Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Paris is Always a Good Idea


For the first time in almost a decade I recently returned to Europe. This time was different. I wasn’t with students, not doing research. This time I returned for a family vacation, and not for a grand tour but for hardly anything more than to sink into Paris. Somehow Paris has become the city I have returned to almost more than any other, anywhere, for visits. York, Maine might edge it out, but barely. There’s a big world out there so why return to the same places, right? But Paris seems to pop up for me all the time. This time it was to show the kids, two teens, a little about art, food, travel, and culture and for my wife and I to run around one of our favorite places. As usual, food took center stage. Here’s a few of the highlights:

    1.      Arrival dinner, we exhaustedly stumbled over to Rue Montorgueil. So many choices, but we headed to the landmark L'Escargot Montorgueil with its giant, gold snails. With no reservation we got scrambled up to a table with its own staircase above the foyer. Totally private, it turned out to be a great place for us to relax and just have a family dinner at the end of a big travel day. Service was stellar as was the food – escargot, mussels, veal chops, beef bourguignon, foie gras, steak tartare – we went all in on a real French bienevenue! It was a spectacular start. The highlight was likely the foie gras, somehow seared on the outside just enough to yield a crust, but not enough to melt it. That’s no easy feat.
    2.      A hot dog under the Eiffel Tower. What? But what if they hollow out a nice, crusty baguette and fill it with the hot dog? Something to be said for blending cultures.
    3.      We snuck away for a night in Luxembourg for (very) old times’ sake and had some wonderful food experiences. Brasserie de Cercle had a wonderful Kniddelen mat Speck, essentially large, simple dumplings in a cream sauce with nice chunks of fried speck. Delicious! We also returned to Giorgio’s, now Onesto, but essentially the same. The Bolognese remains delicious but the pizza is special. We had a lunch at a sausage stand next to the road in Bereldange and it reminded me of being 14!
    4.      After a long walk and a few hours in the Louvre we dragged ourselves to my favorite place to eat in Paris – Chez Denise, not far off of Rue Rivoli. This is a classic bistro, no frills of any kind, simple service, crowded space, one menu scrawled on a large chalkboard. This place was made somewhat famous in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, season one, episode one. I’ve read that fame has ruined it, but I disagree. It was not filled with tourists, the menu has not been simplified (or translated), and it remains delicious. We started with the house terrine. Two massive slices, rich, meaty and carnivorously delicious. Our entrees were stuffed cabbage, a braised fish, lamb chops and lamb brains. Every dish was spot on. Each of us swooned with happiness with each of our choices. We ate everything. We finished with mousse au chocolat that had the kids saying it was the most amazing thing they’d ever eaten. It was a flawless French ending to a perfect French day.

    5.      Berthillon ice cream never gets old. 
    6.      Each day we walked past a Chinese noodle shop. Each night there was a line outside. Each walk past we had to stop and watch the noodle stretchers do their work by hand in the front window. After a few days of this we had to eat there. Les Pates Vivantes proved to be wonderful. We each got different dishes – soups, fried noodles and noodles of different sizes. Each dish tasted like sunshine. Fresh, crisp, bright and flavorful. There’s a reason this place is full all the time. Great, no nonsense service and perfect, filling, delicious food.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Thank you, Mr. Bourdain


If you are the sort to be reading this blog you have heard long ago of the passing of Anthony Bourdain. And it will come as no surprise that he was one of my models for food and for writing. I have followed his career for almost 20 years and have loved watching his evolution from writing about restaurant kitchens to travel and ultimately about self-exploration and social justice. He taught us all a lot. I’ve been amazed by the multitude of directions and sources from which I am seeing memorials on Facebook. Writers of travel, food, culture, politics, pop culture and civil rights have been celebrating him. I don’t need to replay his career or what we should get from him, but I can’t help but share for a moment what I got from him.

Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

Travel. Always. Particularly to Vietnam.

Speak up for others. Introduce others to each other. Bring difference together.

Use your opportunities and your privilege. Us affluent white guys have a voice, sure, but cede the space when you have it to those too often ignored and give them space to speak their truth.

Speak truth to power. Punch up. Speak loud. Be not ashamed or apologetic. Call out hypocrisy and immorality. Stand by those who do the same.

Eat everything at least once.

Eating is ultimately about sharing space, sharing stories, sharing lives.

The best meal is defined by the company, not the food.

Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, locations. Appreciate beauty in all its manifestations for its own sake. Seek beauty.

Protect those who need protection.

Disturb the comfortable. Comfort the disturbed.
Thank you, Mr. Bourdain, for making the world a better place.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The City of Culinary Love - Philly


On our way to a family vacation in Maine we took a weekend in Philadelphia. I realize Philly isn’t exactly on many people’s lists of ideal weekend getaways – it’s not Vegas or  NYC and it’s got quite the blue collar reputation – but that should change. We had a blast. The city lacks any pretensions, is easy to get around, and the eating was awesome. Here’s a quick rundown.

The night we arrived we strolled over to Monk's Cafe. This place has been on my must-visit list for 20 years due to its reputation as a beer-drinker’s mecca. It’s renowned specifically for its Belgian beer selection. It did not disappoint. It’s a simple neighborhood place, lively late into the night and serves its full menu till 1am. The beer selection is profound and represents a gigantic swath of Belgian beer, but also a nice selection of others nations’ best. This is not the sort of place that inflates its 300-beer selection with every variety of AB/Miller/Coors. I opted for a La Chouffe which came with its brewery-specific glass and tasted wonderful. Some Monk’s moulles et frites, a small salad, some baguette and an additional frites and I might as well have been in Brussels. The food was fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. We could have eaten here every night and been thrilled.

For breakfast the next day we tried the highly-recommended Green Eggs Cafe. People start lining up here early and its stays busy all morning. Stand close to the hostess stand to wait for your name, the line moves fast and they don’t wait around for you. Once seated we were in a very busy and simple place that clearly loves fresh, local food served in large, but not overwhelming helpings. I opted for the kitchen sink – a skillet of potatoes, onions, sausage and peppers topped with three eggs, a biscuit, Gruyere, and a creamy, white gravy. Amazing! This is what a vacation breakfast should be. Granted, I needed a nap after, and a run to the Rocky steps was needed but out of the question!

On our last day we took in what many say is the best Philly cheesesteak in the city at John's Roast Pork. A line out the door greeted us. Once inside we were amazed by the energy. I don’t know how many people were at the grill, but the place was hopping and was no-nonsense. Do not be intimidated. Know what you want and step up for it…then wait patiently but when your name is called step up again. They must serve hundreds of sandwiches daily. But since this isn’t the well-known Pat’s or Geno’s you want to know how it was, right? It was perfect. The bread was just strong enough to hold on to the juicy meat for as long as it took to eat it. The beef was tender, chopped just right and the cheese (I went with American, I like the way it melts) creamy through out. Look, this place is the epitome of having no pretensions – you’re not here for dining. This is the place for a simple sandwich and they all looked amazing.

For dinner we found a gem, Mr. Martino’s Trattoria. Martino’s is opened only Friday through Sunday, is cash only and is BYOB for no corkage fee. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. Outside there’s no grand marque, no lit sign. The front window isn’t lit and curtains cover the windows. It looks perpetually closed. But open that door. Inside is a dimly lit space with seating for a couple dozen, sparsely decorated and well worn. But if you can get a reservation, do not miss this quirky, delicious, relaxed experience. Maria cooks on a 6-burner stove, servers will stop and chat, Mr. Martino will check in with you, regulars will wander in for a treat and you will eat deliciously. If I lived in Philly I would be here once a month.

Philly proved a wonderful weekend getaway. The Liberty Bell and historic Old City, 13th street and its nightlife, the 9th Street Market, Reading Terminal Market, and the museums along Ben Franklin Parkway offer enough to keep anyone busy for a long weekend and then some. I know we look forward to getting back!  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tasty Memories



One of my most vivid food memories is my grandmother’s touké, a meat pie, essentially a French Canadian pork pie, or tourtiere.  The smell, the unique spices, the texture of the crust mixed with pork fat, were like nothing else I ever ate…until recently.

A couple years ago my grandmother passed after over 80 years of near flawless health.  It came as a surprise.  And honestly, one of the saddest thoughts I had at the time was that there might be no more touké.  I know various family members made attempts to replicate virtually the only thing she could cook, but nobody had been able to nail it.  Then one day last year I was at a great falafel place, Falafel's Drive-In, in San Jose.  I had one of my usuals, the kouby, among other things.  But this time when I bit into the kouby, described on the menu as “a middle-eastern meatball. It has a shell of cracked wheat that is stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, and onions,” I had an epiphany.  Some of the flavors were identical to the touké.  Maybe if I found a recipe for kouby I could adjust it, put it in a pie crust and end up with touké.  I put this on my to-do list.  Then last month I was in Ottawa and walked through a bakery in the Byward Market and saw a tourtiere, the French Canadian meat pie.  I didn’t get any but determined that I would make my own when I got home.

A few weeks ago I did just that.  I looked up Middle Eastern kouby or koubeh recipes and a few tortiere recipes and then crafted my own.  When I added my seasonings to the meat I knew I had something.  The smell was exactly as I remembered.  As it all cooked in its pastry shell the house filled with all the rights scents.  At dinner, when I finally took a bite, I wept.  It was almost perfect.  It was a taste I hadn’t experienced in years.  And now I knew how to keep my grandmother with me always.

Meme’s Touké, or French-Canadian-Lebanese Meat Pie
2 pounds of ground beef
2 pounds ground pork
1 large white onion, minced
1 egg, beaten
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 pie crusts with tops
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon each of:
Ground sage
Ground thyme
Coriander
Allspice
Cumin
Nutmeg
Salt
Pepper
¼ teaspoon each of:
Ground cinnamon
Ground cloves

Directions:

-Saute the onions and garlic in butter until slightly translucent
-Add all the meat and all the seasonings and cook thoroughly, stirring often, crushing the meat into very small, minced pieces.
-Prep the pie tins with pie crust bottoms.
-Drain most of the liquefied fat from the meat, reserving about three tablespoons.  Leave that in the meat and let it all cool for about ten minutes.   
-Scoop meat filling into each of the pie shells, spread out evenly.
-Top each pie with a top, brush with beaten egg and pierce with a few vents/slits
-Bake pies for 45 minutes at 350 or until golden brown. 
-Serve hot with a salad and a rich red wine or hoppy beer.
 
Additional variation, add a few tablespoons of toasted ground pine nuts to the cooking meat and sprinkle some paprika on top of the pie crust before cooking.  And feel free to alter the seasonings based on your individual tastes.  These are unique and strong flavors.