30 August 2006

Couscous restaurant in Paris

We've been looking for a good couscous restaurant in Paris since one we found just last March called La Rose des Sables suddenly went out of business in June. We tried one called L'Oasis near métro Convention in late June, and it was OK but not excellent.

Yesterday we were in Paris with our friend CHM. We had found recommendations for two couscous restaurants. The first is called Le Gourbi and is located on the rue des Plantes in the 14th arrondissement. I called and it turned out Le Gourbi is closed during the month of August. Walt and I will try it the next time we get to Paris.

The other restaurant, which we saw featured on a French TV show called Carte Postale Gourmande a few weeks ago, is called Le Vent de Sable (which means "the sandstorm" in French). It's located on the rue Mademoiselle in the 15th arrondissement, near métro Commerce.

Well, it was excellent. Le Gourbi may be a good restaurant too, but we ended up being glad it was closed because it was our first choice. If it had been open, we would have missed out on Le Vent de Sable. The specialty at this excellent restaurant is a couscous au méchouiméchoui is lamb roasted on a spit over a wood fire. That's what we had.

If you don't know what couscous is, this will give you an idea:

You make a big pot of broth using tomatoes, onions, celery, and other vegetables as you want: turnips, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, green beans, or chunks of winter squash, for example. In the broth you cook lamb, chicken, beef, or any combination of all of them.

You make a batch of couscous, which is a form of wheat pasta that looks more like millet than anything else. You serve the meat, vegetables, and broth over the couscous and you garnish it with cooked chickpeas and dry raisins, along with a good amount of the hot chili sauce called harissa. You can also serve a few merquez sausages, made from lamb and beef, on the side.

Lunch at Le Vent de Sable — 31, rue Mademoiselle, Paris 15e

Or you go to a good couscous restaurant like Le Vent de Sable. Order a bottle of Algerian or Moroccan red wine to go with it. You won't regret it. Click on the check above to see how reasonable it is. Dahra, by the way, is a red wine from Algeria.

Another good couscous is the one served at L'Atlas, on the boulevard St-Germain in the Latin Quarter, near the well-known Chez René and Tour d'Argent restaurants.

29 August 2006

Dieppe: Sunday at the beach

With our Rouen friends we drove up to Dieppe, a town of about 35,000 on the English Channel, for lunch and an afternoon on the coast on Sunday. We were very lucky to have sunny, if windy, weather for the whole day. Dieppe is about an hour's drive north of the city of Rouen (pop. 500,000 or so in the metropolitan area).

The Michelin green guide for Normandy describes Dieppe as "the beach closest to Paris" and "the oldest French seaside resort," adding that "the harbor is modern but many old corners and alleys remain," making Dieppe "one of the most unusual towns in Normandy." I had been to Dieppe years ago, but only briefly, and Walt never had.

A café on the harbor at Dieppe that has a nice name

For lunch, Marie had made reservations at a little restaurant called Les Ecamias, located on one of the main streets along the big boat basin at Dieppe. Like many of the old fishing ports along the French coast, Dieppe's harbor now receives more pleasure boats than it does working fishing vessels.

A restaurant on the harbor at Dieppe. From Dieppe there is car ferry
service to the town of New Haven, on the coast of southern England.

For lunch, Walt and I had mussels and French-fried potatoes — moules frites in French — and our friends both had aile de raie au beurre noisette — skate wing with brown butter. Walt had his mussels marinière style, which means steamed in white wine with butter, shallots, and parsley. Mine were prepared à la crème, which means they were cooked the same way but cream was added to the broth at the end of the cooking. Normandy is famous for its good cream and butter.

As appetizers, two of us had half a dozen oysters on the half-shell. That's what I had, and they were excellent, I thought. The other two of us had little shellfish called amandes de mer — sea almonds — cooked in a parsley-garlic butter like snails. They reported that the amandes, which are like little scallops with a reddish-brown shell, were excellent as well.

People enjoying a sunny afternoon at a café in the shopping district at Dieppe

The weather has been cool and cloudy a lot in August, and there has been so much talk on the radio about the end of summer vacation and what is called la rentrée — the start of a new school year and work year — that it was easy to forget that it really still is summer. On Sunday August 27, Dieppe was full of tourists, many British, and French vacationers and day-trippers, like us.

After lunch, we walked through the old town of Dieppe and stopped in the two big churches, St-Jacques and St-Rémy, to take pictures. At St-Rémy, an organist and three singers were rehearsing for an evening concert, so we stopped and listened for a while. There were quite a few people strolling through the streets, and a few shops were open.

The beach and the sea at Dieppe

Afterwards, we took a long walk along the seafront. There were hundreds of people out. It was sunny but pretty windy on the beach, so there weren't many people sunbathing or swimming, even though green flags were flying along the boardwalk to indicate that swimming was safe.

Sunbathers found shelter from the stiff wind on the beach at Dieppe

The beach at Dieppe is not sand. It's millions of little rocks that have been worn smooth by the action of the waves washing onto the shore. There are little cafés and restaurants along the seafront, and there's also a big amusement park with rides. The city is famous for its kite festival — which to me is a good indication that it's often windy there the way it was on Sunday.

Waves crashing on the shore

At the end of the promenade along the beach, there's a long jetty jutting out into the sea to protect the entrance to the harbor. The huge car ferries from New Haven, four hours away in England, steam in several times a day and dock at the outer edge of the harbor to unload cars and people. As I've said, Dieppe was full of English people on Sunday afternoon.

A car ferry coming into the port at Dieppe Sunday afternoon

We walked out to the end of the jetty. We got sprayed by waves breaking against the structure a couple of times. A lot of people were fishing. We spotted the ferry out on the horizon, and by the time we had walked back along the jetty to shore it had arrived in the harbor. We stopped in a café near the harbor for a drink before driving back to Rouen.

27 August 2006

Rouen promenade

Yesterday we made the four-hour drive to Rouen, in Normandy, to see friends. We drove over to Tours, where we caught the new autoroute that links Tours, Le Mans, Alençon, and Rouen. The drive was smooth and easy, even though it rained part of the time. We arrived at our friends' house at 1:00 p.m., in time for lunch.

Typical houses in the old city of Rouen

While there wasn't a lot of traffic, it was interesting to see that about 4 out of 5 cars on the autoroute were British. A lot of them were pulling camping trailers. When we stopped at a roadside service station/restaurant complex, again most of the people there seemed to be British. Summer vacation is over, and the Brits are returning home.

I like seeing these ghosts of advertising from the past.

Yesterday afternoon, we went for a nice walk around Rouen, which is a beautiful old city. It's called the city of a hundred steeples, and the museum city. It's the old capital of Normandy, and it's the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the ... English.

The façade of the Cathédrale de Rouen

There's an amazing cathedral in Rouen. It's the one Monet painted so many times. There are also two other fantastic churches too, called Saint-Ouen and Saint-Maclou.

L'église Saint-Ouen à Rouen

Back in the early 1970s, when I was about 24 years old, I spent a year as a teaching assistant in a lycée, a high school, in Rouen. I taught English (or American, as it's called here). It's nice to have friends in Rouen and to be able to come back from time to time.

The Palais de Justice in Rouen has recently been sandblasted and restored

When we were out walking around the old town, I saw this woman playing the accordeon for spare change. I dropped a coin in her basket and she let me take her picture.


26 August 2006

Busy weekend ahead

Just a couple of more things about the supermarket ads: I didn't post anything about fresh fruit and vegetables because most of the ads in the Intermarché flyer didn't give prices for those. There were specials on tomatoes and shelling beans (is that the term?), for example, but instead of a price the ad specified they were being sold au prix coûtant -- at cost + taxes + transport, according to the fine print.

I went over to Intermarché yesterday morning. I'd forgotten how busy the store is on Friday mornings. There were at least 15 people standing in line at the butcher counter, so I decided I didn't need to buy a fresh pork shoulder after all. I couldn't find the pont-l'évêque cheese (it too often happens that the sale products are sold out) but I did see the munster cheeses.

This is the garage where I took my car for service on Tuesday

On the way home I stopped at the Ferme-Auberge in Mareuil to buy some goat cheese. The Ferme-Auberge is a working farm that also rents rooms to tourists and operates a restaurant featuring the food they produce on the farm. Monsieur and Madame Bouland, the owners, also make and sell goat cheese. They have a pretty good-size herd of goats.

There was an interesting article about mussels in the New York Times this week. (I'm not sure how long the article will be available.) It explains, for example, how mussels are raised on wooden posts or stakes out in the water, and it reports that the mussels produced in the bay at Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy have been awarded an A.O.C. -- Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. It also explains different ways mussels are cooked in the La Rochelle area, on the French Atlantic coast. I wonder how many Americans have ever eaten mussels?

Old houses in the wine village of Reuilly, near Quincy

We have a very busy weekend ahead of us and I may not be posting much for a few days. Already we've had a busy week. I took the car in for service on Tuesday, and Walt mowed the grass. On Wednesday, we drove over to Quincy, near Bourges and about 50 miles from Saint-Aignan, to buy some good Sauvignon Blanc wine from a producer there. We did more clean-up work in the garage and garden shed one day (don't remember which).

Our neighbors invited us over for lunch on Thursday, and we spent the whole afternoon with them. They are leaving this weekend to return to their main residence, in Blois. Summer's over and they are closing up the country house for the season.

The woman we bought our house from came to visit Friday afternoon, and we took her on a tour of the garden and house. We hadn't seen her since last fall. She lives in Tours, and she's 79 years old now. I think she enjoys seeing the old place and keeping up with changes we have made. We gave her some eggplants and tomatoes to take home, and Walt baked her an applesauce spice cake. All that didn't stop us from cooking, milling, and freezing six quarts of tomato paste during the afternoon and evening.

Yesterday's tomato sauce, before W. ran it through the food mill to purée it

An item on the France Inter radio news just reported that the Beaujolais grape harvest, which growers thought would begin in late August because of the long stretch of hot weather France experienced in July, has had to be delayed for a week or more because of chilly, cloudy weather in August. The Beaujolais harvest will begin around September 5.

Touraine grapes growing in the vineyards out back, 22 August 2006

A+, as we say in French. That means à plus tard. Catch you later.

25 August 2006

Intermarché, cheese and dessert

You probably know the order of the courses in a French meal:
  • entrée (appetizer or starter, often charcuterie, soup, or salad)
  • plat principal (main course of meat or fish and vegetables)
  • salade verte (green salad)
  • fromage (cheese)
  • dessert (dessert)
  • café (coffee)
The supermarket ads follow the same order, more or less. So at the end of the 12-page flyer, you see ads for cheeses and desserts.

Pont-l'évêque is a cow's milk cheese that is made in lower Normandy in a town of that same name. Pont l'évêque means "bishop's bridge" in old French, where the de to indicate possession was not yet used. Other examples include towns near Paris named Bourg-la-Reine (Queen's Burg) and Bois-le-Roi (King's Wood).

According to the Larousse: Les Fromages book, pont-l'évêque (pon-lay-`veck) cheese has been produced since at least the 12th century and was created at a monastery. It was given its current name "only" toward the year 1600.

Robert Courtine, the author of the Larousse cheese book, says that ideally, pont-l'évêque is a yellow, sweet, and unctuous (i.e. soft and rich) cheese with a taste of hazelnuts. If it gets over-ripe, however, it risks becoming bitter.

You'd have to taste it fresh, in Normandy, to know how good it can be. Cheeses imported to the U.S., because they have had to travel a long distance and because they sit on the shelf too long after arrival, are often not as good as they should be... in my experience.

The cheese in the Intermarché ad is on sale for about $5.25 a pound. I can't tell how much one cheese like the one in the picture would weigh. I'm going to Intermarché this morning, so I'll look.

Intermarché also has two munster cheeses on special this week. Both are A.O.C. (as is the Pont-l'Évêque), and that means Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. A.O.C. products, which include wines, cheeses, and more, are produced under very strict regulations that include controls on what raw materials (milk, grapes, etc.) they can be made from, where they can be produced (champagne can only be produced in Champagne), and how they are processed (no short cuts). For example, grapes grown to produce A.O.C. wines cannot be irrigated.

I don't really know what differences there would be between these two munster cheeses. But the Larousse book says that the munster appellation was created in 1953. Munster as defined is a soft round cow's-milk cheese from 15 to 18 centimeters in diameter and 3 to 6 centimeters thick, with a maximum of 45% butterfat. The production area extends through the valley of the Munster river, on the Lorraine side of the Vosges mountains, including the villages of Remiremont and Gérardmer. That gives you an idea...

Like pont-l'évêque, munster cheese was created in the monasteries in what is now the production area. But it is older — it dates back to the 7th century. As early as the 14th century, munster cheese was known "throughout the kingdom," according to Larousse. Today, some munster is still made by farmers, but much of what we get is produced in industrial dairies.

The two munster cheeses advertised by Intermarché this week are selling for about the same price as pont-l'évêque: $5.25 a pound. So a half-pound cheese like the ones pictured goes for about $2.60.

OK, what about dessert? What about a strawberry pie? This one is selling for about $4.15 a pound, with translates to just over $7.00 for the whole pie. It was transformée en France — "transformed" means made into a pie, I guess. It doesn't say where the strawberries were grown. A lot are imported from Spain, even though France produces a lot of strawberries too. The general opinion here is that the French ones are better (what a surprise!).

But watch out. The fine print on the ad says that the strawberry pie has been frozen and then thawed and stored at 4ºC (38ºF). So you can't re-freeze it. You have to eat it. Is that a problem?

If you don't want strawberry pie, you can choose a tarte normande. When it says normande, it means it is made with apples and cream (and probably butter). The apple tart is advertised as Origine: France. Evidently, it hasn't been frozen and thawed before sale.

Finally, if you're watching calories, you can have some fresh, French-grown grapes at $0.89 a pound. The green ones (called raisin blanc in French, or white grapes) are a variety called Danlas and the red ones (raisin noir, or black grapes, in French) are a variety called La Vallée.

24 August 2006

More Intermarché ads

Here are some more of the interesting fresh foods advertised in this week's Intermarché supermarket ads. (See the pork specials here.)

Six quail (or quails — the American Heritage Dictionary accepts both) for 6€00. Origin France. That comes to 6€25 a kilo, and the cailles are certified PACprêtes à cuire, or ready to cook — and nues — nude. That means they have been plucked and cleaned and don't contain any giblets, I believe. I wonder what quail would cost in the U.S., and how easy they would be to find. 6€25 a kilo is about $3.69 a pound.

Another special this week is fresh sardines, fished from the northeast Atlantic Ocean. Other sardines are fished right off France's Atlantic coast or in the Mediterranean — I see them on the fishmonger's display at the farmers' market in Saint-Aignan on Saturday mornings. These are sold whole, so it's up to you to clean and, if you want, filet them. 1€55 a kilo = $0.92 a pound. I think the ones at the farmers' market are a lot more expensive.

Here's what they say about hungry sardines in French: « Quand ça a dîné, ça r'dîne ! » Get it?

These are shark (requin) steaks, described as shark loin (longe). The sharks have also been fished in the northeastern part of the Atlantic. The shark loin has been frozen and thawed (longe de requin décongelée) so it has to be cooked right away. It's $3.50 a pound.

Finally, in the way of meat and fish, there's a special on rabbit (lapin) this week. You get about ten pieces of rabbit and a little bag of herbes de Provence per package, and the idea is that you cook it on the barbecue. The price per pound is about $3.50. Origin France.

This week's Intermarché ads

In the mail every Monday or Tuesday, we get advertising circulars from our two largest local supermarkets, Intermarché and SuperU. Smaller supermarkets like Champion, Proxi, and Ecomarché, and the "hard discount" grocers Ed and Netto, send out flyers less frequently. We have six supermarkets within 4 miles of our house, and we have two outdoor markets a week that close too.

Fresh pork shoulder and ham on the bone (avec os). 1€75 per kilo for shoulder
is about $1.00 a pound, and 2€75 for ham is about $1.60. Notice that the pork
is Origine France — French-raised.

Now that I'm unempl... er... retired, I read the weekly Intermarché and SuperU ads faithfully, checking to see what fresh products are on special. The canned goods, toiletries, and sundries don't interest me much. But when there's a sale on fresh foods like ducklings, sausages, beef, green beans, cauliflower, cherries, salmon, or shrimp, I'm likely to make a special trip to the supermarket.

Rillettes are a potted meat made by slow cooking of lean cuts (of pork,
duck, goose, rabbit, chicken, etc.) in wine or water with aromatics until
the meat starts to fall apart. Then it's shredded or chopped and put up
in pots to be eaten cold on bread with pickles and onions. Both Le Mans
and Tours are cities known in France for their good rillettes. Notice that
these rillettes are made in France from meat that comes from the U.E. —
l'Union Européenne
, which is the European Union.

The Intermarché flyer is an interesting one, I think, because it is devoted exclusively to fresh food products. The chain calls this le marché frais and includes a blurb saying that fresh food is often too expensive — les produits frais sont souvent trop chers — and pledging to offer lower prices (of course). The store's motto is "Tous unis contre la vie chère" -- all of us united against high prices.

Andouillettes, which are "chit´lin´" sausages. In other words, they
are made from pork intestines. They are traditionally French
and produced in France using French products. Here's what
some wags say about a good andouillette:
Ça sent la merde mais pas trop !

The specials at Intermarché this week are fresh cuts of pork (among other products — more about those in future posts). The French eat a lot of pork, either fresh or prepared as charcuterie — the typically French sausages, pâtés, cured or cooked hams, rillettes, and so on. It seems to me that French pork is leaner and of generally higher quality than pork I used to get in the U.S. But then I think all the food here is better than in the U.S. ... That's my bias.

Pork liver, heart, and kidney are probably not items you would see
advertised by an American supermarket chain. Only 1€50 a kilo.

So what cuts of pork are on sale besides the ones in these pictures I scanned? There's boneless meat for skewers or stews called sauté de porc in French. There are spareribs (poitine fraîche) and thick ham steaks (rouelle de porc). There are slices of fresh pork bacon for grilling (tranches de poitrine à griller). And there are loin (longe de porc) and shoulder (épaule) roasts all tied up and ready for the oven. There are also a lot of charcuterie products including pork muzzle salads, pâtés, and headcheese.

This is a pig's head sold without the tongue and the brains, which are
usually sold separately, and probably for a higher price. Again,
you probably wouldn't see this advertised in the U.S. You could use it
to make your own headcheese — fromage de tête.

Pigs' tongues. I'm not sure how you prepare them. Notice that
they cost more than bone-in pork shoulder. Origine France.

21 August 2006

How we spent August: cooking

After the July heatwave in the Loire Valley, the weather turned much milder on August 1. That was three weeks ago. Since then, we have had exactly one day when the temperature approached 80ºF (it was 26.1ºC on August 7).

Not one other day in August has produced a temperature as high as 25ºC (77ºF). Fortunately, only one day had a high temperature below 20ºC (68ºF). Mornings have been pretty chilly, and it has rained off and on for three weeks. We've had 34 mm of rain in August — that's not quite 1½ inches — mostly in little surprise showers.

I believe global warming is real, based on reports I've seen about the meltdown of the icecaps in the Arctic and Antarctic. But I don't really believe that recent heatwaves in France and California and New York, to name a few examples, are much of an indication of climate change. Weather is cyclical. Hot in July, chilly in August. This year. In fact, our August weather is much more typical of summertime in northern France than the July heat was.

So what do you do when you have had a month of very hot weather and then find yourself living through a virtual cold snap? Well, you harvest the bounty of the vegetable garden, which enjoyed July's hot weeks. And you cook. This August has been a good time to have the oven on and hot. And a good time to have big pots of water and sauces boiling on the stove.

As I'm sure I've said already, we have an overabundance of tomatoes from our backyard garden this summer. Back in May, we first bought six plants at an outdoor market, two each of three red varieties. Then we saw some yellow tomatoes at another market, and we went ahead and bought two plants even though we didn't need them.

An abundance of tomatoes from the garden

Next thing you know, we are in a garden center and there they have a six-pack of Roma tomatoes for a couple of euros. We don't need them, but Romas (you know, the plum-shaped tomatoes that are nearly seedless) are so good for sauces. We end up buying the six-pack. So we have 14 tomato plants. Or maybe 15 — there's also a plant that produces green tomatoes (yes, green when ripe) that I bought as a curiosity.

What can you do with so many tomatoes? Make ham sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. But that only takes you so far. Cook up big batches of tomatoes and make quarts of sauce. That gets rid of a lot of them. Tomato, basil, and mozzarella salads use up a few more. And then there's salsa.

Salsa is a treat here because it's not a standard item (yet). You can find it, and corn chips too, in the supermarkets nowadays, but not very many people know what it is or how you eat it. Many French people are probably afraid to buy it because it looks hot and spicy. The French palate is not accustomed to highly spiced foods.

Just last Saturday I made salsa to go with what we call thingaritos (credit and thanks for the idea goes to Cheryl). To use up another vegetable we have too many of, I added chopped cucumbers to the salsa, along with chopped onions, garlic, green peppers, cayenne peppers, and tomato.

For the thingaritos I made Mexican-style carnitas — braised, shredded pork cooked with cumin and other spices — and included red beans, rice, avocado, crème fraîche, and cheese. (I use cantal cheese here because I think it is similar to good cheddar.)

A few days earlier when we had a load of tomatoes, I used some of the bigger ones by making stuffed tomatoes. That's a classic French dish. For the stuffing, I had a mixture of ground beef and ground pork (sausage meat) seasoned with onion, garlic, green pepper, herbs, and spices.

And I used that same meat stuffing in some big yellow squash we had harvested at the same time. A lot of this food has gone into the freezer and we will eat it during the winter.

Of course we always eat some right away, while it's hot, just to make sure it is good enough to save for later enjoyment. Here's how the squash came out:

A little splash of good tomato sauce on the stuffed squash makes it really good. Luckily, we just happened to have some.

We also have some eggplants in the garden. Quite a few, actually. Here are some of them.

What might be called eggplant parmesan is a good way to cook and enjoy eggplants, and the added bonus is that the dish includes tomatoes. What I do is slice the eggplants and bake the slices for a few minutes on an oiled cookie sheet, until they are fairly soft and starting to brown (here's a picture). Then I layer the cooked eggplant slices along with sliced raw tomatoes and slices of mozzarella cheese.

There's really no parmesan involved, so eggplant "parmesan" is a misnomer. Cooking the eggplant ahead of time prevents it from releasing too much liquid in the pan with the tomatoes and cheese, and cooking it on cookie sheets in the oven rather than frying it means that it absorbs a lot less oil, so the dish is lighter.

Above are two dishes of the eggplant gratin I made. One had a layer of tomatoes on top, and the other a layer of eggplant. It just worked out that way. Both are covered with slices of mozzarella that have melted and browned. Here's how it looks when you cut into it:

Another plant we have an abundance of is basil. We use it in tomato salads, of course, and then Walt makes very good pesto with it. Maybe he'll publish his recipe/method one day. Yesterday for lunch we had pasta and pesto:

Another thing that happened in July when our friend CHM was here is that we bought two baguettes every day from the bread lady rather than just one. CHM loves good French bread, as do we. Even so, we ended up with too much most days, and we found we had many ziploc bags full of bread in the freezer by August 1. So I made bread pudding:

We also have an abundance of apples. We made applesauce and apple jelly earlier — about three quarts of each. But just a couple of days ago Walt went out and picked some more apples, with which he made this apple pie (or tart, really), using store-bought frozen puff pastry from chez Picard.

So that's how we've been spending our summer vacation. It's too bad we don't have time to cook like this when we have company here...