By Ann | April 24, 2014
Here is what the weekend looks like: Friday mornings on the way to my office, I stop at the Union Square Green Market to check out the produce. The past few weeks, the offerings have been in that awkward, gangly, tween stage, no longer winter, not yet spring. Too late for butternut squash. Too early for asparagus. I usually pick up some apples, maybe a few carrots. Last week I also bought a bunch of kale and a few parsnips.
Saturday mornings dawn bright and early with a reliable 6AM wake-up call from a certain someone. My husband and I have one of those thank-God-the-baby’s-still-alive/ Jeezus-it’s-early moments and then one of us sets to baby wrangling (him), while the other (me) starts… cooking. At six in the morning. I know, I never thought I’d be that person, either.
The thing about being a parent (which I’ve learned during my long tenure of seven months :) is that I always feel like I’m behind, running from one thing to the next, trying to squeeze in visits to the grocery store, playground, and post office in between naps, bottles, and solids. We have a wonderful nanny—hence, the time to write this blog post—but she leaves at 4:30 pm. Since my husband doesn’t get home until eight o’clock or later, making dinner during the week has gone completely out the window. This is all a long-winded explanation for why the weekends have become cooking marathons. I make purées for the baby—she likes her butternut baked, her parsnips steamed, and her peas strained. I cook up a big pot of grains to portion out for lunches during the week. I roast a tray of cauliflower or broccoli, sauté kale, toast nuts. I make a double batch of soup, or stew, or spaghetti sauce (like this red curry, or these meatballs, or this mulligatawny, or these baked beans). We eat half for Sunday dinner; the other half gets stored in the fridge or freezer—and no more cooking takes place for the rest of the week.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, is this the most mundane blog post ever?” But wait, can I redeem myself with these lively quick pickled red onions? See, even though my cooking schedule doesn’t allow time for frivolities like homemade garnishes, I love their sparky crunch so much, and they’re so easy to make, I’ve been squeezing them in between the broccoli roasting and quinoa boiling.
The idea comes from Melissa Clark’s recipe for black bean casserole. The very word casserole evokes cozy, oozy deliciousness to me (weird, I know) and I became fixated on cooking this one the minute it appeared online. In fact, I was so enthusiastic that my dad also decided to make it and we spent a few days exchanging cooking notes. (Side note: I couldn’t find the dried pasilla chiles, so I substituted canned Hatch red enchilada sauce. My dad then sent me some chiles, but I haven’t made the recipe again.) Anyway, in a flurry of text messages, we both agreed that our favorite parts of the recipe were the lime cream (simply lime zest stirred into sour cream, or—if you’re a hypochondriac like me—Greek yogurt) and the pickled red onions, tangy, bright, and crunchy. We couldn’t stop emailing about the onions. We started to eat them on a sandwich here, a bowl of chili there. And then, without discussing it, we both ditched the rest of the recipe and started making just the onions.
Here’s what you do: cut a red onion in half lengthwise, and then cut half moon slices, as thin as you can make them. Toss with a dash of lime juice, a pinch of salt and one of sugar. Let the onions marinate at room temperature until their body and bite have been softened by the acid, and the pink color seeps magenta. Enjoy on everything. C’est tout.
These pickles keep for about a week in the fridge and I eat them mainly in a Japanese-esque donburi bowl with salmon, kale, and avocado that I’ll try to blog about soon. But their real beauty—besides the fact that you can whip them up in less than five minutes—is that they add a bright spark to almost anything. Turkey sandwiches. Hog dogs. Bagels and cream cheese. Tuna melts. Breaded chicken. I’d love to pair them with whitefish salad. The possibilities are endless. Now that you know how easy they are to make, I hope you’ll try them and let me know how you eat them, too.
Quick pickled red onions
Adapted from Melissa Clark’s black bean and chorizo casserole
Half a red onion, sliced from root to tip (save the other half for next week’s pickles)
1 lime or lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Cut the onion into half moon slices, as thin as possible. In a bowl, combine the onions with the juice of the lime (or lemon), salt, and sugar. Toss and marinate for at least one hour at room temperature.
By Ann | April 15, 2014
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but La Grande Epicerie—Paris’s glossy mecca of gourmet food—used to be my neighborhood grocery store. Most people make special trips across town to visit—there’s a pungent, overflowing cheese counter, an aisle dedicated to salted butter, hard-to-find American ingredients like canned pumpkin or chocolate chips, and sublime, yet overpriced, fruit (I once watched, open-mouthed, as a woman spent €200 on a few boxes of strawberries—fraises des bois, yes, but still).
Me, I used to stop by La Grande Epicerie every afternoon to shop for dinner. I liked the wine selection—even the cheapest bottles were delicious—the butchers who knew me by sight, the thick yogurt from Brittany, the rôtisserie chickens that you could buy mi-cuit and finish off in your oven at home, the glass cases of delicious prepared food like salmon wrapped in puff pastry. On the right side of the store was the bakery, where I often picked up a dark, square loaf of Norwegian bread, or a baguette—not my favorite in the neighborhood, but still pretty darn good. Running the length of the section was a counter filled with treats: madeleines, wobbly slices of flan pâtissier, sugar-topped puffs of choux pastry called chouquettes, croissants of all stripes (plain, chocolate, almond, apple, raisin). Traditionally made by the boulanger, these plain sweets are considered everyday treats, the kind of thing you’d eat as an after-school snack. (In contrast, the dazzling, more expensive pâtisseries are saved for special occasions—at La Grande Epicerie they’re the first thing you see when you enter the store.)
My favorite of La Grande Epicerie’s treats was—and still is—the raspberry financier, a buttery little almond cake studded with raspberries that add a jammy high note and bittersweet fragrance. I used to buy one and split it with my husband after dinner; we’d watch TV and munch through the cake’s chewy edges to its moist, tender center. That small ritual was one of my favorite parts of living
in Paris near La Grande Epicerie.
I miss Paris almost every day, but in the springtime I feel its absence more keenly than ever. And if the notes I receive from you lovely readers are any indication, you feel exactly the same way. It’s the little things, isn’t it? The way everyone in the market speculates about when the first gariguette strawberries will appear. The profusion of flowers in the Jardin du Luxembourg. The chocolate shops decked out for Easter—with chocolate fish and bells, of course—and clear sacks of oeufs pralinés. Don’t get me wrong—springtime in New York is also wonderful, with its free-flowing iced tea and cheap pedicures. But for sheer loveliness, nothing beats Paris.
In an effort to combat my homesickness, I’ve been dipping into Patricia Wells’s Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, which just came out in a revised edition. I love reading her take on my favorite food spots and also discovering lots of new places as well. The great thing about Patricia is that she knows about restaurants that are right under your nose, places you’ve passed a hundred times but never noticed, like Brasserie aux PTT, located right in my neighborhood at 54 Rue Cler. PTT “stands for Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones, the original national designation for the French postal service, formed in 1921,” she writes. The “vast” variety of oysters served here is “incomparable.” The book also covers cafés, markets, pastry shops, chocolatiers, fromagers, and more, offering her honest, unvarnished opinion. For example, about La Grande Epicerie, she writes: “This is the place to go to find the latest and best in nearly every food product you can imagine…” However: “the cheese selection is extensive, but offerings are generally not well aged… Produce can vary from best-ever to tasteless and wilted, depending on the season and time of day.” Yikes!
If you’re planning a trip to Paris, The Food Lover’s Guide is an invaluable resource. But as I paged through the book, I realized that even though I can’t go to Paris right now, I could use the book to bring Paris to me—via the recipes. Patricia has included a judicious selection, recreating dishes from high-end Paris restaurants (L’Astrance’s smoky grilled bread soup), and expat comfort food (The Rose Bakery’s beloved carrot cake). But one recipe in particular caught this New York-Paris expat’s eye: financiers. I whipped them up on a Sunday morning and they turned out to be easier to make than I might have guessed, sweetly buttery, with satisfyingly chewy edges and a moist crumb. Patricia’s recipe is plain, but I added the raspberries for nostalgia’s sake.
Speaking of nostalgia, when I visited La Grande Epicerie on my last trip, I was surprised to find the store completely changed. After a two-year renovation, the entire store layout had been reorganized—the wine cave, for example, is now downstairs (and the prices are vastly inflated), the produce section mostly offers exotic (and very expensive) fruits and vegetables. The store no longer feels like a neighborhood shop, but more like a gourmet destination. At first I felt a pang, but upon reflection, I realized it was just another way to turn the page—an opportunity to embrace my new neighborhood. And anyway, the raspberry financiers are still on offer (I checked).
Financiers à la framboise
Adapted from The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells
Financiers are baked in the shape of a tiny, little, rectangular loaf—they’re supposed to resemble a bar of gold, hence their name. Since I don’t have any financier molds, I used a muffin tin, which worked beautifully.
Makes 12 muffin-tin cakes
12 tablespoons (180 g) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups (140 g) almond meal
1 2/3 cups (225 g) confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup (70 g) all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (185 g) egg whites (from 5-6 eggs)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius).
Using a pastry brush or the corner of a paper towel, brush the muffin tin with some of the melted butter.
In a large bowl, combine the almond meal, sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in the egg whites a little at a time until throughly blended. Whisk in the butter.
Spoon a layer of batter into each muffin depression. Place two raspberries on each cake, and top with the remaining batter, dividing it evenly.
Place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake until the financiers are pale gold and beginning to firm up, about 7-9 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 degree Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) and bake 7-9 minutes more. Turn off the oven, leave the door closed, and allow the financiers to sit in the warm oven for 7 minutes.
Remove the financiers from the oven and let them cool in the mold for 10 minutes. Unmold on a wire rack and cool completely.
By Ann | April 8, 2014
You’re never far from the Seine in Paris. It snakes across the city creating a natural boundary between the right and left banks, carrying tourist boats and transport vessels in its swift-moving current. But what if, instead of strolling along the romantic but odiferous cobblestone quais (is it just me, or do they usually smell like a toilet?), or admiring the river from one of the many bridges that cross it, you actually lived on the Seine—in a houseboat? On my last trip to Paris, I met Marie, who told me all about living on a péniche with her family, a way of life that’s “very special and very Parisian,” she says.
Marie’s péniche—the “Justine”—dates to around 1890 and is still seaworthy (or, rather, river-worthy). Marie moved aboard twelve years ago, but her husband, Francis, has lived on the water for almost forty years. “He bought the boat in the 1970s when people were searching for other ways of life,” she says. Initially, it was a cargo vessel—he transported freight between France and Belgium—but he eventually used his training as an architect to transform the hold into his primary living space.
On the best part of péniche life:
“The space. It’s really wonderful. We have about 180 square meters indoors”— almost 2000 square feet—”which gives us a huge living space and four bedrooms below deck. Above, we have an enormous terrace, which is great—in the summer we’re out there all the time. We also have the advantage of living right in the middle of Paris.”
On houseboat logistics:
Marie and her family pay a monthly fee to park at the Quai d’Austerlitz, but houseboats are anchored at many other quais in Paris. The rent, due to the Port de Paris, can be about €700/month and only covers stationnement—currently, however, there are no longer any free spaces in Paris. “Our running water, electricity, internet, and television come from hookups on the quai. We pay them separately, just like in an apartment,” says Marie. “Our mail is delivered to a postbox—there are seven of them grouped together on the quai. But it’s difficult to receive packages—they never find us!”
On relying on her neighbors:
Marie’s péniche is anchored at the Quai d’Austerlitz, where the boats float three abreast. The Justine has a center position, kind of like the filling in a houseboat sandwich. “We’re parked at the quai with seven other boats and it’s like a little village. We eat lunch and dinner together all the time—we’re obliged to be a community. We depend on one another to pass to the quai, and so much more,” she says. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each spot. The first boat is closest to the quai, but you often hear the footsteps of people passing overhead. The second boat is well protected, but there’s no view and the light is blocked by the two outer boats. The third boat is farthest from the quai and the most private—but it’s rocked by other boats on the river, especially the Batobus (sightseeing boats) that make their u-turns here.”
On the passerelle:
Marie and her husband recently constructed a passerelle, or small bridge, which gives them the freedom to cross to the quai without walking on their neighbor’s roof. “In the summer, when the Seine is low, the descent to the boat is quite steep. In the winter, the river is high, and the passage is more level,” she says. Regardless of the season, Marie has strict safety rules for her two young sons. “There’s no running on the passerelle. No going upstairs to the terrace alone,” she says. “With kids, you have to be more vigilant.”
On life on the river:
“The boat is always rocking. The leaves of our plants are always in motion, trembling, when the boat moves,” says Marie. “We are constantly surveying the boat’s physical state, always checking to make sure it’s shipshape and watertight. During the winter, for example, on the coldest days, there’s a risk of our pipes freezing. We have to keep the kitchen tap slowly dripping so our pipes don’t burst. Luckily, my husband is very handy and he keeps an eye on everything,” she says. “He makes sure that every ten years, we dock the boat, clean it, and paint. Living on a houseboat means accepting that you’re part of a constantly changing situation.”
“We used to go out every summer for at least three weeks. You can go all the way to Avignon on the river. It’s wonderful moving on the water—there’s light from both sides of the boat. And we have everything with us, we’re waking up in our own beds—except we are traveling. It’s like a caravan,” she says. “However, taking the boat out also means disconnecting the water and electricity lines—we’re connected to our neighbors, so it requires at least a day of preparation.”
On welcoming guests:
Marie and her husband created a guest suite out of the timonerie, or wheelhouse—the captain’s cabin, which was once the boat’s only living space—and they regularly host visitors through Air BnB. The space has an adorable kitchen and salon upstairs, with a bedroom and private bathroom underneath. “The people who come feel like they’re truly in the center of Paris,” says Marie.
On fielding odd questions:
“People are curious about life on the Seine. They ask me, does it smell funny? Is it damp?” (For the record, no and no.) “We have friends anchored near the Musée d’Orsay and they can’t eat on their terrace during the summer because of people staring at them. And one night around two or three in the morning, my husband and I heard voices directly above our bedroom. It turned out to be a couple of young men drinking beer on our terrace. They saw the boat, were curious, and decided to take a tour! Sometimes I forget how picturesque péniche life is.”
Merci, Marie! If you’d like to stay aboard the Justine (or see some lovely pictures of it) visit Marie’s Air BnB page. And just for fun, here are a few péniche photos I snapped last summer:
By Ann | April 2, 2014
My apartment in Paris is right next to the Eiffel Tower, which sounds fancy, but in reality the neighborhood is more crowded with young families than fashionistas. I first got to know the area when I was working at the American Library in Paris and even though someone recently described it to me as stuffy/ snobby/ boring/ touristy/ impersonal (er, thanks a lot), I’m fond of my quartier—its haughty Haussmannian façades belie a village atmosphere, with eccentric shops (among them a milliner, an embroiderer, and more framers than I can count), and neighbors who drop by with jars of chestnut honey. It’s especially familial on Sunday mornings, when the stores around the Rue Cler open for a few hours, and everyone makes a mad dash to buy food for the week.
Nonetheless, I do share my neighborhood with Paris’s biggest tourist attraction. And where there are tourists, there are tourist traps—restaurants serving sloppy, bad, or even reheated factory-frozen food. Whenever I see poor unsuspecting visitors heading into one of these places, I want to throw myself between them and the bowls of desultory French onion soup—which I’m sure would not win many favors with the café owners who are, after all, my neighbors.
But I’m happy to say that my neighbors also include folks who serve honest, fresh, thoughtful fare, like Anne and Valeria Arella, the mother-daughter pair who own Les Deux Abeilles. Though their charming tea salon is “so British!” (as the French might exclaim), decked out in flowered wallpaper and family furniture, the food is like something you’d eat at Mémé’s house—a light cuisine of composed salads, pureed soups, or savory tarts (the French would call it sain, or healthy). On my last visit, I ate an omelette filled with mint leaves and fresh goat cheese, a plump, soft, eggy roll. There are other choices, too—broccoli quiche that could have descended from a cloud, a courgette-layered flan with tomato sauce that’s a house invention, and a gently warmed lentil salad that combines the nutty pulse with a tangy vinaigrette, to name a few.
My husband always jokes that 99% of Les Deux Abeilles’ clientele is women—which is actually true. But I’m not sure why men don’t flock here, too. Is it because the food is too sain? Do men not care about their waistlines? If that’s the case, there are certainly temptations here, like my favorite chocolate-almond cake, moist and crumbly, almost like a dense pudding, or the tarte au citron meringué, topped in swooping clouds of sugared egg whites. Crumbles often feature fruit from the owners’ country garden and for those who truly are en regime, they make a batch of compôte everyday, stewing apples, pears, orange peel, cinnamon—and not a grain of sugar. Still, you’d never think of it as diet food.
A few blocks away, on a quiet side street, is Café de Mars, a casual, little neighborhood place with plain tables and Thonet chairs. The chef here is an American—one overlooked for her flashier compatriots—which is lucky for me, because I prefer her simple, heartfelt food and I like being able to slip into a table here at the last minute. The menu mixes lots of different influences—Asian, Italian, Middle Eastern—the plates are clean and bright, and the prices reasonable.
Like many Paris restos, the lunch menu here is scrawled across a chalkboard, and it’s a formule of two or three courses (€16 or €20 respectively—dinner is a similar format, but I’m not sure of the prices). You select from two to three entrées (first courses), the same number of plats (main course), and desserts.
I started with a tourte aux épinards—a disk of puff pastry topped with spinach, tarragon, and everyone’s favorite adornment, a runny poached egg. My main course was an expertly sautéed filet of rascasse—all crisped skin and moist flesh—accompanied by chard and pleurotte mushrooms. My friend had a tidy salad of bok choy and miso-marinated daikon, followed by braised pork cheeks. Pas d’dessert, we just finished with coffee.
One of the fun things about the Café de Mars, is that they post the week’s menu on their Facebook page—if I were going this week, for example, I’d order the watercress salad with beets and confit de canard, followed by the eggplant tian, and then balsamic ice cream with strawberries (yes, please!). They also post a lot of photos of the kitchen team; maybe it’s all a front, but they look like they’re having fun, which is the same feeling I get from the food. This isn’t one of those Parisian hotspot restaurants, and if you’re looking for an experimental, luxurious, life-changing dining experience, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re in the neighborhood anyway (visiting, say, a large, iron, lattice-work structure?) it’s a delightful spot for lunch.
Finally, the Rue Cler can be a veritable minefield of bad food, but Le Petit Cler is one place where the food is truly correct. Run by the same folks who own the restaurant where Obama ate in Paris, this is just a café serving regular old café cuisine—salads, sandwiches, omelettes, the odd steak frites, nothing out of the ordinary. And yet, the food is prepared with such care, it’s lifted into the memorable. On my last visit, I satisfied my perpetual craving for a croque madame, which, unlike its male counterpart, is topped with an oeuf miroir, or sunny-side-up egg. The cheese was toasted to golden perfection, the Poilâne bread chewy and crunchy, the egg runny enough to soak its crumb, and the accompanying dab of mustard sharp enough to sting my nose. Just a simple toasted ham-and-cheese-sandwich, and yet extraordinarily satisfying.
Even my friend Meg, who has lived in Paris for decades and has the discriminating palate to prove it, was pleased with her tartine topped with rare roast beef and shavings of Parmesan. I can also recommend the tartine with tuna and ratatouille, and I always say this but next time I swear I’m going to try the one with raw ham and flash-broiled St-Marcellin cheese.
It’s unusual for a café, but desserts here are exceptionally good—plain, yet classic and delicious. Meg and I shared a tender baba au rhum, which featured a cakey (not brioche) base and enough liquor to make a pirate happy. But I’ve also loved the crème brûlée, as well as the nonfat fromage frais with raspberries which–though it admittedly does not sound very tempting—is utterly marvelous, lightly sweet, and whipped into a cloud. I’m not sure what they do to it, but in a way I’m kind of glad I don’t know because then I would cook (and eat) nothing else.
And you know the best part about eating near the Eiffel Tower? When it’s time to go home, you run into views like this:
Les Deux Abeilles (no website)
189 rue de l’Université
tel: 01 45 55 64 04
Service nonstop, 09h00-19h00, closed Sunday
Café de Mars
11 rue Augereau
tel: 01 45 50 10 90
12h00-14h30, 20h00-23h00, closed Sunday
Le Petit Cler
29 rue Cler
tel: 01 45 50 17 50
Service nonstop, 08h00-21h00, open seven days
By Ann | March 25, 2014
Can we talk about fish? Fish intimidates me. My cooking history is riddled with fish mishaps. There was the time I cooked some salmon filets in a hot pan, resulting in a stove spattered with indelible drops of oil and a kitchen that reeked for days. There was the time I stashed a whole dorade at the bottom of the fridge, only to discover it a week later — from the smell. I could go on and on.
And so, when Kerrin Rousset of the blog My Kugelhopf sent me her favorite fast recipe for roasted salmon and winter vegetables, my palms started to sweat. Considering my fish phobia, could I do her dish justice? As it turned out, all I needed was a hot oven and a little confidence.
Kerrin lives in Switzerland, where she makes a living out of all things sweet: she offers tours of chocolate shops (and more) through her company, Sweet Zürich. She launched the Salon du Chocolat in Zürich, now in its third year. She writes about sweets on her popular blog, My Kugelhopf. And she lives with her very sweet family: her French husband and their young daughter. Today, I’m delighted to share Kerrin’s quick cooking tips, and a wholesome recipe that will help leave room for dessert.
Her favorite fast meal? Salad
My husband and I could literally have salad every night and it would be different each time. Mâche is our favorite lettuce and we’ll build from there: avocado, cherry tomatoes, white beans, corn, radishes… tuna, sardines, smoked turkey or leftover roasted veggies. We love adding fruit — depending on the season, that could be pears, persimmon, peaches, figs (fresh or dried), or just raisins to add sweetness. Sweet mustard, oil and fleur de sel are all i need to dress a salad, but I do love playing with different oils, too — especially walnut and argan.
On dressing up eggs:
I always have eggs in the fridge for a quick omelet (or matzoh brei). Any leftover vegetables in the fridge go right in for a filling frittata. I love adding chick peas and currants too.
On the beauty of a cooking in advance:
Making a big tray of roasted vegetables and/or a large portion of cooked grains early in the week makes lunches and dinners for the next few days so much easier and faster to prepare. Salad, soup, omelet — you’re already halfway done.
On her favorite pantry staples:
Chick peas. White beans. Sardines. Pasta. Mason jars filled with various seeds, grains and dried fruit. Countless jars of jam and honey, too. Not to mention my most important staples of all: dark chocolate and medjool dates.
Roasted salmon with root vegetables and chick peas
By Kerrin Rousset
“Tuesday is market day,” says Kerrin, “Usually by that afternoon I’ll have roasted a big tray of vegetables. Throwing a piece of fish on top, and serving with fresh bread makes for a fast, easy and healthy dinner. Something we do quite often during the week.”
*Note from Ann: Kerrin’s recipe is very flexible and you can use the vegetables in season at your market — I roasted a huge quantity of kabocha squash, parsnips, potatoes, broccoli and garlic. Her method for cooking salmon is foolproof, and I removed my filet from the oven a little early and let it finish cooking while resting. Also, I roasted the salmon over only a small portion of the veg, so the remainder wouldn’t get fishy. Finally, instead of sweet mustard, I smeared my filet with a little Sriracha — it’s the same idea, right?
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Roughly chop (peeled) butternut squash, sweet potato, carrots, parsnips and onion. Toss with a spoon or two of olive oil (depending how much veg you have) and lay out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with sea salt. Roast for 20 minutes. Toss and continue roasting for 20 minutes. The vegetables should be soft and caramelized — if not, continue roasting. Mix in a can of drained chick peas. Spread a spoonful of sweet mustard on top of each salmon filet and sprinkle with a few pinches of sumac. Place filets on top of vegetables and put back in oven for 10 minutes. Turn off oven and watch salmon. Take out as soon as it starts to flake. When serving, top fish with a few drops of olive oil and fleur de sel. Bon appétit !
(All non-salmon photos from Kerrin Rousset.)
By Ann | March 18, 2014
I’ve been curious about cheese mites ever since I learned about them while visiting friends in St-Etienne. Before we dug into one of the many (many, many) local cheeses, my host tapped some powder off its surface into a small glass bowl, and handed me a magnifying glass. I saw a bunch of crumbs moving constantly, tiny specks that sometimes jumped. “Ce sont des cirons,” — cheese mites — he told me. “Small spiders that live in the cheese.” It was completely absorbing and also a little repulsive.
In the years since that trip, my fascination with cheese mites has only grown (especially after I discovered this 1903 British film of cheese mites tucking into Stilton, reportedly the first movie ever banned in the U.K., for fear it would hurt cheese sales). And so, on my last visit to Paris, I visited one of my favorite fromagers – Michel Fouchereau at La Fromagerie d’Auteuil — to find out more about these microscopic creatures — also called cirons, or artisons in French — what they do, and why they’re (sometimes) dangerous.
Fouchereau is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best craftsman of France), and I met him a couple of years ago when I was working on this article. Even though my Paris home is nowhere near his fromagerie in the 16e, I make special trips there because everything he sells is exquisite, from the slabs of butter studded with black truffles to the cheeses that are sold at a precise moment of ripeness. “For a fromager, each cheese is like an animal,” he told me. “We raise it, age it, and sell it so it’s consumed at its peak.”
Cheese mites, Fouchereau explained, are microorganisms that exist everywhere — “even in a draft of air” — but they especially love the damp, cool atmosphere found in the cave d’affinage, or cheese-aging chamber. They flock to cooked, pressed cheeses like Comté, or Cantal, boring into the crust, moving steadily towards the softer center, leaving behind a floral, sweet flavor. If left to their own devices, the artisons will take over a cheese until it becomes inedible. Many hard cheeses are, in fact, treated to deter cirons – the rind of Parmesan, for example, is oiled; cheddar is traditionally wrapped in cloth.
There is one French cheese, however, that welcomes these microscopic creatures – uses them, even — as part of its aging process: Mimolette. Produced in Lille, near the
Dutch Belgian border, it’s a hard, orange cheese (similar to Edam) with a thick crust riddled with holes. Mimolette starts out like any old pressed cheese, but at one or two months old, it’s taken to a special chamber and inoculated with artisons. They nibble relentlessly, burrowing into the crust, aerating the cheese, and dramatically reducing the mimolette’s bulk. The result is a dense, salty cheese, with earthy, sweet, almost caramel, undertones. Alas, for American cheese lovers, aged mimolette was recently banned by the FDA, who declared the excess of mites an allergen and health hazard.
One of the creepiest things about cirons is that they’re “like chameleons,” Foucheareau told me. “They take the color of whatever they’re eating.” Mimolette cheese mites have an orange hue, for example, while those on Comté are dark brown.
Because fromagers keep a large assortment of cheeses in their cave – soft cheeses (like Roquefort, Camembert, or goat), as well as hard cheeses (Comté, Cantal, Beaufort) — they never allow the mites to linger and proliferate. In fact, they wage a constant battle against the artisons, cleaning the floors and shelves of the cave of their dust-like presence, continuously wiping, turning, and brushing the cheeses. “They never stop nibbling,” Fouchereau said. “We tolerate them, allow them to gather and do their work. And then, we eliminate them.”
Michel Fouchereau / La Fromagerie d’Auteuil
58 rue d’Auteuil
tel: 01 45 25 07 10
By Ann | March 3, 2014
I’m blogging at BonAppétit.com this week (I was there last week, too) — I hope you’ll stop by to read some of my posts! (Here’s one on ordering a kings cake for Mardi Gras, which is tomorrow (already), eek!)
Last night I visited the restaurant, Daniel, to snap behind-the-scenes shots of their Oscar party (a couple of them made it to Bon Appétit’s Instagram feed, @BonAppetitMag). What a treat to watch the line at work — so many pairs of fine needle-nose tweezers, brushes loaded with beet “paint,” and polishing cloths. Here are some of the cocktail hors d’oeuvres served last night:
(Above: Salmon millefeuille with tequila)
(Above: Shrimp tempura with biryani spices)
(Above: Nantucket bay scallop with blood orange jus.)
I’ll be back next week with a new post! Until then, I hope you’ll stop by Bon Appétit – where it’s Sriracha week! — to say hello. I’ll be interviewing
victims spice-lovers in Times Square as they eat an entire chili, and more!
*UPDATED* Here are some of my favorite posts from the past two weeks:
By Ann | February 18, 2014
Roast chicken equals love. So, if you’re Andrea Drexulius, aka the French Basketeer, you cook a plump bird on Sunday and share it with your family and friends. And then you feast on the leftovers all week!
Andrea is a life-long Francophile and owner of French Basketeer, an online store that sells baskets imported from Morocco and Madagascar, beautiful paniers that could have been lifted straight from the marché in Aix-en-Provence. She’s also a blogger and creative home cook (her Instagram feed makes me drool on a regular basis).
Andrea divides her time between Laguna Beach, California and Beaune, France, at the heart of the Burgundy wine region. Her Southern California kitchen is “blessed to have so much wonderful produce year-round,” she says, while her kitchen in Beaune is “all about the classics. I cook a lot of Julia Child and Joel Robuchon-inspired cuisine.” Today, I’m delighted to share her weekly cooking routine (it’s inspiring)!
On Sunday she enjoys her “best meal of the week”:
In winter it’s usually a roast chicken. I’ve used a pomegranate-honey glaze and root vegetables that was awesome, but I am constantly changing it depending on what is seasonal.
It’s the last chicken leg and meat pieces and root vegetables, and I’ll make a cheater’s stock from the carcass. I keep veggie trimmings in the freezer to use for a quick stock. Good chicken stock is something I must always have on hand, year-round, either a “proper” stock from a whole chicken, or an improv.
I toss a two-cup block of frozen stock into a pan to defrost ahead of time and add whatever fresh vegetables and mushrooms I find at the market. This might mean carrots, beans, potatoes, as well as a little dried pasta. The soup in my photo (top) has turkey meatballs, mushrooms, and basil chiffonade. It can be as high or low as you want; I usually brown the veggies a little and toss in the herbs and tomatoes raw. Sometimes I’ll add caramelized pearl onions or root vegetables. It’s never the same thing twice.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday:
In winter, we could have black truffle risotto (again with the chicken stock). Or we might have a frisée salad with lardons and a poached egg. Pizza is great during the week, and my favorite is with prosciutto and a few quail eggs, topped with fresh arugula and olive oil. I will make a meal of a green salad with a few chives and tomato, or baguette with a good cheese. I often substitute a 16-ounce green juice over a huge glass of ice for a meal; in fact most days I just have juice for breakfast. For a time-saving cooking tip: Go raw. A salad with raw carrots, celery, nuts, shaved Jerusalem artichokes with a little lemon vinaigrette makes a great meal.
Saturday, her “favorite slow-food meal of the week”:
After the farmers market I usually make some kind of fresh pasta — angel hair or ravioli — topped with wild mushrooms, Swiss chard and fresh ricotta as well as home-made arugula pesto. I cook while I chat with my mom and we all share the meal afterwards.
*Note from Ann: There’s no recipe today because I’m afraid roasting a chicken and then making stock was too much for this frazzled young parent. But perhaps you are one of those lovely, efficient people who keeps homemade chicken broth in the freezer? If you try Andrea’s soup, I hope you’ll let me know how it turns out!
(Photos from Andrea Drexulius.)
By Ann | February 10, 2014
I had so much fun last week at my book event at the American Library in Paris with Patricia Wells that I couldn’t resist sharing a few photos. As you can see, we shared a lot of laughs with a lovely crowd of Francophiles. I saw so many familiar faces in the audience that I immediately felt right at home.
Patricia and I divided the evening in half and interviewed each other. She asked me about my experiences writing fiction versus nonfiction (and a few other excellent questions). I quizzed her all about how she got started as a food writer and loved learning about the inspiration behind her newest book, The French Kitchen Cookbook. At the end of the program, we trotted out a James Lipton-esque series of rapid fire questions-and-answers that I’m delighted to share here*:
Who are your cooking heros?
PW: Julia Child, Joël Robouchon.
AM: Julia Child, Brillat-Savarin, Marcel Pagnol.
Fine dining or home cooking?
PW: There’s a place for both, depending the situation.
AM: Home cooking — especially if someone else is cooking.
Favorite comfort food?
PW: Pizza. We have the homemade version down to an art in our house.
Favorite city to eat in outside of France?
PW: San Sebastian.
AM: Barcelona. Or Hong Kong.
Favorite season for produce?
PW: Spring. Asparagus!
AM: Spring. Strawberries!
Favorite music for cooking?
AM: Jazz, especially TSF Jazz.
*Answers are reproduced from my rattled memory.
Heartfelt thanks to all who came (in body or spirit) — I loved meeting you! And my deepest gratitude to those who bought (or brought) books and asked me to sign them. I’m delighted to report that we sold out, which is pretty much the best thing I’ve typed this year.
Hungry for more? These bloggers have the dish:
–Marjorie Williams (author of Markets of Paris) wrote this charming post.
–Kristin Espinasse from French Word-a-Day spins this funny tale about the evening. (And here’s her account of the following night, a Champagne cocktail literary evening she shared with me at the home of Robin Katsaros.)
–Anne and Kirk of Music and Markets wrote this lovely post.
–Finally, the fifth edition of Patricia’s fantastic Food Lover’s Guide to Paris is coming out on March 11! This is a must-have book for any visitor to Paris.
By Ann | January 27, 2014
Patricia and I will interview each other (I’m preparing my hard-hitting questions now). Copies of both books will be for sale courtesy of WH Smith. There will also be free wine and snacks. If you’re in Paris, I hope you’ll join us!
A few other notes:
–Francophile and book lover extraordinaire, Robin Katsaros, is hosting a Champagne cocktail party & book signing with me and my beautiful French Word-a-Day friend, Kristin Espinasse, on February 6th at her home in Paris. She’s generously invited you guys — more information is here — including information on how to RSVP. Please come!
–Have I mentioned that I’m flying to Paris tonight?! Stay tuned for updates on everything single thing that I consume.