucepan and drizzled it over the remaining cupcakes.  Nothing French about it, I admit, but man oh man...

This isn't the City of Sin, but there wasn't much light coming out of those little cakes!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

We're (I'm) BACK!!!

Hello dedicated readers! Dry those tear stained eyes because the days of Traipsing Tastes have returned!  I had to take a small hiatus to cook, for real, in a restaurant (gasp) but now that I have quit, it's back to the fun stuff. 

But oh the things I learned!

You can now say you know a former Parisian chef.  I cooked brunch on the weekends at a local eatery, where all the cool people went.  Granted, I wasn't doing haute cuisine, but I definitely improved my vocabulary in addition to earning a few battle wounds from the oven.

More on that later, but for now, take a look at the things I've cooked up lately.  America meets France once again as I crave mac and cheese.  No powdered cheese here.  Instead I prepared some diced onion and garlic in melted butter, and then melted up 4 of my favorite cheeses into it.  Once it was good and gooey, added the cooked pasta and got it all nice and coated.  The special touch was the fried bacon that I then tossed in -- call me a fatty.   I dumped it into a baking dish and topped it with some bread crumbs and butter before tossing it into the oven. 

A note on bread crumbs:  they don't really exist in France.  Instead, I had to buy some cheap brioche, basically stale bread, and mash it up, seasoning as I desired (salt n peppa baby).  Way more fun than buying a can of them!

A note on bacon:  it doesn't exist in France like in the States.  I buy poitrine fumée, which looks the same and almost tastes the same if prepared correctly.  I like to fry it slowly in a touch of oil over medium heat until the fat gets crispy.  Patience is required, but rewarded.

Once it was baked, I had a crispy top with a melted delicious interior that tasted divine.  Talk about good ole American fare.  It's a challenge to get a taste of home without having your mother mail you American goods, but it's not impossible!